Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.

 

2015: a great year for National Trust and English Heritage visits

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust for five years now. We even qualify for the Seniors discount from January! And we’ve been members of English Heritage for just a year.

But we will be renewing our membership of both organizations in 2016. Why? Because they both offer excellent value for money, and certainly give purpose to our trips out, whatever the weather. Be it a visit to a stately home, a ruined castle, a country park, or a beautiful garden, there are so many properties to visit and experience so many aspects of our cultural heritage.

Looking back on our 2015 visits we have certainly had our money’s worth, and annual membership has more than paid for all the entrance fees we would have had to pay in any case. And much more!

So here is a pictorial summary of our great visits this past year, beginning in early April and ending just last week when we visited Charlecote Park to see the Christmas decorations. And there are links to individual posts about each visit.

NATIONAL TRUST

Lyveden New Bield (9 April)

20150409 092 Lyveden

Brodie Castle (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

Brodie Castle

Culloden Battlefield (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

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Inverewe Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 1 June)

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Arduaine Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 7 June)

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Rufford Old Hall (8 June)

The main entrance in the seventeenth century wing.

Tredegar House (18 June)

Tredegar House, near Newport in South Wales

Chirk Castle (1 July)

20150701 147 Chirk Castle

Hawford Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 010 Hawford dovecote

Wichenden Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 022 Wichenford dovecote

Hardwick Hall (12 August)

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Newark Park (28 August)

20150828 031 Newark Park

Croome Park (12 October)

20110328046 Croome Court

Charlecote Park (16 December)

The entrance hall.

ENGLISH HERITAGE

Rushton Triangular Lodge (9 April)

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire

Stokesay Castle (14 April)

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Wroxeter Roman City (14 April)

20150414 130 Wroxeter Roman city

Kenilworth Castle (21 April)

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Goodrich Castle (21 May)

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

St Mary’s Church, Kempley (21 May)

20150521 135 St Marys Kempley

Witley Court (9 July)

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Hardwick Old Hall (12 August)

Looking down six floors in the Old Hall. And the magnificent plasterwork on the walls.

Wenlock Priory (18 August)

20150818 043 Wenlock Priory

Ironbridge (18 August)

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ironbridge

The end of the road . . .

I’ve been deceived all these years!

Scotland 123I have to admit being disappointed—but only ever so slightly—to discover that John o’ Groats is NOT the northernmost point on the British mainland (although apparently it is the spot where the ‘last house’ is situated.

Since everyone who undertakes a marathon walk, run or bike-ride the whole length of the country, usually for charity, starts or ends their journey in John o’ Groats (to or from Land’s End in Cornwall, with more than 800 miles between them). I don’t know why, but I’d always wanted to visit John o’ Groats. I guess because it appears in the news on a regular basis, an iconic location in our nation’s geography. So it was one of the places we included on our itinerary during our recent Scottish Highlands and Island road trip.

The actual most northern spot on the mainland is Dunnet Head, about 15 miles to west of John o’ Groats. Turns out that Land’s End is not the most southerly point either. That would be the Lizard Point, but which is actually closer to John o’ Groats by less than 10 miles.

We arrived in John o’ Groats under brilliant blue skies on the Saturday afternoon, and enjoyed clear views over the Pentland Firth, the stretch of what can be perilous waters between the mainland and the Orkney Islands, less than a dozen miles north. After wandering around the harbour, we than drove the couple of miles east to Duncansby Head, lighthouse and Stacks, enjoying even more spectacular views over the cliffs.

Since our B&B accommodation for the night was in Thurso we drove there via Dunnet Head and its lighthouse to see the most northern point of the mainland for ourselves.

In the late afternoon sun we could even see the tip of the Old Man of Hoy sea stack above a headland on the northeast coast of the large island of Hoy immediately north.

