Loch Maree viewpoint, April 2023
Every time we’ve headed up to the north-west of Scotland, it’s been in October – once the pesky holidaymakers and NC500 enthusiasts and their massive vehicles have departed. So this time, I thought we’d give it a whirl at the end of April, ahead of the onslaught, when the weather is usually pretty decent.
Following wall-to-wall sunshine a couple of weeks earlier, it rained all the way up the A9 and only started to brighten up at Loch Maree. Usually, I’d take the route past Lairg, but this time went for the much more scenic journey via Gairloch so we could enjoy the stunning coastline between there and Ullapool.
There are lots of little places you can stop on the road alongside Loch Maree, including the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve at the south end of the loch and Victoria Falls, towards the other end just as the road starts to head away from the loch. But one of my favourite spots for a photo is a car park about half way along where you get a lovely view of a beach and the impressive Slioch mountain in the background.
Once you’re through Gairloch and Poolewe, you hit the coast road with fab coast and sea views – Loch Ewe, First Coast, Second Coast and Gruinard. Between Second Coast and Gruinard, the road peaks on a high corner – park up for the best view of the bay.
Just south of Ullapool, the road rejoins the main A835 at Corrieshalloch Gorge, which has just reopened as a visitor attraction with new facilities. I’ve never stopped here, but it looked rather good, so I planned to visit on our way back south…which didn’t happen thanks to a transport drama – more of that at the end.
Now, Ullapool. Pretty much everyone I speak to seems to love it, but I just don’t think there’s much there to get excited about…so we always roll through and carry on towards Assynt. Along the road between Strathcanaird and Ledmore, the mountain views are fab – Coigach, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Suilven to name some of the key ones. It’s also well worth yomping up Knockan Crag if you’re up for a short climb (info and pics in my separate blog on the ‘Assynt Loop’). And then, as you drop down towards Elphin, you’ll notice that it’s a surprisingly green patch among the brown and grey – that’s because it's a little limestone hill 😊
I didn’t stop at Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle, as we’ve done them three times already and I’d told my lovely host Anji that we’d be there by 4pm, so we beetled on to Stoer.
One thing I have to mention is the sheer amount of gorse in bloom at this time of year – I’ve never seen so much! Just gorgeous.
In previous years we’ve stayed in Anji and Mark’s cottage annexe at Rhuntotan, but she’s not currently letting that, so this time we were taking her converted shepherd’s hut, known as ‘The Croft Store’. They’ve renovated it in a 1950’s style and it’s very sweet, although there really wasn’t enough room for both me and Ledi to operate, and he didn’t enjoy having to be lifted up and down the front stepladder. But I’d say if there’s only one or two of you - or one plus a very small dog - then it’s a great little stop for a night or two. Again, three nights was a bit much, given the lack of space and limited facilities, but the price does reflect that - £75 a night, which is really very good if you look at the alternatives anywhere in the North West. Prices have got silly over the last few years, making it particularly expensive if you’re on your own and don’t need a cottage for a week.
Anji’s lovely breakfast hamper included home-made bread, rock salt butter and freshly squeezed apple juice
With the sun still shining and knowing that Sunday was forecast to be pretty horrid, once I’d dumped the bags we set off for Stoer lighthouse, which is a favourite spot.
After that, it was a swift detour to check out Culkein Bay and then off to one of my top three beaches, Achmelvich, just outside Lochinver.
Looking towards Suilven from between Stoer and Clachtoll
And then it was back to base for some well-deserved refreshments.
Such a shame about the weather on Sunday, because the little stretch of road between Stoer and Newton is beautiful on a nice day. One little glimmer of light in the murkiness was all the primroses, which are out in force at this time of year and were so pretty, dotted around the verges and woodland…
Kylesku was murky, Laxford and the displays of Lewisian Gneiss were murky, and by the time we reached Ceannabeinne beach on the north coast, not much had changed.
Ceannabeinne is another top beach, but I was a bit dismayed to see that sometime in the 6 years since we last visited, they’ve installed a zip line above it! (Note to self: another reason not to go anywhere near the NC500 during the summer.) There was one group of people having a slide, but otherwise the beach was pretty much empty, so we had a peaceful mooch.
As we headed home, the sky got even darker and by 2.30pm we were back in the shepherd’s hut with a chew (him) and a glass of wine (me).
Monday promised to be a bit driech in the morning but with decent sunshine in the afternoon, so I thought we’d pop to the Highland Stoneware shop in Lochinver, hopping out for a walk at Clachtoll beach on the way.
Clachtoll beach with the split rocks
Geological glaze bowls from Highland Stoneware
In an effort to kill some time waiting for the sun, we took the long route from Lochinver around to Achnahaird – past Loch Assynt and Knockan Crag, then down the side of Loch Lurgainn, which has some cracking views of Stac Pollaidh.
Achnahaird beach and the road that carries on to the Braes of Achnahaird gives you some lovely sea views and a line-up of the famous mountains of Assynt – again, much better on a nicer day.
And then it all went left of centre. I had just started on the wiggly ‘back road’ to Lochinver, which goes past the wonderful Loch Sionascaig, when the back end of the car began to bang, scrape and whine. Having limped back to Lochinver, a terribly nice man with a campervan diagnosed a collapsed rear wheel bearing and, poof, the holiday was over.
Being a bank holiday, it was 24 hours and a lot of phone calls to my breakdown provider before the car was finally on the back of a recovery truck, and another 7 hours until I was home in a hire car.
If you are planning a trip up to this neck of the woods, I highly recommend you pop the number for Pittentrail Garage in Rogart in your phone, just in case: 01408 641364. Family-run 24-hr breakdown and recovery service, and Jason was an absolute poppet, so helpful.
For more on the north-west of Scotland and Assynt, see these blogs:
Getting there: From Central Scotland, head up the A9 to Inverness then follow the A835 signed Ullapool. At Garve, bear left onto the A832 to Gairloch, and from there keep following the A832 until it rejoins the A835 at Corrieshalloch Gorge. Carry on past Ullapool, following signs for Lochinver.
Sat Nav: My lodgings at Stoer, IV27 4JJ
Terrain: Good walking boots
Nearest facilities: Although there are various village shops, you are in the middle of nowhere for much of the time, so keep some supplies and bin bags in the boot of the car – especially if you’re going out of season (Oct-March)!
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