Autumn in the Highlands of Scotland – Part Two: Wester Ross and the Torridons
9th December 2019
Part two of my autumn in the Highlands of Scotland took me from the Cairngorms southeast of Inverness to Wester Ross, an area of the Northwest Highlands that includes the dramatic region of the Torridon Mountains.
This region is situated to the northwest of Inverness, between Loch Carron in the south, Loch Broom and Ullapool in the north and Achnasheen in the east.
And although it’s only about 40 miles from Inverness to Achnasheen, it feels as if you’re entering a completely different world.
Wester Ross, Northwest Highlands
While I absolutely loved the Cairngorms and will never forget those magical misty sunrises, Wester Ross is an area of such wild and lonely beauty that it took my breath away.
Liathach from Loch Coulin
With its narrow, single lane roads, soaring mountains, inland lochs and a coast bordered by wild, empty beaches and fringed with sea lochs, this has to be some of the most gorgeous country I’ve ever visited.
The valley floor at the head of Loch Kishorn and the start of the Bealach na Bà
Wester Ross is probably best known for the Torridons, the magnificent sandstone mountains that surround the village of Torridon. They’re among the most dramatic peaks in the UK and are formed from some of the oldest rocks in the world.
The Torridon Hills from Shieldaig Peninsula
Although I wasn’t able to do any walking into these mountains because of my broken wrist, I was still able to explore a lot of this stunning landscape.
Day 4 – Loch Maree, Gairloch and the Wild Coast
From the Cairngorms National Park we drove north to Inverness and then northwest towards Gairloch on the shores of Loch Gairloch. Though its only 70 miles and roughly about 1 ½ hours from Inverness, it took us the entire morning with stops. The early part of this route is along the North Coast 500 (NC500), a 516-mile circular route along a series of roads around the entire north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. But that’s for my next trip!
From Achnasheen we headed northwest, driving up and through Glen Docherty to a breathtaking viewpoint where we caught our first glimpse of Loch Maree in the distance.
Loch Maree is a stunningly beautiful freshwater loch in the heart of Wester Ross. It’s part of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, established in 1951 as the first ever such reserve in Great Britain. The loch is dominated by the much-photographed, towering mountain called Slioch (from the Gaelic ‘sleagh’, meaning ‘spear’), which rises to 981 metres.
Loch Maree is named after a 7th century monk who founded the monastery of Applecross in 672. He lived on one of the loch’s many islands, where there are still remains of a chapel, graveyard and holy well. The island also contains ancient stands of oak, holly and other trees associated with ancient Scottish druids.
An unusual feature of the loch is that there are over 60 islands within the loch which are designated as the Loch Maree Islands National Nature Reserve (NNR) and is jointly managed as a single reserve with the Beinn Eighe NNR. These islands contain some pristine remnants of the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest, with many trees hundreds of years old standing on ground that’s barely changed over thousands of years.
Fun Fact: Loch within a loch, island within an island – Uniquely within Great Britain, one of the islands on Loch Maree has its own loch with its own small island.
The road to Gairloch runs alongside the 20km length of Loch Maree and there are plenty of places to stop and wander along the shoreline.
The area has both woodland and mountain hiking trails, and we saw a lot of kayakers out on the loch on what was a glorious day.
Gairloch and the Wild Coast
We arrived in Gairloch in the early afternoon and headed straight to the tiny harbour, with a view of the Torridons in the distance.
Unfortunately, we had no time to explore Gairloch (something else for next time!) because we were off on a private wildlife cruise with Hebridean Whale Cruises that would take us around the wild coast of Wester Ross – through Loch Gairloch along the coastline to Loch Torridon and our accommodation in the village of Shieldaig. Our boat was the red 11 metre RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) you see towards the centre-right of the photo above. We were kitted out with full-body weather-proof gear and flotation devices, and I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt because I couldn’t dress myself with my broken wrist and needed an extra-large jacket and gloves to go over my cast. But here we are, ready to go (that’s me on the far right).
It was a stunning afternoon; the sea was calm and the sun was warm. We didn’t go far enough out to sight the minke whales that were in the vicinity but we did see a lot of seals and birds. More than 130 species of birds are routinely recorded in the area, including rare Black Throated Divers which only breed in the north and west of Scotland.
I didn’t have a telephoto lens so I didn’t manage to capture much of the wildlife, apart from these common seals.
Seeing the mountains from the sea was simply breath-taking.
But, for me the highlight of the afternoon was the extraordinary sky above the Isle of Skye in the distance.
This dreamy, otherworldly sky-scape was intense, dramatic and constantly changing.
We eventually rounded the peninsula and cruised down Loch Torridon before veering off into Loch Shieldaig and the tiny village of Shieldaig, where we were staying for the next 3 nights.
