Travel Stories

North Coast 500 – Scottish Highlands Road Trip

The drive up to Scotland didn’t seem too long. We saw two camels at Scotch Corner and stopped off at the Falkirk wheel for a cup of tea, before arriving, early evening in Perth – a city of grand buildings with a stunning bridge running over a wide river. A place steeped in history, where you can stay in a castle if you want to, or not. Our hotel was opposite a funeral parlour and smelt like the dentists.

We explored a little, noted that the things I am interested in probably aren’t in any tourist guides – climbing frames that look like insects and the fanciest glitziest mirrored foyer at Morrison’s supermarket. We walked down the road and eyed up blocks of flats sporting a beautiful pebble dash and pink paint combo. Some of the buildings were incredible, some of the buildings were incredible and derelict. The Waverley Hotel had been taken over by pigeons, wafting in and out of their broken glassed net-curtained windows.

We ate in the hotel restaurant, a tartan carpeted conservatory extension to the front of the building. I felt like I might be by the sea, and also quite elderly. I was reminded of the time I stayed in Eastbourne – I breakfasted with a bunch of lovely ladies who didn’t want to see me sitting alone. I joined them and accidentally ate rather a lot of prunes.

I slept for a few minutes at a time, managing to hook the open end of the pillowcase around my wrist so that the weight of my hand would pull the pillow down tight over my head and protect my ears from the drone of vehicles and traffic-light racers outside.

Breakfast was black pudding, potato cake, poached egg and mushrooms. We didn’t want beans. ‘Musical fruit!’ the waiter exclaimed before taking our order to the kitchen. The Grampian Hotel has a charm of it’s own.

From Perth, we drove, through the Cairngorms – heather, ferns, rosebay willow herb, rock, trees, so many trees – to Inverness, and on towards Wick.

 As we headed further north I noted, less trees, more sheep. We stopped off at a small cemetery atop a hill overlooking the sea. We climbed steps, hauled over a stone wall, to explore, to feel the breeze.

In Wick, on the shortest street in the world (reason enough to go there for me) we checked in to Mackays Hotel. In our room, a tipple of sherry and a Werthers Original each. Winning. Also, relief, a welcoming bed. The view of the bay from the window was almost timeless.

Again, we wandered and explored. Hand painted signs in shop windows advertised ‘Superdry’ and ‘White Stuff’. Another, framed brightly in orange, read ‘YOUTHS’ in bold letters.

We ate in the hotel restaurant, No.1 Bistro.Presumptuous name!’ I thought, but then I got eating and decided they were probably right.

Orkney handdived scallops, black pudding risotto (peppery, creamy and rich, with shredded apple), Monkfish and Serrano ham ballotine, venison with golden beetroots, tiny wild mushrooms, pink tinted potatoes and a creamy parsnip sauce (deliciously earthy and foraged flavours), a pre-dessert (why did I not know about pre-desserts before? Who has been hiding this from me?) of chocolate sponge with Wick strawberries and white chocolate mousse, soufflé with gin gel and raspberry puree, petit fours, a cup of tea… rejoice, and breath!

We slept well, ate breakfast, and drove to John O’Groats to watch people queue for photos in front of the sign. We didn’t get a Starbucks, but (sadly) we could have done. I watched little birds (twites, I think) hop in an out of crab baskets, whilst Adam tried to lure a lone seagull.

Heading west we stopped at Canisbay Church. There were lots of photos of the Queen Mum in the entrance porch and some fascinating monuments. I fell in a hole.

On to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland. Beside the lighthouse lay  minor fortifications – a Second World War radar station and observation post, and a bunker used during the Cold War. My kind of place, I love a bunker.

We continued driving, slowing to watch sheep crossing the road, and stopping to observe Dounreay Nuclear Facility. The tourist guide called the site ‘impressive’ but I’m not so sure, maybe it was in the 1950s, when it was built, but ‘frightening’ seems a more accurate word for me. The last reactor was decommissioned in the 90s but the site is still full of dangerous nuclear materials, and so is the shoreline and seabed nearby after over 20 years of leaking radioactive fuel fragments. The beach is closed off. I’m fascinated by radioactivity, but not impressed. We drove on.

So many sheep, then cows – proper highland cattle standing beside the road looking glorious. Adam videoed their long hair wisping in the wind. One of them looked like Donald Trump and was chewing on an old plant pot.

Each and every turn we made opened up a new and stunning view as we drove west, stopping in Durness to admire Britains largest sea cave entrance at Smoo Cave (and a pigeons nest) and then heading inland along some of the most incredible open and empty roads, to Overscaig House Hotel on Loch Shin.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was concerned I would feel uncomfortable in this remote and isolated place, with no phone signal to call for help. I needn’t have worried. It was like being welcomed into a distant relative’s home. Patterned carpets, coloured bathroom suites, cushions and quirky ornaments. I’d normally be put off by this, but the personalities just won me over, I felt so at home.

We ate in the dining room, walls covered with every tartan you could imagine, a hearty dinner of Aberdeen Angus ribeye with vegetables and chips. One of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

Silent, comfortable sleep. Weighty feather duvet dreams.

We ate breakfast (sultana and cinnamon loaf with banana and maple syrup) overlooking the loch. Magnificent. 150 metres deep at its deepest point. Can you imagine?

We could just work out the shape of a tiny cottage on the other side of the loch. With a telescope we could see much more detail, it was something like looking through a keyhole into the past. A memory of a house. A ghost of a home.

Only accessible by boat and last inhabited in 1953 by an old lady who’d spent her life there. The story goes that when she was expecting a baby she had to climb down a ladder onto a boat that took her across the loch. Her husband then strapped her to the ladder, strapped the ladder to a donkey, and took her 14 miles up the road to the hospital in Lairg.

As we left Overscaig House Hotel it was cool and still. I was interested to know what it was like to be bitten by a midge. ‘You won’t get bitten by just one!’ the owner chuckled. He was right. I first felt a sting like a pin prick on my lip, then my cheek, then my eyebrow. For something so small they were fierce. I recalled the time I let an owl bite my hand to see what it felt like and wondered why I had to have all these ‘experiences’.

To Ullapool, in the rain, for lunch at the Ceilidh Place and then on to the magnificent Corrieshalloch Gorge – a slot gorge cut by glacial melt water between 2.6million and 11,500 years ago and fed by water from the river Droma. (Apparently the name Corrieshalloch means ‘ugly hollow’.)

We sped down a steep trail, through midges and mizzle, to the gorge, spotting a fly agaric mushroom on the way. First time I’ve ever seen one. It was too far from the path for me to lick.

Turning right, then left, then right again, we reached the twenty-five metre long suspension bridge swaying away with tourists who’d ignored the ‘6 people maximum’ sign in favour of a group photo.

Further along on the other side we reached the cantilevered viewing platform which jutted out over the vast drop. It was a phenomenal view, such a height that it was hard to tell the distance. I felt slightly uncomfortable, vulnerable even – mostly because an old lady with a stick was barging me and there wasn’t much space to manoeuvre, but also because of the immense scale and the splendour of nature.

The Gairloch Hotel had plenty of empty rooms to go with it’s plethora of bad reviews but we checked in any way. Adam said the best thing about the place was the revolving doors.

The old lift had been given an ‘update’. Now fully carpeted and resembling a coffin, it shunted it’s way up and down slowly. The loose carpets ruffled in waves as we creaked our way to the room. Every step causing wood to squeak and graunch against more wood.

Our room was in the roof. I moved the bed out of the eaves, so that I could actually get into it and, from the tiny tiny window, we took it in turns to watch the storm move in, waves crashing.

There was no wifi so we watched  the sticky old CRT tele that, when it could get a signal, squashed the widescreen picture into it’s square screen (I kept thinking everyone was Celine Dion), and tried to ignore the mould, and the hairs.

If you want to feel like you’ve been institutionalised half a century ago, this is the place for you. Adam’s verdict – a horrible, potentially dangerous, misery hole.

The non-edible  breakfast was accompanied by ‘traditional tea’ – pre-made brown stuff stewed in an insulated flask jug. We left as quickly as we could.

What an absolute relief it was to come across All The Goodness, a coffee and bake house between Ardelve and Dornie, on the edge of three lochs, and overlooking Eilean Donan Castle. Elderflower shortbread and a roasted strawberry bun, chai latte and a flat white. We consumed with joyous gratitude.

It began to rain. Fuelled on cake and faith in humanity restored, we drove on, through the Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park to the Four Seasons Hotel in Crief.

We stayed in a chalet on the hillside, overlooking the loch. By day, the drone of jet skis on the water, by night, pitch black with the gentle rustling of trees and something scurrying in the roof.

We slept well, waking to natures gift of mouse droppings in the morning. All I could think was that I wished I’d put my toothbrush away the night before.

And then it was time to begin our final journey home. We stopped off in Ayrshire, tried to get a glimpse of the old Loudoun Castle, but couldn’t see a thing. My great aunt lived there once (before there was a fire and a theme park) and although I’m not madly interested in family history, we do have her cauldrons and I like to place objects in spaces.

We stopped off at the golf club and I chatted to a lovely man called Frank, he reminded me of my late grandad, the gentle accent. He said Countess Sheila had married a New York policeman and moved to the US, and he sent us up to the kirk to look for Loudoun graves before we headed towards the motorways and the ‘real’ world again.

We didn’t go to any Whisky distilleries, we didn’t play any golf. We didn’t try on kilts or tam-o-shanters. We didn’t drink Irn Bru or play the bagpipes. And I didn’t say ‘Och aye the noo’ to anyone (apart from Adam).


We were guests of Mackays Hotel and dinner at No.1 Bistro was complimentary (and very delicious).

Gairloch Hotel kindly refunded our stay and assured us that they were undertaking a programme of improvement and fixing the carpet that week.

As always,  my opinions are my own.