Things to do in and around Gairloch

Gairloch is a small coastal village in Wester Ross, in the north west highlands of Scotland.  We chose it as a holiday destination because of its fantastic scenery, wildlife watching and walking opportunities. The downside is usually the rain, but we were incredibly lucky as our trip coincided with the UK heat wave. We camped at Sands Caravan and Camping; there’s plenty of other accommodation if camping isn’t your thing.

Looking back over Gairloch beach
Looking back over Gairloch beach

Gairloch village

The village is strung out along the shores of Loch Gairloch.  The harbour area, also known as Charlestown, has several operators offering boat tours.  If you’re lucky you might see the Sammy the seal, who follows the boats in and hangs around the pier area.

Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour
Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour

From the harbour you can take a path up and over to the beach behind the golf course.

Gairloch beach
Gairloch beach

Jellyfish are pretty common in the waters around here as it’s in the warming path of the Gulf Stream, so you certainly need to keep an eye on the beach when you’re walking.

Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!
Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!

Away from the beach you’ll find the aforementioned golf course, a few cafes and inns, beach shops, a leisure centre and a tourist office (with free wi-fi).  There are no large supermarkets in the area, so we stocked up at Strath Stores.  The shop has a very popular sandwich bar, which we made use of every day of our holiday. Gairloch also has a Heritage Centre, which I’d saved for a rainy day, but the weather was so great that we didn’t get around to visiting it.

Sealife glass bottom boat

Gairloch is one of the best places in the UK for marine wildlife watching. I’d have loved to go on one of the whale watching tours, but the cost was prohibitive for our family, and I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed the reality of a day at sea in a small bumpy boat. We therefore settled on a glass bottom boat tour around Gairloch harbour. Whilst this didn’t initially sound so exciting it turned out to be a great decision.

Sealife boat trip
Sealife boat trip

The tours are run by Richard, an enthusiastic and knowledgable Lancastrian.  The boat is converted so that everyone can have a viewing portal into the sea under the boat. The underwater viewing works best in shallow waters, in deeper areas you just see your reflection in the window. The kids were given an ID sheet and tick list to record the wildlife. Amazingly within about 5 minutes of setting off they were able to tick harbour porpoises off the list!

Underneath the boat we saw several different types of jellyfish, starfish, sea urchins, anemones and a variety of seaweed.  We were also lucky enough to see common and grey seals. At one point Richard scooped a jellyfish out of the water, to give everyone a closer view. The kids were given an opportunity to carefully touch it, before it was released back into the sea. The highlight for the kids happened on the way back, when they were given a chance to steer the boat. Both thought this was amazing and had huge smiles on their faces.

Trusted with the tiller!
Trusted with the tiller!

Rua Reidh Lighthouse

We set out to walk to Rua Reidh lighthouse from Melvaig one evening.  It’s only 3 miles to the lighthouse along a straightforward track but after a mile or so we almost had to admit defeat.  The midges were horrendous!

Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse
Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse

At the lighthouse we immediately spotted minke whales through our binoculars. After a while the whales moved on so we walked the last short stretch down to the lighthouse.  It’s still a working lighthouse, but also has a guesthouse and self-catering apartment. It looks like a lovely place to stay, but is 12 miles from the nearest shop, so probably not for everyone. No facilities are available for casual visitors, and the private road can only be used by those with an accommodation booking.

Beaches near Gairloch

You can head north or south from Gairloch and find deserted beaches in the most stunning locations.

North from Poolewe
North from Poolewe

We drove to Poolewe, which was used in the Second World War as a base for convoys to gather before sailing to Arctic Russia. We took the road out to Cove, to visit the remains of gun emplacements and a memorial to the sailors who took part. It’s difficult to imagine how different this peaceful area would have been 70 years ago. The local community is campaigning for a new museum in the area to tell the story of the convoys.

Beach near Cove, Wester Ross
Beach near Cove, Wester Ross

Another road, heading south from Gairloch, took us to the village of Badachro and then onto Opinan Beach. The view over to Skye was stunning, and the beach itself had lots of interesting shore life to discover.

View out to Skye
View out to Skye

Walks

There are plenty of mountain walks for experienced and well-equipped walkers, but we found the walks more limited for family rambles. Apart from strolls along the beaches we walked up to the waterfall in Flowerdale Glen, which was named by the estate owners for its displays of wild flowers. The walk was enjoyable but marred slightly by the abundance of horse flies at the falls. We decided not to stop for our picnic, and headed back to Gairloch to eat near the harbour.

