The Highlands of Scotland Road Trip

Hello my little demons,

As most of you know, I moved to the Highlands of Scotland at the beginning of 2020 and was super excited to explore and share my travels with you guys. But then Covid-19 hit and I was pretty much confined to a single room with a very lovely family for about eight months and wasn’t able to get very far (I wrote two blog posts about this, I’ll leave the links at the end). The whole country; United Kingdom, went into lockdown in March 2020 and it eased for a few months before the majority of the country (at least England) going into lockdown again (and now we’re in another nationwide lockdown – including Scotland!). During those few months lockdown lifted, a friend of mine booked some time off work and decided to drive all the way up to Scotland to see me, and of course, see the Highlands of Scotland!

I firstly want to say, keep safe and don’t do any unnecessary trips, especially if you are in lockdown! If we all do our part, we can get out of this pandemic quicker.

On that note, I also want to say that this trip was done pre-lockdown. We also made a lot of precautions, including having hand sanitizer in the car, which we used very frequently, wore masks when going inside public buildings and kept 2 meters apart from other people. Luckily, the Highlands wasn’t very busy and the majority of it is wild and people-free. My friend also booked a hotel in Inverness for the whole week, we didn’t book any other hotels in the Highlands so as to avoid spreading the virus, so we explored the Highlands one day at time.

Now, I hope you enjoy the rest of this blog!

Day One – Packing and checking into the Hotel

The first day wasn’t that eventful, as my friend was driving over 500 miles from South West England to the Highlands. But, as I had finally found my own place, moving out of the single bedroom in a lovely family’s house into my own very first flat in the Highlands, I was packing my things – not that I had much to pack – and cleaning the room before he arrived.

As I mentioned in the little ‘disclaimer’ in the beginning of the blog post, my friend booked a hotel in Inverness city centre for the week, and had booked a twin room just in case I decided to stay so we could wake up early and set off straight away on adventures. I decided it would be best to just stay there, so I could clean the room before the adventure starts. Not having to go back to the house, clean, move my stuff into my flat half way through the adventure – no time was wasted!

When my mate did arrive, we bundled everything into the car, and because I am a massive motor-head, I have to mention he has a Mark 2 Ford Focus ST, which has been, err… ‘slightly’ modified. I won’t post any photos of it, as it is a little too easily distinguished. Once packed, we just went straight to the hotel, ordered a pizza, bought some beers/cider and chilled in front of the TV.

Day Two – The long way to the Isle of Skye

On day two, this is when the fun starts. We got up with the sole intention of driving to Bealach na Bà or also known as Applecross Path. The actual town of Applecross, at the end of the path, wasn’t the main attraction here, but the road to it, and it’s absolutely stunning!

But, of course, Applecross is a lovely little fishing village too, which deserves a mention. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination.

After a quick stop, having cold pizza left over from last night, a quick loo break, we then headed south to a little village called Plockton. I only really wanted to go because I thought the name was funny (and yes, I kept calling it Plonkton because I’m a child), and I quickly found it on a website of places to visit in the area… but I had no idea it was this pretty!

After a small walk about, and a stop in the local gift shop to get my obligatory postcards (it’s one of the things I collect), we got back into the car and decided Eilean Donan Castle wasn’t that far away and deserves at least a quick stop.

Now, this castle I have heard about and drove past at least twice before, once on the way to the Isle of Skye back in the summer of 2018 and back again only a month later – I had worked on the Isle of Skye for a few weeks, not being able to hack the job so ended up returning to my parents – I remember driving past the Castle and wishing I could stop to see it. The below photo shows you why.

Unfortunatley, it was a little busier than I had expected. We did visit in a Scottish school holiday, so there were a few people about, and it’s a popular tourist destination – well, it is on the way to the Isle of Skye!

Which brings me onto the end of the day, a quick trip over to the Isle of Skye!

