driving the NC500: Edinburgh to Inverness

Hello! I promise food recipes will be starting soon. Promise. But until then, here’s part two of my NC500 trip! Enjoy all.

If you’re so inclined, you can click here to read the first part of this story of my trip around the NC500. There’s glitz, there’s glamour, there’s a shot of me carrying some milk in a lift that’ll leave you questioning your life choices when you look over at the drab state of your partner. What more could you possibly want? As in the previous entry, I would absolutely love feedback in the form of comments or Facebook messages. This is a ‘new’ thing for me, writing so exhaustively, and I love it – but let me know if I’m going in the wrong direction!

Welcome back. You left me, like I always knew you would deep down, in Edinburgh, tucked up in bed reading my Stephen King novel and missing my husband terribly. Not even kidding: having to bring my own tea, scratch my own feet, shout at myself for brushing my teeth in the wrong key, it was honestly exhausting. I slept like a log, conscious of the fact I had to rise early to beat the traffic warden to my parking space. The night before I had set my usual raft of alarms, spaced out at four minute intervals (purely so I feel like Madonna first thing), and knew that as long as I was up by 7.40am, I could throw my belongings into my suitcase, have a shower and be on my way to slide out of the street with a ‘what-am-I-like’ wave to the traffic warden. Easy.

Not so easy – with the leisurely air of someone who never has to normally get up early unless he’s going on holiday or the house is on fire, I snoozed all of the alarms, choosing to gamble on the old ‘I’ll shut my eyes, I’m awake, it’s just a bit too bright’ routine. I woke with a start at 7.55am, screaming even more so than usual, hurtled out of bed, packed my things and then spent a good five minutes clawing at the door lock like I was a heroine in a Scream movie. ‘They should put some fucking instructions on this stupid fucking lock‘ I bellowed, ignoring the fact that they had indeed put some fucking instructions on the fucking lock and I was just being too hysterical to read them. After a fashion and police intervention I was released and despite arriving at my car mere moments after 8am, red-faced and panting as though I’d shot my bolt in the lift coming down, I was too late – the traffic warden was just popping the ticket under my windscreen wiper. He pointed to the ticket and said ‘parking fine’, to which I replied ‘oh thank you, I try my best’.

I didn’t, and that joke is as old as Paul’s mother and twice as creaky, but I love it. I wasn’t going to argue with the chap: he was doing his job and I had broken the rules, so all is fair. I can’t be done with those who think spitting and swearing at someone for enforcing the rules is good behaviour. I gave him a tinkly laugh, promised to pay it just as quick as I could, then as soon as his back was turned gave him the finger, wished ill upon all he loved and tried to telekinetically push his silly little bicycle into the canal. However, I’m not Carrie, regardless of how often Paul tells me he can see my dirty pillows, so he went away unscathed.

Now, because I do so hate being told off, this whole exchange put me in a bad mood. Knowing that driving when I’m angry is always a bad idea (not because I speed or get aggressive, but simply because I spend so long coming up with the perfect comeback in any fight or argument that I get distracted and stray from my destination) I decided to quickly nip into Edinburgh again to do a bit of shopping and to find something relatively healthy. The shopping part was easy – Edinburgh has an amazing pipe shop and it’s been closed for so long that it was a joy to go scatter money around their counter again. I’m a collector and they had some terrific pieces that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. I spotted that most of Leith Walk was being dug up to either put a tramline in or take a tramline out (honestly, Edinburgh, it’s been that bloody long since it started that frankly I’ve given up trying to follow what’s going on with your trams, though it seems as though they’re on the right lines) and as a result, the whole street was utterly awash with very handsome men in hi-vis gear swearing at each other and doing terribly impressive things with tools.

Love me, love me, say that you love me

I opted for a coffee from Artisan Coffee Leith, knowing that I could continue my quest to find a decent alternative to milk in there on this trip around the NC500. I’m experimenting purely because I want to see if I can find a non-dairy version that works for me. You must understand that I’ve tried all sorts: rice milk, coconut milk, double cream, hemp milk, pea milk (how, someone tell me, do you get milk from a bloody pea – I mean I have some idea given past experiences with partners on the small side, but I’d love to know), quinoa milk and almond milk. They’re utterly awful, each and all, but you can’t accuse me of not trying. I think I would get more taste and satisfaction from tipping a sample of Wilko White Emulsion into my coffee. Anyway, I digress: I ordered an oat milk something which was actually really good once I’d blown off the froth off and revealed the teaspoon of coffee lurking at the bottom (my fault for ordering what I did, I’m casting no aspersions) and settled down to pay close attention to the workers in front of me.

