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The road to the Highlands

Scotland can be as beautiful in midwinter as at any other time of year, as Norman Wright discovered

Some of the world’s greatest scenic drives criss-cross the Highlands of Scotland, especially beautiful in the long hours of summer daylight. But what about in the dark month of January

As we skirted the Cairngorms on our way from Perth to Inverness we got our answer.

A scattering of green grazing land in the valley gives way to multiple shades of brown bracken as the land rolls upwards to the grey granite cliffs and tors of the mountains. And the highest tops have an icing sugar sprinkling of snow. The view is spectacular already and it is only going to get better. So far winter in the Highlands is fine by us.

And it does get better as the A9, one of Britain’s longest A roads, turns east towards Aviemore alongside the River Spey. The water sparkles over the rocks and tumbles from the burns carrying it from the high ground.

Not that our journey earlier wasn’t enjoyable. The scenery really started as we turned off the A1 at Scotch Corner and headed across towards Penrith edging along the Yorkshire Dales.

Then up the M6 past Gretna Green and skirting Glasgow to Stirling. As usual we were on a tight timetable but this trip would be brilliant if you had a couple of weeks.

Stirling is a good place to break the journey. The magnificent Stirling Castle overlooking the town is an important part of Scottish history as is the memorial to Scottish hero William Wallace just outside the town. Doune Castle, a few miles off the A9, is an icon of comedy history as the setting for the film Monty Python and The Holy Grail, a heritage that the castle makes the very most of. If you enjoyed the film you will appreciate what the Pythons managed to make of basically a ruin.

On the way north to Perth we passed the world famous Gleneagles Hotel and golf course. A few years ago we took a cheeky picture of a car in the impressive drive with the hotel as backdrop before we attracted the attention of the doorman, but this time we decided not to take the liberty.

There’s more heritage just outside Perth, the Palace of Scone, the traditional coronation place of 38 Scottish Kings.

After Aviemore the route heads north towards Inverness with moorland and bracken covered hills either side, crossing the shining River Findhorn.

The site of the famous Battle of Culloden is just five miles east of Inverness with a National Trust for Scotland visitor centre to interpret the final conflict in the Jacobite rebellion and defeat for Bonny Prince Charlie’s forces.

Earlier they came close to victory as his army cut swathes into northern England. With London arguably at his mercy, the Prince inexplicably halted at Derby and withdrew into Scotland. In April 1746 they were comprehensively defeated by the Duke of Cumberland’s redcoats.

This led to the Prince’s flight to the west coast and to Skye to be taken into exile. We will be heading the same way in the morning but first a night in the heart of Inverness at the Highland Apartments.

From the underground car park to the corner two bedroomed apartment this was five star luxury.

The building was right in the heart of the city with balconies looking over the centre on one side and on the other over the surging River Ness. The view only got better as night fell and the lights of the bridge and riverside restaurants and shops began to twinkle.

The apartment itself was beautifully furnished with a living/dining kitchen and two en-suite bedrooms. The space and the absence of restrictions made it so much more relaxed than the usual hotel stay.

Just a few yards from the city’s restaurants we could have eaten out but took advantage of the well-equipped kitchen to rustle up dinner and breakfast in house.

It was just what we needed after the 500-mile drive from Choice’s home in Peterborough. A meal and a glass of wine and we were both nodding off in front of the TV.

In the morning we headed west as the road followed the northern shore of Loch Ness for many miles. The long narrow loch was steely grey on an overcast and rainy day. We didn’t spot the monster but the impassive waters certainly looked capable of hosting one.

Before reaching the end of the loch at Fort Augustus we headed onto the A887 which tracks the course of the River Moriston fed by spectacular burns tearing down from the hills. Photographer Nicholls bravely endured a soaking rainstorm to get his pictures of the tumbling, gushing streams.

We were intrigued by a roadside memorial just before the junction with the A87. It turned out to be another connection with Prince Charlie’s flight to Skye.

Colonel Roderick Mackenzie, one of the Prince’s officers and part of his bodyguard, chosen partly for his resemblance to the Prince, was being pursued by the Duke of Cumberland’s men.

He could have escaped into the hills that were hiding his leader but bravely turned to fight and buy time for the Prince’s escape. His final act came when he was cut down and with his last breath called out: “You have killed your Prince.”

The resemblance was enough to confuse the Duke’s men. Gruesomely they cut off Mackenzie’s head and took it to the Duke for identification and then on to London. No one could be sure but it took the heat out of the pursuit and the Prince eventually escaped to the continent.

For us it was on to Skye too. Not by rowing boat but over the sea on the Skye bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Just before the road sweeps around the rocky seascape to the bridge we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie to take pictures of the 2019 Touareg lent to us by Volkswagen. A magnificent setting for a superb motor – and no danger of an irate doorman to tell us off for pinching their backdrop.

The story of our brief stay on Skye was in last month’s Choice and if you missed it you can click here to view it.

So after that break we were driving back over the bridge with another 500 miles in front of us and another scenic route that, along with the Touareg, made the journey fly by.

Scenery to savour

The rainy weather of the previous couple of days was gradually lifting as we seemed to drift past Lochs Cloune, Loyne and Garry to rejoin the A82 heading to Fort William.

Just before Spean Bridge, with the weather clearing all the time, we stopped of at the moving memorial to the British Commandos of the Second World War who trained in the hilly country around.

An imposing bronze sculpture of three commandos by Scott Sutherland dominates the site. “United we conquer” is inscribed around the top of the stone plinth, while the original plaque on the stone plinth reads: “In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939–1945. This country was their training ground.”

The views of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mòr from the memorial are superb, with a snow covering being lit and relit by sunlight as the clouds scudded by.

We must have still been bewitched by the views as we took a wrong turning at Spean Bridge onto the A86 and headed east to join the A9 back south to Perth.

Our intention was to carry on to Fort William and Glencoe back to Glasgow via the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.

It turned out to be not so bad an error as the road back to the A9 was a treasure. It swooped and twisted through the mountains; a pleasure to drive. At least that’s what Clive told me.

We split the driving on the way up. On the way back he enjoyed the Touareg so much that he wouldn’t let me have a go and did the full 500 odd miles himself. After just a few miles in most cars, let alone 500, we would both normally leave our seats muttering about aches and stiffness. This did not happen in the Touareg. We travelled in real comfort, ate up the miles and found it a real pleasure to drive, especially on those scenic routes.

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