Kids view:

The boat trip was fantastic, I didn’t realise we’d see so many things. Steering the boat was epic! (Highest praise indeed)

More info:

  • The only downside to our holiday was the unwelcome wildlife. Midges, ticks and horseflies abound.  Midges are active on calm evenings and early mornings from May-August.  We used insect repellent liberally but were still bitten in places that we didn’t think to use it (inside ears, under watch straps). Our son also managed to pick up a couple of ticks, whilst rolling around in long grass. These should be carefully removed as soon as you find them. 

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Driving the Scottish highlands from Fort William to Gairloch

I never envisaged writing about a car journey on this blog, but the trip we made from Fort William to Gairloch in the Scottish highlands changed my mind. I’m a sucker for scenic views and this journey provided plenty of them. It probably wasn’t the most exciting day out for the kids but they were happy enough, playing or reading in the back seat of the car.

There are a couple of route options between Fort William and Gairloch. We chose to go via Kyle of Lochalsh, a drive of 129 miles. Google maps suggested this would take just over 3 hours but our journey, with lunch and lots of photo stops, took the best part of a day.

Our route from Fort William to Gairloch
Our route from Fort William to Gairloch

After filling our petrol tank and dosing the kids up with travel sickness pills we took the road out towards Inverness, before turning left at Invergarry towards Kyle of Lochalsh.

We knew we were heading into tourist country when we spotted a lone bagpipe player, standing in a layby near a wood, no doubt waiting for the next tourist bus to arrive!

Cairns at Loch Garry
Cairns at Loch Garry

Our first stop was at Loch Garry viewpoint, where you get a great view of the loch, which is supposedly the same shape as Scotland. I think this was a rather fanciful claim from the tourist board but it is still an impressive view. Visitors have also built lots of small cairns.

Bridge over River Shiel
Bridge over River Shiel

At Glenshiel it’s hard to imagine this was the site of the last battle on UK soil involving foreign troops. Spanish troops were defeated during a Jacobite rebellion in 1719.

Eilean Donan castle
Eilean Donan castle

We stopped for lunch at Eilean Donan castle, the castle that used to appear on the BBC adverts. There’s no denying that it is in a spectacular position, on an island overlooking three lochs. Unfortunately it is also a magnet for every tour bus north of Edinburgh. We decided not to go into the castle but did make use of the onsite cafe, for lunch.

A890 towards Achnasheen
A890 towards Achnasheen

We left the tourist coaches behind after Eilean Donan, and took the A890 to Achnasheen. I’d been expecting a single track mountain road, and whilst it was initially one lane (albeit with plenty of passing places) it turned back to a two way road only a few miles in. It was very quiet, and a pleasure to drive with hardly another car on the road.

As we were driving in the middle of summer it was rather strange passing under an avalanche shelter and seeing the snow marker poles either side of the road. Roadworks were taking place to shore up part of the hillside – last winter a rockfall blocked the road and resulted in motorists having to take a 150 mile diversion!

Loch Maree from Glen Docherty
Loch Maree from Glen Docherty

From the small hamlet of Achnasheen (population 28) we took the road out to Kinlochewe. After driving up the pass you’re treated to a magnificent view of Loch Maree, which is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland.

There are a variety of stopping places and short walk options alongside Loch Maree. The Beinn Eighe visitor centre has several nature trails. White tailed sea eagles nested on one of the Loch Maree islands earlier this year, and the area also has pine martens, golden eagles and crossbills although you don’t see these whilst driving past at 50mph!

Just outside Gairloch
Just outside Gairloch

The final stretch is once again single track and the road is rather potted. Fortunately this doesn’t last long, and you soon reach the welcome tourist facilities of Gairloch.

More info:

  • Fill your petrol tank in Fort William (Morrisons is one of the cheapest garages).  We found petrol costs were up to 10p per litre more expensive in the highlands.
  • Check road conditions before you travel.  The road between Kinlochewe and Gairloch was shut a few days after we travelled due to a landslide caused by torrential rain.
  • Take a picnic, or work out where you’re going to stop for lunch in advance.  We only saw a couple of places to eat at, although I’m sure we could have found a few more if we’d checked out Trip Advisor beforehand.
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