Scotland by campervan

With its dramatic coast, crumbling castles, remote roads and liberal stance on wild camping, Scotland is best seen by campervan, says Phoebe Smith

Phoebe Smith
24 July 2013

A storm was brewing. The waves on the loch raced towards me with an intensifying frequency, splashing loudly as they hit the shoreline’s pebbles. Thick grey clouds began to build into an unmistakable cumulus tower over the tops of the mountains, which were becoming ever fainter in the darkening sky. You’d have to be crazy to stay the night here I mused as a sudden gust whipped the hood clean off my head. Crazy or… I gazed over at my hired campervan with more than a little smugness… really clever.

As I watched nature stir the elements into a frenzy, Kintail – my fully fitted-out mobile haven – was glowing warmly and invitingly amid the wind. I was stood on a little spit of land, slap-bang in the middle of the Kyle of Tongue, a sea loch on Scotland’s north coast. Knowing I was just seconds away from a warm bed and a hot meal made me dare to stay out in this weather a little longer. Eventually, pin-pricks of water began to sting my cheeks. It was time to head inside.

All points north

Scotland is big. Very big. So big in fact that it takes as long to drive from Glasgow to the north coast as it does to drive from Glasgow to London. And once you pass its northernmost city – Inverness, where I had swapped my car for a campervan – most of the roads are single lane. Following a quick induction to my sleeping/driving quarters for the next week, I was off. After belting down motorways, I welcomed the enforced slow-down; by easing my foot off the accelerator, I could appreciate every twist and turn in the road.

Headed out on the A9, I followed it through the urban sprawl until clustered buildings thinned to more spaced out homesteads, broken up by russet-coloured farming fields. I was making a beeline for the most northerly tip of mainland Britain – which isn’t touristy John O’Groats, but rather Dunnet Head to the west of it.

After several hours of stopping to explore the little harbour at Lybster Bay, cooing over Highland cattle, peering down at the cliff-hugging Dunbeath Castle, the broch remains near Brough and the retro petrol pumps just outside Brora, it was starting to feel like a proper road trip. I shunned the sign to John O’Groats, and turned west towards the lighthouse on the true northern extremity.

The van shook as I turned off the engine. A strong blast of wind whistled under and around my insulated walls so I decided to brew up and watch the birds fighting against its power. At Dunnet Head there are no tearooms; there’s no giftshop selling souvenirs to prove your visit. Instead there is just a simple lighthouse, some disused military buildings being slowly reclaimed by the land and a small car park. It’s wild, untamed and deliciously unspoilt.

I steeled myself for a few minutes of running around in the elements, peering over precipices down to the sea. Then I got back into the warmth of the van and backtracked down the road to a lay-by to make my bed for the night.

The great thing about Scotland is that, thanks to the Land Reform Act, you have the right not only to roam where you like, but also to camp almost anywhere – which applies to campervans, too. There’s a degree of good sense built into this – for example, you wouldn’t rock up on someone’s driveway for the night. But it does mean you can stay out in some of the country’s best wild landscapes, cosy in your heated mobile accommodation, with a view of your own choosing. In this respect, Scotland seems designed for campervanning.

On the road again

The next morning I continued west, hugging the coast until the road led inland, up and over expansive high moorland; the golden flax was dotted with white impasto blobs that, as I came closer, revealed themselves to be sheep. The mighty peak of Ben Hope loomed further south as deer ran alongside and the road traced the edge of Loch Eriboll. Eventually I spotted golden Ceannabeinne Beach, its bright sand and blue sea looking positively Caribbean.

Finally, I reached Durness. Though its population is now only around 400, this town was once a thriving community of powerful clans, the air alive with native Gaelic. Nowadays English is the language you’ll hear, spoken with the soothing sing-song lilt common this far north.

I debarked from the campervan and took a stroll to Smoo Cave. Carved by the waves and a burn (stream), which has torn holes in its roof, this limestone cavern has the largest entrance of any sea-cave in Britain. Standing inside, the roar of the water gushing into the inner chamber was deafening – made more powerful thanks to several days worth of rain. Legend has it that smugglers would hide their loot within Smoo’s intricate labyrinth; looking at all the nooks and crannies cleaved into the walls, it didn’t sound that far-fetched.

I lingered for the day in Durness, peering into sink holes, pacing the cliff edges, gazing out to sea and paying a visit to a very good chocolatiers, before driving back to the spit of land I’d spied earlier at Kyle of Tongue. There I watched the storm unleash its power while I made a feast of local potato-cakes and macaroni pie, cocooned in the warmth of the campervan.

The big reveal

The outside stillness stirred me the next morning. The rhythmic rocking I’d grown used to – courtesy of the howling wind – had ceased by the time I peered out from behind the blinds. Though I’d parked here the night before, I was still shocked by the view. The loch stretched out for miles towards a jagged cluster of peaks as the sun began to break the clouds, casting a ripple of tangerine light on the water.

Tearing myself away from my view, I set off again. I had singled out a small hamlet called Blairmore as the day’s target, and though it didn’t look further than 65km on the map, on these roads I knew it would take at least a couple of hours to drive. Not that it was unpleasant. En route I passed small fishing communities, watched as a stag nonchalantly crossed in front of me, and waved at the locals on the winding road to and through Kinlochbervie.

At Blairmore I found what I had come for: a simple hut emblazoned with the John Muir Trust logo, the land conservation charity that manages vast swathes of Scotland’s wild landscapes, including the estate to which I was headed. Opposite was a simple wooden sign alongside a gate stating: ‘Walker’s Welcome: Sandwood Bay 4.5 miles [7.2km]’.

