In September 2015 I drove the North Coast 500, with day 1 being from Yorkshire to Callander. On day 2 I ventured across the Cairngorms to Inverness.
AFTER breakfast I packed my bag, checked out of the hotel and waved goodbye to the Gateway to the Highlands on what would be a trip, mostly, into the unknown; across the Cairngorms to Inverness.
Less than two miles up the A85 road is Kilmahog, once the home to Hamish, not a pig but one of the most famous Highland cows in Scotland, who sadly passed away in 2014 at the grand old age, for a cow at least, of 23. He lived in a field next to the Trossachs Woollen Mill and was something of a tourist attraction having arrived there when the BSE crisis struck in the 1990s.
Just beyond Kilmahog the trees begin to kiss the side of the road as it start to climb up the steep-sided Pass of Leny, where down below to the left are the Falls of Leny which is where the Garbh Uisge (Gaelic for Rough Water) crosses the Highland Boundary Fault. This force of nature traverses Scotland from Arran and Helensburgh on the west coast to Stonehaven in the east, creating distinctly different physiographic and geological terrains known as the Highlands and the Lowlands.
The Garbh Uisge eventually gives way to Loch Lubnaig and then the River Balvag just before Strathyre, while all the time on the opposite side of the valley is the old Callander and Oban Railway, which closed in 1965 under the Beeching Axe (as if you couldn’t guess) or at least the section between Dunblane and Crianlarich did.
Nowadays the majority of former line from Callander to Killin is part of Sustans’ National Route 7 (linking Sunderland, Glasgow and Inverness) as well as the Rob Roy Way (it’s what he would have wanted); while at Strathyre the annual Glen Ogle 33 ultra-marathon takes runners to Killin and back.
Glen Ogle itself begins at Lochearnhead and is the home to some giant fading graffiti on the side of the Glen Ogle Viaduct stating in no uncertain terms; “English go home”.
The valley stretches for seven miles to Lix Toll where the A85 veers to the left to Crianlarich via Glen Dochart, while to the right the A827 heads into Killin. This junction is known as The Lix and whenever I pass by it’s always exciting to see the bright yellow Land Rover parked outside which doesn’t have wheels with tyres but tracks giving an indication of the terrain it’s likely to encounter, especially in the winter time.
My route took me into Killin and I stopped for a coffee even though I’d only been on the road for about half an hour, but I wanted a walk around the spectacular Falls of Dochart where, in 1967, Ian Niven drove across the narrow multi-arched bridge at the top end of the falls when he appeared as James Bond in the spoof version of Casino Royale.
Even earlier than that, Robert Donat yomped across the nearby moors in Alfred Hitchcock’s version of the 39 Steps in search of a farmhouse called Alt-na-Shellach; which in reality is Lochay Power Station.
From Killin I headed along the narrow undulating road on the north-side of Loch Tay, with the Ben Lawers range looking down on it. At the end of Loch Tay is the beautiful village of Kenmore which was laid out by the 3rd Earl of Breadalbane in 1760.
After Kenmore I continued on to Aberfeldy and then Grandtully, where the landscape quickly turned from undulating to a wide floodplain speeding me to the A9 dual carriageway and then Pitlochry where I’d planned to take the A924 around Glen Brerechan to Kirkmichael and then across to Glen Shee. This was so that I could head across the centre of the Cairngorms to Nairn and then Inverness, but the road from Kinnaird was blocked because of roadworks, which meant I had to take a long diversion.
I turned the car around and pulled into a lay-by to look at the map and was quickly joined by a Range Rover which had come from the direction where I’d been heading. The driver stopped and the couple inside told me the best route would be on the back roads to Dunkeld where I could then get to Blairgowrie and the A93 north.
We chatted for as few minutes under the mid-morning sun about my road trip before bidding goodbye.
My revised route was a slow drive on narrow, undulating roads and with each twist and turn there was even more stunning scenery to take in. It still looked like generic Britain (if there is such as thing); lots of drystone walled fields, freshly cut grass, oak and sycamore trees, and cows and sheep but after Blairgowrie it yet again suddenly changed, and it now felt like my road trip was really beginning because as up until that point I’d been on reasonably familiar territory.
Blairgowrie is actually Blairgowrie and Rattray, with the two towns being separated by the River Ericht, which eventually flows into the River Tay via the River Isla.
Rattray gave its name to a ball game (or maybe it was the other way around), which was last played in the 1600 or 1700s. Not much is known about it other than it was probably played with teams of six players each representing a village or parish. The Rattray silver ball, which was the trophy retained by the winners, is still in existence in Perth Museum.
The area is known for the growing of soft fruit such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, aronia and gooseberries and the evidence can be seen all around in the form of white polytunnels.
Not far over the bridge across the Ericht, the road splits and the left fork becomes Balmoral Road, even though the Queen’s Scottish residence is still 40 miles away. From there it was a mix of open moorland and tree-lined country lanes, twisting and turning for mile after mile and then suddenly at the Spittal of Glenshee the scenery changed to a wide valley with munros on both sides; The Cairnwell and Carn a’Gheoidh to the left and Creag Leacach and Glas Maol to the right.
