Scotland: Unveiling the Unmissable


I could hear my heart pounding as we inched our way around yet another terrifying bend. Palms clammy, fingers gripping the sides of my seat, my brain urged me to stop looking but I couldn’t help myself. I could only wish someone had told me how dreadfully nerve-wracking the Applecross Road is before we’d embarked on our drive.

Having left the glory of the Torridon Hotel thirty minutes before, the boy and I now found ourselves on a route around the coast that we had been told was “unmissable”. Unfortunately, I forgot to mention to the person recommending this trip that I’m petrified of cliffs. And roads that run along cliffs. And, basically anything that one can fall down from – this includes stairs and ladders, not the most helpful things to be afraid of. “Well, at least the high adrenaline will help burn off all that Hollandaise sauce I had on my eggs,” I squeaked.

Assuring me that there was absolutely nothing to fear, the boy continued at a pace of around 9 miles per hour – anything faster, he soon realised, would make me start squeaking and shaking more. With hands clenching too tightly to the car’s fabric to remove them and cover my eyes, I decided to accept the continuing palpitations and take a look. After all, the scenery was more than incredible. It was a daredevil, twisting loop through the mist and mizzle of the Scottish highlands.

The road is a single track venture all the way around the Applecross peninsula, which juts out into Applecross Bay. Turning off the A896 just after Loch Shieldag, the road is considered one of the most dramatic in Scotland because it takes drivers all the way up an unbelievably steep mountainside trail. Before the trip, we were warned by an imposing red sign that the road rises to a height of 2000 feet and is not recommended for learner drivers or in bad weather. From the base, it seemed fine; but a few minutes in and visibility nearly ceased as we climbed and climbed through the mist. When we were nearly at the top, a car came towards us around the corner, causing us to brake quickly and reverse into a passing point – not something I ever want to do again on the side of a mountain.

After a heart-racing 45 minutes, we began to descend and flickers of the deep blue coastal water emerged between the plunging mountain valleys, the road slicing through the scene with its snakelike bends.

Once the loop was completed, we headed west once more towards the Isle of Skye. The bridge, opened in 1995, allows drivers to skip a long ferry queue and drive straight onto the island. A gleaming white and silver structure, it arcs across Loch Alsh and connects the odd, barren landscape of Skye with the mainland.

For years, I had heard of the merits of the Isle of Skye but I’d simply not had the chance to visit. As soon as you enter you realise what an odd place it is, alien almost. Muted browns, reds and pinks colour the surfaces while potholed crater-like dips create a Martian landscape. When the sun turns up it’s golden; but under the damp, grey spring skies it looked more haunted than the mainland.

Our destination on this fair isle was the Talisker Distillery, located at the Carbost on the central western side. While it is but a mere 31 miles from the bridge, don’t underestimate just how long it takes to travel along these wiggly, winding roads – a mistake we made.

Arriving at the distillery 45 minutes late, we were greeted by senior site manager, Mark Lochhead, who’s worked with Talisker for three and a half years and has been in the whisky industry for 25. The white, wooden-walled distillery – which was established in 1830 – looks out onto Loch Harport and the wild, whipping winds make the place just right for a warming dram.

The distillery is wee in size compared to bigger brands’ spaces – a small visitor’s centre welcomes the 55,000 people who come here annually to learn about this famous brand. Much of the malt is stored at larger warehouses on the mainland, but a proportion of casks are still located on the grounds.

Mark told us the popularity in whisky at the moment can be seen – not just in the huge rise in visitors that are arriving on their doorstep – but in sales of malt across the industry. “This is the most exciting time in whisky, “he said. “This will be driven by blends but the great thing is we’re now taking customers from blends, into premium blends and then single malts.”

The boy and I mostly nosed the whisky we were given – knowing there was a long drive back to the south end of the island to our hotel – but I couldn’t resist a few sips since I am always on “navigation” duties in the UK. You see, being a colonial, I only drive automatic cars. And, since renting an automatic costs about four times as much as a manual over here, I usually get to sit back and make sure we’re on the correct track – a great excuse all around.

So, since I wasn’t getting behind the wheel I tried the 10, 18 and 25-year old whiskies. Looking out onto the chilly, mizzly landscape, I couldn’t think of anything better than a whisky at that point. It helps that I’m a rather big fan of the stuff – but I think anyone would want to try it straight at the distillery if he or she were there. So, if you get the chance: do so. It’s unmissable. I recommend the 18-year-old, which is constantly in short supply due to its popularity but almost always available at the distillery. Slight fudge and caramel notes warm the nose, while the flavour is a perfectly balanced mix of soft smoke, cream, earth and oil. The boy had a wee sip of this one too and said he finally “got” whisky (after many, many attempts by yours truly to get him drinking more of the stuff). Powerful proclamations, indeed.

