INVERNESS, Scotland — The big sky was as clear as the back roads we had driven to reach the lighthouse on the 330-foot cliffs of Dunnet Head. The most northerly point of the island of Great Britain, Dunnet Head overlooks Pentland Firth, a straight that separates the British mainland from the Orkney Islands and is known for its fast tides. The residents of Dunnet Head — razorbills, kittiwakes, and puffins — have a magnificent panorama from their cliff ledges as far as Cape Wrath 60 miles to the west.
Resting nearby is the silver metallic 1979 Porsche 911 Turbo we’re driving on the coastal tour of the Scottish Highlands that is the North Coast 500. I first traveled the little-known loop in 2001. Said to be one of the world’s greatest coastal routes, it can be considered Britain’s answer to California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
The North Coast 500 begins and ends in the frontier town of Inverness. With a population slightly less than 50,000, it’s the most populous place in the Highlands. As you can imagine, the population of vintage Porsches is even lower. This 930 hails from Yorkshire in Northern England, where its part of a growing collection owned by entrepreneur Mike Pickles.
We picked it up in Wakefield, where we loaded our luggage and camera equipment into the front trunk and folded rear seats. After a quick driver briefing, set out for Inverness on route A1, stopping for uneventful overnighter in Stirling, a town northwest of Edinburgh.
The tea-tray spoiler and flared rear wheel arches of the 911 scream 1970s German styling, and it’s still a head turner. It wasn’t long before I was enjoying the 911, a 36-year-old car that has the power of a Fiat 500 below 3,000 rpm but turns into a true supercar once the laggy turbos finally spool up. The giant rev counter and its 6,800-rpm redline sits center stage, and I feel cosseted in the high-backed, leather-edged, rally seats that feature a red tartan cloth insert, a nice touch for our Scottish adventure.
One of 1,637 produced by Zuffenhausen in 1979, the classic coupe sits well with modern traffic. It’s small by modern standards — just 168.9 inches long, 69.9 inches wide, and weighing in at a svelte 2,866 pounds. Dial in the 3.3-liter flat-six with exhaust-driven, turbocharged air-cooled engine producing 295 hp, and you have a classic car to rival most modern automobiles. Visibility through it’s panoramic windshield and elegant narrow A-pillars set back from my eye line is wonderful, but after four hours of driving, my right leg was stiff due to a strong accelerator spring, offset floor hinged pedals, and my size 11 driving shoes.
We started our adventure with a visit of the Glen Ord distillery, which makes whisky for the Singleton, Johnnie Walker, and Dewar’s brands as well as its own label, in nearby Muir of Ord. (I am blessed with a designated whisky taster for a travel companion — my wife, Beverley.) After a fascinating tour, our basic knowledge of the amber nectar was raised to a point where we were able to not only understand the method of production (which, to my surprise, includes the use of recycled bourbon casks), but more importantly, we knew what subtle flavors to detect while drinking a single-malt Scotch.
After the tour, we set out westward on the first leg of the North Coast 500, route A832. For the first time, the 911 was taken off its leash, the boost gauge rising as we passed local farmers in trucks. The road splits in Achnasheen, a mere 28 miles west of the distillery. We turned left onto A890, taking a 36-mile detour to visit Eilean Donan Castle built on the Kyle of Lochalsh. It’s a quintessential 13th century medieval castle, restored over 20 years starting in 1911 by Lt Colonel Macrae. The castle had been bombarded by an English frigate during the Jacobite rebellion and left in ruins.
A890 started out as a two lane with a smooth surface, and we pressed on through the deserted, treeless landscape near Loch Dùghaill, the Porsche enjoying sweeping through the bends in the mountain glens. Our pace was reduced when we encountered the first section of single-track road just past the lake. Driving these sections required a quick course in single-track etiquette, which dictates that the driver closest to the pull out waits for the oncoming vehicle to pass.
From the castle, we headed to the Torridon Hotel, our overnight stop. Located in spectacular Glen Docherty, the Torridon is a restored hunting lodge that sits on the shores of Loch Torridon. Built for the first Lord Lovelace in 1887, it is five-star in all respects, starting with the welcoming log fire in the lobby. Before dinner, we ambled to the paddock to meet a herd of highland cattle with shaggy ginger coats and long horns bred for the local environment. Every way we looked, the landscape was magnificent and worthy of a fine watercolor painting. The dinner, prepared by head chef David Barnett, was no less spectacular, and the hostelry is noted for its seven-course tasting menu.
