Overlanding the Scottish Highlands
Drenched in Hebridean happiness
Time started to slow as we started overlanding the Scottish Highlands. Etive Road, near Glencoe, gave us a splendid camping spot for the night.
Instead of leaping off my bike—saddle sore, itching to stretch my legs—I emerged fresh after a couple of hundred truck miles. This was a strange sensation, if I’m honest, having previously spent five years on a motorcycle trip through the Americas.
Despite the onset of summer, Mother Nature had other ideas: single-digit Celsius temperatures by day, gusting winds, as well as heavy downpours ensuing at all hours.
I made eye contact with a pine marten. It studied me for a while, as if I were an artwork with a hidden meaning, and then scurried up a grassy bank. While Glencoe never failed to disappoint to date, Jason’s dismay was palpable as he missed sighting the rare, weasel-like, bushy-tailed little fella. The red deer vied for his attention elsewhere.
Despite the onset of summer, Mother Nature had other ideas: single-digit Celsius temperatures by day, gusting winds, as well as heavy downpours ensuing at all hours. Relentless, the elements lashed us, but it was an apt combination to put the rooftop tent through its paces. Even the locals agreed that June’s climate was unseasonably “rude” in the Highlands for this time of year. Thank goodness the rain was akin to water off a duck’s back against our “dome, sweet dome.”
Occasionally, the conditions gave rise to a lonely quality—the kind of loneliness that howls through you like a desert wind. But, in this case, it was more like a Scottish “hooley,” blowing out the cobwebs like no other. At other times, the place only seemed half-there because of the descending fog, as if I were walking inside one of Monet’s fuzzy depictions. Especially, first thing, the mist’s touch slipped like wet tentacles over my skin and seeped dampness into just about everything. Welcome to Scotland; that’s the Highlands for ye.
Wending Into the Scottish Wilderness
Failing to curry favor with Mother Nature, we made like sheep and “got the flock out of there.”
Without delay, we scooted over to a fairytale woodland near Oban (“The Gateway to the Isles”). Such forested finds are 10 a penny in Scotland. Sunshine presiding over all else, the order of each day began to take its natural course: to equal, if not surpass, the previous night’s wild camping spot.
Largely fulfilling our daily objective led us to Applecross, basking on the area’s pristine, sandy, 4-mile-long beach. Accessed by the southerly Bealach Pass Road and the northerly coast road, there’s no better peninsula for break bread while overlooking the waves gently lapping on the shoreline. The village offers a smattering of amenities, including a handful of beautifully rustic accommodations, a place to buy aromatic soap and hand-spun wool. There’s even a Gold Green Tourism award-winning inn that offers real ale and local whiskey and overlooks the Inner Sound to the isles of Raasay and Skye.
Stealing the odd moment of respite when the wind dropped and the light grew thin (alas!), the “twin-engine beasts” (mosquitoes) needed no encouragement to come out of hiding. Thirsty for dinner, Scotland’s parting summer “gifts” take on the long-legged shape and high-pitched ring of their infamous bloodsucker cousins. They might not be as big individually, but their dense and sizable swarms give the Alaskan “mozzies” a run for their money. The day’s menu offered a platter better than haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes) … courtesy of our faces. They left a complex dot-to-dot, so we were eventually skin-colonized like a map of Utah. The simple, elemental truth: With skin exposed, we presented a walking buffet.
Occasionally, the conditions gave rise to a lonely quality—the kind of loneliness that howls through you like a desert wind.
After a less-than-fond exchange of farewells with the satiated “locals,” we wended our way to Achiltibuie. It’s not somewhere you’re likely to encounter haphazardly, because there are just two ways in. Each consists of around 10 or 15 miles of hilly and twisty, single-track road with short sight lines. However, it was worth it, because Achiltibuie is a straggling community covering a long, linear village in Ross and Cromarty, overlooking Badentarbet Bay to the west. On the shore, near the Coigach Free Church, lies a water-powered cornmill dating back to the 1800s with views of the Summer Isles that’ll make your soul sing.
Between a nearby white, sandy beach and us lay a loose, stony bank. It took a moment for Jason to get up the nerve required to climb the truck over the rocks onto the talcum-powder-soft expanse of white. In the passenger seat, I kept my confidence in a citadel, high on a hillside, as Jason tested the Hilux’s ability to traverse us over the big, loose stuff. It was no big deal for White Rhino—just a day at the beach—even if we promptly retreated to whence we’d come moments after hitting the sand.
The Outer Hebrides has never left my all-season bucket list. I’d read that this 130-mile-long series of islands off the mainland’s northwest coast and the edge of the Atlantic was a wildlife wonderland, an archaeologist’s paradise and a historian’s dream.
On Barra, for example, you’ll witness the world’s only airport where planes land over wild waves on the powder-white sand … meaning that the timetable is dictated by the tides.
My first thought: What is it to be Hebridean? Having chatted nonstop with a family of bilingual, Gaelic-speaking locals on the ferry over, I deduced it’s a constant conversation about the weather, because rain, hail and sunshine within the span of a couple of hours is common. It’s also about knowing every second person who walks down the street (and probably their cousin too). It’s also always waving to say, “thank-you” at passing places; and it’s never leaving your friend’s house hungry. Wonderful!
Isle of Lewis
Cobwebs suitably blown in the Highlands, we disembarked the ferry onto our first Hebridean island, Lewis. The sky was a fragile, finch egg blue with clouds made of porcelain. Sea eagles were circling overhead as we were overlanding the Scottish Highlands.
