Seeking Solitude in the Scottish Highlands
Coming up with travel ideas in the post-Corona age of social distancing can be challenging. Sightseeing in Paris? Scratch that off the list. Staying six feet apart in Times Square? Good luck! But there is one place especially well-suited to social distancing, a trip which could be a balm for our souls that yearn to get out of the house and reconnect with nature. My most memorable trip pre-apocalypse, was one I realize now, is impeccably well-suited for anyone eager to hit the road but dodge the crowds.
Before Covid entered our lexicon, my husband and I flew to Edinburgh, then rented a car to drive the North Coast 500, the scenic five-hundred-mile long coastal route beginning in Inverness, winding sinuously up the rugged west coast of Scotland, then looping around the northernmost point back towards the capital of the Highlands.
When you tire of being housebound, but still seek the safety of solitary places, nothing compares to the remote windswept beauty of the Northwestern Highlands. The air is full of the music of bleating sheep, and in the spring, soft white lambs frolic after their mothers, continually spilling over the sides of the roads like water from an overfull pitcher. The abundance of sheep only heightens the solitary mood by emphasizing the lack of people and forces you to slow down to take in the stunning views of mist-enshrouded lochs, deserted beaches, and heather-covered mountains strewn with shaggy highland cows.
The most surprising, stunning, and colorful stretch of the NC 500 turned out to be the 67-mile road from Ullapool to Durness. Anticipating a picnic lunch by the sea, my husband and I stopped at Lochinver Larder, a bistro situated on the estuary of the river Inver, that seemed to sell every kind of pie imaginable–from savory to sweet. I ordered a chestnut, mushroom, and red-wine pie to go, along with a chocolate, pear, and almond pie for dessert. As we resumed our journey, careful to avoid the sheep and lambs continually wandering into the middle of the road, the predictably pastoral scene suddenly morphed into a tableau more suited to a Caribbean vacation. We stopped the car to make sure this wasn’t a mirage and then headed down to beautiful Clachtoll Beach, with its shockingly white sand and turquoise-hued water. When I dipped my toe in, I decided I would wait until Harris Tweed came out with a swimwear-line before taking the plunge into such frigid waters. Between the turquoise water, sheer sea cliffs, and deserted white sand beach, the scenery was perfect for a midday picnic, and we feasted on our delicious warm pies to fortify us for a long afternoon of driving.
We weren’t in the car long before my heart leapt at the sight of Highland Cows, or Heilan Coo’s serenely grazing on grass before the surreal backdrop of turquoise waters. I insisted my husband stop the car so I could take pictures of my first sighting of Scotland’s famous shaggy cow. The beautiful scenery stretched on towards Durness, and as we drove, the solitude was palpable. There were almost no other cars on the road, and we were essentially alone with the sheep, the still lochs, highland cows, and beautiful heather-covered hills.
Eventually, along the NC 500, one reaches John O’Groats, in the far north of Scotland, on Britain’s northeastern tip, where you could stay in your car and snap a picture of the famous sign meant to welcome hikers who’ve just completed the 800-mile trek from Land’s End in Cornwall. It may be a while before any of us have the nerve to venture out to the grocery store, let alone go on an overseas trip, but when that urge returns, a trip around the NC 500 through the Scottish Highlands might be just what the doctor ordered.