Knoydart is a very special place. A peninsula on the west coast of Scotland accessed only by boat, it has all the feelings of a remote Scottish island. Staying in the village of Inverie, I went there recently to explore Scotland’s last true wilderness.
Standing on the pier at Mallaig, I couldn’t believe how many bags we had. The pier was strewn with luggage, not just ours of course, but several families worth of bags. Everyone taking enough to survive the week. There are no grocery stores as such on Knoydart so it is essential to take provisions with you. There are, however, a couple of places you can pick up basic supplies. The post office sells a few household goods and provisions. The Knoydart Foundation has its own shop in the village and it has a freezer full of excellent venison and a small Off Licence for important stocks of booze.
You really get the feeling you are going somewhere off the beaten track particularly when you scan your eyes round the harbour. The boat to Knoydart doesn’t leave from the larger ferry terminal for the Caledonian McBrayne services sailing to the Hebrides. Surrounded by fishing boats a small vessel with a cabin big enough for a dozen or so people appears round the corner and docks discretely alongside the harbour steps. Men throw ropes to tie up, while others help passengers step over the side of the vessel and up the steps onto the shore on their return to Mallaig from Inverie.
We get the signal to board and before long a human chain had formed the length of the harbour steps. Bags of all shapes and sizes were passed from one pair of hands to another. There was something really lovely about how naturally a human chain formed between strangers and everybody helped out to put all the luggage on board. Bags, canoes and even a didgeridoo passed through peoples’ hands as the boat slowly loaded up. Once on the boat, the goods were covered with a thick tarpaulin to prevent them becoming wet from any spray that might come over the bow during the short forty minute crossing. The boat sailed to the right from the harbour and conversations began between people from several nationalities speaking in different languages.
The sail up Loch Nevis and into Inverie felt just magical. Surrounded by the most beautiful of Scottish Highland scenery, the whitewashed cottages that line the front of the village came closer into view. How lucky I felt, that this picturesque location was going to be my home for the next week. I couldn’t wait to explore the forests and rugged coastline that stretched into the distance. Bags were unloaded into the back of Landrovers that arrived onto the pier to meet the boat. After being a hive of activity, the pier was soon empty and deserted again as visitors were taken to their accommodation.
We were staying in a traditional style cottage called Tigh Na Feidh, in the village of Inverie. This had once been a crofter’s cottage and boasted magnificent views over Loch Nevis and to the hills beyond. It was very comfortably furnished inside in a very charming traditional manner. It wasn’t long before we settled in and looked forward to evening drinks in the sitting room around the wood burning fire.
Knoydart is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors. Whether its canoeing, mountain biking, walking or fishing, this is wonderful environment to be in. Many people go to Knoydart for its wilderness experience and enjoy the isolation in some spectacular scenery. We spent the first morning walking to explore the village and its immediate surroundings. Some beautiful woodlands line the road that takes you along towards the Kilchoan Estate.
I had forgetten how much I enjoyed sea fishing and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to fish again. When I was child I loved fishing with my father from his small boat. We would launch it off Dunbar on the East Lothian coast and often come back with lots of fish. Unfortunately, fishing is one of the few things I can’t do on my own due to the dexterity required to tie lines. So, I took advantage of having some help this week and spent a few evenings fishing off the pier. The mackerel I caught made a tasty supper one evening.
One of the things I most wanted to do was to climb Ladhar Bienne, the highest Munro on the peninsula. We planned to hire a Landrover to take us into the valley to the foot of the mountain so as to shorten the route. Unfortunately, I have been finding walking very difficult at the moment so climbing a Munro was not a option for me. People who follow my blog will have seen a recent post about the difficulties I am experiencing in walking. However, I discovered a new interest which I never knew could be so much fun, and that was driving the dirt tracks with a Landrover.
