Wester Ross, in the North West Highlands of Scotland has some of the finest coastal and mountain scenery in the UK. It stretches from Lochcarron in the south to Ullapool in the north and, located only an hour or two from Inverness, is easily accessible by car, plane or train.
Wester Ross Retreats offers a wide range of self-catering accommodation in the central part of Wester Ross, around Gairloch and Poolewe – an area that has it all – towering mountains, sandy beaches galore, sea and hill lochs, rich forests and wild open moorland. You are surrounded by scenery so good, it can't fail to gladden even the hardest of hearts. Perfect for those wishing to get away from it all. The only things you won't see here are crowds of people and busy roads.
Achnasheen is a wild desolate village and was at one time a drovers' stop where cattle driven from the surrounding areas would meet before being driven to markets on the east coast. The first road reached Achnasheen in 1819, followed by the railway in the 1870s. Achnasheen railway station was an important stop on the Kyle of Lochalsh line and is the nearest the trains got to Gairloch and Poolewe. Plans to continue the railway to Gairloch never materialised!
In the 1870s, Queen Victoria travelled by train to Achnasheen before taking a carriage to the Loch Maree Hotel.
Its name in Gaelic means 'the field of storms' – it is an apt name for such an exposed spot.
Kinlochewe lies at the head of Loch Ewe and is a very pretty village. It has a shop, hotel, cafe and petrol station. The area is renowned for its geological features, the most famous of which, the Moine Thrust runs through Kinlochewe and Glen Torridon.
The village of Gairloch is the largest in Wester Ross and one of the most popular, hardly surprising as it can offer a little of everything that visitors come to the Highlands to see and views to die for. It was originally 3 villages – Charlestown, Achtercairn and Strath. You will arrive in Charlestown which is the harbour area. The harbour was the base for the areas fishing fleet, Gairloch being renowned for its cod fishing. Sadly the fishing has declined and the harbour is now used for landing crabs, lobsters and prawns, many of which go to the Spanish market. A new pontoon gives moorings for private small craft and a number of boat trips operate from here.
A grocery shop, post office, café and gift shops can all be found on the road to the pier, and The Old Inn is to the east of the main road. Inland from the harbour is the Flowerdale House, the seat of the Mackenzie family who own vast tracts of land around Gairloch. They were granted this part of Wester Ross by James IV in 1494 after centuries of conflict with the Macleods. There are many walks in the valley, the most popular being the walk to Flowerdale Waterfall. Gairloch Ponytrekking Centre can be found half way to the waterfall.
Continuing along the main road is Gairloch Golf Course, a challenging and scenic 9-hole course occupying a fabulous location above a stunning long sandy beach. Gairloch Hotel is further along road, built in 1872 for the coming of the railway. Sadly the railway never got this far and the hotel is now a Shearings Hotel. Travelling north we come to Achtercairn which has a shop, hotel, restaurants and the Gairloch Heritage Museum. This opened in 1977 and is very interesting, showing how local people lived and worked through the ages. Gairloch Leisure Centre is nearby and offers a wide range of indoor and outdoor facilities. If you turn left at Achtercairn and follow the shoreline you will reach Strath which is the main commercial centre of Gairloch. Here you will find a grocery shop, butchers, newsagents, fish and chip shop, coffee shop, restaurant and hotel.
Gairloch's history dates back to the Iron Age, at the southern end of the beach at the golf course is an Iron Age dun. A thousand years later the loch was used as a haven by the Vikings and for the following two centuries two clans, the Mackenzies and the Macleods, fought for dominance of the area.
Gairloch has its own local radio station, 2 Lochs Radio which went on the air in 2003 and is the place to find out what is on in the area. (106 and 106.6FM)
The famous paddle steamer 'Waverley' visits Gairloch every year usually in May. Waverley is the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world and has been magnificently restored – a sight worth seeing, or even to take a cruise aboard from Gairloch to Loch Torridon. The Hebridean Princess cruise liner also visits Gairloch over the summer months.
And for arctophiles, Gairloch is the home of the world famous Atlantic Bears, who many consider to be better than Steiffs. A small range of Atlantic Bears can be seen in the Treasure Chest gift shop near the harbour.
Gairloch's views are amongst its major assets. Out to the west is Loch Gairloch and the Inner Minch with the Isles of Rona, Skye, Longa and the Western Isles on the horizon. The sunsets can be glorious. Inland are hills and mountains and the sunrises can be as spectacular as the sunsets. To the east beyond Loch Maree is one of Scotlands last great wilderness areas, the Fisherfield Forest, and to the south the views take in the peaks of Flowerdale and Shieldaig and the majestic Torridons.
Poolewe is situated at the head of Loch Ewe around the River Ewe which drains into Loch Ewe from Loch Maree. Today it is an extremely attractive village with a shop/post office, hotel, coffee shop, village hall and indoor swimming pool.
Poolewe hosts one of Scotland's most gruelling endurance events for charity – the Great Wilderness Challenge. This began in 1986 when a group of friends held a sponsored walk to raise money for the Highland Hospice Appeal. It was so popular, it became an annual event which has grown over the years to accommodate the ever increasing entry demands. There are now 25 mile, 13 mile and 7 mile routes and over 500 participants take part every year. In its 28 year history, the event has raised over £3.1 million for charity.
