Entry

Northern Road Trip, September 2020

Laurence, Clair and Rudy at the Cluanie Inn, Glenmoriston, in September 2020
Laurence, Clair and Rudy at the Cluanie Inn, Glenmoriston, in September 2020

Note: as I type this three weeks later, we’re about to re-enter tighter Covid restrictions, so I feel grateful to have had the opportunity for a much-needed change of scenery when we did, as it wouldn’t be possible now. I’m also thankful to everywhere we stayed for their care in taking appropriate precautions for their guests and generally for keeping going under trying circumstances.

In 2020 it's been pretty difficult to holiday abroad for two reasons: firstly, the small matter of a global pandemic; and secondly, the arrival of our Border Terrier puppy, Rudy. So we decided to make the most of our beautiful homeland, Scotland, and go on a road trip.

The plan was straightforward: we’d head primarily up the west coast, taking in new places and familiar favourites; we’d enjoy some “first holiday” fun with our furry pal; and over five nights we’d eat ourselves into a seafood-induced coma.

In reality, organising this holiday was trickier than we were used to, due to it being our first time searching for pet-friendly accommodation, a challenge which was compounded by many venues running at lower capacity due to covid considerations. However with the help of some great recommendations from friends, we found a handful of suitable spots.

In the end it worked out perfectly, and was a lovely way for us to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. Here’s the lowdown.

Monday #

Following a quick stop to collect our hire car, we set off for Connel, near Oban.

The weather was decent, and there were early signs that Rudy would be a happy traveller. In fact we needed only one brief stop during the two and a half hour drive; at lovely Luss for a breath of fresh air and some shits and giggles (mainly shits).

By mid-afternoon we had arrived at our destination, The Oyster Inn, taken a moment to admire the view over Loch Etive, then donned our Covid masks to check-in and ditch our bags.

We made the 10 minute drive into Oban then enjoyed a saunter around the shops overlooking the bay, stopping to eat scallops at the harbourside Green Shack Seafood Hut. Aside from Rudy trying to eat everything on the ground around us, this was magic.

Later that night we ate dinner in The Glue Pot, our hotel bar-restaurant – Fish Pie and a beer for me, Scampi and a glass of wine for Clair. Good pub fare all round. The holiday was off to a fine start!

Tuesday #

We started the day with breakfast in the hotel and it was a good’un: Clair opted for a “full Scottish”, and I had Eggs Royal (poached eggs, salmon, spinach, hollandaise sauce). With black clouds gathering ominously outside, this was exactly the kind of tasty fuel we needed.

We headed for Ganavan Sands and on arrival it was raining pretty heavily. However every cloud has a silver lining as this gave Rudy a chance to strut his stuff in his new Hi-Vis, waterproof jacket. We played fetch for a wee while and he had his first experience of paddling in the sea.

Rudy on Ganavan Sands
Rudy on Ganavan Sands, Oban

With our drookit dug in tow, we left for local historic attraction McCaig’s Tower, although when it became apparent that the final climb would be on foot in the rain we axed that plan, like the amateur adventurers we are. Instead we parked up in Oban and began hunting for lunch, while the rain continued unabated.

Frustratingly it was slim pickings for pet-friendly eateries and we endured a couple of knock-backs. Finally, after some frozen-fingered Googling, we found Markie Dan’s, like a pooch-friendly oasis in the desert. Clair ate fish and chips (which was dynamite) while I had chicken and rice soup and a smoked haddock and mozarella fish cake, washed down with a tasty local beer. Big up Markie Dan’s for saving the day! (And shout out to their toilets for unexpected X-rated vending machine weirdness.)

Sidenote: this wee lunchtime challenge prompted me to consider restarting a side-project I’d previously put on ice. The idea is an online directory of quality child and pet-friendly bars, restaurants and accommodation which – if you give it your current location – would list the places nearest to you. That would’ve been handy that day. Maybe someday I’ll get around to it.

With happy bellies we retired to the hotel for a rest, before it was time to head to Port Appin for dinner at the Pierhouse Hotel. Our pal Fiona is General Manager there and it had been on our visit-list for ages.

Despite bringing a canine companion we were graciously accommodated (thanks, David), although as it became clear how posh our surroundings were, we secretly began praying that the tiny terrier would be on his best behaviour.

