From Loch Ness to Oban, Scotland hits the right notesWritten by Roger Holliday Claudia Fischer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
OBAN (Western Scotland) – A Force Nine gale was blowing up in The Minch and Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries – CalMac to its friends – had canceled all sailings for the day. So Matthew, from Inverness, who has a girlfriend on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra, was in a bit of a quandry.
Should he carry on with his journey and trust that the weather would improve sooner rather than later – or simply abandon hope and holiday – and return to home base?
With the meteorological office forecasting two more bad and blustery days for Malin and The Hebrides, things didn’t look too good. But then that’s the price you probably have to pay for dating a beautician on a wee island four hours out on a ferry boat-bucking sea.
We remembered Barra only as a short ferry stop from several years before, but after hearing Matthew’s stories of white sandy beaches and a tiny population of 1,000 souls, crofters mostly (plus a beautician), we made a note to try and visit it again some day.
We had joined up with Matthew – and the CityLink bus that would take us to Oban via Fort William – at the bus station in Inverness. And on that early morning in March, the skies were as bright as the prospects for some magnificent views over Loch Ness and Loch Linnhe further down the road.
“Sit on the left side of the bus,” said Sheran, the helpful clerk who sold us our one-way tickets.
She was correct. And for the better part of an hour, we happily rolled along the banks of Loch Ness. Past castles, ruined and restored. Down narrow two-lane roads bordered by dry stone walls and sheep-filled fields, all the time admiring the views across this always-beautiful if mysterious 23-mile-long lake.
But, as we traveled further south, the weather began to unfurl. Dramatically. This was Scotland after all.
Heavy black clouds rolled in.
Strong winds whipped up whitecaps on the dark, brooding waters. And Nessie, keeping her head down, was nowhere to be seen.
By the time the bus reached Fort William, base camp for Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, the predicted storm was raging in earnest. And Matthew’s chances of making Barra looked dim indeed. We switched out ball caps for woolen hats. Wind breakers for heavier Goretex jackets. And found seats on the waiting bus that would take us to Oban.
The normally spectacular sights along this stretch of Argyll were now viewed through raindrops on windows and obscure at best. And it was only during brief breaks in the mist that we caught glimpses of the reddish brown moors and mountains, cascading waterfalls, patches of golden broom, cream-colored cottages with slate roofs, long haired highland cattle … and all the cairns and broken castles that bear witness to the storied history of this part of the Southern Highlands.
In Oban, the storm had seriously solidified. And we were happy when the bus deposited us right in front of our quayside hotel, The Royal Caledonian. Oban in the summertime is jammed with tourists and traffic waiting to board ferries out to the islands. To Mull. And Harris. Lewis. And Barra. And beyond. But on a wet and windy day in March, we had the place to ourselves as we set out to reacquaint ourselves with the sights.
The harbor, with its ferry terminal, bus and train station all conveniently grouped together, was eerily empty. Just a couple of firmly anchored fishing boats. Some skyward-blown seagulls. And nary a ferryboat in sight. While the tourist office, located in a redundant church nearby, and happy to see tourists, eagerly provided bags of brochures, booklets and posters announcing Scotland’s 2009 homecoming promotion.
It was while looking at the town’s main attractions, McCaig’s Tower, a coliseum-like folly built on a hill, and the Oban Whisky Distillery, that we bumped into Matthew once again who was on his way to a backpackers hostel properly fortified, he said, with three wee drams.
As our favorite pub, The Oban Inn, built in 1790, had fallen on hard times and closed its doors, we passed a pleasant evening instead at Aulay’s Pub, where old ferry and fishing boat photos filled the walls, a darts team tested their skills and pints of Belhaven’s Best Bitter went down very smoothly on a wet and windy March night in the Scottish Highlands.
E-mail travel columnists Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at RogerHolliday@wcnet.org.