Aultbea is a small village with two hotels, a shop, post office, butchers and a woodcraft shop. The Drumchork Lodge Hotel is the home of Loch Ewe Distillery, the smallest distillery in Scotland and the only one using the methods of the old illicit stills. Aultbea also has a NATO base and large ships and submarines often come inshore to refuel here.
Laide has a shop, post office, a campsite, a hotel and a petrol station. The village offers views of the Summer Isles and Gruinard Island and the mountains beyond. Just before you reach Laide on the right is Laide Community Wood. Planted in the 1960's as a commercial forest, it was purchased by the local community in 2003 and opened in 2007, since when it has been well used by many local people as well as by visitors who come to enjoy the vast array of wildlife and spectacular views.
Loch Maree is regarded by many to be the most beautiful loch in Scotland. It is bordered on the north by Letterewe Estate, with its extensive oak woodlands and Slioch and on the south by the Beinn Eighe nature reserve with its pinewoods, and it really is a staggeringly beautiful area. At over 12 miles long it is the largest loch in the North West Highlands.
The loch is covered by dozens of small islands, which are covered by a fragment of the original Caledonian pine forest. One island, Isle Maree has the remains of a chapel, graveyard, holy well and holy tree on it. The chapel was founded by the 8th century Irish monk, St Maelrubba, who also founded the monastery on Applecross. The loch was named after him, having previously been called Loch Ewe.
The loch became a popular spot for trout fishing after Queen Victoria visited the Loch Maree Hotel in 1877, a visit which also led to the naming of Victoria Falls nearby. The loch had an international reputation for angling, as thousands of salmon and sea trout returned to the loch each summer but the fishery collapsed in the 1990s and has yet to recover. The loch is still of special importance for its wildlife and biodiversity, and is part of the Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands National Nature Reserve. It has the largest population of black throated divers in Scotland and sea eagles now nest on the islands.
Kayaking is an excellent way to see the islands, and the parking area at Slattadale is the perfect place to launch a kayak. Slattadale is a large forest of mixed conifer trees with pockets of ancient oak and birch woodland, and the Forestry Commission has made a delightful picnic area on the shores of the loch.
Between 1883 and 1911 there was a paddle steamer operating on Loch Maree. SS Mabel was 45 foot long and was brought to Loch Maree by the owner of the Gairloch and Loch Maree Hotels. She was taken over by MacBraynes in 1887. There used to be a pier at Tollie at the north end of the loch. The remains of both the boat and pier are still in the loch.
Loch Ewe is the only north facing sea loch in Scotland. During WW2 it was a convoy collecting point for the Arctic Convoys who provided vital supplies to Russia. A boom net and mine defences helped protect the vessels from German U boats and air attacks, and the loch was protected by anti-aircraft guns. Many ruined gun emplacements can be found around the loch, especially around Cove and Mellon Charles. It is planned to open an Arctic Convoys museum soon.
The loch has always been significant in terms of maritime trade. At one time Poolewe at the head of the loch was one of the most significant ports in North West Scotland. This owes much to the shelter it is given by Loch Ewe, combined with its location at the western end of one of the earliest land routes across northern Scotland. By the end of the eighteenth century, Poolewe was the terminus for a weekly mail service to The Outer Hebrides, with the mail being carried overland by foot from Dingwall. It was also where the cattle from the Hebrides disembarked before being driven over the drove road along the north bank of the River Ewe and Loch Maree. The first proper road across land reached Poolewe in 1851 via Little Loch Broom and this linked up with the first steamer service to the Hebrides which had started two years earlier.
Gruinard Island became famous after WW2 when it was chosen as the test site for lethal germ warfare tests and was contaminated with anthrax. Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island and the quarantine was lifted in 1990 after 48 years.
The commonest wild animals you are likely to see are red deer, roe deer and pine martens. There are also foxes and badgers but they are not common. In the Dundonnell area wild goats are common, and red squirrels were reintroduced here in 2008. From the 40 that were released, the numbers have grown to around 300. Take care for both the goats and the squirrels on the road, neither have much road sense. Mountain hares can occasionally be seen on the mountain tops. Wildcats may or may not still be around – they used to be but we haven't heard of a sighting in a long time. There is a stuffed one in the Wildcat Stores in Gairloch (now McColls)!
The seas are home to a multitude of marine mammals – common and grey seals, porpoise, common and bottlenose dolphins, otters, minke whales and basking shark are all common.
One third of the whale population of the North Atlantic migrates through the waters around the Hebrides each year. The Minke Whale is the most common, but the Humpback Whale and the Killer Whale can occasionally be seen too. Other rarer creatures have been spotted by the offshore boat trips, like the Sei Whale and Sperm and Fin whales. And in the summer months Northern Bottlenose and Long-Finned Pilot whales have occasionally been seen offshore, as has the Risso's Dolphin and Atlantic White Sided and White Beaked dolphins.
The birds in the area are far too numerous to mention. Of the sea birds, perhaps the most exciting are the white-tailed eagles, puffins, red and black throated divers, great northern divers, manx shearwaters and storm petrels. And of the land birds the golden eagle is the most impressive, but there are many others – goldfinches, waxwings, redpolls, ptarmigan, golden plovers and crossbills, although in 25 years we have still not seen a crossbill!
There are plenty of insects too, the dragonflies and damselflies being the most impressive. And we won't mention the midges, except to say that Smidge is the most effective deterrent against the little blighters.