Holidaying with teens in Sutherland

Herald, Saturday magazine 30 May 2011

To say our teenagers were not keen on a week in a cottage in the far north of Scotland would be like saying Ryan Giggs is not a fan of Twitter. It was not, apparently, their idea of a holiday. The word they used in fact was “nightmare”. But I closed my ears to their girning – second nature now – and insisted they pack plenty of warm clothes and borrow some holiday reading from the school library.

Of course, I told myself, no self-respecting teenager would welcome a week in the Highlands with their parents. I am sure I made the same kind of extravagant complaints myself – but I did enjoy it once I was there.

Today’s teens are no different – over our week in Sutherland I could see them relaxing, away from the dramatic highs and lows of adolescent social lives, the semi-permanent glow of the computer screens they stare at, and the pressures of school and homework.

My dyslexic teenage son managed to finish three novels – none of them could be described as literature, but never mind – and we even played a complete game of Monopoly where we ran out of houses.

The weather was – mostly – awful but it didn’t matter. The scenery was breathtaking, even if viewed from the inside of a car with its windscreen wipers on full pelt.

The grand old mountains of Sutherland seem as old as anything on earth, jutting jagged shapes into the sky, like a few, last worn-out teeth in the mouth of some ancient Norse god. Some of the most recognisable mountains in Scotland are here, among them Suilven, Canisp, the towering sea stack of the Old Man of Stoer and Stac Pollaidh.

The name Sutherland is derived from South Land, its title when under the sway of the Vikings, its capital in Orkney. With an average population of one person per square kilometre in the west, it is a very, very empty place – one of the wildest, loneliest places in Europe.

Sutherland is the region where Scotland’s last wolf was killed – and where the last witch was burned. It was also home to Scotland’s last saint – Gilbert de Moravia, who founded Dornoch Cathedral in the 13th century – and Sutherland appears in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings as another name for Haradwaith.

The area is relatively unvisited, mostly because it is such a long way – around five hours by road from the central belt – but for peace, quiet and the extraordinary scenery, it is worth going the extra mile.

We took a train to Inverness and hired a car from there. It made a change to arrive in Ullapool in time for a late lunch with none of us feeling tired and the car still tidy, minus the detritus of sticky snacks and car sickness that mark a long journey with three children. The sun was shining on the pretty bay and we enjoyed fish and chips on a bench in the harbour watching the ferry load up for its journey to Stornoway.

“Dramatic” best describes the hour-long journey along the winding roads to the cottage which was to be our home for a week, Glendarroch, on the outskirts of Lochinver. From our front porch we could see a row of beautiful Highland peaks – Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh – outlined against a moody sky.

Lochinver is still a thriving fishing port, supplying European markets with crustaceans and shellfish, and is home to some great places to eat fresh seafood. We tried langoustines washed down with cask ales at the Caberfeidh bistro and scallops followed by fruit pies at the Lochinver Larder.

One wild day, when the combination of our sons being rather lazy and needing to expend enormous amounts of energy was threatening to wreak havoc, we sent them down to the leisure centre where they got the enormous games hall with a bouncy castle in it almost to themselves. Their more grown-up sister was also delighted to be allowed an hour on Facebook at the computer centre.

We did manage a few walks, the most memorable of which took us to the Bone Caves, where the remains of animals up to 45,000 years old have been found, including brown bears, Arctic fox, lemmings and even a polar bear, which it is thought roamed here in the Ice Age.

My husband and I laced up our boots and stood reading the information board in the empty car park, pulling our hoods up against the rain, before discovering that the children had locked themselves in the car.

“You go on yourselves,” they mouthed through the misted windows as the car vibrated to the rising volume of the stereo. “It’s raining.”

It took a mixture of cajoling and threats to get them to open the door but once prised from their metal box they found reserves of energy and bounded their way up through a glen which resounded with the prehistoric bellows of stags. “It sounds like we’re being chased by dinosaurs,” said our nine year old in a genuinely alarmed voice.

At the caves, my husband – an experienced rock climber – vanished, wriggling through a narrow passage into the deep underground network, rather to the children’s alarm. Of course, this is a sport which should only be undertaken with the right equipment and with the help of instructors. Eventually he did return, covered in rock dust.

Nearby, on the way to Ben More Assynt, at 998m (3274ft) the highest point in Sutherland, are more huge caves at Inchnadamph. This is Scotland’s largest cave network, one that archaeologists believe were once inhabited. A river rushes through one of the yawning entrances, and in general the caves – formed by the action of water on limestone – are prone to flooding and dangerous to explore, but even venturing into the shadowy corners of the entrances is an exciting experience.

Another interesting expedition was to the Falls of Kirkaig, which passes a monument to the poet Norman McCaig, whose mother was a local and who spent much time here. This walk takes in the tea shop at Scotland’s remotest bookshop, Achins, in the township of Inverkirkaig. The falls themselves are spectacular, a huge volume of water crashing over the rocky outcrop.

I may have forced the children out of the car at the caves but on an outing to Achmelvich Beach, where turquoise water laps on white sands, I was less insistent. The wind had got up, driving the icy rain straight into my face when I tried to walk along the beach. In a moment of weakness, I relented and let the children stay in the car.

We drove up to the headland and ate our lunch of cheese sandwiches and KitKats overlooking the sea, with the heater on. On our way home, we stopped at the Highland Stoneware pottery and saw the same scene being masterfully hand-painted on to plates and mugs.

Then it was home for another holiday pursuit – constructing the perfect hot chocolate using cream and crumbled Flakes.

The cottage was cosy and well-equipped, with electric blankets on the beds, a flat-screen TV and broadband. In search of peace, I was none too pleased to have my preconceptions of rural living confounded, but as we didn’t bring a laptop it mattered little. TV was banned during the day but we watched a film together each evening. After relaxing into it, everybody seemed to be enjoying our leisurely life.

It should be pointed out that there had been more ambitions plans. I had brought wet suits as we had hoped to do some sea kayaking but one look at the wild green waves was enough to make us feel rather relieved when we were told the winds were too high.

There are some famous sights elsewhere in Sutherland – a slightly circuitous route out of Inverness to the west takes the tourist by Skibo Castle, where Madonna married Guy Ritchie (the wedding apparently more successful than the marriage), and on to the turreted and fabulously named Dunrobin Castle, once the seat of the Dukes of Sutherland – notoriously enthusiastic supporters of the Clearances – now open to the public.

On the west coast are the famous Inverewe Gardens, where semi-tropical plants flourish thanks to the Gulf Stream.

There are fantastic waterfalls too: Britain’s highest falls, at 200m three times higher than Niagara, at Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, and the Falls of Shin, with a visitor centre and a cafe, near one of Scotland’s best salmon rivers, where, at certain times of year, visitors can watch north Atlantic salmon “louping” their way up river to spawn.

And then there are the islands: the Summer Isles and Handa Island, where the magnificent sea cliffs come alive in summertime when nearly 200,000 seabirds, including kittiwakes, guillemots, Arctic skuas and puffins gather to breed.

However we didn’t feel the desire to travel too far from our temporary home. What we got from it was what we were after, which was time, time when there was absolutely nothing going on, time to put our feet up, relax and get a break from the relentless pace of urban family life.