What I Did On My Holidays

Ah – the writing topic for the start of the Autumn term. Did it fill you with dread?

There were the children who’d gone something amazing (like go to Disneyland), children like us who’d gone to stay with relations or had a camping holiday and the children who’d been unable to go away at all.

I never went to Disneyland, but looking back, I know I was very fortunate. My summer holidays generally included me and my sister taking the bus into town alone (sometimes with my sister’s imaginary dog) to visit the library, and with our parents visiting relations in Berkshire or Scotland (this involved several car breakdowns as my father had poor car purchasing skills but could mend most things with duct tape) and one short (and usually disastrous) camping holiday. Mostly however, as for many children of my generation, it consisted of being thrown out of the house after breakfast to entertain ourselves all day until it went dark or it was tea-time, whichever came earlier. We lived in the countryside with woods and rivers at our disposal. We had bicycles and roller skates and there weren’t many cars in our village and there were a lot of stay at home mums, including mine, fewer than 20 children aged 5-12 and a few grumpy, sneering teenagers. I suspect it might have been a different for me and my sister if we’d lived in a city, but we didn’t.

I still have a slightly confused nasal memory which comes back every summer – the combination of woodland, burning bracken, hot earth and Dettol. I often messed about alone along the river or climbed about the old quarry or in the old ‘caves’, acted out dramas with my equally creative and out-of-the-loop friend or joined in with the other kids playing Cowboys and Indians, I was generally scratched to smithereens by brambles, rocks and tree bark by the end of the day, so my mother always had a hot bath, generously topped up with Dettol waiting to ward off any infection ready for my return. The burning bracken smell is because the naughtier boys used to set fire to it every year when it got dry, regardless of the proximity of houses. I guess it must have rained (this was South Wales after all), but I genuinely don’t recall a wet summer till I was a teenager and miserable by default.

I have no idea what the teacher expected us to describe in that first creative writing exercise of the school year but nothing I’d done felt worth writing about under the heading ‘What I did In The Holidays’. The library, relations, making sandcastles, bicycling and games seemed too boring to write about. I once tried just making something up but the teacher saw through it, possibly because she thought a combination of dragons and me rescuing anyone from mortal danger seemed unlikely (rude). It’s only looking back that it seems like there was anything magical about any of it.

However this summer (or rather early autumn) my husband and I hired a camper van in Scotland and did a tour, similar to one we’d done in 1996. Not quite the NC500, we did part of that and then went off piste. And he asked me to keep a diary – so here it is. No dragons I’m afraid, and no real excitement. No burning bracken or scabby knees, but here’s ‘What we did in our holidays’ for anyone who’s interested.

DAY ONE (1st September 2021)

(Bristol to) Edinburgh to Invergordon 180 miles (ignoring flight and going in a circle from Broxburn to Queensferry for a bit)

With three alarms going off at five am we made it to the airport in good time and arrived in unexpectedly sunny Edinburgh a bit after 8. Couldn’t pick up the van till 1, but with a large case and some tiredness, we couldn’t do much sightseeing so settled for a looong breakfast instead and then a longer hike to a bus stop than we expected, since the bus didn’t stop at the stop it was supposed to stop at and we had to walk to one by the Scottish Parliament.

Anticipating cold and trying to keep weight of the hold bag down, I was wearing a lot of layers which made me look like a bag lady.  Mark naturally looked his usual suave self. Collected van and discovered that it was last hired by Alan Cummings. (I doubt he would be interested to know we got it next.)

Got into a complete fankel after we’d started out, trying to get to the motorway with a small scale map and two sat navs that couldn’t agree. But finally! We reached the open road – or rather the bit of open road we wanted – and headed north. Just arrived at our first stop, a certified location near Invergorden and looking forward to catching up with friends who live nearby.

DAY TWO (2nd September)

Invergordon to Dunnet’s Head (88 miles)

Not sure how we managed to leave Invergordon at 11am not get to Dunnets Head till 6pm. Either maps is lying or we entered a time warp or we spent too long having a cuppa at Dunbeath and much too long in Tesco at Wick (which we visited while hungry so there’s a risk it’s empty now). Lunch included a lovely home made focaccia made by my friend. We’re looking forward to revisiting our youth with some camping style cooking tonight with a chicken curry. Husband is in charge. Perhaps I should hide the chillies…

DAY THREE (3rd September) 

Dunnet Head to Loch Eriboll (71 miles)

First stop across the North Coast was at the first town where Mark filled up with diesel and while I waited in the camper van, he went to the post office to get some cash as the next campsite was cash only. Then he came back to tell me he’d forgotten his PIN. Naturally this meant that I had to get the money out of my account instead. 

