'Why do you want to go up there? There's nothing but sheep, water and heather.'
This was Andrew's father's response to our announcement that we were going to tour the Scottish Highlands for a week. The truth was, as far as we knew, he was correct. Even Andrew, a true Scot, knew very little of what lay north of Inverness. The map appears curiously empty, displaying only a series of unpronounceable names and tiny country roads. There are no major cities, motorways or vast shopping centres and away from the coast, there seems to be very little at all. Removed from the tourist hordes of Edinburgh and the golf courses of St Andrew's, this is a Scotland not yet discovered. A land shaped by warring clans, vast landscapes, ancient ruins and small town charm.
A part of the world made for a road trip.
The road circling the Scottish Highlands has always existed, the single-tracks and winding lanes long providing a life-line to farmers, fishermen and villagers along the coast. However, for years, it was without a name - and anyone who has dreamed of driving a cadillac along Route 66 knows just how important that can be.
We first heard about the North Coast 500 during our time in Colombia. This magnificent stretch of asphalt that took in spectacular beaches, quaint historic villages and breathtaking scenery had us excited to return home, and we pledged to one another that this was to be our next adventure.
Nine countries and fifteen months later, the dream came true.
Before we set off on this road trip to top all road trips, Andrew spent hours, weeks and days planning our route. Each daily mile was calculated, each petrol station noted and each tourist draw ranked according to many, many google searches. Emily however, had simpler goals: tablet and Heilan' Cows. Sure, she was excited to experience everything the Highlands had to offer, but few things came close to the a ginger beasty with a fabulous fringe and a block of creamy sugar guaranteed to give you a cavity or two.
Little more than a week before we set off, a photo popped up in our Instagram feed. Here, within the screen of our phone was the most perfectly imperfect Highland cow. A right horn that curved curiously downward but a solemn stare that said he just didn't give a damn. When we headed off route towards Strathy beach, we never expected to find him standing atop a moss covered hill, watching us, watching him.
Say the word Scotland to most people, and the images that spring to mind are likely those of hairy legs protruding from beneath tartan kilts, single malt whisky, expansive lochs (with or without submerged beasty) and snow, a lot of snow - blue skies and beautiful beaches are unlikely to come very high on the list. What most people don't know (what WE didn't know!) is that dotted along the west and north coast of this beautiful country are countless charming stretches of beach.
However, and we feel the need to whisper this, it is on the winding coastal road from Lochinver that you will discover Scotland's best kept secret. A small but well-placed sign guides you along a narrow track - barely wide enough for one vehicle - towards the sea, towards Achmelvich beach.
Here, on a day unlike many others this far north you could be forgiven for a sudden loss in bearings as eyes rest upon perfect turquoise waters lapping expansive white sand. It takes very little to get a Scot's shirt off in the face of the sun, but should you travel this highland mile and experience Achmelvich beach at its very best, on a 'taps aff' sort of day, you may too be tempted to bare a little skin.
The population of Scotland may only be six million, but it has a history that stretches back hundreds of years, passed down through countless generations that still call this land home. A history that has left an indelible mark upon the landscape and has formed a proud, unmistakable national identity.
Standing stones, language and tradition - Scotland is full of history. Yet it is the countless castles, in varying states of grandeur or disrepair, that can speak most to those that visit this country. Some, like Dunrobin, with its alabaster towers and landscaped gardens still to this day scream of a past, full of glory, power and intrugue. Yet, there are others, more ancient ruins, that are little more than stone and mortar, a crumbling facade housing hundred year old ghosts all with a story to tell.
Someone once said 'if you build it, they will come', but when one speaks of the road circling the Scottish Highlands, it turns out, all that was needed was a name.