You can always tell you’re in for it when traveling in Scotland if every time you make a turn the road gets narrower. This was one of those times. It didn’t help that we were heading towards a place called “Sandend” to find a castle called “Findlater.” Always a joke with the Scots.
After a while they didn’t even bother with occasional passing spots on the one-lane road, but with our nearly unblemished record intact we pulled up into a small gravel car park behind someone’s house. There were several vehicles in evidence, but no people. Where’d they go? We were on top of a high plateau with acres of nothing but waving fields of grain.
Has to be barley right? After all, this is whiskey territory. There is no castle. No sign. Just a path leading through the field toward the ocean.
The only interruption in this ocean of barley was a cone shaped thing sticking up out of the grain. We couldn’t tell how big it is, or how far away.
After about ten minutes of walking the path bifurcates. With no sign to guide us we chose straight ahead and walked directly toward the cliff overlooking the sea. Still, we saw nothing.
We reached the precipice and down over the rocky edge was a sight so mind blowing that we gasped and had that knee wobbly, will-I-jump or will-I-not moment. There was the ruin of Findlater Castle, clinging to the rocks far below.
The castle started as a stronghold in the 13th century, then grew and changed hands in bitter feuds, something of a Scottish specialty, until it was abandoned in the mid 1600s.
There’s a map showing two paths down the castle cliff, one suicidal and one death defying; most of the reviews on Google Maps suggested you don’t try, but if you must, have at it.
I had the internal talk, listened to my better angels, stayed mostly on top and took photos.
On the way back we took the right bifurcation toward the beehive thing. It’s called a doocot, at least in Scotland, where pigeons were raised in 700 nesting boxes inside. This one pulled double duty in WW2 for plane spotters.
We’re not sure what castle can top this. Now it’s back through the barley field and back on the road in search of a parkup.
We drove toward Inverness, a place with an evocative name and probably worth more time than we are going to give it. We only stopped long enough to top up our food supply for the next few days. We also learned we must turn off our propane while on the ferry, and that’s what runs the fridge and freezer, so I snagged a handful of blue picnic ice things to freeze ahead. That should keep our food cold during the 12+ hours on the ferry.
I saw on the map that we’re close to Culloden, the site of the last pitched battle on British soil. Yeah, I had to look it up too.
The Battle of Culloden in 1746 marked the final defeat of the Jacobite rising, but if, like me, you don’t have the necessary background in Scottish history, it’s a confusing story. Jack and I hoped the visitors center would clear things up for us but sadly, it did not. Perhaps in an effort to appeal to international visitors, or to give a wider context to the conflict, the beginning aisles of the museum — I hesitate to call it that, because it was just placard after placard to read, with some music background — was all about the other various conflicts happening concurrently overseas. By the time we got to the actual battle in Scotland, we were bleary-eyed and confused. This part of the visitors center was a complete fail.
The better part was an “immersion theatre” that was terrifying, where you stand in the middle of a room surrounded by four screens and experience the battle, turning this way and that, seeing men charging at you, women watching from a distance, the government army standing ground and barely suffering any casualties. Well done on that, National Trust.
Out on the site we caught up with the end of a tour. As with any battlefield monument, it’s hard to imagine the terror and bloodshed, and the ghosts that may still be wandering around. It’s all quiet and peaceful now.
We’re using various apps for crowd-sourced information on legal parkups. During this first couple of weeks of vanlife, we learned we much prefer to spend the night with a water view, so that’s what we’re looking for tonight. There’s a car park at a marina just east of Culloden but the app that lists it leaves us unsure whether overnight parking is permitted.
We find the car park and it’s the usual “pay and display” scheme, where you pay at a kiosk then display the receipt on the dash. At the kiosk is a large sign detailing what’s prohibited, and on the list is overnight parking of vehicles “adapted or manufactured for sleeping,” or words to that effect. A smaller sign, just above the pay station, indicates that campervans and small motorhomes are welcome to overnight for £10. I chose to believe that sign and pulled out my wallet.
