The Ziggy Stardust Tour of Caledonia

by matthay44

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I’m a huge advocate of domestic tourism. Contained within our small islands are beautiful mountain ranges, deserted white-sand beaches, primeval rainforests and astonishing cave systems. Yet how often do we look to Britain when we are planning our next travels and adventures? So many of us, myself included, naturally turn to the rest of the world for our holidays and hobbies. If we want mountains we elope to the Alps. For beaches we slink off to Spain, Greece or even Thailand. The search for cultural experiences drags us further afield still, to the great continents outside of Europe.

But aside from the moral benefits (of directly helping our country’s economy and keeping our aviation-based CO2 footprint small), there is a lot to be gained from playing tourist in Blighty. Seeing remote and rugged parts of the U.K. reminds us not only of the geographical variety, both human and physical, that still exists within our small nation, but showcases the spectacular cultural and natural assets we are lucky enough to enjoy too.

With this in mind, I decided last year that I wanted to have a holiday in the Scottish Highlands over Easter and I threw into the mix a vintage VW Westfalia Campervan, something else I had always wanted to do.

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We hired our van from an excellent small business in Falkirk, Vintage VW Campervans, who loaned us “Ziggy Stardust” (yes, all their vans have names…and personalities) for a week and set off north to explore the remote mountains and glens of the highlands.

Driving Ziggy was like wrestling a bear. No power steering, 12-foot gear wires, a top speed of 50 mph and a tricky clutch all took some getting used to. In many ways, I suppose, the driving experience was old-fashioned and charming, but town centres, main roads and twisty highland single-lane mountain passes all became much harder to negotiate in our camper and at times this was slightly stressful. The cockpit was also much noisier than a modern car making conversation at high speeds tricky, unless you resort to shouting. But all this was a small price to pay for looking retro-cool as we navigated some of the most scenic roads in Britain.

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The other massive advantage of a campervan (and it’s an obvious one) is that you can stop and haul up for the night almost anywhere. Our first night saw us sleeping on the shores of Loch Morlich, surrounded by the old caledonian pines of the Rothiemurchus forest and with the Cairngorm mountains as our backdrop.

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The Cairngorms pre-dawn, lit by moonlight

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I was determined that my girlfriend, Anna, would be impressed by the highlands and so I’d hatched an ambitious plan to try and tour a broad sweep of the most spectacular sections of the central and western ranges. The advantage of doing this trip in March was that we wouldn’t encounter the midge, arch-nemesis of any summertime holidayer in northern Scotland. However, the flip-side was that we had to gamble with early-spring weather…and let’s just say that we didn’t leave with any extra chips in our pockets.

On our first day, however, there was a brief weather window; a lull in the winds that allowed us to hike up onto the Cairngorm plateau and behold its wintry splendour. Weirdly, the local ski-hire shop had refused to loan us touring equipment because they believed there to be insufficient snow on the hill tops, but when we got up there it was clear that they were mistaken. Everything was covered in a hard sheen of refrozen snow. It was magnificent, but very hard to walk over without slipping. Skis would have been useful!

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After we’d had our fill of the plateau, we descended back through the Cairngorm ski area, dodging rookie snowboarders and ptarmigans until we arrived back at Ziggy and headed west to Glen Affric, our second stop on the Caledonia tour.

Glen Affric was somewhere that I had been wanting to visit ever since I found out that it existed. It contains one of the largest intact remnants of the Caledonian forest, a primeval woodland that was originally the southwestern outpost of the great boreal forests that cover much of our planet’s northern landmasses. As such, the Caledonian Forest is mainly coniferous, being largely comprised of Scots Pine (though birch, alder, hazel and rowan are important deciduous components), and originally would have housed all the large animals that live in other northern forests: lynx, wolves, bears, beavers and moose to name just a few. At its peak the forest covered some 80% of the highlands, dominating the land north and west of a line from the Clyde to the Tay, but logging by neolithic peoples as well as a slight deterioration in the Scottish climate began a long story of decline which continues to this day. In the far north of the country, as summers cooled and rainfall increased, the remarkable blanket bogs of Caithness and Sutherland drowned the Caledonian forest, forcing it south and east to drier glens. Thereafter humans took over, using the wood for their houses, as fuel, and to build or rebuild boats. The forest dwindled to its current size, a scattering of geriatic fragments covering just 1% of the original expanse.