All too soon, it was time to break ties with Talisker and retrace our wheel prints back to the Skye Bridge. Our home for the evening was just south of the crossing in a place called Duisdale, where sits the aptly named Duisdale House. Purchased in 2007 by Anne Gracie and Ken Gunn, the couple turned the former hunting lodge – built in 1865 – into a decadent retreat set in 35 acres of woodland. With an on-sight yacht, which takes guests out daily on trips to the sea, the space is ideal for a relaxing, romantic getaway.

The wide rectangular gravelled drive was just seeing flicks of rain when we pulled up later than planned, those tricky Isle of Skye roads (and potentially, my indulgence in whisky, which may have affected my map reading) causing some detours. Before we could barely step out, though, staff member David was there to gather our bags and hurry us into the warmth of the waiting hotel.

As I had hoped, a bright fire was blazing in the hearth and owner Anne greeted us as if we were old friends, rather than a couple of chilled strangers. When finally we got upstairs to our room, I did the horridly sad thing of squealing and clapping at the sight of the lavish dark-wooden four-poster bed. “It’s actually got curtains,” I fawned to the boy before I leapt onto it and continued giggling.

One of the best hot showers later – seriously, I’ve never had a shower so powerful yet soft as that one; it was like being coddled in a warm, fuzzy blanket – we headed downstairs to be treated to an incredible meal in the hotel’s 2 AA Rosette restaurant which relies on local produce to make it special. Ann told me the food they serve has always been important for her since her motto is: “If you’re going to eat food, you’ve got to eat lovely food.” The aim is to ensure the chefs that work there are able to get all of the basics right, before they start making anything dainty or overly posh.

One of the best things I find about eating anywhere is listening to other people’s conversations. That evening, a group of four friends sat on one side of the room chatting happily while a couple sat behind us. The elderly gentleman in the couple was keen to have a specific bottle of wine that he’d had when he visited for New Year’s but he could only remember it was a Rioja. With that, David – the man who greeted us on arrival – managed to go back through the records to see exactly which one it was. Now, that’s not something you get everywhere.

Our meal had just as much attention paid to it as everything else in the hotel. Dainty cubes of beetroot accompanied divinely cooked hot and cold smoked salmon; a juicy breast of pigeon oozed flavours; and the boy’s steak was declared to be “one of the best” he’d ever tasted. Washed down with a bottle of rich Salice Salentino red wine, it was a meal not easily forgotten.

Afterwards, we were beckoned to join the others in the drawing room, where a festive and jolly conversation could be heard. But, after a long day driving, and saddened by the realisation it was the last night of luxury before heading home, we retired early.

The next day we awoke to snow – on the mountains, the lawn, the trees. A nippy walk down to the waterside confirmed it: Scotland had fled from spring back to winter overnight. Recommending we leave as soon as possible due to large piles of snow falling in the pass between the Isle of Skye and Inverness, we bundled up in as many layers as we’d brought and headed out.

And snowed it had. Layers and layers of the fluffy flakes had flown across the rocky mountainside. While this was slightly terrifying – more cliffs plus snow makes this girl a nervous wreck – it was equally stunning. Harsh breezes blew drifts over the road, while the sun illuminated the frosty walls of rock hemming us in on all sides. Mighty lochs looked captured, frozen under an icy spell, while all along the A87 cars trundled slowly for fear of missing a slippery turn.

Like the rest of our journey in Scotland, this one took far longer than planned, landing us back in Inverness with just enough time to drop off the car and catch our train, barely giving us the time to say our fond farewells to this mighty land.

The highlands are, more than many lands to which I’ve travelled, a spiritual place – part haunted, part welcoming. There, Mother Nature takes control: she whips wind and spits rain; shocks you with her quick turn of heart, bringing piles of snow when only 24 hours before there were daffodils poking through her surface. Craggy, unfriendly rock faces give way to alluring lochs, where mighty monsters dwell in the deep, ready to pull the unsuspecting under. It grips you.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Read part one of Alwynne’s Highland adventure.


1 Comment

  1. diana mackie artist on

    what a delightful article. I was holding my breath sitting in front of the computer.
    Just one of the many experiences when visiting the west coast and The Isle of Skye.

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