Exploring Scotland’s Highlands and islands

Scotland may not be the best place to work on your tan, but it does have ancient castles; stone-capped mountains; blankets of hardy heather; photogenic highland cows, and wild, cliff-lined beaches waiting to be explored.

At the car rental office in Glasgow, a middle-aged lady is brandishing a clipboard and quizzing us on our travel plans. “Ye’ll be visiting the islands then? Whit aboot the North? Dinnae forget to drive on the left noo!”

She moves on to the weather – it’s cold and raining outside, despite it being mid-June, and technically summer. “It’s nae great this week,” she concedes, “but ye don’t come to Scotland fae the weather do ye?”

The intermittent rain isn’t putting us off – as they say around here, “if you don’t like the weather, wait half an hour”.

Scotland may not be the best place to work on your tan, but it does have ancient castles; stone-capped mountains; blankets of hardy heather; photogenic highland cows, and wild, cliff-lined beaches waiting to be explored.

The famous highland coo

Our plan for the next two weeks is a road trip exploring the Scottish Highlands and islands, recently rated by Lonely Planet as one of the best regions in the world to visit this year.

On the way we’ll cover most of the North Coast 500 route, promoted as Scotland’s version of America’s Route 66. We aim to hike mountains, wander through rural villages and sample the local uisce beatha or ‘water of life’ – there are 47 whisky distilleries in this region alone.

The road from Glasgow leads quickly out of the city and plunges into the spectacular greenery of the Trossachs National Park. The sun is back out and we are skirting past beautiful Loch Lomond and its picture-perfect villages.

Isle of Mull

The first stop on our trip is the Isle of Mull, which is reached via a short ferry ride from the town of Oban. Mull is touted as the ‘Highlands in miniature’, with craggy coastlines, deep sea lochs, the Tobermory whisky distillery, and a single mountain peak over 3,000 feet (known here as a Munro). Scotland has a total of 227 Munros and collecting ascents or ‘Munro bagging’, is a national pastime.

All of our accommodation was booked via AirBnB, three months in advance to avoid the summer rush. On Mull, we have a room in an old stone farmhouse, with a shared bathroom down a passage. Going through the usual meet and greet with our host, Ian, I ask him about keys, but he looks confused: ‘the front door we just leave open’ he says, laughing.

The following morning, we catch a ride on a wooden boat and spend a magical hour surrounded by puffins on basalt-columned Staffa island – off Mull’s East coast. With their penguin-like black and white plumage, oversized orange beaks, and clumsy waddle, they duck in and out of their cliff edge burrows just meters from our camera lenses.

Staffa Island puffin

The boat back to Mull goes via tiny Iona island, famous for its ancient abbey, which we skip in favour of a walk to the islands deserted white-sand beaches.

White sand beaches on Iona Island

On Mull, as on most of the Highlands and Islands, the roads are single tracks, wide enough for only a single vehicle. Traffic flows in both directions, with small passing places provided every couple of hundred meters – when two cars approach each other, one has to pull into a passing space to let the other by. On several occasions we are surprised by oncoming vehicles on winding roads and have to slam on brakes before reversing to the last passing space.

Glencoe

Glen Coe

Next, we head to Glen Coe’s towering mountains and scraped-out valleys via Oban, where we stop this time to visit the eponymous distillery – one of Scotland’s smallest. We taste their whisky straight from the barrel.

Unfiltered and undiluted, the amber liquid is the direct result of ten years’ contact with American ex-Bourbon barrels and at almost 60% ABV, it has a powerful expression of smoke, honey, heather and sea air.

In Glen Coe we bag our first Munro – summiting Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, at 1,345 m. There is still snow on the peak, and the temperature on top is well below zero, but the sun is shining and it’s a glorious day out. We fuel our climb with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes (a local biscuit-and-marshmallow treat, covered in chocolate) washed down with Iron Bru, Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ which we’ve adopted as our primary non-alcoholic refreshment. The whole hike takes us about eight hours, on well-made paths and zigzagging scrambles up slippery shale.

Glenfinnan

An hour’s drive from Glen Coe, we arrive at Glenfinnan where we join what seem like several hundred Harry Potter fans to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ (the Jacobite steam locomotive) huff its way across the 21 graceful spans of the Glenfinnan Viaduct right on time at precisely 10:45am.

The Harry Potter Train crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct

Skye

The next day we cross a bridge onto Skye and head directly to the whitewashed buildings of Talisker distillery to buy a precious bottle of their peppery 18 year old, once named the ‘best single malt whisky in the world’.

