We spent two nights at Rothiemurchus which allowed us a full day. Andre hired a mountain bike to do some mountain biking, though reported the track was more just off-road cycling than real mountain biking. I considered going with him, but the bike hire shop only had one bike left and I wasn’t keen enough to go back into Aviemore to look for another bike hire place.
While Andre went riding, Christine and I walked into Aviemore to buy some lunch from the local Tesco, then took a walk to Loch an Eilean where we met up with Andre to have lunch. Only problem was we thought we were meant to be following the road, when it turns out there was actually an off-road path we were meant to follow! Oh well. It probably would have been more scenic but it was still a nice walk. It was cold and windy around the loch so we found the remains of some old brick structure to sit behind while we ate our sandwiches and wraps from the supermarket. There are also the remains of a small castle on an island on the loch, but all you can really see from the shore is a high wall.
Christine and I then started walking back via the off-road path we were originally meant to take while Andre rode back to return his bike, then returned with the campervan to pick us up where the walking track met the road. After going back to the caravan park for Andre to take a shower and get changed we drove into Glenmore National Park (part of the Cairngorms) to go up Cairngorm Mountain itself. We were thinking about taking the funicular to the top, but it wasn’t running at that time of year. I take it it only runs during peak periods – probably winter and summer. It was blowing a gale up there and we weren’t really dressed for the cold, me especially so because I wasn’t even wearing jeans, only thin track pants! We bundled up with scarves and beanies and gloves though, and it was bearable for a short time to walk through some of the remaining snow, throw one or two snowballs at each other, then get back to the van!
The next day we left the Cairngorms area and drove up to Inverness. We sat in the McDonalds in the centre of town for a while to have some lunch and use their wifi to catch up on emails and facebook messages. Christine also dressed up today for Lizzie and Shawn’s wedding which she would have attended if she’d been back home.
Once the time on our parking metre ran out, we moved the van and went to visit the Inverness Museum. The museum covers all of Inverness’s history, including within the context of Scotland’s history, so was very interesting for us to get a better understanding of who the Neolithics, Picts, Scottis, Stuarts, Jacobites, etc were. We didn’t get to have a look at the more modern history (post-Victorian era) section because our parking metre was going to run out again, but we were mostly interested in the pre-Victorian history anyway.
We spent much of the rest of the afternoon looking for places I had listed as viewing spots for sealife along the coast around Inverness, however the signage to some spots wasn’t very good, plus the tide was out and it was a very windy day so it wasn’t really good conditions for viewing sea life anyway. Eventually we gave up and moved on from Inverness, driving down to Loch Ness for the night.
Once at Loch Ness we took a sticky-beak at the Urquhart Castle from the road (as it was about 7pm by that point so the castle was closed) before finding a farmstay caravan site. It was very basic but still had power and a bathroom which was all we wanted! It was a very windy night so we turned the van around to face away from the wind so it wouldn’t catch the pop-top too badly. It was also a very cold night, and by this point Christine and I were wearing three pairs of socks to bed and still getting cold toes (although we both have terrible circulation in our toes). Andre and I also discovered the value of using the hood on our sleeping bags, something I have never done in Australia!
The next morning we visited the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition. Visitors take a tour through six or seven theatres which go through the history of the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, including research efforts to determine whether a monster of such size could or did live in the lake. The conclusion is that no, the eco system in Loch Ness could not support an animal of such size, and very thorough searches have been done. The best suggestion is that people may have sighted a Giant Sturgeon, which is known to have entered the river Ness.
We then spent the rest of the day driving up the east coast of the highlands, going in and out of rainstorms along the way, and saw lots of wind farms (common throughout all of Scotland but especially the highlands). We stopped for lunch at a cafe inside Tesco in the tiny town of Dingwall which, for such a little town, has too many one-way roads!
The landscape of the highlands is fascinating – completely bare hills aside from small heather bushes which were in their browny-purple phase, some yellow-flowering bushes and dozens of little lochs and ponds sitting between the hills. We pushed on through to Thurso on the north coast, which is a jumping-off point for the Orkney Islands. It was another very windy night, and it even hailed while we ate dinner in the van.
Most of our dinners were tinned soups and stews which would easily be heated up in a saucepan on the stove (the van came with limited cooking equipment, including one small saucepan) or things like cup-of-noodles and soup sachets which only required boiling water to be added. We also bought some frozen veggies to add to our noodles and soups, as well as bread to eat with them. For lunches we sometimes made our own sandwiches but often visited supermarkets like Tesco or Sainsbury’s to buy their meal deal, which is a sandwich or wrap (sometimes there is also the option of a pasta or salad dish instead) plus a drink and chocolate bar or packet of chips for £3. Sometimes, particularly if we felt like a hot meal or there were no supermarkets nearby, we would visit a cafe or pub for lunch instead.
