North-west Scotland, May 2015:
I’d always planned to go back to north–west Scotland but, somehow, 32 years slipped by. Children were born and grew up. Jobs and houses came and went. I saw some of the world along the way but even the most exotic scenery never quite matched the impact of a slow drive south from the very top of Britain back in 1982.
Deliberately choosing the smallest and steepest routes along the coast, we were rewarded with views of astonishing beauty. All under perfect blue skies too. That kind of luck might not be allowed twice in one lifetime.
But I wanted to show that landscape to my girlfriend Flo on her first trip north of the border. So we flew to Inverness, picked up a hire car and made our first stop at the lochside village of Plockton, which has palm trees, a picturesque island and the kind of clear light that artists love. That whimsical 90s TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed here too. From a waterfront beer garden at the Plockton Hotel you can sit under a palm tree and drink in the view. plockton.com
A short diversion took us to the restored 13th Century tower of Eilean Donan castle, recognisable from a million tins of shortbread, a thousand paintings and, improbably, as the Scottish base for MI6 in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.
By now sheets of rain were blasting across Loch Duich. It looked like my three decades of pessimism about the Highland weather might indeed be justified. I could imagine drying out in front of a crackling log fire inside the castle’s baronial hall. But time was pressing so we didn’t saved the £6.50pp entry fee and kept going to the Isle of Skye. eileandonancastle.com
Back in 1982 you took a ferry across the Kyle of Lochalsh to reach Skye. Nowadays you can drive straight across a gracefully curving road bridge and in no time at all we were on the winding single-track road towards the little port of Elgol.
At Coruisk House on the edge of the village our hostess Clare greeted us with good news about the weather forecast. But we soon forgot the rain as we settled in. This restaurant with rooms is the most stylish, comfortable and welcoming place you can imagine.
Clare and partner Ian were both London lawyers who fell in love with the area and came back to make a new life, carefully crafting a little piece of paradise for guests and diners. Ian retrained as a chef in his spare time and his meals are beyond superb. For an out-of-the-way location on a far-flung island it’s remarkable how far in advance their tables are booked up.
The next morning dawned bright but grey, and from Elgol’s harbour we gazed across Loch Scavaig to the towering Cuillen mountains. Two rival boat firms will take you fishing, whale and dolphin spotting or small-island-hopping from this magnificent spot.
Following directions from Clare we drove a short way north then walked down to Loch Slapin via a lush green valley with a rushing steam. At the bluebell-filled Old Kilmarie graveyard nearly every headstone bears the local name Mackinnon in a clear example of the clan heritage that lingers in the Highlands and Islands.
We learned more about this an hour or so later at Dunvegan Castle, home of the Chiefs of the Clan MacLeod for 800 years. This grand old house on the west coast overlooks a patchwork of tiny islands teeming with sea life
The most bizarre displays inside is a set of underwear (“stays”) once owned by the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape “over the sea to Skye” in 1746. After a glimpse of the legendary lingerie we took a boat trip with a guide (£6pp for 25mins) and got right up close to scores of curious but untroubled seals as they basked on their rocks in the bay. dunvegancastle.com
Next day we had lunch in the island capital of Portree, which hides its pretty little harbour out of sight down a ramp. At the top is the Cafe Arriba, with views of the bay and a quirky menu. cafearriba.co.uk
Our route from Portree took us past a rock formation called The Storr, whose three spectacular pinnacles are Skye’s most famous view. Then we spent four days exploring the Outer Hebrides (reported in Holidays and Getaways last June, online at tinyurl.com/mirheb) before landing back on the mainland for two nights at Durness in the far north.
We stayed at The Rooms, an elegant small hotel owned and run with warmth and efficiency by Fiona and Robbie Mackay, an enterprising young couple who also have self-catering properties nearby. visitdurnesss.com
The main attraction in Durness is the beach, which has smooth golden sand, wild jagged rocks, surfer-friendly waves and a stream which tumbles down a rocky waterfall, under a cute stone bridge then disappears into shallow ripples across the sand. It’s a natural adventure playground and I felt a pang of regret that I never came back here while my children were young.
Next came an expedition to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. You cross the wide Kyle of Durness on an eight-seater motor-boat and take a bumpy minibus ride across a military firing range to arrive at the very north–west tip of Britain – a far more impressive and atmospheric place than touristy John O’Groats to the east.
The lighthouse was built in 1828 by the grandfather of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson and it has a huge red foghorn perched above 900ft cliffs. This failed to blast, despite a cold damp fog which entirely concealed what should have been a vast panorama.
There was just enough visibility to stand at the cliff-edge and watch sea birds circling far below us. Then we retreated to an outbuilding for tea and cakes at The Ozone, the most remote cafe in the British isles. The lighthouse itself has been fully automated since 1998 so cafe boss John Ure is Cape Wrath’s only resident. visitcapewrath.com
Finally, it was time to recreate that memorable drive from 1982 and we set off south in the early afternoon hoping the weather would improve. The fog was left behind at Cape Wrath – so far so good – and as we turned west off the main road at Kylescu the sky was bright, if still grey.
The route around this coast demands fierce concentration and a driver who loves a challenge. It’s entirely single-track, with scary blind bends, even scarier blind summits and giddying drops. You have to keep stopping to let sheep amble out of your way and to appreciate the views.
At the village of Drumbeg a fairytale vista of tiny lochs and green velvet hills opens up before you at the crest of a hill. But just as we got there the weather turned dark and overcast. Oh no.
But then, a few miles on from the hamlet of Clashnessie, a miracle happened. A whole sky full of grey clouds seemed to vanish in an instant and as we reached the Point of Stoer lighthouse there was nothing above us but the deep blue heavens and bright sunshine.
All around us was the very panorama we’d missed at Cape Wrath – an endless Atlantic horizon with no land between us and North America.
After a hour’s exploration on foot we drove off again with our new friend the sun still shining happily above.
We made a quick pit-stop in Lochinver to sample world-renowned pies at the Lochinver Larder then headed back east along the A837. It was the end of our eight-day Scottish adventure and as we drove into the dusk wisps of white cloud were spilling over the peaks of the Assynt mountains right in front of us. It looked for all the world like a view of the Himalayas, or a scene from Lord of the Rings, or a Seventies album cover by Roger Dean brought to life.
After 32 years this magnificent landscape had given me goose-bumps all over again.
When to go: May or September give you a good chance of dry weather while avoiding the menace of Scottish midges.
Getting there: EasyJet fly to Inverness from Bristol, Luton and Gatwick from £28 one-way. easyjet.com
Getting around: Car hire at Inverness Airport from £100 a week. holidayautos.co.uk
Top tip: Keep your fuel tank topped up. Filling stations are almost extinct away from towns.
What to buy: Premium malt whisky from the Isle Of Skye Emporium & Whisky Shop in Portree. You can browse the shelves in advance on Google Street View. Or send pies in the post from Lochinver Larder. piesbypost.co.uk
Find out more: Tourist info and more accommodation options. visitscotland.com
An edited version of this article was first published in the Sunday Mirror’s Holiday’s and Getaways section on May 3, 2015.