We had such luck with our booking for a week in Sutherland as we set off 3 days after the re-opening of tourist businesses on 15th July and were the first visitors of the season in our holiday cottage. (And yes, it was another Airbnb in spite of my concerns expressed in Should we all just bide at home? March 2019, though this time the owners were living in a new house on their working croft and we were in the old house.) Rama had been confident for months that our holiday would happen but I hadn’t been at all sure; then having read about tensions between some local residents who favoured a continued lockdown and those who had been losing tourist income, I was a bit nervous about getting pebbled in the street. In the end, we kept a low profile and I was only once in the village shops.
Thinking about the drive north, my big concern had been whether there would be toilets open so I was filled with joy and relief when we went into Taste Perthshire at Bankfoot and saw that they were. The café staff seemed genuinely pleased to welcome us and Rama had high praise for his vegan club sandwich with warm, roasted veg and vegan mayonnaise – he, of course, had had no proper breakfast before departure. From the quarter he gave me to taste, I thought the bread was a bit basic but I was impressed that it was on the menu at all.
At Ralia, the carpark was nearly full but there was no queue in their café. We sat at a table outside in only a light smirr, with Rama having Tuscan tomato and basil soup and a chicken sandwich for me. They didn’t have the same range of sandwiches as before – understandably so – but their coffee was excellent as ever. I had a queue experience while waiting for the toilets, though I was not complaining in the circumstances.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were being tracked north by RMF on some kind of Snapchat map-thing that she and Rama are on. I was half-amused and half-horrified when I found out but these young ones seem to be unconcerned about surrendering their privacy online.
Our holiday home was in a perfect setting looking onto a tree-lined loch with anti-viral spray and hand sanitiser provided by the owners. I’d brought anti-viral wipes for door handles, taps etc despite knowing them to be sinful, but hoping to be forgiven on this occasion of pandemic and precautions.
Next day, we had lunch at The Courtyard behind the Courthouse Café in Dornoch. I was keen to try it, having seen a full 2-page advert in a Saturday Herald Magazine but I was to be disappointed. It was not a warm day so I was huddled into my jacket and in the absence of a menu, I left Rama to do the online ordering / tracking etc. I’ve always liked having a menu to look at and even dislike when they get whisked away after an order has been placed; I like to take more time to consider all the options for a further visit. It was the Sabbath and all that was on offer to adults were the roasts; Harry ordered the vegan one but I opted for two items from the Children’s Menu.
It was quite pleasant sitting out by an old stone wall and they’d done their best to make the place look attractive though their wooden flower troughs were in severe need of a watering. Our pre-food entertainment was watching folk trying to work out the one-way system to come in and then trying to cope with placing their order. The food came in waxed paper boxes with vegware cutlery which all got put into a bin at the end. In his box, Rama had three slices of vegetarian haggis, on top of some roast potatoes, red cabbage and kale; he said it was very good and so it should have been at £13.45! I had two fish goujons in one of my boxes with a couple of the same roast potatoes, and in the other some ok hummus along with a carton of carrot batons, looking like they’d been cut up at least 36 hours previously.
Next day we went for a walk in the Migdale and Ledmore woods as I was keen to find the site of Andrew Carnegie’s log cabin in the real Fairy Glen (written about previously in In Migdale Woods, November 2019). This was where my mother, her siblings and visiting cousins would come for a day out and climb up on to the roof. I’d failed to find it twice before but I now had a clue from a recent tv programme by Paul Murton. More by chance though than by good planning, we came upon it and I was delighted with myself.
This triumph was then followed by failure to find the path back down on to the road at Spinningdale though we could clearly see it, across the width of a field. The Woodland Trust in various places had put up marker posts and I would spring forward expectantly but all that they had on them was a plaque with “Ledmore Woods” on it and I knew where we were, thank you very much. Even an arrow would have helped. Feeling very frustrated, we climbed two gates and two fences to go cross-country, emerging on to the tarmac from a field where we’d waded through grass, nettles and thistles up to our oxters. Though we’d avoided any field with animals, I was expecting to be chased by an irate farmer accused of being stupid, potentially virus-spreading visitors. After a longish walk mainly uphill and with me doing a lot of whinging, we reached the car two and three quarter hours after we’d left it.
A highlight of any holiday in Sutherland is a trip to the west and Rama is now a firm fan of an evening meal at the Kylesku Hotel. We went first into Lochinver where I was a firm fan of the open public toilets and then we lay on the beach at Achmelvich, socially distanced from the crowds. Again it was not warm and the mist had been low-lying, obscuring the mountains. I took solace instead in the wild flowers which seemed to be more plentiful this year.
