We’ve had a *very* busy few weeks since lockdown lifted and we finally started to meander back in the direction of normality.
I have loads to catch up on here so expect a flurry of posts coming your way with all our adventures, but I wanted to start where I left off – in Assynt, which is quite possibly my favourite area of Scotland. (Although it’s a tough choice – I mean, you’ve seen Glencoe, right?)
Assynt is just north of Ullapool in the north-west of Scotland, making it one of the more remote areas, although it is a prominent section of the North Coast 500 so it’s definitely well on the radar for tourists. That said, it’s specific pockets that are constantly raved about: Achmelvich Beach, Ardvreck Castle, Suilven. It’s the area that I recommend people spend a bit more time in because there’s so much else to do, which is exactly why I’ve now been back twice since my first visit on the NC500 route in 2019, and why I’ve managed to do entirely different things each time.
Both subsequent visits were within a couple of weeks of each other, so I’ll amalgamate both into this post as the first visit was very fleeting (it was really more an excuse to stop in Ullapool and then check out the Coco Chanel mansion). However there was one stop en route that I really wanted to make.
Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve
Knockan Crag is part of a Geopark, which I have to admit I never expected to find interesting.
I was proven very wrong!
This is where important discoveries were made which changed the way geologists worked out how plates moved and how mountains and even continents were formed. Normally, the youngest rock layers are on top of the older layers of rock, but here, the oldest layers are at the top, sparking questions about what happens when plates collide and if you excuse the pun, shaking up the entire world of geology.
At Knockan Crag, there’s a seemingly small exhibition all about these discoveries, but it’s actually way better that it looks like it’s going to be from a glance and it’s well worth a visit (free entry too – always a bonus!).
From there, it’s a short walk up to the massive sphere overlooking the lochs and nearby mountains. I hadn’t really banked on sticking around for long, so we didn’t do the full sculpture trail up to the top and along the ridge, but I’d like to go back and do that another time.
Anyway, the highlight was the moment of absolute calm before our short walk…
These are some of my favourite photos taken in Scotland!
As you can see from the first photo in the post, by the time we had got up to the first sculpture, there was a very slight breeze and reflection had gone!
This was the view when we got back to the car – it was still lovely, but we got extremely lucky with those reflections.
You can also see the unique summit of Stac Pollaidh in the distance there, between the other nearby hills.
Elphin Tea Rooms
I can’t believe my second recommendation is a tea room, but just up the road from Knockan Crag is a tea room that everyone seems to stop at (at least, everyone I know!). The tea room is run by a lovely Australian (I think?) lady who was very apologetic when she brought my tea out and a fly immediately landed in it (thankfully this was before midge season). I laughed and told her I’d take care of it before he drank too much of my tea.
We didn’t have any cake this time around but there were a few bits on display and I’ve heard from the aforementioned “everyone I know” that it’s good cake!
Plus it was a gorgeous day, which gave us the perfect excuse to sit outside, sheep and lambs running around next to us, with the stunning views across to the monstrous Suilven.
Not that I have any other experiences to compare it to, but Stac Pollaidh is undoubtedly one of the best hikes to do in Assynt.
I wrote a whole post on my hike up there, featuring some of my absolute favourite views in Scotland. This is a fairly easy hike so it’s well worth the stop whether you’re a beginner or seasoned hiker.
That said, Stac Pollaidh is famous for having one of the hardest true summits to reach in the UK, as it involves a patch of rock climbing at the top. I didn’t attempt it and I’m undecided about how difficult it actually is as I’ve seen people using ropes, yet I’ve also heard it’s easier than it looks. So who knows? What I do know is even if you only make it to the eastern summit – good lord you’re in for some stunning views.
And if you want more of a challenge? Try Suilven if you dare.
To be fair, even if you don’t fancy a big hike, this is an absolutely spectacular place to come. It’s one of my favourite roads on the approach to Stac Pollaidh and there is plenty of shoreline along the loch to relax. Ash read a book while I scaled the mountain!
Even Gulliver loved the views.
Want to see more views? Check out 40 Amazing Views On The North Coast 500
Deer – deer everywhere!
From Stac Pollaidh, we took the narrow single-track road towards Lochinver, which I remember last time as being pretty hairy. If you’re not confident driving single-track, I don’t recommend it. In fact, we went from one of my favourite single-track roads ever to one of my least favourite single-track roads ever!
However – we saw quite possibly more deer on that road than we had collectively seen previously in Scotland. As in, ever, between us.
I only managed to get a couple of shots of those two right after another one crossed the road in front of us.
When we arrived in Lochinver, we saw even more. I found this sign hilarious, as it’s telling you to keep the gate locked to keep their park free of deer.
I don’t know if you can quite see in the photo what’s in the background… but you can probably guess.
Och don’t mind us, we’ll be defending the goal whenever we’re needed. (In fact, we’d maybe do a better job than the Scottish goalkeeper who apparently got lost and decided to stand at the halfway line and let a goal in from the Czechs the other day!)
Ah, lovely Lochinver. I didn’t stop here in 2019, and just carried on straight through to Achmelvich Beach. This time, it was our brief base on our way north and I was excited to check out the food and, more importantly, stay in an amazing mountain view cabin with a hot tub!
