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Scotland Travel Blog January 2024

”Our Highlights of 2023”

As has become a bit of a tradition for our January Blog, I start the New Year with a summary of our Highlights from our travels in the year just past. Well, I say “just past” but I’m writing this Blog in February as January has been crazy busy with requests for customised tours.

Our travels in 2023 had something of an Island theme to them. We started in April with a return to Arran to scatter my parents' ashes on their favourite Island. Then I took Junior to see the Orkney Islands which he first visited when he was ~6 months old. And our big research trip took us to the islands of Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay and Flodda.

Flodda was just a very brief visit so that we could add an island beginning with the letter “F” to Junior’s alphabetical bucket list of Scottish Islands. At the age of 12, he’s already visited somewhere in the region of 32 of Scotland’s 90 inhabited islands.

Signpost for the Island of Flodda in the Western Isles

During all of this Island hopping, we never had any problems with any of the ferries. Everything ran on time and the CalMac staff were as brilliant as ever. It’s such a pity that the media is so fixated on picking fault with the service. We know they’ve got their problems, but they never let us down once in 2023

But let's get back to talking about our Best Bits from 2023.

Best beach:

The Western Isles have no shortage of stunning beaches to choose from, so picking the best beach is a close call between several very strong contenders.

Barra is a collection of wonderful beaches. I’d even go so far as to say it has the best collection of beaches in Scotland. The great thing about Barra’s beaches is the variety of shapes, sizes and backdrops.

The north end of the island has vast expanses of sand at Traigh Sgurabhal and Traigh Mhor, where the beach acts as the island’s airport.

Traigh Sgurabhal on Barra

Traigh Mhor - the beach on Barra that doubles as an airport

On the West coast,  you have smaller beaches of pure white sand that are cupped between rocky headlands and dunes that back onto fertile Machair where livestock lazily graze.

The beach at Cleat on Barra

And to the south, you have the Island of Vatersay (now connected to Barra by a causeway) where two beaches of very different character lie back to back. Traigh Siar faces west so it bears the brunt of waves rolling in from the Atlantic. The tidal conditions can create treacherous undercurrents, so Traigh Siar is never as busy as its near neighbour Traigh a Bhaigh which enjoys an east-facing beach sheltered by long peninsulas that extend on either side like the pincers of a crab’s claw.

Traigh Siar beach viewed from a cave at it south end

You have probably seen pictures of Traigh a Bhaigh on social media, as this is the beach with the famous little iron gate that leads down through the sand dunes to a beach of immaculate sand. Its fame on social media means that it draws in tourists, but it’s not a busy beach in the same way that beaches like Achmelvich on the NC500 can be.

The famous gate that leads to the beach at Traigh a Bhaigh on Vatersay

So, after much deliberation, we’re nominating Traigh Eais on Barra as our best beach of 2024.

Amazing shades of blue at Traigh Eais beach on Barra

It picks up the title because we think the colour of the sea here is as perfect as it gets, the beach is large enough to feel empty even if there are a few other folk around. And you have the added bonus of the occasional fly past by Loganair on their way back to/from Glasgow.

Traigh Eais beach on Barra with happy child running on the sand

Best New Experience:

A difference of opinions here, but for good reasons.

Aurelia instantly nominated her completion of the 92-mile-long West Highland Way as her highlight experience of 2023 and we really can’t argue with that. It’s a feat to be proud of and she’s planning to do it again in 2024… she’s mad!

Signpost at the Fort William end of the West Highland Way

For Junior, the best new experience was getting to drive Aurelia’s car on the beach at Traigh Mhor on Barra. It’s the perfect place to learn to drive as the only things you’re likely to hit are stranded jellyfish and the occasional light aircraft.

Kid having fun driving a car on Traigh Mhor beach on Barra

I’m voting for our summer solstice hike and overnight camp on Creach Bheinn in Argyll. It wasn’t the hardest hike in terms of terrain or altitude, but camping overnight on an exposed summit to watch the sunset and sunrise was a magical experience.