I spent a good five minutes navigating this particular pay station, trying to get to the overnight camping option. No matter what I did, the maximum amount I could pay was £3. Other drivers came and went and tried to assist, but in the end they couldn’t figure it out either. Wanting to be on the safe side, I called the number on the machine.
“Parking authority,” came the voice on the other end. I explained we were at the marina car park in a campervan and would like to spend the night but the machine gave me no £10 overnight option.
There was a long pause. Finally he said, “It’s an invitation.”
I didn’t understand.
“You’re invited to pay.” I read the sign more carefully. Sure enough, the sign said, “You’re invited to pay . . . “ then listed the various categories.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“We invite you to pay. Any money collected goes to the Council.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s an invitation.”
This was not making any sense to me.
“I’m keen to pay. It’s a beautiful place,” I countered. We circled around a few more times before he finally suggested I pay the maximum the machine would allow, which was £3. I did that and we spent a beautiful night on the waterfront. In the morning I paid another £3. Just because.
Out in the river there were two of these barges with derricks on them. Through the binoculars we couldn’t see any drilling or digging activity and couldn’t figure out what they were. Sometime in the morning a roadwork truck pulled in beside us and I knocked on the window.
“What are those things?” I asked. They told us it was part of a wind farm project, but my further questions didn’t really clear it up. Later we asked a shopkeeper who told us it was oil drilling. We still don’t know. If you’ve got an idea what’s going on here, drop us a comment.
We’ve still got a couple of days until the ferry, and Jack is itching for another castle. That shouldn’t be too hard.
We fell in love with the Scottish Highlands. Driving more or less along the Caledonia canal has us gasping at the vistas and forcing ourselves not to stop every couple of hundred meters to take yet another photo that our son will probably look at when we’re dead and delete. We decide to resist the temptation to record everything for posterity and just revel in the joy of the moment. It’s hard.
We stopped at Fort Augustus to sit at a café and watch the action at the locks. There are six locks here, connecting the canal to Loch Ness.
Sometime during our canal-side lunch, we came to a decision. We’ll take the Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen directly to Shetland in time for Midsummer. It’ll be the farthest north either of us has ever been, and we’ll be there for the longest day of the year.
I’m happy we have a plan. My job now is to book the ferry, which of course we must do as we’re taking a campervan. The trip is just over 12 hours, and others recommend booking a cabin instead of the (free) chairs or (cheap) “sleeping pods.” Cabin it is.
We found a beautiful parkup on Loch Ness and I got to work. Unfortunately all the cabins were booked for the coming week, so getting there before Midsummer is out. The first available cabin is on June 20th, which puts us there on the 21st, and it’s an inside cabin with no porthole. We booked it.
So now we need to figure out what to do for the next week while we wait for the ferry.
Really any regular Scottish bloke, if asked what is not to be missed while visiting his country, will get that far away look in his eyes and softly say “Glencoe.” It’s quintessentially Scotland, not Bronze Age Crofts or stoney castles. Turns out that it’s not far away. Really nothing is truly far away in a country as small as Scotland. It might take you awhile, what with roundabouts every half a mile and share and share alike one lane roads, but it’s not far. So this story is about pictures. Pictures of the Scottish soul.
A Scotsman would smile and say this is normal Scottish weather, but I call it a rising damp.
No one really knows how to build a Glencoe turf house. There are no carefully preserved examples and if you examine the materials mostly found on site you’d know why. Stone, turf cut in a fetching herringbone pattern, and as little wood as possible. The stone ends up in a pile of rubble, the wood rots away, and the turf, well the turf ends up as mud. So while my guess is not as good as theirs, after due diligence and research they’re still guessing. This is a recreation using over 2,000 wooden rods woven into a basket-like structure. They took the wooden rods with the when they moved because trees were scarce. The researchers reckon they’ve got it pretty close. They examined current construction techniques in the area and researched tendencies used during the times they figure it probably looked something like this. It’s still pretty cool.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away after such stunning beauty but we knew we had a rainy drive to what is now known as the £15 lady’s parkup on Loch Linnhe. Even the parkups are beautiful around here.
