Every mile we drive in Scotland cements its position on my list of Most Beautiful Places. For the better part of ten years we’ve enjoyed picture-postcard tropical views of turquoise waters, brilliant exotic flowers, and the unbroken horizon where the heavens meet the sea.
Now we are far from the equator in a place that rations the sunshine, compresses and mutes the color palette, and teases the horizon behind rolling carpets of heather and gorse. We’ve been lucky enough with the weather to photograph sweeping views under sunshine and blue skies, but even the gloomy days are beautiful, stark and moody. The contrast so well describes Scotland and its people, witty and brilliant but with the dark undercurrent of a violent history.
Still with no plan, and eschewing the tourist stops suggested in the guides to the North Coast 500, we spend our days tooling south more or less toward the Hebrides. I also keep my eye on the weather and my apps hoping for another shot at seeing the northern lights before we get out of range. The weather is the biggest barrier. Even on days when the sky is clear at four o’clock by dark the horizon is obscured by thick clouds.
There’s no shortage of free parkups in Scotland and we’re aware of how special this is. We’ve been warned that England is not so friendly to free camping and that will affect our route and budget when we get there.
We’ve seen a lot of unusual warning signs through the years but this migratory toad crossing is a first for us. I admit I didn’t know they migrate.
On the road one day I spied a castle ruin off in the distance. Had I been following a map or guide I’d have known it was there but it was a complete surprise to us.
We were well past it before we decided it was worth a stop, and by the time we got turned around, found a safe place to park, then took a wrong path and had to wade across a stream to get to it, we were both a little cranky. But it was a castle, Jack’s favorite thing to explore, and he took off, examining and photographing every detail.
This is Ardvreck Castle, built in the 15th century by the MacLeod clan, then captured by Clan Mackenzie in the 17th century along with the surrounding lands.
The MacKenzies built a more modern manor house across the loch in 1726 but ten years later it was destroyed by fire. You can see the ruin from the castle.
While Jack explored I was distracted by the approaching roar of a half dozen serious touring motorcycles. As the helmets came off I could see these were not young pups, but balding, slightly paunchy, leather-clad old road warriors out for some senior fun.
I asked if they were a club but no, just old friends on a weeklong trip from Ireland. The way they teased and cajoled each other made me smile and they obliged a request for a photo. How lucky they are to have long-time mates to share adventures with.
We continued south through more gorgeous scenery, stopping again to hike up to a waterfall. The waterfall was disappointing but the walk through the forest and the view were worth it.
It’s been a while since we’ve been stopped by large animals on the road. The last time it was elephants in Tanzania.
After a bit of flotzing and faffing we finally decided to forego the challenging mountain pass at Applecross and begin our Hebrides journey. Another couple of sunset parkups brought us to within sight of the bridge to Skye. That’ll be tomorrow.