 

Returning to Hogha Gearraidh after 49 years

It was summer 1966. I was seventeen, and decided to visit the Outer Hebrides, more specifically North Uist, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had just established a new reserve at Balranald near the village of Hougharry (Hogha Gearraidh in Scots Gaelic) on the west coast. Originally the reserve was aimed at protecting breeding populations of two special summer visitors: the corncrake and the red-necked phalarope.  Sadly, the phalarope no longer breeds at Balranald.

So, with rucksack on my back, including a one-man tent and all the paraphernalia necessary to support me for a couple of weeks, I set off for Glasgow (where I spent a few nights with my eldest brother Martin and his wife, Pauline) before taking my first ever flight on a Vickers Viscount from Glasgow International Airport (formerly known as Abbotsinch) to Benbecula airport at Balivanich.

I pitched my tent in front of the small cluster of houses in Hougharry, and was invited in for several meals by the old lady with whom the recently-appointed (and temporary) reserve warden was lodged. If I remember, her name was Mrs MacDonald, and she was very kind and hospitable. I don’t remember the name of the young warden. He had just graduated in geography from the University of Hull. Well, I didn’t get to see the corncrake nor the red-necked phalarope, and when I visited again in 1967 I was also unlucky. But the experience was wonderful, and I fell in love with the Outer Hebrides, particularly North and South Uist. What a combination of nature! The machair and all its plant and animal diversity, the lochs and mountains, not to mention the sea life such as grey seals and killer whales. Pure air, no pollution!

I must have been almost the first visitor ever to Balranald in 1966. And I have just returned from a trip to North Uist—a walk down memory lane after 49 years. Still no corncrakes, however, though we did hear them.

Of course the islands have changed a great deal over the past five decades. Almost all of the old whitewashed and thatched croft cottages have disappeared, once so typical of the Uist landscape. Many cottages are now roofless shells, the roofs presumably deliberately removed to remove any property tax liability. There has been an enormous house building boom in the past 20 years or so, I guess. I was told that with government grants it was cheaper to build new, energy-efficient housing (necessary against the icy blasts that pour in from the North Atlantic) than to renovate.

I wasn’t able to work out where I had camped in Hougharry nor which was Mrs MacDonald’s house. But I was pleased that I had been able to return and revive good memories from my youth. We stayed a couple of nights at a B&B at Balranald, overlooking the reserve, with Hougharry on the horizon. Run by Mrs Julie Ferguson, Balranald View was excellent. Julie was extremely welcoming, and her scones (with butter and mixed fruit jam) melted in the mouth.

North Uist towards Lochmaddy

Looking southeast and southwest from South Clettraval, east of Hosta on North Uist.

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Looking south towards Kirkibost Island from South Clettraval

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The bay at Hougharry with the village in the background.

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Along the machair around the bay at Hougharry.

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Kilmuir Cemetery, from Hougharry village.

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A typical North Uist landscape, south of Hougharry.

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Red deer on the B894 to Loch Euport, near Sidinish.

Road to Lochmaddy North Uist

The mountains of North Uist with Eabhal on the right, taken from the A867 to Lochmaddy.

waiting for the ferry at Lochmaddy

A dreek morning wait for the ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig on the Isle of Skye.

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Our B&B accommodation at Balranald, where hostess Julie Ferguson and her husband Roddy made us very welcome. Roddy was born in Hougharry.

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Julie Fowlis

As a fan of the BBC series Transatlantic Sessions, I have increasingly become a fan of singer and TV presenter Julie Fowlis who has appeared regularly on that programme, and who I see from time-to-time whenever I tune into BBC Alba on catch-up TV. Well, she hails from North Uist—from Hougharry, in fact (so Julie Ferguson told me).

Here she is talking about her Hebridean roots and music. It’s a six minute film.

This song seems to have almost become her signature tune now: Hùg Air A’ Bhonaid Mhòir (Celebrate the Great Bonnet).

And in this song, she sings about The Dun-Coloured Old Men of Hoghaigearraidh (Bodaich Odhar Hoghaigearraidh)

 

 

Gardens, lochs and castles

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust since 2011, and so we took advantage of reciprocal membership to visit several National Trust for Scotland properties during our recent Highlands and Islands holiday.