The experience of watching the sun slowly rising above a wild landscape without any sign of other humans was spiritual. The sense of time stood still, and the feeling of separation from the sleeping world below was strangely comforting.

Sunset viewed from summit of Creach Bheinn on the Summer Solstice

I hope to do it again, but next time I’ll try to pick a mountain with a more comfortable summit to sleep on!

Best Historial site:

I’m changing the title of this category to make the options wider as I used to call it the “Best Castle” award and I felt that excluded other places that are of interest, such as the places we explored on our July trip to Orkney.

The whole aim of our visit to Orkney was to find alternatives to the mainstream attractions which we’d been hearing were very busy due to the influx of cruise ship tourists. We certainly didn’t see many tourists in the places we explored.

My pick for “Best Historical Site” goes to Wideford Hill Cairn as it is well off the beaten tourist trail (about a 30-minute walk from the nearest road), but is like a scaled-down version of Maeshowe.

Wideford Hill Neolithic Burial Cairn on Orkney

It will likely remain a quiet place too, as it is not the easiest place to find and access to the burial chamber requires some agility as the entrance is via a ladder in the roof.

Entrance to Wideford Hill Cairn with trapdoor and ladder

It’s also quite spooky inside and not suitable for anyone claustrophobic or of “generous” build.

Main chamber of Wideford Hill Cairn

Fortunately, I had Junior with me and he had no fear about crawling along narrow tunnels to explore the darker recesses of the burial chambers.

Exploring inside the tight spaces of Wideford Hill Burial Cairn with a torch

Best New Find:

We’ve been actively seeking out Scotland’s less obvious attractions for more than 18 years, but there are still new places to be found that give us a “Buzz”.

Amazingly, the place that we rate as our best new find in 2023 is on the Isle of Arran which I have visited practically every year since I was old enough to remember. The island is only 20 miles long by 9 miles wide, so you’d think we’d have found everything of note, but Ordnance Survey maps are a great resource when you're looking for hidden treasures.

Whilst scrutinizing a map for a new hiking route, we noticed a series of pools on the Machrie Water with unusual names such as “Goat’s Leap Pool”, and “Little Gorge Pool”. We assumed these were fishing beats and thought it might make for a nice walk that would keep Junior entertained looking for trout.

Sign for Little Gorge on a river on Isle of Arran

There was evidence of a path, albeit quite overgrown, and very muddy in places. But a path nonetheless. So we set off to explore and came across a lovely series of pools which each had very different characters thanks to some quirky rock features carved into the soft red sandstone by years of erosion.

Unusual rock formations in red sandstone on Machrie Water river.

Unusual eroded rocks on a river in Arran

The highlight of this new find was a narrow but deep gorge where a waterfall plunged with spectacular force through a "linn" (a Scottish word for the section of a river where it becomes narrow and creates a cascade between rocks). The river runs through private land and the landowner isn’t keen to publicise its attractions as it might put off the fishermen who pay for the pleasure of some undisturbed fishing time.

Linn on the Machrie Water

Best Hike:

Staying on Arran for the winner of this category, our favourite hike of 2023 was the distinctive peak of Cir Mhor which is a great wee mountain even though it’s only 799 metres high.

Cir Mhor on Arran with Goatfell in the background

The appeal of Cir Mhor is its angular summit which leans over to one side with a bit of an overhang. From some angles, it looks like a scaled-down Matterhorn.

Approach to the angular peak of Cir Mhor

We approached Cir Mhor from the north which meant we first had to ascend the higher summit of Caisteal Abhail. On the way to the summit of Caisteal Abhail we passed a rock formation that bore a strange resemblance to Donald Trump. Perhaps they should paint it orange and make it into a tourist attraction.