Of course, there isn’t much in terms of photos, as we didn’t spend long there. We did, however, drive most of the Island, but the majority of it we were searching for a toilet! Word of warning, if you’re planning on touring about – make sure you empty your bladder as soon as you can! You don’t know when the next toilet will be!

By the time we did a loop and got back to Portree, the light started to fade not long after, so we stopped for a few minutes, enjoying the view of the harbor before heading back to the mainland.

Of course, we stopped by Eilean Donan Castle to see it lit up at night. We did, apparently, drive past Loch Ness on the way back, I did see it a little, but it was too dark to get any decent photos of it – plus, that was planned for another day!

Day Three – Oil Rigs, Lighthouses, Castles and Beaches

Day three and this one started off a little different. My mate told me about this area which holds a graveyard of oil rigs in Invergordon. Okay, so it’s not technically a graveyard, as they’re there to either be repaired or taken apart. But, in a weird way, I was impressed. Not your usual tourist stop.

This was our main point of call when we set off that morning. But as we knew it wouldn’t take all day to look at some oil rigs, we also had a bit of a wander about. We headed north after finding there was a lighthouse not that far away called Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.

We also had to stop off at this strange church and graveyard that we drove past to get to it – and had to drive past on the way back (on Google Maps it’s labeled as Tarbat Discovery Centre).

We then headed up the coast a bit more, to a castle that I had come across while researching places to visit; Dunrobin Castle. And I am glad we decided to stop, because it is absolutely beautiful! I actually had a couple of my photos printed and waiting to be framed!

Lastly, for the day, we also stopped at a beach a little further up as the sun was slowly setting, called Brora. Here we walked along the sand just soaking in the coastline for a bit, before getting a little cold – and worrying about getting stuck in the dark – and decided to head back to Inverness for an early night – we had a long day ahead the next day!

Day four – driving (part) of the NC500

Day four was the big one, the one we both were looking forward to doing: the NC500, or North Coast 500, if you didn’t know what that is, it Scotland’s “Route 66”. As the official website (northcoast500.com) says:

“Embark on one of the world’s most iconic coastal touring routes,
and discover the breath-taking beauty of the North Highlands;
a place where you’ll find white sand beaches, rugged mountains,
hidden gems and a wealth of unforgettable experiences.”

The route pretty much does the whole rim of the Highlands (see image below), although we didn’t do ALL of it – but we did most, in just one day. Most people go anti-clockwise, going north up to Wick first then round to the West coast, but as we were trying to do it all in one day (I don’t recommend this, but it goes to show that it is doable if you want to see if and are strapped for time) we went straight across to Ullapool to do the West coast in the daylight getting to John O’ Groats as the sun was just setting.

But, of course, we saw a lot of other stretches on other days, such as Applewood which you can see on South West of the map and Dunrobin Castle is close to Glospie on the A9 north of Inverness.

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Coast_500

We began our day being woken up pretty early (I think it was about 4 in the morning), because the fire alarm had gone off. We intended to get up early, hoping to hit our first stop just as the sun was rising but 4 in the morning was a little too early.

So, we had to rush outside in our PJs, the dark, damp, cold to wait for the fire engines to come and be allowed back into the building. I can’t remember what the issue was, but it was a false alarm, but luckily I managed to get back to sleep for a few more hours, finally waking up at 6ish.

We already had bought a few things from the shops the previous day, so we didn’t even stop for breakfast. We set off nearly right away (give me time to wake up and put makeup on!) and our first stop was Corrieshalloch Gorge.

Looking at the pictures of this bridge, and it looks harmless, but you get on it and wow, does it make your legs go to jelly! The bridge didn’t just wobble up and down like a typical suspension bridge would, but it also wobbled side to side! My mate even refused to get on it!

We only spent about 15-20 minutes there (feeling as if buying a parking ticket was pointless), but it is possible to walk around it a little, which I wish I did, but we were on a tight schedule to get to the top before sunset!

So, onwards to Ullapool.

