The main reason I started this travel blog was to inspire people to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions and uncover Scotland's hidden gems that without doubt deserve more attention. After a lifetime spent travelling around my home country, I have built up a pretty good knowledge of amazing places that often get missed out in the usual guide books and remain largely undiscovered.
One of those hidden gems is Glenelg, a small village on the west coast, overlooking the Kyle Rhea, a strait which separates the mainland from Skye. Just a 30 minute detour from the hoards of sightseers at Eilean Donan Castle and you will find an area bursting with rich scenery and history, yet largely devoid of tourists.
If you are planning to head along the north west coast towards Skye between Easter and October, I highly recommend avoiding the road bridge and diverting along the more stunning but lesser known route to the island and taking the ferry from the 'Original Gateway to Skye'.
If you need more convincing than just my word to abandon the typical tourist trail, here are 6 reasons that might persuade you...
p.s please excuse any raindrops on the photos as the day I visited it would have been drier standing under a waterfall!
1. The Mam Ratagan Pass
Leave the tourist route behind and follow the Mam Ratagen Pass from Sheil Bridge to Glenelg and you are immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning drives in the country. Climbing to a height of over 1100ft and navigating a few hairpin bends along the way only add to the experience and your prize for taking the road less travelled is superb vistas towards the Five Sisters of Kintail and Loch Duich.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a scenic drive, however you are following an important historic pass which was the original route to Skye, used firstly by drovers heading south with their cattle which they swam across the Kyle Rhea strait, then a military road was built by General Caulfield to reach the barracks at Glenelg before being rebuilt by Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and upgraded again in the 1980s.
With most people now reaching Skye by the main road bridge, relatively few people travel over the pass and many are unaware or have forgotten it's previous historical importance as the main highway connecting the island and the mainland.
2. The Glenelg Inn
To celebrate your arrival in the village or to grab a refreshment between your explorations, you should head to the cosy Glenelg Inn for some traditional Highland hospitality. I love the quirky decor in the bar area and it has a great reputation for locally sourced food.
if you time it right you can also catch some live music and in the winter you can sit by the roaring fire.
I would personally love to stay the night here at some point and spend more time exploring the area and relaxing with a whisky while admiring the views to Skye.
3. Iron-Age Brochs
Follow the road from the village to the twin Iron-Age broch towers, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Standing over 10m high and over 2000 years old, they are the best preserved brochs on the mainland.
Many of the original features including internal staircases still exist and it is fascinating to stand inside and imagine the life of the people that occupied them thousands of years before when the area would have been a more hostile place.
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth.
Whenever I visit places like this I always wonder how many modern structures will still be standing in hundreds never mind thousands of years time and can't help but be impressed at the skill of the builders who created such simple yet sturdy constructions that have lasted many, many lifetimes.
4, The Bernera Barracks
The Bernera Barracks were the last of four Highland forts built at strategic points by the Hanoverian Government to garrison soldiers after the Jacobite risings of the early 1700s. Able to house up to 200 soldiers it was positioned to control the crossing from Skye at Kyle Rhea.
Construction began in 1719 and It is thought that stone from the nearby brochs was used in the building of the barracks which continued to be utilised as a military base until 1797 by which time it was already falling in to ruin. By 1800 the rooms were available to rent for a pound per year and by 1830 it was used as a poorhouse and subsequently by victims of the Highland Clearances.
Although a substantial part of this atmospheric structure still stands, it is currently fenced off for safety reasons.
You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
It's an unseasonably warm October's day and I'm standing on the deck of Ros Crana, a colourful Belgian barge which is gliding almost silently down the deep, glassy channel of the Caledonian Canal towards Loch Ness. The surrounding Highland landscape looks twice as imposing with the autumnal colours reflected on the mirror like surface and the crisp air carries a hushed soundtrack of birdsong as we leisurely motor along.
The carbon copy clouds floating lazily on the inky water have a hypnotising effect and only the occasional surface bubble from a hidden fish breaks my trance like state.
I'm on day 2 of a week long cruise through the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery and I'm already wondering if life can get any better than this; sun, scenery, stillness and Scotland.
There are many ways to explore the Highlands of Scotland and a boat may not be the first mode of transport that springs to mind, mainly because not many people realise that it is a viable option.
A trip along the Caledonian Canal will take you from coast to coast through the Great Glen, a Highland wilderness with satisfyingly spectacular scenery. A long straight valley which slices the Scottish Highlands in two, it is home to imposing mountains, native pine forests, tumbling waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and steeped in clan and Jacobite history.
Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath. The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument. The 60 mile long route connects four lochs with man-made waterways and during it's construction, provided much needed employment to those struggling after the Highland Clearances.
Nowadays the area is frequented by pleasure craft and outdoor enthusiasts with options to walk, cycle or canoe along the alluring setting of the canal.
After my week travelling it's length from Inverness to Banavie near Fort William I can confidently say that Caledonian Discovery have devised a unique Classic Cruise that provides a rewarding Highland adventure by land and water which really gets you off the beaten track to uncover the hidden gems away from the tourist traps.
'Options' becomes a familiar word during the trip. While you could choose to stay on board and watch the world go by for a week, you really would be missing out on immersing yourself in the variety of landscape that Scotland has to offer. Daily 'options' are weather dependent but include a mix of sailing, canoeing, cycling and walking which are suitable for all levels of fitness and experience (or lack of experience!).
We had barely motored out of Inverness on day 1 when we were confronted with our first 'options' and I chose to leave the city behind on a flat 5 mile cycle along the canal towpath before meeting up with the barge again at the next lock.
Rust tinted trees and frosty cobwebs lined my route, a constant reminder that autumn had arrived. The traffic noise from Inverness gradually began to fade away, replaced by the occasional put-put of a passing boat and a sense of escape from the urban hustle and bustle began to wash over me. Pedaling casually along the canal-side, my anticipation of a new adventure ahead increased with each rotation of the wheel and by the time I had reached our destination for the night at Dochgarroch Lock I was looking forward to settling into my new home for the week.
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