When planning our trip to Scotland, and more specifically our road trip around the newly crowned North Coast 500, we knew there were certain aspects we’d indubitably fall in love with. The route highlights include jaw-dropping mountain scenery, sweeping, endless sandy beaches and the best Whisky distilleries in the world.
And whilst the route certainly didn’t disappoint (which we’ll go into more detail about in our next post), we thought we’d dedicate this post to the unexpected oddities that cropped up along the way. While none of these places are particularly remarkable they each made an invaluable impact on our trip and perfectly embodied the weird and the wonderful that make the Scottish Highlands one of the most unique places in the world.
The Royal Hotel, Tain
The small town of Tain is well worth a visit itself. It’s Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh and on first impression feels like something of a miniature Edinburgh. We stumbled across this seaside town with the daylight fading, a storm rolling in and our stomachs aching for a good feed.
Que The Royal Hotel. Situated in a commanding, grand structure at the top of the high street the hotel offers up traditional food and drink in a charmingly outdated setting. The place looks like it probably hasn’t had a refurb for a good 20 years, with a studded leather clad bar and heavy scarlet curtains.
But despite the time warp, the food was exactly what we needed. Chicken and haggis with neeps and tatties drizzled in Drambuie sauce and a traditional fish pie heaped with leeks and cheese took our eyes firmly away from the gaze of the floral carpet and brought us firmly back into the present.
Linda’s Cafe, Brora
Cafe culture nowadays is an utter cliché. Throw in some wall hangings of Frida Kahlo on exposed brick walls and line up a playlist of obscure world music, an average cup of coffee and you’re in business!
But not in the small Highland town of Brora. Up here they’ve got little time for the ever-changing fads of cosmopolitan coffee culture and serve up their fare the old-fashioned way. No nonsense just a simple, honest watering hole for weary travellers.
The Frida Kahlo pictures are replaced with abstract paintings of the cafe, it’s customers and even its employees enjoying a cheeky fag out front. No flat whites or three-quarter full, skinny, piccolo lattes to be seen. In Brora you will be enjoying your coffee one of two ways – “Milky or Brown”. The art of simplicity is a beautiful thing. Never change, Linda.
Highland Games, Helmsdale
During August, the sleepy towns of the Scottish Highlands come to life for the annual showcase of the Highland Games and with the Olympic spirit in full swing the transition to this ancient Highland past time was seamless.
After walking up from the town centre in the company of a Bagpipe band and plaid-clad procession, we entered the “arena”, situated on a small football pitch overlooking the town below. The games take on that timeless nostalgia of a good old-fashioned village day. Local residents sell cakes and home-made pickles whilst the competitors battle it out in the background.
As we sat watching burly Highlanders tossing the caber to the sound of bag pipes echoing down into the valley below, we knew we had truly arrived right at the very heart of Scotland and its proud Highland traditions.
Lagg B&B, Drumbeg
After several nights camping at the mercy of Highland weather and swarms of midges we attempted to book ourselves some last-minute accommodation.
However, it turns out that the Scottish Highlands are incredibly busy during peak season (who knew?!) so after struggling to find any vacancies we were relieved to find a room anywhere. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the B&B just outside the small town of Drumbeg but luck seemed to be on our side once more.
Situated on a 600 acre estate full of small, rocky hills and pocketed with lochs, we were counting our lucky stars as we drove up the gravel drive towards the house. With the sun shining not even the midges could bring us down and we set about exploring the wild surroundings.
We looked out over the plain towards distant looming peaks, got down onto the ground and marvelled at the cushion plants and dodged the innumerable wild Grouses that kept jumping from the undergrowth and fell even more in love with the mystique and wonder of the Highlands.
Saddle Mountain Hostel, Invergarry
It sounds like the beginning of a throwaway chiller novel. We left the Isle of Skye as the light was dwindling and tried to make our way through the ensuing storm towards Fort William. As the mist rolled in, we could barely see a metre in front of our car as we drove.
With opportunities diminishing and almost every hotel in sight fully booked, we took our chances on a small sign that we flashed with our headlights as we turned a corner. With little else to hope for we drove down the small gravel road and were greeted by the Saddle Mountain Hostel who luckily had beds available and was actually incredibly warm and inviting.
Now we’ve made something of a habit of avoiding hostels on our travels, but this hostel represented everything a hostel should be. It was clean, the amenities were brilliant and above all the else the hosts really cared about the experience of their guests.
Having travelled the world themselves they opened the hostel with the simple ambition of offering everything they felt their own experiences had lacked. This really showed in the way Saddle Mountain was operated and the offer of an espresso coffee of your choice to wash down breakfast was a neat touch.