A merry half hour was spent there, playing on my phone, drinking my coffee and people watching. Indeed, I was only broken from my ‘how do I become a seat-cushion in a mini-digger’ searching by the appearance of a pug jumping up at my leg. I remember looking down into its face, its eye bulging and nose whistling and leering grin full of love, and realised that I was nothing if not this pug in human form. Take a look for yourself – compare the picture of me above with this lovely photo of the pug that was pawing at me.

Fool me, fool me, go on and fool me

It was perhaps time to move on. Before I do though, may I just take a moment to make a plea to dog-owners. Well, two. I bloody love dogs, would love one of my own – a well-trained Springador to fetch my (new) pipe and (old) slippers, for example – but I do wish owners wouldn’t let their dogs run up to people and start scrabbling at their legs. There’s always the fear that the dog might not be as friendly as expected, not least when it gets a whiff of my gooch and senses a rival, and I always have to do that fruity little half-dance until I’m sure it won’t take my fingers off or leave shitty paw-prints all over my jeans. Even the most placid dogs can turn on a sixpence: we used to have a massive Old English Sheepdog growing up called Shannon. She was terrific, the perfect family dog, tremendous with young kids. That was fortunate in and of itself, given my mum and dad used to leave us with Shannon whilst they went out for the day – it was truly a momentous occasion when she figured out how to put the chip-pan on – and it was all very homely and just-so.

However. We once allowed a cousin of mine to come up from Darlington to stay at our house for a week. Upon alighting from the bus and appearing at the bottom of our drive, Shannon went hurtling down, leapt up and bit her on the arm. As welcomes go, it wasn’t the warmest. It wasn’t a terrible bite, no-one was put down, but my cousin was sent back to Darlington on the next bus home with a bandage on her arm and more fleas in her ear. I like to think Shannon was protecting us from the bewilderingly awful Darlington accent if nothing else. But let that be a lesson to all owners out there: it just takes one moment of panic, or a visitor from Darlington, to ruin your day.

The other plea? You own a dog. You own a puppy. You do not own a pupper or a doggo. As inexplicable bends of the English Language go, these two cutesy-poo slang terms deserve to be cast into the fire, along with those insufferable people who insist on saying they’re going on their holibobs. I’m by no means a language snob, but this absolutely needs to stop before I do time.

And don’t get me started on the bloody Rainbow Bridge.

Anyway! Once I’d returned the pug to its rightful owner, and tried to clean the slug-trails that its little lipstick had left on my trousers, I wandered back to the car, took another moment to fully appreciate my parking fine, smoked furiously for another fifteen minutes and then, finally, I was on the road to Inverness. Travel and adventure was in front of me, nothing but road until my destination.

I managed exactly 9.8 miles towards the NC500 before I was gripped by the panic of leaving a service station unattended (what if the next chance to spend £9.60 on a Jamie Oliver toastie and a Yorkie Duo was days away?!) and had pulled into South Queensferry Services to fill up on petrol. I’m doing myself a disservice here, actually. I hadn’t just pulled in to fill up on snacks but rather I was trying to get into the habit of stopping at a petrol station whenever my car was halfway to empty on fuel. The NC500 gets fairly isolated for large stretches and so it’s never a good idea to let your tank run dry. You’re never that far from somewhere to fill up – you can find a very handy map here showing all the petrol stations along the route – but you don’t want to risk it. This is entirely contra to how I normally approach my driving – I like to coast along on fumes and see how economically I can run the car (unless I’m in a huff, in which case I drive the car like I’ve stolen it – but you don’t want to do that on the NC500 either).

