Only 3 days to Christmas and we've managed to get the guides updated for 2017 with time to spare. So I can manage to get a last blog entry written for 2016 before relaxing into full holiday mode for a few days. The December Blog is often the hardest one to write as we're usually office bound during this month and don't have much to write about unless you'd like to read our reviews of the various supermarket brands of Mince Pies that we've consumed whilst rigorously reviewing the guides for corrections. So instead of writing a blog about our December activities, we thought we'd do a summary of our highlights of 2016.
The Spring of 2016 brought us some glorious sunny weather and lulled us into a false sense of expectation that a heatwave summer was going to follow. Fortunately, we made the most of the May sunshine with a trip up to the Lochaber area. By unanimous decision, the highlight of that trip was a late evening picnic by the River Spean just above the Monessie Gorge. We'd stocked up with some treats earlier in the day and had a very pleasant dinner al fresco savouring smoked anchovies, mussels and salmon washed down with some river chilled Loch Fyne ale. And before you ask, midges were nowhere to be seen. Despite what some people think, midges really don't roam around Scotland like a Biblical plague of locusts and it is possible to enjoy an evening picnic dressed in a T shirt without smothering yourself in pesticides.
Our most enjoyable new experience of 2016 was exploring the little island of Ulva which lies just a few hundred metres off the west coast of Mull. If you are a strong swimmer, you could probably save yourself the £6 return fare for the little ferry boat crossing to Ulva, but we prefered to conserve our energy for walking on Ulva. The island is just 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and has a population of just 30 or so people. This makes it a good place to head to when you want to get away from the mainstream tourist trail, but you need to be prepared to pull on your walking boots if you want to explore Ulva. We started our visit with a lunch stop at the "Boathouse" restaurant which really is a "must do" when you are on Ulva. The menu is heavily dependent on seafood that they source locally. They also grow as many of their own vegetables as they can and an old telephone box outside the cafe has been converted into a greenhouse for a few tomato plants.
Judging by the amount of shells in the water around the pier, the "Boathouse" restaurant is also very good at recycling the left overs so that the local crabs and fish have plenty to dine on too.
The highlight of our time on Ulva was the wonderful view that we had looking east over Loch Na Keal to the summit of Ben More. It would be remote and it might not have any mains supply of electricity or water, but this would be an ideal spot to build a house. We certainly rate it in our top 5 viewpoints in Scotland.
July saw us out on the road for a "Grand Tour" that took us from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders, up through Fife and St Andrews to Royal Deeside and then north via the Moray Coast to Inverness, where we spent some time exploring in Glen Affric. Lots of good wee finds on this trip because we went "off track" and stopped to randomly explore what lay at the end of some overgrown paths and quiet side roads. My favourite "secret corner" on this trip was the Clan Chisholm graveyard. It has no signposts to guide you to it and is hidden from sight by a dense and rapidly encroaching forest of of rhododendrons. The path up to the graveyard is also quite muddy so, even if you find the entrance gate, you might give up and go back to avoid getting wet socks. We were fortunate and visited on the hottest day of 2016 so the setting surrounded by dense vegetation and towering trees made it feel a bit like we were explorers in the Amazon rainforest stumbling onto some ancient Aztec monument.
Another great memory from that hot day in July was the walk into the Glen Affric forest to visit the Plodda Falls. The car thermometer was indicating an outside temperature of over 30C and it sure felt like it. If it hadn't been so humid, we might have considered the longer circular route through the woods to the falls, but our priority was to get to the water as quick as possible for a paddle in teh river. Fortunately, there is a much more direct route from the car park that is nearly all down hill and it takes you past the diving board like observation platform on its way down to the lower viewing point beside the rock pools that the waterfall drops 151 feet into. Getting down to the cool waters of the river is not so easy, but well worth the scramble when its 30C in the shade.
Our award for the best meal of 2016 is a hard choice, the contenders would be the "Kitchen" restaurant in Inverness, "Am Birlinn" on Mull, or the "Strathkinness Tavern" just outside of St Andrews. We're not the sort of people that go to the most expensive restaurants as we really don't see the point of recommending these places as anywhere that charges £25+ for a main course bloody well ought to be good! No, we focus on the sort of places that are reasonably priced as we are always looking for good food that also represents good value for money. All of these place delivered great food at the right price, but "Am Birlinn" on Mull has to be the winner for the originality of their menu and their commitment to sourcing their ingredients as locally as possible. In fact, the menu even tells you the distance that the food travels from all of their suppliers so you know that your "food miles" are as low as possible.
Restaurants aside, our highlight "Foodie" experience of 2016 was the strong cheddar that we bought from the Isle of Mull creamery just outside of Tobermory. This is a cheddar like cheddar cheeses should be. It's proper hard stuff that you could build houses with and it has a robust fullsome flavour that puts to shame the insipid cheddar cheeses that you find in most supermarkets. It was so good that the cheese we bought as gifts for friends back home was devoured before we even left Mull. Sorry!