A tale of two cycles: Part 1 – Cuil Bay to Ballachullish

20140714-210834-76114055.jpgCycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.


However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.

We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.

Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.20140714-210827-76107787.jpg

Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.20140714-210826-76106674.jpg

The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.20140714-210825-76105023.jpg

While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.

The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.20140714-210828-76108786.jpg

Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William


Ten reasons why we love holidaying in the West Highlands (even when it rains)

20140409-110902.jpg1. Weather.

You might have heard that the weather in the West Highlands isn’t always balmy, sunny and dry. The weather forecast prior to our current Easter at a rented house suggested that we were due for more than our fair share of rain. But did this put us off?

Of course not. Because this is part of the attraction: you never know what the day will hold. No matter what the weather forecast says, you will get some sun, some showers, some wind to dry you off and you will get some picturesque clouds and stunning light.

The quality of the light is special in the west Highlands: bright sunshine slanting in from under clouds to flood the golden mountainsides with light. Weather is a spectator sport. Find a window seat, look out at the mountains reflected in the loch, and wait for the weather to start the show.


It might be pouring with rain, but the light is like a Landseer oil painting: Eileen Donan Castle from Letterfern (spot the rainbow)

2. Waterfalls

Due to the West Highland weather, particularly, it seems, on this holiday, there is always water aplenty rushing down the mountains. White ribbons of water flow down every hillside, braiding around rocks and heather. Almost everywhere are waterfalls, from the small, to the mighty. Gorges with rowans clinging to the side and leaning into the spray are where you will find a miniature forest of incredible lichens, mosses and ferns. Smoothed rocks for basking on during a dry summer day, transform into torrents of wild water after a night of rain.

3. Watersports

We used the rain to advantage the last couple of days to explore the burns flowing down the hill behind the house. An ordinary burn is made extraordinary once you step into it and start to follow the course of the water, scrambling over mossy boulders, balancing along dead trees washed down and wedged across the stream and ducking under tree branches growing over the vertiginous bank. Mosses and lichens cover everything and it felt like we were the first people to discover this lost world.

We were out with six children aged between 6 and 11, and it became a real adventure for all of us, helping the children up little waterfalls and bigger waterfalls, until we were halted by a 10m long chute of water. It’s not usually the children begging to go on while the adults suggest a retreat to the house for tea, but this time the kids dragged us onto the bank and around the obstacle to continue the adventure.

They returned today to conquer the waterfall, with ropes and harnesses, and every child climbed through the rushing torrent, made it to the top and declared themselves victorious.

4. Wetsuits with Wellies (and waterproofs)

Wetsuits, wellies and waterproofs are the essential outfit for kids on holiday in the west highlands. They were all dressed like that for the 20140408-233403.jpggorge ascent. A friend introduced us to this stylish and functional holiday wear on another Easter holiday: wetsuits to keep warm, waterproofs to keep off the wind, and wellies. Children will be happy on the beach all day dressed like this. As the maxim says ‘there is no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing’.

5. Wildlife

There are a few species that everyone wants to see: I am always looking out for eagles. I know there should be white tailed eagles around and I am hoping to see a golden eagle. It wasn’t too far from here, when climbing a ridge, a golden eagle appeared just below me, rising on the up-draft.  For a few moments, it was only a few wing-spans from me and then suddenly banked, soaring out of sight over the ridge.


unfortunately in a glass case in the house, haven’t seen the real thing yet this holiday.

6. Walks

Isn’t north west Scotland just the very best place for walking? I love low level coast and loch-side walks, but I especially love the mountains, I never get bored in the mountains. Not least because weather and conditions make every walk one-of-a-kind.

While the children were ascending the waterfall, I took the chance to get into the mountains. We were rained on (a bit) we were blown on (which dried us out) and we had a constantly changing vista as clouds passed, drew in, and then parted.


Cloud and light on our walk up Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais in Kintail

7. Wilderness

We climbed up over a bealloch (coll) along a path that was once used by soldiers and those droving their cattle. It was high, around 700m at the top, but we were surrounded by higher mountains. We met no-one all day, and we looked over into a glen, completely remote. If we had carried on walking down the glen and southwards we would have reached Knoydart, the largest area of uninhabited land, wild land, in Britain.