There isn’t a lot in Lochinver itself, but it’s a nice wee village with some great food, including the legendary Lochinver pies which we indulged in the following morning. Unfortunately, my restaurant of choice, Peet’s, is closed on SATURDAYS??? I’d read constant recommendations for this place, and even the information in our cabin said it was their top pick so it was a bit disappointing to miss out, especially as I’d been thrilled to see it had only re-opened after lockdown earlier that week. First restaurant I’ve ever come across in the entire world that closes on Saturdays, that’s for sure.
Instead, we headed over the road to An Cala, who were fully booked but had takeaway available. We decided to take our grub to Achmelvich Beach as I had wanted to head there for sunset after food anyway.
Despite its popularity, Achmelvich Beach is 100% one of my favourite beaches in Scotland. While the campsite and the attached chip shop (which I didn’t know would be open, otherwise we might just have gone there!) were busy, the beach itself only had the odd wanderer and a family enjoying the calm solitude by the rocky sidelines.
I imagine it had been busy earlier in the day, but in the early evening sunshine, it was serenely quiet.
We parked up on the opposite end to the campsite and settled ourselves on a pleasant perch overlooking the sea and sand before taking a slow wander across the beach.
It was perfect really, but our evening was about to get even better as we headed back to our lovely cabin for some wine and a dip in our hot tub.
In the morning (after another session in the hot tub, though we’d finished the wine by this point), our first port of call was nearby Ardvreck Castle.
Actually, our FIRST port of call was Lochinver Larder for their infamous pies. At the moment, it’s all set up outdoors and the friendly owner immediately came over to explain their menu and where to order. I am not ashamed to say I ordered TWO pies – a pork, apple & cider pie for lunch, and an apple & blackcurrant pie for, err, later! (In an impressive feat of self-discipline, I actually ended up sharing it with my Mum later that evening when we arrived in Orkney.)
I don’t want to overstate it, but they are the best pies we’ve ever had. And we’ve been to New Zealand.
We delayed our imminent enjoyment of the pastry goodies by driving the short distance out to Ardvreck Castle to devour them there instead. Quite the scenic place for a picnic, it turns out!
Ardvreck Castle is a ruined 15th century castle set on the side of Loch Assynt. It’s originally a home of Clan MacLeod, and has a bloody and violent history right up until it was attacked and captured by Clan Mackenzie in 1672. It mysteriously caught fire around 1795 and has remained in ruin ever since.
There’s very little left of the castle and I have to be honest, it was never particularly a must-see for me, but it’s actually pretty awesome, especially in such a beautiful setting. We really enjoyed a wander around it and even a climb up to one of the old windows!
Then again, there’s said to be the ghost of one of the MacLeod daughters who drowned in the loch after selling her soul to the devil to save her father’s castle… so is that really me in the window??
Plot twist: I am actually the daughter.
It’s also free to visit, which is always a bonus!
Wailing Widow Falls
Assynt has several great waterfalls, including Clashnessie Falls which I visited in 2019, but this one has got to be my favourite, cascading off Loch Na Gainmhich.
Unlike last time when my friend & I were the only people at the waterfall, there were several cars in the layby and we didn’t stick around to get photos as good as last time. So I’m using an older photo, but it was definitely a worthy stop on our way north.
I wasn’t going to include Kylesku Bridge or any of the stops further north, but I just found out it is actually part of Assynt.
To be honest, I feel the same about Kylesku Bridge as I do about Bixby Bridge on Highway 1 in California – like… it’s a bridge. But… we stopped anyway. And it’s actually very, very scenic (what a surprise, is Scotland ever NOT scenic?!).
Plus I’d barely even noticed that it’s a curved bridge, and when Ash pointed this out to me, my mind was slightly blown. So yeah – it turns out the Kylesku Bridge is actually pretty cool.
Our accommodation – Suilven View Pod, Lochinver
I’d been keeping an eye on this place as it was largely booked up and I wanted to take a gamble on when we’d re-open. Suddenly, a weekend booking opened up in the middle of May, and I snapped it up. It was risky – but it paid off when Scotland’s restrictions lifted at the end of April! I cannot tell you how excited I was about our first cabin stay.
I did have a panic a couple of weeks before our trip because I realised we’d only paid a deposit and we were meant to pay the full amount a month before our stay, but after a quick email to the owner and a swift, friendly reply confirming our booking ten minutes later, I sent the money over and all was good.
We loved this place.
The cabin is beautiful, affording views across to Suilven (clue’s in the name) and housing a hot tub. The entire place was so cosy and lovely, and it was all ours for a night!
What a way to relax!
Within minutes of arriving, we wished we’d booked more than one night there.
It has all the facilities you’d need – even the bathroom was surprisingly nice! – including a fridge, ice machine, TV, wifi and even a dishwasher! I mean how’s that for a luxury cabin? It’s not often we truly treat ourselves (£5 hostel dorm who?) so this was spectacularly lovely.
Check out Suilven Pod here where you can also book direct (not sponsored – we paid for this ourselves and genuinely adored it!).
And Assynt still has plenty for us to explore! Even if we don’t splash out on Suilven Pod on our next trip, there’s always camping at Achmelvich Beach or Clachtoll Beach. Next on my list is the Bone Caves which were discovered full of the bones of animals which no longer exist in Scotland! We might head out to the Summer Isles, or walk out to the Old Man Of Stoer sea stack.
Assynt really is, for me, the gift that keeps on giving, and it seems it will continue to do so for a while yet.