Gardens always feature high on our list of National Trust “to do’s”. Steph’s the gardener at home however. I’m just the admirer and mow the grass. But when we found that we’d be quite close to one of Scotland’s most important gardens, Inverewe in Wester Ross, we made plans to visit before crossing to the Outer Hebrides. We came across the other big garden, Arduaine in Argyll & Bute, quite by chance. It was just a few miles from our accommodation on the penultimate night of the holiday. The third garden was attached to Brodie castle just east of Inverness that we visited on Day 3. We turned up at Brodie only to find that the castle was not open to the public on a Friday, so we spent an hour wandering around the small garden and learning more about daffodils! More of that later on.

Inverewe Garden
This is an oasis of almost tropical splendour on the banks of Loch Ewe in northwest Scotland, about 50 miles southwest of Ullapool.

We spent the night of Day 5 of our holiday at Braemore about 12 miles south of Ullapool at the southern end of Loch Broom.

Loch Broom from the south.

Loch Broom from the south.

Having booked passage on the 17:30 ferry to cross over to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis from Ullapool, we had the whole day to visit Inverewe. The weather was not promising when we started out for Inverewe, with low cloud and spitting rain. Typical Scottish weather you might think. However, within just a few miles, the clouds lifted and we were treated to a bright sunny day for the rest of our journey and the two to three hours we spent walking around the garden before heading back to Ullapool for the ferry. Given that a major storm was expected later that evening, and as ferry crossings had been disrupted in previous days we did try to change our booking to the morning crossing at 10:30. No such luck as it was already fully booked. So we just went ahead with the plan we’d already made—and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Inverewe Garden.

Scotland 373Opened in 1862, the garden was the brainchild of one Osgood Mackenzie who, having planted 100 acres of woodland to protect the garden, set about creating a sub-tropical paradise at almost 58°N, and nurtured by the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, full of exotic plant species.

Inverewe map

It was taken into ownership by the National Trust for Scotland in 1952. Inverewe is famous for its rhododendrons and azaleas (some of which were damaged in gales in early 2015, especially some very old and large specimens), and is laid out in informal blocks representing different parts of the world, such as China, Tibet, Japan, New Zealand and the like. There are even tree ferns and several specimens of the very rare Wollemi pine from Australia.

Arduaine Garden
Just 20 miles south of Oban beside the A816 (and 12 miles short of the village of Ford where we had a room booked) Arduaine Garden was a complete surprise. We originally passed it at about 17:30. It was already overcast, windy and drizzly, but we pulled in anyway to get our bearings and see when the garden was open. 09:00 to sunset! So we decide that if the weather was fine the following morning we would retrace our steps and spend a couple of hours there before re-retracing our steps to Ford, Loch Awe and on to Loch Lomond.

Scotland 877Established in 1898 by James Arthur Campbell on a peninsula jutting out into Loch Melfort (and with views from the headland all the way to the mountains on the Isle of Mull to the northwest), Arduaine lies at 56°N. It is full of rhododendrons and azaleas that were still in full bloom compared to what we had encountered at Inverewe. The garden was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1992.

Arduaine has a more intimate feel about it than Inverewe, and perhaps for that reason I enjoyed my visit here more than to Inverewe.

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Or was it because there were far fewer visitors at Arduaine? Afterall, we did arrive just a short while after garden opened and we had it almost to ourselves for the duration of our visit.

Brodie Castle
Lying just to the west of Forres on the north coast of Scotland, Brodie Castle has been home to generations of the Clan Brodie, and the last clan chief lived there until 2003.

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The castle was built in the 16th century. Major Ian Brodie, the 24th Brodie of Brodie, began assembling a collection and breeding daffodils in 1899, and eventually there were more than 400 different varieties grown. Some have been lost, but the National Trust for Scotland is attempting to re-establish this important collection. I never knew there was so much to daffodils.

