Adventure on Our Doorstep: Autumn in the Scottish Highlands
29 November, 2019
Swathed in all the majesty of autumn, the Scottish Highlands set the scene for an otherworldly adventure right on our doorstep.
As a Londoner I am often inclined to look to the continent and beyond for a fix of escapism. The quest for the exotic often distracts from the travel treasures the UK has to offer. Yet when it comes to sensational landscapes, there aren't many countries richer than that of our neighbour: Scotland.
Cloud-topped mountains run seamlessly into ancient lochs, deer roam wild across the glens and stone-walled castles nod proudly to the country's rich heritage.
With each change in season comes an opportunity to experience this extraordinary part of the UK afresh - and autumn is arguably the most dramatic of times. As the Highlands turn from a patchwork of greens through to golden browns, it beckons those keen to explore - whether by foot or car.
My adventure starts in London - Euston to be precise - where I board the Caledonian Sleeper. This is more than just a means of transport; it's an experience. Settling into the Club Carriage for a Scottish feast, I'm presented with a menu of Great Glen venison, steamed sea trout and braised lamb shank, which I wash down with a glass of Scotland's finest Auchentoshan whisky. When I can eat no more, I retire to my private cabin and drift to sleep as the train chugs north towards the border.
Fuelled by a hearty Highland breakfast, I arrive in Glasgow and rent a car for the drive north, winding past Loch Lomond, through the vast lowlands before entering the Highlands. This has to be one of the most picturesque drives in the UK.
I wind through the Glencoe and Glen Etive, in which misty mountains are punctuated by a river - a single-track road runs parallel, making my journey all the more dramatic. Those willing to persevere along this track will reach the view made famous by James Bond and Q in the film Skyfall.
By late afternoon I arrive at 57 Nord. Hidden in the hills surrounding Loch Duich, this Scandi-meets-Scotland cabin is a boutique hideaway like no other, with an open fire, beautifully designed interior and large glass windows framing the nearby Eilean Donan Castle.
I spend the evening unwinding by the fire with the hotel's care package of red wine and Scottish smoked salmon, taking in views of the loch and castle swathed in autumnal majesty.
After a breakfast of fresh eggs, locally produced bread and coffee, it's time to hit the road and head towards the Isle of Skye. In the north of the island, after a 45-minute walk, I reach The Old Man of Storr, an immense pinnacle of rock that was left behind after an ancient landslide. Ample snacks and a thermos of tea are a must on this expedition.
I drive across Skye to the tiny fishing village of Elgol at the end of the Strathaird peninsula. It marks the start of several coastal walks as well being the launching point for ferries to Loch Coruisk, a loch made famous by many a Scottish poet. After years of being battered by the sea and Scottish winds, the rocks here have been carved like sculptures. For those brave enough, a cold but magical sunset swim here is a must.
I start the day with a cinematic drive along the Ratagan Pass, making eighteen miles of twists and turns climbing up through the thick forest. At its highest point the road turns sharply on itself revealing views of the Five Sisters of Kintail. The bend forces me to slow down, and I stop to admire Scotland at its best.
Continuing along the single track, I descend into the village of Glenelg. In the bay here, overlooking The Sound of Sleat, is the cosy Glenelg Inn, a traditional Highland pub and the perfect place for a hearty lunch of Stornoway black pudding fritters and local langoustine before the walk ahead.
Peeling myself away from the comfort of the inn, I make the short drive along the coast before parking up for the walk to the Sandaig islands. After an hour wandering downhill, I catch an uninterrupted view of a long, deserted stone beach. Moving towards it, I navigate a small rope bridge over a stream (not the easiest; it consists of only two ropes) and wade through the bracken.
With isolated white-sand beaches and turquoise water, the Sandaig islands wouldn't look out of place in the Caribbean. Easily accessible at low tide and a short, shoeless wade at high tide, the islands are home to several beaches, wild flowers and views back over the mainland. If you're lucky enough to catch them on a warm day, the calm waters are perfect for a swim.
Satisfied by my beach fix, I make my way to the other side of Glenelg to board MV Glenachulish, the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world. This tiny car ferry is operated by local volunteers who bought it in 2017, when the previous owner retired. There is something special about this short but spectacular crossing to Skye.
Back on the mainland, I visit the famous Plockton Inn for a well-earned dinner. Stunning seaside views are complemented by an impressive menu - I try the hand-dived king scallops and a Plockton ale (or two).
Another early rise and I'm on the road again, driving a section of the famous North Coast 500, a 518-mile drive around Scotland's north coast. The morning leg takes me up the dramatic Applecross Pass, a steep, winding single-track road popular with hardened cyclists and motorbikers. The views back over the pass below are sensational.
Arriving at the coastal village of Applecross, I'm devour a Highland breakfast at the pretty Walled Garden. This potting-shed café and restaurant is about more than food, however; it's a gathering place for like-minded adventure seekers. I meet a brilliantly bizarre array of characters from around the world who have made the pilgrimage in order to complete the 500, the result of which is a real sense of excitement and community.
Having digested with a stroll around the gardens, I hit the road towards Shieldaig. Hugging Scotland's wild coast, every bend seems to offer a new surprise. I drive slowly, taking in my surroundings while encountering many Highland cattle taking up position in the middle of the road, completely unconcerned by my desire to pass.
I lunch in the coastal village of Shieldaig, gawping at white-washed cottages, before heading back to Loch Duich in time to buy fresh seafood for dinner. (You can also continue along the N500 from Shieldaig.) I meet Duncan at the local fisherman's shop a five-minute walk from 57 Nord. His sells me the most delicious fresh crayfish I've ever tried, while regaling me with stories of life in the Highlands. I take my dinner back to the cabin and cook up a feast as the sunsets on the loch.
I pick up fresh bread and coffee from the award-winning Manuela's Wee Bakery, a brilliantly bizarre breakfast spot owned by a German couple. The bakery looks like something out of a fairytale, with small Bavaria-style huts overlooking the loch. I stock up on a delicious selection of baked treats for the drive home.
On the drive back to Glasgow, I take time to stop along the way and take in the last of the fresh Scottish air and views before returning to the real world.
Things you should know
It's no secret that Scotland's weather can be temperamental so be prepared. Pack layers, waterproofs and decent footwear. The reality is that the Scottish weather gods will most likely deliver a mixed bag but that's all part of the fun, plus if you're looking for guaranteed sunshine then this is probably not the trip for you.
A combination of very limited public transport and spectacular roads means that driving is most certainly advised once you arrive in Scotland. The roads are well kept and there is a wide choice of car-hire options in Glasgow - pre-booking is advised.
57 Nord can be booked through CoolStays.