After a seafood shack lunch of lobster and chips (everything in Scotland comes ‘and chips’), a walk through sheep-studded farmland leads us to Talisker Bay – an astonishing sweep of black-and-white sand hemmed in by a waterfall-lined cliff on one side and a sea stack on the other.

We only have a single full day on Skye, so we try to cram two days’ worth of itinerary into it climbing to the Old Man of Storr, a 50m-tall rock pinnacle and exploring the Quiraing, a jumble of rock towers and grassy domes formed in ancient volcanic flows and subsequent slippages.

Neist Point

A slow drive over narrow roads leads us to Neist Point on the west coast, where sea birds cling to the dark rocks below the lighthouse and the outer Hebrides islands are visible low on the horizon. We were warned of crowds on Skye, but perhaps we are ahead of them, as we never see more than one or two tour buses at a time and often hike alone for hours.

After our time in Skye, we join the official North Coast 500 route at the tiny village of Applecross after climbing the infamous Bealach na Bà, a winding single-track road with hairpin bends and 20% gradients. The biggest challenge on this route is passing the numerous cyclists, who take up the whole road and aren’t partial to yielding to larger traffic!

Six days end up being barely enough time to see everything that the 800km of North Coast driving has to offer. Our average speed for the whole period is only 40km/h, and there are plenty of stops for photo opportunities. We spend nights in a series of small towns and villages: Letters on the shores of Loch Broom, Talmine where our accommodation is a converted byre (cow shed), and Thurso where we take a break from Scottish food and go out for Indian (anyone for salmon tikka masala)?

Views over Skye from the Old Man of Storr

Along the way there are crumbling castle ruins, glorious Caribbean-blue oceans and white sand beaches, waterfalls and sea caves. We bag a second Munro at Ben Hope, stop for the obligatory photo opportunity under the sticker-covered signpost at John ‘o Groats and visit Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK.

There have been so many surprises on this trip, the scale of the landscapes, the variety of the scenery, the deeply rural nature of the West Coast – but the most pleasant surprise has been the genuine friendliness of the Scottish people, who are warm, welcoming and happy to share with visitors their islands and mountains.

At a pub in Glasgow with a folk band playing in the corner and punters sipping pints hip to hip at low tables we get into a conversation with a young man who assure us as he’s leaving that we are welcome to visit him if we ever visit the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides (population 1,174) – “Just ask around for the French teacher,” he says. “Somebody will know me”.

Know Before You Go

How to get there

We flew from Durban to Heathrow and then Edinburgh with BA for R15,800 return pp. We spent three days in Edinburgh and then took a 45 minute train to Glasgow (R250pp) where we spent two nights before collecting our rental car and setting off on our road trip.

Make sure to leave at least three hours between connecting flights at Heathrow – we almost missed our flight when we started heading to the wrong terminal, that airport is big!

How to get around

Self-drive is definitely the way to go, public transport in the form of buses and trains are not a viable option in the North. We booked a small car because of the winding single track roads – we might easily have clipped a wing mirror on some roads if we were much wider!

Google Maps and Maps.me were great for getting around. We paid R8 600 for our car for 15 days with comprehensive insurance cover and unlimited mileage. 

Take note that the NC500 was created in 2014 to develop economic growth across the Scottish North Highlands, which are rural and sparsely populated. Many of the villages on the map turn out to be just a few houses clustered by the roadside, and the bigger towns may have only a single pub and a small grocery store with limited opening hours. Buy petrol when you can, and keep snacks with you at all times – there may be nowhere to stop for breakfast or lunch! Public toilets are few and far between but generally in good condition when you find them.

Costs (two people – excludes time in Edinburgh / Glasgow)

  • Flights: R31,600
  • Vehicle: R8,600
  • Fuel: R2,500
  • Ferry: R800
  • Accommodation: R25,000 for 15 nights (R1,700 per night)
  • Food, drinks and activities: R30,000
  • TOTAL: R98,500

Need to know

  • South Africans need a visa (costs about R1,300).
  • According to Billy Connolly, Scotland has two seasons, June and winter.
  • Currency is Pound Sterling.
  • Tap and go credit-card facilities are ubiquitous (great in pubs!), ATMs are quite common.
  • A pint of beer will set you back around £4-5, as will a dram of most single malt whiskies. a main course in a restaurant will cost £15-20.

Luke Solomon

Luke is a freelance digital content creator, adventure seeker and travel enthusiast driven by a love of discovery, street food and photography. Luke is passionate about his hometown Durban, and is always on the lookout for the next opportunity to travel and share his experiences. You can find his food and travel videos on his YouTube channel 'OwenSaysGo' and follow him on Instagram (@Owensaysgo).