Fàilte gu Alba – expansive landscapes and big skies

During our recent tour of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands we traveled from Fife (where we had stopped the first night after traveling up from the English Midlands) up through Perthshire and Aberdeenshire, Speyside and the north coast and over to Inverness. From there we worked our way up the northeast coast to John o’ Groats and across the top of Scotland and down through Sutherland. We crossed over to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist, Benbecula, and Eriskay) from Ullapool, then came back to the mainland via Skye. From there, via the Kyle of Lochalsh, we traveled down the west coast to Argyll & Bute, and over to Loch Lomond on our last day.

I took over 1000 photos on my Nikon D5000. On many occasions I felt I could only do justice to the landscapes we saw by taking a panorama of individual shots and combining them into stitches. The result for some is more than acceptable. For others, the blending between the individual frames is not even, but they nevertheless allow you to appreciate the beauty of these outstanding Scottish landscapes. Click on each of the photo below to open a full size version. I hope you enjoy these photos as much I did taking and editing them.

A939 towards Ladder Hills

Taken from the A920 between Huntly and Dufftown, looking southwest.

1746 Culloden battlefield, east of Inverness.

The last battle fought on British soil was fought at Culloden (just east of Inverness) 0n 16 April 1746, when the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the Hanoverian ‘Butcher Cumberland’.

This bridge, west of Inverness, carries the A( across the Moray Firth into Ross and Cromarty

This bridge, west of Inverness, carries the A9 across the Moray Firth on to the Black Isle of Ross and Cromarty. Taken from North Kessock on the north shore, looking east.

Dunnett Head looking eastwards Thurso

From Dunnet Head – the most northerly point in mainland Britain – looking east towards Thurso and John o’ Groats.

On A836 westwards

On the A836 westwards from Thurso.

Coldbackie

At Coldbackie, near the Kyle of Tongue, on the A836.

Kyle of Tongue

Crossing the causeway at the Kyle of Tongue on the A838, west of Thurso.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll, on the A838, looking southwest from near the mouth of this sea loch on the north coast of Scotland just east of Durness.

Nr Rhiconich

Looking westwards along Loch Inchard, near Rhiconich on the A838 in northwest Sutherland.

Above Laxford Bridge

Loch Laxford, on the A838 in northwest Sutherland.

Laxford Bridge

Approaching Laxford Bridge, looking southwest , on the A838.

Above Loch a' Chairn Bhain

Loch a’ Chairn Bhain, on the B869 heading west after Unapool.

Towards Drumbeg

Near Drumbeg, on the B869, heading west.

Drumbeg Viewpoint

Drumbeg viewpoint, on the B869.

South on A837 Lochinver to Loch Assynt

Heading east on the A837 between Lochinver and the junction with the A894.

Strathcanaird

At Strathcanaird on the A835, looking west towards Ben More Coigach, Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor.

Towards Inverewe

Little Loch Broom on the A832 towards Inverewe (from Ullapool).

Gruinard Bay

Gruinard Bay along the A832 towards Inverewe Garden.

Near Inverewe

Looking north across Gruinard Bay (on the A832) to the mountains of the Coigach beyond Ullapool.

Inverewe foreshore

The foreshore at Inverewe Garden, looking south at the southern end of Loch Ewe.

Inverewe walled garden

The walled garden at Inverewe and the southern end of Loch Ewe.

Lewis landscape north of Stornaway

The landscape of Lewis north of Stornaway.

Butt of Lewis

The Butt of Lewis, almost 59°N. Next stop: North America. Cliffs covered with fulmars, shags, and kittiwakes. And sea pinks, of course.

South Harris

The mountains of South Harris.

Sound of Harris

Crossing the Sound of Harris (with Harris on the horizon) to Berneray and North Uist.

Road to Lochmaddy North Uist

On the A865 heading east towards Lochmaddy from Bayhead in North Uist.

