One of the big additions to our new Rick Steves Scotland guidebook is the far north of Scotland. Travelers on a tight timeframe rarely make it north of Inverness or the Isle of Skye…but I just had to check it out for myself (and for the book). From Skye, I took the scenic coastal route through the region called Wester Ross, with a landscape so epic that it inspired George R.R. Martin to steal the name for Game of Thrones’ Westeros.
This —and a lot more like it —is what you’ll see up north: Endless miles of jagged lochs, towering bald peaks, moody glens, and secluded silver-sand beaches. The north has some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery. But, to me, it’s not that much more glorious than Glencoe or the Isle of Skye. What Wester Ross does have a lock on is remoteness. It’s as sparsely inhabited as Siberia. Even on a mostly sunny weekend in the middle of the summer, I didn’t see another car for 20 minutes at a time. And most of the roads are “single track” (one-lane). You can make great time on single-track roads, zipping along at 50 mph — until you reach a blind curve, a flock of wayward lambs, or another motorist. Then you just have to slow down, or pull over, until the obstruction has passed. After two days of this, my shifting leg started cramping up.
I’d done my homework, and thought that I knew the location of each and every Highland Games for the duration of my trip. But wee Applecross — an end-of-the-road hamlet in one of Scotland’s most famously remote corners — happened to have their (unadvertised) games on the day I drove through. The timing was perfect for a pit stop: I was happy to stretch my legs, eat an overcooked church-fundraiser hamburger, armchair-judge the dog show, and watch the pipe band (who knew John Oliver played bagpipes?)…before hopping in my car and continuing north.
At the end of a very long day following the jagged coastline, I was ready for some rest. I pulled into Ullapool, a humble fishing village dominated by a huge ferry dock…a metropolis by Wester Ross standards.
Seeking dinner at an Ullapool pub, I couldn’t figure out why, on a fine summer evening, the interior was chockablock while the beachfront tables were deserted. Moments after ordering and sitting down, I got my answer. Anyone who’s been to Scotland in the summer is familiar with midges — those bloodthirsty mini-mosquitoes (like no-see-ums) that terrorize the Highlands. This year’s crop of midges wasn’t bad farther south, thanks to a cold summer. But they were swarming in Ullapool. It was a scenic, slappy dinner: I’d slap myself, pause just long enough to deliver the fork to my mouth…then slap! again.
This panorama — just north of Ullapool — reminded me of a mossy Monument Valley.
Is northern Scotland worth the trip? There are no real “sights,” and only a few workaday towns. But if you have a few days to spare, love the feeling of being far from civilization, and believe that a journey is its own reward…then, by all means, go north.