Sheltering from the chilly autumn wind in an Edinburgh bookshop, I spent ages selecting a literary accompaniment for our upcoming adventure around the NC500, Scotland’s North Coast route.
The packing list
All the other gear was ready to go: a Land Rover Defender from 4×4 Hire Scotland to navigate the rough, single-track roads; Barbour wax cotton jackets and Hunter boots for proper Scottish weather (wind and rain); and, of course, a packet of shortbread biscuits to keep us going. We couldn’t have been better equipped.
I wanted to immerse myself as fully into the alluring trope of the Scottish Highlands as possible. Much as I imagined the English writer Samuel Johnson might have done on his own voyage of discovery in the 1700s.
I didn’t end up cracking my chosen book (Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country) until the flight home, but I didn’t need to. All the drama and poetry of Scotland came at me full force. Its barren landscapes and storied estates unfolding like an epic novel before me.
Day 1: Scottish attire and stories by the fire
Cairngorms National Park and Glentruim Estate
It started with a box of fresh, crispy-battered fish and chips at The House of Bruar, two hours north of Edinburgh. This renowned Scottish country clothier is a destination in itself, and the best place to pick up all your gear before heading further north. In addition to their classic rugged attire, they turn out traditional Scottish food from their butchery and delicatessen, as well as a wide range of gifts and homeware.
Take an extra hour to hike to the upper stone bridge of the Falls of Bruar. You’ll find it just behind the store, through what feels like an enchanted forest.
What intrigues me so much about Scotland is that dotted through its quiet wildernesses are beautiful sites overflowing with human history.
Over whisky by the fire at Glentruim Estate that evening, our affable host Deirdre draws our attention to a veritable museum of artifacts from black-and-white photographs of the Macpherson clan, the estate’s original owners, to an old pipe collection hanging by the mantle.
As with Glentruim, many of Scotland’s great estates have been sold off to non-Scottish owners as maintenance costs became too high. Thankfully, people like Deirdre remain dedicated to ensuring their rich histories live on. There’s a hint of wistfulness in her voice as she muses, “if the walls could talk, the stories they’d tell…”
Day 2: A taste of sea and whisky
Inverness, Rocpool Reserve and Cromarty
Emerging from the misty forests another 50 miles north, we reach Inverness, known as the gateway to the Highlands. We check into room 10 at Rocpool Reserve, a short walk from the centre of town. It’s the only room at the hotel with its own outdoor hot tub (and a lovely view)—best enjoyed in the rain.
Forty minutes further is Cromarty, an unassuming coastal town where you can take to the rough seas in an inflatable dinghy with EcoVentures to go wildlife spotting for dolphins and seabirds. Marked by towering rusty rigs just offshore are the remnants of a once thriving oil industry. An eerie industrial contrast to the quaint seaside town. The full force of the elements hit you on the water as you battle wind and spray. Never quite sure whether the sun’s about to burst from the clouds or a storm’s rolling in.
Back in Inverness, you’ll want to do what everyone here does: warm up with a dram at the Malt Room. We got a taste of our upcoming route with the North Coast 500 whisky flight. It features five distilleries to visit along the way: Glenmorangie, Old Pulteney, Balblair, Clynelish and Dalmore.
Clynelish is set to reopen its historic distillery buildings on the northeast coast and its well worth a visit. I was surprised to discover that though I didn’t recognize the name Clynelish, around 95 per cent of their spirit is used in Johnnie Walker.
Day 3: High-born history and tradition
Dunrobin Castle and Ackergill Tower
Time your journey right and you can catch a falconry display at Dunrobin Castle on your drive up from Inverness (April through September at 11:30 a.m. or 2 p.m.). This fairytale vision is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses. Dating from the 1300s, it’s also one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited estates.
Hunters still use falcons for hunting small game, one of Scotland’s most beloved pastimes. While antlered deer heads from large game hunts are mounted in many of the country’s great estates. If this fact makes you uncomfortable, consider this: hunting is required for environmental sustainability. Estate owners must control their deer populations for the health of the whole ecosystem.
Nowhere captures the imposing augustness of northern Scotland quite like the 16th century Ackergill Tower. The lone stone fortress perches on the rocky shores north of Wick. This museum of a hotel is where we’re lucky enough to spend the night. Antiques fill each unique room, complete with original sash windows that rattle in the wind. With its royalty-worthy dining room, crowning ramparts and collection of fascinating guests, I can’t imagine a more appropriate place to write your very own brooding, neo-Romantic novel.
Day 4: Single-track roads and wild natural landscapes
John O’Groats, Dunnet Head, and Inver Lodge
Shortly before you arrive at Ackergill Tower, there’s a set of coastal stairs called the Whaligoe Steps. Here, the adventurous can discover what Scottish fisherwomen had to endure in the mid 18th century. It’s a treacherous and slippery descent zigzagging down the cliff face towards the raging ocean. They had to go down and back up with a heavy basket of herring in the driving rain. We re-enter our Land Rover drenched and humbled.
We’re up early, on the road again via John O’Groats to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain. As I have come to expect along the NC500, notable spots that would be celebrated with touristy fanfare in other places just quietly go about their business in the Scottish Highlands. No T-shirt stands or snack hawkers here. Just a quiet lighthouse marooned on a peninsula, skirted with a jagged dropoff and slick with sea spray.
