Free Weekend? Explore Plockton, Scottish Highlands


With a climate so mild that palm trees thrive along Loch Carron, its quality of light has for decades attracted artists. Stephen Emms reports



Idyllic: Plockton. Photo: Stephen Emms
Idyllic: Plockton. Photo: Stephen Emms
Its name might come from the Gaelic word ploc — a lumpish promontory – but don’t be put off: Plockton is so magical that some have compared it to a Hawaiian island, others a Hollywood film set. In fact, parts of the Wicker Man were filmed there, although its 15 minutes of fame occurred as the setting for the 1990s BBC drama Hamish Macbeth.

Yet Plockton has long been aware of its charms: dating back to the 18th century, it was even planned as a desirable community to halt emigration from the Highlands. Sheltered by mountains, and with a climate so mild that palm trees thrive along Loch Carron, a sea loch, its quality of light has for decades attracted artists, both famous and amateur. In fact, there‘s no better time of year to visit than October, when many a painter can be found studying the shore, and the rush of summer visitors has dwindled.

We arrive in style on Saturday morning, refreshed after the exhilarating combination of overnight sleeper plus spectacular rail journey across the Highlands, from Inverness to the west Coast. B’n’B owner Miriam explains that the house doubles as a renowned gallery and offers a guided tour, which takes in a roll call of mostly Scottish artists, including work by Miriam herself, and Norman Kirkham, who has exhibited at both London’s Royal Academy and the Royal Glasgow Institute. Coffee mugs in hand, we step outside into the sun to look round her loch-facing Sculpture Garden, the centrepiece of which is an impressive spire donated by celebrated Gourock-based artist George Wyllie.

The village. Photo: SE
The village. Photo: SE
But the palm trees are calling me and now all we want is to sit in their shade and scoff fish and chips by the shore. Where better than the Plockton Hotel, Harbour Street, whose beachside beer garden is surely the most scenic anywhere in the UK? Gobbling succulent local haddock and salty chips, we savour the bay at low tide, with its boats dotted on the mud, white croft houses, seaweed-strewn rocks, and the fir-covered hills opposite. It’s a perfect blue sky day and the sun bounces off the water, yet there’s a satisfying smell of wood-burning stoves in the air.

On an afternoon as balmy as this, there is only one option: a dolphin adventure. Local resident Calum Mackenzie has been running seal trips for 28 years but more recently has started taking visitors out to see a resident pair of common dolphins too. Onboard, Calum points out sights such as the Isle of Skye, and entertains us with anecdotes and jokes, including his names for the seals we pass sunbathing wide-eyed on the rocks (‘that’s Imber-seal…’). Incredibly, one local takes to the prow to play a lament on a set of bagpipes he has brought along (‘don’t expect that every time,’ laughs Calum). We spot the dolphins and are rewarded with a sensational show as the duo flip and splash in air and water.

For such a small town (population 378), Plockton punches way above its weight gastronomically. There are a handful of good options for a few days’ stay and so first we plump for the long-established Plockton Inn, Innes St, whose Seafood Restaurant, despite its rather functional interior, has won an AA award. Unfortunately there are no oysters or mussels tonight, so instead we tuck into Cullen Skink, a speciality soup made from smoked haddock, followed by a delicious local skate wing pan-fried in black butter. Afterwards, a stroll round the harbour, transfixed by the full moon reflected in the water.

The bay. Photo: SE
The bay. Photo: SE
An essential purchase in Plockton is the “Walks Around Plockton” booklet (£1.80) from The Studio (Innes Street), a charming gallery a pebble’s throw from the harbour, which also sells local paintings, pottery, books and jewellery. A ‘must-do’ hike is to the TV mast, a three hour round trip. On Sunday morning we curve round the creek on a rhododendron-filled path towards Duncraig Castle before an ascent on a wide track through pine forest. It’s a dramatic hike and we inhale the strong smell of needles and the primeval mossy rocks. At the summit, 335 metres high, we’re alone to marvel at the panoramic views over the vast loch below.

Reflections. Photo; Stephen Emms
Reflections. Photo; Stephen Emms
Food-wise, we save the best till last and eat our final meal at Plockton Shores (Harbour Street), the village’s fine dining restaurant. A contemporary interior is rammed full of tourists and locals alike but we manage to grab a table and sample fleshy local mussels in white wine, followed by rare venison with gin, juniper berries and green peppercorn sauce. Belly full, we stroll along the Brae (a picturesque raised footpath parallel to Harbour Street) to the nearby Coral Beach and, for our last hour in the Highlands, perch on the edge of a rock, legs dangling in the aqua blue water.

Oh, and if you’re a Camden Brewery fan don’t miss the Plockton Micro-brewery. Tucked away behind the harbour, it opened in 2007, and brews 4 ales, including the Plockton Bay and the Starboard. Sample them at any of the village’s pubs.

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Accommodation
Less boutique hotel, more bohemian artists’ haunt, Scottish painter Miriam Drysdale’s Plockton Gallery, a former Manse built in 1832, is a relaxed bed and breakfast. It boasts wooden floors and an art-filled living room with a New England feel. Try to bag the Four Poster with sea views and a huge bathroom complete with free standing tub.

Miriam is a real foodie (she even leads courses on foraging) so expect the breakfast to be imaginative: seaweed bread, a light kedgeree, and full English served with haggis and black pudding. Rooms from £80.

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Getting There
An Advance Single London-Inverness costs from £60 and can be booked online. Limited number of Bargain Berths available each month costing from £19 single. From Inverness to Plockton book the Anytime Return option in advance for around £30.

A version of this article first appeared in Coast Magazine.


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