It started as an insane and unthinkable plan. Going to the Isle of Skye with either Rabbies or Timberbush Tours seemed to be the default mode of seeing the Highlands until the Travel Companion (the TC) remarked that a road trip in a rented car may not be that implausible after all.
TC’s short visit meant that we had just that pocket of time to visit some place out of Edinburgh before he was dragged into relentless shopping, and he came rather prepared to join Scotland’s nationalistic fervour.
“They [the Scots] will be very happy. My father said my jumper resembles the Scottish flag,” TC remarked. “And everyone seems to know the Loch Lomond song except me.”
After a comedy of errors, a cancelled tour, fast and furious internet planning over Skype, internet bookings and much trepidation (in a country where all major routes and motorways are dehumanised and alphanumerically named), TC, the backpacks and I found ourselves in a 1.9 Black and rather sleek, diesel-run Vectra Automatic with a Tiptronic function, driving out of an immensely confusing Edinburgh street system – out of the town centre, towards Stirling and into the Northwestern Highlands.
It went something like this: Edinburgh – Stirling – Callender – Crainlarich, Ballachulish, Fort William – Invergarry – Dornie – Kyle of Lochalsh – Portree in Skye.
Our frenzied route-planning the previous night made us wonder about fuel consumption, traffic conditions, and quite simply…time. Varying opinions on the time needed (we were told that the journey could take either 4 hrs, or 8-9 hrs!) made the journey a bit more pressurising and stressful, driven by the need to be in Portree before the darkness fell.
Obviously, that was not to be.
There was, as I discovered, only 1 route (and it was not a motorway) into the Highlands through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, a highly scenic trail but a snail-bitingly slow one, unaided by the awed gasps that TC and I emitted constantly each time a snow-capped mountain came into view which led to photo-stop after photo-stop.
The first leg in the car was mine, and the virgin experience of driving abroad started off nicely in the bright (maybe a bit too bright) sunlight, leading us into Callender where a short coffee break was needed before the change-over.
It was an amazing route nonetheless, and seeing the landscape of Glencoe and the Trossachs that Haggis Adventures brought me through now doused in snow ignited a new sense of awe.
TC then took us from Callender onwards to Fort William where we stopped for lunch, a road that turned winding and somewhat more dangerous from the way TC took his turns.
The stretch from Fort William to Portree felt like the most treacherous of all, and was especially harrowing when darkness fell early because of the overcast sky. Heavy snowfall on “The Road to The Isles” slowed us down tremendously when a snowplough stayed in front for much of the stretch, sprinkling salt over the single carriageway – it was then that we heard on radio that heavy snowfall plagued the exact area we were passing through. TC called it a winter wonderland.
The speedy Vectra went on nevertheless at 50-60 miles/hr in the pouring rain and onto the A87 that led straight into Portree. In retrospect, that was more foolish than brave.
It had never felt more depressing in the darkness when TC announced that we had reached Skye but had yet another 32 miles to go before we reached Portree. A wrong turn, an illegal U-Turn later and we were on our way again.
Bill and Charlotte Johnson, the new owners of the guesthouse Ben Tianavaig (pronounced “Chia-na-vaig”) that was to be our lodging for 2 nights, greeted us heartily with Chamomile tea (we needed its calming effects!) and several maps of Skye, recommending us several sightseeing places.
“Are you interested in castles?” Bill asked us as we looked through his brochures of Skye walks.
“Mountains first, then castles,” I quipped half-seriously. Bill laughed and nodded approvingly, saying that we had good taste.
“Then the best would be to visit the Trotternish,” Charlotte unfolded yet another map, pointing to the northernmost peninsula of Skye. “It has very dramatic landscape – you could see the old man of Storr, the highest point on the Trotternish.”
In the comfort of our room (named “Torvaig”) which had a view of the Portree Harbour (we needed to take her on her word as it was all dark out), we heaped praise on each other for getting to Skye safely, and then lauded the trusty street directory. A makeshift dinner from Somerfield supermarket that consisted of an onion and cheese sandwich, fruits and chocolate biscuits seemed oddly comforting…until TC got into a shower that spewed merely cold water, leading to unanswered questions and many apologies from Bill and Charlotte who had no clue what went wrong.
TC ended up bathing in another room, ending up with more hot water than he wished for. A strange but rather funny twist to the end of an exhausting day.