500 miles of sheep, his­tory and whisky

Scot­land’s north­east­ern scenery cir­cuit full of curvy drives and stun­ning vis­tas

The Prince George Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - Paul ABER­CROM­BIE Spe­cial to The Washington Post

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.

PHO­TOS BY EWAN ABER­CROM­BIE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE: A hill­top of­fers a sweep­ing view of Loch Car­ron in north­ern Scot­land. BE­LOW: Dun­robin Cas­tle tow­ers over its ex­ten­sive gar­dens.

PHO­TOS BY PAUL ABER­CROM­BIE/EWAN ABER­CROM­BINE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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