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Scottish Highlands – Camping on the high road

The Slanj, Loch LomondI’ve been a big fan of the West coast of Scotland since going up there as a kid and staying in a place with a boat on Loch Shiel. There was nothing much to do other than drive for days out around the beautiful and remote roads and villages. Taking in breath taking views of lochs, islands, white sand beaches. It was a memorable holiday which was quite different, exciting but tranquil in equal measure. Evenings were spent playing board games or in the local pub. In recent years, we’ve been back up to Scotland with the vans to Islay, Speyside, Oban and Arran. Our latest visit was a bit different though and took me back to that trip to Loch Shiel all those years ago. With a recently refurbed T5 with a heater, fridge and solar panel, we also wanted to experience some renowned Scottish wild camping.

We set out at lunchtime hoping to get up to Loch Lomond as a good place to start our short trip to the Highlands. We reached out to one of the Facebook wild camping forums asking about places to stay. The owner of the Slanj restaurant and pub handily wrote back offering to let us camp on the car park and that’s just what we did. Driving up through Glasgow, the scenery gets greener and the roads quieter as you travel North, we arrived at Loch Lomond around tea time.  The Slanj is set in an old church just off the loch itself. It really is a great building and they’ve done a fine job converting it into the restaurant. We were met by a very friendly welcome from staff and customers sat at the bar. There were several excellent beers on tap in big heavy glass tankards and the conversation flowed. The male staff wear kilts and the soundtrack and friendly banter was a great start to our Scottish trip. We sampled the excellent food including the classics, Haggis, Veggie Haggis, Neeps, Tatties, IRN BRU ice-cream with deep fried Mars Bar and all before finally retiring to our van. In the morning, we experienced the first class Slanj breakfast including haggis and scone before setting out north bound once again for Glencoe. The owners recommended a good free spot near the famous Clachaig Inn.

Camper van looking over the sunsetAs the scenery turned more mountainous, so the rain started to come down. All of our trips to Scotland have involved the heavens opening in abundance, so despite the favourable forecast, we were expecting it. The snow capped mountains and fast flowing rivers and waterfalls made for a spectacular drive North. Seeing a couple of cars crashed off the sides of the road was a good reminder to take it easy and enjoy the scenery! Arriving at Glencoe late afternoon, we found our camping spot near to the Clachaig, framed all around by the highest of mountains and the cleanest of air. The weather abated for a while, so we went for a walk around the nearby trails looking for stags. We crossed a wooden bridge over the white waters of Glencoe with our binoculars and cameras ready. We spotted stags from a distance, framed perfectly with backdrop of snow capped mountains. We headed back to the van to get ready to seek out the renowned Clachaig Inn. At that point, the rains came down again and just the short walk across the bridge to the Inn saw us soaked to the skin. Luckily, we headed into the Boot Bar and got a seat next to the open fire.

Aside from the Boot Bar, there is also the hotel lounge, which is perhaps a little more kitted out for food than drink. The Boot Bar has a massive range of beers on tap and a large selection of over 300 single malts. We had a pint of ale and a burger and tried to dry off as best we could. When we finally headed back to the van, we were met face to face with two friendly stags in the grounds of the pub. So after all of our stag spotting antics from afar in the rain, they decided to come up to the pub to say hello. The Glencoe sleeping spot was ideal and the sun showed its face in the morning as we set forth northward once again for a quick stop in Fort William.

Fort William is the second largest place in the Highlands and popular with holiday makers, walkers, skiiers and mountain bikers. It’s set in the shadow of Ben Nevis on the shores of Loch Linnhe. There are plenty of gift shops to buy your kilts, single malts and novelty Scottish merchandise. We took a quick walk around town and purchased some Loch Lomond malt whisky and some local steak and salmon for later. We then headed towards the coast for our most northerly destinations of Arisaig and Mallaig.Arisaig beachThe drive to Arisaig continued with the spectacular mountain views, but took in a number of other stunning sights featuring lochs and then finally the sea. There is a great stopping point where you can see the Harry Potter steam train puffing across an arched bridge and climb the anonymous Highlander monument at Glenfinnan. Arisaig had been recommended to us because of its clear waters, white beaches and a campsite right on the beach called Silversands. We pulled up at the campsite late afternoon. The site owner was a really friendly chap and put us in a great spot overlooking the silver sands themselves.

The tide comes in from both sides, so you can gaze out and see the strip of sand disappear and the sunset framed by the silhouettes of the nearby islands. What a great spot! We cooked the Scottish steak and salmon in the van watching the sun go down. The site owner warned us about the wind and as the evening went on, it turned from a breeze to a van rocker. We shifted the van down to a slightly more sheltered spot but still with its own mini beach overlooking the splendour of Arisaig.

Arisaig - Silver Sands campsiteIn the morning, the rest of the UK was experiencing record temperatures, but we were sat under a thick bank of cloud. Walking round the coast, every now and again, the cloud broke enhancing the turquoise waters and white sands. What a beautifully tranquil spot! Sea birds of all kinds dipped in and out of the waters and it felt like we were in a surreal warm land far away. That morning, we popped into nearby Mallaig and then headed South once more to start our return home. Another night at the Slanj in Loch Lomond provided a great stop off point to break the journey up. Despite seeing a million toy Highland cows and key rings, we hadn’t so far seen any real ones. A quick Google search revealed the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel had adopted some, so we headed there to see if we could find them. Alas, they had moved on, but the friendly staff told us all about it and recommended we visit the Glencoe ScotlandAuchentoshan whisky distillery In Glasgow to see some. We did just that and were able to see them chilling in the afternoon sun right between the road and the distillery without a care in the world.

A very successful quick trip to the Highlands, we found several free places to camp, saw spectacular scenery and met some amazing and friendly people on our trip. We left ourselves enough time to keep stopping to see the waterfalls and other spots of interest and make our meals in the van at various beauty spots framed by lochs and mountains. It left us thinking about what we would like to see next on a longer visit to this remote and spectacular part of the world.

Alex Fenton

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