Davie Nicolson is a small, wiry man of 54 with a white horseshoe mustache and his Harley-Davidson cap worn tight and low, lest it be blown out to sea. A fading tattoo on his left forearm shows a cartoon devil encircled by the words “Born to Raise Hell.” In truth, Nicolson is more of a guardian angel, and if he was born to raise anything, it is the heavy slabs of flagstone, which he hefts up and down the steep stone staircase built into the near-vertical cliff face at the foot of his garden here in Ulbster, in the far northeast of Scotland.
These Whaligoe Steps, as they are known, were constructed in 1792 to allow the wives of fishermen to carry loaded baskets of catch up almost 250 feet from the harbor to the village and beyond. The local fishing industry is long gone, but the 330 steps remain, zigzagging up the cliff, a symbol and reminder of that heritage. Nicolson, whose grandfather was one of the last fishermen to use the harbor, has spent much of his life as the staircase's unofficial custodian and caretaker, resisting with muscle, sweat, and a rough Caithness tongue the destructive forces of waves, wind, and local vandals.
"I love the steps," he says, as well he might. They are a hidden treasure of Scotland, a highlight of the North Coast 500 driving route, and Nicolson is one of the great characters you might meet along the way.
The North Coast 500, often described as Scotland’s Route 66, is a 516-mile loop of the farthest reaches of the mainland, beginning and ending in Inverness and taking in some of the most dramatic landscape and seascape in the country. "Loop," though, is too pale a word for roads that include the 12-mile, single-track Bealach na Bà, Gaelic for "pass of the cattle." This most exhilarating and perhaps even frightening driving experience is the closest thing the country has to those steep, hairpin bends through the Swiss Alps.
Although the North Coast 500 brand is new, these roads have been around for a long time, and there is no need to keep to the official route or visit any of the places recommended on the website. Indeed, sticking by the rules is not the Highland way. Make the road your own. Personalize your tour around distilleries (Old Pulteney, Glenmorangie, Dunnet Bay) or foodie inns (Applecross Inn, Kylesku Hotel, The Caberfeidh) or ancient carved stones (Gairloch, Farr, and Eagle stones). You don’t even have to stop at these places to enjoy them. Just saying the names is a delight. Chant them like plainsong. Roll them around in your mouth like pebbles.
Whichever way you go, clockwise or counter, will not lack for points of interest—loch after loch after loch, broch after broch after broch. Most of all, take time to meet the people. Meet Lotte Glob, the Danish ceramicist whose sculpture croft on the western shore of Loch Eriboll is a fairy-tale blend of art and nature. Meet John Morrison: The ferryman at Cape Wrath for the past 33 years is known as "Carbreck" after the croft where he grew up, a cottage he says is haunted by his mother and a spectral wildcat, which, in life, she had made a pet.
Superstitions up here are sometimes discussed in this matter-of-fact manner. One guidebook notes with regret that, while a mermaid used to live on the rocks off Sandwood Bay, she has not been seen recently.
The North Coast 500 is supposed to begin and end at Inverness Castle, but I start my trip at the site of the Battle of Culloden, a few miles east. Scotland’s far north is sometimes called "the empty lands"—the huge northern county of Sutherland has a population density of around six people per square mile—and the journey is enhanced by understanding from the start why this is so.
Culloden, fought in 1746, was the bloody climax of the Jacobite rising, an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” to take the British throne. In less than an hour, around 1,250 of his men had fallen, and in the aftermath government forces cracked down on the Highland clan system. Tartan was banned, as was the speaking of Gaelic, and land, crops, and cattle were seized. Culloden was a trauma that accelerated the process of depopulation. You learn about this in the visitors center, but go outside and you feel it. Here, beneath the moor, the dead still lie. Boulders carved with clan names—MacGillivray, Maclean, Maclachlan—mark where they fell. Visiting is sometimes emotional for descendants. On top of the Clan Fraser stone, an unknown hand has placed a one-cent piece, Lincoln’s profile blurred by fallen rain.
The Highlands, for all their beauty, can be a somber place; indeed, that is part of their beauty, inseparable from it, the shadow of tragic history flattering the landscape. Allan Mackay, a shepherd in Melness, which has views over to the Orkney Islands, senses this most intensely when the low winter sun makes visible the contours of old farm workings. He can point to the ruined walls where his great-great-grandmother lived as a girl before she and her family were forced out by landowners who wanted the fields for the more profitable sheep grazing. The clearances took place across the Highlands—sometimes evictions were violent, even murderous, sometimes not, but they have not been forgotten nor forgiven. "It was brutal," says Mackay, as he takes a break from attending to his dogs. "It was almost ethnic cleansing—and all because of what I do, sheep farming."
There is grumbling in some parts about the popularity of the North Coast 500, worries that the cars and visitors put too much pressure on roads and infrastructure. Many drivers seem to have little idea how to behave on single-track roads, the etiquette of passing places and so on. There is talk on the remote Applecross peninsula of holding a referendum on whether to ask to be removed from the official map.
The trouble with assigning the route a number—500 miles—is that it encourages drivers to remember the formula taught in school, distance = speed x time, and set about testing it by flooring the accelerator. Here’s a better equation: The amount of pleasure one takes from the Highlands is in direct proportion to the time spent immersed in them. This, after all, is a landscape in which time is written into the very rocks. The Lewisian gneiss, which comes to the surface here, is the oldest stone in Britain. Great isolated mountains, such as Suilven, are survivors of even greater peaks, unimaginably old, ground down by Ice Age glaciers. Speeding along these roads seems, therefore, not quite in the proper spirit of awesome geological languor. So do as the rocks do: Take it slow.
Not so slow, however, that you miss the chance to eat at La Mirage, a restaurant that brings a little bit of Vegas to the rather gray village of Helmsdale. The cook is Don Sinclair. At 62, he is in looks and manner reminiscent of Truman Capote, and on the day I visit he’s wearing a shirt covered in pictures of Marilyn Monroe. The gold chain around his neck secures a large ring engraved with a marijuana leaf. This belonged to his late mother, Nancy, as did La Mirage in the old days. Don believes in generous portions; one checks the haddock for evidence of a harpoon. He also runs a guesthouse, Shangri-La, unlike any other in the Highlands. One bedroom is a shrine to the blessed Marilyn, the other tricked out in the red, white, and blue of the British flag. A guest once asked why he didn’t decorate in tartan, and Don replied, incredulous, "Why would you want a Scottish room in Scotland?" Nevertheless, as a compromise, he has hung next to the bed a framed photograph of his mother with the former leader of Scotland, Alex Salmond, who had popped into La Mirage for a fish supper.
In Shangri-La, we are a long way—physically, temporally, figuratively—from Culloden. Yet the common ground is a certain independence of spirit characteristic of the Scots. I discovered it all over the North Coast 500 as I drove roads that twist through the heather like quicksilver trickling over velvet.
The poet Norman MacCaig knew those roads well. He knew the hills, the glens, the best places to fish and drink, and he wrote in the 1960s that this part of Scotland attracted "people tired of a new civilisation to taste what’s left of an old one." True then, true now. The North Coast 500 is in some ways a cynical branding of a landscape and culture that was always there. What I feel, though, as I approach Inverness and the end of the long journey is not cynicism, and certainly not relief, but gratitude for the experience. And something else, too: a great desire to head north once more.