Of course, not having many roads suitable for a vehicle on Knoydart, there isn’t very far you can go. In an easterly direction from Inverie there are two roads, or should I say dirt tracks. One of them leads to a small cove called Airor. What a wonderful journey it was past the headland with some magnificent views over to the islands of Rhum and Skye. At the end of the road was the most remote of little cafes with a lovely selection of food and beautiful home baking. Situated in a lovely bay it had fantastic views over the beach and across to Skye.
The other road from Inverie leads six miles to a farm at a place called Inverguserin. A really beautiful journey through the wilderness takes you into the valley where walkers might begin the ascent of Ladhar Bienne. This was truly beautiful and felt very wild indeed. To add to the atmosphere we came across a stalker who was saddling up two ponies to go up and take the deer off the hill. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to go stalking, I find it a nice thing to do. I’m hoping to get the opportunity to do this someday. Although climbing the Munro wasn’t possible for me this time, the experience of being there was really wonderful.
I’ve visited many parts of Scotland over recent years and had some amazing experiences. I have to say however that Knoydart is a very special place and already I am longing to go back there. The isolation, the peace, and the feeling of true wilderness make it just magical There are no ferries arriving each day bringing hundreds of tourists. The majority of people there are those who live there. Although this is part of the Scottish mainland, it really feels like island life. Just things like the old cars, and the lack of road signs make it feel very isolated. There is a lovely farm shop on the Kilchoan Estate selling some nice things that has an honesty box for people to leave their money. Doors are seldom locked and keys are left in cars giving a beautiful feel of community and trust.
There are those who would like ferry companies such as Caledonian Macbrayne to begin running a scheduled service to the peninsula. This would indeed bring many people and money into the community. There would however be a price to pay for this. More infrastructure would be required to support a greater number of visitors and this would change the feel of the place. Before long Knoydart would require more amenities, shops and cafes. One can’t help feeling that something special would then be lost forever. I hope Knoydart remains a true wilderness and the already fragile community there survives for many generations to come.
Since I began writing my Disability Travel and Sports Blog over a year ago, my motivation to go out and have fun has gone through the roof. One of the things that has really come back for me, is my motivation to go hillwalking in the Scottish Mountains. Having cerebral palsy has of course made it more challenging. Although recently I discovered that my love for the mountains is as strong as ever. Unfortunately, I have run into a few barriers in this area. I find it very physically demanding and as a result experience excruciating pain in my joints. Whether the joy of the experience outweighs the discomfort is something I have yet to answer.
In the Past
I’ve always loved the outdoors and being in the hills. I was taken regularly into the countryside by my parents when I was young and I continued my fun in the outdoors with the local Scout Troop. When I got to university I joined the hillwalking society and started climbing Munros. I quickly made friends with others in the club who were a bit more patient and happy to proceed at my pace. We would regularly leave in the early hours of the morning to go and climb a particular mountain.
I became a post graduate student in Manchester where my hill walking career seemed to grind to a halt. I walked a little in the Peak District but my studies and career soon took over. When I retured to Edinburgh in the late 1990’s I joined a local club. However, I didn’t persevere for a number of reasons and I assumed that this was the end of my walking career.
20 years on
Recently I have taken the opportunity to go hill walking again and I have regained my passion for the wonderful mountains. Among other activities I have,
Although I enjoying being in the hills very much, there always seems to be a cost to pay. Each time I go walking I usually end up in excruciating pain. Much as I love being in the mountains I have to ask myself if it’s worth it. I find it very frustrating indeed for the following reasons:
Things came to a head recently when I took on more than I could handle. Experiencing so much pain and being at least another 2 hours from the car, I called for help. The Breamar Mountain Rescue sent out a Landrover and picked me up in Glen Callater. This is not a scenario I ever want to repeat. The physical and mental affects have a long impact and, I can’t disregard them.
Onward and Up the Mountains
I would like to work with a therapist to get to the source of my joint pain. Regular physiotherapy might really help. I am aware that I could go through my GP and get referred to the NHS but there are two problems with that. First, I’d wait a very long time to be seen and secondly it wouldn’t be a long term thing. After a couple of visits I’d be discharged and back to square one.
