Having just completed 17 years working in the Arabian Gulf, my wife and I decided to return to Scotland, and at the first opportunity, to re-explore our native land. In an effort to avoid the more popular tourist spots we googled up ‘rustic glen and mountains’ coupled with ‘simple but comfortable with few frills’
Dunbeath Castle Estate in Caithness looked as if it would fit the bill, so we set off from Glasgow, over the Erskine Bridge, up past the perpetual grandeur of Loch Lomond to Tarbet, on to Ardlui, skirted Ben Lomond and swept down the glen to Lochearnhead . From there it was through the tranquil villages of Comrie and Crieff then over the hills to Dunkeld and Pitlochry to Aviemore, where we had a break for tea and scones.
Our tangle with traffic and the one way system in Inverness had us totally confused. I had been determined not to use our satnav, but in the end, the road system in Inverness had us beat. Thanks to our Tom Tom we eventually found our way to Culloden House Hotel and a spate of highland luxury.
The Culloden House hotel, set in 40 acres of manicured gardens, was awash with antique furniture, marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers and belied the myth that Scots don’t know how to run hotels. This is one of the finest in the Highlands of Scotland and voted one of the best in the world by Conde Nast Traveller magazine.
After a sumptuous four poster night’s rest, we rose early and visited the battlefield at Culloden paying our respects by laying a wreath at the monument, and reflecting for a moment, the pain and suffering that still seemed to linger there in that sad, serene environment, where no birds sing.
Crossing the Moray Firth by the dramatic new bridge, we wound our way through the picturesque villages of Tore and Dingwall, but couldn’t resist a chance to warm the cockles with a taste of the John Barleycorn at the Glenmorangie Distillery. From there it was over the Cromarty Firth and on to Invergordon towards Dornoch. Dornoch is now sadly cut off by the bypass, but the detour around the Dornoch Firth was worth it for the tranquil scenery and for an hour blissfully free of caravans and lorries.
The Dunbeath Castle Estate lies 40 miles short of falling off the end at John o’ Groats and the first indication of the estate is the sign to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre which sits on a promontory overlooking the harbour. We had rented a small fisherman’s cottage by the harbour, and on inquiring, we were told by the lady warden ‘Och Aye, you’ll find the key in the door waiting for ye’.
Following her simple but effective instructions, we did indeed find our cottage, one of two, almost on the shingle beach, reached only by a single track and sheltered by the cliffs behind. It had been the simple residence of a long gone herring fisherman, was exactly what we were looking for, and ‘far from the madding throng’.
The view was idyllic over the tiny harbour, and the only activity was a lone lobster fisherman tending his pots in the bay, watched by a couple of cormorants.
Belying its rough stone exterior, inside the cottage had been totally refurbished. Fittings and fixtures were of brass and dressed pine and every imaginary household appliance was available in the small, but perfectly user- friendly, kitchen. In the fireplace, there were logs thoughtfully placed along with slabs of peat. On the dining table was a plate of welcoming scones with butter and jam, and by the sink was a collection of what looked like estate grown vegetables. From linen to curtains the cottage had been decorated by someone with rustic taste.
Around us peace and tranquillity abounded disturbed only by the waves arriving on the shingle beach.
The Dunbeath Estate lies twixt cliffs, beaches, and rolling heather-clad hills offering deer stalking, bird watching, grouse shooting salmon and trout fishing and exhilarating walks among the teeming wildlife. There are several lodges for rent on the moors with differing measures of remoteness ranging from the Glutt Lodge, 25 miles from any living human and referred to as ‘The Great Escape’, to the chintzy apartments of Dunbeath Castle itself. For us, who had recently diced with death among the would be Nigel Mansells in Qatar, the greatest attraction was the infinite peace and quiet being bothered by no one trying to organise us or sell us something, and with no mobile signal, being left alone to enjoy the environment.
The entire area had not always been so tranquil,as Dunbeath had once been part of the great days of the herring fishing. Within living memory, over 150 herring boats had once sailed from that tiny harbour to harvest the ‘silver darlings’.
In the nearby harbour of Lybster, 8000 barrels of cured herring would be landed in a single seven week season and the Ulbster fishwives carried their crans of herring up 375 steps of the cliff face to then walk seven miles to market in Wick.
Now, only the little lobster boat Margaret Ellen casts off on the morning tide.
My sincere congratulations go out to Mr and Mrs Murray Threipland who have not only invested in Dalbeath Castle and it estates, but for their sympathetic restoration of the castle and the measures they have implemented to allow guests to enjoy their unique highland ecosystem without leaving footprints. No absentee landlord here!
Mrs Murray Threipland’s delicate touches and attention to detail are apparent everywhere even to calling on us on her horse and trap to see if we needed anything, and lending us a Land Rover to tour the estate.
But like everything else in life, our simple pleasures came to an end and we moved on to John o’ Grouts around Cape Wrath with its beautiful beaches, and on to Ullapool where the CalMac ferries sail to the islands. Next stop was the beautiful and unique village of Plockton, totally out of context with its geographical surroundings due to its shores being washed by the Mexican Gulf steam, and where, in sheltered coves, you will find indigenous palm trees and coconut blossom. The odd shark or two has been seen in the bay.
It was time to head south to find food and shelter and both were found in the busy port of Oban, the seafood capital of Scotland. Our guidebook had informed us of an unpretentious seafood outlet known as the Green Hut. It was indeed a wooden hut, sitting on the CalMac jetty with only a couple of benches outside to advertise its purpose, but what a display of freshly caught fruits de mer. You had to ease your way past the creels of live crab to get to the counter which was a mouth watering display for any seafood fundi.
We sat in the sun and waded our way through their platter for two containing every conceivable shellfish, mollusc and fish topped with a whole crab cracked for our convenience. The last time we had such delicious fruits de mer sitting in the sun was in St Malo in France, and here we were, enjoying the same, only a few hours from Glasgow. We watched the sun going down in Oban bay and rose early next morning to see the first ferries leave for the islands.
Sadly we were on the penultimate lap of our odyssey, but we decided to finish it in style by heading south and booking into the Isle of Eriska Hotel. Situated on a private island with its own golf course, it is a little paradise. After dinner entertainment is supplied by a visiting cete of badgers who appear nightly at the library French windows for their evening meal supplied by the owners wife.
Our odyssey was over and, after all these years on foreign soil, it was good to rediscover the natural beauty of Scotland.
By Dr Don and Dr Olga Campbell-Thomson, Kilmacolm