500 miles of sheep, history and whisky
Scotland’s northeastern scenery circuit full of curvy drives and stunning vistas
Like many American families, we’ve taken our share of road trips. Ours have mostly been of the weekend-long variety in the continental United States. Hankering for a “real” road trip, as our teenage son Ewan put it, and to explore more of our ancestral homeland, we visited Scotland this summer to drive the recently christened North Coast 500 route.
Or as friends had persuasively gushed about the 516-mile circular journey rounding the top of mainland Scotland: maybe more jaw-droppingly beautiful than Italy’s famed Amalfi Coast, with adorable shaggy cows and what one called “more dramatic weather.”
Further smitten by talk of ruined fairy-tale castles, soaring sea cliffs, and great local seafood and Highland whiskies, my wife, Gail, and I booked our flights that night.
Drivers can complete the North Coast 500 in a few days, though we decided to take a more leisurely week, the better for me to savour the route’s twisty, often single-track roads in a stick-shift rental sedan.
Arriving in drizzle one June evening in the city of Inverness, the southernmost point and official start and finish of the route, we drop our bags at the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel and stroll along the River Ness. If not for our hunger, we would have returned too late for dinner, fooled by a summer sun that doesn’t set this far north until nearly midnight.
Breakfast the next morning brings the first of what will be a trip-long family obsession with homemade smoked fish, especially haddock and salmon.
Half an hour’s drive west, I’m already glad we had settled on an itinerary taking us clockwise around the route. Not only are landscape and sky as lovely as promised; here also is Glen Ord Distillery, where we stop for a tour and tasting of Highland whiskies. Gail and I agree that the 15-year-old single-malt whisky – rich and lightly peaty – is our favorite. When we learn that the distillery’s massive copper stills were made by a company sharing our last name, Ewan teases us that our fondness for the drink might be genetic.
An hour’s drive farther west, just outside the hamlet of Ardaneaskan, on Loch Carron’s north shore, we’ve parked our car and climbed aboard an Argo, an eight-wheeled contraption that wouldn’t be out of place on a lunar mission. Which, as we look at the closeshaven, windswept hills ahead, seems apt.
Our gregarious guide, Colin Murdoch, cranks up the engine and, with a wink, asks, “Do any of you not like carnival rides?”
Up and down steep and boggy hills of Reraig Forest we go, Murdoch regaling us with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the moor’s flora and fauna, and tales of local game poachers and secret sea loch submarine bases.
Atop a high hill, Murdoch kills the motor and gazes below silently at the craggy patchwork foliage of muted greens, yellows and browns.
“Here they come,” he says. A moment later, we see them, too. Some walk, others trot toward us. Soon, we’re surrounded by several dozen red deer.
From a sack, he grabs a handful of food pellets. Females and bolder males approach and eat from his outstretched palm. He invites Ewan to emulate him. A pair of skittish fawns, trailing their mothers, arrive.
“Amazing,” Ewan whispers as a doe nibbles from his hand.
These deer, Murdoch cautions, are not tame. Rather, he says, their hunger overrides their fear.
As if on cue, a pair of young stags square off, rearing up and halfheartedly pawing at each other with hoofs.
Such sparring this time of year is adolescent theatrics, Murdoch says, as still-growing antlers are soft and easily damaged. A wounded antler now would be painful and potentially fatal. When stags’ antlers have hardened by summer’s end, they won’t pull their punches.
“It will be too dangerous for us to feed them then,” Murdoch says.
At dinner that night at the Torridon Inn, some 30 miles to the north, Murdoch and his magical deer happily dominate our conversation. By the second morning on the road, I feel that I’m getting the hang of Highlands driving – alert for jaywalking sheep and at ease with when and how to yield to opposing drivers, both key skills for safely navigating the growing stretches of single-track road. Gail and Ewan tell me that my etiquette could use work, though, chiding me that I need only raise my fingers atop the steering wheel to thank yielding drivers, as locals do, and not give a Griswoldian full-hand wave.
Roads aren’t the only thing changing as we head north. Earth and sky appear more cinematic. Scottish weather, famously fickle, seems more capricious still. Before lunchtime, sunny skies switch to a squall, then back, before settling into a light rain. I make a note to myself to look up whether a Scot invented the intermittent windshield wiper.
That afternoon, we meet our first Highland cattle, a dozen or so of which graze in fields behind Braemore Square Country House, our bed-and-breakfast. We agree that it’s impossible to look at the cartoonishly disheveled beasts and not smile.
Farther north, place names grow more exotic. Setting off the next day on a severalmile hike up a boulder-strewn valley to the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, we wonder aloud if one of the region’s chief exports are words for fantasy role-playing games.
Evening brings us to the seaside village of Durness. Lounging beside a coal-fueled fireplace at Mackay’s Rooms, we celebrate our arrival in Scotland’s most northwesterly town over glasses of local whiskies and Scottish soda.
A short detour a few miles farther poleward the next morning rewards us with a walk on the wide, sandy beach and dunes of Faraid Head. Ewan scrambles over rocks, peeking at sea creatures temporarily marooned in tidal pools.
Several hours of curvy driving east along seaside cliffs takes us to John O’Groats, where wild bunnies seem to outnumber human locals. From this northeastern tip, our route turns south.
Accustomed to experiencing the sea from shore, we join a sea tour in Wick, a former Viking settlement. Clad in foul-weather gear, we sit aboard a twin-engine inflatable boat, zipping southward beside the cliffs. Orange-beaked puffins dive below the surface as our boat eases into cathedral-like caves, home to hundreds of shags and other seabirds. Though seals tend to be plentiful in the area, our guide Bob says the recent appearance of orcas probably sent them to safer waters.
Nearing the end of our journey, we visit Dunrobin Castle, the first of the non-ruined variety of our trip.
A museum on the grounds houses a kind of Noah’s ark of taxidermied animals from around the globe. But we’re keener to see the live critters in the gardens outside. Here, resident falconer Andy Hughes demonstrates why his hunting art was so prized by the nobility in the Highlands and elsewhere. With gentle words and meaty treats, he coaxes an Eagle Owl named Cedar to silently buzz our heads. Ebby, a Harris’s Hawk, soars and swoops around us like a miniature fighter jet.
Thrilled to watch these aerobats, we nearly forget that we must drive our final 50 miles tomorrow, returning to Inverness, where we’ll catch our own less graceful flight home.
ABOVE: A hilltop offers a sweeping view of Loch Carron in northern Scotland. BELOW: Dunrobin Castle towers over its extensive gardens.
LEFT: Gamekeeper Colin Murdoch prepares to feed wild red deer in Reraig Forest. Some of the animals will eat directly from his hand. ABOVE: The North Coast 500’s circular route includes the signpost marking John O’Groats, Scotland’s northeastern most village.