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Applecross is easily my favourite place in the world. Without equal or question. Definitely.
The Applecross Peninsula lies in the old county of Wester Ross and projects westwards from the mainland towards Raasay and the Isle of Skye. Shaped like a west-facing axe blade, its neck is formed by the single track A896 running from Shieldaig in the north to Kishorn in the south. Using this road it is possible for anyone travelling the west coast to bypass Applecross altogether: but anyone who does so has missed some of the best scenery in Scotland.
Much of Applecross’s attraction lies in its remoteness and its distinctive history. In 1822 a road was built from Kishorn in the east and over the Bealach na Ba, or Pass of the Cattle to Applecross village.
Until the early 1950s the road surface was still rough gravel and very difficult to clear in winter, meaning it could be blocked for weeks on end. During these periods Applecross returned to its earlier “island” existence, relying wholly on the MacBrayne’s steamer service to Stornoway and Kyle of Lochalsh for its links with the outside world.
And in winter the steamer only called en route from Kyle to Stornoway, not on the return trip. This meant anyone in Applecross wanting to catch a Glasgow train at Kyle of Lochalsh, ten miles or less away as the crow flies, had to travel out by rowing boat to meet the Stornoway-bound steamer in Applecross Bay; travel to Stornoway; wait perhaps several hours for the return steamer to Kyle; then re-cross the often turbulent Minch. It was a great improvement when a direct ferry service from Kyle to Toscaig, near the south west tip of the peninsula, started the mid 1950s (it has long ceased to operate).
And until 1975 Applecross comprised of two very distinct communities. The 1822 “Parliamentary” road to the village of Applecross from Kishorn continued down the coast via Camusterrach to Toscaig linking them together and to the outside world (to some extent). But there was no road at all north of the village of Applecross, only paths and tracks suitable at best for horses or hardy motorcycles. As a result the many settlements dotting the north coast were accessible only by sea.
This was fine in the days when travel and transport by sea were the norm for much of western Scotland, and in 1884 as many as 400 people were recorded as living along the north coast of the peninsula. But in the age of the internal combustion engine this spelled death for many of these north coast communities. By the time the road was built along the coast from Applecross to meet the A896 near Shieldaig it was far too late, and most of the population had left. A commemorative stone with a plaque near the Shieldaig end of the road records the opening after five years of construction of the Shieldaig to Kenmore section on 11 May 1970. It was to be a further five years until the whole road from Applecross to Shieldaig was finished.
All this means that for today’s visitors there are two routes into and out of Applecross. I’d always recommend you get the full Applecross experience by driving in from Kishorn over the Bealach na Ba, then leaving by the coast road to Shieldaig.
The Bealach na Ba rises to 2053ft in height from sea level in about five miles, and is the most spectacular pass in Scotland. It also provides some of the most challenging driving in the country. It is single track throughout and the warning signs at its foot, including one (unique in Scotland) deterring learner drivers, should be taken seriously. Another warns that the road is often closed in winter conditions (and it is!). The crux of the pass is as the road climbs the headwall of the corrie to the east of the highest point. Here it zig-zags upwards in a way that feels more alpine than Scottish.
Having made the effort to get to the top of the Bealach na Ba, from either direction, it is worth pausing in one of the parking areas to take in the views. It is also possible from here to explore some of the surrounding peaks with the benefit of a 2000ft+ start. If you do, remember that these are serious mountains, and most have very high cliffs on their eastern sides. You don’t have to stray very far from your car to get into trouble if the clouds blow in from the sea.
The road emerges on the west coast at the village of Applecross. It is easy to believe that this is the main focus of settlement on the western side of the peninsula. As a result many visitors overlook the settlements further south. This is a shame, because in many ways these are some of the most charming coastal villages in Scotland, with Camusterrach and Ard-dhubh being especially unspoiled by intrusive modern development; while Toscaig and its now ruined pier are reminders of the old ferry service to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Why do I love it so? Perhaps its the sheer isolation of the place (two hours from the nearest supermarket – ‘civilisation’), or the commitment involved in getting there – 12 miles along a narrow mountain road (hairpin bends, very narrow road with long drops). Or maybe its the stunning West Highland scenery and seascapes with unforgettable sunsets at any time of the year.
Whatever the reason Applecross has everything I’ve ever desired in place: history, heritage, landscape, solitude, wild weather, flora and fauna. And I’ve had wonderful holidays there each year since 1988 and, I hope, will continue to do so for many years to come. And in the fullness of time I will be buried there.
I’m looking forward to returning for Christmas 2010 and have already a diary date for October 2011 for a further visit.
Find out more about Applecross at www.applecross.uk.com.