Scotland's northeastern circuit: 500 miles of sheep, history and whisky
Like many American families, we've taken our share of road trips.
Ours have mostly been of the weekend-long variety in the continental United States.
Hankering for a "real" road trip, as our teenage son Ewan put it, and to explore more of our ancestral homeland, we visited Scotland this summer to drive the recently christened North Coast 500 route.
Or as friends had persuasively gushed about the 516-mile circular journey rounding the top of mainland Scotland: Maybe more jaw-droppingly beautiful than Italy's famed Amalfi Coast, with adorable shaggy cows and what one called "more dramatic weather." My wife, Gail, and I booked our flights that night.
Drivers can complete the North Coast 500 in a few days, though we decided to take a more leisurely week. Arriving in drizzle one June evening in the city of Inverness, the southernmost point and official start and finish of the route, we drop our bags at the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel and stroll along the River Ness. If not for our hunger, we would have returned too late for dinner, fooled by a summer sun that doesn't set this far north until nearly midnight.
Breakfast the next morning brings the first of what will be a trip-long family obsession with homemade smoked fish, especially haddock and salmon.
Half an hour's drive west, I'm already glad we had settled on an itinerary taking us clockwise around the route. Not only are landscape and sky as lovely as promised; here also is Glen Ord Distillery, where we stop for a tour and tasting of Highland whiskies.
An hour's drive farther west, just outside the hamlet of Ardaneaskan, on Loch Carron's north shore, we've parked our car and climbed aboard an Argo, an eight-wheeled contraption that wouldn't be out of place on a lunar mission. Which, as we look at the close-shaven, windswept hills ahead, seems apt.
Our gregarious guide, Colin Murdoch, cranks up the engine and, with a wink, asks, "Do any of you not like carnival rides?"
Up and down steep and boggy hills of Reraig Forest we go, Murdoch regaling us with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the moor's flora and fauna, and tales of local game poachers and secret sea loch submarine bases.
Atop a high hill, Murdoch kills the motor and gazes below silently at the craggy patchwork foliage of muted greens, yellows and browns.
"Here they come," he says. A moment later, we see them, too. Some walk, others trot toward us. Soon, we're surrounded by several dozen red deer.
From a sack, he grabs a handful of food pellets. Females and bolder males approach and eat from his outstretched palm. He invites Ewan to emulate him. These deer, Murdoch cautions, are not tame. Rather, he says, their hunger overrides their fear.
As if on cue, a pair of young stags square off, rearing up and halfheartedly pawing at each other with hoofs.
Such sparring this time of year is adolescent theatrics, Murdoch says, as still-growing antlers are soft and easily damaged. A wounded antler now would be painful and potentially fatal. When stags' antlers have hardened by summer's end, they won't pull their punches.
"It will be too dangerous for us to feed them then," Murdoch says.
At dinner that night at the Torridon Inn, some 30 miles to the north, Murdoch and his magical deer happily dominate our conversation.
By the second morning on the road, I feel that I'm getting the hang of Highlands driving. Roads aren't the only thing changing as we head north. Earth and sky appear more cinematic. Scottish weather, famously fickle, seems more capricious still. Before lunchtime, sunny skies switch to a squall, then back, before settling into a light rain.
That afternoon, we meet our first Highland cattle, a dozen or so of which graze in fields behind Braemore Square Country House, our bed-and-breakfast. We agree that it's impossible to look at the cartoonishly disheveled beasts and not smile.
Farther north, place names grow more exotic. Setting off the next day on a several-mile hike up a boulder-strewn valley to the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, we wonder aloud if one of the region's chief exports are words for fantasy role-playing games.
Evening brings us to the seaside village of Durness. Lounging beside a coal-fueled fireplace at Mackay's Rooms, we celebrate our arrival in Scotland's most northwesterly town over glasses of local whiskies and Scottish soda.
A short detour a few miles farther poleward the next morning rewards us with a walk on the wide, sandy beach and dunes of Faraid Head.
Several hours of curvy driving east along seaside cliffs takes us to John O'Groats, where wild bunnies seem to outnumber human locals. From this northeastern tip, our route turns south.
Accustomed to experiencing the sea from shore, we join a sea tour in Wick, a former Viking settlement. Clad in foul-weather gear, we sit aboard a twin-engine inflatable boat, zipping southward beside the cliffs. Orange-beaked puffins dive below the surface as our boat eases into cathedral-like caves, home to hundreds of shags and other seabirds. Though seals tend to be plentiful in the area, our guide Bob says the recent appearance of orcas probably sent them to safer waters.
Nearing the end of our journey, we visit Dunrobin Castle, the first of the non-ruined variety of our trip.
A museum on the grounds houses a kind of Noah's ark of taxidermied animals from around the globe. But we're keener to see the live critters in the gardens outside. Here, resident falconer Andy Hughes demonstrates why his hunting art was so prized by the nobility in the Highlands and elsewhere. With gentle words and meaty treats, he coaxes an Eagle Owl named Cedar to silently buzz our heads. Ebby, a Harris's Hawk, soars and swoops around us like a miniature fighter jet.
Thrilled to watch these aerobats, we nearly forget that we must drive our final 50 miles tomorrow, returning to Inverness, where we'll catch our own less graceful flight home.
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