After years spent halfway across the U.S. from each other, a brother and sister reconnect with a rockin’ road trip along the Scottish Highlands’ North Coast 500
Every road trip needs a soundtrack. When you’re driving Scotland’s North Coast 500—a 516- mile route circling the upper Highlands, around rugged mountains and rocky shores, majestic lochs and lush glens—there’s only one option for the first track:
“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” The Proclaimers
My brother Rob is at the wheel of our pristine 2020 Range Rover Evoque, and as we pull out of Inverness on this gray October morning, through what feels like 10 roundabouts, I cue up the song and, no joke, a rainbow appears in the sky. That’s the power of rock ’n’ roll for you. We sing along to the da da dat das full-voice, drumming on the dash, in disbelief that we’re here, about to embark on a weeklong journey with each other. The last time we spent a week together was in 1999, right before Rob got married, when I was a sophomore in college. Are we worried that we’ll kill each other before the trip is over? Sure. Am I more worried that Rob will want to listen only to Huey Lewis and the News for the entire journey? Oh yeah. But I’m prepared, with a fully curated Scottish playlist. Let the games begin.
This trip has been a long time coming. Rob and I first read about the North Coast 500 a few years ago, and we vowed to do it. Together. But finding a week we could do it, what with our families and jobs and life in general, took a while. We’re Scottish—or at least our granddad, born and raised in Edinburgh, was—and we’ve always been much more enamored of that part of our makeup than of our English or German ancestry. We’re Frasers (yes, like the guy on Outlander), and growing up, we loved the Fraser tartan blankets on our beds; memorized the land divisions of the clan map on our kitchen wall in Murray, Kentucky; and watched a VHS of Brigadoon more times than advised. Our mom told us stories about our great-great-great-grandfather William Fraser, a sheep farmer who had 17 children with his three wives, the last of whom was our great-great-great-grandmother Lizzie MacGregor, a descendant of the Scottish folk hero Rob Roy. (And yes, I’ve always felt a kinship to Liam Neeson because of this.) We’re also, I should tell you, music people. Rob spent 15 years fronting a rock band, and I put in a decade working at music magazines. The right song at the right time means something to us. Especially on a trip like this.
Now, 500 miles may not seem like much. Heck, The Proclaimers—twin brothers from Edinburgh who peaked on the charts in the early ’90s, in case you’re not familiar—said they could walk it, no trouble at all, to prove their love. But here in the Highlands, 500 miles is a lot, with seemingly endless options for travelers. The NC500 official site offers itineraries for whiskey lovers, foodies, golfers, adventurers (you can buy a membership for less than $20 to access all of these). Rob and I are most interested in waterfalls, seals, castles, and food. And, well, bonding. Nowadays, we’re lucky if we talk on the phone once a month.
First up: waterfalls. Rogie Falls and Corrieshalloch Gorge are a one-two punch less than an hour outside Inverness. The first is a big, sturdy cascade—nothing like those dainty falls in Hawaii. It’s very … Scottish. When we cross the suspension bridge, I jump on it to make it shake when my brother is right in the middle—as any little sister should. Corrieshalloch, just about 20 minutes farther, offers a gorgeous, impossible-to-photograph 200-foot plunge, plus a bonus waterfall, the 150-foot-high Falls of Measach. Rob is beside himself. I had no idea my 43-year-old brother was such a sucker for waterfalls.
We’re feeling great, excited for what’s to come, our jet lag disguising itself as manic energy. And then the next song comes pouring through the Evoque’s epic sound system.
“Highway to Hell,” AC/DC
You probably think of AC/DC as an Australian band, don’t you? Fair enough. Malcolm and Angus Young formed the group in Sydney in 1973. But! They were born in Scotland. (The name Angus is a dead giveaway.) Anyway, the song comes on at a strategic moment: when we turn onto the Bealach na Bà, a one-lane mountain pass that Rob has been alternately looking forward to and dreading all day. This stretch of road climbs 2,054 feet and is packed with switchbacks, 20 percent gradients, rocky dropoffs, and hairpin turns. “This is gonna be bonkers,” Rob says, as we start the ascent. I grip my seat. The map on the Evoque’s infotainment system says Loch Kishorn is right next to us, but it’s blanketed in so much fog that we can’t see it. “I feel like we’re in Mordor, and this is the drive up to Mount Doom,” says Rob, who, as you can tell, is a big nerd.
There are “passing place” signs about every half-mile, encouraging cars to pull off to a parking-spot-size area to let an oncoming car go by. “I think the passing place might be literal,” I joke. “This is our passing place, where we’ll ascend into heaven.”
