A 4X4 tour of SCOTLAND takes LISA MORRIS and JASON SPAFFORD through some unexpected and truly WILD territory
Time started to slow as we sunk into the Scottish Highlands. Easing our way back into a life on the road after nearly five years of motorcycling the Americas, Etive Road near Glencoe gave us a splendid camping spot for the night. Instead of leaping off my bike saddlesore and itching to stretch my legs, I emerged fresh after a couple of hundred truck miles. A strange sensation, if I’m honest. Studying me for a while, as if I were a piece of art with a hidden meaning, there I made eye contact with a pine marten scurrying up the grassy bank. Jason’s dismay was palpable as he missed sighting the rare weasel-like, bushy-tailed creature. The red deer vied for his attention elsewhere.
INTO THE WILDERNESS
Despite the supposed onset of summer, the weather had other ideas. It was single-digit temperatures by day, and gusting winds and heavy downpours at all hours. Relentless, the elements lashed down on us, but it was an apt combination to put the rooftop tent through its paces. Even the locals agreed that June’s climate was unseasonably rude in the Highlands for the time of year. Thank goodness the rain was akin to water off a duck’s back against our roof tent, which gave us the added advantage of being able to make and break camp quickly and easily in the cold and wet.
Occasionally, the conditions gave rise to a lonely quality, the kind of loneliness that howls through you like a desert wind. But in this case, it was more like a Scottish “hooley” — blowing the cobwebs out like no other. At other times, the place only seemed half there because of the descending fog, as if I were walking inside one of Monet’s fuzzy paintings. Especially first thing, the mist’s touch slipped like wet tentacles over my skin and seeped dampness into just about everything. Welcome to Scotland, that’s the Highlands for you!
Failing to curry favour with Mother Nature, we scooted over to a fairytale woodland near Oban, ‘The Gateway to the Isles’. Such forested finds are ten a penny in Scotland. Sunshine presiding over all else, the order of each day began to take its natural course: to equal if not surpass the previous night’s wild camping spot.
This led us to Applecross, where we spent the afternoon basking on the area’s pristine 4-mile sandy beach. Accessed by the southerly Bealach pass road and the northerly coast road, there’s no better peninsula on which to break bread, overlooking the waves gently lapping on the shoreline. The village has a smattering of amenities including a handful of beautifully rustic accommodations, and a place to buy aromatic soap and hand-spun wool. There’s even a Gold Green Tourism award-winning inn, offering real ale and local whiskey, which overlooks the Inner Sound to the isles of Raasay and Skye.
Stealing the odd moment of respite when the wind dropped and the light grew thin, alas, Scotland’s infamous bloodsuckers needed no encouragement to come out of hiding. Thirsty for dinner, these long-legged besties with their unmistakable high-pitched ring appeared in dense and sizeable swarms, giving the Alaskan mozzies a run for their money. Skin exposed, we presented a walking buffet and our faces quickly became complex dot-to-dot of angry bites.
After bidding a less than fond farewell to the local wildlife, we wended our way to Achiltibuie. Not somewhere you’re likely to find by accident, there are just two ways in; each consisting of around 10-15 miles of hilly and twisty single-track road with short sightlines, so vigilance is key. It’s worth the detour, though. Achiltibuie is a straggling community over a long linear village in Ross and Cromarty, overlooking Badentarbet Bay to the west. On the shore, near the Coigach Free Church, lies a water-powered corn mill dating back to the 1800s with views of the Summer Isles that will make your soul sing.
Between a nearby white sandy beach and us lay a loose, stony bank. It took a moment for Jason to get up the guts to climb the truck over the rocks onto the talcum-powder soft expanse of white. In the passenger seat, I kept my confidence in a citadel, high on a hillside, as Jason tested the Hilux’s ability to traverse us over the big, loose stuff.
He needn’t have worried. It was no sweat for White Rhino, just another day at the beach — even if we did promptly retreat to firmer ground just moments after hitting the sand. Indeed, the pair of us might need to get in some practice if we’re to tackle what’s coming in the next leg of our journey: the African continent.
The Outer Hebrides has never left my all-season bucket list. I’d read about this 130-mile-long series of islands off the mainland’s northwest coast and the edge of the Atlantic being a wildlife wonderland, an archaeologist’s paradise, and a historian’s dream.
On Barra, for example, you will witness the world’s only airport where planes land over wild waves on the powder-white sand, meaning the timetable is dictated by the tides. How unique. My first thought: What is it to be Hebridean? Having chatted non-stop to a family of bilingual Gaelic-speaking locals on the ferry over, it’s a constant conversation about the weather — rain, hail, and shine in a couple of hours is common; it’s knowing every second person who walks down the street, and probably their cousin too; it’s always waving to say ‘thank you’ at passing places, and it’s never leaving your friend’s house hungry. Sounds wonderful.
Cobwebs suitably blown in the Highlands, we disembarked the ferry onto our first Hebridean island, Lewis. The sky was a fragile finch-egg blue, clouds made of porcelain. Lo and behold, sea eagles were circling overhead. Sparsely populated, utilitarian, and somewhat ugly houses were dotted along the roads that wound their thin passage on the isle.
Weather-sealed habitation trumps aesthetics up here. Like a scene on the moon, the landscape is littered with rocks and boulders of all sizes, evidence of the moraine that scraped, gouged, and formed the island under the weight of glaciers millions of years ago. It’s a sight to behold, the first time you set eyes on the place.
