bert timmermans saskia van der loo
Ian Pragnell is, as he admits himself, the typical person who takes an early retirement only to find himself working harder than he ever did when he was actually employed. Also typically, this is the consequence of a conviction & devotion to A Cause. In this case, he is the man behind Bespoke Highland Tours who is determined to make people acquainted with Scotland. Anyway, this we only found out on the first morning, when this very amiable chap came by the Glasgow B&B to answer some additional questions during breakfast, and subsequently to take us personally to the Mallaig train. That's when he confessed that Bespoke was basically him, and that in the practical organisation stuff he was helped by a Julie, who I think is the woman who has the Easyways site, since she offers basically the same trek. I'd already noticed that the e-mail correspondence was always with him personally, but who would have suspected that these hyper-personalised holidays were actually the work of two?
Early spring, my girlfriend and I debated about which trek we were going to do. It would definitely be a self led trek with baggage transfer, since we'd never done anything of the like and were pretty curious about it. Furthermore, we were planning on going away for a month in all, so we'd probably be camping for three weeks after that, and it's always stupid to make things too difficult for yourself - we wanted a good start: pep up the condition, without too much discomfort; that way, at least the first third of the journey would be ok. During the rest of the month, we wanted to visit the remote Northwest (Assynt, Wester Ross (pictures)) and the Outer Hebrides (aka Western Isles), so, after having considered both the West Highland Way and the Drovers Trail to Skye, we finally opted to start out immediately at the Isle of Mist itself. All decided upon, I sent a first mail to Ian in April, enquiring about which was the best period to go, taking into account that (a) we wanted to spend a month there, and (b) that we couldn't go in spring. He recommended the beginning of September, so we decided that we'd be leaving Tuesday 3 September, to come back on Wednesday 2 October, doing the Skye trek from 4 to 12 September. By the beginning of July, all had been arranged and Ryan Air was able to fly the two of us from Charleroi to Prestwick and back for a ridiculous 150€ (about £95) ... without discussing the reasons why they are able to do it - who can stay at home for that money? [click on the map on the right for an overview of Skye - red lines are the walks; wherever cars drove us, the roads are marked yellow - the map's about 1MB for detail purposes, so it may take a while]
Exactly how great can a train ride be? One can easily find out by taking the train from Glasgow to Mallaig, going by Fort William. Now, we don't usually inform ourselves too much prior to going on a journey. This has the disadvantage of having to spend quite a bit of time getting organised on location (we once decided which part of Ireland we'd be going to visit only when we were actually landing at Shannon airport), and very often you only find out you've missed out on stuff you actually passed by when you're already back home. But at least you leave the element of surprise on your side. The surprised wonder about just one magnificent spot beats the factual registration of the actual existence of loads of scenic beauty previously seen under a clear blue sky in a glossy brochure. Imagine being surprised for 5 hours non-stop.
The train left Glasgow Queen St Station at 8:12 and we were in for a more than 5 hour ride to Mallaig, where we were to take the 13:45 ferry to Armadale. The weather was thoroughly miserable, but gradually the rain let up and after about one hour, the landscape became steadily more impressive as we passed from the eastern shore of Loch Long to the western shore of Loch Lomond, where we got a first good look on what Highland splendour can be about, looking out over the vast beauty of the Trossachs. After Tyndrum, the train heads away from the road, and you're really in the middle of bleedin' nowhere, straight across the Rannoch Moor, only stopping once in a while in a place that is little more than a station... The weather was still gloomy, but the sun really came through when we arrived in Fort William. Now, the tract from Fort William to Mallaig must include some of the most scenic spots I've ever encountered. The landscape changes continually and lush green valleys alternate with peat bog pressed against rocky hills. At the bridge by Glenfinnan (picture), the train slows down a bit, to provide the touristic sheep with an opportunity to photograph the magnificent Loch Shiel & surroundings (picture). (By the way, if these pictures activate the words "Harry" and "Potter" in your brain, this is entirely normal, since it's in this place that the flying-car scene in HP & The Chamber of Secrets was filmed, and Hogwarts Express is nothing but the historical Jacobite steam train which sometimes runs between Fort William and Mallaig).
This unbelievable stretch of land gradually opens up to a wonderful coastline, where we finally laid eyes on the first goal of our 24 hour journey: the Isle of Skye, not looking all that spectacular from Mallaig port, but you just can't beat the feeling of taking a boat to an island of which you hardly know anything but for the few spots of clichéd touristic bogus. Our first stay would be at Kilmore.
Julie and Peter are simply wonderful people. Julie's the lady of the house and what a lady she is. There's something of an elementary luxury about a B&B with no tea making facilities in the bedroom, for the simple reason that the landlady can sense when you are in need of a cup and will immediately prepare one. Their house serves as one of the most personal B&B's I've come across - you actually live with them and a nice bit of a talk is something you actually look forward to when you're roaming the moor. Not to mention the view towards the mainland of Knoydart (picture).
Peter's the living image of the rascal who's decided that there's a lot to be said for rascalism and has retained a fire in the eye that becomes gradually harder to find these days. He runs both the Flora MacDonald Hostel (see also) and a Guided Tour Company (personnel: him and Julie, see also) that takes you around Skye or transfers people or their baggage. Due to our non-preparedness we only found out that he breeds black (!) highland cattle (the blacks are hands down the most impressive) and that he's quite a bit of a connoisseur on clan history when we got home (o yes, and he's a direct descendant from the old MacDonald clan lairds, with a lineage going back to 125AD). We did find out that he's an excellent weather forecaster though. A job at the Met Office would not seem unrealistic.
Skye is perpetually shrouded in a persistent mist, zillions of midges roam the damp heather grounds, Harris & Lewis have very changeable windy/rainy weather, in Scotland you'll always have rain... we heard them all, suspected the worst... and got the best. Not that we're not used to rainy weather: Brussels has, with 821mm, more annual rainfall than Edinburgh (668mm). But Edinburgh is relatively dry compared to the west... where very often annual water supply reaches delirious heights of over 3000mm. The Scottish climate isn't exactly mediterranean, and apparently the spring and summer of 02 were a disaster of perpetual bad weather, but do take a look at September - and we didn't even sacrifice a goat or anything... (note that on the "very wet day" (the 9th), I got severe sunburn of the ears: while Inverness was washed away, Skye seemed to be situated just north of Crete). In fact, it turned out that this was Scotland's driest September since 1972 (only 36% of the normal average rainfall). As for The Midge: we didn't see ONE little pest in the whole of our Skye week (almost wanted our money back). In the whole month, we had one half of a midge day, on Harris.
continue to the first day of the trek when we went from Armadale to Tarskavaig, crossing the Sleat peninsula
weather on this day (midnight before) : 850hPa temperature / pressure