It’s an imposing sight coming into the village from the water, with a massive hill rising above the whitewashed cottages that line the shore.
Day 5 – Shieldaig and Bealach na Bà (the Pass of the Cattle)
For the first time this trip it rained – a heavy downpour overnight, tapering off to a drizzle by morning. The forecast was for clearing skies so we started the day with a relatively short and easy walk along the Shieldaig Peninsula to An Aird (The Point).
The morning was very grey, with cloud hanging off the hills like smoke.
There are views along Upper Loch Torridon to one side of the track, with the Torridon Hills peeking through the low cloud.
The path is very easy, though there is a choice for part of it. The path forks at about the halfway point – to the right it’s a gentle walk over a wide even path; to the left it was really muddy with a very sharp uphill climb over wet rock. So, because of my broken wrist, I sensibly took the easier path to the right.
On the Point itself, there’s a steep path down towards Upper Loch Torridon, where there’s a picturesque fishing hut.
This walk is only about 4 ½ km (just under 3 miles) there and back. We returned to Shieldaig by lunchtime as the clouds began to lift. I had to admit that my wrist was really aching by this time, so while the others went off to explore the lower reaches of Glen Torridon in the afternoon, I stayed behind to wander the village.
The village is really just a string of cottages on the edge of the loch and it didn’t take me long to walk from one end to the other.
The shoreline is just so peaceful and pretty. I sat for a long time gazing out into the loch…
…and watching all the bird life from the shore.
I also stopped for an amazing hot chocolate at Nanny’s Café at the far end of the village, where I learned more about Shieldaig and the return of a pair of rare white-tailed eagles that took up residence on Shieldaig Island 10 years ago.
Shieldaig Island sits right in the middle of the loch just off the shore of the village.
It’s covered in Scots Pines which were planted in the 1800s to provide poles for fishing nets and masts for ships. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 1970, it’s now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and in addition to the white-tailed eagles is home to a flourishing variety of bird life.
The Pass of the Cattle to Applecross
Bealach na Bà is the Scottish Gaelic name for the winding, single track road with hairpin turns that crosses the mountains of the Applecross Peninsula. The name means ‘Pass of the Cattle’ and refers to its origins as a drovers’ road for cattle in the 1800s.
This drive is definitely not for the faint-hearted. There are warning signs as you turn onto the road and it’s often closed in winter. The road is single-lane the entire way and is the steepest ascent of any road in the UK, with close to 20% gradients towards a summit that sits at 626 metres (2,054 feet).
But the views are magnificent. This is about half-way up looking over Loch Kishorn towards Plonkton.
As the road twists ever higher, you get an idea of just how steep and narrow this pass is.
I took the photograph above as we neared the summit. The road is really narrow, and you can just glimpse the passing turn-out in the left of the picture below.
The road continues to slowly climb and the summit itself appears suddenly. There’s a good-size parking area here and if you’re lucky enough to summit as the sun’s going down on a fine day, the view is beyond words. On this day cloud covered many of the peaks of the Black Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye, but the view also takes in the Isles of Raasay and Rona, and reaches towards the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
We were treated to an incredible display of colour and light as the sun continued to go down.
The descent into Applecross seemed tame by comparison. The gradient is much more gradual than the ascent and the hills glide relatively gently down to the Inner Sound that lies between Applecross and the Isle of Skye. Applecross is actually the name for the entire peninsula and is made up of a number of crofting settlements. There’s an abundance of wildlife – this magnificent stag leaped a fence and kindly stopped to pose for us as he was crossing the road.
We made it to Applecross village just in time for the last of the sunset at the foot of Applecross Bay.
We then had a fantastic dinner at the Applecross Inn (more on that below in Where to Eat) before heading back along the coast road to Shieldaig. It was very dark on the way back, with only the occasional village lights in the distance. I’ve heard this route is beautiful and is definitely another one for ‘next time’ in the daylight!
Day 6 – The Wild Coast of Shieldaig Peninsula
I was gutted that I couldn’t do the walk into the Torridon Hills that the rest of the group did on this day. But the day dawned with blue skies and soft clouds so I spent the day on my own and returned to the walk along the Shieldaig Peninsula and The Point.
It was so dismal the previous morning that I’d barely taken any photographs but I was about to remedy that – I spent the entire day out here!
It was a spectacular day and this time I brought my walking stick and tripod so I walked the high track with its incredible views over Loch Shieldaig. You can see the easy track below.
This higher path isn’t actually much of a path; it’s steeper than the main track and with a lot of tricky rocky bits. I walked really slowly and carefully!
But it was so worth it.
Looking back towards Shieldaig
Across to the Torridons
Across Upper Loch Torridon to the mountains
I even managed a couple of decent selfies…
…though I cut off my feet in this one looking out to sea!
