Storm Brendan arrives
As the rain lashed against the windows and the wind howled around our small wooden camping pod, the walls shook, the lights flickered… and I voiced my greatest concern: would our car still be there tomorrow morning?
We were on the Isle of Skye in the middle of the first of 2020’s winter storms, codename Brendan.
The Other Half looked at me in puzzlement. There may even have been a(n entirely justified) bemused raised eyebrow. Really?
The next morning, car perfectly happily stationed in just the same spot as we’d left it the night before, we packed up and headed off early. The nearby sheep gave us a passing nod (and more raised eyebrows) before resuming their endless munching. They also hadn’t flown very far overnight. Funny that.
An hour later, Other Half set off into the 60 mph winds, a mixture of rain, hail and sleet in his face, whilst I settled down into the relative warmth of my beloved car for a couple of hours’ research on lesser known folklore and local mythical creatures. What can I say, I’d forgotten my ski goggles.
In case this all sounds rather far-fetched, let me explain.
A Winter Life
Both here at Infinite Scotland, and in my parallel life as a guide, there is a clear pre-requisite to know and understand our country inside out.
Being a Scot who has spent many years holidaying in Scotland is a start (although this doesn’t always hold true – plenty of Scots know very little about their own country, and conversely, plenty of “incomers” have studied to become brilliant guides having fallen in love with the place). Gaining hard won guiding qualifications is another tick in the box. Years of experience creating itineraries around Scotland also helps.
But when I say that it’s a “pre” requisite to the job, in reality, with all of its infinite corners of landscape, culture and history to explore, knowing Scotland inside out becomes more than a lifetime’s labour of love.
Which brings me back to why we were out and about in Storm Brendan when everyone else was sensibly tucked up at home.
With the traditional Scottish visitor season running from May until September, we are often asked “What is your winter life?”
Some possible options:
a) Run away to far-off climes to sun ourselves under a palm tree;
b) Paint the town red with all of our friends we haven’t seen for half the year;
c) Hibernate, curtains closed, door locked;
d) Catch up with our ever expanding library of reading material;
e) Get out and about, exploring new routes, ancient ruins, tall tales, tasty treats, calm retreats, the path less travelled…
Whilst there may have been a couple of weeks of (a) and a couple of days of (c) – and whilst our friends are still wondering when (b) is going to happen – you guessed it, it is all about (d) and (e). (And (d) largely consists of books on Scottish history, poetry, folklore and fun facts. Fiction only rarely makes a guest appearance).
So time for a little flavour of a typical winter’s day for guides and planners.
A day in our winter life…
Saturday 11 January, 2020:
- 7am: Respond to emails over breakfast, new enquiries for summer tours, processing itinerary changes. Make brie and cucumber sandwich for lunch (yum). Review pre-prepared notes for the day – hiking routes, visitor attractions, loo stops…
- 7:50am: Don every possible item of warm and waterproof clothing. Check extra layers and mittens packed in the car. Check chocolate supplies (winter life!).
- 9am: Arrive at the luxurious Kinloch Lodge. Other Half has been there with guests before, but this year they have an opportunity for wild foraging with a local expert, cooking over an open fire.
- Discover a new coastal hike so need to re-jig tomorrow’s recce itinerary to check length, terrain, any particular obstacles or views and sites of interest. Always trying to anticipate what we might be asked so that we can find out the answers in advance!
- 10am: Check out a local café and craft shop following a tip-off from another guide, apologising to the lovely owners for creating puddles on their floor from our dripping clothes. Their log fire and home baking is so welcoming, but only time for a quick loo stop before we set off to…
- Dunscaith Castle (via the tiny village of Ord, which pleases me immensely – photostop by the sign of my own surname – sometimes we are tourists too!).
- 11:30am: Pick our way across the sodden peat-covered rocks to the castle ruin, steering well clear of the cliffs as the wind picked up. No distinct path, but able to make a plan for hikers of all abilities.