The next day we skipped breakfast in order to pack up the van as fast as possible and get down to the ferry to go across to Orkney Island. Once we decided to take the van though, we realised another ferry about half an hour away (Pentland Ferries) was much cheaper than the North Link ferry which goes from Scrabster (right by Thurso). If you’re only going as foot passengers, the North Link ferry is more convenient because it lands at Stromness which is more convenient (car hire, much closer to Orkney’s neolithic centre so much quicker on buses etc). However if you have your own vehicle, you may as well take the cheaper ferry which lands on a different part of the island.
We pulled some hot cross buns, grapes and margarine from the car to have for breakfast on the ferry on the way over. Considering the terrible weather the night before, today was spectacular – clear, sunny, and the water was completely calm. The trip is an hour from Gill’s Bay to St Margaret’s Hope (the North Link trip from Scrabster to Stromness is a bit shorter). Once there we started heading across the island, stopping at a public bathroom to brush our teeth and fill up water bottles. Our first destination was Maes Howe, but we came across some random standing stones by the side of the road first. Orkney is best known for its neolithic remains – stone circles, standing stones, villages, burial cairns etc. You can’t drive for long without coming across something, even if it’s just a few standing stones on a hill. Not much further on we stopped at the Ring of Brodgar which is 100m in diameter. Not all the stones are still standing and a lot have been vandalised but it is still an impressive circle.
We eventually found Maes Howe, which is the island’s most famous burial cairn, and possibly the most famous one in the world – on winter solstice, as the sun sets, it lines up perfectly with a standing stone a kilometre or so away and casts a shadow of the standing stone into the entrance and onto the back wall of Maes Howe. There are a few chambers inside the cairn where bodies were buried (which have since been removed) and also a lot of graffiti from vikings who raided Maes Howe along with the rest of the island many centuries ago. Our guide said much of the graffiti says similar things to what graffiti today says – ‘Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes‘ or ‘These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean’ etc – but our favourite was one message engraved above the doorway, about 2.5m up, which says something along the lines of ‘I am a viking writing up high’! We bought an annual membership to Historic Scotland which got us into a lot of places on our trip for free, and as we intend to use it for Edinburgh castle later in the year will be worth the membership fee.
Finally we ended up at Skara Brae, probably Orkney’s most famous attraction. Skara Brae is the remains of a stone-built neolithic settlement, from about 3000 BC – which makes it older than the pyramids of Egypt. It is in exceptionally good condition, and you can still see the stone beds and dressing tables they had in their houses. While you can’t walk into the houses themselves – you can only walk around them and look in from the top (all the roofs have since disintegrated) as they are built down into the ground – there is a reconstruction you can walk into to see what they were like fully constructed. We had lunch in their cafe before going in and Christine and I had what Christine declared was the best toasted sandwich (panini) she has ever had.
On the way out of Skara Brae you can go through the old house that was owned by the guy who first excavated Skara Brae. It is dressed in an upper class 50s theme and includes a set of dishes on display that were used on one of Captain Cook’s voyages. It’s not something you’d go out of your way to see but as it’s included in the cost of the Skara Brae ticket you can do a quick walk-through to have a look.
After Skara Brae we decided to try and see some puffins. April is still a bit early in the season for puffins, particularly in Orkney, but we thought we may as well give it a shot. We headed to some cliffs which are a known puffin nesting place and followed a path up the cliff. We got a fantastic view and saw a few different sea birds and many rabbits, but no puffins.
We stayed that night at a caravan park in Kirkwall, the main town on Orkney. There was a bit of wind during the night but not a lot, and the caravan park had a great amenities block with plenty of bathrooms (again individual cubicles each with toilet, basin and shower!), a kitchen, laundry and common room with coffee tables, lounge chairs and assorted magazines and travel brochures. We cooked and ate tea in the amenities block rather than the van, as it was heated. The showers were a bit ridiculous though because they were operated by a knob that you pushed in (like a lot of basins in shopping centre bathrooms) but it would only run for about twenty seconds (if that) before it popped out again and the shower turned off. So to have a proper shower you were constantly having to turn it back on. At least its default temperature was perfect and it had good water pressure!