‘I’ll pay you back’ he said. 

I’m still waiting. Those of you who know him will wonder how we’ve been nearly 28 years married and I still haven’t learned. 

Next issue was when one of us (possibly me) hadn’t closed fridge properly so a plastic pot of arrabiata pasta sauce flung itself out when we went round a sharp bend and cracked. 

Crossed the north on a road which was only modernised in the late 20th century which winds itself through the dark heathery peaty landscape filled with treacherous peat bogs. It’s eerie enough now. What it must have been like 100+ years ago … I wonder how many people disappeared into the bogs? There’s an abandoned house midway which was once a welcoming place for travellers. Now it’s full of very good but rather creepy paintings. 

It felt quite good to get away from that house.

We made infinitely better time to the campsite at Loch Eribol which is so far in the middle of nowhere there was no WiFi or phone signal and we considered sending messages by pigeon, only there weren’t any. Possibly they’d been eaten by midges. We tried Durness for lunch but choices were expensive hotel (I refer you to Mark and money), a burger van and a cheese toastie van. We could have driven on a mile to Cocoa Mountain but we were too tired and hungry. We had the makings of a Greekish salad so had that overlooking the beach then returned to campsite to batten down. We watched one of the other campers wandering about in beehive kit and …. lo and behold midges arrived about 5:30 pm and bombarded the van all night. They could even get through mosquito netting so we had to shut ourselves in and eat – surprise – pasta arrabiata while they were trying to drill their way in. It’s amazing I didn’t dream of being besieged by miniature extras from the Walking Dead as that’s what it was like.

DAY FOUR (4th September)

Loch Eriboll to Altandhu via the Mad Wee Road and Ullapool 

100 miles

Got up early and prepared to leave, assuming the midges had gone off shift. Man were we wrong. Mark covered everything but his face which ended up looking like a currant bun. I was only outside briefly but had shorts on. My legs were a mass of midges in no time and looked afterwards if a toddler had decided to dot me with a felt tip. 

Breakfasted overlooking Kyle of Durness. The carpark was visited by a post office van while we were there. The van waited for some time with its doors open and parcels waiting inside. There was neither house nor post box for miles so I can only assume this was the mermaid/selkie/Loch or Brae monster delivery and the postie had to wait for them to appear and collect it.

After a drive down through lovely countryside, pausing to buy fresh local bread and cheese at Scourie, we had to make the decision whether to go ‘straight’ on down to Ullapool or attempt a loop of road which on the tourist map was described as the ‘Mad Wee Road’. It’s not especially mad and its only ‘wee’ aspect is width.

It’s steep, narrow and twisty with passing places and ‘not suitable for caravans’ so we hesitated for a bit then went for it. At passing place two of two thousand we met another camper van and wound down the windows to ask how it was. Female passenger shuddered a little then smiled. ‘Lovely scenery! You’ll be fine!’ And we were.

Stopped at Drumbeg (where the Magical Tea Gardens were closed so I never found out what was magical about them) and bought some Ullapool smoked salmon from the village shop which seemed illogical since we were going to Ullapool but hey it looked good. I said hello and made the usual British chit chat about weather and asked how things had been and the woman at the counter said it was positively quiet and she’d been rushed off her feet all summer and was quite glad of the peace and quiet. I imagine that if you live along there you probably do so because you’re not fond of hordes of people so I could understand this. 

Having survived the remainder of the road, we headed south properly, pausing to clamber about Ardreck Castle where there were signs with the demand: ‘do not poop in the dungeons like they did in 2020’. The sheep were ignoring this prohibition but I feel it wasn’t aimed at them and am as ever disgusted by some humans. After that we were on the last leg to Ullapool and since campsites are not always easy to find, put in the postcode to the car sat nav and trundled on down into the town, overtaking a convoy of crofters on small tractors who were raising money for charity. 

The car satnav is mute therefore doesn’t tell us anything audibly and we ignored its display till we arrived in Ullapool when we knew we’d need it.

