Day 1 – Alarm off. Shower. Dress. Finish packing. Trip over cat. Shove cat into basket. Get into Mercedes with cat. Forgot cat’s bowls. Get back in Mercedes with bowls. Drive to Grandma’s. Drop cat off. Wave goodbye. Bugger, I forgot to empty the bin. Drive to Sainsbury’s. Fill up tank. Grab breakfast. Get on the M6 north. Drive on M6. Continue to drive on M6. Still drive on M6. Keep continuing to drive on the M6 for 236 miles. Up until this moment, it’s all been go go go. With all trips, however much I seem to plan and prepare in advance, the morning of departure always seem to be hectic right up until that moment you hit the long motorway stint and then suddenly, you find yourself ready to begin thinking about the days ahead. And in the short term, the three long hours on the same road, made slightly more interesting with games of I-Spy and the discovery of the automatic map light in the dash.
Just as we begin to enter Yorkshire, thick cloud creeps over the horizon towards us. Well, I guess that’s the north for you. From my experience, it seems to be that as soon as you drive past Sheffield, you enter a new world of drizzle and sunless skies, like a curse over the land that no heroic character has ever quite managed to figure out how to break. The late September weather forecast for the west coast of Scotland predicts heavy showers with patches of sunshine, which is actually better than I expected.
By 7pm that evening, we’re sitting in The Sugar Boat restaurant, not far from Loch Lomond, enjoying talk about the next few days ahead that I’ve meticulously planned. Who needs spontaneity anyway?
Day 2 – After an early breakfast of Scottish smoked salmon and eggs, we say a speedy goodbye to our lovely, albeit slightly odd B&B host, before hitting the A82 towards Glencoe. If you’re never driven this road, you won’t yet quite understand the transition of environment experienced like nowhere else. Once you’ve passed the Green Welly, filling up fuel once more and purchasing an overpriced keyring with your name on it, you begin to notice changes in the environment every mile. Clouds cloak mountaintops. The landscape around you becomes all encompassing. It’s quite something to attempt to absorb and something that always surprises me each time I drive this road. Craig puts his foot down on the 280 SL which is simply joyous, even in the wet. The strain 6 engine sings. There’s this secret end of accelerator where, when you push your toes just that little inch further, the engine sparks into a roar of sound and power, contouring wide smiles on our faces.
The beginnings of autumn are apparent with colours of yellow, orange, green, purple, and certainly plenty of grey blurring past us as we continue to drive towards Glencoe, turning off left towards Durness to meander down the famous James Bond Skyfall road for a while. White scars of streams mark the sides of dark mountains after the heavy rain leading up to today. Photographing the Mercedes down this road, you can imagine what James Bond might look like in a parallel German world, and Bond instead being special agent Double-O-Sieben.
Passing the ghostly outlines of The Three Sisters in the rain, we push on towards our next destination; the Mallaig to Armadale ferry. With a little time to spare in Mallaig, we browse a nearby bookshop and purchase a childhood gem; Favourite Motor Car Stories, by Barbara Hayes, featuring Micky the M.G. and Bertie the Bentley, to name a couple. I notice a more recent Johnny Cash CD which I grab as the Merc has limited media options and I didn’t think to bring my extensive collection of 90s CDs along with me.
The ferry to Armadale, Isle of Skye, is only about an hour, giving us enough time for Craig to lose a game of Scrabble and a wander around the deck. Back on the road, roof down now the rain has passed, we head to the magical Fairy Pools. Deep, blue, swirling pools of mountain water which, had it been earlier in the day, we would have stripped and jumped into. As we return to the car, heavy raindrops begin to plop on our heads whilst the low sun still shone, creating an extraordinarily beautiful rainbow against the backdrop of the mountains and pools, with peach coloured clouds lingering overhead. With the roof still down, we drive to our B&B listening to Johnny Cash’s wonderful cover of We’ll Meet Again.
Day 3 – Our tour of the Isle of Skye continues and we begin our day dodging reluctant, dishevelled sheep as we drive to the most westerly point of the island, Neist Point lighthouse. It is one of those walks where you start in four layers of clothing as the harsh wind finds its way to reach your skin, only to get to the lighthouse carrying your many layers as the steep ups and downs of the path leave you hot and sweaty with hardly any wind at all. A kind large rock is nice enough to take our photo before we turn around and begin trekking back up to the car, hearts pounding as we ascend the cliff. Once up and our breaths caught again, I decide I want to take the iconic photo of the point, further along the top of the cliff. Photo taken, we begin to gently slip and slide down the muddy grass towards to the car when I place a foot in a particularly slippy spot, and begin what I can only call a far less glamorous can-can dance. Instead of music, cries of ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ from myself accompanied every leg flail, with the grand finalise of me falling flat on my arse. Covered in mud and highly embarrassed, we walk back to the Mercedes where I attempt to stealthily change jeans and avoid alarming the elderly couple, who just parked, up with my lily whites.