The Pierhouse is beautifully located and the restaurant certainly lived up to its reputation.

For starters and mains we had:

  • smoked salmon on cripy salmon skin;
  • breaded oysters with squid ink mayo;
  • a seafood platter;
  • lemon sole; and on the side…
  • samphire; and
  • chips (obvs)
Seafood Platter at The Pierhouse Hotel
Seafood Platter at The Pierhouse Hotel

For dessert, Clair had the burnt cream, while I had their signature orange chocolate cremeux with buckthorn sorbet. (NB: despite the cast of other amazing dishes I’ve still to mention, as I look back on the overall trip I’m moved to award this dessert “Dish of the Holiday” – it really was off-the-scale!)

While dining, Rudy (who was stashed away under our table) was a bit of handful. In COVID-times, Scottish venues have no background music and are sparser than usual, so we were on high alert to catch any unacceptable doggy behaviours before they happened and marked us out as “the pain in the ass couple with the dog”. Fortunately, aside from a bit of potted plant nibbling and numerous escape attempts he didn’t do anything too visibly embarassing, although keeping one hand on him while trying to eat a plate of seafood was a bit like The Krypton Factor.

As we finished our meal, Fiona arrived to greet us and ushered us into “The Snug” for a whisky to cap the night (a Balvenie Port cask, and it fairly warmed the cockles.)

Fiona and crew are doing great things at The Pierhouse. It was lovely to catch up and a brilliant night overall.

Wednesday #

We had time for one more breakfast at The Oyster Inn before leaving, and once again it hit the target. Clair went for the veggie scottish breakfast, while I had scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.

Our next stop was Glenmoriston, but before leaving Oban we had important matters to address. Following last night’s challenges with Rudy we resolved to find some superior chew-chews to keep him occupied during the remaining meal-times, so stopped in at a wee Pet Shop we’d noticed in town the previous day.

Enter Dynorod (not real name) – a stick of “Himilayan Yak Milk” that would usher in a zen-like mealtime peace we had hitherto thought impossible.

Tooled up and ready, we embarked on the most amazing sunshine drive from Oban to Kentallen (stopping at the Holly Tree Hotel for a great burger and walk along the pier) then through Ballachulish to Fort William. We’d travelled this route many times before, but this time the scenery looked even more incredible (especially just around Ballachulish). It was Scotland at its bonniest.

Scenery on the drive from Oban to Ullapool
Scenery on the drive from Oban to Ullapool

We then climbed over 1200 feet through the hills before settling at our destination, The Cluanie Inn. I can’t over-emphasise this: this location is stunning. You are literally right in the middle of the hills, with deer roaming free around you.

Spotting trestle tables behind the hotel we decided to check-in quickly then enjoy the last of the day’s sunshine with an al fresco beer. Unfortunately by the time I had returned with said beers, Clair was engaged in a battle of wills with the wee fella, who was going stir-crazy with all the space he found himself in. By relentlessly eating deer jobbies he kinda shattered our picture-perfect “beer in the hills” moment, but still, the thought was there…

That night we enjoyed a lovely dinner: I went for South Indian Garlic Chicken (the owners are Indian, so it seemed like a good time to change tack from seafood) while Clair had a roast pork stir fry. For desert we shared a Rhubarb and Apple Crumble with ice cream. Before bed we had a whisky and a game of Connect 4 in the lounge, while Rudy munched on Dynorod. Bliss.

Thursday #

Breakfast at the Cluanie was great. Clair scratched a nostalgia itch with a bowl of Coco Pops, followed by a full Scottish. I had yogurt and muesli then scrambled eggs on toast.

Our next stop was Ullapool, way up north beyond Skye. Clair was really excited about this leg of the trip because she’d be reunited with The Seafood Shack and its owners, having enjoyed visiting earlier in the year as food photographer for their forthcoming recipe book.

The drive from Glenmoriston to Ullapool was beautiful, too, and sountracked perfectly by Clair’s “Alternative 80s” mixtape (taking in Television, Echo and The Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins) followed by our friend Andy’s excellent Go mild in the country playlist. Good times!