I looked with delight at all the craft shops etc as we’d arrived early enough to go and mooch before settling down for the evening. Then we realised the sat nav was trying to send us back the way we’d come.

Calling it various names (none polite) we pulled over and deliberated. We finally had enough signal to look at a map on the phone. This was when Mark realised the campsite he’d booked wasn’t actually in Ullapool but in Altandhu which is on a headland north of Ullapool. Short of magic or a non existent ferry, the only way to get there was indeed to turn around, go back the way we came and drive down another twisty narrow road with passing places till we arrived. So after all, buying Ullapool smoked salmon in Drumbeg turned out to be wise as we may not get a chance to do it in Ullapool itself.  

After a drink in the bar/restaurant near the campsite – a trip to which made Mark develop a new anti midge face protection out of a clean pair of pants just in case (for himself I add & I’d rather be midged than wander about with knickers over my face), we had the old student favourite of corn beef hash à la Harmon (which is a comforting bowl of curried, savoury sludge completely unrelated to any other form of the normal recipe).  Eating a student dinner cooked by Captain Underpants – what a life of glamour I lead! Lovely view though (Loch an Alltain Dubh that is.)– 

DAY FIVE (5th September) 

Altandhu to Applecross 121 miles

Last night, Mark re-enacted our honeymoon and I’ll tell you how.  DON’T PANIC – the following is suitable to read for anyone! We honeymooned on a boat in Greece and every night we were attacked by mosquitoes. Every night I was woken in the early hours by Mark swearing, spraying insecticide and trying in vain to squash mosquitoes. This wasn’t what I’d envisaged bring woken up in the early hours for on my honeymoon for but hey, life is full of surprises. Roll forward nearly 28 years and last night Mark inadvisedly opened the van roof panel for some air as it was warm. The mosquito net was over it but the average Scottish midge can squeeze through that flimsy nonsense so husband was comprehensively midged again. They didn’t seem to like me as much. 

Cue reenactment of Kephalonia 1993 only without the insecticide and with even less chance of catching any of the little blighters, letalone squashing them. Eventually we slept again and got up after eight to start travelling. Today’s actual travel was beautiful and uneventful if a little tiring due to more single traffic roads in addition to some rain. 

Eventually we arrived safely at Applecross, where the campsite had a fish n chip van available till 8:30. We relaxed after our long wiggly drive with a quiet drink, outside the lovely Applecross Inn, looking across to Skye.

Day Six (6th September) 

Applecross to Skye 148 miles

Today was the day we deviated off the North Coast 500 and headed to Skye. 

If we’d thought the road TO Applecross the previous day was twisty and daunting, it was NOTHING to the road FROM Applecross. Views absolutely staggering even with cloudy skies as we descended via hairpin bends. Even the on board sat nav screen thought we were in Mordor. It didn’t stop a million cyclists though. The previous day they’d been slogging up or racing down in pouring rain, now (possibly the same ones after drying out) were slogging up or racing down the other side. It was, I have to say, nice to be back at sea level and less twisty roads afterwards. 

We were greeted on Skye by some fantastic rainbows. The photos just don’t do them justice. We were pretty much driving through them, but sadly no gold appeared in the van so we must have driven through the wrong bits. We stopped in Portree to find a local bakery for fresh bread, and a pharmacy to get some antihistamine cream for Mark’s midge bites (which are chiefly on his face but have yet not marred his beauty) and a camping shop to see if he could buy one of those midge proof hats with the veil. No hope on the latter as what hasn’t sold out is stuck on a lorry somewhere along with everything else this summer. This is a shame as I was looking forward to sharing a photo. After that, the weather closed in and we drove to the campsite in pouring rain and largely through a cloud. 

Last time we visited Skye (1996) it was blazing sunshine so this was disappointing but there you go. You can’t go to Scotland and expect guaranteed good weather. 

We were staying in Talisker but it was too late to visit the distillery. We did however pop down to the local inn and have a drink in the rain outside, looking into Loch Harport and watching the little lives in the water: crabs, some sort of blenny trying to make the crab go away so perhaps protecting eggs and something dark and mysterious and scuttling creature which was either a very large prawn, a baby lobster or a miniature monster. 

Giving up on all hope of sunshine or WiFi, we settled down to the smoked salmon from Ullapool with green veg, parsley sauce and mashed potatoes with spring onions/scallions for dinner. (It was my turn to cook again but Cinderfella did the washing up.)