North Uist towards Lochmaddy

Looking southeast over North Uist with the mountain Eaval near Lochmaddy on the left, and the mountains on the right in the distance on South Uist.

Mtns of South Uist

The mountains of South Uist (looking east) with Ben Mhor on the right.

Machair and mountains at Garrynamonie South Uist

Machair and mountains at Garrynamonie, South Uist (looking east).

Machair at Mhalacleit

Machair at Mhalacleit, South Uist.

Ben Mhor - South Uist

Ben Mhor on South Uist, looking west from Loch Eyenort.

Eriskay

Houses on Eriskay, looking southwest towards Barra.

Skye

The hills of north Skye looking south towards Staffin.

The Cuillins from the west

The Cuillins of Skye, looking southeast along the A863 near Drynoch.

Eilean Donan Castle

Looking southwest along Loch Long at Conchra (near Dornie on the A87) towards Eilean Donan castle.

Loch Awe

Looking northeast from the southern end of Loch Awe in Argyll & Bute towards the mountains of Glencoe.

Loch Lomond

Looking north along Loch Lomond at Inverbeg.

In due course, I’ll be adding more photos to individual posts I am drafting about particular places we visited on our 2,260 mile trip.

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road . . . Fàilte gu Alba!

scotlandWell, we took the high road and the low road, and have just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable road trip road Scotland.

Over 2,250 miles in 13 days!

While I’ll be posting individual stories about the many things we did and saw during this trip, here are some of the highlights.

The decision to tour Scotland this year was almost a ‘spur of the moment’ one. Our daughter in Minnesota and her family had originally planned to come over to the UK later in the summer. But for various reasons this hasn’t worked out. But we had already decided that if they visited us this year, we would not travel to the USA as we have been doing annually for the past five years. So I suggested to Steph that we should make a road trip right round Scotland – to the Highlands and Islands. And that is what I began planning in about mid-February. By the beginning of April Hannah had told us that they would not be able to travel to the UK this year. So we have decided to visit Minnesota in any case, in September, just in time to see Callum begin school.

I’ve visited many different parts of Scotland on other trips, and have even been to the Outer Hebrides twice—almost 50 years ago! While Steph lived in Edinburgh for about 8 months in 1972-73, she never traveled further north. Neither of us had been ‘right round the top’. So we anticipated quite an adventure as we planned each stage of the trip. We had booked all our Bed & Breakfast (B&B) stops ahead of travelling, and the ferries, so it was just a case of enjoying the route and wherever our fancy took us each day. I have provided links to all the routes we took.

Day 1: 27 May (326 miles) Home to Comrie (Fife)
Route

This was a ‘getting to Scotland’ day from our home in Worcestershire. Just a long drive up the M6/M74 motorways, and to visit with my sister Margaret and her husband Trevor in Fife for one night.

Day 2: 28 May (163 miles) Comrie to Huntly (Aberdeenshire)
Route

Our destination was Huntly in north Aberdeenshire, which is the home town of my sister-in-law Pauline. I first visited there in November 1965 for Martin and Pauline’s wedding. Crossing the rolling hills north of Fife, we headed to Blairgowrie in Perthshire (where we spotted a couple of red squirrels in the woodland beside the River Ericht), and then into the Cairngorms National Park through Glen Shee. We also passed by Balmoral. No, Her Majesty was not at home.

Day 3: 29 May (143 miles) Huntly to Braes of Kinkell (Ross & Cromarty)
Route

From Huntly we headed west through Speyside, and then up to the coast just west of Inverness, visiting two National Trust for Scotland properties at Brodie Castle (which was unfortunately closed) and the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.

Day 4: 30 May (172 miles) Braes of Kinkell to Thurso (Caithness)
Route
This was totally new territory for me. Although the day started cloudy the sun soon broke through. And by the time we reached John o’ Groats it was a beautiful late afternoon, and there were clear views across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands. We could even see the Old Man of Hoy. After a visit to Duncansby Head lighthouse, we stopped off at Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on mainland Britain) before heading to our B&B in Thurso.