I’m sure Ullapool has a lot more going for it than what we saw, but we only really stopped at Tesco’s to stock up on food/snacks, sit along the harbor front to have brunch (it wasn’t quite breakfast, but wasn’t quite lunch) and then set off again on our day trip.

We did stop quickly at Scourie Jetty, which we were extremely impressed to see the water was so clear! But, had to move on as yours truly needed to find a toilet again!

Our next stop was a little bit more north to Balnakeil Beach (Close to Durness on the map above). The one thing that I was hoping to see… and this might sound odd, but sod it… I honestly thought I might see some cows on the beach! I remember looking it up thinking it looks absolutely beautiful and then saw photos of these lovely black cows walking on the sand. Needless to say, I didn’t see cows on the beach, but I am glad I got to see such a beautiful beach… even if it was a little cold!

Before I tell you the next stop, I just want to throw in some photos of the view we had along the way, both between Ullapool and Balnakeil Beach but also after it.

Next was Smoo Cave (yes, you read that right!) and this was one I was really looking forward to! (Also close to Durness). Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who had the great idea to see it, as there were a few other people about – probably not as many as if it was peak season and no pandemic, but there was at least one that was a little loud, but I just ignored that one little annoyance and was impressed nonetheless. Although, I had hoped the cave went a little deeper, but that’s just me and my (weird) interest in caves!

The cave entrance is 50ft high, and is apparently the largest sea cave entrance in Britain (source link). One story I read is that it was believed to be the residence of the Devil, which I found pretty fascinating, but couldn’t find much about it online. If you’d like to read more about Smoo Cave, here are a few interesting and insightful links I did find: https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/durness/smoocave/index.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoo_Cave

The next stop was an unplanned stop, but as we were approaching it we saw how beautiful it was and had to stop – plus, the sun came out for us for a little bit which made it even more beautiful – and actually warmed up a little.

This is Ceannabeinne Beach…

And yes, if it wasn’t cold and it was open, I would totally have done that zip wire!

Our next stop was Melvich Beach, this one was at the request of my mate, and again, you can see why the west coast of Scotland is renown for it’s beaches! Unfortunately, as soon as we got there, it started to cloud over and most of my pictures are dark, and doesn’t do it any justice compared to the previous ones.

After Melvich Beach, the next stop was the most northern part of mainland Britain – No, not John O’ Groats! Dunnet Head! John O’ Groats isn’t the most northern part of Britain, it’s actually the end of the longest distance between two inhabited British points (Land’s End, Cornwall being the most southernly).

Dunnet Head is in fact the most northerly point of Scotland and Britain. Actually, if you want to be exact, Dunnet Head is the area, the tip is ‘known’ as Easter Head (or at least Wikipedia says it is, so it might be true?)

And NOW…. we have John O’ Groats…

As you can see, the sun was starting to fade and it was actually really pretty!

Now, we just had to drive back to Inverness to complete our very long day of driving almost the NC500.

Of course, we had to stop for some fish and chips in Brora (I recommend The Bear Den if you’re ever going that way!) and we had to stop to see the oil rigs lit up at night.

Day five – The last day around Loch Ness

The last day of my little Highland adventure, and we saved the monster hunting for last; Loch Ness Monster!

This might not seem as spectacular as the trip all the way around (almost) the NC500, but there are still some lovely surprises that I wasn’t expecting and just like the NC500, I would love to go back again!

Our first stop was around about Lochend, this was our first real view of Loch Ness.

We then stopped (well, I demanded we stop!) at a shop near Drumnadrochit, close to where Urquhart Castle was located as there was a shop on the side that I had to go in to get my obligitory postcards, and I… might have… got a few. We couldn’t see the castle unfortunately, as due to the virus (I think), they were operating on an appointment only basis. We couldn’t even get a sneak peak of it from somewhere, but our next stop kinda made up for it.