Onwards, we journey northwards to Coral Beach – a secluded beach which, as I’m sure you can guess, it formed totally from coral. A quick brew and teacake before heading to one of Skye’s most beautiful stretches of road, from Uig to Brogaig, through the heart of The Quiraing. This stunning area of outstanding beauty is glorious to visit as far out of the holiday season as possible to avoid the many bumbling tourists that can’t drive their hire cars. Thankfully, we only had to navigate around three bumbling tourists.
Day 4 – We awake close to Eilean Donan Castle and make the iconic castle our first stop, exploring its maze of higgledy piggledy dark rooms, full of timeworn maps, photographs and paintings. We brave the gale-force wind and rain to say we walked around the whole perimeter of the castle before driving our wet and windswept selves to one of the U.K. most amazing roads, only to be stopped by a 45 minute convoy delay. We pass the time with another cup of tea, half a game of Scrabble, and listening to the sounds of the rain falling heavily on the textile roof.
Finally on our way again, we begin our epic journey along Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, navigating towards the most dramatic section mountain roads, the Applecross Pass. Veils of raindrops caught in wind that never appear to fall surround us. However, after getting out of the car a coupe of times for photographs only to return dripping, I can confirm that they do. Rock both begins to rise above us and appear below us as we begin to ascend the omnipotent pass. Driving this pass in Scotland’s infamous weather conjures a sense of impending doom before cresting right into the open top of the mountain and its fine mist.
The N500 coastal route is an undulating, snaking rollercoaster of switchbacks. It’s unforgiving coastline feeds us sublimely lonesome views of sheltered beaches, desolate barns, and the odd meeting of highland cows. The rain is merciless in its persistence. That is, until sunset. Eight and a half hours after departing our BnB, we begin to approach Durness. The light is golden. Rocks that were grey just an hour beforehand glow red in the setting sun against the dying blue skies.
In the rear view mirror, we can see we’re being chased by dark clouds as the sun slips below the horizon. As we drive, we see two men waving us down. Pulling up beside them to make sure they’re okay, one of the men asks if there was any chance we could give just one of them a lift to their car as they’d been walking for over 10 hours at this point. Hesitating, we look at our non-existent back seat. If we put the roof down, we may be able to fit one of them in sideways. A couple of minutes later, we have our new German friend, Martin, in the back with his muddy boots on his own lap, and we wave off Rolf as we drive 4 miles down the road to their car.
After exchanging farewells, we decide to keep the roof down as we drive our final half an hour to our bed for the night. Cosy and warm in layers of jumpers, scarves and wooly hats, the exhaust burbles in the darkness. The Mercedes’ yellow lights highlight the falling rain. The storm clouds have caught up with us but our speed keeps us safe from the cold drops. Faint outlines of mountains begin to appear as our eyes struggle to make out the shapes. Every now and then there’s a pinpoint of light in the darkness from a house or a boat.
Finally, we find our home for the night; a converted barn on the coast of the very north of Scotland. We spend the remainder of the evening with large glasses of red wine, egg and bacon sarnies and a game of Scrabble before being lulled to sleep by the flickering light of of the log burner.
Day 5 – Sometime in the middle of the night, the log burner now cold and grey, we’re awoken by an almighty rainstorm, made more dramatic by the tin roof above us. Waking again a while later, the skies are clearing as the sun appears and we eat porridge in bed whilst watching the crashing waves against the coastline, white spray reaching halfway up the cliff dark faces.
Our final day was primary spent driving with our backs to the north coast, only stopping briefly for fuel. We arrive in Glasgow in the early evening, shattered and unable to bring ourselves to change into nicer clothes to head out to a restaurant. Instead, we eat fish and chips on the floor of the very luxurious hotel and watch Hamilton take the win at the Russian Grand Prix.
Tomorrow we’ll have to say goodbye to the stunning 280SL. Our companion for the epic Scottish road trip has been sporty but classy, comfortable but exciting and we’ll be handing back the keys with great reluctance, but we secretly hope that it won’t be goodbye forever.