Day Seven (7th September)

Talisker, Skye to Connel nr Oban (148 miles)

After a night of rain, we left Skye soon after 9 and headed for the mainland and hopefully some sunshine. Naturally Skye taunted us with what might have been just as we were leaving. Next time we’ll stay longer and force the sun to come out. Just over the wee bonny bridge (ok it’s bonny but not especially wee) in the Kyle of  Lochalsh was walking a very tall, slim elderly gentleman wearing a pair of plaid breeches, sturdy boots, sweater and deerstalker. I’d have thought I was hallucinating only he was also wearing a face mask. You’ll have to take my word for it as it seemed rude to photograph him. He may end up in a story so any names will be considered! 

Uneventful drive to the campsite other than watching a bridge swing which was hard to photograph and arrived early afternoon. We had considered staying a second night (as we hadn’t booked anywhere for 8th) but they didn’t have any pitches free. 

We’d intended to claim our pitch then drive into Oban but Mark was shattered from driving and we decided to stay out and unwind a bit, although first job was finding a site for the night of 8th. After that the sun came out in earnest and we were able to sit out and enjoy it. 

Midges (in smaller numbers than by Loch Eriboll) turned up at dusk and I ‘cheered’ Mark by reading out what I’d found out about midges online: ‘The female midge’s mouth parts – fine toothed mandibles and maxillae, work like two saws, cutting through the skin. The midge then excretes a saliva into the wound, which keeps the blood from coagulating, creating a pool of blood upon which to feed.’ 

Mark’s response: ‘bloody women’. 

I read the next bit: ‘some people are more “attractive” to midges than others’ and added ‘these are usually misogynists’. 

Having yet failed to find any netted hats, Mark transformed into Captain Underpants to combat them while I used a nice scarf. 

After a while, Mark also added a scarf to complete his look and ended up looking like a sartorially confused assassin. 

He unveiled himself enough to cook venison burgers (bought from a nice farm shop) for dinner accompanied by a home made un-Scottish but very nice salsa made by me. 

(For the record I’ve been midge bitten too but not reacting as much – yet.)

Day 8 (8th September)

Connel to Kilberry

A lovely sunny morning for a short dap south. 

We stopped in Oban first thing and had a wander, picking up goodies like local trout pate and cheese and mint choc crunch things from a local deli and some meat from the butcher but more importantly a midge proof hat net for Mark! (Actually we got one for me too but I’ve yet to model it. Its day will come.)

Stopped for lunch at Loch Gilphead which I mispronounced as Gill-fee-ad all the way along the journey till we arrived and saw the ‘welcome to/fáilte gu’ sign and I realised, looking at both English and Gaelic that it was Gilp-head, since it’s at the head of Loch Gilp. I might have realised sooner if I’d realised it was Loch Gilp and not Loch Glip which is what I’d read it as on the map. I really do miss my eyesight. 

Absolute highlight on the final stretch was seeing a seal perhaps 200 yards away which was totally unfazed by us taking photos. 

I tried to get it to turn to face us by making friendly seal noises. Having no idea what they might sound like, I gently called ‘eep eep’ which worked. 

So either ‘eep eep’ is seal talk meaning ‘hello’ (or possibly ‘look at me – I’m an idiot’) or more likely the seal was giving us a hard ‘is it too much for a creature to be left in peace to sunbathe without people squeaking at it insanely?’ hard stare. 

The campsite turned out to be lovely, being just off a series of beaches. 

The water was – for sea water – comparatively not freezing. People were swimming. Darn – too bad we’d forgotten our swimsuits or we could have joined them. (There were kids about or naturally we’d have skinny dipped – not.) 

We sat out  in blazing sun till it started to cool off and later in the absolute pitch dark, Mark went out with his new hat on to see if it worked. He still had a face when he returned so apparently it does.

Day 9 (9th September)

Kilberry to Livingston

More or less a transit day today so that we’d have two nights near Edinburgh ready to fly back (boo) on Saturday. We stopped in Tarbert to have breakfast and had a quick look round. What a lovely looking place. It was also where in 1098, a Norwegian king called Magnus Barefoot, who’d been told by the Scots King Edgar that he could have any bit of Scotland he could navigate a boat round with its rudder set, got his men to lug a ship from seaboard to seaboard and then sail around the rest of the Kintyre peninsula, so the southern half of the peninsula became Norwegian for a while. (The Gaelic ‘An Tairbeart‘ literally means ‘across-carrying’ or ‘portage’.)

