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Over Moor and Meadow in the Highlands

A rented cottage makes a convenient base for exploring glen, glade and remains of a Bronze Age people

June 02, 2002|NANCY J. BAIRD

LAIRG, Scotland — I was driving alone north out of Lairg in the Scottish Highlands, thankful it was daylight and the sun was shining. At 1 p.m., I still had time to grab a late lunch (if I was lucky enough to find someplace that served food in this remote landscape), get to my destination and return to the cottage my husband, Don, and I had rented.

At night or in a typical howling Highlands storm, I would have been terrified on this lonely one-lane road about 30 miles from the north coast of Scotland. But in bright sunshine the exquisite tapestry of textures and colors was eye candy. This is Britain's answer to Big Sky country.

In the distance clouds framed dark shadows of craggy mountains on the west coast. The nearby landscape was gold, purple and brown, thick with peat bogs, grasses and heather that parted gurgling streams, staining their rocky paths a rusty orange. Small blue lakes appeared now and then, and trees, when they appeared at all, were in clusters. The effect was of a huge expanse that never ended, an exhilarating and wildly beautiful space that left me feeling as if I were one of the last people on Earth.

The Highlands, one of Europe's last great wildernesses, covers the northern part of Scotland, an area of about 20,000 square miles, roughly two-thirds the size of Maine. Don and I had hoped to visit the northern Highlands years earlier on a loosely planned trip, but an early snow in late August spooked us, and we turned west to the coast instead.

For this trip, hoping to experience the wilderness without sacrificing comfort, I leafed through a book of rental cottages I had picked up in an Edinburgh bookstore on a previous visit. The Gatehouse at Strathkyle Lodge sounded appealing--it was far away from cities and set in beautiful scenery. I phoned the owners, Gus and Tricia Head, to see if the place was still open, and after a lengthy conversation I booked a week in September. My plan was to see as much as possible on Scotland's far northeastern coast, particularly the ruins left by the country's Bronze Age inhabitants from about 100 BC. This coast doesn't have the rugged landscapes and steep coves that the west coast does, but it is beautiful in a gentler way, with approachable beaches and sandy coves.

Several days before my drive, my husband and I had taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, where we picked up a rental car. Behind the railroad station was a large supermarket. We loaded up the car with enough groceries for a week.

The two-hour drive from Inverness to Ardgay was easy, taking us to an impressive viewpoint overlooking Dornoch Firth, a long inlet from the North Sea, past farm fields, moors and the 19th century Carbisdale Castle (now a youth hostel), and finally through winding, wooded hills overlooking the Kyle of Sutherland, a river-like body of water that narrows from Dornoch Firth.

The cottage was about 10 miles west of Ardgay (pronounced ard-GUY), a village with two small markets, a cafe, post office and gas station. Our home for the week was the reconstructed gatehouse of Strathkyle Lodge, a Victorian hunting lodge built by the Earl of Elgin in the 19th century. The estate comprises more than 4,000 acres, 200 of them wooded. Our hosts lived in the lodge; large but not pretentious, it was built of white-painted stone with black trim.

Rooms in the front of the lodge looked across a beautiful private lake, Strathkyle Loch, toward the mountains of the west coast, with forest on either side. Pine martens, wildcats, otters, deer and many bird species inhabit the forest. This is superb walking and hiking country.

Our cottage, built of native stone, had been restored to a miniature replica of a typical rustic Highlands hunting lodge. To one side of a center hall was a cozy winter sitting room with comfortable furniture and a fireplace; behind it was the kitchen. Across the hall was a paneled dining room, a summer sitting room, a half bath and, at the rear, a utility/mudroom with a washer, dryer and the only shower. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a bath with a large tub to soak in.

On our first night, Saturday, we scraped together a simple dinner with the groceries we had brought with us. But on our second day we decided to try dinner at one of the two nearby hunting lodges that our hosts had recommended. Gus warned us that the lodges required reservations at least 24 hours in advance. But we ignored his warning and took a chance on getting a table for that night. It was lunchtime, and we decided on a dry run during daylight.

We arrived first at the Achness Hotel, in a little community of scattered houses. After ringing the desk bell, we were greeted by a teenage girl, who, with a great deal of gravity, informed us that "dinner would be out of the question."

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