Saturday 21 October 2017

Do You Still Fancy Living on Skye?

Some eight years ago, I wrote a post in this blog entitled; ‘Do You Fancy Living on Skye?’ You can read the post here:  To this day, it is the most-read post on this blog, with some 12,500 hits so far - so I have to assume there continue to be many romantics out there who fancy a life ‘away from it all’. Ok…I can understand that...

Photo of the Old Man of Storr by my nephew - Jeremy Tandy
However, like everywhere on our poor, overpopulated planet, Skye is changing, and fast! Don’t get me wrong – the ‘Skye Magic’ is still here for now – you would only have to have driven through the colour, the clouds and the Cuillin today – as I did – to be very fully aware that magic is very much alive and well. It was awesome. (Sorry, no photos today– I was driving…)!!!

But… you would probably also notice the new-build houses popping up all over the place. Tiny, remote settlements are no longer quite as tiny… That little isolated cottage you remember from your 2005 visit is now overlooked by two modern 5-bedroom neighbours… And there’s some wind-turbines twirling at the back of that wild moorland view… Yes – ‘Skye Magic’ is a tad harder to find these days.

Then there’s the tourism boom. I know I am not alone in suggesting that Skye is not a great place to be a tourist during the summer season. In July and August, I think there may actually be more tourists here than midges. I will decline to say which I find more irritating… It has become embarrassing to have to say to our visitors that some of the most popular beauty spots are best avoided, because there is no-where to park, no toilets, no caf├ęs, and indeed - no visitor facilities at all.

Some may say this is a good sign of progress, arguing that the Highlands need to be re-populated, and the residents need jobs and places to live. So the increase in tourism is a good thing. Well – yes, maybe good. But only if sensitively created infrastructure was keeping ahead of the increase in visitor numbers.

And it is not.

So, how does an increase in tourism affect LIVING on Skye? Well – I’ll do this as bullet points…

·         During the summer months, the roads become very much busier.
·         There are camper vans EVERYWHERE.
·         Many of the drivers are from overseas, and driving rental cars… the standard of driving  can be seriously scary.
·         The car parks in Portee are all full.
·         So are the ones in Broadford… and Dunvegan.
·         There are queues at the check-outs in the Co-op.
·         In summer, prices of goods and fuel rise.
·         Local people do not even attempt to go near any of the tourism hot spots (Fairy Pools,  Quiraing, The Storr, Fairy Glen, Coral Beach…) however; some poor souls actually  LIVE near these places…
·         The lack of public toilets means that… ugh…  I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Possibly worse than all the above – or possibly better – depending on your point of view, is that more people are coming to LIVE on Skye. As I have said above – new-build houses are popping up everywhere. Most are large, and are designed to accommodate bed and breakfast visitors. Others are being built to be self-catering accommodation for yet more visitors.

Just one positive that I can think of is that unemployment seems to have reached zero. There were two full pages of job vacancies in the latest edition of the local paper. I don’t think I have ever seen that before.

Of course – the weather here is the same as it ever was, and the roads have more potholes than before.

Do you STILL fancy living on Skye?

Of course you do!

Friday 13 October 2017

A Motoring Holiday In The Scottish Highlands

I wrote the following for the forum of the Jaguar XK Enthusiasts Club – to which I belong. Then I thought - maybe some of the SkyeCalling blog audience would also find the post of interest. A member of the XKEC (not me…)! is organising a Highlands Tour for 2018. I hope to be able to join the tour for at least a day or two when they come here. It will be something of a novelty to see another XK on Skye!  

What is the point in having a car which will do nought to sixty just a few nanoseconds and has a top speed faster than Starship Enterprise, if you spend most of your time in a traffic jam being overtaken by cyclists and looking at the tailgate of a Ford Transit?

Yes – you need to take your Jaguar on holiday… The ever-increasing popularity of taking a touring holiday in the Scottish Highlands has prompted me to think of those of you who might be contemplating a trip ‘over the border’, and to offer a few words of experience from a Jaguar XK owner who actually LIVES here…

In the Scottish Highlands, while the minor roads are often single-track and severely pot-holed, the main roads are two-way, mostly well-surfaced, and, out of the peak tourist season, pretty-much traffic-free. (Peak season is June to September).

When driving in the Highlands, you need to be very aware of animals on the road. Sheep grazing with heads down on the roadside verge are unlikely to be a problem and can largely be ignored, but beware in spring when there are lambs about, or if there are sheep on both sides of the road – they may cross to be with their mates without warning. Cattle in the road are pigs… Urmm… by that I mean that cattle will stand still in the middle of the road and look blankly at you. Hooting your horn will have no effect on them whatsoever. If you are brave enough, you will need to get out of your car and apply a hefty whack to the rump of the nearest bovine. This may get things mooving in more ways than one. I’m sorry – there are very few car-washes in the Highlands… Then there’s the deer. We have lots of them in the Highlands. They sometimes gather close to roads, especially in winter when there is snow on the hills. Deer can move very fast when alarmed. Red deer are big – the size of a pony – so hitting one at 60mph can write off a car– so be VERY aware.