Pop! Pop! “Oh my god, I jinxed us!” I shout. The car dips to the left. We’ve obviously popped a tire. But no worry, we have a spare. Rob very slowly navigates to the next passing place, and I hop out to assess the damage. Two popped tires. That’s what I get for playing AC/DC on the most treacherous road in Scotland.
There’s no cell service here, so we decide to keep going—it’s only one more mile until we reach the end of the pass and the town of Applecross. Rob grips the steering wheel and soldiers on at about 5 mph. I apologize to the car. As soon as we curve into town, we park and head into the Applecross Inn. I tell the waitress our sob story, and she hands me a phone and recites the number for the garage. I take it this is a common occurrence. I figure we’ll eat lunch, and by the time we’re done we’ll be fixed up and ready to hit the road. The guy at the garage quickly bursts my bubble. “We don’t have tires that fit that car,” he tells me. “I’ll send you a tow.”
Rob is physically shaking at this point, a mix of jet lag and anxiety, so I get us beers—I figure neither of us is doing any more driving today. I can see him relax, though, when Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to Be Square” comes pouring through the bar’s speakers. (I’m not kidding about his love for Huey.) After some seriously delicious fish and chips, we start feeling better and are able to laugh at this first-day blip.
Two hours later, our tow-truck driver, an amiable Scotsman named Gavin, arrives. “This is our third car today,” he tells us as he loads up our Evoque. “In the summer, we get 20 to 30 tires popping a day on the Bealach na Bà!” This makes us feel a bit better, but also a bit nervous when Gavin decides to head back over the pass in his giant tow truck. For him, though, this is no highway to hell. He takes the switchback turns with ease. Show-off. The sky has cleared, and what was Mount Doom before now seems more like the Shire: rolling green hills, waterfalls trickling down the mountains, deer grazing along the side of the curving road.
We pull into the Torridon, our luxurious hotel along a sea loch in Wester Ross, just as the sun is setting. Gavin maneuvers the truck up the narrow drive, and every well-to-do person in the white-tableclothed dining room looks out the window at us, aghast. We laugh it off and spend the rest of the night eating and drinking our worries away: lemon sole, duck liver terrine, Highland beef with a rich mushroom sauce. I’m not a Scotch drinker—I’ve always thought it tastes like a Band-Aid—but considering that the hotel’s bar boasts more than 365 of them, and considering the day we’ve had, I figure I should give it a try. Upon hearing I’m a bourbon fan, our Poirot-lookalike server brings me a pour of Glen Scotia Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Turns out I’m a Scotch fan after all.
“Another Sunny Day,” Belle and Sebastian
We wake up to a call from the garage. There are no tires in the Highlands, so we have to be towed back to Inverness to get a new car and start the drive all over again. This means we’ll miss our planned morning of kayaking with harbor seals—the activity I’ve most been looking forward to, as I’ve been a full-on seal obsessive since I was 2. I want to cry. But instead I put on Belle and Sebastian while Rob and I get ready. Even if the lyrics are sad, those poppy Glaswegians always make me happy. I look out the window at the hirsute Highland coos grazing on the Torridon property, and I can’t help but smile. So what if we have to start over? We’re in Scotland. The sun is out. We’re healthy. We have Wi-Fi. All is well.
Today’s driver, Robert, skips the Bealach na Bà and stays on the main roads. Smart man. By 3 p.m. we’re back in another Range Rover—this time a Velar, slightly bigger than our Evoque but just as beautiful to handle—and once again setting out from Inverness. I take the driver’s seat (Rob’s not sure he ever wants to drive again) and we cue up The Proclaimers a second time as we hit the A9. No rainbows this time, just sunshine and blue skies all the way to Ullapool, a picturesque seaside town with a boat-filled harbor. We get out and search for seals. No luck.
From there we cruise on to the 16th-century Ardvreck Castle, which is just in ruins now, situated on a rocky promontory overlooking Loch Assynt in Sutherland. But once, you can tell, it was something amazing. It’s almost dusk, and we have the place all to ourselves, apart from the dozens of sheep milling about. The two ghosts who are said to haunt the castle ruins don’t bother us as we run up and down the hills, arms spread wide, dancing as if we’re in some Spinal Tap music video. The last of the day’s light hits the castle at the ideal angle, so it reflects in the lake, the mountains behind framing the whole scene. A V of geese flies overhead, honking hello. It’s too perfect. The stress of our tire mishap and the fact that we missed almost a full day of planned sights and activities dissipates. This is enough.
