Mention the term ‘road trip’ and a few usual suspects spring to mind; Route 66, the Great Ocean Road, Garden Route or Iceland’s Ring Road. There are also several countries which are usually associated with road trips; the United States, Canada, Australia or even Ireland. Time to consider a new one however, the highlands and islands of Scotland.
Taking the high road in the Highlands and Islands
To be fair, the canny marketing people north of the border, eager to capitalise on the ruggedly striking scenery of the Scottish northern coastline, have introduced the North Coast 500. A drive along the rocky inlets and harbour towns of this beautiful part of the United Kingdom, starting and finishing in Inverness.
In May, Alison and I set off to enjoy at least part of the route, adding some diversions to visit Orkney and stay in a lighthouse on Shetland. Supplied with a great car by those nice people at Infiniti UK, which we piled high with camera and camping equipment, including a drone, to record our adventure.
How to plan a road trip: Planning A Winter Road Trip in Iceland
First stop was the pretty harbour town of Oban, where we rewarded ourselves with a tasty fish and chip supper while being treated to a sunset rivalling any I’ve witnessed. The whisky distillery was a suitable backdrop too, as the essentially Scottish spirit was to play an important part in our journey.
Ferries to the Isles of Mull and Skye followed, where mixed weather and parking options provided challenges for our wild camping ambitions. A pleasant night under canvas on Mull was followed by a couple of days of distinctly Scottish weather, causing us to run for cover in local bed and breakfasts or bunkhouses.
There were still things to smile about however, the weather clearing long enough to enjoy a lovely walk along the coral beach on Skye, a visit to Jann’s great little coffee shop in Dunvegan and the Talisker Distillery were highlights. As Alison was driving, the burden of responsibility for accepting the kind invitation to a tasting session was left to me. Drinking, I mean sipping for two, it was a very happy blogger that climbed into the passenger seat an hour later.
Pictures of a beautiful Scotish beach: Postcards from Camusdarach Beach
In between visits to Mull and Skye we’d paddled kayaks through the crystal clear waters of Arisaig, where we’d discovered some fantastic views across to the Cuillins of Skye. An evening of howling winds followed, but a stunning sunset was our reward for resisting the warm rooms of the Arisaig Hotel and pitching tent at Camusdarach beach campsite.
Castles and Humps
We did also manage to camp under the stars at Glenbrittle, but by morning brooding clouds shrouded the moody peaks of the Black Cuillins. Clearing tantalisingly to provide an atmospheric start to that particular day.
After a short detour to photograph the famous Eilean Donan castle we sought refuge in a bunkhouse close to the town of Dornie. Here we met Alan, a fascinating, but totally obsessive former police officer now bagging “Humps“, trust me they exist! Sharing one of our bottles of Jura, we exchanged climbing and travel stories deep into the night over a wee dram or three. My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe, My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go” Robert Burns
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go” Robert Burns
Two more days of mixed weather followed, not ideal driving or camping conditions, so a return to one of my favourite bed and breakfasts, located in Applecross was a welcome overnighter. Continuing along the coast in some admittedly foul weather meant the views were more about atmospheric mist than stunning vistas, but we took what we could get.
Read Alison’s post here: Scotland Roadtrip Part 1; My birthplace and home of my heart
Past the mountainous tombstones of the mighty An Tealach, through pleasant fishing towns like Ullapool before a final night under canvas on the mainland at another of the British Isles most beautiful beaches, Clachtoll. The road leading to the campsite was winding and slightly out of the way, but the views from the beach more than justified heading off the beaten path.
Before catching the ferry to Orkney the following day, a detour to John O’ Groats for a quick phot session at the famous signpost just had to be done! Then seeing the equally notorious Old Man of Hoy from the deck of the Northlink ferry added to the excitement of being in the great north.
Lighthouses and Puffins
Evocative standing stones at Stenness, a beautiful sunset at the Bay of Skaill and my first encounter with puffins on Shetland aside, staying at Eshaness Lighthouse was the undoubted highlight of this stage of the road trip. Courtesy of Shetland Amenity Trust, who also provided bunkhouse accommodation the following evening. Staying in a lighthouse alongside a spectacular coastline of high cliffs and crashing Atlantic waves just has to be done at least once in a lifetime.
The puffins at Sumburgh Head provided plenty of amusement, these comical little birds are so charismatic, surely most people’s favourite little bird. It also provided some reunions, meeting up with a couple of birdwatchers we’d stalked up the west coast and sharing a coffee and cake with a guy called Thomas from Belgium we’d met at Skaill Bay.
After a long overnight ferry to Aberdeen our route took us into the Cairngorm mountains. Here we spent an afternoon on the trails with Nic, ranger, amateur photographer and composer, for a fascinating chat about conservation and tourism in the national park.
We also found an unexpected gem of a bed and breakfast in Kingussie; Sutherlands Guesthouse. It was an unplanned visit, as camping in the national park had been our first choice, but an upset stomach forced a change of plan. A conference in Aviemore meant we couldn’t stay in the town, discovering the impressive Sutherlands Guesthouse almost by mistake. Run by Ruby and Raymond, it is a true gem, which we hope to revisit one day. It really is an ill wind and all that.
Icons of the North
The following evening, we did manage to pitch the tent once again, this time staying at the campsite at Glenmore, close to the ancient Rothiemurcus Forest, where we enjoyed a full Scottish breakfast alongside red squirrels. This is just one of the pleasures of roadtripping in the highlands and islands of Scotland’s great north.
Watching ospreys on the nest at Abernethy RSPB Nature Reserve near the Boat of Garten is another. In fact, we’d been treated otters and white-tailed eagles on Mull too, just some of Scotland’s iconic wildlife. We also bumped into our twitcher friends again at Abernethy.
More from Alison: Scotland Road trip; Part Deux – Highlands and Islands
Onwards and upwards however, the next day, after a few hours drive, having stopped off in Fort William, we were soon pulling into our accommodation for the final few days in Glencoe. Staying lochside in a former Bishop’s house, courtesy of HF Holidays, Alltshellach. This is the perfect base to explore one of Scotland’s most evocative glens.
There were several special interest activity groups also staying, landscape photography, painting, walking and gardens are just some of the activities the company offers. They provided plenty of interesting talking points over dinner each evening in the impressive country house. The grounds and nearby loch are attractive, providing plenty of creative inspiration too.
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye, But me and my true love will never meet again, On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.” Anonymous
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.” Anonymous
We were there as independents, to take photographs of the glen however, and what an inspringly beautiful place Glencoe is. On a bright, sunny weekend, there were busloads of tourists making the most of it, every car parking space also seemed to be taken. Driving down the glen towards the Buichaille Etive Mòr, I admired the jagged ridgeline and precipitous sides of the Aonach Eagach, remembering winter days gone by, scrambling solo along one of our island’s finest mountaineering ridges.
Most of the day was spent shooting the conical Buichaille, known as the “great herdsman of the Etive“, it is one of Scotland’s iconic mountains and so photogenic, we couldn’t resist. Tripods came out, manoeuvred in and out of the stream which flows below the peak, set up amidst course, thick heather to capture some shots which show the many moods of the sentinel at the gates of the glen.
A road trip in Iceland: Road trip highlights in East Iceland
All too soon our three weeks roadtripping the highlands and islands of Scotland were over, and we were heading home. Having followed a great deal of the North Coast 500, we returned home having enjoyed plenty of memorable moments. Our Infiniti Q30 had done us proud and we were already wondering how to ask those nice people for another loan on the next great adventure.