Mountains. Lochs. Sea. Heathland and bog.
Loch sides. Beach sides. Roadsides. Pub car parks and campsites.
Haggis. Chips. Macaroni cheese. Great beer and a fair few drams.
Take a month if you have it. Our two weeks was just about enough.
Whatever you do take as long as you can. But if you have a Bugatti Veyron (we saw one blasting along on Dutch plates) and only a few hours, at least remember to look at more than just the approaching bends, many though they’ll be.
There are big roads, big hills, narrow roads, very narrow roads, and in May, thankfully, there were very few cars.
Clockwise? Anti clockwise?
We’d heard good rationales for each. We chose anti clockwise.
Just as I’ll eat my greens at the start of a meal before tucking into my favourite bits, we wanted to save the intense drama of the west coast for last.
Now having finished the drive I don’t think direction matters.
Do it clockwise and you’ll be hit between the eyes with the incredible west coast while you’re still fresh, and you’ll be gently be brought back to the real world as you cruise south along the still beautiful east coast.
Whichever you choose – be sure to detour a little at John O Groats to see the Duncansby Stacks and gaze out to the Orkneys.
Be sure too to detour along some of the inland A836 to Altnaharra and ideally on to The Crask Inn. This is a stretch of emptiness that’s as close to wilderness as Britain can offer and opens up a very different aspect to its travellers.
I’m not sure there’s value in trying to suggest a favourite bit. We’ve agreed to try not to make comparisons on this trip.
Every scene depends on your mood, the light, the rain or lack of it, and how what you see jars, or works in tune with your mind at the time you see it. On another day its effect could be entirely different.
A few highlights in anti-clockwise order for me were without doubt:
This detour added a day to the trip and was absolutely worth it. The emptyness after leaving the shores of Loch Shin to head along Strath Bagastire, and then Strath Naver will stay with me a long time. Of the occasional cottage we passed on the route most were unfortunately abandoned. I suspect the time will come again soon when their value is realised.
Duncansby Head towards Skirza:
I imagine this is as close to Orkney scenery as you’ll see on the mainland. Dramatic high cliffs of red sandstone with deep, sheer sided inlets, that look as if a huge slice of cliff cake has been removed. And of course the stacks. All home to many thousands of squawking seabirds, and the peculiar smell of their guano.
The deepest sea loch, often used by the Royal Navy for exercise, is first seen as the road descends from Ben Arnaboll. Look out for Danish sculptor Lotte Glob’s house on the north west coast. Her place stands out among so many less interesting bungalows.
I stanked up Meall Meadhonach next morning from our stopover at Smoo for another look back to the lake.
We’d decided on a short drive one day to cross the foot of Strath Dionard and on to Scourie, our first west coast stop.
This was a part of the route where I wanted to absorb so much more than a fairly fast passing could allow. We stopped many times on the steady but easy climb up the A838, but truly I think you need to pull on your boots and gaiters and get out there. The walking will probably be hard, and no doubt dangerous in bad weather, but the rewards will live with anyone who goes for it.
We’d been told how good the drive over the Cromalt Hills from Scourie to Ullapool would be, but it was lost on us in a flood of heavy rain.
Loch Maree, Gairloch, Little Loch Broom loop:
We were pleased to have saved this for a dry day.
This loop is about 100 miles and compromises such variety you’ll want to take it slow.
Unfortunately we missed the loop of Loch Inver and Drumbeg – I’m sure it’s as hard to drive, and beautiful, as people say, but the heavy rain that day would have made it harder, and less pleasing. It’ll be there when we come back.
When should you go?
I suggest that our mid-May timing was ideal.
Weather is always going to be changeable so far north and close to the sea. While we woke to 4 degrees some mornings, we also saw 27 degrees showing on the van towards the end. We lost just one day to rain.
There were plenty of vans on the road, but little else. I believe the route becomes something of a procession further into the summer, and I don’t see the fun in that. The single track stretches are frequent and the waiting when busy could spoil the fun.
Midges too are a major consideration. We had a few evenings when we were driven inside be the biting little fellows, but they’re still young at the moment and so tolerable, even if annoying.
I suspect the generous acceptance of wild camping becomes stretched in the summer – as it was many camp sites were full each evening, in particular that at Fortrose.
How should you travel?
I’d love to do the route again sometime in a car. The van offers huge flexibility and is rarely that hard, but the ease a car would offer would be welcomed – ideally something special, but not necessarily fast.
The many bikers seemed to have an exciting time, but the vulnerability to the weather would put me off.
And even though I love cycling I don’t feel remotely tempted to join the many people completing the 500 by bike. The hills are relentless, but the traffic is too.
And a bit of a catch up…
Mull of Galloway.
A lighthouse at the end of the (Scottish) world.
Frisky bullocks who gave the dogs a good chase.
Camping on the beach with roar of the sea to lull us to sleep.
Nodding thrift, primroses and daffodils (still).
A tiny abandoned cottage that sparked my imagination, but it’s a hellofa drive from Cornwall.
Bean chilli dinner washed down with whiskey.
An early night.
Morning. Sat on a rock and contemplating the beauty, the contrast of the past three weeks in Scotland.
I’m amazed at my complete lack of any yearning for the comforts of home.
I miss community, loud music, and the people I love.
I don’t care a jot for all the stuff we had around us.
I want to move less in future, we’ve driven too far on too many days – but that won’t be for another few weeks I guess.
Two night stops are definitely better than one, and a week somewhere will seem like bliss.
To England after breakfast, and a few more nights with friends.
Bispham, Manchester, beautiful Hoarwithy on the banks of the Wye in a corner of England missed by most, Castle Cary, and finally a night on a Brighton street.
Then on June 1st to the Channel – and much of what lies beyond.
2500 miles so far. Many more to go.