Day 7 – Glen Torridon and the Two Lochs Circuit on the Coulin Estate
The final day of my unforgettable visit to the Scottish Highlands. We drove through Glen Torridon along the main single lane road (the A896) with the three massive mountains of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe towering above the glen. These mountains rise to 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) and aren’t for the casual walker.
We stopped briefly at the Torridon trailhead for Benn Eighe, where the group had walked to a corrie about half-way to the summit the day before. Much to my surprise this young stag came clambering over the rocks right in front of us! Apparently, he’s a regular here and can get a bit aggressive if he fancies something you might be eating.
The Coulin Estate and the Two Lochs Circuit
This was our final walk of the trip and what an ending! About half-way through Glen Torridon is the Coulin Estate and an easy, mostly flat circular walk around the estate’s two lochs – Loch Clair and Loch Coulin. The walk follows the private estate road for much of the walk, although along Loch Coulin it becomes a track which was really muddy even in the fine weather. And though a low-level walk, the views of Beinn Eighe, Liathach and Beinn Alligin from across the waters of the loch have to be some of the most unforgettable mountain views I’ve ever seen.
The 3 giants from Loch Clair
There’s a small car park across from the entrance to the estate, right next to the Beinn Eighe Nature reserve sign. From here you cross the road and walk across a bridge with a gorgeous view along the stream into the estate. You can just see the track paralleling the water on the left.
Around that corner is Loch Clair with its stunning autumn backdrop.
It’s best to do this circular walk clockwise, so don’t cross the bridge at the end of the loch but continue straight on.
And the reason for that are the stunning reflections as you walk along Loch Coulin.
About half-way along the loch the track becomes narrow, and very wet and muddy, and remains that way around the end of Loch Coulin.
I wasn’t that happy on this boggy terrain with my cast, so I actually turned around here and let everyone else complete the circuit without me. I was happy enough on my own and had the chance to take my time photographing this magnificent landscape.
The hillsides were glowing golden in the early afternoon sunlight.
I also had the chance to walk into the woodlands with its lovely beech trees on the far side of the track.
And I hadn’t even seen these magnificent huge Scots Pines on way in.
But this was the magical moment that took my breath away. And it came right at the end of my walk – Beinn Eighe and Liathach with their quartz scree slopes shimmering like snow in the sun.
And so, my Scottish Highlands photography adventure ended. From the Coulin Estate we drove back to Inverness. It felt like re-entering civilisation after ages in the wilderness – back to dual carriageways and traffic lights – and was really quite strange. Our guide dropped us all off at the train station and airport, and I flew back on the late flight to London.
Where to Stay in Wester Ross
We stayed at Tigh an Eilean in Shieldaig, a small 4-star family run hotel set in a line of converted 19th century whitewashed cottages overlooking Loch Shieldaig. It has just 11 rooms on the first floor of the hotel. My room faced the loch, with a lovely view of Shieldaig Island and out to sea. Some rooms are at the back and look out on Beinn Shieldaig, the hill that rises over the village.
There are all sorts of other options from Gairloch to Applecross. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Torridon , a 5-star luxury resort that looks like a grand old hunting lodge set in 58 acres of parkland right on the end of Loch Torridon. It’s very expensive – from around £250 a night for a ‘Classic’ room to over £500 a night for a ‘Master Suite’ – and many of the rooms are not really to my taste. But we had a quick stop as we were driving past and it is a gorgeous location.
Where to Eat
We were 3 nights in Shieldaig and 2 of those nights we ate at the only restaurant in the village – the Shieldaig Bar and Coastal Kitchen right next to our hotel (and run by the same family). It’s a crowded, friendly place that serves fresh local seafood and brick-oven pizza. I don’t remember what I ate, but I do remember the Red Cow beer – a locally brewed craft ale. I’m not much of a beer drinker but it was delicious!
We ate dinner at the Applecross Inn after our Bealach na Bà adventure and I highly recommend it. They only take bookings for parties of 6 or more and it gets really busy; even on a mid-week October evening it was packed. But it’s fantastic, with the most gorgeous views of the Isles of Raasey and Skye across the Inner Sound. They specialise in the local seafood, including prawns (langoustines), crab, lobster, oysters, smoked salmon and speciality white fish. I had the crab which was amazing!
I’d been to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands before, but the latter was a road trip from Inverness through the Cairngorms to Edinburgh and down through the centre of England to London. This Highlands trip was unlike anything I’d experienced before and I fell completely in love with the Highlands – particularly Wester Ross, which was entirely new to me. Wester Ross has so much to see that I really only had a small taste of it. But I will definitely be back.
You can find loads more photos in my Autumn Highlands – Wester Ross Photo Album
And look out for my next post, coming in the New Year!