Journeys are life affirming. An invitation to travel is to discover the unfamiliar, to create meaningful connections and to make memories that burn bright in the heart and mind. My intention in North Coast Journey is to share the outstanding places and vibrant communities that I know well, though my personal and family connections and through my professional work as a writer.
In recent years, the historic roads that follow the outline of the far north of Scotland have been branded and promoted with huge success as the North Coast 500. Visitors are thrilled and impressed by the landscape, yet many of those that I meet feel a tinge of regret that they did not allow long for this epic experience.
Looping the dramatic and characterful coast in a short period of just a week leaves many travellers feeling strangely disconnected. Though the scenery is inviting, their punishing schedule obliges them to keep moving on. I have seen visitors enchanted yet in a terrible rush to hurtle through the landscape; leaping from their cars, campervans or motorbikes to snap a photo and maybe record a few moments of film footage before driving on to the next viewpoint.
Approaching this magnificent coastal circuit like a grand prix race creates pressure. Pit stops leave little time to paddle in the crystal-clear sea, climb a hill for panoramic views, walk among wildflowers on a gentle coastal path, linger over a freshly landed seafood lunch and spread out a rug to watch the setting sun sink into the sea. There’s little time to chat with local people and patiently observe wildlife; little time to take part in local events and festivals or discover exhibitions, museums, galleries and the work of inspirational craftspeople. While some travellers I have met relish these whistle-stop days, many wished for more time to engage with the landscape and friendly communities.
In the village stores at Bettyhill, I chatted with a woman who was travelling by motorbike with her partner. “We’re doing the whole north coast trip in a week,” she told me. “We were under the impression it was possible. Now we are here we realise it is a rush. The scenery is fantastic. We keep seeing things and want to stop but we can’t – we’ve got to keep moving because we haven’t enough time.”
I have friends across the far north Highlands who sense this deeply from many visitors too. Travellers arrive in a whirl, stay for one night, wish they had longer and hurtle onward. And so the book is my response to requests from those guests and locals who have shared with me their feeling that so much opportunity is lost by rushing around the far north Highlands in a high-pressured week.
My advice to travellers is to allow plenty of time for discovery – at least 10 days – or to travel only as much of the route as is possible in a meaningful way in the time available. The rewards are immense and satisfying.
My journey explores the coast in sections. Each area is rich and fascinating with much to discover over a few days. Walk and cycle where you can – this appealing landscape lends itself to adventure, whether in the form of a short excursion around a dramatic headland accompanied by clamouring seabirds and curious seals or an epic quest to the heart of the mountains and the territory of golden eagles. I invite you to wander. Embrace the opportunity to connect with the magic of the scenery and the communities. Make your far north Highland experience meaningful and memorable.
The Northernmost Coast – Scarfskerry
In the small community of Scarfskerry, homes and boats line up along the shore as if biding their time to jump into the sea. Tagged the furthest-north hamlet on mainland Britain, the settlement takes its name from the Old Norse words scarf, meaning ‘cormorant’, and sker, meaning ‘sea rock’. A small rocky inlet is known as The Haven. A historic rowing boat ferry service crossed from here to Melsetter on the island of Hoy. In 1818 William Daniell (1769-1837) made a series of artworks featuring castles along the Caithness coast as part of his Voyage around Great Britain project. The adventurous artist hired the small Scarfskerry open boat ferry to visit Orkney. The crossing of the Pentland Firth took three hours. His work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. Daniell became a Royal Academician in 1822. Much of his coastal series is at the Tate Britain Gallery in London. However, his illustration of Scarfskerry is in the Carnegie Library in Wick.
The Mountain Kingdom – Beinn Eighe
When a new railway line reached Achnasheen in 1870, the opportunity of Highland tourism arrived too. Deerstalking and salmon and trout fishing were major attractions, along with appreciation of the natural landscape.
Intrigued by the rare habitats of the temperate oceanic ‘rainforest’ at Coille na Glas Leitir on the south bank of Loch Maree, botanists were also among the new Highland tourists. Ultimately, their passion for the ancient trees, mossy mounds and deep heather in this magical place led to the establishment of Britain’s first National Nature Reserve in 1951. The historic purchase of this patch of rainforest included Beinn Eighe, the mountain known as ‘The File’. Beinn Eighe, the most inland of the Torridon mountains, has since been a revelation to botanists and geologists. The dramatic heights have steeply plunging vertical slopes with seven peaks and a series of spectacular corries of white quartzite formed from sand laid down by seas that flooded the landscape around 540 million years ago. Within this massif are many rare species of flora and fauna. Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve hosts more than 100 different bird species, among them iconic golden eagles. The UK’s only endemic bird lives here too – Scottish crossbills are not found in any other country.
DETOUR: The hideaway serenity of Lower Diabaig
Simply the name makes me smile. The memory of my first visit to this heavenly spot is crystal clear thanks to the shock of jaw-dropping views on a nerve-jangling drive. The road soars to the Bealach na Gaoithe or ‘Pass of the Winds’. The vista across Upper Loch Torridon to the assembled summits of Glen Torridon, Glen Shieldaig and Applecross is breathtaking. The road is precarious and entirely unsuitable for inexperienced or nervous drivers. But all is not lost – an alternative approach to the sleepy shore of Lower Diabaig is possible by Torridon RIB water taxi service. If the views were not enough to entice you to this serene bay, then the waterfront café and restaurant of Gille Brighde offers yet more temptation. For fleeting visits, the pier and pebbly foreshore are happy places to mooch before girding the loins for the steep drive out of the village back through the spectacular pass. For longer visits, an 11km walk from Lower Diabaig reaches the sands of Red Point. The coastal views to the isles of Skye and Raasay are magical.
North Coast Journey: The Magic of Scotland’s Northern Highlands by Brigid Benson is published by Birlinn (£16.99, paperback) www.birlinn.co.uk @brigid_benson