The string of whitewashed stone cottages that stretch either side of the pier at Ullapool shine out across Loch Broom, the longest sea loch in the North-west Highlands. Behind them lies the immaculate grid-pattern of village streets which bears witness to the fact that Ullapool was a strictly planned settlement.
In 1788 the British Fisheries Society founded a fishing station at Ullapool to take advantage of the herring fishing industry which had flourished in Loch Broom since the 16th century. Less than 100 years later the area had been overfished and the herring shoals had vanished. Many of the houses originally built by the society have survived, however; these include the fishermen’s cottages along Shore Street, the Arch Inn and the old herring-curing factory which now houses a tiny museum.
Despite the collapse of the herring industry, however, Ullapool has flourished. Its attractions now include sea-angling for whiting and skate, and game fishing for salmon and trout in the Ullapool River and the nearby lochs.
Boat trips visit the Summer Isles; a ferry crosses Loch Broom to Allt na h-Airbhe; and the Ullapool-Stornoway ferry service links the port to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
LITTLE LOCH BROOM
Rocky crags and steel-grey streams tumble down towards the loch’s southern shore from the heights of An Teallach – the ‘forge’. The mountain is so called after the curls of smoke-like mist which permanently wreathe its summit ridge.
Near the village of Dundonnell, the Dundonnell River flows into the loch through low-lying woodlands. The single-track road along the eastern bank of the river leads through green pastures and thickets of beech, lime and chestnut before traversing barren hillsides yet again. After about 4 miles, at the point where the road turns sharply west towards Badrallach, a footpath leads north-eastwards for 1 mile from the road to the inn at Allt na h-Airbhe from where, during the summer, a ferry runs four times daily across Loch Broom to Ullapool.
Although the coast of Wester Ross is on the same latitude as Siberia and Hudson Bay, the North Atlantic Drift softens the blast of the prevailing winds. Subtropical plants and exotic trees flourish in gardens near the sea. The red-sandstone hills shelter sandy coves which are generally safe for bathing. Villages which once made their living from the sea are now small tourist resorts and good bases for fishing, hill-walking and touring.
Viewed at its best from Gruinard Hill, the shore of Gruinard Bay is indented with pink sandy coves formed of red sandstone. These make it one of the most beautiful bays on the west coast.
The small road along the western shore passes the remains of a ruined chapel, on a site where St Columba is said to have founded a church. Further along the road to Mellon Udrigle, a track on the left leads over the purple windswept moors of the peninsula to Slaggan, where the ruins of a deserted village perch above a bay of curving golden sand.
Access to Gruinard Island is prohibited. During the Second World War the island was used for experiments in germ warfare. Anthrax was introduced, killing the sheep on the island. Scientists make annual inspections, but the land is still contaminated.
The best views of the loch and the low-lying Isle of Ewe are obtained from the main road between Aultbea and Poolewe, and from the smaller road along the loch’s western shore, which runs through scattered crofting communities out to Cove. Along this shore are several small bays which are safe for bathing. Their pink sands tone with the turquoise of the sea, the russet of the bracken and the emerald of the foreshore grass to give the landscape an exotic colouring.
At a viewpoint just north of Cove stand concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements -the forlorn remains of a wartime defensive site. During the Second World War, North Atlantic convoys assembled in the sheltered waters of Loch Ewe, and an anti-submarine boom was stretched across its mouth. Even today there is a naval presence on the loch. Across the water at Mellon Charles there is a Royal Navy depot, and in the hillside behind Aultbea a NATO oil fuel depot.
The loch contains haddock, coalfish, cod and pollack, and boats for sea-angling may be hired in Aultbea.
PARADISE WON The exotic hwerewe Gardens live on as a tribute to Osgood MacKenzie, who turned a wilderness into a paradise.
Loch Ewe lies on almost the same line of latitude as Leningrad and Labrador; and yet Inverewe Gardens on its shore are a riot of subtropical colour. The transformation of a barren peninsula of red sandstone into a green oasis of fertility was the vision of one man – Osgood MacKenzie.