Glen Affric is one of those fragments. It provides a distorted glimpse of what the highlands used to look like, and by many people’s measure it is the most beautiful glen in Scotland. It was bought by the forestry commission in 1951, when they recognized that it contained a chunk of the Caledonian forest worth protecting and since that time they have been managing the glen’s woodland with preservation in mind. In recent times they have formed a partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the rewilding charity Trees for Life (TfL) and together these organisations are attempting to restore and resurrect a healthy, reproducing area of Caledonian pinewood. [For more about TfL and Scottish Rewilding see my post on ‘Fàsach tìr nan cailleannach – Scotland’s Third National Park’]

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This was how it didn’t look when we visited..

Unfortunately by the time Ziggy actually made it to Glen Affric’s twisty single-lane road, the Scottish weather had caught up with us. We saw nothing but clouds, mist and murk all day. Even through the gloom, though, the scenery was fantastic; grey loch and moody mountain with rich dark-green pines stretching into the distance, their branches splayed in that mature splendour, unique amongst conifers, which gives Scots Pine an oriental feel.

It was so utterly different from the landscapes we now associate with Scotland, the barren moorland wastes we have been conditioned to love. I cannot wait to return there.

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The view on our day..

After Glen Affric our final few days were spent on the west coast, in a part of the northwest highlands (undoubtedly G.R.R.Martin’s inspiration), known as Wester Ross. For me, this really is where Scottish scenery reaches a climax. It is a truly epic landscape in which the mountains of Torridon rise straight out of the sea, tirelessly milking the Atlantic clouds of their rain day after day and creating our country’s most spectacular fjords.

In winter in particular, Wester Ross is brutal and wild; regularly racked by savage storms. It often seems a world away from the lush, green, rolling hills of southern Britain. When we were there snow showers were rattling in off the sea, hiding most of the higher peaks from view. The wind was also so strong (gusting 70 mph) that we had to move our van twice overnight for fear of it being blown over. It wasn’t a great night for sleep.

But the next day when the weather cleared we could see the mountains all around us. Their jagged ridges were now carpeted in fresh snow and their frozen summits shone in the alpenglow. Of course, by the time I’d grabbed my camera some more cloud had rolled in. That is the major drawback of this place; an utterly miserable climate*. But it does keep the crowds away and, even in spite of it, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.

On our way home we had time for one final stop on the pretty beaches of Arisaig. Here, again, the views  were different and amazing; a blend of white sand, distant islands and snow capped mountains.

A final treat came as we drove back to Perth down the so-called ‘Road to the Isles’, with Ben Nevis itself forming the backdrop.

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Beinn Alligin in the background

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Overwhelmingly, I felt that Scotland delivered on this trip. We got scenic beauty, wonderful deserted roads and changeable weather in spades, and it was all thoroughly enjoyable. But there are a few things I would change were I to plan a similar venture again. For starters I would drive less each day, whether by being less ambitious with the grand plan or by allowing longer for the holiday, because 4-5 hours a day behind Ziggy’s vintage steering wheel was too many. It was exhausting.

I would also consider going later in the year, in April or early May when the weather should be slightly warmer or, if I did go back in March, perhaps in a more modern camper, with better insulation, heating and a bit more living room. Early spring in the highlands, particularly at night, is still very cold but cooking without opening any of the Ziggy’s doors was extremely tricky. With all our layers on we felt (and probably looked) like two sumo wrestlers playing a game of twister every time we tried to rustle up a meal. You really had to be comfortable with your travel companion!

But these niggles aside, this trip reminded me of how much Scotland, and the rest of the UK, have to offer. I have been lucky enough to live in Japan and travel extensively around the other side of the world and yet many of my all-time favourite places are still, without a doubt, in this country. Several were discovered on this trip.

So if you’ve never been north of York, never set foot in Wales or seen the spectacular coast of Northern Ireland, perhaps consider on your next trip forsaking foreign sunshine for a Great British adventure. Or, at the very least, ask yourself this question…how far away do I really need to go to see something special or do something amazing?

*In an average year it rains on more than 2/3rds of days in Wester Ross