“Only Happy When It Rains,” Garbage
We start the next day—a rainy one—with a full Scottish breakfast at the charming Inver Lodge, and afterward I get to chatting with Janet, the friendly Scotswoman working the front desk. “The Highlands are like North America on steroids,” she says, and I can’t help but agree. She recommends a couple of beaches nearby to visit, and just a few minutes later we pull up to Achmelvich, a pristine white-sand beach framed by a field of sea grass that reminds me of South Carolina. The whipping wind keeps us from lingering, and soon we’re back in the car, seat heaters on. A stop at Clachtoll Beach is cut short by a sudden downpour. Rain is just a fact of life here, which is fine by me, because we have a full rock-block of Scottish rain songs to get us to our next stop: My favorite redheaded Scotswoman, Shirley Manson (I once spent a weekend on the Garbage tour bus, driving through Texas, for a story), gets things started, and then we segue into the Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again,” Travis’s “Why Does It Always Rain on Me,” and Average White Band’s “Stop the Rain.”
It’s still pouring when we pull into the quiet fishing hamlet of Kylesku for lunch. Having barely seen any other people so far today, we’re shocked at how crowded it is in the cozy downstairs restaurant at the Kylesku Hotel. We score a table looking out on the bay and order big bowls of cullen skink—basically the Scottish version of clam chowder, but way better, and made with smoked haddock. A rainbow spreads across the sky, and all of a sudden a harbor seal pops its head out of the water. I squeal, loudly, and everyone in the restaurant turns to gawk at me.
After some decadent sticky toffee pudding and a proper cup of tea, we continue on to Smoo Cave, the largest coastline cave in the British Isles, nestled into the limestone cliffs near Durness. Legend has it that 19 bodies were hidden here by a murderous highwayman in the 1600s, and as we make our way along the slippery limestone and into the mouth of the cave, I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s dark and spooky, and a thunderous waterfall makes it impossible for us to hear each other speak.
The drive from here to our next lodging at Forss House in Thurso covers almost the entire northern stretch of the country, and, I have to admit, we drift from our Scotland-only soundtrack and allow a playlist of ’90s jams (Third Eye Blind and Semisonic, I’m looking at you) to get us through. We crack up at the “Slow Deer” signs posted here and there (“They’re not very bright,” notes Rob) and pause to let a family of deer cross literally in front of a “Deer Crossing” sign. The regal stag stands frozen, staring at us for a moment, and I feel like Helen Mirren in The Queen. She drove a Land Rover too, you know.
“In a Big Country,” Big Country
The next morning, after we fortify ourselves with another full Scottish breakfast at Forss House, Rob gets back on the horse for a full day of driving. “In a Big Country”—the Fife rockers’ only U.S. Top 40 hit—seems fitting to kick things off, because this is a very big day indeed, with multiple stops planned: Duncansby Head, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the Whaligoe Steps… First up is Dunnet Head Lighthouse. We ask a young woman to take our picture, marking our arrival at the northernmost spot in mainland Britain, and she tells us she sat opposite us at breakfast this morning. It’s touching to know that most people up here are on the same path we are. Just with a different soundtrack.
As we continue on, we pass the time naming our top 10 albums of all time. Many of mine are Rob’s. After all, one of a big brother’s most important jobs is to give his sister a strong musical foundation. (Michael Penn and Crowded House? Yes. Huey Lewis? Not so much.) At Duncansby Head, we park and walk down a long, muddy path beyond a lighthouse, through a veritable minefield of sheep poop, to get a clear look at the sea stacks. These giant cone-shaped columns of jagged rock are blanketed in green moss and look vaguely alive, as if they might be spikes on the back of a dragon slumbering in the water below.
Following a lunch of chicken and leek pie on the shortest street in the world, in Wick, we explore Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, a well-preserved medieval site perched precariously on a sea inlet, and then head south toward the Whaligoe Steps, a stone stairway with 365 steps leading down to a harbor. When we pull up, we see a “closed” sign, a huge bummer, but we get out of the car anyway to see if we can get a good look at the steps, which were constructed in the late 1700s. “Are you going to the steps?” asks a worker in a thick Scottish brogue. “No,” Rob responds. “Since it’s closed, we’re just going to look.” The guy smiles: “I’m the man fixing it. You can go down there. I just have to post up that sign by law.”
It’s a steep climb down the steps, which wrap around the 250-foot cliff face. Apparently the women of the area would descend each day to meet the fishing boats and then carry the catch back up. Definitely a good glute workout.
