Wester Ross Travel Guide
When tourists head towards Scotland's wonderful north-west coast, most turn left at the Kyle of Lochalsh and head over the Skye Bridge to the Isle of Skye. And that's no surprise, for Skye is a marvel; magnificent scenery, wonderful walks, and the most beautiful sunsets you can imagine. But those who follow the tourist route to Skye may be missing one of Britain's secret gems - the glorious region of Wester Ross.
Loosely speaking, Wester Ross is bounded on the south and west by Skye and Lochalsh, on the northeast by Caithness, and on the north by Sutherland. Administratively it is the western region of Ross and Cromarty.
The major towns are Lochcarron in the south, Ullapool in the north, and Gairloch about halfway between on the coast. But all that is by the by - what you really want to know is that it is an area of utterly superb scenery, mountain peaks, unspoilt sandy beaches that rival anything the Caribbean can offer, magnificent walking trails, and wide-open spaces without the crowds that can mar more popular areas.
If you are limited for time, the best way to get a good - albeit quick - overview of the marvellous landscape of Wester Ross is to take the Wester Ross Coastal Route, which despite its name, doesn't cling to the coastline, but rather, follows a circular route taking in much of the region's most attractive landscape.
The route is indicated by brown tourist signs throughout the region, and is very easy to follow, though truth to tell, almost any road in Wester Ross passes through fantastic scenery.
Perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in the region is the famous sub-tropical garden at Inverewe, at Poolewe, northwest of Gairloch. The gardens, now run by the National Trust for Scotland, feature an astonishing array of plants that you would never expect to see this far north. Beyond the gardens, a series of walking trails lead through a magnificent landscape of lochs and mountains.
One particular favourite of ours is the circular walk from Poolewe village around Loch Kernseray. Another, much smaller, tourist attraction is Strome Castle, three miles west of Lochcarron, past the Lochcarron Weavers outlet shop. This early 15th-century fortress was built on the border of lands claimed by the warring clans of the MacKenzies of Kintail and the MacDonalds of Glengarry. The castle lasted until 1602 when the MacKenzies finally destroyed it, leaving only a crumbling shell on a low promontory.
The minor road that circles the Applecross peninsula gets our vote for the most scenic drive in Britain. The route starts (or ends, depending on which way you are going) just north of Kishorn, by Lochcarron. The road almost immediately starts to wind back and forth up the Beallach na Ba, The Pass of the Cattle, which must be the closest thing in Britain to an Alpine pass. There are laybys where you can pull over and admire the view - and believe me, you will want to!
From the summit, the descent to Applecross is more gradual, and the landscape opens out to afford fantastic views westwards to the Isle of Skye. Applecross itself is a delight; it deserves its reputation as one of the prettiest villages in the Highlands. There is a heritage centre near the kirk, which is built on the site of a 7th-century monastery established by St Maelrubha.
From Applecross, the road clings to the coast until it reaches Fearnmore, where it bends eastward as it winds to the gorgeous village of Shieldaig. The route between Fearnmore and Shieldaig offers some of the finest views in Britain, looking north across Loch Torridon to the peaks of Beinn Alligin and Leathach. I met a chap on the road who said he'd been coming to the area for almost 30 years, and he still found himself stopping to marvel at the views.
If you enjoy the spectacular scenery around Applecross and Shieldaig, then you'll be in raptures around Glen Torridon. This is a paradise for walkers - and for landscape photographers (I speak from experience!). The Torridon estate is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and there is a mountain visitor centre open from Spring until Autumn.
There are fabulous walks, including a very popular circuit that runs from a parking area near Torridon House, behind the massive bulk of Beinn Alligin and Leathach, and emerges at the Corrie of the Hundred Hills in Glen Torridon. Another, less strenuous walk, starts in the middle of the Glen and runs in a loop around Loch Clair and Loch Coulin.
At the northeastern end of Glen Torridon, near Kinlochewe, is the Beinn Eighe nature reserve, the first designated reserve in Britain. There are fabulous walks of varying difficulty, including a wonderful Mountain Trail leaving from the car park at Coille na Glas Leitire, on the A832.
The A832 follows the western shore of Loch Maree, affording quite stupendous views across the Slioch on the far bank. There are several parking areas where you can stop to picnic and admire the views.
One other natural feature deserves special mention; Corrieshalloch Gorge, a steep-sided natural gorge carved deep into the land. Here the Abhainn Droma spills down the Falls of Measach in spectacular fashion. There is a parking area on the A832 and a choice of two walks down to the gorge.
One walk takes a circuitous route through woodland, then along the rim of the gorge to a suspension bridge. The other route goes fairly directly down to the bridge. From there you can walk up the far side of the gorge on a level path to a viewing platform built out over the gorge. The views, especially in Autumn when the colours are changing, are simply wonderful.
North on the road to Ullapool is the Lael Forest Garden, a 17-acre woodland created by Victorian plant hunters in the 1870s and featuring over 200 species of rare and unusual trees and shrubs.
When to visit
Ooh, this is a dilemma! I'm tempted to say 'visit anytime' and in truth, you won't be disappointed at any time of year. But there are some caveats; winter weather is not severe as a rule, but this is the Highlands, so you can expect the possibility of snow in winter - certainly the peaks will be coated in a blanket of white, and high roads, such as the Pass of the Cattle, will be affected by winter weather.
On the other hand, the winter scenery will be outstanding! Autumn is a marvellous time to visit, when the weather is still pleasant, the colours are fabulous, and the midges are at a minimum.
Ah, yes, the ubiquitous Highland midge. Let's face it, any time the weather is mild, wet, and still, you run the risk of midges. Thank goodness there is usually a breeze about, and in truth, if you keep moving at a decent pace, they won't bother you.
So, even in the height of summer, when the chance of sunny weather is greatest, you can still escape their attentions. That said, I highly recommend a cheap mesh midge hat as essential equipment! You may not need it, but you'll be glad you have it about.
I can't recommend a visit to Wester Ross highly enough. If you enjoy outdoor activities, you'll be in heaven. But even if you just enjoy puttering about in your car, you'll enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain.