Dramatic and desolate, the 516-mile North Coast 500 route in northern Scotland is the stuff of road-tripping dreams.
We saw plenty of evocative road signs as we drove through the north of Scotland. Warning triangles bearing the majestic silhouettes of stags in full gallop alerted us to the game that claimed the hills. Hazard signs in the form of giant exclamation points prepared us for the unexpected presence of sheep, otters, or, in some cases, red squirrels.
The sign that greeted us entering the road to Applecross, however, was more of a full-scale deterrent. It straddled several feet, its big white lettering informing us that this road rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends and that it is impassable in wintry conditions. Then, with increased emphasis: not advised for learner drivers.
Marisa, my copilot and best friend, reached for her phone and cued something up on Spotify. As I pressed down on the accelerator and headed up the rocky mass that separated us from the sea, I recognized the creepy strings at the start of the original James Bond theme song. I gripped the wheel a little tighter, set my jaw a little firmer.
Back home in London, I don’t drive. Not because I can’t, or because I don’t enjoy it. I don’t drive because in my city, you can get wherever you need to go on the underground, or even on your bicycle. Sometimes it’s quicker, frankly, to walk. And if I have to sit in a car, I would rather be in the back seat of a taxi, reading a book. There is no joy, for me, in a hiccupping ride around my neighborhood, braking every 20 yards to bump over another asphalt tortoise-shell.
But give me a bit of highway drama and a car that can handle it, and I’m in heaven. The pull of the steering wheel as the car hugs a tight curve, the drastic action of a mountain incline—that, to me, is driving. I have done the Amalfi Coast, the Pacific Coast Highway, the grand passes of the Swiss Alps, and I’ve loved them all. Now, the Gandalfian sign on the Applecross road bellowing you shall not pass! wasn’t going to put me off. It was the very reason I was here.
Marisa and I had arrived in Inverness, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands, that morning. From the windows of our sleeper train, we had spied hills and glens and flocks of lapwings. It felt like a separate planet from the urban world we’d left just 12 hours earlier. If you live in the southeast of England, you can’t get physically farther away than the north coast of Scotland without a boat or a plane. This part of the highlands is so remote it receives precisely no attention from the rest of the country.
That was why in 2014, Prince Charles—yes, the heir apparent to the throne—helped create the North Coast 500. The 516-mile touring route cleverly links up existing roads to create one of the most scenic and dramatic drives in the United Kingdom. It begins and ends in Inverness, a small city that sits at the crook of the Moray Firth, an inlet 150 miles north of Edinburgh. But the Applecross peninsula, two hours west, is where the rubber truly hits the road.
When we picked up our car, a sporty white Range Rover, we had been warned that this was when the road would, for long stretches, shrink to a single-lane highway, with passing places built into the sides and a strict safety protocol on how to use them. Not only that, but the drive to the peninsula, we were told, began with the steepest road climb in Scotland: the Bealach na Bà. The name sounds like some terrifying creature out of Gaelic mythology until you discover it simply means “cattle pass.” (The road was built in 1822 so that livestock traders on the Applecross peninsula could herd their animals to market.)
And now here it was before us, and up it we rose, carried on a narrow ribbon of pavement wrapped around the mountainside that left little room for error. On the passenger side, only the occasional strip of guardrail obscured Marisa’s view of the long drop down. She giggled with delight—or maybe with nerves. I focused on each new blind corner, feeling like a stuntwoman, and our Range Rover spurred us up a sequence of switchbacks so tight they could have given us a wedgie. At the apex, the rocky crags were suddenly replaced with rounded hills that rolled down to the sea, until all that was left between us and the water was the Applecross Inn.
The inn appeared to be the only civilization for miles, and we both felt we’d earned some refreshment after the dizzying ride, so we stepped inside. There was a small, cozy bar with a couple of local beers on tap and a triptych of blackboards offering half the contents of the Atlantic Ocean. The chalk could barely keep from spilling onto the surrounding walls. Having grown up in England, I was used to shellfish being limp, fingernail-size affairs. My half pint of prawns—likely pulled from the sea that day—were muscular and armor-plated, like creatures from Sauron’s army.
“Do you want help?” Marisa asked.
“I’ve got it,” I responded, digging in a thumbnail to peel off the shell. Prawn juice squirted my companion in the face.
“Oof, sorry. Did I get you in the eye?”
As Marisa wiped herself with a napkin, she noticed behind me a collection of binders, old and hand labeled: Census results, 1760 to 1855—Judith’s copy. I pulled a couple down. Someone had carefully researched, reproduced, and annotated the names, occupations, and relationships of people who had existed in the surrounding parishes for the past two centuries.
As we read, we marveled at the human drama rendered in numbers: families of farmers, fishermen, and merchants disappearing over a half century of dramatic depopulation. I’d heard of the highland clearances at school, a deeply traumatic period of Scottish history. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of families had been forced from the land they had tended for generations to make it more profitable for the increasingly aristocratic chieftains. These binders contained the evidence of their flight across the ocean to the new world.
Keen to understand a little of life in that era, we spent our first night in a bothy not far from the inn. Bothies were the epitome of the highlands’ simple pastoral living—basic stone shelters built to keep shepherds warm and dry on the job. In the morning, Marisa, who has always been more of a meditative sort than I am, took the opportunity for a quiet walk. She returned with foraged blackberries. I went for a bracing soap scrub in the nearby river and returned with a hypothermic high, insisting loudly that I’d never smelled better.
We climbed back into the Range Rover and followed the road another 10 or so miles to Beinn Eighe, Britain’s oldest nature reserve, which covers a large swath of the Torridon hills. The visitor center wasn’t open. A sign claimed it was open seven days a week; the reality depended on whether anyone had volunteered to go and unlock the door, and today no one had. We looked at the map outside and picked a trail at random.
The Torridon massif isn’t, precisely, beautiful. If I were writing its dating profile, I’d describe it as “experienced.” Its irregular shapes give the impression that it’s been in a few bar brawls, lost a tooth or two, a chunk of ear. That day its sandstone crags were covered in a Skull Island–style mist, which parted occasionally to reveal sides scarred with shale. Outcrops of rock pushed through its grassy sides like a staircase with the carpeting wearing through. No, not beautiful, exactly. But compelling.
Even under the deadening gray cloud, color broke through everywhere. Papery trunks of slender birches strobed white against bright green ferns; red toadstools blinked by our feet. As we climbed, the rock changed color too, from brown to soft pink, then to a stern gray-white, with sudden incursions of green-black granite. The trail was challenging, but we bounded up it like young deer (or so we thought), and when a waymarker publicized a “steep path,” Marisa scoffed. “Well, it can’t get much steeper than it already is, can it?”
It could. And it did. We started to puff a little.
“This is good,” said Marisa, who has long been trying to convince me of the benefits of mindfulness. “This is making us aware of our bodies. We may not be as fit as we ever were, but we have resilience and experience on our side.”
“Yes!” I replied. “My younger self wouldn’t have chosen to hike in the first place!” Our legs pumped up and down, levering us upwards.
We reached the cloud base. We reached another waymarker. It said we’d climbed 1,000 feet and had nearly another 1,000 to go before the lookout. “Experience is knowing that you don’t have to prove anything,” I said, and we turned around and headed back, through ferns of prehistoric proportions and the welcoming arms of larch trees.
The road continued along the northern west coast. As we drove, Marisa crocheted in the passenger seat. I proudly imagined this as proof of my impeccable driving, my ability to navigate the bends and inclines with a cashmere-smooth touch, although in truth it said more about the Range Rover than it did about me. I felt I was piloting an aircraft, swooping from peaks to sea in all four dimensions.
And the landscape was the stuff of epic fantasy; George R.R. Martin had even named his Game of Thrones kingdom after the Wester Ross country we were traversing. There were ridges and gorges and, every now and then, the stone ruins of a castle from the age of knights and dragons. The warp and weft of yellow gorse and purple heather merged with a backdrop of reds, greens, and ochres to become cloth fit for a fairy’s cloak.
And always, there was water. A great, glassy loch; a small, dark inlet in a velvety blue far too deep for the overall color palette; a sliver of waterfall; a burst of brook. And, of course, there was the sea, emerging intermittently to draw the eye farther off—to the islands of Skye and Rona with their alligator spines or to promontories that reached into the water like paws.
Human life was evanescent. Other people existed—they gave hand salutes as we paused for each other to pass on the narrow roads, or zipped past us on motorbikes, or pedaled heroically up hills on bicycles with their camping equipment stuffed in heavy panniers. The few businesses we came across were run by invisible women—Judith, the owner of the Applecross Inn, and Lis at the now-shuttered Whistle Stop Café, and Paula, who manages the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse—all central characters in their isolated communities, and all hidden in the kitchen behind a cloud of steam or, in Paula’s case, a fishy miasma.
I drove more mindfully after our stay. I had a new sense of investment in the sheep that regularly wandered into our path in apparent suicide pacts and in the shaggy-maned highland cows that rested, long-horned and handsomely imperturbable, on the verges. (A chicken, too, once made a leisurely crossing in front of our car, but that was probably for a joke.)
The only wildlife we wished ill were the midges. Marie had warned us about these tiny flying insects that constitute north Scotland’s greatest nuisance. They liked the mild, damp weather, and for a while, whenever we stopped to admire the view or attempt a picnic, they settled round our heads in smothering clouds. The Sartrean torment could only be escaped by leaping back in the car and driving at speed with the windows down.
But it was a small price to pay for the splendor. It was humbling that I had called Britain my home for 40 years with no idea of these hidden wonders. The beaches were the biggest surprise of all. To a kid growing up in the southeast of England, a trip to the seaside was a painful hobble across the pebbles at Brighton or a trudge through the sludge in tidal Norfolk. If you’d told me my homeland contained white sands and secluded bays as breathtaking as those I’d crossed continents to find, I would have said you had the wrong country.
Yet there they were, silken shores as easy to love as they were hard to pronounce: Achmelvich, Clachtoll, Clashnessie. The midges didn’t follow us to the beaches, allowing Marisa to lie on the sand and close her eyes as a mindfulness app led her guided meditation.
“Renew yourself,” a voice from her phone would say. “Picture every cell in your body, brand new. Imagine yourself released from the stories of your past . . .”
But that wasn’t my style; I preferred to run into the sea and immerse myself in its numbing waves. For me the greatest release came when, shivering with cold, I would climb back into our vehicle, turn on the heated seat, and return to the road.
As a static backdrop, the spectacle surrounding us might have been too overwhelming to the eye. But as flowing images—a movie playing on our windshield—it was enchanting. My favorite stretch was the road around Loch Eriboll, which traced the water to its innermost point, then slapped a big bold left that threw us under the shadow of a mountain. The peak looked down as stern and sudden as a father who’s found you raiding the family liquor cabinet. Only when we crested the mountain did the vista open up again and the mood lighten, a page turned, a new scene begun.
Once the north coast began its slope eastward, more signs of human life emerged. We passed through numerous villages, each new name on the map offering up its own surprise. Ullapool, a small town with a ferry port, two marvelous bookstores, and galleries with regional arts and crafts. Durness, with its spooky smugglers’ cave. Bettyhill, whose graveyard casually displays a stone carved about 1,200 years ago. In Kylesku, a boat tour took us out to spot seals and golden eagles and Britain’s tallest waterfall. In Dunnet Bay, we found a gin distillery—an outlier in this world of whiskey—and the 37-year-old chemical engineer who had dreamed it up while working long hours on offshore oil rigs.
The farther east we traveled, the more tamed the landscape became. Gorse gave way to mohair dunes, then to hay fields, then to wind turbines. The towns got bigger, and Marisa begged me not to stop as we passed through them: “I’m not ready to see a supermarket,” she said. We made an exception for the town of John O’Groats, which, as every British schoolchild learns, sits at the top right corner of our kingdom, the northernmost point on our mainland. Except it’s not—we discovered that Dunnet Head beats it by a breath—and John O’Groats turned out to be barely a town, more an encampment of gift shops, a car park at the end of the world. The whole experience was like meeting a grumpy celebrity.
“Sorry, Queen Mum,” whispered Marisa as we wandered around the ornate state rooms. “But this is a real castle.”
What the east side lacked in wild beauty, it made up for in castles. The Castle of Mey, the late Queen Mother’s summer retreat, was a modest and cozy place, bearing the marks of her majesty’s sense of humor in the cheap souvenirs she left above the tapestries and dotting the mantelpieces. (It’s still in the Royal Family: An indiscreet housekeeper revealed to us that Prince Charles had been to stay just the month before, with his sons and new daughter-in-law.) It was a vast contrast to Dunrobin, the splendid fairy-tale-like château with French-style gardens perched above the North Sea 70 miles south.
“Sorry, Queen Mum,” whispered Marisa as we wandered around the ornate state rooms. “But this is a real castle.” Unfortunately, Dunrobin’s magnificence turned out to have a rather unsavory backstory. It was the site of violent clan feuds for hundreds of years, and the home of the first Duke of Sutherland, the man responsible for the most brutal of the highland clearances. We admired the grandeur, but it wasn’t for us.
We left and eventually found our ideal castle. On a whim, I had booked us at Ackergill Tower, now a hotel offering surprisingly luxurious lodgings for a place built in the mid-1400s. That night, we watched the sun set from the parapet and read poetry in the period-movie drawing room. We’d come a long way from the bothy.
The final stage back to Inverness took us along busy arterial roads, dual carriageways that threatened to choke our triumphant return with exhaust fumes. But the road wasn’t done with us yet. Or perhaps it was the Range Rover, a car so smart that I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover it was linked via Bluetooth to our innermost desires.
Either way, our GPS told us to take a rogue right and we obeyed, only to find ourselves off-script and immersed once more in a sweep of countryside, where the sheep were stationed across fields like chess pieces mid-game. Our detour didn’t lose us time—it turned out we had taken a little-used back road running almost parallel to the main highway—but it meant we could not, in all truth, claim to have completed the NC500. We’d just have to go back and do it again.