North West Scotland has long been a favourite holiday destination for my whole family.
According to family legend it even both predates and coincides with my conception! I was a late, “surprise” baby joining my brother and sister ,who were 9 and 7, following an August family cycle touring holiday of North West Scotland. Allegedly, I was conceived in sight of the island of Iona ….hence my name…. Fiona.
Recently, distant memories of various Scottish holiday adventures were invoked by my son’s announcement that his girlfriend had managed to rent a holiday cottage for them somewhere in the Highlands. They weren’t quite sure where ….somewhere quite isolated …. called Ratagan.
Well, of all the places to randomly pick. How strange that it should be one that I have so many holiday connections with and memories of and indeed of the whole area from there through to Shiel Bridge, Inverinate, Morvich, Glen Affric and beyond.
The memory furthest back is of me aged 7 walking beside, or more often trailing behind, my father as he pushed the tandem, on which we rode, up and over the steep and winding Mam Ratagan pass. We, my mother, sister, brother and friend Ronnie Rocket were heading towards our bed for the night at the Youth Hostel at Ratagan.
My parents loved Scotland and as avid cyclists spent their annual 3 week holiday touring its wonders. Initially starting off in Galloway in the early 1950’s and then moving further north with each expedition until they reached the Orkney Islands in the 60’s and then finally the Outer Hebrides in the late 70’s / early 80’s.
The holiday where we stayed at Ratagan was particularly memorable as it also involved a trek to the Youth Hostel at Glen Affric.
I say trek as there was and I believe it still is the case, no road through Glen Affric, only pathways and deer stalker tracks. Now, that isn’t so bad if you are walking but dragging bikes which included a tandem along these byways and across fords is a specific challenge. I clearly remember one moment when Ronnie Rocket’s bike got stuck in a particularly bad patch of mud! So bad, that he could walk away from his bike and it remained upright and he needed help from both Robert and our father to drag it clear.
Glen Affric was a huge adventure. The hostel, called Alltbeithe, was extremely basic. Just a tin shack really. It was built in 1870 as a deerstalkers hut. Its water was piped directly from the stream with no filtration. I think it did have a petrol run generator though for the electric lights. The mens washroom was simply the stream outside. While the ladies dormitory was a shed at the back. I remember using our bike lights to find our way to bed from the main hut through pitch black darkness at night. I also remember the time that some highland cattle actually wandered into the dormitory and had to be shoed away.
The warden reckoned that I was the youngest person to have visited the hostel….and that we were the only family mad enough to have arrived by bike.
The weather while we were there took a turn for the worse and our parents, following advice from the warden, decided that we needed to stay there till it cleared up as the return journey with the tandem would be too difficult and the fords were running too high.
The only problem was that we were close to running out of food.
So it was decided that me, my mother and sister would remain at the hostel while my brother, father and Ronnie would make the difficult journey out through the other end of Glen Affric to Inverness to buy bread and other basic food stuffs. Ronnie, who appeared to live solely on Mr Kipling cakes was desperate to replenish his diminished store!
So the male members of our party left to go over the tops with their bikes to Inverness. Leaving me, Susan and our mother to be looked after and fed by the warden until the others returned a few days later.
And feed us he most certainly did! He fished for fresh trout in the river close to the hostel, cleaned and gutted them and then pan fried them for us. Making for a very memorable meal.
Having such wonderful memories of our family holidays my brother, sister and I continued to holiday in the North West Highlands with our friends, partners and eventually our own children for the rest of our lives
About 18 years after my first visit I returned to Mam Ratagan in an Oxford college Geology department minibus. This time with my brother, his wife and a few other friends. We we staying in a holiday cottage on the other side of Loch Duich at Inverinate. Highlights of our week included climbing The Saddle of The Five Sisters, visiting the brochs of Glen Elg, attempting one very wet and dreary day to reach the Falls of Glomach and visits to Plockton, Camusunary on Skye and Diabeg above Torridon.
This summer, my son made up for our failure to reach the Falls of Glomach all those years ago. Whereas we had been stumbling and sliding through horizontal, torrential rain he had a gloriously sunny day…..and acquired sunburnt knees!
Happy Days and wonderful memories for all of us!!!