I think there’s something to this Scottish soul thing.
We said farewell to Etive and Nial and, in a last minute move, pointed the van toward the Caledonian Canal. This may sound like a decision, but really we just put off deciding. At Inverness we’ll have some options. We’ll figure it out later.
The drive was beautiful as we made our way along the shore of Loch Linnhe and into the Highlands.
We are headed for Glencoe, one of the most frequently mentioned places to go in Scotland. Glencoe is a nature reserve, an area of rugged beauty, and the site of the Glencoe Massacre.
It’s a vast park, mostly wild, and best appreciated by hiking, mountaineering and other sports beyond our current energy level, but we’re keen to appreciate what we can at our age-adjusted pace. The visitor’s center has a good orientation, with a topo map, a film about the massacre, and displays about the founders of the Mountaineering Club.
After seeing this photo, Jack decided he needs to trade in his baseball cap for a traditional tweed flat cap. He’s on a mission now.
It’s another rainy day and Etive thinks a drive around her environs is a good idea. We agree, as a tour with a local is always rewarding. Taynuilt is a tiny village, with all the shops you need and everyone knows everyone. It’s the sort of place we’d choose to live if we ever settle down.
The sky brightened a bit and we made a beeline to Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel. The castle was built sometime in the 13th century and appears to have emerged right out of the rocks.
This castle is actually open but we didn’t take the time to go in, rather walked around the grounds and admired the architecture, particularly of the chapel.
Back home again we found the midges swarming and we quickly retreated to our homes. Jack and I thought we’d warm up with a cup of coffee, only to find our propane tank had ran out while we were gone. On Escape Velocity Jack elevated Tank Swap to an Olympic event. He could get us back up and running within about four minutes, and that included disconnecting the empty, carrying it up to the foredeck, pulling the fresh tank out of the deck locker, dropping the empty in its place, carrying the full (and heavy) tank back to the cockpit, persuading it into the vented locker, hooking it up and testing for leaks with dish soap. The kettle barely came off the boil before the flame was lit.
The campervan is more of a challenge, even without the “carrying the tank 40 feet along the side deck and back” part of the event. For one thing, these are 13kg tall bottles, as opposed to the 9kg we were used to. But the real bug-a-boo is that the spare tank is stored behind the operating tank, so both tanks have to be removed and places swapped before the fresh tank can be connected. And — let’s think ahead now — when we go to swap the empty at the gas depot, the operating tank has to be disconnected and removed so we can extract the empty behind it, then secure the new full bottle in the back of the locker before the working tank gets reinstalled, hooked up and tested again. Not a quick maneuver.
But back to today. The propane locker is inside the back door, so the whole time Jack is swapping the tanks, midges are swarming his head, flying in his nose and ears, and into the van. I’m fanning the midges back out of the van, mixing up the dish soap with water for testing, and spraying our tea tree/vinegar/water mixture all over in the hope that the midges will take a hike. There may have been swearing involved.
Jack announced “no leaks!” and slammed the back door, then ran to the side and back into the van. We were pleased to see that all the fanning and spritzing of tea tree oil did the job, and there were no midges inside, although Jack’s head had taken a toll.
Later, when we related the story, we were advised to get Smidge. “It works!”
Ugh. We do have Smidge, we just forgot to use it BEFORE going out in the midges. Lesson learned. The coffee was worth it.
One of the least mentioned but long-lasting benefits of ocean cruising is that you make friends from all over the world. When our friends Seathan and Audrie on the yacht Rehua, currently in the Seychelles, saw where we are Audrie introduced us via email to Seathan’s mother Etive who lives outside Oban. Etive invited us to visit, and even offered up her driveway as a parkup. We relished the idea of local knowledge to helps us formulate a travel plan.
Etive met us at the bottom of her lane and guided us to a perfect level spot beside her house, with the kind of long-distance view we’ve grown to love about Scotland.