On the second day of the trip,  we visited Sandaig, the site where Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bight Water. It is a deserted place, the house is gone and two monuments, one to Maxwell and one to Edal the otter, bear testament to the lives that were lived in that place. It certainly felt wild, with a derelict cottage and an expanse of rock, sand, shingle and sea. 20140409-105021.jpgThe poignant air of the place brought to life in the book, now deserted, reminded me that most of the wild glens, and coasts of the West Highlands, places that we now call wilderness, were once filled with dwellings. Thousands of people living off the land, with homes by lochs and in the glens, and sheilings where, in the summer, women and children stayed with the cattle at the high pastures.

The house we are staying in has a few ancient browning photographs of blackhouse settlements on the walls. The houses are made of woven hurdles and stone and thatched with heather.  In one photo a group of children, barefoot  and dirty, stand with their mother at the door to the house. I think I recognise the place as just around the cost from here. There is nothing left there now but stones.


A photo on the wall of the house we are staying in shows some of the communities in areas of the coastline now deserted.

8. White-Water crossings.

Because the West 20140408-233205.jpgHighlands are wild, and untamed there isn’t always a bridge to hand, even on marked paths. This isn’t strictly something that I love about the West Highlands, but I crossed a freezing and rocky mountain burn today, in bare feet to keep my boots and socks dry.  It was very sore and there were patches of snow on the ground, and I am proud of it, so I thought I’d put it in….

9. Warming up

Part of the joy of the wild, the wet and the windy is the warming up at the end. After the day at Sandaig we clustered wet-suited and wet children round a driftwood fire and they toasted themselves and their marshmallows.blog warming up west highlands

10. Whisky

Obviously, good for warming you up, especially in front of a wood-burning stove. And also, as I have found out, good for cooling down. On our second night I was tasked with the communal meal and made whisky and honey ice cream. Having forgotten the key ingredient I borrowed some from the bottles brought by my friends and so discovered my two favourite flavours of ice-cream: Talisker and Highland Park.


Monument to Edal, the otter of Ring of Bright Water at Sandaig. ‘Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature’





Fires and Wild Food: 10 things to do outdoors (part 1)


There’s lots of things telling us that kids should get out more, that natural play is great and it will make our children happier and healthier. In fact I wrote an angst-filled blog about just that.

Here’s my top ten things to get kids outdoors and enjoying playing in the wild. Each of these items deserves a blog of its own, but until I get round to that, here they are (the first five). Continue reading

Messing about in kayaks

kayaking“There is NOTHING… absolutely nothing… half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Thus spake Ratty in the wonderful first chapter of Wind in the Willows. And I can now confirm his assertion to be true, having spent a blissful morning drifting around the sea near Arisaig in a sea kayak. The sea was green, the sky was blue (in parts) and the islands of Eigg and Rum, and the Black Cullin of Skye made a heart-lifting backdrop.

My experience of messing about in boats has, save some punting while at university and the pedalos on lake Luzern, been almost entirely vicarious. My first experiences of boating were with Ratty on the river (picnic essential) and with Titty

Continue reading

The Glen of Ghosts – Kilmartin


Temple Wood from kilmartin museum (kilmartin.org)

Kilmartin has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic monuments in the UK. Within 6 miles of Kilmartin there are over 150 prehistoric sites: standing stones, cup and ring-marked rocks, cists, cairns, stone circles.

And it isn’t just a place for pre-history, Dunadd, the hill fort which was the seat of power of the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada is only one of many hill forts in the glen. Continue reading

A day trip to Lismore

lighthouse at lismore 347

Lighthouse at the south end of Lismore from the Tiree ferry

Lismore is a brilliant place for a day-trip. It’s got it all. A lovely little ferry to the island from Port Appin, then some great wee roads for cycling on, beaches, walks and a little community cafe.

It was also the site, in 562AD, of a race between St Columba and St Moulag. St Moulag won in the end by cutting off his finger and throwing it onto the shore. He established a monastery on the island and it became a centre of Celtic Christianity. Continue reading

A day out in Speyside

Apart from Cuil Bay, one of my very favourite places is Speyside. When I haven’t been there for a while I start pining for the ancient forests (‘scuse the pun), the wild hill-tops, the cake-shops and the reindeer.

It’s a great day-trip from Cuil, about 1.5 hours drive to Kingussie, and this trip we took in the Autumn gives an idea of my perfect day. Continue reading

Glenfinnan Monument, Viaduct and Station Museum

Glenfinnan is the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore in 1745 from France with the intention of gaining the throne. He raised he standard at Glenfinnan and clansmen started to rally to the Jacobite cause. It’s a lovely place for a history-themed day-out combined with a walk with fabulous views. Continue reading