Dunnet Bay Distillery
I contemplate this refreshing authenticity as I sip a rosemary-infused gin and tonic at Dunnet Bay Distillery. It’s here that I learn how popular gin has become in Scotland, somewhat eclipsing whisky in recent years. Though this distillery is committed to its crystal clear spirit, many new Scottish distillers sell gin to fund their ultimate dreams of whisky production.
Not far from Durness, further west along the coastal ins and outs of the most northern stretch of the NC500, is another place to feel the full force of the elements. The crashing of the salty sea and a freshwater river has carved Smoo Cave on either end. It’s one of the most unique geological sites in the UK. Head into the second cavern to find the waterfall, which in heavy rains roars in thunderous torrents. The feeling of standing just a few feet from such power in nature is hard to describe. It’s just as well. I wouldn’t have been heard had I shouted into the ear of the person next to me.
We go from cave to mountaintop as we ascend the Knockan Crag cliffs. Here, unusual layers of rock lead to the first-ever discovery of thrust tectonics anywhere in the world. You can witness geological history here as these exact rocks are the ones that helped shape our understanding of how mountains form, and how the earth moves over time.
After a long day of some of the most spectacular driving and awe-inspiring places we’ve ever seen, we finally land at Inver Lodge and enjoy a rich meal at Chez Roux, the lodge’s dining room overlooking Lochinver Harbour.
Day 5: Experiments and encounters
Shieldaig Lodge and Loch Maree
It’s one thing to go to Scotland to taste whisky, it’s quite another to make your own. At Shieldaig Lodge, a Victorian-era hunting lodge on a 26,000-acre estate, we learned how to blend our own whisky.
With pipettes and test tubes in hand, we experimented with base, middle and top notes from distilleries across the country to create our own unique blend. We named our smokey creation The Liberator in honour of 15 men who died when their Liberator bomber crashed nearby on the way back home after World War II. You can hike from the lodge to the crash site, considered a war grave, where the mangled propeller still lies.
The next morning solidified my deepening sense of connection to Scotland when I opened the curtains to find a deer grazing outside our window. I dug out the last of our Scottish shortbread and could barely contain my joy as the deer quietly polished off the biscuits straight out of my hand.
The long route down to Skye takes you via the Applecross peninsula and Bealach na Bà. This is a bucket-list-worthy mountain pass with hair-raising switchbacks and a worrying number of tilty caravans along the route. It’s a good thing we saved our picnic lunch for later.
Day 6 & 7: Skye and Skyfall
Kinloch Lodge, Skye and Isle of Eriska
There’s a reason people are drawn to Scotland’s islands. The light shines differently here. As if you were a character in your own epic, each scene played out against the most sublime backdrop. Even the rocky peaks have legendary names, like the famous Old Man of Storr. This is worth climbing as high as you can get for the views across Skye.
Accommodations on Skye don’t get better than Kinloch Lodge with its five-course dinner offered by Michelin-starred chef Marcello Tully. That night he emerged from the kitchen after dessert to meet all the diners in person.
Kinloch Lodge has all the right details. Greyhound statues by the entrance, roaring fires in cozy sitting rooms, oil paintings of kilted owners through the years and my favourite: a clawfoot bathtub underneath a massive skylight. One of my fondest memories from Scotland is sitting in the steamy, naturally peat-infused water with the skylight open, feeling the cool mist roll in from the foggy loch beyond. The view from here seemed more like a watercolour with its inky purples, blues and browns. It’s easy to see why so many artists’ studios can be found throughout the island’s hamlets.
We delved yet further into the cinematic experience as we retraced the fittingly quiet, inconspicuous road to Skyfall in Glencoe. It’s the setting for James Bond’s childhood home. The area obviously holds a certain magic for producers. You’ll find the famous viaduct from Harry Potter in Glenfinnan near here.
Follow the coastal road south and you get to Isle of Eriska, an estate on its own private island, complete with a golf course and archery range. Here, again, the juxtaposition of human history and natural landscapes fill the imagination.
Back in the comparatively busy Glasgow, we ended our quest at the Principal Grand Central Hotel, located directly above the city’s train station, capping off a week of unforgettable stays at one of the great British railway hotels, a symbol of the golden age of train travel.
Scotland’s persistent fog and rain have become oddly reassuring, like an old friend you can count on. As has the pleasure of a warming, peaty nightcap. I feel like I may be starting to understand Scotland, a little. I’ve come face to face with those rugged and regal tropes that exist in our collective imaginations. Scotland is just as enchanting in person as I was hoping it could be.
But perhaps more importantly, so much of it still remains a mystery. I’ve always been fond of open-ended stories that let the mind wander.
On-the-Road Foodie Finds
House of Bruar Fish and Chip Shop, Pitagowan, Blair Atholl
Fish and chips is a must if you’re in the UK, and this spot has fine-tuned its crispy, beer-battered haddock, chips and mushy peas. Portions are enormous.
Applecross Smokehouse, Kenmore, Strathcarron
A quaint and easy-to-miss spot that’s literally someone’s house, serving a small and delightfully local collection of smoked cheese and fish. Try the Highland-smoked brie and cold-smoked sea trout.
Kishorn Seafood Bar, Kishorn, Strathcarron
Some of the best seafood in Scotland is served up at this unassuming seafood bar. Simple, unfussy plates of shrimp, mussels, langoustines and crab are at their best with a bit of butter and a squeeze of lemon.
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