The road steadily climbed up the Cairnwell Pass, the highest public road in the UK, before reaching its peak at Glenshee Ski Centre, which was out of season and looked very eerie, although it’s the largest ski centre in Scotland.
The next few miles to Braemar were magnificent; long straight swooping sections of mostly empty roads with plenty of smooth mountains all around. Braemar has the distinction of being the third coldest low lying place in the UK after Dalwhinnie, at the opposite side of the Cairngorms, and Leadhills, in South Lanarkshire, with an annual average temperature of 6.8°C.
It’s also home to the Highland Games Gathering, which take place on the first Saturday in September and are traditionally attended by the Royal Family, whose summer retreat of Balmoral Castle is a mere nine miles away.
The Balmoral Estate was bought by Prince Albert in 1848 and he and Queen Victoria first attended the games later that year. Victoria is said to have taken a close interest in both the Highland Games Society, which organises the annual event, and the games themselves and in 1866 she ordered that the title “Royal” be added to the name of the Society.
Just before Ballater I took a left turn at Bridge of Gairn where both the road and the valley narrowed; tree-lined for mile after mile in a northerly direction and climbing steadily.
At Cock Bridge, Corgarff Castle came into view. A small but impressive white-coloured tower built in the mid 16th century by the Forbes of Towie. It has a sad history being razed to the ground in 1571 by the Forbes’ enemy, Adam Gordon of Auchindoun.
Lady Forbes, her children and numerous others died in the fire giving rise to the ballad Edom o Gordon. After the Jacobite risings of the 18th century it was rebuilt as a barracks and a detachment of government troops was stationed there until at least 1831, after which it was used as distillery and housed local workers.
It remained part of the Delnadamph estate belonging to the Stockdale family until they passed the castle into state care in 1961 and gave the ownership of the castle to the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society. It is now in the care of Historic Scotland and is open to the public.
At the other side of Cock Bridge the road rose sharply with a series of switch backs and at the top I pulled over to admire the view across the valley where the River Don begins.
Just beyond lay Lecht Ski Resort, again slightly eerie out of season, and from there it was mostly downhill to the charming Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands and laid out in a grid pattern by the 4th Duke of Gordon in 1775.
I arrived at Grantown-on-Spey, another planned settlement, where in 2013 I’d walked the 15 miles from there to Aviemore along the Speyside Way in a howling headwind that turned to rain at Boat of Garden. Today it was glorious sunshine.
Grantown marked the northern boundary of the Cairngorms for me and I could have headed to the A9 but it’s a dual carriageway with the sole purpose of getting people from A to B as fast as possible; this trip was about taking my time and seeing as much as possible, so I headed to Nairn, not the home of Nairn’s Oatcakes as I’d always believed, and then west across to Inverness in the rush hour on an uneventful road.
The only highlight of last stretch to Inverness was the BMW in front of me deciding that the Toyota in front of it was going too slow at 50-60 miles per hour so it overtook it in a not so safe move. And the reason the Toyota was going at 50-50 miles per hour was because it was behind a truck going at 50-60 miles per hour. The BMW spent the rest of the journey to Inverness in front of the Toyota but behind the truck.
I pulled over on the outskirts of town to switch on the satnav on my phone so I could locate my B&B for that evening, the Ardgowan; a lovely semi-detached Victorian villa made of local stone and situated between the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal.
After being shown my room I headed into town. I’d only eaten a couple of slices of rhubarb cake all day, and I’d been recommended the Castle Tavern, a small real ale pub next to Inverness Castle; as if you couldn’t guess.
The walk into the centre was rather lovely and included a gorgeous suspension footbridge across the River Ness, which is only 12 miles long. I had a brief walk around the shopping area before making my way to the pub.
One macaroni cheese and two pints later and I headed outside with my notebook which now, after a bit of research on my phone, contained the telephone numbers of the bed and breakfasts I hoped to stay in for the next three nights; and so I briefly turned the pavement into my office.
I was in luck; all three had vacancies so with my bed booking duties over and done with it was time for a walk before retiring for the night.
By now it was dusk and the undersides of the various bridges across the river where lit up in a variety of colours reflecting off the water to add a shimmering hue. I didn’t really have a plan other than I wanted to walk along the river. I ended up going back across the Ness and then along a road running parallel with its west bank towards the finish point of the Loch Ness Marathon at Bught Park. From there I found a footbridge leading onto Ness Islands; two small areas of wooded parkland that sit in the middle of the river, and through which the Great Glen Way travels before the finish at Inverness Castle.
After sitting for a while on a bench sculptured out of a tree truck and resembling a giant corkscrew I made my way back through the park to another footbridge which took me to the other side of the river from where I’d entered the islands and I returned to my B&B.
The first real day of my road trip had been truly magnificent, yet despite driving around 470 miles since leaving home, only tomorrow would I actually be starting the North Coast 500.
To be continued…