MacKenzie, a Scottish laird, acquired the peninsula in 1862. The only soil was acid black peat, and the only vegetation it supported was some stunted heather and a single dwarf willow 3 ft high. MacKenzie realised, however, that the North Atlantic Drift, which gives the coasts of Ireland and Scotland their mild, humid weather, might encourage plants to grow. So he started to plant trees as shelter-belts against the strong prevailing winds, and to replace the stony soil with creels of the blue clay that was washed up on the shore. Over the next 60 years he created and improved his wild, woodland gardens.
Today, Inverewe Gardens are owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Paths meander through 64 acres of Monterey pines and magnolia, rhododendrons and hydrangea, eucalyptus and exotic shrubs from all over the world. No matter what time of year it is, some plant will be in bloom.
The cluster of stone houses which forms Poolewe stands on a narrow neck of land between Loch Maree and Loch Ewe, and is divided by the waters of the River Ewe which bound through the village. In summer Poolewe relies heavily on tourism, for it is an excellent place from which to visit Inverewe Gardens and to tour Loch Ewe. There are boats for hire; pleasant walks to the wooded banks of Loch Maree; and fishing in the nearby rivers and lochs.
Twenty years ago Gairloch and the nearby port of Charlestown made their living from the sea. These days, however, fishing fleets have to travel further for large hauls. As a result, the wooded inlet which harbours the pier at Charlestown is less busy than it used to be, and the village’s main income comes from the tourist industry. Gairloch has some of the finest scenery in the West Highlands. It stands at the head of Loch Gairloch, with the sheltered bays at Shieldaig and Badachro to the south, the sandy beaches around Rubha Reidh to the north and magnificent views westward across The Minch to Skye.
The village has a quarter-mile curve of safe and sandy beach, where windsurfing and sailing are popular. Visitors can hire boats for sea-angling or acquire permits to fish for brown trout, sea trout and salmon.
The.peninsula ending in the headland of Rubha Reidh – or Ru ‘Re as it is abbreviated locally – projects north of Gairloch into The Minch. From the lighthouse at the tip of the promontory there are fine views of the Hebrides.
A single-track road passes the sandy beach at Strath and the sweep of dune-fringed beach at Big Sand, before winding across moorland speckled with sprigs of purple heather. Many of the stone cottages along the 9 miles to Melvaig are in ruins – a sad sign that it is now very difficult to make a living out of crofting. Nevertheless, the swathes cut into the moors to extract peat for fuel are proof that the local communities still follow their traditional way of life.
From Melvaig the road to the lighthouse is closed to private cars; but it is possible to walk the last 3 miles, along cliffs indented with coves and caves.
The first stretch of the road to Redpoint meanders gently between banks of birch and oak trees along the southern bank of Loch Gairloch. It passes Badachro-a small village at the head of a bay sheltered by a string of outlying islands. Then the character of the landscape changes. To the east, low-lying moorland where Highland cattle graze stretches away towards the mountains of Wester Ross. To the west, grey seas flecked by waves race in across The Minch from Skye.
The rocky coastline breaks occasionally to give way to a series of red sandy bays backed by dunes, where it is safe to swim. The road ends at Redpoint; a footpath, however, continues along the coast to Diabaig. Small boats may be hired in Badachro.
The northern bank of Upper Loch Torridon is bounded by ranges of red-sandstone mountains, whose quartzite caps sometimes catch the sun and flash a brilliant white. They include Beinn Eighe and Liathach whose series of peaks rise to more than 3,000 ft. Torridon – an area of some 16,000 acres -is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The Trust’s visitor centre offers introductions to the walks in the area and to the wildlife, which ranges from Britain’s largest land mammal, the red deer, to its smallest, the pygmy shrew.
A single-track road snakes 9 miles along the northern bank of Upper Loch Torridon to Diabaig. To the north rises Beinn Alligin, while to the south the boulder-strewn slopes descend to the green pastures of crofting villages. The road climbs through the Bealach na Gaoithe – the Pass of the Winds -past streams which pour into peaty lochs, until suddenly a view of the sea opens out to the west.
At the bottom of a steep descent stand the whitewashed cottages of Lower Diabaig. The village has its own loch – a bay sheltered by grey cliffs which plunge into the water. Small boats for exploring the lochs may be hired in the village.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Beinn Eigne National Nature Reserve (NCC). Daily.
Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve (NTS and NCC). Daily.
Laei Forest Garden. 7 miles Sof Ullapool. Daily.