Driving through the Scottish Highlands
This summer Jesse and I were lucky enough to do a road trip around the Scottish Highlands – roughly following the famous North Coast 500 route – and I can say with my hand on my heart, it was one of the best trips I’ve ever done. We timed it well; we were on the Isle of Skye for the longest day of the year, and being so far north meant daylight hung around until midnight. Magic.
The Scottish weather’s reputation precedes it, so I knew not to expect sun and heat. I would definitely recommend anyone to simply have realistic expectations going in, though I would find it pretty hard to be disappointed by anything when faced with the might and magic that is the Scottish Highlands. You may have read my recent post in which I reflected on how otherworldly this region is, but for anyone ever wanting to head up this way themselves, here’s a breakdown of our route and my top highlights along the way.
Worth noting is the direction of travel we opted for. Starting and ending in Edinburgh, we headed up along the east coast and back down the west coast, and found from day one that most people we came across – locals and fellow travellers – commented on the fact we were doing it ‘the wrong way.’ Apparently the norm to go west to east, the opposite direction we chose, but personally I think we did it the better way. In general, the east coast scenery is flatter and less dramatic, but still beautiful This means when it’s the first part you see, you’re blown away, and things only get better from there. Travellers coming the other way frequently commented on the fact that they far preferred the west coast, as it was more spectacular. Not saying this means we were right or anything but… we kind of were.
If you're interested, here's our route mapped out.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Tain
Day one took us from the Scottish capital up through the beautiful Cairngorms National Park, where we stopped in Braemar for lunch. The drive was absolutely beautiful, and it was a great first impression to the region. Sadly the rain was falling for the entire day, but the misty clouds added a certain atmosphere to the valleys that I really enjoyed. Just outside Inverness, we stopped by the infamous site of the 1746 Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Culloden, where the mist definitely felt apt. I didn’t take any photos, and it’s not a spectacular site in any way in terms of scenery, but as the historical site where the Highland way of life is considered to have met its end, it’s definitely worth a visit, especially for those of us with roots in this part of the world. We spent our first night in the absolutely adorable town of Tain, where the sun finally came out and turned what I thought were grey buildings to a glowing gold.
The old railway station in Tain has been converted to a cosy yet sophisticated dining destination called Platform 1864 that I can’t recommend highly enough. Serving traditional pub food and all the best whiskeys and gins.
A typical stretch of road winding through the Cairngorms.
One of the countless postcard-perfect scenes we drove through on our first day
The gorgeous town of Tain bathed in evening sunlight
Day 2: Tain to Keiss
The highlight of our second day as we made our way up the east coast of the Highlands was undoubtedly the mighty Dunrobin Castle… if I didn’t know better, I’d think the Disney Castle was modelled on this. It’s well worth the cost to explore the interior of this 189-room strong building, the oldest parts of which date back to the turn of the 15th century. The property has been to home to the Earls and later the Dukes of Sutherland for over 700 years. It is a real experience to walk through and is simultaneously beautiful and boggling. While absolutely beautiful in many aspects, the style is very much of a time and a certain class which belongs firmly in the past. I’ve never witnessed so much taxidermy as walking through the Castle (tiger, lion nd cheetah rugs – the kind you only think exist in the villain’s houses in films – fought for space on the floor of all main rooms) and in particular the ground’s museums, where literally thousands of animals shot by the Duke and Duchess – including a massive elephant, giraffe, water buffalo and just about any other species you can image – crowd walls and floors and cabinets. It made me feel a bit ill and hugely angry, but was certainly an experience! Somewhat ironically, a live birds of prey show is given in the gardens outside several times throughout the day.
The scenery on our second day of driving was mostly flat and a wee bit unremarkable, but the Whaligoe Steps are a spectacular site not to be missed, though it might easily be to a lack of signposting or advertising (something I found throughout Scotland). Built in the 1700s, the stone steps drop steeply down a dramatic cliff side dotted with wildflowers to a very wild inlet where waves crash and sea salt sprays… it’s a pretty special spot. Take a bottle of water though… 365 steps back up says you’ll need it!
If you’re after a cuppa and a baked good on the road, you can’t do better than The River Bothy. Super sweet, in both nature and food! A raspberry cheesecake the likes of which will fill my dreams for years to come. No one does afternoon tea like the Brits!
A small snippet of Dunrobin Castle's mighty exterior
Full of old-school swank. I'll take the dreamy bookshelves and leave the vile rugs, thanks.
