Things to do in Ullapool | Savor Scenery, History And Music
Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands is known as a launching pad to the Outer Hebrides, but it is a stunning destination in its own right. If you’re looking for inspiration on things to do in Ullapool, keep reading. This adorable village of about 1,500 residents is well worth spending at least one if not a couple of days.
Located forty-five minutes northwest of Inverness, Ullapool perches on the eastern shores of Loch Broom, a spectacular sea inlet. Its name is derived from the Gaelic Loch a’Bhraoin meaning “the lake of drizzling rain”. Happily, every time I’ve visited the skies have been clear.
Ullapool is a gateway to the Outer Hebrides, with ferry service to Stornoway, the capital of Lewis and Harris, which is one island that shares two distinct communities. While visiting, you’ll have a chance to gaze at the gorgeous harbor as ferries and fishing vessels navigate the waters.
You’ll have no problem finding souvenirs and moving Scottish art in Ceàrd, a local shop. From there you must visit the Ullapool museum to learn about Highland clearances and the history of industry in Ullapool!
One morning, I looked out the window of my room at West House B & B and across the rooftops of the white-washed stone houses. Beyond lay the deep blue of Loch Broom and a wall of gray-green mountains, their peaks enveloped in the wispy tendrils of low-lying clouds. The fact that I only had such a short time in Ullapool sweetened the prospects of the glorious spring day, especially as I ruminated on the things to do in Ullapool. One of my most favorite things in the whole world is wandering aimlessly around new places and I was exhilarated at exploring this little port town to which I had arrived the prior evening.
Ferries and a Welcoming Community
Bounding downstairs, I bumped into Richard Lindsay, proprietor of West House along with his wife Colleen. He looked at his watch and said “If this minute you go out the door and take a left at the corner, you might just see the ferry coming in.”
Leaving Richard in mid-sentence, I bolted out the door and tore around the corner, stopped in my tracks by what I saw. The paved road extended out in front of me for a block, and at its end, the mid-section of an immense ship was sandwiched between stone houses on opposite street corners. The name “Caledonian MacBrayne” stretched out between the two homes like a banner, and then in seconds, glided out of sight, replaced by the rippling reflections of the gauzy clouds hanging in the azure sky. It was a ferry sighting unlike any I had ever seen and I was delighted to have chanced upon it.
A spring in my step, I spent the next hour meandering around the harbor and High Street, soaking up the tranquil ambiance. From behind the ferry, a skiff skimmed across the loch’s now-still waters, its crew pulling together in perfect unison. Sensing a movement off to my right, I looked up to see a young man in a gabled window of one of the tidy houses lining the street, watching the passengers disembark from the “Cal Mac.” A man in a kilt strode down the street and I impulsively yelled “You look dashing!” and he shouted back a cheerful “Thank you!” with a good-natured wave.
Reaching the end of the street where the loch merged into the strait, I cut across a grassy patch, finding myself on the outskirts of a campground dappled with brightly-colored tents. A young boy stood on the shoreline and cast his line, looking for an early morning nibble. After soaking up the scene from a bench, I walked back into the village, stopping for another pause to watch a team of rowers pulling their oars in unison, their small boat dwarfed by the backdrop of majestic marilyns, defined as peaks with a prominence above 150 meters.
Sara Garnett and the Art of “Place”
Heading back to West House, the window display of an art shop called Ceàrd caught my attention. Sara Garnett runs Ceàrd, a little whitewashed shop which showcases beautiful handcrafted work made exclusively in the Highlands. Sara shared her journey to becoming a part of the Ullapool community.
“I am not native to Ullapool, although Wester Ross and Assynt have been my home for the past sixteen years,” Sara said. “My first seven years were spent in Aberdeenshire on the East Coast of Scotland. My father worked offshore; he was Glaswegian born and bred, and his DNA called him north to the Highlands. So, whenever he was on shore, and school was out, we would head Northwest, up to Ullapool and Lochinver.”
“My earliest memories are of the wee jetty poking out into Lochbroom. I must have been about four, standing on a fresh spring day with the wind whipping up the salt spray, holding on to my collie, Trampus, as if he were an anchor keeping me from being blown out into the Minch. Then on to the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, all warmth and music and art. I remember thinking then that I would like to call this place home, and perhaps more importantly, that I wanted to paint the way this place made me feel. Salt, wind, color.”
“I am now 50, and I still feel exactly the same as that four year old. I was lucky enough to work in the arts all my life. After studying fine art, I worked in London for many years, at Tate Britain and Bloomsbury Auctions. It was a wonderful exciting place to be–but there was always that call back to the Highlands. I began my migration north by taking a job with Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust. It was there that I was lucky enough to marry an amazing man who was brave enough to give up all that he knew, and embark on the final leg of my journey ‘home’.”
Humble Beginnings for Ceàrd
“We began with a tiny gallery on an off-grid peninsular, and selling artwork at Ullapool’s seasonal Saturday Market. We moved on to a Gypsy Caravan Gallery in Assynt and I worked for An Talla Solais, a local arts organization. In January of 2015 co-opened Ceàrd, a culmination of years of working and dreaming. In 2018 I had a solo exhibition at the Ceilidh Place 46 years after those very walls had first sparked the desire to become an artist.”
