Dunvegan Castle, and the Seals

The Trek and Run Team backpacked around Scotland for three weeks in the summer of 2014. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

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Dunvegan Castle could be like many other brilliant National Trust properties, if it wasn’t for 3 things that make it exceptional…

1/ The seal watching boat trip; I’ve paddled among seals many times but this 25 minute ride was the best viewing I’ve ever had. The boatman cut the engine as we neared the colony and we drifted past 3 different groups, some just 2 metres away. There was no obvious sign of distress to the seals; they’d be having human guests for many, many years now and they seemed well used to us.

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2/ The gentleness of the gardens; after so many dramatic landscapes in the surrounding highlands and islands the gardens here seem ordered, tame, welcoming and colourful, which of course many National Trust gardens are, yet in this situation these stand out more.

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3/ The tradition of Faries, seen in the Fairy flag that’s on show inside the castle. It was so nice to hear adults speaking highly of, and clearly believing in, Faries. We southerners daren’t speak of such magic lest we’re labelled lunatics, we fear the outer limits. In Scotland there are still some brave souls would dare to believe, and dare to talk of it.

We’d tried twice before on our Scottish trip to see seals and failed due to lightweight reasons such a high seas (when the seas really weren’t that high) or equally low winds so it was nice to have a business deliver on their promise for once. Dunvegan Castle said we’d see seals, very close up, and that we did.

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There were 8 of us on the tour; we were each given safety gear and a quick briefing on what would happen next before boarding our little boat.

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Our guide didn’t talk much during our tour in the wooden open boat, just to identify the seal species (harbour and grey) and to relate a little history and as we neared the seals, which were laying on rocks about a 10 minute boat ride across a still estuary, he cut the engine so we could view them in silence. It was really very beautiful to be that close.

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The surrounding scenery was magnificent as well.

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We were blessed with the weather, of course, and before you set out to go on a seal watching trip here you really should look at the forecast. The estuary is pretty sheltered so I imagine it’d take a lot for the trips to be called off, yet, it probably wouldn’t be the best of fun to be out in an open boat for almost half hour if it were raining, especially if you were dressed in regular sightseeing clothes as opposed to all-weather sailing gear.

After a beautiful half hour we headed back to the castle…

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…just as it began to rain, and spent the next hour inside. There’s plenty of decent portrait art on show, some great photos of the old days in these regions, the Fairy flag I spoke of before and also the dungeon, which is quite terrifying as when you look down into it’s pit you know that once somebody was down there, they weren’t coming out again (you’ll understand once you see it, it’s a deep hole with no windows, no door…)

Back at our Skye CCC campsite the clouds were still heavy so I took a dip in the loch, which wasn’t that cold although hard to get into as the rocks were clad in seaweed and slippery…

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…and then said hello to the cows that grazed in the field behind our tent…

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Then, as quickly as it had disappeared, the sun came out and gave us a spectacular finish to the day. There was just enough wind so the midges were kept at bay; we sat on the loch-side rocks and played over in our minds the seal trip, the castle, the flowered gardens, the dramatic weather.

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There are surely things against going to Scotland, and Skye, the weather and cost being 2 stand out issues. You have to decide before you go, are the plus points worth the minus, is it all worth the trade off? It’s the same for all countries, all travels.

Take Egypt, for instance. I take this as an example as it’s a place I know well. You might want to see the pyramids, the desert, the Nile as sunset, the call to prayer floating over a 1,000 Cairo minarets, the Valley of the Kings, and terrific conversations with locals and also food that’s very different to your own.

The reality is, though, that whilst you will see many great things, the pyramids are set just a few hundred metres away from heaps of rubbish that litter the desert. And climb a dune to get that famous ’3 pyramids’ photo and you’ll see that you’re crowded in on 3 sides by the city. So much for the isolation you thought you’d meet there.

The real desert is there, you’ll be pleased to hear, but it’s an 8 to 12 hour drive away and you probably won’t have time in your schedule to see it.

At the Valley of the Kings Americans will introduce themselves ‘Hi, I’m Sandra from Minnesota, and you?’ and then repeat your name, slowly, 3 times so to ensure they get it right whilst the Japanese will advance quickly shouting ‘Hai. Hai!’ with their Nikons fixed at chest height, at the ready. Here, at this most famous of ancient sites, all national stereotypes will be lived up to, and enforced.

Food will be grilled chicken and chips, omelette, hummus, felafal and salad, just like home.

Locals will talk of absurd, archaic customs that were invented to suppress women; you will be expected to discuss this nonsense seriously.

The call to prayer can be beautiful. More often that not the muezzin will sound like a donkey braying, or a very bad boxing match announcer…’Iiinnn the red corner…’

So you decide if Egypt is worth the trade off before you go. Do you want the overall experience, at the expense of having your dreams smashed? It might be worth it, it might not.

Scotland also has it’s trade offs. It rains almost every day. There are midges everywhere and worse, Range Rover loads of Tarquins and Tabathas – rich English who are generally well meaning towards other white, middle to upper class people but who’s general talk is so often brain numbingly dull – inhabit the towns and quay side restaurants and are buying up the prettier cottages in smaller villages as second homes, which leaves them empty and without feeling for most of the year.

The whiskey is great, too, as you’d expect, yet it’s no cheaper or more available than in English supermarkets, so unless you’re looking for that very obscure variety you’ll get nothing on the islands that you won’t find in the average shop down south.

The food is really nothing exceptional and for vegetarians there’s nothing to speak off with any excitement. The standard can be good, but it’s just standard international very good, rather than something unique to the area, unless you count the seafood, but lets face it, with fish stocks dwindling so rapidly nowadays you’ve got to have your head stuck in the sand to be thinking it acceptable to eat them at the moment, before our seas are allowed to become well stocked again. And the feeling you get when you stumble upon a very high class restaurant in a very remote area, with a menu that few locals could ever afford even a single item from. You look behind what supports such an establishment and cringe…

So why come here? We discussed this whilst sat on the rocks as the sun set.

Well, you have the Knoydart Peninsula, with it’s rare, remote, largely engine free wild camp experience. That’s worth the journey.

Then you have the journey itself. The London to Scotland sleeper train is a brilliant experience. Such a decent way to travel, so relaxing yet you really get the sensation of moving from point to point. You arrive in Scotland knowing you’ve travelled, and ready for a new place, yet fresh and energetic. Of course, the issue with taking the train is that you don’t have a car to work with, unless you get a hire car, but we left our car at home and used public transport and found it mostly adequate and at times, really enjoyable.

The locals are genuinely friendly and there’s no rip-off culture in evidence. That’s a short sentence but one with a huge impact on your travels.

Saying that, the local farm shops that we found were largely stocked with high priced, inferior goods than the supermarkets. So that’s a minus, and a plus. Minus as it’s better to buy local, I think, but plus in that at least there’s an option when the local shop fails you.

We had tried to be honest with ourselves before we traveled to Scotland, we’d tried to work out what we wanted and pitted that against the inevitable financial and emotional costs, hassle and shattered dreams that we thought the travel might offer up. We’d decided it was worth the gamble and now, nearing the end of our trip, we agreed that we’d been lucky in our decision. The day we’d just experienced had summed our trip up well; a fantastic bit of history on show, nature and powerful weather all around us and now a tranquil goodbye to the sun before going back to a big dinner cooked at the tent. We’d got wet, and bitten, and stood around a bit waiting for an infrequent bus service but yes, we decided, all things considered, the day, and Scotland, had been worth the trade off.

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To learn more about Dunvegan Castle, please visit http://www.dunvegancastle.com/content/default.asp

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