On the first Saturday in August, every year without fail, Ullapool goes crazy. Oddballs is about raising funds for the local football and shinty teams, and is one of the busiest days of the year.
With stalls and a BBQ (and the Ullapool Pipe band) outside the Seaforth in the afternoon, building up to the start of the three-legged fancy-dress pub-crawl (for some reason the blokes up here always dress as women...) to the live music till late (in the Seaforrth), the day offers loads of fun and laughter.
We spend three nights here at Ardmair Point and I never tired of this stunning location. The views of Isle Martin close by and the mighty Ben Mhor Coigach were totally out of this world. We walked the dogs each morning on the stoney, shingle, crescent shaped beach with only the pretty white holiday cottages for company. A great getaway from the world and a lovely location providing a delight to get up in the morning.
When we arrived at Altan Dhub the sun was shining. This was to be our last stop on our tour of Ross-shire before heading back to Inverness and on to Elgin for a quick family visit. We went down the little steps towards Altan Dhub which translates from Gaelic as Black Water. The views were incredible, solid black rocks, an old black stone bridge and the sparkling waters. Camera at the ready to capture this little beauty, the weather turned in an instant, we were again caught in a white out! We returned reluctantly to the car with poor Shannon now knowing how the sheep felt in this white wilderness. While we were shaking the last of the snow off our coats and off the dogs - well you probably guessed the sun decided to reappear while the car engine turned and we were on our way home. Haste me back!
Inverewe Gardens were the creation of Osgood MacKenzie, he had a vision of creating a garden on the barren rocky shore of Loch Ewe. His dream was realised in 1870. After his death in 1922 his daughter Mairi carried on the work until her death in 1953 the gardens then passed into the care of The National Trust for Scotland. The gardens are open every day throughout the year from 9.30 - 16.00 extended opening times April - September until 21.00. Admission price is £8.00 for adults half price for children and family tickets are available. The gardens have many paths showcasing Gum trees and eucalyptus from Austrialia & New Zealand. Rhododendrums from China and Japan as well as many native plants and some from North and South America. Audio tours are available in four languages at an extra cost the recommended time for your visit is around an hour and a half to two hours. Our visit was in March and the stunning colours were wonderful, I particularly liked the water plants which looked like little highland cows but they do have a name which for now escapes me. We didn't have much time here but if you do make the most of this experience by visiting the shop and maybe have lunch in their excellent restaurant.
Ullapool harbour is very much a working environment. Here you can wander on the broad pier between the two basins, a little caution is required here as you share the space with large lorries. Unlike other harbours there are no fish processing units here - the lorries load up the fish staight from the waiting fishing vessel - how fresh this fish must be. i had to laugh when we discovered the colourful skip :) the name MacClean (pronounced MacClain) was an excellent take on a word and yes the harbour is very clean indeed.
Ullapool is situated in Ross and Cromarty, despite its small size it is the biggest settlement for many miles around. Ullapool saw its roots as a planned town designed by Thomas Telford in 1788 and had its beginnings as a herring port. Although fishing is still important today, little Ullapool future is in the growing tourist industry. The town has everything a visitor could need with a good mix of bars, restaurants and holiday accommodation. Treated as a base to stay it is an ideal place to explore the wonderful sea lochs and mountain senery which surround the town. We only visited the town twice during our stay and I think Ullapool didn't like us very much - the frequent snow showers, during which Ullapool nearly disappeared completely, kept chasing us back to the car! On saying this we did see the most photographed clock in the Highlands and the views of the snow covered haven taken from the road from Ardmair would draw me back here time and again.
Although I said in the title Poolewe is tiny - a village of one :) one shop which stocks everything - one craft shop come little cafe and one hotel it holds so much more in natural beauty and local love. We parked in the free car park and went for a little walk with the dogs. The first thing we noticed was the MacMillan memorial garden such a peaceful spot with picnic tables, a fantastic view of the old bridge with the river tumbling through. The peaceful garden was created by the local Minister of the Free Church of Scotland here in Poolewe in memory of his wife. The MacMillan symbolic daffodils were in full bloom. We then went through the little kissing gate - no mean feat with two dogs in tow to see the fairly recently erected War Memorial dedicated to the local servicemen who lost their lives in WWll. The memorial is a Celtic Cross which stands serenely with the lovely loch as a backdrop.