Stairway to heaven at Whailgoe Steps
Cheesecake to die for... don't drive past The River Bothy cafe
Day 3: Keiss to Kinlochbervie
The third day of driving took us along the northern coast of Scotland, and got off to a phenomenal start with Duncansby Stacks. These unbelievable jagged rock formations are just a few miles from John O’Groats, the northern-most village in mainland UK, and missed by too many. To come this far and not see these would be a real shame. We also stopped by Castle Mey, the former residence of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It’s an unusual spot to choose – the land for a lot of this stretch was very flat and unremarkable, but it was all super exposed to the wind, and just getting out of the car was a real battle if your car was facing the wrong way! One thing I will say for this part of the country though is the beaches are Beautiful with a capital B. White sand, tussock grass and crystal clear blue water, it was scenery I didn’t know to expect in this part of the world. The idyllic landscape combined with the unreal wind created an utterly mesmerizing natural setting, and I would happily take longer to explore this part of the coast if I could… every bay was more stunning than the last.
As we progressed west the country started getting a bit hillier, and some stretches of road looked like something straight out of an American road trip film. Did someone say Thelma and Louise?! There are too many castles to stop at in Scotland, and Castle Varrich was one we simply didn’t have time to explore, but even driving by this spectacularly-situated ruin was pretty special. Make sure you head to impressive Smoo Caves just outside Durness – a hard-to-photograph natural spot, but well worth a visit! Just to the other side of Durness village you will find Balnakeil Craft Village, a cluster of converted 1950s cold war buildings which now serve as art galleries, knitting stores, ceramic studios and so much more, all worked and lived in by some of the most charming people you'll ever meet.
In aforementioned craft village you will find an unexpectedly cute café in Cocoa Mountain – a wee gem we were advised about on our travels, and I’m so glad we got to! A hot chocolate and truffles made daily the likes of which I’ve never tasted. Their cat is lovely too!
Am in Scotland or the Caribbean? Colours right out of a dream along the north coast beaches
The almost too-stunning-to-be-real Duncansby Stacks
Castle Mey, former residence of the Queen Mother
Black storm clouds, dazzling sun on white sand, and a wind that'll knock you sideways. The wild kind of magic that will make you frolic with joy
The long and winding road... feeling like I'm in an American road trip film
Can you spot Castle Varrich?
So windy, the waves got blown away before they could even break properly... if this isn't wild beauty, I don't know what is
Day 4: Kinlochbervie to Ullapool
As we left Kinlochbervie and started driving down the west coast, we got our first taste of the truly rugged landscape more typical of the Highlands, drastically different and more dramatic from the east coast scenery. The roads got narrower and much windier (read: much more fun to drive) and the vegetation got thicker. On the shore of one of the many lochs on this stretch we stopped at Adrvreck Castle ruins, and I would recommend everyone visiting this area do the same. As well as the castle ruins dating form the late 1500s, there also stand the ruins of nearby Calda House built in the 1700s, the bones of which you can see in my picture below as 4 distinct peaks, From here you can do a dead-end detour out to the small coastal town of Lochinver, but with so much beautiful countryside around, in hindsight this is one stop I may not have made. There are several viewpoints along the way from where you can get a spectacular view of the one of a kind mighty Suilven; a uniquely round mountain peak surrounded by almost jungle-like scenery. Am I in Scotland or The Congo?! This mountain view is not to be missed. I repeat: NOT TO BE MISSED. We drove wide-eyed through this spectacular scenery until arriving in Ullapool, one of the better-know towns up this way. Here we wandered the shops and harbour where we were lucky enough to have a pretty cool encounter with a cheeky grey seal. Rumour has it otters, red squirrels and pine martens lurk in these parts too, so keep an eye out!
Be sure to make a stop in Ullapool's Ceilidh Place Cafe, one of the only listed Highlands spots in the UK Independent Coffee Guide A.K.A. the thing I trust above all else to look after me (even more than my partner of seven years). A bar, cafe, restaurant AND bookshop all rolled into one, this is a real treasure where everyone will find something they love to drink. I hate to say it, but good coffee is hard to find up this way so don't drive by this place!
Ardvreck Castle stands in ruins across the waves. In the background you can see the ruins of nearby Calda House, in the form of four distinct peaks.
The mighty, mind-blowing mountain of Suilven
Drinking delicious coffee and planning routes in Ullapool's Ceilidh Place Cafe
This curious little guy made out stroll along Ullapool's harbour a lot more memorable
Day 5: Ullapool to Shieldaig
While our fifth day was arguably the most stunning in terms of scenery driven through, highlights are few; we passed very few towns (a packed lunch highly recommended for this stretch - just park up somewhere and enjoy the views) and every bit of road was as breath-taking as the last... so you might say, every bit was a highlight. We did pull into Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve on our way out of Ullapool - worth a stop, and a good wee walk into the dramatic gorge to stretch our legs. The Torridon area is absolutely spectacular and I would recommend taking your time driving through here as the scenery just keeps getting better and you'll want to stop and wander a lot. Anyone with a bit of extra time and keen on some hiking, this is your spot! Simply stunning. We spent our night a bit further on in the small town of Shieldaig - absolutely gorgeous, quiet, waterfront town with cracking seafood.