I’d somehow managed to under-estimate how much time we’d need to get to Kylesku for 6pm and we had to make a dash for it, hurtling round corners through the mist and now also the rain which did not do much for Rama’s equilibrium. We made it though, even getting parked fairly close to the entrance. You had to ring a bell to get in and the visored waiter took slightly too long staring at his clipboard of reservations for my liking, but we were then shown to the same table we’d had two years ago. After drinking a couple of waters, Rama started to feel better.
They’d only been open again for less than a week which maybe explained their more limited menu; I had an excellent mushroom soup and then the fish supper while Rama started with olives before putting away their vegan burger. Their one-way system and hand-sanitising regime seemed to be working well. I’d noticed the mist starting to lift as we looked across the caol while we were still inside and on the way back east at a more sedate pace, we finally had a look at most of Suilven.
Although I’d been agitating about being late for our evening meal when we’d been driving by Loch Assynt, you couldn’t have failed to notice the number of tents and camper vans which had already parked up for the night, some of them right up close to Ardvreck Castle. I’m not surprised there’s a petition calling for a “congestion charge” for camper vans on the North Coast 500.
The front page of The Northern Times on 24 July had a headline “Irresponsible” with a large photo of overflowing bins. The article is about two women from Kinlochbervie who’ve set up a Facebook page called NC500 The Land Weeps to campaign for “legislation to cope with the influx of visitors”. There’s mention also of problems in Dornoch and Golspie with folk making overnight stays but not paying for existing sites and then not clearing up their mess before they move on. They’re leaving behind a lot more than their footprints.
BBC Scotland’s The Nine on 30 July had a similar item about the rubbish and the fires and the illegal parking that are upsetting locals. Folk, calling themselves wild campers, who were interviewed said they were doing it “because of Covid” or it was “self-isolation at its best”. Another interviewee pointed out that nobody should be camping at Ardvreck Castle as it’s an area of “national significance” and is protected by Historic Environment Scotland with penalties for anyone who’s damaging it. Well, they need to get along to Loch Assynt and start collecting these penalties.
Malcolm Combe, a land law specialist at Strathclyde University, was interviewed and he felt it was a natural reaction to the easing of lockdown; he was against any roll-back of existing rights. He expands on this theme on his basedrones.wordpress.com site in a post called “Some thoughts on responsible access to land and wild camping in a less locked down Scotland”. I tend to agree with him because I wouldn’t like for example The Loon who’s a genuine wild camper to have his wings clipped.
Another day, we passed through Golspie, shaking our fists at the gates of Dunrobin, on our way to Helmsdale where I’d intended to take Rama round the Timespan museum to educate him but alas, it was closed. We had gone to La Mirage for lunch, which is considerably toned down inside from its glory days. There was a strong smell of vinegar and an extremely long wait before we got our food; Rama had a baked potato with beans and I had lemon sole with chips, and I was pleased that both meals came with a lot of very fresh salad.
On the way back, we stopped at Loch Fleet for a flask of tea and when the mists lifted temporarily and revealed the wicked Duke on his pedestal, I jumped out of the car to take a picture. Unfortunately, I forgot I’d left my mug perched unsteadily on the dashboard and it overturned, splashing onto poor Rama and most of the front inside of the car. Luckily I had a kitchen roll in the boot and with much lamenting, set about a clean-up job which had to be upgraded when I got back to the house.
The week, which had some kind of air of unreality about it after having been away from the Highlands for such a long time, passed oh too quickly. On the road south, we stopped at Storehouse of Foulis which I thought was very well-organised for the times. All eating was done outside, either in a large marquee with wooden picnic sets or properly outside by the shore; you ordered at a van, then took your order to a till where you were given a pager inside a plastic bag. Having already had breakfast, I just had coffee but Rama had a roll with vegan sausage for which he gave them top marks. Their food shop was open – and their toilets – and they’d also laid out a range of very fresh-looking fruit and veg for sale in the inside space where folk previously ate.
Finally, it was on to the House of Bruar which was hoaching as usual. Though everyone had masks on, social distancing was out the window and nor did they have a one-way entry and exit system going. The self-service soup and salad areas were not in operation so although Rama queued for salad, I just picked up a sandwich and it was a bit of an anti-climactic end to our week away.