The Sons of Grâce - English version
July 2018. We were supposed to go on a roadtrip to Norway... But two weeks before, we broke up, in a sudden, hard and violent way that left me totally depressed. So I didn't want to go anymore but I didn't know what to do with my vacation either.
One evening, while I was surfing on Facebook, a video caught my attention. It was a promotional video for tourism in Scotland, and one image particularly attracted me: an overhanging view on a loch, with impressive rock pythons in the foreground, a view of the Isle of Skye.
For a long time I wanted to do a roadtrip in England, Scotland and Ireland, so the choice was made.
After spending a few days at the sea with my mother and my nephews, my mother pushed me out. So I took the road in my car, transformed into a "Microvan". Once in the queue to board the ferry in Dunkirk, I realized that I had only taken my Indian leather flip-flops, which of course is absolutely inappropriate for hiking in the Highlands...
As always when I travel, I just had an "overall plan". A few objectives to photograph with my camera, and everything else is on the road, according to the encounters, the paths that open up before me. By chance, by fate.
For Scotland, I had two objectives: the breathtaking view of the Isle of Skye that I had seen on video 10 days before, and a naive idea of the typical image that people have of Scotland: a small castle on an islet, in the middle of a Loch, under a cloudy sky...
I passed through Canterbury rather quickly, and headed straight north, then to York, where I spent two days visiting with a friend I met there. Afterwards, I stopped at Hadrian's Wall, where I got to experience the famous "British humor" when I met a hiker in the rain while taking pictures: noticing my flip-flops, he jokingly asked me with a smile, "It's a bit wet, isn't it? ".
In Edinburgh, I stopped for a few days, and took the time to buy new trekking shoes. And a good raincoat...
After trying my shoes in the streets and on "Hadrian's seat", the mountain next to the city, I went back north.
Near Tadcaster, York / Hadrian' s Wall / Entering Scotland / Jedburgh 's ruined Abbey / Fields on the way / Ruins on Hadrian 's seat / The Golden Mile and its street-shows / W Bow (seen in many movies) / Highlands cows / Along the road
In Inverness, I tasted my very first Haggis. (Yum!) and I was introduced to the "real" Gin & Tonic (It has become my favorite drink now, I even make my own...) by a friend I met there (I had posted a message on a local Facebook group, saying I was visiting and photographing the area for a few days and was interested in meeting nice people and having a drink. ) At that point, I started chatting on that group with a young man, living near Kyle of Lochalsh, about 30 years old, with brown hair, who introduced himself as an "economic migrant" with a laughing emoticon. He offered me to join him for a trek up the "5 Sisters".
It sounded nice, so I accepted and we set a date 3 days later in the morning.
The next day, I drove around Loch Ness and made a few stops, especially in the wilderness south of the Loch, which gave me a first glimpse of the wilderness of the Highlands: breathtaking!
Then, at the end of the afternoon, I went back to Inverness to taste some Angus Beef and another local gin before going to park my car in a nearby field to sleep.
In the morning, after a cup of tea, I drove to Dornoch, then turned left and followed a small road to slowly lose myself in the wilds of the Highlands. If my spirits were still low up to that point, the stunning scenery began to cure it.
I drove through the land, eyes wide open, stopping every five minutes to take a picture: I would jump out of my car, camera in hand. I jumped on the rocks and ran, laughing like a kid on the heather carpets (it reminded me of Laura Ingalls running through the fields in the credits of her show...^^).
Ardently wild and free. That's the awesome feeling the Highlands will leave in your heart. Because that's what they are.
After a few hours of slow wandering, still heading north, I arrived in Tongue and noticed an old tower on the hill in front of the village. So I stopped, parked the car and asked a local old man sitting in front of his house for directions to the tower. After crossing a wooden footbridge and walking for half an hour, Caisteal Bharraich was in front of me, offering an impressive view of the Kyle (estuary) and the village of Tongue next door.
Once back in the car, I walked along the Kyle, took several more pictures, and followed the road along the coast, heading west. I passed through a few small valleys, each of which offered a different landscape, with different rock types. And finally, I ended up in front of a heavenly beach, with white sand and clear water, which seemed surreal compared to the harsh landscapes I had just crossed (Ceannabeinne Beach).