The Torridon Stores and Cafe is a very quaint little local spot where you can grab some delicious locally-made sweet treats and various other nibbles. You don't get lookouts like this often, so come in, buy a couple of the postcards to write as you sit and enjoy a truly magnificent view... and some pretty fab cake.
One of the countless magnificent views as we drove towards Torridon
Jesse literally just taking it all in... how we passed the bulk of our sixth day
Glassy water, rocky shore and mighty mountains near Shieldaig
Day 6: Shieldaig to Skye
We didn't cover a huge amount of ground on our sixth day compared to some others, but the further down the west coast we went, the better the scenery seemed to get. From Shieldaig we detoured out to Applecross and it was a fantastic call - the drive out here is stunning (is that getting repetitive..?) and there's a great wee photography gallery a local put us onto that we wouldn't have known of otherwise - they even provide free coffee as you browse! The coast out here is worth exploring too; the seals are numerous and as curious about us as we are them! A stunning drive will take you down towards arguably Scotland's most famous and spectacularly-situated castle, Eilean Donan. An absolute must-visit, and well worth paying to poke around, this site is the extraordinary feat of John MacRae-Gilstrap, who restored the property once inhabited by Clan McRae to its former glory. It is still owned privately by the family, but open to visitors year-round, except one weekend annually in which Clan McRae gathers from far and wide for what I can only assume is the best house party (castle oarty?) known to man. Before crossing the bridge to the Isle of Skye, I recommend taking a small detour to visit Plockton, a sheltered, beautiful village which has its own micro-climate making it unusually warm for this part of the world. It even grows cabbage trees just like you see in New Zealand! Here we met with friends before driving over the bridge to Skye together (Outlander fans, you can only imagine how exciting this was for me) where we were greeted by a spectacular sunset behind the distinctive Skye mountains. BEAUTIFUL.
Coming into Applecross, the cottages start to take on that classic highland look - symmetrical white structures with a chimney at each end, sitting on the shores of the sea and at the base of mountains. When can i move in?
The spectacularly-situated Eilean Donan castle
Scenes in Plockton making me feel like I'm back in New Zealand
Welcomed onto the Isle of Skye with a suitably dramatic sunset
Day 7 and 8: Skye to Edinburgh
There aren't enough words in the world to describe how beautiful I found Skye to be. Two days here was nowhere near long enough and I would implore anyone else visiting to give themselves longer to explore - it may be an island, but it ain't small! Unfortunately the weather packed in for a lot of our time here, though it did decide to come out to play for the summer solstice, and being this far north for the year's longest day was all kinds of magical - midnight strolls by sunlight anyone? The island's 'metropolis' of Portree is worth a look in, but my favourite parts of Skye were those less inhabited. The Fairy Pools are a natural waterfall complex not to be missed, though prepare yourself to battle huge crowds in this spot sadly somewhat ruined by the Insta-place fame game. The Coral Beach is another spot to see, just be prepared to dodge grazing cows as you make your way down the beach and heads up - the parking situation is dire. Uig (your guess on that pronunciation would be as good as mine) is a lovely little spot for a pint and a touch of ceramic shopping, if you're into that kind of thing (is anyone not?). We hesitatntly left Skye on our eigth and final day to head back to Edinburgh, but I wouldn't advise driving this distance in one day. We didn't get to stop at the Glenfinnan Viaduct (more commonly known as the Harry Potter Bridge) a major bucket list stop for me and it was too long in the car to really get out and enjoy anything - definitely break it up if you can! After miserable weather on Skye, Edinburgh put on a sunny spectacular for us, and thus ended our fabulous, albeit-too-brief tour of the Scottish Highlands. If I could give one piece of learned wisdom? Take more than a week... this place deserves the time.
Dining at the Edinbane Inn is a choice you won't regret - bookings recommended as this place is popular with locals as well as visitors! The fresh, local food is phenomenal and chances are there will be some live bagpipes and fiddle beats. If you like whiskey and seafood (I don't) I have it on good authority that Talisker distillery and The Oyster Shed just up the hill are well worth a look in. The Bog Myrtle cafe, recommended by a local, is one of the single best cafes I've yet discovered. The coffee and food is extraordinary but the real treat is sitting amongst stacks of old books, racks of second-hand clothes and tables full of antique knick-knacks. You MAY come out with more than just a full belly and satisfied palate... you've been warned.
Walking down to Fairy Pools
A local resident grumbling about us tourists. Something about 'get off my lawn'
The view from the pub deck at Uig. Oh, to own that cottage...
Even stormy, Skye is stunning