Then there’s the weather… It rains a lot here, so don’t come with balding tyres, fit new wiper blades prior to your trip, and pack a waterproof jacket for when you get out of your car. In winter – you may encounter snow. You will see snow on the hills much of the time from November to March. Snow can fall during the same period at road level as well, though the Council gritting trucks do a pretty good job of keeping the roads open. However, it is a bum-clenching experience to drive your precious wide-tyred Jaguar on 3-inch deep slush…

Having said that, there are also periods of time between October and May when the sun is shining, the roads are dry and deserted, and the scenery is sparkling. I can think of very few more rewarding experiences than that of unleashing your car on such roads. Of course, I am quite sure that no responsible Jaguar driver would ever exceed the national speed limit, which is 60mph here, the same as in England. However, there are many stretches of Highland roads that seriously tempt a little extra pressure on the right pedal. As far as I am aware, there are no fixed speed/safety cameras in the North West Highlands - though be sure - the local police regularly patrol using unmarked cars, and also employ mobile camera vans. It is up to you to drive responsibly and safely.

This is Puss in Glencoe - before she had her 'PS55' registration 

Where are the best routes? Well – once you get north of Perth or Crianlarich (depending on which way you come here) there are not that many roads to choose from. However - the A9 from Perth to Inverness is one to avoid, being busy with trucks and dotted with 50mph limits and average speed cameras. The A82 from Tyndrum through Glencoe is awesome – both the road and the scenery. The A887/A87 from Invermoriston to Skye is one of my personal favourites, second only to the A832/A890 from Garve to Skye. You wouldn’t regret a trip up the A835 from Tore (Inverness) to Ullapool either, and the Isle of Skye itself has some fine roads and even finer views. The scenery gets ever more spectacular the further north and west you go. Spending some time on Google streetview when planning your route will forewarn you of any stretches of single-track road that you may encounter.

When you visit – and by now, you should be convinced that you must – I do urge you to plan ahead. You will want to spend several days in the Highlands. In tourist season, there are so many overseas visitors here, you must book accommodation well in advance of your visit. Out of season, many accommodation providers close for winter, so you STILL need to book well in advance. At any time of year - don’t expect to find any eating places serving food after 9.00 pm. Also - keep your fuel tank topped up – garages are few are far between. Petrol on the Islands is subsidised by the Government to the tune of 5p per litre, but there’s no supermarket fuel here, so expect to pay more per litre than in most English towns. If you are a fan of super-unleaded – you may not find it available at every filling station.

If you are not already on your phone or computer booking your trip to Scotland, and have any questions that I may be able to help you with – please ask-away. I look forward to seeing photos of your trip in the forum…

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Another Short Break

We've been away for another little break. A glance at the photos might tell you where...

Sue and I stayed in what I can only describe as one of the very best B&Bs I have ever experienced. . The guest rooms are spacious and nicely furnished. Breakfast was a feast, including home made bread and preserves, and even honey from the hives in the garden. The owners were just so helpful, providing us with guide books, leaflets and information about everything in which we mentioned an interest.

West Wing Room, Grange Farmhouse B&B
Ready for breakfast
The farmhouse stands just a mile from the centre of Dunfermline, so on day one, Sue and I were happy to leave Puss safely at the house and walk into town. Dunfermline was a surprising place to us. A huge and beautiful park - Pittencreiff - flanks one side of the town. The park has woodland, lawns, formal flower beds, herbaceous areas, a large glasshouse... there's plenty to explore. Also in Dunfermline are substantial remains of an abbey and royal palace. Just open this year is a fine new library, museum and gallery. The town was the birthplace of a child who became one of the world's richest men - Andrew Carnegie. Although living most of his life in America, he never forgot his roots and left a considerable sum of money in trust to the town. It would seem that his money is still being well-spent.

Sue in Pittencreiff Park
Pittencreiff House - home of  General John Forbes
Pittencreiff Park
Double-arch bridge - Pittencreiff Park 
Andrew Carnegie statue, Pittencreiff Park
Looking out of the park into Dunfermline
Dunfermline Abbey Church from the Carnegie Library
Inside Dunfermline Abbey nave
Ruins of the abbey refectory
I'm in what were the Abbey kitchens
Coffee break in Dunfermline Carnegie Library
Abbot House, Dunfermline, from the Carnegie Library

Day two, we walked to the local station and took a train ride over the Forth Bridge into Edinburgh. I was only in my 20s when I last visited our lovely capital city, and then only spent a day there. On this occasion, we made the most of the beautiful autumn weather to walk extensively around the city. I wanted to see for myself the Scottish Parliament Building - and found it to be slightly less dreadful to look at than it often looks on TV.

Title barely necessary - Edinburgh Castle
Back of the Scottish Parliament Building with wooden-barred windows..??
Scottish Parliament Building - front entrance
Scottish Parliament Building - an architectural masterpiece?....errmmm?
Nearby, we spotted a building which clearly housed a not-crowded cafe, so in we went for a lunchtime coffee, only to discover we were in the home of 'Dynamic Earth' . So after our coffee, we bought tickets to discover what Dynamic Earth was all about. I can really only say 'Wow!' We had a great time! We experienced the birth of the planet (including being in an earthquake), falling back in time, flying over the arctic (in a room that I swear actually tipped us on our sides), holograms, no end of interactive screens, a real iceberg, being sniffed by a 3D rhino, and a tropical storm. We laughed, stood with mouths gaping, clung onto each other, and emerged convinced that we had just had the best lunchtime coffee, ever.

By now, it was late afternoon, but we could see people making their way up the side of the nearby hill named Arthur's Seat. So off we went, for a lovely walk which gave us a wonderful birds eye view of the city.

Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Scottish Parliament Building
Track up Arthur's Seat
View from Arthur's Seat -
Foreground, Dynamic Earth building.
Centre left - Scottish Parliament Building,
Right - Holyrood Palace.

We had planned to eat in Edinburgh before heading back to the B&B, but being Friday night, everywhere looked crowded, so we collapsed into the train, and found a lively and friendly pub in Dunfermline for dinner.

What a great short break!