- 1pm: After another wiggly drive to the end of the road, passing Armadale Castle and our favourite Museum of the Isles (no need to visit this time – we already know them well), we set off into some sunshine! This was a hike for Other Half’s benefit, included in one of his set itineraries. Sadly the sunshine was short-lived, and we took cover behind raised ground as the wind and rain really set in. But when would we have the chance to come here again? Continued along the path for an hour, sheltering our faces from the hailstones. The view at the far end wasn’t bad, but was it worth it? With the experience of leading multiple hiking tours, Other Half is reconsidering this one. We are blessed with so many options in Scotland, would his guests prefer an alternative?
- This is why recces are so vital to our jobs and why we take them so seriously – even when Storm Brendan is throwing everything in our way!
- 4pm: Return to our backpackers hostel (keeping the budget down) to warm up and dry off. Spend the next 6 hours on our laptops with short break for omelette dinner. Write up notes from the day, research additional historical facts, dig into local folklore, set up detailed operational plans in excel in lieu of the glossy itineraries that our guests see (!), sift through photos for future marketing.
- We are due to be taking the ferry to the Outer Hebrides mid-week, but these now look in doubt – call suppliers, and start to rethink. There are some visitor attractions on the mainland that I need to check out – not open in the winter, but I can still understand the layout, parking, café, toilets before taking guests there. “The best laid plans of mice and men….” and all that.
- Apparently this was a Saturday. Party animals that we are, to bed by 10pm to (attempt to) sleep through the gales and prepare ourselves for more of the same the next day – and the day after, and the day after that…
A Hidden Gem
It’s not just about keeping things fresh for our guests though – we love discovering hidden gems for ourselves too. Take, for example, aforementioned Dunscaith Castle. Named after a heroic female warrior, and occasional seat of the powerful Clan MacDonald from the 13th to the 17th Century. It is a ruin worth every twist and turn of the single-track road that leads across Skye’s southern Sleat Peninsula. Not a coach tour in sight (they wouldn’t have made it down the road!).
In fact not a great deal in sight when we first got there. The clouds had rolled in, bringing with them the cold January rain that alternates between drizzle and downpour, drenching the already waterlogged peaty ground. But we loved it! And in the interests of exploring every nook and cranny for future guests, we even inched ourselves gingerly across the gaping hole where the Medieval drawbridge would once have been. As we left, the seals stretched out on the rocks below – and then the clouds began to clear, revealing jaw-dropping views across Loch Eishort to the dramatic Cuillin mountain range in the distance. Fittingly named after the mythical Irish warrior, Cuthullin, who battled the castle’s namesake, Sgathaich.
So although weekends don’t really exist for us, and it is all too easy to live, eat and breathe our jobs, please don’t get me wrong, we are all too aware of how lucky we are to be doing what we love, year round.
Happily for me, “we” includes the poor chap who took himself off into the worst of Storm Brendan just to escape my overreaction to the weather. Apart from a fascination with all things historic, Other Half also happens to be a top outdoor guide, so this behaviour was less strange and/or extreme than it first might seem.
A Mountain Miracle
And sometimes we do allow ourselves some non-work related outings. Donning head torches during a brief respite in Storm Brendan, we set off from our Ullapool B&B in the dark of an early morning to our favourite “wee” mountain in the stunningly beautiful wilds of Assynt.
Climbing up through the heather, an orange glow appeared in the sky. By the time we reached the top we were in the midst of the most beautiful sunrise we had ever seen. Familiar shapes of surrounding hills glowed orange, whilst snow-capped mountains on the horizon appeared in the light of the brightening dawn. To the west a full rainbow arced across the twin summit of Stac Pollaidh, and the shadow of our wee mountain played out across the sea beyond.
It was a truly magical moment. Exactly the infinite horizons and infinite possibilities of the Infinite Scotland dream. Who says that miracles don’t happen?
Suffice to say, winter recce trips really are the best! Not even Storm Brendan could stop this one.