Day 5: 31 May (182 miles) Thurso to Ullapool (Ross & Cromarty)
Route
Sunday morning dawned drab and drearydreek as they say in Scotland. The day did not look promising as we headed west out of Thurso, past the former nuclear power plant at Dounreay (in the long process of decommissioning), towards Durness and down the coast of northwest Sutherland to Ullapool where we would take the ferry over to the Isle of Lewis on the following day. The weather forecast was not promising, with strong storms expected for the next 48 hours or so. But we were determined to take in as much of the journey as the low clouds would permit. However, by about 2 pm, the clouds had lifted, the sun had come out, and we were treated to magnificent views of some of the most impressive mountains in Scotland. A side excursion around a peninsula near Lochinver was certainly the highlight of today’s journey, along a very narrow, twisty, and at times very steep road with multiple passing places. It was along this road that I’m sure I saw an osprey hovering above the loch to the side of the road.

Day 6: 1 June (91 miles) Ullapool (via Inverewe Garden) to Stornaway (Isle of Lewis, by ferry)
Route
With a major storm due to hit later that day, we did contact the ferry operator about transferring to a morning crossing to Stornaway. But to no avail. The boat was fully booked. Not to worry. We just got on with our day as planned, and that was a side trip to the National Trust for Scotland’s Inverewe Garden, about 40 miles from our overnight B&B south of Ullapool. Although we started our journey in the rain, the clouds soon parted and it was bright and sunny by the time we reached the garden, and then spent more than a couple of hours wandering around this fascinating site. It’s special because plants flourish here so far north because of the influence of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream (more correctly the Northern Atlantic Drift).


We were back in Ullapool in time to catch the ferry at 17:30 to Ullapool, and departed under increasingly threatening skies. It was pouring with rain by the time we docked in Stornaway at 21:00. While the sea was definitely choppy, the crossing was smooth on the new and larger ferry, Loch Seaforth that entered service with Caledonian MacBrayne only a couple of months earlier.

Day 7: 2 June (150 miles) Stornaway to Tarbert (Isle of Harris)
Route
We had three targets for today’s trip around Lewis: the Butt of Lewis at the northern tip; the Calanais Stones, and the iron age village at Bostadh on Great Bernera. It was heavily overcast as we headed north, and the skies became even more lowering as we approached the Butt of Lewis. In fact, it was raining very heavily when we arrived, and blowing a gale. The winds didn’t die down, but the rain did stop for a while allowing us to have a walk around, and take care not to be blown over the cliff.

The standing stones at Calanais are indeed impressive—mystical even, and I’ll be writing a special blog post about these in due course. With some due diligence, bobbing and weaving I was able to take all the photos I wanted, and hide any other visitors behind the various stones, so it seems as though Steph and I were the only visitors. The camera never lies!

We had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach Great Bernera. Well, cross the Atlantic is a bit of an exaggeration. Great Bernera is an island just 100 m across a channel from Lewis, connected by a bridge through which the Atlantic flows.

While three or four Iron Age houses have been found in a shallow valley close to the beach at Bostadh, only one has been reconstructed. The others were filled in with sand after excavation because of the fragile nature of the substrate on which they had been constructed. In seeing this site of early settlement and others around Lewis and the other islands, one can’t help imagining what survival must have been like thousands of years ago, how agriculture developed, and how these early people survived from farming and gathering shellfish along the shore.

Steinacleit stone circle

Steinacleit stone circle

We then headed south into Harris, and our B&B just south of Tarbert.

Day 8: 3 June (105 miles) Tarbert to Balranald (North Uist, by ferry)
Route on Harris / Route on North Uist
We took the A859 as far south as possible to Rodel where there is an impressive early sixteenth century church, St Clement’s (apparently dedicated to Pope Clement I), the church of Clan MacLeod. There is a fine tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th Chief of MacLeod.

