Down on the dhore just outside Achiltibuie.
Down on the shore just outside Achiltibuie.

Most – not all! – of my novels are set in Scotland. Of course, it’s an immensely varied country, from the sharp edges and dark corners of Glasgow and Edinburgh to these great cities’ fabulous sights; and from the rolling hills and dales of the Scottish Borders to the vast and rugged emptinesses of the Highlands.

It was to these great empty spaces we travelled on Friday. For anyone who doesn’t know Scotland, I’ll try to describe the journey.

From suburban Edinburgh, it’s an easy dozen miles or so (traffic permitting) to the Forth Road Bridge. Soon there will be two bridges across this wide estuary  and, of course, there’s the world-famous Victorian-built Forth Railway Bridge too, but it’s a rail bridge, so not for us on this occasion.

Through Perthshire – which, even from the motorway, is a beautiful county (get off the main roads and it’s a landscape of lochs and trees and hills). North of Perth, the A9 winds through a wooded landscape that begins to open out to reveal the hills of the north. To say it’s beautiful is an understatement. Sadly, it’s also a dangerous road – partly because only small sections are dual carriageway and drivers tend to get impatient when stuck behind slow-moving vehicles, and partly because of the tourists who may not be used to driving on the left, and who are further distracted by the scenery. There really are no options though – from here north roads are few and far between and where minor roads do exist, they are narrow and winding and slow.

Our destination was far north-west of Inverness, which is the most northerly city in the United Kingdom. Travel time thus far, around three and a half hours. With at least another two and a half hours to go, we opted to stay the night in a small hotel by the banks of the River Ness.

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Bob Embleton.
Shore Street, Ullapool. Photo Wikimedia Commons, Bob Embleton.

We were meeting a group of walkers at 11 on Saturday, near a tiny village called Achiltibuie. Achiltibuie is the best part of an hour’s drive north of the pretty seaside town of Ullapool, itself an hour or more from Inverness. Now the road is quieter, the scenery increasingly wild and beautiful. Ullapool is an important hub, though – here the ferries sail to the Outer Hebrides, Lewis and Harris. It’s a busy fishing port too, but don’t get the wrong idea – the local population numbers only 1,300 people or so! Numbers are considerably swollen in summer months by tourists, and by walkers and climbers. On Saturday it seemed busy, but sadly we didn’t have time to visit the charming small market.

A few miles to the north, we turned off the main road towards Achiltibuie. Now driving becomes a serious adventure, because the next 24 miles are all on single track road, with passing places. Negotiating these is a knack and drivers should be polite enough to let faster traffic pass from behind as well as waiting, if necessary, for oncoming traffic. I first travelled this road as a schoolgirl, though, and not only is the surface considerably improved, but there are many more passing places too.

Hills rear up from nowhere - these are more than 2,000 feet high. The famous Stac Polly is in the centre.
Hills rear up from nowhere – these are more than 2,000 feet high.

Now the scenery is sublime. Every now and then an alarmingly vertiginous mountain rears up. These hills are spectacular, and though none is a ‘Munro’ (ie over 3,000 feet), they must be climbed from sea level, so they’re a challenge!

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Anne Burgess
The famous Stac Polly. Photo Wikimedia Commons, Anne Burgess

Achiltibuie itself boasts all of 300 residents. You don’t come here for the shopping! You come here for the scenery, and the wildlife, and the walking. Maybe some sailing too – the Summer Isles, just offshore, are stunningly beautiful.

We walked. It’s hard to describe the magic of this remoteness. It’s a vastness of sky and land and sea and my goodness, you soon learn that your part in all this is small. But it gives gifts by way of compensation for putting you in your place – it brings an inner peace that it’s hard to capture in any other way.

I love the Scottish Highlands and one day soon I will set a novel here, for sure. Why waste a good bit of research?

All in the name of research

6 thoughts on “All in the name of research

  • June 30, 2014 at 10:20 am
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    It sounds a wonderful trip, Jenny – the photos show the majesty and remoteness well. It certainly would be a shame not to use the setting in a future story!

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    • June 30, 2014 at 1:31 pm
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      Such a huge, open space could also feel claustrophobic – everyone knows everyone and there’s nowhere to hide… plus there’s the potential physical dangers of mountain, moorland and sea. Yup. You’re right – great setting for a story!

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  • July 1, 2014 at 4:57 pm
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    Sounds like a great trip, Jenny. No matter where you travel, there’s nothing that can compare with the far north of Scotland for beautiful scenery, combined with tranquility.

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    • July 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm
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      Especially in the sunshine… And so long as that car in front doesn’t hog the single track at 20mph!

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  • July 1, 2014 at 6:35 pm
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    One of my favourite parts of the world, Jenny. Took holidays in Culkein, Stoer for twelve or thirteen years – until someone told our children there were parts of the world where an anorak wasn’t required beachwear. Summer Isles hotel is fantastic and there are two excellent restaurants in nearby Lochinver. Albanach has a Michelin star and the Roux one certainly did, may still have. Staycations are us! Anne Stenhouse

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  • July 1, 2014 at 7:20 pm
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    Not so sure about the Summer Isles Hotel, Anne. It has changed hands. Anyway – anorak? Aren’t they for wimps? Only required apparel is a midge net!

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