As soon as we reach the last step, a seal pops its head out of the water. Then another, and another. I’m ecstatic. Two other groups of tourists make their way down, and we overhear them talking about popping a tire on the Bealach na Bà. I’m starting to think that if you didn’t pop a tire on the Bealach na Bà, you didn’t really drive the North Coast 500.
From here, it’s an easy 55 miles to the town of Dornoch, where we’re staying at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which we’ve been told has a great whiskey bar. Rob, amazingly, hasn’t had any whiskey our entire trip, but he promises this is the night. We each splurge on a flight, but we’re tired and cranky, and for the first time in five days, we’re short with each other. He leaves to go call his daughters, and I sit and finish my whiskey alone. It’s only two hours later, when I’m lying in bed unable to sleep, that I realize why we fought: Tomorrow’s our last day. After that, we’ll fly back to our homes, halfway across the U.S. from each other, and this trip will be over. We fought because we both want to make saying goodbye easier.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds
You know what’s the worst part about this road trip coming to an end? I won’t get to see my brother for another year.
In the morning, Rob and I wake to the most glorious blue-sky Sunday. The bells at the cathedral across the street sing good morning. I walk over to explore the old graveyard, where I find a Calder gravestone (my son’s name is Calder) right across from a Fraser gravestone. Nearby is a marker bearing the name of our Kentucky hometown, Murray. I feel like my whole life is laid out before me in stone.
I don’t want to get back in the car. We’re only an hour from Inverness, an hour from completing the drive. It’s been a huge change to go from seeing Rob once a year to spending 24 hours a day with him—sitting next to him in the car, eating every meal together, sleeping in twin beds 5 inches apart like Bert and Ernie—but somehow it has seemed totally natural. What’s strange, what’s stupid, I realize, is that we live 800 miles from each other. That our kids barely know each other and seem to grow a foot between visits. That FaceTime is the main way our family interacts. What this tour of our ancestral homeland has really driven home is that we need to prioritize family.
Simple Minds, I decide, is the way to end it. I don’t want to forget about it. I want this to be the catalyst that makes us plan more trips, more time with each other, more meaningful experiences. We both sing along—“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t!”—drumming on the dash just as we did when we started the trip. Those don’ts are a promise.
When we reach Inverness, there’s no finish line, no cheering crowd waiting for us. Just a new mile-marker to begin. And a new soundtrack to create together.
Listen to the Playlist
Where to Stay
Visitors to this new luxury hotel in Inverness are greeted with a glass of bubbly and a sense of calm—exactly what you need after a long flight and drive. A former 19th-century home, the 47-room hotel is only a 10-minute walk from downtown Inverness’s charming shops and restaurants, including local favorite The Mustard Seed, where the best Scottish ingredients make for a memorable first meal in the country.
Rugged mountains provide a breathtaking backdrop for this former hunting lodge built by an earl in 1887 on Loch Torridon in Wester Ross. Each of the hotel’s 18 rooms and suites is uniquely decorated, featuring claw-foot tubs and statement wallpapers and linens. The 1887 Restaurant pairs impeccable service and elevated dishes such as Highland beef with oyster mushrooms and onion farcie.
Inver Lodge Hotel
On a hill overlooking the quaint fishing village of Lochinver, this 21-room hotel couldn’t feel homier, what with its cozy fireplace and tartan blankets and carpeting. In the round dining room, chairs are arranged to face the floor-to-ceiling windows so everyone can take in the sunset while enjoying house-cured Scottish salmon and pan-fried duck breast.
The River Forss rushes by this rustic fishing lodge, located on 20 acres of Woodlands near Thurso in Caithness. Rooms are decorated with vintage fishing baskets, nets, and black-and-white pictures of great catches. In the main building, dozens of pendulum clocks share wall space with trophy heads. For dinner, the fish of the day is in order, of course.
Dornoch Castle Hotel
A former bishop’s home built in the 1500s, this picturesque stone castle sits across from the 13th-century Dornoch Cathedral. In warmer months, enjoy a pint at a picnic table in the courtyard before indulging in a meal of venison loin with a black pudding torte at Grant MacNicol at the Castle. End the night with a whiskey flight by the fire.
The Edinburgh Grand
The sleek apartment-style offerings at this hotel are indeed grand, with plenty of space to spread out on your last night in Scotland. Located on St. Andrew Square, just a 10-minute walk from Edinburgh Castle, it also houses an outpost of the hip London steakhouse Hawksmoor, where a fillet and triple-cooked chips are a delicious finale to your Scottish adventure.