Then it was on to the Sound of Harris ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray, and over the causeway on to the island of North Uist. I had first visited North Uist in the summer of 1966 at the age of 17, just after the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had established its Balranald Reserve near the village of Hougharry (Hogha Gearraidh). I was then among the very first visitors to the reserve—if not the first! We stopped by Hougharry, but it has changed so much in the past half century—as have all the islands. Gone are the typical thatched roofed crofts and other single storey houses. Everywhere is new and relatively new construction. Given grants for new housing, it was cheaper to build new than renovate the original homes. Roofs were removed and what few old buildings remain are in a state of decay.


Day 9: 4 June (147 miles) Balranald
Route to Eriskay
Under fair skies (more or less) we spent the day traveling to the south of the Uists, through Benbecula and South Uist, and on to Eriskay, connected by causeway to South Uist since 2002.

Day 10: 5 June (142 miles) Balranald to Dornie (Ross & Cromarty, by ferry via Isle of Skye)
Route on North Uist / Route on Skye
It was pouring with rain as we left Balranald, and as we sat in the car waiting for the ferry in Lochmaddy for the ferry crossing to Skye, we wondered whether there was any chance of seeing any of the magnificence of the mountains on Skye later in the afternoon.

We were not disappointed! As we crossed The Minch (the channel between the Hebrides and the mainland) we could see the skies clearing to the west. And as we docked in Uig on Skye around 2 pm, there was hardly a cloud in the Skye, and we were treated to some incredible landscapes. We traveled right round the north of Skye, down to Portree, back up towards Uig, but turning off towards Dunvegan, and then turning south down the west coast to join the main A87 at Sligachan. The Cuillin Mountains were lit up in the bright afternoon sunshine. However, once we arrived at the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge to cross over on to the mainland, we were back in cloud and rain. But once again, we had our spirits lifted when we came out of the restaurant in Dornie later that evening, and Eilean Donan castle was bathed in the rays of the setting sun. See our route here.

Day 11: 6 June (184 miles) Dornie to Ford (Argyll & Bute)
Route
This was perhaps the least enjoyable day of our holiday. Why? Well, by the time we reached Fort William the weather had deteriorated markedly and our side excursion to see the Glenfinnan monument and railway viaduct at Glenfinnan was made in the pouring rain and a howling gale. But it was the actual driving conditions that bothered me. There was much more traffic than we had experienced at any other day, and all travelling at high speed. It just wasn’t possible to motor along at your own pace, and stopping places were few and far between. Once we had left Oban further south, the volume of traffic dropped on the Argyll & Bute coastal route.

Day 12: 7 June (187 miles) Ford to Lockerbie (Dumfries & Galloway)
Route
We had passed Arduaine Garden the night before, about 12 miles short of our B&B in Ford.

So this morning, under clearer skies, we headed back to this delightful garden located on a peninsula jutting westwards towards North America. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, admiring the beautiful rhododendrons. Then it was a long drive along Loch Awe, heading down to Inveraray, and on to Loch Lomond, before skirting Glasgow and joining the M74 once again after almost two weeks for the drive to our last overnight stop in Lockerbie. 

Day 13: 8 June (267 miles) Lockerbie to HOME!
Route
We set out just after 9 am, and after seven miles we had passed the 2,000 mile distance on our journey. But it wasn’t to be a quick dash home (if 250 plus miles can be called a dash). We broke our journey almost equidistant between Lockerbie and home, at Rufford Old Hall, a Tudor mansion just south of Preston, and owned by the National Trust. 

It was a long trip in such a relatively short time. But was it worth it? Definitely! I doubt that we’ll go back to the north of Scotland. And although the saying goes Haste ye back!, we have so many other places we want to visit. Nevertheless, I’m very happy that we made the effort. The scenery was uplifting, and we received a friendly welcome wherever we went. Scotland—weather and all—was a delight. There was one BIG advantages of the cool weather. No midges!

Here are links to detailed accounts about our trip:

And finally, I’ve put together all my better photos in a single 29 minute video: