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The first pinpricks of sunlight pierce the black, pre-dawn sky and somewhere in the distance the sound of an Eider Duck flapping its wings by the loch side breaks the silence. This is the peninsula of Applecross, in Wester Ross just before daylight and this is just about as wild and remote as anywhere you will find on the British mainland.
The sun rises early during the summer months, in fact, here in this part of the Scottish Highlands, in an area known as Wester Ross, on some warm, sunny evenings in late June and early July, the sun barely sets, but this is late September and there is a chill in the air.
Close your eyes if you will and daydream and I will take you on a journey that few people have seldom made. Up over a minor road that is only just visible on the ordnance survey map, this is one of the steepest, windiest roads that you will ever encounter, with its sharp hairpin bends this journey is not for the faint hearted. But this is a journey that you will never forget.
The views from here are the sort of thing that is normally reserved only for the most dedicated of mountaineers, but here you can enjoy this same experience from the comfort of your car. If the clouds are high enough then the panoramic views towards the Isle of Skye, the Outer Hebrides, and South to the mountains of Kintail are truly breathtaking, almost beyond belief.
Let me take you, if I may, on a journey back to my roots. To the tiny remote village of Applecross, the birthplace of my late grandmother and a place I have been very lucky enough to visit many times over the years.
The Applecross Peninsula is home to just 238 people and yet this is a vast area of over 100 square miles of rugged moorland, steep valleys and rolling hills. Applecross village lies on the coast and despite being the only settlement of any size for over 50 miles around it had a dwindling population of just 138 people at the last count. This is a definite sign of the harsh, remote location in which this place lies, almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. Over the centuries the population has gradually declined as people just like my great grandparents have upped sticks and left this barren land and sought pastures new and a richer, better life. To put this decline into perspective the population of Applecross village at the time of the 1801 census was just under 3,000 people, by 1951 it had fallen to just over 800.
The Applecross Peninsula lies at the top north-west corner of Scotland sandwiched between huge mountain masses to its east and the Isle of Skye to its west. This whole peninsula is shaped like the head of an axe that is facing westwards with Applecross village sitting on the coast along its most westerly edge. There are only two roads that lead to Applecross village, these are the coastal road from the A896 at Sheildaig. This is a long single-track minor road that keeps close to the rugged coastline or the alternate route over the Bealach na Ba.
The Bealach na Ba translates from the Gaelic as the Pass of Cattle, and although this is described as passable by motor vehicles with care, you could be quite easily fooled into thinking that it is still nothing more than a track through the mountains for the cattle herders to use.
Until the completion of the coast road in 1975 the Balach na Ba was the only road to Applecross. The village of Applecross and the other crofter's cottages scattered across the peninsula, otherwise completely isolated, except for access by boat from the Inner Hebrides.
The journey to Applecross village from the A896 begins just to the north of a cluster of dwellings called Kishorn, though this is marked like a large town on the map, in these remote lands. Kishorn lies 10 miles to the south of Shieldaig, from where the alternative coastal route begins.
The distance from where the Bealach na Ba leaves the main A896 to Applecross village is just 13 miles, but this is a journey that will take you well over an hour, and good weather permitting, should you decide to stop at each of the viewpoints along the route then this journey could quite easily take you the best part of a morning.
The Bealach na Ba is one of a the few examples of an Alpine style road in the British Isles. Its sharp, hairpin bends are reminiscent of the roads that climb high into the Alps, but despite some other similarities too, it is thought that these resemblances are probably purely coincidental for it is known that the Bealach na Ba has been used for well over a thousand years.
The Applecross Peninsula is a fragment of one of last remaining wildernesses in north-west Europe so its ecological importance cannot be over-emphasised. The Gaelic name for this area is a'Chomraich, which quite literately translates into the English as a Sanctuary.
I would strongly recommend that if you do get the chance to visit Applecross village then you arrive via the Bealach na Ba and depart via the coastal road to get the full experience of the area. If you have plenty of time on your hands and you want to explore further then the coastal road continues southwards beyond where it meets the Bealach na Ba for a further few miles to Toscaig, right at the most south-westerly tip of the peninsula.
The area around Toscaig is more remote even than Applecross further up the coast, although a small ferry used to run from here to the Kyle of Lochalsh further down the coast from the 1950's until the end of the 1960's providing a further point of contact for the locals and the surrounding communities.
At the point where the Bealach na Ba leaves the main road there are several warning signs for the motorists. One of these advises that this route is often closed in the winter but one of the other signs is thought to be unique and advises that "This road is not recommended for learner or inexperienced drivers beyond its first mile".
The Bealach na Ba (sometimes also called the Bealach nam Bo) is a single-track road with passing places that zig-zags and climbs steeply, quickly leaving the main road below. Over the course of the next five miles this road rises to a height of 2053 feet, but even at its peak it is still well below the level of many of the surrounding mountains from the Torridon range. These are amongst the highest peaks in Britain and some mountaineers that wish to climb them use this road to take advantage of having to climb so far from sea level on foot.
At the summit of the Bealach na Ba there is a sign advising that you are at 2053 feet and there are usually a few cars parked on the verge of the road at both sides. Providing that the peak is not shrouded in mist, as it often is, then it really is impossible not to pull up here for a few moments and marvel at the view in front of you. This has often been described as the most spectacular mountain pass in Scotland and as your eyes gaze down to the rugged coastline below you can see why. This is also the highest of all of Scotland's passes.
In the foreground the jagged coastline opens up in front of you, with its myriad of tiny little bays and coves. The village of Applecross looks deceptively large from here due to the crofter's cottages on its fringes blending in with those around its main cluster. Beyond this coast you can see the Isle of Skye and the peaks of its Cuillin mountains and now you can really appreciate just how big Skye really is. To the left the more rolling hills of Kintyre stretch out for as far as the eye can see, which on a clear day can be almost 100 miles. Whilst on both sides the Torridon peaks with their steep scree covered slopes and permanent snow cover dominate.
Having reached the summit of the Bealach na Ba the journey down the other side is no less hazardous than the journey up. The coast in front looks so near yet the twists and turns make it seem impossible to get any nearer to it.
Eventually when you finally reach sea level the road remains single track, though fortunately it is not unusual to encounter only a dozen other cars in an hour.
Applecross village lies at the mouth of the River Crossan. In fact it derives its name from a corruption of the Gaelic name for this River, the Aber Crossan.
Applecross has a long and colourful history dating back to the year 671 when a Monastery was built near to here by an Irish Monk called Maelrubha. This Monastery was only the second to be built in Scotland (the first being on Iona in the Inner Hebrides a few years earlier) this is probably where the origin of the areas Gaelic name, The Sanctuary comes from and the building of this Monastery and the one on nearby Iona heralded the arrival of Christianity to Scotland.
Nothing now remains of the ancient Monastery of St Maelrubha, but the old Parish Church of Craig, built in 1818 now stands on this same spot. The exodus of the population has however meant that this Church is sadly no longer used.
The most impressive building in Applecross is Applecross House, a forbidding whitewashed mansion house that stands out against the grey background of the mountains for miles around. Applecross House was built in 1740 by the Chief's of the Mackenzie Clan. This estate was served entirely by the sea and employed significant numbers of farm workers, shepherds, gamekeepers, gardeners, domestic staff and fishermen. The village of Applecross as we see it today grew up largely to service the needs of this vast estate.
Applecross House is open to the public and entry is free. There is an impressive walled garden here and there is also a restaurant inside. If you are looking for refreshments whilst in Applecross I would however recommend the Applecross Inn on the main road which serves excellent bar food at a fraction of the price charged at the estate restaurant and locally caught fresh fish is always on the menu.
Another place to eat is at the Flower Tunnel. This is a cafe set out within a greenhouse and provides a rather unique setting. It is built behind the old Applecross Mains, which were once a part of the estate's farm.
Elsewhere within Applecross there is a single well-stocked general stores with a post office and the modern church and community hall. There is also a petrol filling station but please note that this does not open on Sundays.
In Applecross there is also a small campsite just outside the village and a few touring caravans do make it to here but these are not allowed on the Bealach na Ba and the journey on the coast road with a caravan must be a difficult one.
There is a certain charm about Applecross that is impossible to put into words. Obviously I may be biased in my opinion as this is a place that my grandmother always spoke very lovingly of, even though she left here when she was still quite a young girl, going first to Aberdeen (where my great grandfather was originally from) and then down to Dumfriesshire where my mother was born and raised.