Then, I started to go back down, still following the coastal road, stopping every five minutes to jump out of my car, jump on the rocks, run like a kid, stand on a rock, "click", do the same thing again and jump back in the car.....
In the evening, being hungry, I stopped in a village to eat a " Fish and Chips " (of course... !) and to discuss a little with some inhabitants, who found the arrangements of my car, transformed into microvan, amusing and very practical.... (They humorously renamed it the "Bed on Wheels"...) Before taking the road again, slowly heading towards Kyle of Lochalsh. As night fell, I saw a few deer and foxes crossing the road ahead of me. I finally arrived in Kyle of Lochalsh a few minutes before midnight and stopped for the night in the forest overlooking the town.
I woke up early in the morning. And as I got out of my car, I heard the distant sound of running water. So I went for a walk. I soon found a small stream and a little bit further up a small waterfall, so I went back to my car to get my towel and a piece of natural soap. The water was so cool, I didn't stay in the water for more than two seconds and ended up finishing a quick cool down with my hands before running and laughing, wrapped in my towel, back to the car. Once inside, I warmed up with my gas stove while making myself a tea...
Then I went down to the city, where I had an appointment with my "economic migrant", on the parking lot of a small supermarket. After a few minutes, a van pulled up next to mine and he got out with a smile.
I was surprised at first, because he had yellowish bleached hair and did not look like a migrant at all... Then he explained to me about his hair that he had lost a bet with his older brother. And when I asked him about the "economic migrant", he explained that he had gone home for the vacations but that he had been working in the Sultanate of Oman for a few years and that he liked to joke about it to break all the xenophobic ideas about migrants...
He asked me if I had had breakfast, I told him I had not. He then said, "Well, let's have a Scottish breakfast! ".
We left the city, crossed the bridge to the Isle of Skye, and stopped at a restaurant he knew well and ordered tea and a full Scottish breakfast.
Murdo (Murdoch-Ewan) spoke perfect French, as he had done part of his studies in France. So we mixed the two languages, especially when we talked about sensitive subjects (the United Kingdom and its relations with its colonies, the Scottish clans, the march of the world, etc...).
We had a very pleasant and interesting discussion, during the two hours it took us to eat our Haggis, black pudding, sausages, beans, toasts etc.....
Afterwards, Murdo told me that since it was cloudy and windy, it was too dangerous to hike the Five Sisters of Kintail, but he offered to accompany me and guide me to the Isle of Skye. Perfect!
So I left my car in the parking lot and we hit the road in his brother's van.
We made a first stop in Portree, to have a look at its pretty little harbor, surrounded by typical and colorful houses. Then we went to the "Old Man of Storr", where there are impressive rock pythons. There, I recognized the place I had seen in the video a few weeks before. But the place was overcrowded: people climbing everywhere... There were even buses parked along the road. You couldn't tell the tourists from the sheep anymore.
So I told Murdo to leave it and go to a quieter place he knew... So we followed the road to Ellishadder and its (now famous...) Mealt falls and cliffs. There too, parked on the side of the road, tourist buses and many cars, vans of tour operators, etc... in a total confusion, on a country road which is more used to see tractors than buses of Chinese tourists.....
Murdo then explains to me that the UK wants to develop tourism here, but does not provide funds to build the appropriate infrastructure. The only investment here comes from the European Union. So of course this creates a crazy situation that will lead to problems if nothing is done urgently...! (The Brexit probably didn't help...)
I jumped out of the van and ran to the cliff to make some quick clicks, slaloming between the tourists, while Murdo managed to turn around. And made it back to the van just as quickly, quite disturbed by this mass of tourists in the middle of nowhere or so.
We got away from the crowd and stopped a little further. We parked the car and drove through the fields, into a small valley leading to the ocean. As we passed between the grazing cows, we chatted: Murdo was curious about the way I travel. Mostly alone, in places I know little or nothing about, with no real plan..... And he thought it could be a bit dangerous.
I explained to him that I had "learned" to travel this way, gradually, step by step, getting more and more used to it, gaining confidence. That I had developed "travel safety habits", in order not to put myself in danger, to always stay as safe as possible, and also to get out of tricky situations when it happens... (2 times in more than 20 years) Therefore, it allowed me to travel more and more freely, without chains (planning, guides, etc...). I also explained to him that the more it went like that, the more I made incredible encounters and great experiences by traveling this way. So I had finally decided to let things go, to always listen to my instincts and let Life take me where I needed to go and bring me in front of the people it wanted me to meet. Follow my path, and let it happen. Or as we say in France: "A la Grace de Dieu".