Above is Invermoriston Falls, and we caught it at probably the most beautiful time of the year, one of my favourites; Autumn. Okay, so I love Summer more because it’s warmer and I hate being cold, but Autumn is close second as it’s so pretty!

Next stop was Fort Augustus, we had a wander up the lochs and down to the view point (we did look out for Nessy, but couldn’t see her!)

We then drove back up Loch Ness on the other side, and I’m so glad we did! Although, for about half of it we weren’t driving next to the loch, hell, we couldn’t even see the loch from where we were, but it was absolutely stunning!

We then stopped at the Falls of Foyers. Hoods up… it’s a little wet!

We did manage to get back towards the loch and got some lovely shots before heading back to my flat for a well deserved take-away!

A big shoutout to my mate for driving all the way up to Inverness and putting up with my craziness! (Yes, that is a shell, she’s call Michelle).

Thanks for reading this rather longer post today! I’m hoping to go do the full NC500 in the summer this year (2021), fingers crossed the pandemic eases by then, and I will getting my motorbike licence (CBT first, then going straight to Direct Access for my big-boy licence). And then next year, I am planning to do the American version – the Route 66! (see below for a blog post on that!)

Here are the other Highland blog posts:

Moving to the Highlands
Six Months in the Highlands – Thanks, Covid-19!

Here are a few other travel posts:

Living in Australia – Part 1: Breakup from hell and Brisvegas
Douglas, South Lanarkshire – A Hidden Gem
A small trip to Reading – Wokefield Mansion
Living in Australia – Part 2: My first Christmas away from my parents (Christmas Special!)
Travelling Route 66 for Charity – Update

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Samhain, All Hallows Eve and Ghost Stories – Halloween Special!

Some of my close friends will know, Halloween is my favourite holiday! It’s the one time of year that the majority of people dress up as something ‘scary’ and in a way celebrate the dead and all things weird yet wonderful. Why do I like this? Well, only a select few will know that not only have I got a few ghost stories of my own, as well as been able to predict a few things, but I have a fascination with parapsychology.

For those who don’t know, or probably think they know but are a little misinformed, parapsychology is a study of paranormal psychological phenomena (such as telephathy, psychokinesis and clairvoyance). It’s not to be confused with paranormal investigators! (But ghosts and spirits can be a part of it). And, as far as I am concerned, parapsychology is a little more ‘science’ based than paranormal investigators. There are even legitimate research laboratories set up around the world for the study, one of my favourites is the Koestler Parapsychology Unit based here in Scotland, at Edinburgh University (link at the bottom of the blog post). I am interested in one day completing at least the online course for interest, but have also been considering a PhD and conducting real research (plus, wouldn’t it be a cool talking point to say that my PhD was in parapsychology? I’ll call myself Dr Spooks!)

Continue reading and there might be a few spooky stories of my own!

Where did Halloween Originate from?

Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated each year on October 31st. This year it falls on a Thursday. Many people around the world celebrate it; United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Greece, even China and Japan.

Some people believe Halloween originated from the pagan religious festival ‘Samhain’, others, however, believe that Halloween is a solely Christian celebration.

Samhain

Let’s start with Samhain.

the-festival-of-samhain-is-celebrated-in-glastonbury

Photo from: https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain

Samhain (pronouced “sow-in”), is a Gaelic word for “summer’s end”. It is a typically ancient Celtic spiritual tradition, possibly originating in Ireland 2,000 years ago (the Celts also lived all over the United Kingdom and parts of northern France), celebrated from the 31st October to 1st November (the mid point between autumn equinox and winter solstice) to usher the “dark half of the year” and to welcome the harvest. The Celtic New Year was November 1.

After the harvest, the community began celebrations around a wheel that, due to friction, would create sparks and flames. This is said to represent the sun. Cattle were sacrificed and people would take a flame back to relight their fire in their own homes.

The Celts also believed that a barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, believing that this time of year was associated with death and also believed the dead would cross over during this time.

By 43 A.D., the Celtic territories were conquered by the Roman Empire, and over 400 years, two Roman festivals (Feralia, a day in late October for commemorating the dead and day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees – probably where the tradition of bobbing for apples came from) were combined with Samhain.

It’s possible that Samhain was merged with these two days to eradicate the original pagan festival, as there was a Persecution of paganism under Theodosius I in 381 A.D., who reigned as co-emperor of the Roman Empire. Theodosian created “Theodosian decrees” which meant practicing paganism was banned, visits to temples forbidden, and remaining pagan holidays were abolished, among others. He also declared that pagan feasts that had not yet been rendered Christian ones to now be workdays.

Christian Halloween

The name “Halloween” comes from “All Hallows’ eve”, which, “hallows” means saints. November the 1st was a day to celebrate all the saints and martyrs, originally called All Saints’ Day. October the 31st just so happened to be the eve, which, of course, was also important day of celebration.

But, All Saints’ Day was originally on the 13th of May, originally to celebrate Martyrs, but Pope Boniface IV changed it to the 1st of November and incorporated a celebration for all saints.

In 1000 A.D. the church also made November the 2nd “All Souls’ Day” a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain.

All three days are collectively called Allhallowtide.

Pumpkin Carving

On Halloween, pumpkin carving is a tradition, sometimes called Jack O’Lanterns in America. This is where a pumpkin is hollowed out, a face calved into it’s side and then a candle being placed inside to light it up.

This tradition originated from Ireland, but it wasn’t pumpkins that were originally used, as they weren’t native. Originally turnips, potatoes and other root vegetables were used, it wasn’t until Halloween made it’s way to America that pumpkins were used, as it was found they were easier to calve than root vegetables.

images

Original Jack O’Lantern, Turnip Carving.
https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/jack-o-lantern-turnips-ireland

The name ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is also from an Irish folktale. According to the story, a man called Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him, but Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack could use to buy their drinks. But Jack decided to keep the money and put it in his pocket, next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing.

The Devil was eventually freed, under the condition he would leave Jack alone for one year, and should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.

The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing a tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree so the Devil could not come down until he promised Jack he would not bother him for another ten years.

When Jack died, God didn’t allow Jack into heaven for his actions, but the Devil also didn’t allow him into Hell. Instead, Jack was sentenced to roam Earth with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and became a ghostly figure called ‘Jack of the Lantern’, which eventually was shortened to ‘Jack O’Lantern’.

Trick or Treating

It is suggested that the practice of trick or treating originated from the custom of “Souling”, baking and sharing soul cakes for all christened souls. Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door during Allhallowtide, collect soul cakes in return for a prayer for the dead.

Soul cakes, or soulmass cakes, were often market with a cross, much like the Easter/Lenten hot cross buns.

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Picture from: https://www.instructables.com/id/A-Witchs-Afternoon-Tea-Celtic-Style/
(includes a receipe if you’d like to recreate them yourself!)

Of course, the phrase ‘Trick or treat’ wasn’t used back then, the first mention of this phrase can be dated back to 1951 from a Peanut Comic Strip, but the actual origins are unclear.

Now, trick or treating has become a tradition for children to go knocking on local doors in exchange for sweets, usually dressed up as something scary!

Dressing up

The act of dressing up on Halloween can probably be dated back to Samhain, where villagers would disguise themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away unwanted visitors/spirits.

It was also a tradition shared with Christians, who believed Allhallowtide was the last day for the dead to seek vengeance on their enemies before moving on. People would dress up to avoid being recognised from being a target of this vengeance.

Now, the act of dressing up is left to parties and children who take part in trick-or-treating.

My Own Spooky Experiences

Something doesn’t feel right

A few years ago, probably around 2013, I took a trip to Conwy, Northern Wales (home to the smallest house in Britain) with my partner at the time. We both lived in Warrington so getting to Northern Wales was easy.

