January 15, 2005

The Scottish Highlands in winter: gales and travel gods

I got an email from Easter, Ross, Scotland, from Patrick Vickery, a gardener and gardening writer. (Patrick writes “blethers,” and you’ll enjoy them, whether or not you’re a gardener. His “Scottish Blether” paints a lovely word picture of Easter Ross.) Patrick asked whether I’d ever visited the Scottish Highlands. I wrote him that I had, indeed, during a February blast of winter weather so powerful that “The Gales” were a major news item on BBC radio reports out of London. I remember listening with fascination to the report about a British Midland jet approaching Aberdeen, being buffeting like a toy in the wind, aborting its landing, and returning to London.

“My kids and I drove through a Highlands snowstorm on our way to the Isle of Skye,” I wrote to Patrick. “We crossed the bridge to Kyleakin – the bridge swaying and moaning – and were told if we wanted to make it back to the mainland, we’d better sightsee in a hurry, because they planned to shut the bridge down (which they did). While on Skye, the wind picked up my son and almost tossed him into the sea.”

Patrick wrote back, “Yes, lovely part of the world, the Highlands, though it does have erratic weather to contend with. But that’s part of its charm, of course.”

I couldn’t agree more. Weather is a thread in the fabric of a place, and it colors a traveler’s experience. I chose Scotland in February because of some irresistibly cheap off-season fares dangled by Icelandair (which helped the owner of The Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition – not to be confused with The Original Loch Ness Monster Exhibition, whose brochure had driving directions that included, “Drive Right Past the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition...” – understand why a lady and two kids from America showed up at his establishment early on a bitter, fog-bound winter day. He agreed that a sub-$300 hop across the pond and back made off-season the right season.) I went to Scotland because I could get there cheap, but I fell in love with it partly because of its weather.

Erratic it was, but its variability seemed guided by the unseen hand of the god who watches over travelers and puts infinite enrichment opportunities in the path of the alert explorer. For a week, from our Highlands base in Inverness (30 miles south of Patrick’s Easter Ross), we were alternately challenged and rewarded by The Gales and by the god who blew them our way then blew them out of our way just long enough to reveal some bit of Scottish beauty.

A dense, gray Loch Ness murk at Drumnadrochit parted to reveal brooding Urquhart Castle, floating like a great stone serpent above the loch. As we took the A87 into the wild Highland glens that began after Invermoriston, heavy snow fell, but melted when it hit the warmer ground. The thickening slushy gruel gripped the car’s undercarriage in a chokehold, and every forward kilometer felt like an athletic achievement. Magnificent Highland peaks met the road and towered over us. The A87 from Invermoriston to Skye must be a spellbindingly beautiful ride in clear weather.

At times, we were inside snow clouds, our world a total whiteout. Then, at Loch Druich, the travel god replaced the snow clouds with a soft sheet of rain and revealed hauntingly perfect Eilean Donan Castle. Like Urquhart, a castle arguably best savored in dark, mystery-charged weather. As we got out to explore, the wind nearly ripped the car doors from their hinges.

“You do the petrol, I’ll do the prellie,” said the BP station attendant in the seaside hamlet of Balmarca. I pumped while he shielded me, with a red-striped umbrella, from what was now biting sleet. We talked about the weather. “This degree of bad weather and gales is unusual for us,” he said, then confirmed it was going to “get far worse later today.” At this point, we were so close to Skye, the day’s destination, that I could have spit and hit it, so we kept going through Kyle of Lochalsh, where all the fishing trawlers were tied up tight at anchor, captains perhaps tucked in a comfy pub enjoying a single malt. Onto the Skye Bridge, where a neon sign flashed “HIGH WINDS,” and the top of the words “BRIDGE CLOSED” were just visible, ready to rotate into position. The toll collector gave me a weather report. The kids trust me on travel matters, but they shot me a few hairy eyeballs as we crept over the groaning bridge.

Because my mother reads this blog, I must assure her and other concerned readers that while I was being adventurous, I was not being stupid. We had a full tank of gas, plenty of food, and in Kyle I’d checked to make sure there were hotels on Skye that were open. The worst case scenario had us stuck on Skye in a Kyleakin hotel, eating tinned meat and playing cards until the bridge reopened (why, I even had flashlights, which came in handy a few days later during a blackout in Fort William).

We came, we saw (quickly, through bouts of hail), we evacuated. I believe the toll collector had been waiting for us. As we cleared his booth, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw “BRIDGE CLOSED” rotate into place.

Safe and snug back in Inverness, its floodlit hilltop castle outside our hotel window, we listened to Gaelic radio stations and contemplated our next road trip. We hit the A96 coastal road along Moray Firth. Tiny B9089 took us to Findhorn, smack on the water where the firth meets the North Sea. Rain beat the windshield. At Findhorn’s pebble beach, where wind whipped the dune grass and made it lie down flat, I parked the car so we could eat cheese sandwiches and watch the downpour. I likened the wet entertainment to sitting still inside a car wash. But the travel god halted the rain, and the kids took their sandwiches to the beach and ran along Findhorn’s dunes.

After a stop at Forres to see the glass-encased Sueno’s Stone, a colossal monolith carved with battle scenes by 9th century Picts (a Pictish depiction) and left in situ at what is now a busy intersection, we headed to seafront Nairn, in season a tony and lively golf resort. A barrage of rain. We were bombarded, pelted, poured upon. No vacation rental car windshield wipers on the planet ever worked harder than ours did that week. I know the Inuit have many words for snow. The Scots must have a bunch for rain.

We entered Nairn in a Scottish version of monsoon. But ach, aye! I knew things would change, and I waited for the travel god to do his thing. I parked near Nairn’s seafront playground, golf links and tin-roofed gazebo, the elegant Royal Marine Hotel, looking vacant and lonely, on our left, and Links Place, a rectangle of stone homes to our right. The instant I turned off the ignition, the rain stopped.

The kids burst from the car and ran up and down the lush green mounds that punctuate the park and links. As soon as they bounded down the hill in the photograph at the top of this post, a rainbow appeared. A North Sea rainbow. A Scottish Highlands in winter rainbow. The travel god is a pretty cool guy.

Book proceeds go to tsunami relief. Details in Jan. 2 post.