Rock formation on Arran that looks like Donald Trump in profile

After reaching the top of Caisteal Abhail, I felt that I had already done enough exercise for one day, but Aurelia was still skipping around like an energetic puppy and encouraged me to press on. And I’m glad she did because the views from Cir Mhor were brilliant and we could see all the way to the Paps of Jura in the west.

Standing on the pointed summit of Cir Mhor

Whilst talking about Cir Mhor, I have to give a shout-out to the great team of guys that built the footpath up to the summit. I was not expecting to find such a neat flight of steps in such a remote location. Having built a few footpaths in the past, I have nothing but admiration for the dedication and stamina of anyone who could climb this mountain carrying heavy tools and then have the energy to start moving big stones to make a staircase for strangers.

Foot steps on the path to the summit of Cir Mhor

Best Wildlife Spot:

You’re just going to have to believe us on this one as we didn’t have the camera to hand, but we had a dolphin swimming near us at Traigh a Bhaigh on Vatersay. And we also saw an Otter with her pups in the harbour at the mouth of the River Ayr

Sadly, we’ve no photographic evidence of either event, so we are nominating the not so wild herd of Shetland ponies that we came across on South Uist.

Free roaming Shetland Ponies on South Uist

Whilst these ponies roam freely on the Loch Druidibeag Nature Reserve, they can’t really be considered “Wildlife”. They certainly were very comfortable in the presence of humans and were keen to introduce themselves.

Nosey Shetland Pony sticking its head into a car

South Uist’s Shetland ponies were certainly much friendlier than the ponies of Eriskay who definitely did not wish to mingle with visitors.

Eriskay pony stood on a hill top

Best Meal:

We’re not in the league of Egon Ronay when it comes to reviewing restaurants, so our sample size is modest and constrained by our budget. So we pick where to eat based on the recommendations we get from the B&B owners that we work with.

This local knowledge is an accurate way to find the best food experiences and to keep our finger on the pulse of what is on the up and what’s maybe not as good as it once was. Forgan’s restaurant in St Andrews was one place that I’ve always liked for the whacky decor but we needed to go back to see if the food was still up to scratch. I’m very pleased to say that they’ve got everything spot on.

Enjoying a meal at Forgan's Restaurant in St Andrews

The dinner we had here was excellent. The menu was imaginative and featured lots of locally sourced produce. The staff were attentive without being intrusive. And the decor adds the finishing touches to a very enjoyable dining experience

I was driving so asked for a fresh orange with lemonade and a splash of Angostura bitters (as is my occasional want). The bar staff made it to perfection with crushed ice and a mix of citrus fruit wedges. It’s the little details that count.

Groovy interior of Forgan's restaurant in St Andrews

Best Cafe:

I mentioned this place already in our July Blog, but the cakes were so good that they fully merit another mention in our “Highlight of 2023”. The place I am referring to is the Kirk Cafe at Tankerness on Orkney.

The cafe is a wonderful place to indulge yourself, and we don’t just mean their cakes. Attached to the cafe is the very stylish showroom for Sheila Fleet’s Jewellery collection. This is like heaven for anyone who likes to accessorize with shiny things. Fortunately, Aury wasn’t with us so the visit only cost me a strawberry tart, a salted caramel coconut slice, a fruit juice and a coffee.

Tasty sweet treats at the Kirk Cafe on Orkney

Best Foodie Experience:

Does Gin count as a Foodie experience? Well it’s our Blog, so we make the rules, and Aury says Gin counts as it’s one of her essential nutrients.

I can’t comment on this one as Gin all tastes pretty much the same to me, but Aury says that the stuff made on Barra is very, very good. As you can probably deduce from the big gin grin on her face in this photo.

Gin with a Grin on Barra

The other stand-out foodie experience of 2023 was the lovely fish that we bought when we visited Na Mara Seafood on Grimsay. I forgot to take pictures of the lovely plate of scallops that I had from here, but you can tell that scallops are their speciality from the vast quantity of scallop shells piled outside their premises.

Massive pile of empty scallop shells at Na Mara Seafood factory on the island of Grimsay

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