The North Coast 500 - Day 1 - Dornie To Big Sand

I can't believe I've been back from my Scottish road trip for a month already, it's taken me a while to settle back into the rhythm of things. But I've been looking forward to sharing my photos with you, and it seems like the right time! I thought I'd split my trip up into days so as not to bombard you with too much, but it feels like this first one is a biggy, so I hope you'll stay with me. Before I start chatting about the trip, I just thought I'd tell you a little bit about why I did it, and how important the journey became to me. So I'll jump straight in. 

I've lived with panic attacks since I was 21. It shocked me recently when I realised that this is more than half my life. It is an ugly and frightening thing, it is physically and mentally draining. First, my heart lurches, then along come the sweats, dry mouth, gasping for breath. My ever increasing heart rate thumps in my chest, and I always think that this is the one that will lead to a heart attack (even though I know this is all down to hyperventilation). It is very clever and manipulative. It doesn't interrupt my work (which I'm so thankful for), but it loves to manifest itself when we're going to social occasions, or about to travel somewhere for pleasure. I can't tell you how many trips we've had to rearrange as I've been so frightened of having a panic attack. This anxiety has led to depression over the past couple of years, I've found it really hard to even say that word. At the beginning of the year, after being in bed with flu for a week, it hit me, and it was a pretty dark, scary place. I am grateful for having amazing support around me, and Suzi is just incredible, she surprises me constantly with her compassion and understanding.

Coming out of it, all I could think about to help heal and to regain self confidence and belief in myself, was a trip to the wilds of Scotland. I'd heard about the North Coast 500, a journey around the northern tip of Scotland, from west to east hugging the coastline. I really enjoy driving, so I wasn't worried about that element, it was the travelling away from home for an extended period, and the being alone that I was more worried about. But I felt I needed this trip so much that the excitement outweighed the panic.

So, on Saturday 18th March, I packed up the trusty Corsa, left the cobbles, and travelled up to my cousin's house in the Bridge of Allan to break up the journey up to the Highlands. It was good to catch up with family. 

The next morning I set off for Dornie, the next stop before I started the NC500. I drove through all sorts of weather, but just before Glencoe, the clouds parted to reveal blue sky and snowy mountain peaks. I find that Glencoe attacks all my senses, it is beautiful and brutal with its rugged & scarred landscape.

I arrived at my Airbnb in Dornie, overlooking Loch Long. The silloutte mountains of Skye in the distance were illuminated by the most incredible light that was breaking through dark clouds. 

The next morning my NC500 trip officially started. Just before breakfast I went for a short walk up the hill to look down on Eilean Donan Castle.  Apparently it's the most photographed castle in Scotland.

I set off into a thick grey sky, rain carried in veils towards me. But as I travelled along Loch Carron, the sun came through again. The sight of water, mountain and snow seemed to trigger something deep inside, in fact I cried. 'This is why I'm doing this' I wrote in my journal. And then I felt myself letting go. Letting go of the thoughts of how I was going to be on this trip, letting go of the photos I'd already planned in my head, the film I wanted to make, the words I wanted to write. I let go of who I wanted to be on the trip and just decided to be in it, in that moment.

I'd heard so much about the road to Applecross, but I don't think anything could have prepared me for how stunning the drive was. As I approached it, I did start to jangle with a few nerves as I'd heard this single track road was a bit of a white knuckle ride. 

I slowly climbed out of Tornapress, where I was greeted with this sign.

The single track road hugs the mountainside in a series of twists and turns. I stopped in a few places to look back and take photos. I screamed loudly into the wind - there's something to be said for doing this. It felt powerful, that feeling vibrating through my body.

The road became much windier as it twisted around as I reached the summit. There was grit on the road and dirty snow drifts on the sharp bends. As soon as I reached the top, the heady mix of snow and hail came in, horizontal balls of ice ricocheting off the roof and bonnet of the car, as it shook violently in the wind.

But as before, the clouds quickly scudded away to reveal snowy mountains. Other travellers were trying to put coats on in the gale, everyone being buffeted, jackets like super hero cloaks stretching out behind them. Ruddy cheeked faces peeped out from tightly pulled cagoule hoods, and there was much dramatic blowing on hands through pursed lips.

As I arrived in Applecross the sun broke free and the wind died down.  This little village is beautiful. I sat in the Applecross Inn by the log fire, looking out onto choppy waters and to Skye beyond. I'd forgotten how much I love just pootling around in the car, without a purpose in mind, just taking it in and seeing where different roads lead. I met some smiley inquisitive sheep down at Toscaig Pier. When I put this photo up on Twitter, I had a reply from an Applecross resident telling me the names of the family that own them! 

Before I set off on my trip, I was really hoping I'd get to see a golden eagle. So when I read signs to Eagle Rock, Eagle View and Eagle Point on my journey, I had very high hopes! I was just listening to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac as I drove around the Applecross Peninsula, and Songbird came on. The timing seemed fortuitous as I spotted a large bird soaring out of the corner of my eye. I'd already been conned by a few seagulls and a large crow, so I stopped the car to take a closer look. In the background, a rainbow. I was in awe. This is the moment I thought. It turned out to be a buzzard, but it was beautiful all the same. The golden eagle will have to wait for next time as I didn't spot one for the entire trip.

There is a wonderful Scottish word - dreich. I love the way it sounds, every letter drawn out and accentuated. It perfectly embodies the kind of shambolic weather you can get on the west coast - rain, wind, and a big dollop of grey.

I carried on around the headland. When I was planning my trip, I saw many pictures of this cute abode, and felt I needed to add to the collection of shots of this house with the red roof.

And then I drove through the various brown tones of Glen Torridon with its rugged landscape; it seemed quite harsh in the stormy light.

I hadn't really planned places I was going to stop and eat, apart from the amazing Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe. Many travellers before me had included it in their itinerary, and I certainly didn't want to miss out! The poppy-seed and lemon drizzle cake was something to behold.

I was on the last stretch of my day's drive, which included beautiful views along Loch Maree. I saw my 5th rainbow of the day, but this was by far the brightest.

My Airbnb for the evening was a wooden cabin in Big Sand, a remote crofting village close to Gairloch. I reached it just as the sky drained of colour, and as the light faded, a few stars pierced through gaps in the dark clouds. I settled in for the night in my little cosy cabin. A cup of hot tea in my hand and maps strewn on the table, I finalised plans for the next day of my trip.

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