It was a cold day, which made for a good day exploring as there weren’t many people about, and so we took a trip to have a look around Conwy Castle.

conwy01
Photograph from www.castlewales.com/conwy.html

At first, it was great, hardly any tourists, because it was the wrong time of year, it was cold but dry and I always love my little days out visiting new sites, so I’m happy exploring too. We had just seen the smallest house in Britain and now we were having a wander around the castle, I was snap happy with my camera. As always.

But as I got closer to one of the towers, I had a very unsettling feeling towards it. I hadn’t had that feeling anywhere else so far in the castle except that one tower. I told my partner I couldn’t go near it and he just looked at me oddly. He was a sceptic (I didn’t hold it against him, but I did hate the looks he used to give me). But he started to read out the board next to the tower, and told me why couldn’t go near…

…it was the prison tower.

Imaginary Friend

This is a story that I will be turning into a book eventually, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I will explain a little about it.

My experiences with all things paranormal started when I was a child. When I was very young, probably still at primary school (ages 5 to 7), my brother and I had an imaginary friend; Sammy.

I don’t remember much about this because I was still quite young, so most of my memories have gone, the only memories I do have was remembering telling my mum that my missing hairbands were probably lost because Sammy hid them.

My mum told me that this imaginary friend, Sammy, used to live in the corner of our ceiling and would hide things for fun.

My mother at the time was a sceptic, and she believed my brother and I were just blaming things going missing on an imaginary friend, not wanting us to get into trouble. My brother also had a very vivid imagination when he was young, mum would get teachers from school worried about some of the stories he used to tell. Mum still to this day remembers the story about the Tiger in the backgarden. I’m suprised my brother never followed in my footsteps and became a writer!

But her scepticism quickly vanished after what she thought my brother and I had outgrown our imaginary friend became a lot more than just an imaginary friend…

She used to work at the primary school my brother and I went to, and because of such, became friendly with a few of the other mothers. One lady had approached my mum asking her for advice, asking if my brother and I ever had imaginary friends. After my mum gave her advice that “don’t worry, they grow out of it.” The mother proceeded to tell my mum that her son had an imaginary friend…

…called Sammy…

…who lives in the ceiling…

…and hides things.

My mum told me this a few years ago, and I can’t say I was surprised, after all the other things that had happened to me over the years… she also explained that the other mother’s son told her that Sammy was looking for his parents. Somehow we figured out that Sammy had died in an accident, car accident or something similar.

But I have tried to search for information on such an accident in the area I grew up (near Laws Woods/Park, in Swindon, Wiltshire) and I couldn’t find anything in any records. Although, a lot of locals have had ghostly encounters in Lawns Woods, my mother and I have heard a few stories in the area, a woman in white searching for something, ghost animals, even amature ghost hunters went to the area and believe they saw a woman in white being carried.

Lawns Woods used to be home to the Goddard Family, with remains of an old church and graveyard apparently for the family’s pets, an old ice house up on the hill, remains of an old sunken garden, a site where Tutor Mansion used to sit, then an 18th Century Mansion, both no longer there. But with so much history in the area, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few ghostly goings on in the area. Including the ghost of Sammy that used to haunt the children in the area. I just wish I could find more information about it.

References:

Here are a few links if you’re interested in reading more about some sites I mentioned in this blog post:

Koestler Parapschology Unit

Lawn Park

Goddards in Swindon

Paranormal activity in Lawns Park

History of Halloween

History of Samhain

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Keeping in theme of the spooky, check out these links below.

New Story idea! – Butterfly House
Rose Garden Sanatorium – Prologue
New Story Idea – “I fell in Love with a Psychopath”
My Normal – A Short Story by Penny Hooper

If you’re interested in my other travel/historical posts, check these out:

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November…
Douglas, South Lanarkshire – A Hidden Gem
Best places to visit in South Lanarkshire
Living in Australia – Part 1: Breakup from hell and Brisvegas

Don’t forget to like this post and follow me!
And feel free to comment with any of your spooky stories!