As it happens, the fuel pumps were all taken and I couldn’t face waiting, so I pulled up in front of the shop instead and went inside, a decision absolutely not influenced by the fact there was a total DILF serving behind the counter. I selected some potato salad from the Marks and Spencer’s ‘How much?!’ range, decided against buying any more Monster at this point, and made my way to the till. Those who have been reading my nonsense for a while will know that I am a terrible flirt in both senses of the word – in that I am utterly shameless but also, dreadful at it. However, it seemed to be going so well, with me managing to shoehorn in a reference to my husband and ‘of course he’s letting me do my own thing this week’ with a wink so severe you’d forgive the cashier for leaping over the counter and assuming I was having a stroke. Of course, holiday romances are fleeting things indeed and in no time at all it was time to say goodbye, not least because some lady behind me started shrieking that she had kids in the car. I apologised profusely – for the fact she had children – and we all went our separate ways.

As I made to leave, which involves decanting all of the things from my coat pockets onto the passenger seat and then driving just enough to make sure everything falls down the side into some unreachable void, I happened to look up to spot my petrol-dispensing inamorato waving at me with longing in his eyes. Knowing we would always be what could have been, I showed him my wedding ring (I wear it on a chain around my neck, it’s easier to whip off if things are getting steamy), gave him a confident smile and backed the car out of the space. Thankfully, the good people at VW had fitted my car with a clever emergency automatic brake function, because that’s all that stopped me from reversing straight into a Transit van which had filled the space behind me whilst I fussed about putting my seatbelt on. Turns out he was simply warning me of the hazard rather than seeing me off like a wife saying goodbye to her sailor at sea.

I’m not one to feel shame or embarrassment easily, but you could have honestly lit a cigarette off my flaming cheeks. I pulled my hoodie up and made for the relative safety of the Queensferry Crossing, which, after resisting the urge to dash the car against the barriers, carried me over the Firth of Forth in no time at all. Actually, let’s talk about bridges for a second. All humans have varying degrees of what the French call l’appel du vide, which translates as ‘call of the void’. Put simply, it’s that feeling you have when have an irresistible urge to do something entirely stupid and dangerous to see what happens. For a lot of people, it takes the form of wanting to throw themselves over the edge if they’re standing on a cliff, and in my case, whenever I drive over a bridge I am gripped with the sudden need to turn my car suddenly and career over the side. I mean, I’m never going to do it, not least because I would hate the ignominy of being winched from the river in my own personal sea of empty cigarette packets and ‘solo travelling companions’ that would burst from every conceivable compartment in my car, but the call is always there. I have it to other degrees too. For example, when I’m driving along the motorway, I’m always taken with the thought of picking up my phone, lowering the windows on the driver side and posting it smartly through the gap created, sending it to a clattering shatter on the tarmac. If I pass a drain and I have my car keys in my hand, I have to actively step back from hurling them into the sewers. Every day is an adventure in my swirly-whirly mind.

The drive to Inverness from Edinburgh is quite something, though. You take the M90 for an easy drive up to Perth, then join the A9 which takes you up to Inverness (and you’ll stay on the A9 when you start the NC500 proper) and for the most part, it’s a delight to drive, taking in all manner of little towns and places to stop. Google puts it at around three hours (160 miles) if you absolutely hoof it, but there’s no sport to be had in doing it as quickly as you can. Certainly, when you get up amongst the Cairngorns you’ll be stopping to take pictures as you go. I was spectacularly lucky with this drive (and indeed, for the whole trip) in that I seemed to always be ahead of the other tourists and when I did stop, I had places all to myself. If you’re considering your own NC500 trip, give some very serious thought as to the time you’ll be doing it – early in the season, before the midges and the campervans and the tourists and the shrill people in rustling activewear, may be a more attractive prospect.

Anyway. You may have already gathered that my driving style is never A to B. Rather, imagine you popped a hamster on a table and put a delicious carrot at the other end. You might expect it to make a beeline for the carrot, and that’s most people when they drive. To get the measure of me, imagine you threw a handful of sunflower seeds all over the table. Then set the table on fire, and gave the hamster a line of sugar. Now the hamster is me: I’ll get to the carrot eventually but there’s so many distractions along the way. That’s how you should treat the NC500: have a final destination in mind absolutely, but do stop to take in all of the side sights as you go. I’ll touch on that in another entry.