The next day started with an eastward stint on A896 until it was time to take a left onto A832. The Scotch mist rolled in from Loch Gairloch as we navigated a coastal section of the road, which gave a spectacular view of the Western Isles before turning right into thick fog. The road is a mix of fast blasts on well-surfaced two-lane pavement across a peninsula followed by cautious driving along the twisty shoreline road that cuts into the cliffside.
At an overlook at Loch Ewe, a NATO refueling base, is a historic marker commemorating the lost crews of the Atlantic merchant fleets that mustered here before running the gantlet of weather and German U-boats on route to Russia during World War II. A local quote states: “The Loch was black with ships.”
Down the hill in Aultbea, we made a short detour to the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, where Graham the proprietor was busy preparing local farm-produced salmon for its two-day smoke. The drive had become a bit of a foodie adventure, and after purchasing some of the tasty fish in a vacuum pack, it was time to press on to Ullapool, a thriving fishing and ferry port built on a promontory. Rows of white cottages sat before a glorious mountain backdrop that, alas, was obscured by a rain shower as we passed through. Fortunately, we had been lucky enough to take in the view of Loch Broom earlier while looking at the Corriehall Gorge waterfalls.
We were not the only interesting vehicle enjoying the scenic route that day. Traveling in the opposite direction was a Bentley Continental, a brace of Aston Martin Vantages, and a trio of modern Porsche 911s.
Our next overnight stop was roughly an hour away in Scourie. We arrived at the Scourie Hotel in time to be given a briefing by Fiona, the owner, on where to find the best of the famous bright-yellow sandy beaches. It’s a reminder that you can’t beat local knowledge even in the era of the smartphone.
The cozy lounge was full of guests talking fishing, and one party was planning a boat trip in search of local otters. As I looked around, I noticed that the walls were decked with trophy river trout, and while leafing through the fishing log on the hall table, I noticed that records went back to 1912. The hotel has numerous rights to fish on local lochs, and generations of fishermen and women return to the hotel to fish the waters each year.
Fiona’s advice lead us to Balnakeil Beach, where we were greeted with a blue sky and fluffy cumulus clouds. It’s a classic crescent-shaped bay backed by dunes where the Atlantic rollers break a quarter mile out to sea. It looks idyllic, but a 25 mph wind makes for a bracing walk.
Back in the Porsche I prepared to launch the car up the 16 percent steep hill to Durness, where hot chocolate awaited at Cocoa Mountain chocolatier. Most of the day’s drive consisted of a tour around the beautiful sea Loch Eriboll, which was followed by a fast drive over moorland.
Because the 930 911 Turbo was a homologation special, Porsche engineers used the turbo and brakes derived from the 917 Can Am cars, giving it first-class acceleration and deceleration — useful attributes on this road trip. We developed a star system for the road sections, Beverley grading the stunning views riding shotgun, and I rating the driving pleasure, most sections earning top marks. On a long stretch to the Caithness, country traffic was so light, a Mercedes C63 AMG was the only car to pass us.
After the visit to Dunnet Head lighthouse we made our way to John O’Groats, the location of our overnight stay in the brightly coloured Natural Retreats apartments that cling to the cliffs on Britain’s far north. They’re a great stopover for location a group of couples tackling the North Coast 500. The location is named after Jan de Groot, a Dutch seafarer who operated his ferry to the Orkneys from 1496. The current ferry was in the harbor below preparing for summer services.
We turned south onto the 500’s final stage, route A9, which was traffic-free due to our early Sunday start. The highway meandered over the landscape, and progress was brisk, although care was taken on damp and slippery 180-degree bends. We had a delicious lunch in the Carnegie Courthouse in Dornoch, where the American industrialist became Laird in his later years.
After nearly 600 fantastic miles in the 911 Turbo, the final night was spent at the Factor’s House boutique bed and breakfast in the historic highland township of Cromarty. Situated northeast of Inverness, it overlooks the Cromarty Firth. Fiona and Graham gave us a warm welcome, their car park often accommodating North Coast 500 adventurers. We compared notes about what the London Times call one of the world’s top five coastal routes. Our conclusion is that, in our experience, it’s No. 1!
The North Coast 500 route travels through a remote area of Scotland, and pre-booking for the limited accommodation is essential.
1979 Porsche 911 Turbo Specifications
|ENGINE||3.3L twin-turbo SOHC 12-valve flat-6/300 hp @ 5,500 rpm,
304 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||168.9 x 66.9 x 63.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.9 sec|
|TOP SPEED||162 mph|