Arriving in Ullapool we made a beeline for The Seafood Shack and on arrival ordered 2 × Haddock Wrap (which Clair had been raving about for months). They were delicious. This gave us the necessary fuel to walk the Ullapool Hill Path which on a clear day such as it was offers fantastic views over the village, Loch Broom and the mountains beyond.

Haddock Wrap at The Seafood Shack, Ullapool
Haddock Wrap at The Seafood Shack, Ullapool

Back in the village we stopped back in at The Seafood Shack for Cullen Skink and Langoustines before it was time to check in to our home for the night, The Ceilidh Place. This hotel had been recommended by three separate friends and from the warm welcome (for both us and Rudy) and the lovely, cosy vibe, we could see straight away why people love it.

After check-in we had just enough time for a drink in their beer garden and a quick rummage around their bookshop before it was a time for a nap (this holiday business is pretty tiring…)

Later we headed to the hotel bar for a lovely dinner of Venison Stew (for me) and Fish and Chips (for Clair), sharing home-made baked cheesecake with berries for dessert. We chatted about some of our all-time favourite “long tracks” – Clair offering The Doors’ Riders on the Storm (no arguments from me) while I chipped in The Temptations’ classic Papa was a Rolling Stone.

Today was our wedding anniversary, and it had been nigh-on perfect.

Friday #

Following a hearty breakfast (porridge for me; cooked breakfast for Clair) we had a wander around Ullapool. This was my first time visiting and I really liked the place. It’s a lovely, picturesque harbour village and, although fairly small, has plenty of good shops, great local food and drink, and friendly people of all ages.

Although you might think that visiting The Seafood Shack for a third time within twenty hours was bordering on the ridiculous, we popped our head in yet again for a farewell lunch. Clair had spineys (squat lobster) while I had mackeral paté with oatcakes. It was fantastic, yet again. What can I say – these folks really know their fish.

After vowing to come back to Ullapool again soon, we set off for Craigellachie, the final stop on our tour.

This was another enjoyable drive, alternating between countryside and busier roads and taking in not one but two football stadia: The Tulloch Stadium, home of Inverness Caley Thistle; and Mosset Park, home of the mighty Forres Mechanics. Sean Keveney’s 6 Music show was on the radio, and by pure coincidence the Uncle Frank’s Friday Floor Fillers section featured “Papa was a Rolling Stone” – which was every bit as good (and long) as I remembered it.

As we entered Moray Speyside we were deep within Malt Whisky country, and as fans of a dram it was exciting to pass one well-known distillery after another: Aberlour, Glenlivet, Cragganmore, Balvenie, Macallan, and more.

By 4:00 pm we arrived at our destination, The Craigellachie Hotel.

This place is great! It was definitely the poshest of our trip. It’s in a beautiful countryside location, has a lovely reception area and comfortable rooms, and an amazing bar-restaurant, The Copper Dog.

That night we had probably our favourite dinner of the holiday. For starter, Clair chose scallops with cauliflower pureé while I had haggis bon-bons in a home-made brown sauce. For our mains, Clair had their fish special: cod with sweetcorn and crab, with a side of mac and cheese. I dediced to push the boat out for our last night and had a ribeye steak. Every dish was amazing and unsurprisingly we had zero room for dessert.

To wash it down I had a Spey Valley 1814 lager then a Windswept APA. Both local and great. Clair had an Edinburgh gin.

A special shout out to the staff in the Copper Dog; they were all super-friendly and great with Rudy, including director Kevin who came over to chat before finding us a wee post-dinner table at The Quaich, their upstairs whisky bar. It would have been rude not to, so we retired there for a wee dram. With over 900 whiskies from around the world on offer it was tough to choose, but with Rudy getting tired and threatening to drag the family name through the mud in such a plush environment, we made it quick and I grabbed an Aberlour 12 (which I love) while Clair had a Glenrothes. This is a room you could definitely spend some time in, though!

Saturday #

It was time to head home.

After a lovely breakfast at The Craigellachie, we made a brief stop at the nearby Aberlour distillery where I nipped into the shop to pick up a bottle of the same drop I’d had the previous night, with a wee branded glass as a souvenir.

We arrived home happy. It’s great to know you can have such an amazing holiday on your doorstep.

Thanks again to all the friends who provided recommendations.

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