Palm trees, pristine white beaches, turquoise blue water…and sheep. If such a scenario sounds like your idea of heaven, you need to get yourself to the western highlands of Scotland. Yes, Scotland. And no, I haven’t embarked on an alternative career as a travel agent – I’ve just had a fantastic holiday up there and and finding it difficult to keep my enthusiasm to myself.
Well, I say ‘just’, but I’ve been back for weeks now. It’s taken me this long to adjust to being around people again. One of the great things about the Highlands is that there are more sheep than people. Not only that, but these sheep are exceptionally brave, talented and heroic. They will race down mountains at a 60 degree angle. They will climb over intricate rock formations in search of the tastiest seaweed on the beach. And, if they so wish, they will stand in the middle of the road regardless of whether any human-driven vehicle is racing towards them. Usually just around a sharp bend. Incredible. I wish I had such bravery sometimes. You should have seen my terror at the simple prospect of needing a shower at the end of my holiday.
But enough about me and my brethren. The north-west of Scotland has some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful countryside I’ve seen in the UK, combined with magnificent rock formations and crazy geological phenomena. If possible, take a geologist with you on your travels, as I did, so that you can enjoy their geo-erotic tales of cleavage, orogenies and thrusts.
My travelling companion, Albert, is officially a chemist but is secretly a wannabe geologist. He didn’t have so much to say at the beginning of the trip, as we travelled north out of Edinburgh, through the Cairngorms, past Inverness and then north-west to Ullapool. The first bit of excitement we had was as we turned off the A835 onto a single-track lane (the first of many!) towards Loch Lurgainn. Out of nowhere popped two surprising things: the mountain Stac Pollaidh, and a stowaway passenger called Treebor!
Treebor was only a month old, having been born as part of the Botanica Mathematica project to knit/crochet mathematical plant forms. He is what we call a binary tree, with his branches ever splitting off into two. He had hidden away in our car, desperate to explore the great outdoors with us, despite being told he was too young. Before we could stop him he was racing up a mountain and hiding in the long grass – can you spot him in the picture below?!
As I say, Stac Pollaidh (pronounced “Stack Polly”) is a surprising mountain, rising by itself out of nowhere from the surrounding landscape. Its peak is eroded in a very distinctive way as a result of being above the ice during the last ice age. This makes it an example of a ‘nunatak’ (presumably pronounced “nun attack”) and a favourite with climbers. It took us so long to find Treebor (have you found him yet?) that we abandoned walking all the way up the mountain and instead enjoyed the view for a while. After lunch on a (windy!) beach at Reiff, overlooking the Summer Isles, and a coffee at a wee pub in Altandhu, we drove north again past Loch Ra and Loch Vatachan (which sound like two evil nemeses!) and walked to the Inverkirkaig Falls, from where another impressive nunatak, Suilven, can be seen. Suilven dominates the local landscape, overlooking the town of Lochinver where we stayed the night.
After a good night’s sleep, we continued the drive north, along a single track road with blind summits, crazy bends, kamikaze sheep and amazing views over white beaches. Albert also has a bit of a thing for lighthouses, so we made the pilgrimmage to Stoer Head Lighthouse which was built in 1870 by the Stevensons. More interesting to me was the walk along the coast to a rock in the sea called the “Old Man of Stoer”. To me, it looked quite like a constipated monkey’s head than an old man. Why is there never a rock that looks like a sheep’s head?
Heading back to Ullapool along the A837, the geologist travelling with you will never forgive you if you don’t stop at the visitor centre at Knockan Crag, the scene of one of the greatest discoveries in geology! A logical assumption in geology is that rocks are laid down in sequence with the youngest at the top and the oldest at the bottom. The puzzle at Knockan Crag though, was that the oldest rocks were on top and this lead to a heated argument…
It took two Scottish scientists, John Horne and Benjamin Peach, to (a) stand by their belief in the ages of the rocks, whilst many others tried to prove they had got it wrong, and most importantly (b) explain how the older rocks could have come to be above the younger ones. The answer was a previously unknown structure called a Thrust Fault. In this case the Moine Thrust, which was formed during the collision of two continents, when one sheet of rock was pushed over the other, kind of like a pile of paper being pushed over another pile.
At the visitor centre even more amazing facts were revealed to me:
– Once upon a time Scotland lived near the south pole, moving up to the equator and becoming a baking desert for a while.
– During this time it was part of a continent with Greenland and North America.
– Scotland and England collided about 400 million years ago, making the original ‘union’ of the countries. The forces involved created mountains like Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms and created the Moine Thrust.
– Around 60 million years ago the Atlantic started to be created, pushing Scotland eastwards and creating many volcanoes, like those on the Isles of Skye, Rhum and Mull.
– When the North Sea was created, Scotland very nearly broke away from England, but Scandanavia got pushed aside instead. (Our one true chance of independence and we blew it!)
[For more on Scottish geological history, visit http://www.snh.org.uk/publications/on-line/geology/scotland/default.asp or http://www.scottishgeology.com/geo/getting-started/.]
Bedtime stories don’t get much better than that! Not being able to tear Albert away from the Moine Thrust, we followed it all the way down to Skye over the next few days of the holiday. I insisted on making a detour to the wonderfully named “Isle of Ewe”, although this caused some consternation when I had to break it to Albert that I didn’t actually (love him). Skye is another place that is full of a huge variety of landscapes, from the Red and Black Cuillin mountains, to the majestic rock formations of the Quirang range and the tall cliffs out at Neist point where, of course, there was another Stevenson lighthouse we had to visit. It was great for young Treebor with his short attention span.
I must also not forget to recommend the picturesque village of Plockton, which is well worth spending the night at on your way to Skye. Not only has it got a great name, palm trees, a beautiful loch and friendly people, but it has the best restaurant we ate at all week: Plockton Shores. Seriously, go there. Nuff said.
Sigh. Remembering my holiday I feel sad once again to be back in a busy city, which feels like a completely different country to the remote majesty of those mountains and lochs. Hopefully I will be back soon. In the meantime, I am busy getting on with a few knitting projects – stay tuned to find out more!