A sparsely populated locale, utilitarian and somewhat ugly houses dotted the roads that wound their thin passage on the isle. Up here, weather-sealed habitation trumps aesthetics. Like a scene on the moon, the landscape is littered with rocks and boulders of all sizes—evidence of the moraine that scraped, gouged and formed the island under the weight of glaciers millions of years ago. It’s something to behold the first time you set eyes on the place.
Callanish Standing Stones
Dating back to the Neolithic era, Lewis’s Callanish Standing Stones comprise an impressive stone circle associated with the Clan Morrison; it can be found just off the A858. As megalithic complexes go, it consisted of rows of large pieces of Lewisian gneiss arranged in a cross shape. At the cross’s center, a monolith can be seen, along with a small, chambered cairn. It’s certainly something to see. Although we only visited a few Hebridean locations, we soon realized there were standing stones all over the place.
Overlanding the Scottish Highlands: Drenched in Good Times
Meandering over to Uig Sands half an hour west, we spent the night with newfound acquaintances and avid rock climbers Arran and Ewan. They were old-timers, but the pair of them looked fitter than a butcher’s dog! Inside Arran’s homely camper van, the buzz of conversation clicked and whirred as they kept us toasty and in fine company over a bottle of red.
Some waterfalls are vast, impenetrable, whitewater curtains that crash spectacularly to the ground. The one we stumbled across the following morning? Not so much.
However, I lost my footing and somehow plunged, perfectly vertical, into one of its deep pools. It was not so much arrogance or stupidity as much as gross misjudgment and a lapse of concentration. Without managing to touch the bottom, I plopped straight in up to my neck.
Curious to fathom how I’d ended up in the drink, Jason’s expression was like a Neanderthal’s working out the rules of Twister. I was soaked to the skin. However, I managed to hoist myself out onto the slippery ledge. The sun touched my face and warmed my gooseflesh to a comforting glow. Any cold stayed absent from belly-laughing so hard.
“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye,” as the locals say (this translates to, “What’s meant to happen will happen”).
North Uist to the south was a landscape of fresh and saltwater lochs, miles of sandy beaches and causeway after causeway. Cultivated crofts, fanks (sheep enclosures) and loom sheds are galore. On the west side of the island, the road followed the machair—coastal green, grassy plains bordered by sand dunes—and passed the Bairanaid Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve. Pleasingly, the eastern side devotes itself to a birdlife-pulling water world. It’s a twitcher’s paradise—and Jason’s seventh heaven.
Before venturing to South Uist to explore its tranquil piece of coastline, we pootled over to Traigh Lingeigh, another gratifying expanse of sandy bays, behind which a mass of wildflowers popped in patches of color.
Adjoining its northern counterpart, South Uist offered crystal-clear waters. It has more powdery white beaches, small crofting settlements and heather uplands. It’s dominated by Beinn Mhor, an impressive hillock (by U.S. standards). It is 2,431 feet tall and is a guaranteed thigh-burner as the highest peak in the locale. Apparently, the 20 miles of machair running alongside sand dunes provide a healthy habitat for an uncommon bird called corncrakes. Corncrake unsighted, we did, however, spy golden eagles, red grouse and red deer on the mountain slopes. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Overlanding the Scottish Highlands: Isle of Skye
When you’re road-tripping on four wheels, I’d recommend bedding down for the night on the Staffin Boat Slip Road. It’s known as “The Slip,” on the Isle of Skye. Quite the spot off the A855, we wild-camped for four nights back to back. This gave us time to meet and greet the locals.
I’d read that this 130-mile-long series of islands off the mainland’s northwest coast and the edge of the Atlantic was a wildlife wonderland, an archaeologist’s paradise and a historian’s dream.
One half of an older couple (whose name we dinnae ken due to the presence of a thick Scottish accent … or unattuned Sassenach ears) smiled wistfully at me. It was the kind of smile no one’s capable of before the age of 40; the kind that contains sadness, defiance and amusement all at once. His voice was rich and dry—like port. As he expounded his personal theories about this, that and the other, I warmed to him instantly. His wife was equally as pleasant.
Over the next week, we gave Neist Light House, Fairy Glen and the Fairy Pools near Glen Brittle a brief visit. While overlanding the Scottish Highlands, they were all worthy of a little time.
I awoke the next day to blue skies and fresh energy.
The Quiraing is a steep landslip on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach. It’s the northernmost summit of Skye in the Trotternish area. Its name comes from Old Norse, Kví Rand (“round fold”). It was, without question, my favorite part of Skye.
After an early-bird-catches-the-worm start and keeling forward, sucking in air, my hands on thighs to catch my breath. I just about managed to greet the Old Man of Storr. Found 13 miles south of the Quiraing, the Old Man is a craggy pinnacle of rock. Legend has it the Old Man of Storr gets its name from resembling wizened, old chap’s face. While overlanding the Scottish Highlands, this is a place to see.
Until We Meet Again, Bonny Scotland
“Heads down, backsides up” for the best part of a year, we’d been in an intensive planning period before Scotland.
I underestimated northern Scotland’s beach beauty: no litter, hardly any people. just clean, sandy shores.
Thankfully, the Highlands and Hebrides made Jason and me take notice of things other than the Hilux. I underestimated northern Scotland’s beach beauty: no litter, hardly any people. Just clean, sandy shores. We immersed ourselves into our surroundings— sometimes literally!
Scotland is a place where solitude overrides loneliness. Only the natural beauty of coastal, mountainous and island geographies keep you company. It all made for the perfect traveling companion.
(Editor’s note: Follow along on Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford’s international journeys via their social media site: @fourwheelednomad.)
(Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in Tread May/June 2021.)