If anyone knows of a physiotherapist in or around Edinburgh who may be prepared to help me then please get in touch. Thank You.
I have been lucky enough to visit Orkney lately and I had a really interesting time. My trip was to carry out detailed research. Funded by the John Muir Trust Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant, I went to Orkney to investigate disability access across the archaeological sites. The idea for this investigation came after the discovery that some tour operators specifically say their tours are not suitable for disabled people. I wanted to discover for myself and, thanks to the John Muir Trust Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant, that is exactly what I did.
Accessing the Past
Orkney is a wonderful place rich in archaeological sites. There have been many television documentaries and books written about them. Most people who know anything about Orkney have heard of Maes Howe, Scara Brae and the Ring of Brodger. Although these sites are very well known, there are many more sites both on mainland Orkney and the surrounding islands.
Historic Scotland are a national agency whose remit is to protect the ancient relics and natural environment of Scotland. Members, like myself, obtain unlimited access to all the ancient sites of castles and monuments. Membership money allows Historic Scotland to protect the sites. They also make the places accessible by providing visitors centres and laying on events.
Being able to access and see for yourself the sites of ancient civilisations is really important for all of us. I feel that it changes outlooks on our lives and what we value about our society. However, these prestigious locations are a lot more difficult for disabled people to see. The preservation is very important, but can we strike a balance between preservation and access for all.
The sites are managed by Historic Scotland and I wanted to see for myself just how disabled people might access them.
On the Ground
Over the course of the week I visited as many of the archaeological sites as possible. It was a truly amazing experience. Below I have given a short description of a few of the sites and commented on the accessibility.
|Stones of Stenness||Collection of three large standing stones.||Accessible over a grassy field but only a short distance from the roadside. The magnitude of these stones can easily be seen from the road.|
|Barnhouse at Stenness||Remains of 4 or 5 small Barnhouses.||A further walk past Stones of Stenness over grass. Once there, access into the houses is narrow although is possible to have a good over view from the outside edge.|
|Scara Brae||A neolithic village very well preserved, a truly amazing site.||This is the most accessible of all. HS have gone to a lot of trouble to build an accessible walk way. A wheelchair user could get a really good view and experience on this site.|
|Maes Howe||The best preserved burial tomb.||Not accessible. See my notes further on.|
|Ring of Brodger.||The most amazing stone circle||Accessible over a field with grassy covering. Once at the stones a rather narrow and tricky path surrounds it.|
While discussing access to the archaeological sites, it is important first to recognise the importance of maintaining and preserving the integrity of the site. These sites date back 5000 years and really ought to be left exactly how they were found. Many of the sites therefore could not be made accessible without damaging them. Maes Howe for example, as well as the other burial tombs, could not be made accessible. One has crawl into them with a torch and even the most able of us might find this difficult.
Although it is important to maintain the archaeological sites exactly as they are, this may be an excuse for Historic Scotland to overlook disability. There is an excellent visitor centre at Scara Brae that is fully accessible, and a good path around most of the site. Apart from this, one can’t help feeling that disability has been overlooked.
There are numerous sites that could easily be made more accessible for small amounts of money. For example, it would be so easy to create some walkways that would enable a wheelchair user to see The Ring of Brodger, Stones of Stenness or the Broch of Gurness. Gates could be made much wider and ramps could be built at places such as Birsay. All these changes would not in any way destroy the integrity of the site and make them much easier for people to see. This would benefit both disabled people and non disabled. Where sites are completely inaccessible perhaps modern technology could be utilised more to create a better visitor experience for less able people.
I think Historic Scotland need to take a look at all of their key sites and ask themselves what could be done to make them more accessible for all. One fails to see why this has been so badly neglected. It is so important for everyone, able-bodied or not, to be able to have a window into the past. I hope groups might start to put gentle pressure onto Historic Scotland to encourage them to consider increasing accessibility to other important places and not just Skara Brae.