The sign read “This road rises to a height of 2053 feet with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. Not advised for learner drivers.” Well, since a few days prior I had never driven on the left side of the road and the route to Applecross seemed like a good way to test how quick of a learner I am.
I began my ascent slowly, silently praying I would not meet another car on the one way road, with the cliff a few dusty inches from my tires. The thrill of being in the Highlands and the surrounding views kept my adrenaline pumping so that I did not notice my white knuckles gripping the steering wheel.
I could see fragments of the snaked road ahead of me, carved into the mountain and twisting upon itself. Every quarter mile the view became that much more dramatic. Mossy green hills grew into interwoven mountain ranges. Eventually on my climb up Bealach Na Ba, I met a little white car coming from the opposite direction. Luckily, or perhaps well timed, I was nearing a ‘passing area’ so I pulled off to the side to let them go. With a quick wave of the hand, a gesture so widely used throughout the Highlands, both parties carried on their way.
Jeremy Loops was singing a tune through the car speakers as I reached the peak. I parked the car and ran over, audibly hooting with delight and breathing in the view as if inhaling it would allow Bealach Na Ba to become part of my body. This was the most epic way to start my solo trip in the Highlands. Eleven miles of a one way, spiraling road with blind summits and surprising dips carried me from sea level, arching up to an alarming peak, and back down to a quiet bay with a welcoming inn. After a quick espresso amid some bikers, I turned on my little beast of a Ford Focus to make the same winding route for the return. The road to Applecross is a ribbon in the sky, just as elusive and magical with its ever-changing views and strange serenity.
Exactly one week prior, the Ryan Air flight bumpily met the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport and the kind Dutch lady seated next to me, who admitted to her fear of flying, released one deep sigh of relief. Two weeks in Scotland had commenced.
Clare and I had a few days left before she had to return to Ireland early for work. Teachers, overworked and underpaid, spend summers dancing between the ecstatic feeling of time off and the convincing fear of vacation clashing with their bank account. After a few days in Edinburgh we would make our way up the coast to Aberdeen for the Highland games and there we would part ways.
Edinburgh is a city layered upon itself, oozing with a quirky vibe. Scottish and English traditions compose the landscape and attractions. A young man in a kilt playing the bagpipes will stand next to an English built castle. Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, haunted underground past, and secret alleyways.
Knowing I would return later the following week, Clare and I skipped all the main attractions and moseyed around the labyrinth city. We caught a comedy night at a local dive and some late night music at a quiet pub. During the day we took the Dungeon tour where I was repeatedly startled and thoroughly entertained, not only by the incredible show put on, but also by the 21 year old boy who was petrified in every room.
The time had come to pick up our rental car and I was nervous with anticipation. With Clare’s impending departure I had to be the driver and tackle the wrong side of the road. As I handed over my credit card, my gut churned at the thought of the total cost. However, freedom in the Highlands certainly trumps a predetermined tour. I told myself, as I always do when justifying a travel purchase, money comes and goes. I will not recall the cash spent a year from now, but the memory will last forever.
Exiting the city center was an adventure in itself, mainly consisting of Clare holding her breath. Nevertheless, we kicked off our road trip by heading toward Scotland’s true capital, Stirling. We parked at Stirling Castle and quickly decided that the 16.50 pound entrance fee didn’t quite justify a break into the backpacking budget. Thus we took to the grounds, casually wandering around the fortress until a peculiar monument in the adjacent cemetery caught our eyes. Amidst gravestones from the 1800s, a massive stone pyramid was erected along the far wall. Built by William Drummond as a dedication to the martyrs for religious and civil liberties, it remains an interesting Christian sentiment in the graveyard. The cemetery’s exit led us into the heart of Old Town Stirling, which is simply a few meandering stone roads whittled into the hillside. The architecture, constructed at a time when structures were made to last, is well in tact with hidden messages and treasure built into them. The following morning I finished my run atop a hill where the beheading stone presides, only to find the additional company of half a dozen rabbits enjoying their breakfast. Looking out over the town in a clearing of rabbits and total silence was an oddly comforting moment, adding a little magic to Stirling.
Just a few miles west of Stirling stands a castle that is most likely easily recognized by any avid filmgoer. Castle Doune, built in the 13th century, has seen a lifetime of wars and film crews. The Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed here in the 70’s as part of the film’s hilarious parody of King Arthur. More recently Outlander and Game of Thrones have set up filming as the castle’s size and condition is quite valuable. With a free audio tour, and an additional one put on by the local school children in period costume, we discovered the charm and purpose of every part of Doune.