“My work is divided between my own practice, and the running of the shop. The shop is a joy, hard work, but I love it, and everything in it! We sell the work of 50 local artists and makers, and each one is uniquely talented. We focus on the handmade, the delightful, the original. From scarves and throws hand woven on looms overlooking Little Loch Broom, to carved wood from the forests off Assynt, which is just 45 minutes from Ullapool, to prints and paintings of wild mountains and stormy seas, to hand thrown ceramics glazed in the gray blues, brackens and heathers of the hills and shore.”
“It is often said that the shop is beautifully ‘curated’ – it is fair to say that the shop reflects my taste, but it is far more than that. The shop also reflects the place where the makers and artists live, it reflects everything that inspires them. And, so, as if by magic, everything in the shop works together, tones, colors and themes complement each other, because they all reflect here, this amazing, wild corner of the world. I hope you came to visit – and find inspiration and a sense of place – as I did.”
“I am extraordinarily lucky to be living where I want to live, doing what I want to do, with people I like and admire. Not many folk can say that.”
“Everything I do is based on a sense of place, here is home. Here is inspiration. Here is happiness.”
Siobhan Beatson | The Ullapool Museum
Across the street from Ceard, you’ll find the Ullapool Museum, another one of many things to do in Ullapool. A visit to the Ullapool Museum offers insight into the beginnings and history of this small, delightful village. Museum Administrator Siobhan Beatson shared some of the key milestones in the area’s settlement, including explanation of the impact to Ullapool of the Clearances, a complex period in Scottish history that lasted for almost a century, from 1760 – 1850, and altered the very social and economic structure of the region.
“The name Ullapool itself is said to be from a Viking settlement known as Ulla’s Farm/Steading,”’ Siobhan said. “For over 700 years Ullapool has had a small collection of small holdings and crofts covering about 500 hectares. The primary income of local people of Lochbroom was crofting, which would require sheep rearing, possibly some cattle, a bit of fishing and crops. They were self-sufficient communities.”
Herring and Ullapool
“In 1788 the British Fisheries Society bought Ullapool to develop the fishing on a commercial basis,” Siobhan said. “The village itself was laid out on a grid plan devised by David Aitken later with input from the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who is well known for his incredible canals, roads and bridges including the magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.
“Unfortunately for Ullapool the herring were not as reliable as the British Fisheries Society had assumed, and after about 50 years of productivity the village started to struggle,” she continued. “The herring started to become unpredictable and some years would not come at all, which led to Ullapool and surrounding areas becoming increasingly destitute. Crofters who relied on the herring to supplement their income fell into heavy debt with their landlords and many were evicted.”
“This only became worse in the early 19th Century when landlords decided that sheep were a more cost effective and worthy trade than having tenants on their land,” Siobhan explained. “While Ullapool itself was not forcibly cleared during the Highland Clearances, our neighbors to the north in Coigach and Assynt, and Leckmelm—a small hamlet 3 miles East of Ullapool—were all heavily affected.”
“However ‘voluntary clearing’ was in play all over Lochbroom, where landlords made the conditions so bad that many tenants left with little choice but on their own accord.”
Reverse Clearances in Ullapool
“This carried on until the Clearances when the crofting population took a big hit, and most either emigrated to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand or they moved south to the bigger cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh for more job opportunities,” she explained. “However this has taken a turn in the last 20 years and more people are now moving back to the rural Highlands and adopting crofting traditions again. Some scholars call it a ‘reverse clearance”.
Ullapool Guitar Festival
Indeed, Ullapool has a lot to offer returnees and visitors—it has a thriving arts & culture scene with two popular festivals: Ullapool Book Festival in May and the Ullapool Guitar Festival in October.
Richard Lindsay of West House is the founder of the Ullapool Guitar festival, which was launched in 2000. Several dedicated, loyal, local volunteers help Richard every year to produce a stunning event dedicated to the acoustic guitar.
The Festival began with performances in local pubs and the village hall and is now held in The MacPhail Centre. This location boasts all of the amenities and comforts of a first-class performance theater, including exceptional acoustics, as well as the space to host workshops and provide excellent food.
The Festival’s history and success can be attributed to two factors. The first is a dedicated group of music fans that not only return year after year, but also go above and above in their contributions to guarantee that the Festival continues to thrive. The second group includes musicians such as Hugh Burns, John Goldie, and Clive Carroll, who have become regulars at the Festival. Their unwavering support, as well as their stature and reputation in the guitar world, have helped us to attract the best guitarists from around the world – over a hundred over the years. All of them, supporters and artists alike, deserve our gratitude.
So, what makes the Ullapool Guitar Festival unique? Perhaps it’s the combination of old and modern music, electric and acoustic, steel and nylon, seasoned performers and those just beginning out on their careers, such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students. Perhaps it has something to do with the location on Loch Broom and the trip up through some of Scotland’s most beautiful landscape. Perhaps it’s the relaxed atmosphere that pervades the entire weekend: there’s no “we and them,” no VIP area. Everyone mingles, and you’re likely to sit next to a guitar great in the Festival Club – or perhaps jam with them at one of the trade stands.
I learned that both West House and the festival are dreams come true for Richard.
“Richard used to come to Ullapool with his Mum and Dad as a child,” Colleen told me. “He used to sit in his parents’ car playing his guitar, looking up at West House in the distance and imagining owning the house. He achieved that dream in 1996.”
Who knows, you too may find a dream fulfilled in Ullapool!
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