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SCOTLAND

A Highlands Fling

Abandoning the city's bustle for a romance with the wild northwest coast, in a land of harsh beauty bathed by a light fantastic

September 03, 2000|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ACHILTIBUIE, Scotland — As the twilight closed in around us, the single-track road we followed in this faraway corner of northwest Scotland showed no signs of ending, no city, no farmhouse, no hospitable life within miles, and I began to wonder if I'd so wisely planned this leg of our trip. My wife, Margie, and I had spent the day driving some of the most beautiful roads we'd ever seen, watching the counterpane farmlands in the south give way to the moonscapes of bracken and heather in the north.

We turned off A835, 20 minutes out of Ullapool, a small quayside town overlooking Loch Broom and the Highlands to the south. Beside us, two saw-toothed, scree-covered mountains, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh, each rising a precipitous 2,000 feet from the roadway, shimmered in the peaty dark waters of Loch Lurgainn. A gust roiled its surface. Slate-gray clouds poured in from the north. What had seemed romantic and delightfully odd--two nights in the unpronounceable town of Achiltibuie, the promise of a comfortable place to stay and long walks amid craggy rivers, mirror-like lakes (or lochs) and purple moors--had become far more desolate. Perhaps I should have aimed more carefully when I threw the dart at the map.

Since I'd planned this trip nearly five months earlier, Achiltibuie had been just a name to struggle with each time I tried to say it (it is pronounced Ach-il-tee-boo-ee, with the emphasis on the first syllable, as if something were stuck in your throat). A village on the Coigach peninsula, it was described in one magazine as a "straggly coastal settlement where even the sheep need company." It overlooks, we had read, the Summer Isles, a group of islands a stone's throw from the mainland.

We had three days left in a three-week vacation to England and Scotland, and having had our fill of London, Edinburgh and Inverness, we wanted simply to get out into the wilds, where we could taste some good Scotch and step out at night beneath a million stars and, if we were lucky, stand beneath the northern lights. We'd seen the 1983 Burt Lancaster movie "Local Hero," the story of an American's growing affection for a small Scottish town and its unusual residents, and felt well prepared for the quirky and the picturesque. This was my second trip to Scotland; having toured the Highlands once, mostly in and around Loch Ness, I was ready to see the less visited northwestern coast.

As a coming storm hastened nightfall, we thought we had come to the edge of the world, the place where map makers simply gave up drawing the coastline and wrote "terra incognita." We eyed the road, a ribbon of asphalt disappearing over the next hill. We came to a scattering of stone cottages, properties marked by toppled-down walls and errant sheep. We slowed down, wondering what had possessed us to book a room from 5,000 miles away.

By the time we reached Achiltibuie, it was nearly 7 o'clock. We pulled up a short driveway into a parking area hemmed by bushes rustling in the wind and felt suddenly at ease. Our shelter from the storm could not have been more inviting, a two-story farmhouse whose chimneys and gables, set against the graying sky, were a hospitable prospect. Small lamps glowed like candles in the windows.

We grabbed our bags, climbed the steps to the mud room and were greeted by Geraldine Irvine, the blond, blue-eyed owner (with her husband, Mark) of the Summer Isles Hotel. She greeted us by name and showed us our room, up a flight of stairs in the back. Its bathtub was as large as the white-framed, quilted bed. She brought us a whiskey and a glass of Chardonnay, and within an hour we were sitting in the hotel's dining room at a candle-lighted table by the window, watching the September sky empty of light.

Our meal was a far cry from the haggis-and-mutton fare offered elsewhere. It started with seared scallops. Then there was a warm lemon sole mousse, followed by roasted grouse with red wine sauce served on a puree of parsnips, dessert and a selection of cheeses. Rain pelted the window as we finished. We had coffee back in our room, and the storm whistled around us.

Perhaps our fears were unfounded, but picking a place to stay in Scotland can be a gamble. The Scots may be big on lodges, but we're not. Friends had recommended the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel at the crossroads halfway between Inverness and the Isle of Skye. It was a bit out of the way, but we were curious and we stopped in for afternoon tea.

Built as a private shooting lodge in 1904 and recently reopened after 15 years, it was a place where time had stopped, haunted like Daphne du Maurier's Manderley, its ghosts waltzing on faded green carpets, sitting in the rose-colored wingback chairs and boasting of the eight-point buck taken in the morning. We waited beneath one mounted head, were shown to the lounge and listened nervously for the clatter of our approaching tea service. We didn't stay long.

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