We spent a couple of delightful hours enjoying the company and the garden views and good conversation before Jack and I retreated to the van for a good night’s sleep. Wind and rain rolled in overnight and by morning we stayed home as it poured, lingering over our morning coffee and catching up on writing.
Finally, we dashed between the raindrops to the conservatory and found Etive trying to summon a tennis tournament on the uncooperative TV. I was happy to discover a fellow tennis fan and we had more to talk about for awhile until another brief break in the rain urged us back to the van for the afternoon.
Seathan’s brother Nial arrived later and we were treated to a sumptuous buffet dinner complete with bubbly and more fine conversation.
We peppered them with questions about where to go and when to go there, which direction of travel is optimal, and what to skip. They offered up suggestions we hadn’t yet considered, and we noted the relative level of enthusiasm for places we thought we’d like to see.
We were disappointed to learn neither has been to Shetland, a place that has called to me since I was a child. I don’t know why, especially since I love trees and Shetland doesn’t have any. We want to visit the Hebrides, too, and the Highlands and Edinburgh. There’re so many places to go in this small country, and talking to Etive and Nial hasn’t helped us formulate an itinerary at all. The list just keeps getting longer. So much for local knowledge.
With our fresh water supply dwindling and no way to fill the tank, it’s clear we have to leave Loch Lomond and The Trussocks National Park and find a shop that might stock a water hose. It’s time to go west.
I booked us into a campground for the first time since moving aboard near a shop that supposedly caters to the backpacking and motorhome set. The shop failed us. They had midge nets, midge spray, and a folding water carrier, all of which we did buy, but no hoses. We resigned ourselves to filling the tank with the folding water carrier. Jack was not amused.
The campground was exactly as you might picture an RV park in America, and why we prefer to wild camp. It was admittedly a very nice campground, but you give up privacy and pay handsomely for the convenience and services. We’ve agreed to a campground stay once every week or ten days so we can do laundry, have long hot showers, give our batteries a good charge, especially in rainy weather, dump the gray water and toilet cassette, and fill up with fresh water.
Jack checked us in at the office and came out grinning and carrying a brand new hose with a variety of fittings. Eureka! We’re in business. While Jack sorted the electrical connection and filled the water tank, I started gathering the laundry.
I took my bag of loose change to the office to see if they could give me the proper coins I needed for the machines. When I presented my collection the two hosts jumped into action with glee.
“You’ve got quite the collection of shrapnel there,” said the man, and he and the woman dumped the coins onto the counter and set to work. As a former bank teller, I’d have happily counted it out for them, but they seemed to enjoy sorting and making stacks. I walked out with enough one-pound coins to do what amounted to three loads of wash.
The next day, charged up, fully watered, dumped, laundered and freshly scrubbed, we set off toward Oban, the gateway to the Hebrides.
Oban is the first sizable town we’ve come to so far in the camper, and we’re learning that parking is a challenge in any vehicle bigger than a car, even though we are a smallish van and allowed in regular parking lots. We know now to look for municipal lots, or car parks adjacent to supermarkets or big box stores. We got parked and walked a few blocks into town for lunch.
We didn’t have much of a plan for Oban, and drove back out of town and into the woods. Trees are my happy place, and a walk in this quiet mossy forest soothed my soul.
We aren’t sure where we’re going from here. We can go west to the Hebrides, we can go east to Edinburgh, we can go north. We need a plan. We need some advice. And we know just who to consult.
We are well accustomed to water conservation after living on a boat. Escape Velocity had a reverse osmosis watermaker and we generally never wanted for fresh water, but there were a few times during our cruising life when we had to reduce our consumption, either because the watermaker wasn’t working properly, or the seawater we were in wasn’t optimal for running the pumps.
In the campervan, we’d gone two weeks on our 110 liter freshwater tank. That was just for washing up because we started out with a lot of drinking water in big jugs. No matter, we need water. And for that, we need a hose.