Before we went down the hill into the little village of Gairloch we stopped at the parking spot on top of the hill. From this high vantage point the village is a dream with its scattering of small white cottages mingling perfectly with the sheep strewn hills. On the horizon we saw the moody colours of the distant dark islands making this a must stop place to get a great overview of the whole land and sea scape. If you are travelling from Poolewe to Gairloch stop by before the village and reward your senses.
Gairloch is the biggest settlement around these parts of Wester Ross with good reason. During the highland clearances the land was and most still does belong to the MacKenzie Clan. The MacKenzie's did not hold with the forced eviction of the tenant farmers, they allowed them to stay where they were joined by other clansmen from neighbouring hamlets. The two bays of Gairloch nestle in the Druim Achada na Sgeilpe a rather long name for an equally long beach. This is a popular destination in summer but winter and spring brings its own magic with few tourists, empty beaches with sea scapes which seem to appear in black, white and grey with just a touch of the golden sands. I loved wandering along Shore Street just looking at the old houses with deep recessed windows and doors to protect the occupants from the worst of the weather - with views such as we saw I can put up with all the weather cares to throw at me - in Gailoch I probably did!
Due to the rugged and isolated location Loch Ewe was used as a Naval Base during WWll. Here many submarines entered from the Atlantic into the sea loch for re fueling. The ships involved in the "Artic Run" would meet up here to join the many convoys which left from here. I read on the information board what life was like for personnel coming from large cities and stationed in this far flung corner. One Medical Officer wrote "When you've been here six month you start talking to yourself. After one year you start talking to the sheep. After eighteen months the sheep start talking to you!" I found Loch Ewe beautiful and at peace with herself. My favourite view was looking back across to Altbea, the Scottish Gaelic name is Loch Lubh but the name Ewe is very apt given the Soldier's lament.
We stopped of at the beach at Gruinard Bay which lies facing the Atlantic Ocean, half way between Ullapool and Gairloch. We enjoyed our walk along this deserted but windswept beach. Cuileann tried a clean up operation here using some kelp - the beach is pristinely clean so she really shouldn't have bothered. Looking out to sea we saw Gruinard Island a place which wasn't clean for around 50 years because in 1942 the Island was contaminated with Anthrax by the Government during WWll. All the sheep on the Island died within days, after the clean up operation they did put a flock of sheep back on the Island and happily they survived.
On the last weekend in September is Ullapool's most famous festival: Loopallu. It's only been held 3 times so far, but ticket numbers doubled from year 1 to year 2, and last year (2007) it was totally sold out. Bands such as 'The View', 'Franz Ferdinand', 'Saw Doctors', etc. in the main tent, as well as smaller 'support bands', there and in the local pubs, make this a truly village wide festival. And who could forget about the Ullapool pipe band!?
I was lucky enough to go and see Franz Ferdinand last year (thanks Julie, and Robert!), and it was awesome! Tickets are about £50 or £60 per person. Its held on the campsite, which can get very muddy - about normal for a UK festival :-)
Every Thursday evening during the summer months, the high school pipe band plays a free to watch session in the calmac ferry parking lot. They start from the town hall, walk past the Seaforth, and then give an hour long performance, including highland dancing. very entertaining to watch, and very popular!
This is a continuation of "The Summer Queen". On Tanera Mor, the only inhabited island, you can go to the post office and buy stamps, have a short walk around, and have a snack. That's about all there is to do on the island though...
This is more of a "Must do" activity. the Summer Queen offers trips to the summer isles every morning (with commentary), and a trip every afternoon to the seal island (Horse Island) The price is reasonable, and the guides are very experienced & knowledgable.
On the Queen you have the chance to see dolphins, Seals, occasionally Orca's, and once in a while a Whale. (A sight not to be missed!)
On the summer isles trip you stop off at Tanera Mor, the only inhabited island, and have the chance to buy summer isles stamps at the post office. This is the only place in the world you can get these stamps, so that alone makes it worth the trip!