In the first installment of this multi-part series: the rental car, deadly goats, and a fantastic day of driving.
We all dream of grand driving adventures. You know, the kind you’ve watched on Top Gear and the like. But they aren’t so easy or cheap, at least not until you stop dreaming about it and start making a plan to make it happen. Three months ago, that’s what I did. While I hope it’ll be the first of many, my pick at the time was the Scottish Highlands. In this series, I’ll share how it all goes down - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When I boarded my Icelandair flight in Toronto on Monday evening, I was tired, but excited. Even with a short layover in Reykjavik, I was about to cross 5,300 kilometres of land and Atlantic ocean in nine hours. That’s an average of 589 km per hour, without accounting for time spent on the layover. Cars are great, but planes are rather fantastic.
Thanks to the mystery that is time zones, I would land in Glasgow at 10:00 AM, which in theory would’ve given me all day to drive around the city before setting off for the Highlands the following day.
Car rental counters at airports are never pleasant. You basically think you’re getting one thing and it’s going to cost one amount, but you get another and it costs so much more. After some price shock on my car’s mandatory insurance costs, I left the airport with keys to a manual transmission-equipped Skoda Fabia.
I’ve never driven a Skoda. My 59 horsepower, 70 pound-feet of torque, 1.0 litre, three-cylinder Fabia hatchback isn’t impressive by any account. But it was fantastic on one very important front: it would be my ride over the coming nine days and many hundreds of kilometres. Where most will see a drab silver econo-box, I see my travel companion... and a drab silver econo-box.
At about this point I should mention my luggage didn’t make it to Glasgow with me. Somewhere between when I handed it to a counter agent at YYZ and the luggage carousel at GLA it had gone missing, and no one knew where it was. So I filed a missing baggage claim and took off hotly in my not-so-hot hatch.
Early December may be a highly underrated but rather fantastic time to take on road trips in the Northern U.K. Sure it’s winter here in Scotland, but compared to southern Ontario, temperatures of 8 to 13 degrees Celsius is downright warm in my books. Sure, seven hours of daylight is a bit challenging, but it’s a challenge I welcomed. Also, I was already here when I learned of the limited daylight hours.
The best part about being here right now? There are very few tourists. I like having this magical landscape and the roads mostly to myself.
Once you leave behind the many shades of grey that is Glasgow’s city centre and surrounding areas, the landscape goes from rather flat to “whoa, hills, valleys and mountains,” quickly.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is your gateway to the Scottish Highlands (although technically the Highlands don’t begin till well after passing through the park). Less than 45 minutes after saying goodbye to family I was visiting with in Glasgow, I glimpsed my first views of Loch Lomond, the park’s namesake.
This was also my first taste of narrow old-world roads of the U.K. Yes, everything is on the “wrong” side, including the steering wheel and my rental car’s gear shifter. Bits of the road through the park were lightly flooded on account of the seemingly endless rain here, and were so narrow that I often wondered how I squeezed past the small trucks coming the other way. Maybe it’s the sitting on the right side of the car (it’s still wrong), but gauging the width of my vehicle and placement on the road was a challenge, something I’ve never had issue with in all my driving life before.
I made my first stop at a small roadside cafe next to the Inveruglas Visitor Centre, a place called Cafe Lochan along the banks of the loch. Perhaps because it was so early - about 9:30 AM - and because of the time of year, I more or less had the place to myself. Which included a large parking lot and lovely views of the small boat/ferry harbour and the mountains on either side. I don’t drink coffee, but I bought one anyway. Maybe because it felt like the thing to do and maybe because the counter girl had blue hair and I had to know more.
After passing through the park and north toward Glen Coe, the road opens up a touch, and the views go from great to spectacular. The mammoth mountains of Glen Coe tower over the road that takes you through it. This is dramatic scenery that most of us only associate with big budget Hollywood films.
It’s winter here, and the leaves have long since dropped from the trees. Hardy grasses, shrubs and evergreens bring life to the landscape that’s otherwise various shades of brown.
Speaking of films, Skyfall was filmed here. Actually the Bond family home in the film is somewhere around Glen Coe, I should’ve gone looking, but I only learned this after I had long since put the valley in my rear-view mirror.
Camera speed traps. We’re not used to these much in Canada, but you have to learn quickly about these here. Because they’re everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Not only did I keep seeing the signs and sometimes the cameras themselves every few minutes in Glasgow, but along the A82 long after I had left the city. Jaguars and Land Rovers have “Automatic Speed Limiter” buttons which electronically limit your top speed, I never understood the need for them test driving cars in Toronto, but I completely get it now. You need them in the U.K. Even my underpowered Skoda Fabia was often at the risk of being photo radar ticketed. In fact, I could still be - the tickets come in the mail, so I may have missed a camera. Who knows?
When I saw a road sign cautioning drivers about feral goats I nearly died laughing. A few minutes later I swung around a corner at speed and nearly died, actually. There they were. Feral goats, a whole trip of them (a group of goats is called a trip; I didn't know that either). Some on one side of the road, some on the other, and a few unsure which side they wanted to be on hanging out in the middle of the road.
Good brakes on this Fabia. Well, good enough to keep me from killing goats and/or careening off the side of a mountain.
Ben Nevis is the highest peak in all of the British Isles. While there were a couple options for routes from Glasgow to Isle of Skye, I had no doubt Ben Nevis should be part of it, so I went. I was, however, already a day behind schedule because of the baggage woes mentioned earlier, so I thought that instead of hiking the mountain, I’d ride Britain’s only gondola system and take in aerial views from a nearby mountain. The Nevis Range cable car system takes passengers up the north face of Aonach Mor (another peak near Ben Nevis). Not all impromptu ideas pan out, and this didn’t. The Nevis Range gondolas don’t begin operation until December 22 for ski season. I still maintain it’s a good idea though, someone try it and leave us a comment.
My journey to Isle of Skye wrapped up just before the Skye Bridge in a small town called Badicaul. While I was staying at an AirBnB that night, where I really wanted to stay was the stop I made before the AirBnB house.
Built on a very small tidal island where Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh meet, Eilean Donan castle is the dream home that I never knew existed. What stands today is a carefully restored tourist attraction that’s far grander than its 13th century origins. Shoo the wanderers and this could be one incredibly grand home. It could be mine. Or maybe yours if you want a castle just off the main road within a four hour drive to Glasgow or Edinburgh.
There are more castles to come on my drive of the Scottish Highlands, so stay tuned. Next up in the series, taking on Isle of Skye and things don’t go so well.
Photos: Kanishka Sonnadara (with a cell phone) / Motor1