Dating back to the Neolithic era, the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis is an impressive stone circle associated with the Clan Morrison – just off the A858. As megalithic complexes go, it consisted of rows of large pieces of Lewisian gneiss arranged in a cross shape. At the cross’ centre, a monolith can be seen and a small, chambered cairn. It’s certainly something worth seeing, although of the limited Hebridean territory we covered, we soon realised there were standing stones all over the place.
Meandering over to Uig Sands half an hour westwards, we spent the night with newfound acquaintances and avid rock climbers, Arran and Ewan. They may have been old-timers, but the pair of them looked fitter than a butcher’s dog. Inside Arran’s homely campervan, the buzz of conversation clicked and whirred as they kept us toasty and in fine company over a bottle of red. Slàinte Mhath, chaps!
Some waterfalls are vast, impenetrable white-water curtains that crash spectacularly to the ground. This particular one we stumbled across the following morning, not so much. Far from planned, I lost my footing and somehow plunged perfectly, vertically into one of its deep pools. Without managing to touch the bottom, I plopped straight in up to my neck. It was not so much arrogance or stupidity, perhaps gross misjudgement and a lapse of concentration.
Curious to fathom how I’d ended up in the drink, Jason’s expression was like that of a Neanderthal trying to work out the rules of Twister. Soaked to the skin, I hoisted myself out onto the slippery ledge, the sun touched my face and warmed my gooseflesh to a comforting glow. Any cold stayed absent for belly-laughing so hard. “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye,” as the locals say: what’s meant to happen will happen.
THE ROAD TO SKYE
North Uist to the south is a landscape of fresh and saltwater lochs, miles of sandy beaches and causeway after causeway. There are cultivated crofts, fanks (sheep-enclosures) and loom-sheds galore. On the west side of the island, the road follows the machair, coastal green grassy plains bordering the sand dunes, and passes the Balranald Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Nature Reserve. Pleasingly, the eastern side devotes itself to a birdlife-pulling water world. A twitcher’s paradise, and Jason’s seventh heaven. Before venturing to South Uist to explore its tranquil piece of coastline, we pootled over to Traigh Lingeigh. Another gratifying expanse of sandy bays, behind which a mass of wildflowers popped in patches of colour.
Adjoining its northern counterpart, South Uist bestows crystal clear waters with yet more white powder beaches, small crofting settlements, and heather uplands. Dominated by Beinn Mhor, an impressive hillock by US standards at 740m, and a guaranteed thigh-burner as the highest peak in the locale. Apparently, the 20 miles of machair that runs alongside the sand dunes provide a healthy habitat for an uncommon bird called a corncrake. Corncrake unsighted, we did, however, spy golden eagles, red grouse, and red deer on the mountain slopes. I couldn’t have asked for more.
When you’re road-tripping on four wheels, I’d recommend bedding down for the night on the Staffin Boat Slip Road, known as ‘The Slip’ on the Isle of Skye. Quite the spot off the A855, we wild camped for four nights along here back-to-back, which gave us time to meet and greet the locals. One half of an older couple — whose name we missed due to his thick Scottish accent and our unattuned English ears — smiled wistfully at me. It was the kind of smile no one’s capable of before the age of forty, the kind that contains sadness and defiance and amusement all at once.
His voice was rich and dry, like port. As he expounded his personal theories about this, that and the other, I warmed to him instantly. Equally as pleasant, his wife was maybe fifty. Or forty and tired. Or sixty and grateful. I had no idea, but I liked her, too.
Over the next week, we gave Neist Light House, Fairy Glen, and the Fairy Pools near Glen Brittle a brief visit. All worthy of a little time. I woke the next day to blue skies and fresh energy, albeit unfit from having sat in the saddle for years. I needed every last scrap of strength to tackle the steep slog up the Quiraing, a landslip on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach and the northernmost summit of Skye in the Trotternish area. Its name comes from Old Norse Kví Rand, which means ‘Round Fold’ – my favourite part of Skye, without question.
After an early bird start and keeling forward, sucking in the air with my hands on my thighs to catch my breath, I just about managed to greet the Old Man of Storr. Pinned 13 miles south of the Quiraing, the Old Man is a craggy pinnacle of rock. Something else entirely may spring to mind, but legend has it that the Old Man of Storr gets its name from resembling the face of a wizened old chap. Makes sense.
Non-stop work for the best part of a year saw us in an intensive planning period before Scotland. Thankfully, the Highlands and Hebrides made us take heed to things other than the Hilux again. I underestimated northern Scotland’s beach beauty.
No litter, hardly any people, just clean sandy shores. We submerged ourselves in our surroundings (both literally and figuratively) and got lost in the feeling of being far from home. Scotland is a place where solitude overrides loneliness with only the natural beauty of coastal, mountainous and island geographies for company, it made the perfect travelling companion.
Follow Lisa and Jason’s adventures on Instagram @fourwheelednomad
British born and location independent, Four Wheeled Nomad is Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford. Remote exploration is the couple’s driving force, enabling their passion for wilderness seeking with a skill set in content creation. Previously, they co-ran scuba diving trips as instructor guides. Having hung up the fins, they motorcycled the Americas: a four-year-plus, 80,000-mile jaunt taking in Antarctica to the Arctic. Jason is a photographer and dabbles in filmmaking where his beautiful captures of terrain less travelled can be found on Instagram @fourwheelednomad. Lisa tells tales from the trails at www.fourwheelednomad.com, freelancing for publications worldwide in the hopes of inspiring people to consider their relationship with nature and preserve the wild places left in the world.