The best of 2015: the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides

Destination: Scotland

“It’s the most… wonderful time… of the year”. Andy Williams is warbling as I consume my third consecutive Baileys, observing the sea of badly wrapped presents and unwritten Christmas cards that surrounds me. The lights on the tree are flickering (the batteries are dying) and I’m frantically working my way through piles of washing in preparation for a week of festive travels.

But Andy’s right. It is the most wonderful time of the year. I bloody love Christmas and its endless stream of fizz-fuelled catch-ups with my nearest and dearest. I love tacky Christmas jumpers, which seem to get uglier and itchier every year. I love that it’s acceptable to eat chocolate for breakfast and cheese by the kilo. And I love that moment on the journey home, our present-crammed car at a standstill on the M62, when Chris Rea bursts through the car speakers. Top to toe in tailbacks suddenly aren’t so bad…

I love pretty much everything about Christmas, but one of my favourite things is the opportunity it gives me to reminisce. As the curtains close on another year, I retreat into nostalgia; assigning every memory a superlative, ranking every achievement against the others. And while every year has its ups and downs, 2015 was definitely a good year. I bought a house, got engaged, had my writing featured in an actual published book, and graduated with distinction from an MA in Creative Writing. 2015? Nailed it.

Major life achievements side, 2015 has also been an amazing year for travel. In between completing my MA and endless DIY-ing, we’ve managed to squeeze in some pretty spectacular holidays and mini breaks. I’ve already written about our three-week Western Australia adventure, but one of my favourite travel experiences of the year was a lot closer to home.

The occasion was Rob’s 30th. It’s a milestone age, one that I wanted to mark with something special. Somewhere special. I started planning about 18 months in advance, giving myself enough time to find ‘the one’. My research was extensive and there were several contenders, but eventually, I found it.

The Scottish Highlands and Outer Hebrides.

It didn’t have the cultural allure of sun-dappled European cities or the light-shows of Iceland’s skies, but I knew Rob would love it. A country bumpkin with a pretty serious aversion to cities, Rob loves wild landscapes. Mountains. Rivers. Lakes. We’ve travelled to some amazing destinations over the past eight years, but his favourite place on earth is New Zealand – the spiritual home of ALL the wild landscapes, mountains, rivers and lakes you could ever wish for. And since my budget didn’t quite extend to the other side of the planet, I thought the UK’s answer to New Zealand would be the next best thing.

With just five days to explore the Isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis, I wanted everything to be perfect, which meant I became the person that I always try to resist when we travel. Yes, I became Itinerary Woman. Every minute of our five days was accounted for in a five-page itinerary – drive times, scenery stops, lunch breaks. Fun.

When you plan something in that much detail, you think you know what’s in store. You think nothing can surprise you; that what you’re going to experience is the technicolour version of your meticulously planned itinerary. But when the plane began to judder as we made our descent into Inverness, its propellers whirring as they sliced through clouds flecked above a shimmering lake, I realised I was so wrong. Because you can’t plan the way your stomach will flutter as you catch your first glimpse of somewhere so beautiful, you’re sure it can’t be real. That you must be dreaming.

It’s been over six months since our Scottish adventure, but the memories are still as crisp as the cool Scottish air that stroked our skin as we stepped off the plane. So today, in the spirit of Christmas reminiscing, I want to tell you about My Highlands. My Skye. My Harris. My Lewis.

My Highlands brought me face to face with beguiling myths, where lochs are the lair of legend. I stood at the tip of Loch Ness, willing the wind’s whispers to be true. That she was real. She was there.

Loch Ness

But My Highlands made be realise that there was more to Loch Ness than hunting for Nessie. We watched deer grazing in roadside woodlands…

Deer at Loch Ness

… and let Robert Burns led us to secret waterfalls

The Falls of Foyers

The Falls of Foyers

The Falls of Foyers

Two-hour drives doubled in My Highlands, as roads refused to let me pass without stopping. And I relented, because the alternative was to miss views like this…

Loch Loyne, Scotland

Loch Loyne

And this…

Loch Cluanie, Scotland

Loch Cluanie

And this…

The road to Skye

The road to Skye

My Skye redefined ‘a room with a view’, as a Shepherd’s Hut became the most exclusive hotel I’d ever stayed in.

Shepherd's Hut, Isle of Skye

Skye Shepherd’s Huts

Because who needs room service and satin sheets when this is your view?

Skye Shepherd Huts

Staying in on Saturday night was the new going out in My Skye.

Skye Sheperd's Huts

My Skye woke us with murky skies and mists that threatened to swallow the surrounding lochs and mountains.

Skye Shepherd's Huts

These mists enveloped Skye’s revered Black Cuillin mountain range, in a valley that fairies call their home.

The Fairy Pools, Skye

The Fairy Pools

We tiptoed on the slippery boulders bordering The Fairy Pools, watching waterfalls cascade into aquamarine rock pools.

The Fairy Pools

The Fairy Pools

The Fairy Pools

The Fairy Pools

Fine dining was a secluded experience in My Skye, as The Three Chimneys’ Michelin star twinkled opposite an isolated loch.

The Three Chimneys

The Three Chimneys

Loch Dunvegan

Loch Dunvegan

Local blaeberries were the magic ingredient in a dark chocolate and amaretti delice that earned itself the title of the best dessert EVER. Seriously.

The Three Chimneys

The Three Chimneys

And when the time came to say goodbye to My Skye, fairies bid me farewell; hiding in conical mounds that dappled my horizon.

The Fairy Glen, Skye

The Fairy Glen

My Harris highlight was Luskentyre, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. Blues and greens mixed like paint on an artist’s palette, lapping a shoreline the colour of shortbread.

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

Mountains collided with clouds as they stood sentry over the Atlantic, reflected in the waves lapping the shore.

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

And we had it all to ourselves.

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

Cycling in My Lewis was a solitary pursuit, where sheep were our only cheerleaders.

Valtos, The Isle of Lewis

Bhaltos Peninsula

Roads were carved through silver lochs, flanked by moss-speckled mountains.

Bhaltos

Bhaltos Peninsula

Twists in the road added colour, as porcelain and teal bays livened up pewter skies.

Bhaltos Peninsula

Bhaltos Peninsula

Bhaltos Peninsula

Bhaltos Peninsula

Bhaltos Peninsula

Bhaltos Peninsula

Swapping bikes for kayaks, we glided undisturbed through the Atlantic Ocean in My Lewis. We were on the edge of Europe, conscious that a change of wind could set us on a path to Iceland.

Uig

Uig

Uig

Uig

Afterwards, we stood in a circle of jagged stones, contemplating mysteries that will never be solved.

Callanish Stones

Callanish Stones

Callanish Stones

Callanish Stones

And when the sun set on My Lewis, it felt like we were the only people on Earth, watching the day burn like molten lava.

The Butt of Lewis

The Butt of Lewis

The Butt of Lewis

The Butt of Lewis

So that was My Highlands. My Skye. My Harris. My Lewis. And it was more amazing than I could have ever planned for. Until next time, Scotland.

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