By Maggie Barry

THE last time I drove the Bealach Na Ba was in a Morris 1000 with a piece of wood under the seat runners to raise it so that I could see over the steering wheel. Today as I tackle the old drovers’ road to Applecross the challenge is somewhat different.

The car is not the issue.  I am driving a beautiful Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport, registered just the day before and so new it is probably as this moment the only one on the road in the UK.

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It is light and sporty with a head up display, loads of room in the boot for my suitcase and all the gear lugged along by the photographer including massive lenses, a tripod, a drone and various other pieces of kit that snappers tend to take everywhere with them.

No, the car is a dream. The problem is Mother Nature.  We had planned to send up the drone at the top of Bealach Na Ba and film the Grand Sport from above making its way along the snaking and precipitous roads. But she is thwarting us.

As we climb,  the clouds begin to cling to us and at the summit the viewpoint is shrouded in mist, soft and sticky. No drone today – not here anyway.We push on disconsolate, threading through a strung out peloton, who had made their way indomitably up the road and now were at last beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

One in particular was breaking away as we came out of the clouds, sprinting ahead of us, flying around the hairpins. Admiringly, we hung back. Even from the comfort of the Grand Sport, it was plain to see this was his moment. His blue jacket whipped by the speed marked his passage as he tore down the mountain – total exhilaration.

The sun shone on him and Applecross as we reached the other side.  For him the day was done.  For us, it was time to push on towards Shieldaig and beyond as we made our way along Scotland’s newest tourist route the NC500.

It starts in Inverness where we had marked our departure at the Kessock  Bridge, winds west to the coast and then north before traversing east to Dunnet and John O’Groats and the final stretch south back to Inverness.

It is 500 miles, give or take a kilometre, and would take us two days to complete at a dash through some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery.

The Grand Sport, we discovered as we went was a perfect car in which to accomplish this feat. Pert and agile, it took the dips and curves of the NC500 in its stride providing everything we demanded of it – even quivering to a standstill just south of a blind summit when a rather large four wheel drive lumbered too quickly into view.

It was exceedingly comfortable for which I was exceedingly grateful since I had wracked my back just two days before setting off. But most of all it was fun and easy to drive. Within minutes of getting behind the wheel I was throwing it about as if we had known each other all our lives.

Heading north we sped over cattle grids, along glens and around bays where every corner revealed another breathtaking view – and sometimes more.

“Stop,” yelled the photographer as came across a herd of Highland cattle grazing casually by the road.

“I am not getting out of this car,” I told him.  It was red after all.

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Instead I waited and watched as one came rather too close for comfort. The window stayed  up. “Must get a selfie,” said the photographer.

“Your mates won’t be impressed by that one,” I thought.

At Torridon, we stopped at the General Store for some coffee and cake. “The NC500 has been a real boost for business especially further north,” chatted the waitress.”

“We get lots of people stopping in who are doing it – it’s really taken off.”

And so did we – to Ullapool as the ferry obligingly came around the corner. Pretty and busy, it  was bathed in late afternoon sunshine and while we wanted to stay there was one last stop we meeded to make before the end of the day – the Kylesku Bridge.

The elegant and sweeping bridge crosses Loch Cairnbawn – more poetically in gaelic Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin – and in 1984 replaced the ferry which had until then transported goods and people from Kylesku to Kylestrome.

Awash in the golden light of the setting sun and with the moon rising between the mountains it was the perfect backdrop for the new Grand Sport in gleaming Vauxhall Red. This was the 1.6-litre bi-turbo diesel but so quiet that it scarcely disturbed the still Highland air.

We parked up and headed for dinner at the Kylesku Hotel tucked away under the bridge.  Day one. Tick.

John Lennon – the name niggled at me as we drove into Durness next morning.  Cold and chilly, the sky stretched out and the wind bit more coldly than the mellow evening of the night before.

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Stoic paddle boarders pulled themselves into wetsuits and marched down to the water which lapped clear and blue around rock stacks. John Lennon, yes, I recalled  – this was where he had spent childhood holidays with his aunt and uncle. Imagine.

In that very Scottish way, the local community has not forgotten him but neither have they made a huge fuss over the man. A plaque marks the cottage, some driftwood and unpolished granite marks his life in the garden of the village hall.

They say the words on the stone were written about Durness and standing in this remote windswept spot in Scotland, I hear the tune in the wind as I read them “There are places, I remember all my life, All these places had their moments with lovers and friends, In my life I’ve loved them all”. I have not thought of John Lennon in years but strangely in this isolated garden I remember him and think of what just might have been and what a lovely and fitting tribute Durness has paid to him.

This stretch of road across the north of Scotland winds in and around lochs, still water with high mountains climbing out. We race along watching as the amazingly efficient sat nav names them all.  We have no phone service but the nav on the Grand Sport is in good fettle.

Loch Eriboll is magnificent, we spot an electric charger outside the local hotel in Tongue, the isolation gives way to sand dunes and caravan parks as we get ever further east stopping at Dunnet Head, Britain’s most northerly point with its black, white and gold lighthouse.

Then it’s on to  a forlorn looking Dounreay. The nuclear power station is being decommissioned but its place in the fuel chain was startlingly clear as we approached with massive windmills all around it.

We finally reach John O’Groats our last stop before we turn south and head back to Inverness. Obligatory pic taken, it’s the east coast for us now.  The roads are better, no more passing places needed, the landscape is lusher than the savagery of the west and the wildness of the north and there are more people everywhere.

The sands are sweeping and the beaches empty but they go on for miles. As the rain begins we pass Brora, Golspie, Dornoch – pausing only to take in the splendour of fairytale Dunrobin Castle.

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Then the sun lowers and the rain stops and we revel in a brief half hour of sunshine on the Cromarty Firth with its oil platforms and cable laying barges.  After the loneliness and splendour of the earlier NC500, here is a culture shock and a reminder of our 21st century world.

We are tired and the car is a bit mucky but  one last striking word for it.  We had done far more than 500 miles (for photographic reasons) over some challenging and dramatic roads, and we had not been slouches. Yet not once had we needed to stop for fuel  – and we still had a range of 73 miles.

The rear camera came on for the last time as I parked the car in a tight city space.  Journey’s end.

by Maggie Barry, Motoring Editor, Media Scotland (including Daily Record and Sunday Mail) and a judge in Women’s World Car of the Year.

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