Scotland: Take the High Road

Astonishing and otherworldly, the Scottish Highlands await.

By Mark C. O'Flaherty
Published 4 Mar 2011, 07:02 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:38 BST

The weekend: An island and mountain escape with spectacular scenery

Requirements: Couples of any age, including one confident driver, looking for an unpopulated rural break; hiking optional

Fits the bill: Glasgow to Lochinver via the Hebrides in four days

Budget: £500 per person

We could have driven all the way, of course, but that would have meant missing out on one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. So, after breakfast at the artfully flash Timorous Beasties-designed Two Figs in Glasgow's West End, we took the West Highland Line out of town, heading north-west towards the Hebrides.

While the carriage itself had all the charm of a humdrum commuter service, cursed as it was with a toilet that gave up the ghost mid-journey, where it took us was magnificent and otherworldly.

Why, I wondered, forehead pressed against the glass in astonishment, do so many Brits travel to the ends of the earth in search of Tolkienesque fantasy when it's on their doorstep? The Edwardian townhouses and suburbs of Glasgow gave way to epic landscapes of emerald moss daubed with purple, crystal waterways and cascading waterfalls.

These are spaces untamed by human habitation, albeit with a savage and troubled history in the form of the 18th century Highland Clearances. Now still and picturesque, with the original Clan system resigned emotively to the history books, they urge you to get out and explore.

You can travel the whole West Highland Line in a morning with a Thermos and an ad hoc picnic from the Marks & Spencer close to Queen Street Station, or break the journey at Fort William, as we did, for more refined fare and a stretch of the legs. This is where, with breathless extravagance, you can have the Inverlochy Castle Rolls-Royce pick you up and ferry you to lunch in Relais & Chateau chintz-drenched opulence, then drop you back at the station after a stroll through Inverlochy's pretty walled gardens.

That final stretch of scenic railway, now far from the city, is big on visual wows. As we passed over the Glenfinnan Viaduct there was a collective drawing of breath ("Ooh, the Harry Potter bridge!"), before the train meandered through ever more unpopulated landscapes towards the port at Mallaig.

Now, these being entirely untamed areas (this is one of the most sparsely populated places in Europe), there are few man-made shortcuts or motorways. You can't be in a hurry, and the journey, not the arrival, is the whole point. In the Highlands — as Boswell and Johnson embraced wholeheartedly with their celebrated travels here in the 18th century — the getting there's all the fun, and in a parallel life, with three weeks rather than four days to spare, I'd do it all on foot. It's an environment you want to engage with, with all of the romantic allure of fresh snowfall or an infinity pool at sunset. This really is the great outdoors.

We swapped rails for wheels at Mallaig and crossed the Applecross Peninsula using the mountainous Bealach na Bà crossing. If you only do one thing in the Highlands, this should be it. The drive takes you slowly but surely to more than 2,000ft above sea level, rising above the clouds and then down to the Applecross Inn, one of the most remote pubs in the British Isles.

When it snows, the road gets cut off, and even in fine weather it can be perilous; lorry drivers avoid it as loads can be lifted by a surprise gust on one of the hairpin bends.

The 'high road' was built in 1822, and a 'low road', which loops around the Peninsula, was only finished in the mid-1970s, which is why Applecross has developed along the lines of a remote island community rather than part of the mainland to which it really belongs.

Before the low road opened, geography and logistics dictated that Glasgow-bound village-dwellers had to row out to a Stornoway-bound steamer ship and take it back all the way across the frequently storm-lashed waters of the Minch — all just to catch a train that departed 10 miles, as the crow flies, from their front doors. The journey is much easier now, but crossing the Bealach na Bà, with its soaring, white-dappled inclines, is both a revelatory and extremely humbling experience.

We spent a night in Applecross, dining on fish and chips while surrounded by antique taxidermy at the local inn and bedding down at Meall Mo Chridhe (or 'Little Hill of My Heart'). It's a wonderful B&B that would make a great base for a longer tour of the area with a lookout for birdwatching, a book full of recommended local treks and a landlady, Avril, who cooks up a storm at breakfast time.

In the morning we drove to Skye via Plockton, a town it would be impossible to pass through without stopping. With its sweeping bay and its own island and islets in the distance, it's almost too perfect. The old red telephone box, flanked by the bright green slopes of Creag nan Darach behind it, looks like it might be an abandoned prop from Hamish Macbeth, the rural police series of the Nineties that was filmed here and which still brings coachloads of sightseeing grandmothers with a penchant for quaint murder, mystery and Robert Carlyle. The vista looks like a grand, elegant, late-19th century oil painting, and it seems almost impossible that real people get to live in the properties lining the water's edge.

From Plockton, we made our way to Skye. While other parts of Scotland boast unusually excellent gastropubs, Skye has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants. The Three Chimneys, which makes a mockery of the Michelin star system because it still hasn't got one, is the island's de facto special occasion destination, complete with swanky rooms in the form of the House Over-By. Under the direction of its founder, contemporary Scottish grande dame of cooking Shirley Spear, the Three Chimneys has become world-famous. The setting is a traditional, whitewashed crofter's cottage with low-beamed ceilings and original fireplaces, but there's a sophisticated, very modern style to dinner: dishes are clever and sorcerously good, involving locally caught scallops and farmed beef, served on black-slate platters.

We island-hopped the next morning, taking the ferry from the northern tip of Skye to the Isle of Harris — which shares the same landmass with the Isle of Lewis in the north — home of the eponymous Tweed, which, by law, can only be woven here.

The landscape becomes less rugged yet more lunar here, while the colours from earth to lake and sea to sky reflect the textile that has given the island such fame: luminescent purples and greens, ethereal greys and cobalt blues, incandescent oranges and reds.

En route to the three sets of mysterious 2600BC megalithic stones of Callanish, I visit John R. MacLean, who runs Garynahine Harris Tweed. This is the very definition of 'cottage industry': different coloured yarn is warped together in sequence on a frame before being tied by hand and woven. John does it all himself, creating vibrant swathes of cloth that are as resilient as the  Hebrideans themselves but as refined as Sicilian lace. Harris Tweed comes and goes on the fashion cycle, but John, part of the recently formed Harris Tweed Artisans Co-operative, is determined to keep the craft relevant and alive.

After a day exploring and traversing Harris and Lewis, we spent the night on the latter at Broad Bay House, a new, well-heeled B&B just outside Stornoway that represents a dream project for the couple who gave up city life to build and run it. They've fashioned a glass over-sea lookout which doubles as a dining room and put together fancy homemade dinners that would put many celebrated chefs to shame.

The next morning we returned to the Highlands of the mainland by ferry and drove north. We could drive for days, further and further from civilisation, or clockwise around the Highlands and down towards Edinburgh, but for the purposes of a long weekend, we come to a full stop in Lochinver, home of one of the most remote Michelin-starred restaurants on the planet, the Albannach. Dinner here, and an overnight stay (or even a night under your own locally-pitched canvas, as many diners prefer), is like visiting a favourite aunt's country retreat, with a smashing wine cellar. And yet it's still the getting there, and the frequent pauses for contemplation, that's the point.

The further north-west we went, the more the landscape changed: mountainscapes became more distant and spaced out, punctuated by ancient ruins and lochs stuck with petrified trees.

This unspoilt part of the world is a rare glimpse at life on earth had man never existed.

Traditions: In many of the island communities, Gaelic remains the first language, although conversation can often slip in and out of English, seemingly randomly. Signage is primarily Gaelic, with English translations

The perfect day:
10am: Breakfast overlooking the wild waters of The Minch at Broad Bay House, close to Stornoway.
11.30am: Visit Violets in Stornoway and buy exclusive pieces of textile work by the Harris Tweed Artisans Co-Operative, which ranges from handbags to kilts.
12.30am: Drive to the eerie, enigmatic and ancient megalithic stones of Callanish.
2pm: Take a picnic on the glorious, wide, golden sandy beach at Scarista in the south of Harris.
5pm: Visit the spooky and abandoned military radar base at Aird Uig to the north-west, fenced off and left to a bemused population of sheep.
7pm: Return to Broad Bay House for a glass of whiskey and hearty supper of freshly-shot game.

Must try/do: The heavy breakfasts traditional to the Highlands are intended as fuel for a solid day's crofting. Although you won't be working the land, you'll still find a fantastic full Scottish fry-up — complete with Stornoway black pudding, produced to the same recipe since 1947 — and creamy porridge with a shot of whisky on top, on the menu at every B&B. Delicious.


Getting around
ScotRail serves many mainland Highland towns, but for more remote places you'll have to drive. While distances aren't great, roads follow the outlines of the lochs, ruling out direct routes. Many roads are slow, unsurfaced and single-tracked. Skye is connected by bridge; other islands are accessed solely by Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and occasional short-hop flights, which can be disrupted by bad weather.

When to go
Rain should be anticipated even in summer, while blizzards can cut off villages in winter. Spring or very late summer is ideal, when the annoying biting midge-population is at its lowest.

Places mentioned
The Albannach Baddidarroch, Lochinver, Sutherland. From £285 for dinner and overnight stay for two. T: 01571 844407.
Broad Bay House Back, Stornoway, Western Isles.From £175 for a B&B double room. T: 01851 820990.
Inverlochy Castle Torlundy-Fort William. From £300 for a B&B double room. T: 0139 702177.
Meall Mo Chridhe, Camusterrach. From £35 B&B per person. T: 01520 744 432.
The Three Chimneys and The House Over-by Colbost, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye. From £405 for dinner and overnight stay for two. T: 01470 511258.
Violets, 40 Point Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. T: 01851 702 264

How to do it
A DIY trip via train, car and ferry. Train from Glasgow to Mallaig (£14.20); ferry from Skye to Harris (£34.90) and Lewis to the mainland (£55.20). Local car hire from £112.

A night in Applecross, a night on Skye and a night on Lewis and a drive to Lochinver.

More info

Scottish Highlands & Islands Handbook by Colin Hutchison & Alan Murphy. (Footprint) RRP £14.99.

Published in Mar/Apr © National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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