Driving Britain’s highest road

Commute to work daily? Then spare a thought for Katie, who works in the kitchen of the Strathcarron Hotel, in Wester Ross, north-west Scotland, writes Robin Mead. Katie lives in the remote village of Applecross, about 25 miles from Strathcarron. But between home and job lies the highest road in Britain.

One of the snags with living in Applecross, perched idyllically on the edge of a mountainous peninsula overlooking the Sound of Raasay and the Isle of Skye, is that it has no school. With a population of just 234 people, it hardly needs one. But Katie’s youngsters have to get an education and – like her job ­– the nearest school is in Strathcarron.

So every morning, come rain or shine (or snow, or gale), Katie has to pack the youngsters into her car and head for Strathcarron. It is no mean feat – as I discovered by following in her wheeltracks on her homeward journey.

First, you must traverse the hair-raising series of hairpin bends which lead up to a gloomy, threatening-looking gap in the wall of mountains known as Bealach na Ba (it means Pass of the Cattle).

In the pass itself, the narrow, single track road soars to more than 2,000ft above sea level. There’s a sheer drop on one side, and solid rock walls on the other. Bright red signs warn that the road is impassable in inclement weather. Here, one slip could lead to disaster.

“But Katie makes the journey twice a day whatever the weather, and she’s nearly always here on time,” says her boss admiringly. “I suppose a blizzard may have stopped her once or twice, but she just sees it as an ordinary daily commute.

For the rest of us, taking the road from Strathcarron to Applecross is a heart-stopping, stomach-churning, gearbox-straining exercise. But there are rewards for that difficult drive: stupendous views across to the Isle of Skye, laid out below you like a three-dimensional map. The best viewing points are clearly marked, and special parking places have been laid out so that motorists can pull off the road safely to admire the scenery.

The Gaelic name for Applecross is “A’Chomraich”, which means “sanctuary”, and the towering mountains which ring the village certainly give the impression that it nestles in a huge, protective hand.

Nevertheless, men found their way here – and made their homes here – nearly 10,000 years ago, making Applecross one of the earliest known settlements in Britain.

In some respects – and if you discount Scotland’s often harsh winter weather – those early settlers, as well as their more recent successors, found themselves in the perfect place to live. Applecross itself contrasts dramatically with the brooding, mountainous surroundings. Houses are generally scattered widely over an extensive plain. Fields stretch down to vast, empty, sandy beaches, and cattle graze contentedly on the startlingly green grass.

Wildlife is everywhere: if you want to see wild otters playing in the gentle surf, just linger on the beach for a while; watch the sky and the chances are that you will spot a magnificent golden eagle soaring effortlessly overhead.

They may lack schools and employment opportunities, but the residents of Applecross are proud of their half-hidden homeland. They have created a heritage centre at Clachan Church, which is run by the Applecross Historical Society and tells the story of the village and its neighbours, while a series of easy walks have been laid out in the attractive surroundings of the Applecross estate. Far tougher mountain hikes also start from the village.

If the drive across the Pass of the Cattle has left you slightly weak at the knees (as it did me!), there are refreshments to be found at the Applecross Inn (tel: 01520 744262), or at the quaintly-named Flower Tunnel Café (01520 744268) or Potting Shed Restaurant (01520 744440).

You’ll find the villagers friendly, and – unless you are determined to return to Strathcarron by the same character-building route – they have good news for you. There is a far easier road back to what Applecross residents think of as the outside world.

Continue around the bay, on the road you came in on, then follow the coastal road to Fearnmore (where there is a little-known standing stone), Shieldaig, and Torridon. The road still twists and turns, but is not nearly so challenging as tackling the Pass of the Cattle. From Shieldaig there is a straightforward inland road back to Strathcarron – although many visitors prefer stay in Torridon and further explore the virtually unknown corner of Britain that is the Applecross Peninsula.

Where to stay: The Strathcarron Hotel, Strathcarron, IV54 8YR (tel: 01520 722227); website: www.strathcarronhotel.co.uk. Double room with breakfast: £70. The Torridon, By Achnasheen, Wester Ross, IV22 2EY (tel: 01445 700300); website: www.thetorridon.com; e-mail: info@thetorridon.com. Double room: from £220 per night including breakfast – but a double room in its adjoining sister property, The Torridon Inn, starts at £99 for B&B, and the rate goes down the longer you stay.

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