The fresh air was welcome, despite a light drizzle. I opened the gate and began to follow the path, which leads down to one of the most pristine and untouched beaches in the UK, possibly the world. Getting there, as with the drive to the trailhead, is not quick – the rough, undulating track, skirting small lochs and crossing numerous watercourses, sees to that. And you won’t get a glimpse of the ocean until you reach the end of the path. But the walk is just the right distance to build up your excitement before the final big reveal…

By the time I saw the adjacent Sandwood Loch, I was gripped with anticipation; I practically ran down the slope to the sand dunes. Then, at long last, the sound of the tide seeped into my ears and the Atlantic surf sneaked up the beach to my feet. Beyond, the sea stack of Am Buachaille herded the waves towards the bay as the sun began to slump in the sky behind. It was dazzling.

That view stayed with me on my walk back to the campervan. It kept flashing before my eyes as I made a hearty pasta supper, and it washed in and out of my consciousness as I fell into a sound sleep.

Skye’s the limit

“A week’s road trip in Scotland just isn’t long enough,” I bemoaned to the woman in the teashop in Ullapool the next morning as she handed me a particularly frothy cappuccino. I had just a couple of full days left and had to make a decision: potter along yet more dramatic coast in Wester Ross or put my foot on the gas and aim for the Isle of Skye. I had been spoilt on my way here already, crossing the Assynt landscape where paths lead from the roadside into a mountainous hinterland beyond and exploring the ruins of Ardvreck Castle with its legends of treachery, mermaids and ghosts.

“I’d go to Skye if I were you,” advised a fellow coffee-drinker. “Meant to get the better weather there tomorrow.”

Decision made, I jumped back into the campervan and began to speed south. Weaving through Achnashellach Forest and gasping in awe as the sky turned purple around Lochcarron, finally reaching the Kyle of Lochalsh, where the Skye Bridge delivered me onto the Inner Hebridean isle.

It was dark by the time I reached a suitable place to stop. I’d already ventured through the pretty harbour town of Portree with its pastel-coloured houses, and branched off up the A855 heading north. I couldn’t see any of Skye’s acclaimed volcanic landscape so, after converting the back seat into my bedroom and flipping on the heater, I contented myself by dreaming about what I’d discover when I woke up…

Skye is a fascinating collection of geological features. From the soaring gabbro peaks of the Black Cuillin, to the volcanic pinnacles on the Trotternish Ridge and the beautiful landslips that formed the Quiraing, it’s an impressive place to see just what the earth can create. I got a taster at dawn, a mere ten metres from my campervan. A strange sound woke me – almost like panpipes – and I headed out to find its source. I had unknowingly parked near a place called Kilt Rock, so called for the tartan-like patterns that criss-cross its cliffs.

A fast-flowing stream lay at my feet, which I followed until it transformed into a cascade that dropped for over 100m down into the sea. I realised that the curious sound was caused by the breeze passing through the metal tubes of this viewpoint’s safety barrier. Suddenly, rays burst through the clouds on the horizon, bathing the scene in a yellow light while nature continued to play a captivating tune, just for me.

Back in the van, I headed to the start of a short but steep walk up to the Trotternish Ridge and its pointy Old Man of Storr. I wandered between the sheer spires of gnarly and precariously balanced rock, but realised I couldn’t linger too long if I was going to make my next natural wonder.

Clouds were gathering behind, but my trusty van out-ran them and I emerged from my insulated refuge just as sunlight exploded onto the Quiraing escarpment. It was a visual overload: the enormous flattened slopes contrasted with the sharp formations, interspersed with a smattering of mountain lochs. I clambered up and over many of them (named things such as ‘The Needle’ and ‘The Prison’), audibly gasping as the sun began to lend them a distinctly ginger hue.

By the time I turned to head back, the weather had caught up with me, but it failed to wash away my smile. I was returning to my campervan, where everything I needed to warm me up and dry me off was waiting.

Safe inside, I looked at the map to work out my route back to Inverness the next day. I knew that along the way yet more sights would beckon through the window: Eilean Donan Castle, perched on a rocky island; the exquisite forest of Glen Affric; the delights of Loch Ness and its mythical monster.

I wouldn’t have time to see them all of course, but that’s the beauty of Scotland: it really is that big. Which meant, some day, plenty more adventures for my campervan and me were here, waiting.

Campervanning: tips for a great road trip

Catherine Bunn of HighlandCampers offers her advice…

Don’t rush it: Trying to fit a lot in can be tempting, but keep to a leisurely pace to better enjoy all the fantastic scenery.

Be courteous to other drivers: Highland roads have few opportunities for safe overtaking. Driving etiquette is to pull over if you see traffic coming up behind you. It means locals can get home at a reasonable hour and you can drive along at your own pace without a car right on your tail.

Watch out for wildlife: Suicidal pheasants are a common sight on country lanes but shouldn’t do much damage to a campervan. Deer, on the other hand, will cause a nasty bump, so be extra careful – especially on remote mountain roads.

Remember your size: The vehicle you’re driving will likely be much higher than your car, so don’t be tempted to try to fit under any low bridges! The good news is that small campers are the same price as a car on ferries to the islands – bargain!

Top tip

Come to Scotland armed with a bottle of Avon’s Skin So Soft – you’ll smell lovely and the midges really hate it!

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