Later, we took the van back on the road, and passed by the Quiraing, a natural reserve with an impressive landscape. There, we found the tourists again, but as the view is really beautiful, we stopped for a little walk. We then followed the west coast and came back to Portree to have something to eat in a pub, because it was already late afternoon and we hadn't eaten since the morning.
An hour later, I looked out the window and noticed that the clouds were parting and that rays of sunlight were coming through. I then asked Murdo if we were far from Storr, thinking that at that time of the afternoon, the tourists might have left...
We were not far, so we took the van and went back there. Once in Storr, except for a few people left and the sheep grazing, the place was empty. So we parked along the road and started to climb. By the time we reached the top of one of the rocky pythons, we were alone, Murdo, the sheep and I, in front of this magnificent landscape that I had seen in the video a few weeks before. And under a perfect cloudy Scottish sky, pierced by the sun's rays. I grabbed my camera and took the picture I had come for.
Portree / the cliffs of Mealt / the small quiet valley / the Quiraing (X2) / Old man ods Storr / Storr
We sat there talking for a while, and then Murdo asked me to come to his father's house to have dinner and stay with them. Since I needed a real shower...... I accepted.
So we went back down to the van, went back to my car, took the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh and from there, we took a small road going into a valley. There, everywhere sheep and small waterfalls, trickling down until they joined in a stream winding through the valley. At one point we passed farm gates, used to park cattle, and then continued on the road. After a while, a small white-walled cottage stood alone in the valley floor. Farquhar, Murdo's father, welcomes us with a smile. He is a shepherd, and raises sheep here on behalf of a company from the Gulf countries, to whom the land also belongs.
The time to put my things in Murdo's room, who gives it to me for the night, to throw a laundry and to take a deliciously hot shower, and Sarah, Murdo's sister, was back. A bottle of wine, taken out of my car, and here we are, all gathered around the table, enjoying a great dish of Spaghetti Bolognese while chatting. They explain me the tradition and the heritage of the clans. Farquhar explains the meaning of the names in Gaelic (Mac Kintosh / Son of the Chieftain, Mac Leod / Son of Leod (Norse people), Mac Mahan / Son of the Bear, Campbell / Smile in the corner, Cameron / Hooked nose, etc...) Sarah explains her work and her commitment. She is an artist and is also part of an association that helps the locals to stay on the land of their ancestors and to reappropriate it when possible. They explain to me that the government regularly sells land to companies or crowned heads of the Gulf, attracted there by the water resources, the quality of the pastures, etc.... many small people find themselves tenants on land that previously belonged to their clans.
The relationship with the government is sometimes difficult and a source of conflict, sometimes even within families. At Farquhar's, this one being in couple with an Englishwoman settled in the Highlands (Murdo's parents are divorced), one avoids the subjects which annoy when she is present.
After long and fascinating discussions, we went to bed for the night.
The next day, Murdo and Sarah were busy together and I had to take the road again, on my side, being a little bit tight on the timing of this trip (3 weeks to do the loop England-Scotland-Ireland-England). So Murdo asked me if I had been to visit the Castle at Kyle of Lochalsh.
I had seen it from afar, especially on the road on my way to his father's house, and I told myself that I would stop there on my way back. He then explained that the Castle, Eilean Donan, was the old "House" of his clan the Mac Rae, and that he could take me there if I wanted, but that afterwards he would have to leave me and could not stay with me to visit it. After thanking Farquhar warmly (Sarah had already left early), we headed back to the city. In front of Eilean Donan castle, Murdo and I said goodbye... After my visit, I took a picture of the most famous castle in Scotland, used as a backdrop in many movies and as an image of Scotland, all over the world. This same image I had in mind at the beginning of my trip.
When I left for Glasgow, I was happy: I had my two pictures and hundreds more. I was amused that once again, by leaving my way to chance, fate, destiny or the Grace of God, I had met the best guide to help me discover these magnificent lands: a descendant of the local clan, the Mac Rae, or Sons of Grâce in Gaelic.