History lesson over and now it’s music. All together now: ‘I’ll take the high road and ye’ll take the low road …’ We drove down the west side of Loch Lomond, trying to make out Ben Lomond which was being coy behind low cloud and eventually managed to find a nice spot to have lunch. This was harder than you’d think as the area was positively hoaching, something we weren’t used to! 

Then we headed towards Edinburgh avoiding Glasgow as by then it was school kicking out time and time meant we were sadly unable to stop at Stirling. 

It was a long distance from campsite  to campsite but not a particularly long journey. Most of it A roads and some of it motorway so it felt like stepping into another world entirely. We miss the twisty, narrow roads with passing places and being able to stop pretty much where we liked within reason. 

Although we did slow down (along with everyone else) when to my delight the Kelpies appeared, looming over the motorway. (I’m not sure this is terribly sensible planning as almost every car slowed down but I was glad to see them as I didn’t realise i would and had wanted to.)

‘What are those?’ said Mark.

‘Kelpies,’ I said. ‘Shapeshifting Celtic water spirits who may lure you to your doooom – devouring you and spitting your entrails out on the loch edge.’ I sighed. ‘Although I was a Kelpie when I was in Brownies and my badge had a cute little sprite on it and there was none of this luring and devouring and leaving entrails malarkey – not in MY brownie pack anyway.’

Mark laughed. ‘I’m trying to imagine you as a Brownie! Two foot nothing but knowing everything.’

‘Tsk,’ I retorted. ‘I was at least four foot when I went up to Guides.’

All along the motorway there were yellow weather warnings for heavy rain but I’m pleased to say that we were safely pitched on campsite before it started. For our thoroughly ‘healthy’ evening meal, we had a fry up of haggis, black pudding, bacon, egg with vegetables (one has to try) and mashed potatoes with spring onions, chilli and butter.

This may explain why I had odd dreams afterwards involving superheroes solving a laundry emergency and one of my characters herding penguins while heavily pregnant or maybe that’s just me.

Day 10 (10th September)

Edinburgh

Took a taxi into Edinburgh today.

It had rained all night and though dry by morning, it was overcast (though warm) and the weather forecast was for rain, so rather reluctantly we ditched the idea of shorts and sandals for jeans/leggings and boots/trainers. This proved to be a mistake. (Curse you – BBC weather forecast.) As you can see from the photos below, Mark spent the time waiting for the taxi chatting up the local birds.

The lovely (if loquacious) taxi driver told us there was a new Johnny Walker experience attraction covering 7 floors and dropped us nearby even though it wasn’t on our list. While not whisky drinkers, it might have been interesting but it looked like the cheapest ‘experience’ was £35 for 40 mins so we headed off to find the Surgeons Halls Museum which I wanted to visit. Admittedly Mark didn’t and he wasn’t too keen on looking at stuff about pathology and dissection before lunch, and as the closer we got, the further Google maps said it was, we gave up when we reached the National Museum and went in there instead. Lovely exhibition on the Galloway Hoard and I dragged Mark to one on typewriters too via exhibits on transport and communications, but by this time we were far too hot to stay indoors especially with masks on so we went for a wander round the city to try and cool down on the trail to try and find somewhere to agree on for lunch. 

After settling for somewhere we could eat outside, we wandered some more and trailed in and out of some lovely indie shops. I sat with some Earl Grey doing some writing in a lovely little tea shop for a bit and we ended up watching some street musicians play ‘Wish you were here’ with guitar, drums and bagpipes (v good), before finding our bus stop to get back to campsite. Our first bus went from ‘due’ to ‘disappeared’ in seconds but the next one arrived half an hour later and dropped us at a stop about 1.5 miles from the campsite. 

My feet were still complaining the following day about being hot and crammed into trainers all day while hiking a city but it was a lovely end to a truly lovely holiday. Our last meal was a Chinese takeaway delivered to us on the campsite. How civilised is that?!

We had a lovely time and every single person we’ve met, from random people on bus stops when we were confused, to people in shops and people pitching tents have been so absolutely lovely and friendly. 

Next time, a different area and a different route. But there will definitely be a next time.

PS – the midge bite itch have started to kick in…. aargh!