Leaving Stirling County and headed towards Aberdeen, we took the coastal route which not only meant seaside villages but also countless roundabouts. At one of those tricky circles in Arbroath we saw a sign for cliffs and had to take a detour. Along the far side of the harbor leads a path to Seaton Cliffs. Inlets, blowholes, hidden beaches, and rock arches make up these impressive red sandstone cliffs. Walking through wildflowers we found a few narrow paths that led us down to the sea level to explore the cliffs even further. Tiny colorful pebbles embedded in the sand stone added a sense of décor to the area. Decades of sea erosion lay in front of us with seagulls calling out overhead to the fisherman collecting their catch out in the sea.
After Seaton Cliffs we decided to stop in Stonehaven, knowing simply that it was a small town with a castle and nothing more. We parked across the street from Carron’s fish and chip shop that had a line snaking out the door and is evidently home to the deep fried Mars Bar. We waited in line for our dinner, skipping the famed dessert, and enjoyed the lightest and freshest fish and chips by the ocean. Afterwards, we left the rascal seagulls that were waiting for our meals to find accommodation. Walking in to our first hotel we caught eyes with a woman who looked like she might be in charge. There was no room in the hotel but her daughter rents out an apartment down the road. Within ten minutes we found a place to lay our heads for a price cheaper than a hostel and discovered that an international Beer Fest was in town. Within a few connected marquee white tents, 150 international craft beers formed a square in the center. Live music bellowed in the north of the tent and traditional Scottish cuisine was being cooked outdoors. It was eclectic and a wonderful surprise discovery. While tasting a double IPA from Scotland, a native and an Irishman came over to chat, sharing travel tips and providing Clare with Irish banter. During our conversation the local Scot put the bird in my ear to drive through Applecross Peninsula as it will be the ride of my life. He painted an impressive picture and set the bar quite high but easily added another destination on my Highlands road trip.
The morning came, and with it mist and clouds. Dunnotar Castle of Stonehaven sits upon a narrow cliff facing the North Sea. A true Scottish castle, the medieval fortress boasts a dramatic presence with its steep drop offs and scenic surroundings. As Clare and I were taking in the view from the cliff-side, a Belgian man grabbed my attention to ask a strange favor. He had a fear of heights and kindly inquired if he could hold my hand to walk over towards the edge. Living his life in a flat country, he had never seen a cliff before so his fear of heights was quite understandable. With many thanks he was off to the second day of the Beer Fest, and Clare and I were off to Aberdeen.
I am an avid fan of the Outlander book series as well as the Starz show; therefore stone circles in the Scottish Highlands were a big perk to taking a holiday in the country. Through some quick research I found that there are many stone circles in Aberdeenshire. With some American charm and a touch of curiosity, I convinced Clare for us to go find one. Knowing that one was hidden within Glassel Wood, we pulled over and wandered into the forest. Patches of bog lay below fallen tree and branches. Walking along resting tree limbs and protruding rocks we made our way deeper. A large fawn scrambled past us as we apparently disturbed her grazing. My heart was buzzing with excitement in the midst of this quiet wood. With no path or ground for our feet to actually touch, it was more of an obstacle course. Just as I was about to consider looking for another one, Clare shrieked and waved her hansd in discovery – she had found it! Hidden behind a growth of yellow flowered, scraggy bushes stood 5 granite stones in an oval setting. Of course I touched them all because, well you never know, and embraced the magical charm of these ancient structures.
The Granite City did not end up luring us into its center. Clare and I relaxed in our accommodation outside of town waiting to head to the Highland Games. Located in Hazlehead Park, the Scottish circus had come to town. Immediately upon entry we were presented with husky young men in kilts throwing wooden logs across the field. Girls were dancing the Highland Fling behind them and an ongoing competition of Pipe Bands was taking place on the far side of the field. Surrounding the games arena, dozens of stalls selling haggis and sweets sat in a row. The scattered downpours were not ideal and sent many to the beer tent, which is where we met New Zealand and South African expats that were living in the area. They shared their coveted table and their company as we waited out the rain. When the rain cleared we went off to explore tents of Scottish traditions and watch men turn horizontally in the tug of war. As this entertaining day came to its close, it also marked the end of my travels with Clare but the beginning of my Highland road trip. Thankful to have a travel buddy as easy going as she, we said goodbye at Aberdeen Airport before I headed off to conquer Applecross.