Day One - Saturday 26th May 2018
Twenty years after bagging my first Munro - the dreary Meall a' Chrasgaidh - and somehow developing an affinity for the Great Scottish Outdoors, I found myself heading northwards once again. Not this time in the company of my university friends, but instead with a ten-year-old boy in tow, namely my eldest Son, Benjamin. It was half-term holiday, he had just finished SATs, and I was hoping to prise him away from screens for a few days and to pass on some of my latent enthusiasm for the Highlands.
The journey took longer than I expected. We departed home around 1030 and reached Killin by 1700. Google helped us avoid two traffic jams, a technology that hadn't existed on my earliest Scottish trips in 1998 (nor, for that matter, did the A74(M)'s parenthetical M). We were staying at the Bridge of Lochay Hotel, and after a pleasant evening meal there we took a drive down the road between Ben Lawers and the Bridge of Balgie, where we saw a bewildering number of wild campers.
Back at the hotel, we got Scrabble out. Showing no mercy against my opponent's tender years, I played all seven tiles on one round to spell ALBUMEN and turn EATING into BEATING, scoring 75 points.
Day Two - Sunday, 27th May 2018
I was cognisant that if I was to make the trip a success and a happy memory for Ben (and thus encourage him to want to return), there was no point dragging him up some featureless 3,000-footers. Instead I had planned a whistle-stop tour of the Highlands' best views, with some fun touristy activities thrown in for good measure.
The first of these activities was a trip to Go Ape at Aberfoyle, which culminated with a stunning 45-metre-high, 426-metre-long zipwire flight followed by a bottle of Irn Bru.
Refreshed, we headed up the nearby Ben A'an, at 454m one of the most popular and picturesque wee hills in Scotland. The weather was unseasonably fine, and we were offered glorious views across the Trossachs.
We left Ben A'an car park around 1700. Ben dozed off in the car, and we reached our accommodation at the legendary Clachaig Inn by 1840. By this late hour and following our earlier exertions Ben was super tired and hangry - reluctant to eat but perked up noticeably after having done so. I realised that a quieter day was probably in order for the following day.
Day Three - Monday, 28th May 2018
A quieter day than Sunday. Initially Ben was adamant that he wanted to do more walking (Ben A'an having whet his appetite for views), so we intended to wander up the Lost Valley of Glencoe. But upon reaching the car park, he declared that he did not feel well enough for a hike - something that has happened to me on more than one occasion! So instead we went up the nearby Nevis Range Mountain Gondola on the north face of Aonach Mor. The sun was beaming down again, a far cry from the whiteout conditions that I had experienced on 25th November 2000 when my friends and I had to abandon an attempt to reach the Aonach Mor summit from nearby Aonach Beag.
Back down to the car, and with Ben still not in the mood for activity, we took a long drive around Ardnamurchan - Glenuig, Strontian (location of the discovery of Strontium, as I boringly explained to Ben in typical Dad fashion), and back via the Corran Ferry. I resisted the small temptation to take a short but lengthy detour down the narrow tracks to Ardnamurchan Point, having fallen into that trap on a previous jaunt at August Bank Holiday 2002. Despite this, the relative lack of civilisation for miles around was not lost on us as we struggled to find a convenient place to stop for a bite of lunch. I vowed to learn this lesson on subsequent days, stocking up the car with sandwiches and snacks at the start of the day rather than risk a hungry and grumpy pre-teen companion.
In the evening we sat outside the Clachaig playing chess. We heard tell of a couple of other tourists who had required medical attention after being up on a ridge with too little water and no sunhats. After this it was easier on subsequent days to persuade Ben to wear his own sunhat.
Day Four - Tuesday, 29th May 2018
A lot of driving, unfortunately. I had forgotten how long it can take to get from A to B in the Highlands sometimes. After stopping in Fort William for sandwiches and a pack of playing cards we headed for the picture postcard Eilean Donan Castle. Here the increasing popularity (and potential Disneyfication) of the Highlands began to hit me. I have photographs from 2002 wherein my friends and I were the only visitors to an otherwise deserted EDC. No longer - extended car and coach parks and additional visitor infrastructure were now in place to accommodate the hoards of tourists.
We enjoyed an ice cream each in the stifling heat before driving up to Plockton, passing the alarming sight of a wildfire in its early stages en route. We later learned that an electrical transformer had exploded, igniting part of the tinder-dry Strathellen Wood. After a quick drink in The Plockton Hotel we boarded the legendary Calum's Seal Trip, without which no trip to the north west would be complete. Apart from ourselves, the boat was filled with Italian tourists, who laughed politely at Calum's gags, which have not changed at all in the last twenty years. One of the staff explained to me that Scotland has become more popular than ever with foreign visitors in recent years, and attempted to convince those same foreign guests that the inexplicably brilliant 2018 weather was typical for the location and time of year.
We stayed at a very pleasant and peaceful AirBnB by the name of Fasgro in Drumbuie. Our host, Carol, recommended an evening coastal walk, which turned out to be one of my highlights of the entire trip.
Day Five - Wednesday, 30th May 2018
We left Drumbuie, passed through Lochcarron, and headed up the Bealach na Ba pass, which was a much easier drive in the summer months than winter snows. For one thing there were no angry van drivers to wind their windows down as we passed and inexplicably yell at me for being a "bloody fool". Scottish hospitality has definitely improved.
After parking up, we took advantage of our high altitude to wander up to the transmitter station, then over to the 792m Corbett Sgurr a' Chaorachain. I thought this was an easy walk with cracking views over to Skye and Raasay. But Ben was hard work, complaining every step of the way and having to be bribed to continue (I placed Amazon orders for new XBox games from the Corbett summit!). I was unsure why he disliked this walk compared to the steeper exertions of Ben A'an earlier in the week.
Back to the car, and we drove through the majestic Torridon, Kinlochewe (stopped for another ice cream), and on to the Aultguish Inn. There has clearly been some capital investment here, as the room facilities had improved immeasurably since my visits in the earliest years of the century.
Day Six - Thursday, 31st May 2018
Ben was sick in the night, explaining his lack of enthusiasm on the hills the previous day. We abandoned plans to scramble up Stac Pollaidh, and instead opted for more driving - a big circular route around the far north. We saw Durness, Tongue, and some wonderful coastal scenes along the A836 across the very top of the country, before reaching the anticlimactic John O'Groats where we bought some soft toys and sweets as gifts for Ben's siblings. Our journey back down the eastern seaboard was shrouded in thick fog, depriving us of any seascape views.
In the evening we played card games in the hotel bar, by which time Ben was on much better form, thrashing my exhausted self at most games and feeling well enough to devour the biggest dessert on the menu.
After Ben retired to our room to watch some TV talent show, I got chatting to a pleasant young bohemian lady, who had recently embarked on an attempted continuous round of the Munros, travelling between them on bicycle. I would be lying if I said that I wasn't slightly envious of her freedom and ability to take so much time out of the rat race for such an endeavour. But conversely, I was happy to have had a Son in tow with whom to share a brief week experiencing some of the many delights that Scotland has to offer to all ages.