Carry on campervan

Scotsman Magazine – 28/07/2010
by Stephen Emerson

Slow down and see Scotland at your own pace – you won’t regret it

There are few vehicles left on our roads capable of reminding us to take things more slowly, but a 1970s Volkswagen campervan easily falls into that category. So the prospect of setting off in one for a whistle-stop tour around Scotland had me in a state of excitement.

Too often, my partner and I have taken the easy option of a cheap flight or a package holiday abroad. This summer, we vowed, would be different. We would make a determined effort to take in more of the scenery and culture of our own country.

Our seven-day trip began in the Borders where we picked up our vehicle from Classic Camper Holidays, a new campervan company in Selkirk.

Our van, the affectionately named Bluebell, was an immaculately restored 1975 tin-top model, remarkably spacious and comfortable inside and upholstered in luxurious cream leather.

With no power steering, Bluebell took a bit of getting used to but we had soon mastered her big steering wheel and were pleasantly motoring north.

One of the near-certainties of holidaying in Britain, apart from the likelihood of rain, is that you will be amused by the antics of your fellow travellers. So we weren’t surprised, having stopped to admire the banks of Loch Lomond, to be treated to the spectacle of two semi-naked men jumping head first into the water.

We planned to do a loop that would take us up the west coast, over the Skye and across to Inverness before heading back to the Borders via Stirling.

In Oban you don’t have to look far to realise you’re in a special spot, but look down from atop McCraig’s Tower, a Victorian folly, to bring that home: below you lies stretched Oban Bay and in the mountains of Morvern and Ardgour.

A one mile drive north of Oban brought us to the ruin of Dunollie Castle, home to the MacDougalls of Lorn in the 13th century. It was later abandoned by the family when they moved to Dunollie House just downhill from the ruins.

We settled in a campsite at Glen Coe for the night, fired up the stove and watched the sun set over Loch Leven.

First stop the next day was the former aluminium smelting town of Kinlochleven. A pleasant walk through woodland brought us through the spectacular sight of Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. We then visited Glenfinnan Monument which must rank as one of Scotland’s most picturesque places.

The tower, which is topped with a stone-carved clansman, stands as a tribute to the fallen of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

The monument is close to where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard shortly before the ill-fated campaign that would end in defeat at Culloden. You can climb up the winding staircase and through a narrow hatch at the top to get an excellent view of the stunning Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

We parked up Bluebell for the night near the white sands of Morar beach, and next morning crossed by ferry from Mallaig to Skye. Arriving on the island in pretty abysmal weather we made a bee-line for the remote Talisker distillery in Carbost.

Distillery tours are criticised for being all alike but here there were some nice touches – like inviting you to touch and small the grain before and after its been dried over peat fires.

We drove around the island for the remainder of the day, marvelling at its rough volcanic nature, before setting up camp and enjoying a spell of sunshine that crept in late on.

After Skye, we visited iconic Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, near Kyle of Lochalsh. Following the failed 1745 uprising, Hanovarian naval forces besieged the castle until the few remaining soldiers surrended. Cannon balls from the attack, after which the castle fell into ruins, are on display today.

One of the benefits of travelling by campervan is the freedom it gives you to chose your route. So we set off next for a scenic drive along the banks of Loch Ness, looking for any mysterious shadows in the water, before stopping for the night in Inverness.

Then we had to turn for home, our route taking us south via historic Stirling Castle and Melrose Abby.

It was with a tinge of sadness that we handed Bluebell back. We had grown used to the admiring glances she invites on the road and, having returned friendly waves to fellow VW campervan drivers, felt part of a special club.