The people of Applecross village and its peninsular still use the Scots Gaelic Language as their mother tongue, although nowadays they are all bilingual with English. This is one of the few places on the Scottish mainland where you can still hear Gaelic on the streets and the signs in the general stores and on the notice boards outside the church hall are all written in both languages.
The people that have braved the elements over the centuries and have remained here are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage and to the outsiders it can sometimes seem as if the local crofters are wary and suspicious of the tourists that come here. This may have something to do with the fact that in recent years a few "rich southerners" have built second homes or holiday homes along this coastline, and they are suspicious of their motives.
These local people are Presbyterian by Religion and they are fiercely religious attending the local church for all of its services. In the past ten years there have been only a few births recorded in Applecross, but all of these children were baptised, and the celebrations, I am told, lasted for several days.
With so few children it is therefore somewhat surprising to find that Applecross has not one but two schools. These are a primary and secondary school catering for children of mixed ages in a single classroom at each school up to year 12. Older pupils have to make a long journey by bus each day to the nearest school over an hour away.
The return journey along the coast road that runs to the north of Applecross back to the A896 at Sheildaig is a very different one to the journey via the Bealach na Ba, but it is of equal interest in a different way. This road follows the route of an old track that was once only traversable on foot or at best on horseback.
This single-track road keeps close to the coastline, twisting and turning sharply. Some of the little coves and inlets have nice sandy bays that are completely void of people and if you park up and walk down to one of these you really do feel as if you have just discovered it for the very first time.
To the right of the road there are many small lochans and a few larger lochs with trickling brooks in between carrying the water out of the surrounding mountains and into the sea.
As a small child the remoteness and the wilderness of Applecross instilled a passion in me that has never gone but it also gave me a great love for nature, something that I have also carried with me into my adult life. This is an area that is simply teeming with wildlife. Along this coastal road you cannot fail to see dozens of groups of Seals basking in the bays and if you are lucky you might spot an Otter poking its head out of the water too.
The Lochs are the breeding grounds for hundreds of Red Throated Divers and its much scarcer relative the Black Throated Diver, plus, Eider Duck, Mergansers and Scoters.
In the air you will see plenty of Buzzards circling overhead. Many visitors mistake these for the much larger Golden Eagle, one of the symbols of Scotland, and if you are lucky you might spot a Golden Eagle too.
The rocky crags along this coastline are also the breeding haunt of another type of Eagle, the White Tailed Sea Eagle. This magnificent bird has a wingspan the size of a double-bed and wider than any other European bird. Of the 20 or so pairs of this splendid bird that bred in Britain last year, five pairs (25%) were on the Applecross peninsula. The story of the return of the White Tailed Sea Eagle to Britain is a fascinating one. The last pair bred on Skye in 1916 having been driven to extinction by local sheep farmers and Victorian egg collectors but now they are back, and thanks to careful conservation practices their year on year numbers are slowly increasing, but without the few remaining areas of wilderness like Applecross the future for these birds would be bleak.
Just before you leave Applecross behind there is one further place that you must visit. This is the Applecross Heritage Centre located a couple of miles north of the village on the coast Road.
This heritage centre is completely free to visit and has lots of old photographs of the area. The history of the area is told in great detail and you can learn all about the daily lives of people in this crofting community. There are also even demonstrations of local crafts including the spinning of wool by traditional methods.
To summarise I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Applecross. It may be a little bit remote but if you love the great outdoors then you will love this area.
Between the mainland mountain masses and the Island of Skye lies the Applecross Peninsula. Home to just 238 people, and accessed by only two roads, this is a haven from the noise and clutter of modern life. The Gaelic name for the area, 'a Chomraich', means 'The Sanctuary'. Its not the easiest place to get to but youll never forget the journey or the time you spend here, however brief. Over the 2053 ft road called the Bealach na Ba, if the cloud has lifted, youll see the kind of views normally reserved only for sweaty mountaineers. Panoramas to the Outer Hebrides and South to the Kintail mountains will keep you gazing until you need to descend to the village for warmth and sustenance. Extremely isolated, it was only accessible by boat until the early 20th century, and for many years after that the only road access was over one of Scotland's most notoriously treacherous roads, the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle), which crosses the peninsula and reaches a maximum height of 2053 ft (626 m), below the 774 m high Sgurr a' Chaorachain. The settlement is now connected via a winding coastal road which travels around the edge of the peninsula to Shieldaig and Torridon. The road skirts the shore of the Inner Sound and Loch Torridon.