Writing a travel blog is hard when you aren’t allowed to travel very far. Consequently, our posts have been a bit sporadic in 2020.
But we have been out and about touring Scotland whenever restrictions permitted. So here is our list of the best experiences and new finds we had during our tours last year.
There’s something special about being on an empty beach in Scotland when it’s hot enough to go for a swim without a wetsuit.
Moments like this can be rare, but Scotland had a bit of a heatwave in July 2020 and this coincided with our trip to Islay. Consequently, a lot of our Islay time was spent searching out beaches and we have lots of options for this category.
We narrowed the shortlist down to 2.
Killinallan is a lovely long expanse of beach with a shallow shelf of very soft sand that makes for safe swimming, but you have to wade a long way before it gets deep enough for a swim.
And the sheltered cove at Port Ghille Greamhair near Sanaigmore. This is a lovely spot and can be quite a sun trap as you are sheltered from any wind by surrounding cliffs which also provide some shade if you are not the sun-worshipping type.
But the winner has to be Port Ghille Greamhair for the simple reason that the beach at Killinallan has some sort of wee beastie that delights in giving you a nip if you stay still too long in the warm shallow waters.
In 2020, we started a more concerted effort to “bag” Scotland’s 282 Munros. Over the years we’ve climbed quite a few, but we never did it with any wider plan of ticking them all off. We just climbed them “cos they were there”.
One of the reasons we became more focussed in 2020 was that mountain climbing was one of the few things we could do and still be socially distanced.
Unfortunately, some of our attempts to conquer new summits were thwarted by weather or by paths that were more bog than trail. But let’s not talk about our failures, let's focus on the successes. And the one we enjoyed the most was the Schiehallion which lies slap bang in the middle of Scotland.
Interestingly, the Schiehallion mountain was used as part of an 18th-century scientific experiment to determine the mass of the Earth. To measure this they had to determine the amount a pendulum weight was deflected by the mass of the mountain.
Such an experiment required a specific type of mountain. It had to stand alone so the mass of other mountains wouldn’t interfere with the deflection of the plumb line. It had to be orientated along an east-west axis as the deflection of the pendulum had to be measured relative to stars. And it had to be roughly symmetrical in shape along its east-west axis.
Schiehallion ticked all those criteria and it ticked our boxes too.
The Galloway Forest, in Scotland’s South West corner, is a place that is very much “off the radar” in terms of mainstream tourism. A part of me thinks this is a shame, but since we live nearby I am also quite grateful to have this as a place for some real peace and quiet.
As you will have guessed, there’s a lot of trees in the Galloway Forest. It’s said to be the largest forest in the British Isles and most of it is commercially planted Sitka Spruce. The upside of all this commercial forest is that it is well provided with access roads so it is ideal for mountain bikes.
So our award for our favourite Bike Trail of 2020 goes to the “Raider’s Road” from Clatteringshaws Loch down to Stroan Loch. It’s a 10 mile stretch of surprisingly smooth dirt track that passes through mature woodlands, but it isn’t dense forest all the way and there are some great views to be had. It also passes a popular picnic spot called the “Otter’s Pool”, but I suspect any resident otters have long since moved on to get peace from the human visitors.
If you’re too lazy to cycle the 20 miles out and back, you can pay a modest toll and drive the length of the trail. But you don’t get the same experience of the forest when you are cocooned in your car.
Glen Lyon was described by Sir Walter Scott as being Scotland’s “Longest, Loneliest and Loveliest Glen”, so it is no surprise that there are lots of great picnic spots to be found here.
The place that stands out for us as the most idyllic spot for a sandwich was the banks of the River Lyon just opposite an old packhorse bridge that is known locally as the “Roman Bridge”.
Although this bridge is clearly not as old as the Roman Invasion, there is evidence that the Romans did visit Glen Lyon. So maybe they built a bridge at the same spot, or maybe, just like us, they stopped here for a picnic.
We mentioned this in our December 2020 blog about our visit to the Kinloch Hourn area when we climbed a mountain called the Spidean Mialach. The name is meant to be Gaelic for the “Lousy Peak” but I’m not sure why it would get such a negative review.
We certainly enjoyed our climb as it was the first time we’d ever stumbled across (quite literally) Rock Ptarmigan. For sure, we’ve seen these cute little birds before, but they’ve usually been stuffed and mounted in glass cases on a shelf in some Highland hotel.
Fortunately, I had a camera clipped to my belt and was able to get some really good pictures before they flapped off in search of cover amongst the scree. Being October time, the birds’ foliage was just starting to change to white in anticipation of the winter snow.
A big thank you to the staff of Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) who run the ferry services on Scotland’s west coast. Our trip to Islay would have been off to a very bad start if the crew on the Portavadie ferry hadn’t been such amenable types.
On the drive from Dunoon to Portavadie, I pulled over to let a determined BMW driver past since my car was heavily laden. This act of courtesy was soon regretted when I got to the Portavadie ferry and realised that I was 13th in the queue (behind the same BMW) and the ferry could only take 12 cars.
Missing the ferry meant we'd also miss the next ferry leg to Islay, and that would have really screwed up our plans. Fortunately, the CalMac crew took sympathy on me when I explained the situation (more sympathy than I got from the BMW driver) and managed to squeeze all the cars up just enough to get the ferry ramp up without crushing my bumper.
With all the Lockdown restrictions on eating out, there weren’t many opportunities for sampling new restaurants. Of the few places we did get to, the meal that stands out as the best value was the one we had at the “Oystercatcher Inn” at Otter Ferry on the shores of Loch Fyne.
This is a place that has always been a favourite of ours and we've been going back to it again and again since our first visit in 2005.
The Inn has changed a little bit inside over the years, but still retains a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere and consistently great food. Seafood is the speciality here and they know how to do it the way we like. By that, we mean keeping it simple so the quality and freshness of the ingredients shine through.
I’m a bit biased here as the Clootie Dumpling Tearoom in Dunkeld is run by old friends of mine, Michael & Jacinda, who I met when working in my first proper job. We hadn’t met each other for something like 25 years, so I was delighted to hear that they had moved back to Scotland.
I was especially pleased when I found out they’d bought a cafe in Dunkeld as it is such a pretty little village. If you’re in Dunkeld, you will find the Clootie Dumpling on the picturesque cobbled lane that leads up to Dunkeld Cathedral.
Jacinda takes care of cooking and cakes with a tremendous selection of sweet and savoury options. You’d have to be the fussiest person in the world if you couldn’t find something to like on their menu.