Jack was convinced a garden center was our best bet, but we’re in the Loch Lomond and The Tussocks National Park where there are few shops of any kind, and definitely no garden centers or hardware stores. This is going to involve a trek.
Google Maps showed us a garden center just outside the park area, 15 miles in the wrong direction. We reluctantly left the beautiful banks of the loch and set off through another breathtaking landscape.
There was roadwork all along the way, and no place to pull off to take proper photos, but we were both dazzled by the rolling hills and wide vistas, not to mention the perfect weather.
We found the garden center. They sold plants. That’s it. Plants. No garden implements, no hardscape materials, no hoses. They did, however, have a very nice cafe, which of course we had to try.
There was nowhere to go for a hose from here so we drove back to Loch Lomond and found yet another gorgeous parkup along the water.
Besides the trees and the water and the weather, we’ve also been enjoying the many wildflowers we see everywhere. We’re here at the perfect time of year to see all these plants that are familiar to me from where we lived in Pennsylvania, but that we haven’t seen during the years we were mostly in the tropics.
I think we’re going to continue our conservation scheme and enjoy Loch Lomond for a bit longer. Who in their right mind would want to leave this place?
We loved our parkup at Dumbarton Castle, but we don’t want to get stuck in one place so soon. And we’re ready to venture further afield. We set our sights on Loch Lomond, and it sounded like an expedition until we checked Google maps. Five miles. Five. Miles. My goodness, we are pathetic. At this rate we won’t see much of Britain before our bones turn to dust.
We skipped the busy tourist area at the southern end of the loch, especially since it was Jubilee week and we assumed it might be crowded, despite the lack of official events in this “non-Royalist” region. It was a four day holiday after all, and families were out for a long weekend of fun.
We parked up right on the shore of the loch. There are many of these little car parks, one after the other, that can accommodate anywhere from five to ten vehicles. We passed a few sites and chose one that was further off the busy road, with nice flat spaces and a wide beach. We had the joint all to ourselves for a while, but later in the day more and more people arrived.
We parked in the corner again, now our preferred spot, so that at least on one side we can see and appreciate the scenery when we’re inside. A family pitched a couple of tents on the beach in front of us, but it was still a lovely spot, with a pretty path along the shoreline to explore. We can’t believe our luck in finding spot after spot to enjoy this beautiful country. It’s like moving from anchorage to anchorage on the boat. We’re comfy in our own home, but with an everchanging view. It’s just what we envisioned. We stayed two nights.
I saw on our parkup app that just a little north of us there is a larger car park that not only allows overnight parking, but also has toilets, a gray water and toilet dump, and a fresh water tap. We don’t really need those yet, but we’ve been advised to take advantage when you see them. We knew it would be more crowded, but we’re keen to experience that too, and besides, it’s still free, with a donation box onsite for the services.
Once again we chose a level spot beside a small grassy area so on one side at least we have some space. The lot was quite busy as you’d expect on a holiday weekend, with day use people as well as motor homes. It’s the dock for Loch boats and ferries and tour buses came and went all day too. We actually enjoyed all the activity.
On Sunday while Jack sat in the sun, I watched the men’s tennis final at Roland Garros, streaming Channel 9 in Australia via a VPN logged in at Perth. It’s a source I’ve used for tennis for a couple of years no matter where we are. We found it more challenging to watch Formula 1. Most recently we VPN’d to Luxembourg to get the stream, but the commentary is in Luxembourgish, so we do BBC radio for the audio, which is of course out of sync. It’s better than nothing though.
Monday morning we walked up the road to a food kiosk for breakfast rolls. Our glorious weather continues, much to the surprise of the locals.
As we prepared to move on, Jack emptied the toilet cassette and checked out the fresh water tap. That’s when he discovered that the water hose we have is missing the proper fitting and we can’t fill our tank. We’re in the middle of a national park with no large shops anywhere nearby. Luckily our tank isn’t empty, but we’ll need to find either a new hose or the proper fitting before long.