The perfect trip: The Scottish Highlands
Castle Stalker, in the Scottish Highlands, was featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Craig Easton)
The landscapes of northern Scotland are at once fearsome and beautiful. A road trip is the best way to experience the region’s mysterious and secluded beaches, freshly caught seafood, isolated wildlife and a castle made famous by Monty Python.
North West Highlands Geopark: Best for scenic drives
Like the golden eagles that sometimes soar overhead, the road from the coastal village of Durness winds its way south with great swoops and dives. The 68-mile route to the fishing town of Ullapool is a relatively recent addition to a landscape forged in the Ice Age, when melting glaciers gouged its long, deep valleys and seawater-filled lochs and fjords. With every rollercoasterlike dip in the tarmac, the windscreen frames another cinematic view – from the jagged peak of Suilven, rising almost vertically from moorland and bogs, to a red telephone box on the roadside, surrounded by nothing but heather.
There’s good reason why Scotland doesn’t look like anywhere else in Britain: 200 million years ago it was still part of the continent of North America – the join is roughly where Hadrian’s Wall is now. ‘It’s the geological building blocks that make this landscape so unique,’ says geologist Donald Fisher. Using a small hammer, he gesticulates enthusiastically over the U-shaped valley of Strath Dionard, which is empty but for a single gamekeeper’s cottage. ‘My work has taken me to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon in the US, and Uluru in Australia, but the physical features of the North West Highlands are as good as it gets.’
The area’s outstanding geology has earned it Unesco Geopark status. The Geopark extends roughly from Durness to Ullapool, and the landscape it contains has inspired many who have explored its 480 square miles of mountains, peatland, beaches, forest and coast. One story of which locals are particularly proud involves a community landmark immortalised by Hollywood. It is said that a holidaying movie executive liked the look of Ben Stack’s shapely peak so much that it inspired the logo of his company – Paramount Pictures’ now-iconic pointed, snow-capped mountain encircled by stars. And in the 1950s, a teenage John Lennon spent a summer holiday in a remote croft overlooking Durness’s Sango Bay, an experience that spurred him to write In My Life with Paul McCartney in 1965: the Beatles song was part-inspired by a poem about the area that Lennon wrote during his time there.
Little-changed since Lennon’s visits, the North West Highlands has the lowest population density in all of Europe – an encounter with a stubborn, shaggy-coated cow is still a more likely cause of delay than traffic. Such terrain makes the lure of the open road irresistible, even to keen walkers like Donald. When he’s not guiding visitors through the Geopark, he likes to take his bright-yellow Harley Davidson Fatboy motorcycle for a spin. His favourite spot is the hairpin bend at the foot of the Quinag mountain range. ‘It’s an incredible feeling, roaring around these curved roads,’ he says, his sensible scientist’s face momentarily lit up with an impish grin. ‘And the view here epitomises the geology and the pre-history of the area. This land is special – this is the land that time forgot.’
Where to eat
The best local option for dinner is Mackay’s, but Cocoa Mountain is a welcoming place to retreat to for a hot chocolate after a day spent exploring the Geopark. Situated in the Balnakeil Craft Village a mile outside of Durness, this café-cum-chocolatier sells handmade treats such as white chocolate, coconut, chilli and lemongrass truffles (boxes of truffles from £12).
Where to stay
Built 150 years ago by local merchant Richard Mackay, Mackay’s, a flint-walled cottage in Durness, is now a hotel and restaurant run by his great-grandson Robbie and wife Fiona. Each of the seven rooms is individually designed using local textiles, and it also offers bunkhouse beds and two self-catering, eco-friendly coastal crofts (rooms from £125; open Easter to Oct).