Go to Glen Coe for great rides
‘Explore an area the size of Wales with the population of Dover’
There’s a scene in Skyfall in which James Bond elopes to Scotland, like we all do at some point or another, with his boss, which we generally don’t. Bond gets out of his car and stands alone, staring into the silent, mist-shrouded mountain distance of his childhood. But you don’t need to be a fictional orphaned secret service agent for the majesty of the Scottish Highlands to swallow you like a maudlin duvet. Anyone’s who’s traversed the sky-blown emptiness of Sutherland, Scotland’s most northwesterly county, will share a special thousand-yard stare.
Skyfall was filmed in Glen Etive, just off the stunning, but touristy, A82 into Glen Coe. But if you’re after genuine solitude, you’ll need to head further north than gimpy, wimpy old Bond – right to the very top. Durness is one of a number of small villages lying in the northwest corner of the Highlands. It’s on the A838, the main loop running around the top of Scotland and part of the North Coast 500 route. From an overnight stop at the Smoo Cave Hotel, head east towards John o’ Groats. The road jinks and unwinds past incredible beaches – all snow-white sands and crystal blue sea – and low, rocky hills.
Eventually the A838 crosses a low bridge and causeway over the Kyle of Tongue, into the village of Tongue. Riders following the North Coast 500 will pass straight through and carry on to John o’ Groats. But if you turn off onto the A836 and head due south instead, a different kind of drama awaits. The Highlands region, which you’re bisecting, is an area the size of Wales with the population of Dover. And as you ride along the A836, you’ll be as remote as it’s possible to be on the UK mainland (even though it’s only 40 miles before Lairg).
The A836 isn’t a classic in terms of actual riding; it’s single track, patchy in places, with nadgery humpbacked bridges and hidden corners. Any sort of speed is likely to end in a one-on-one sheep/bike interface.
But the real joy is the magnificent isolation – as you head towards the banks of Loch Loyal, straddled on either side by the knobbly peaks of Ben Loyal on the right and the flat top of Beinn Strumanadh on the left, an eerie stillness descends. The black water of Loch Loyal, lapping up to a strip of pebbles just below road height, is bleak and malevolent; some great, prehistoric, tentacled horror probably survives by dragging dawdling bikers into the murky depths.
After a while the road strikes out into wilderness, winding through conifer plantations, before passing through Altnaharra; a collection of a few houses and an inn.
The road continues, winding and leaping towards a seemingly unreachable horizon. You’ll pass the remote Crask Inn, still up for sale if you fancy carving out a living in the wilderness. Great fir tree plantations come to dominate the horizon and, as the road nears Loch Shin and the town of Lairg, the odd low stone wall and field. The road reverts to two-way; it’s only been 70 miles since leaving Durness, but it feels like 700.
This ride leads you far, far away from civilization and it feels bloody brilliant