Wester Ross and Northwest Highlands
Wester Ross and the northwest Highlands are one of Europe’s great wildernesses, an epic land of rugged mountains, silvery sea lochs and glens that are home to more red deer than people. This stunningly scenic corner of Britain is also one of the country’s best driving destinations with often-deserted roads.
Our starting point is Inverness, but as you leave the ‘capital of the Highlands’ behind and push west over the hills via Achnasheen to the other side of the country, you arrive at the Atlantic Ocean with a perfect photo opportunity at Dornie. This is home to Eilean Donan Castle which has starred in James Bond films and the Highlander movie. Break away now from the Skye Bridge traffic and instead cut north to postcard-perfect Plockton. One of Scotland’s most charming villages reclines in its own microclimate, its water-fronted main street lined with palm trees set against a backdrop of whitewashed houses.
It is also home to the Plockton Inn with its world-class seafood. Here ‘prawns’ are giant langoustines served cooked in garlic butter.
The next leg sees you skirt right around the fringes of Loch Carron. Shortly after Kishorn the daunting Bealach na Ba rears into view. It is a thrilling drive, up 626 metres/2,054ft from sea level deep into the mountains, where a viewpoint offers glimpses of Skye and even the Outer Hebrides. Then the single track curls down the mountainside to the ultra remote village of Applecross on the eponymous peninsula.
Applecross is little more than a pub with a few houses next to it. But what a pub it is. The Applecross Inn serves fresh local lobster to go with your pint and offers remarkable views across the Atlantic to the Cuillin mountain range on Skye. The drive afterwards, north across the Applecross Peninsula, doesn’t have the same ridiculously steep inclines as the Bealach Na Ba, but it is spectacular nonetheless, the single-track road surging around the indented coastline with the ocean slipping in and out of view.
Continuing north off the peninsula the Torridon Mountains are the next scenic highlight. Managed by the National Trust for Scotland, this wild, inhospitable range looks at its best during autumn and wintertime. As you drive between the peaks look out for red deer – Britain’s largest native mammal – especially in the last shadows of daylight when they come right down by the road. Loch Maree then accompanies the road on the push west that takes you into Gairloch, one of the biggest villages in the area with a sprinkling of beaches on its outskirts.
As you eke further and further north the coastal road curls around the sea lochs of Loch Ewe and Little Loch Broom, before coming dramatically to the latter’s big brother. Loch Broom is set in an awesome spot between mountain and ocean and runs with you as you head northwest into the bustling port of Ullapool. Here whitewashed houses, pretty pubs and a smattering of places to eat are on hand.
We cut west off the main road north just shortly after Gairloch to delve into the netherworld of Assynt and Coigach. Here you have to tackle single-track roads, but the extra effort is worth it. Tolkien-esque jagged mountains like Stac Pollaidh and Suliven rear up from nowhere while the ocean and its rocky cliffs and sandy beaches are never far away. The pick of the beaches is a wee gem at Achiltibuie, while offshore you can admire views of the Summer Isles.
Time now to break back east cutting right across the country to Dunrobin Castle, one of Scotland’s most famous castles and certainly one of its most eye-catching. We continue our push down the North Sea coastline with a last stop in Dornoch, the little hideaway where Madonna got married. Dornoch boasts a superb golf course, mile upon mile of dune-backed beach and plenty of refreshment options. From here it is an easy run back to Inverness. The Highland capital is by no means a big city, but after the wilderness you have just explored it could just be Manhattan.
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