This is why you shouldn’t rush the NC500 – views like this at every turn

Knowing that I was going to be coming back down the A9 at the end of the holiday, I made a deliberate decision not to stop at every single opportunity and instead, to save some sights for the way back. My first stop – suggested by everyone and their mother on Facebook – was Dalwhinnie, a charming little village about halfway up the journey. There’s not an awful lot to see, but they have a distillery, and like I need any reason to buy booze. I parked up in the empty car park (empty save for a woman who had parked her oversized Mercedes across three bays, which I thought a remarkable feat of driving, and made sure to snidely compliment her on such as I left).  The tour wasn’t open as most businesses were just starting back up, but I spent a happy twenty or so minutes looking around the gift shop and availing myself of their lovely clean toilets before I was accosted by a very friendly lady who asked if I needed help choosing a whisky. I hadn’t planned on buying any, but she was ever so persuasive. My experience with whisky extends to enjoying a happy night or two drinking with a good friend a few weeks previous (having never enjoyed it before) but I styled it out before panicking and selecting the first bottle I could reach. Clearly my knowledge and experienced impressed her ever so and I was out of the door, fifty quid lighter, with a bottle of something golden which will sit in our bookcase until time immemorial.

Maybe the real gift were the friendships I made along the way on the NC500

As I returned to the car I noticed it had started snowing. Super! Messages on Facebook were veritable portents of doom, with people claiming I’d get no further than the snow gates and have to turn back. Naturally, as a born fretter, I had to spend another twenty minutes checking the roads ahead were clear, but this worked in my favour as just as I was rejoining the road I spotted, quite possibly, the most handsome man I’ve ever seen filling up his car with petrol. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I daintily and calmly spun the car a full 180 degrees just so I could go back and gawp. This blog may do me the disservice of painting me as a permanently frisky, leering pest but I assure you that I’m not normally so coltish: perhaps it was the mountain air? But he was stunning, he truly was. Imagine a Viking, but not one of these modern sorts who grow a beard and think they’re sailing the Gokstad via a penny-farthing-repair-shop. He looked as though he’d dropped straight through a wormhole in time and I was utterly smitten. As he drove away I knew that my life would never again feel complete. But still we press on. Turns out the snow was a load of nothing, incidentally – the road was clear all the way to Inverness, with the sun shining bright for most of the journey.

A couple of other notable stops – I stopped at the Ralia Cafe a little further up for a break and the best spiced dahl I’ve ever had in my life, before buying some trinkets from their gift shop. Then, conscious of the fact I hadn’t managed to fill the car since leaving Edinburgh, I pulled into a petrol station a little further up. I stood at the petrol pump, nozzle in the car, and waited for them to turn the pump on. And waited. And waited. I’m not sure if they thought I was standing there simply to soak in the sights of their Londis shop, but despite making eye contact across the forecourt, nothing was forthcoming. I had to replace the nozzle and drive off, a trifle bemused, but let that be another reminder: fill up when you can, lest you find yourself short in a petrol station where the flow of fuel is treated as an optional extra. I pressed on, spotted a sign for the Highland Wildlife Centre, and decided on a whim to go and visit.

Forgive the food shot, but honestly, this was delicious. If you need a stop on your way to the NC500, give Ralia Cafe a go!

I was pulling in when a good friend of mine decided to call for a catch-up. Reception in the Highlands is very spotty and he had been trying to catch me all day, so when he finally got through to tell me his stories, he was full of vim. So full of vim indeed that he decided that, as I was pulling over to talk to the parking attendant, he would start yelling across my car speakers that he was trapped in my boot and could someone please send help as a matter of urgency. I tried to style it out by muting him, but instead managed to switch the audio to my Spotify which immediately started blaring Abba at the poor bemused bloke who was trying to direct me to the ticket office. Given I was possibly the first customer of the year I’m sure he’ll remember me.

As for the Highland Wildlife Centre – it was certainly interesting, but had I known it was a zoo (not sure what I was expecting to be fair) I wouldn’t have gone. The animals are clearly well-looked after and the staff were endlessly cheerful, but there’s something awfully depressing about seeing a polar bear scratching around on a Scottish hillside. Not for me, though I know that they do some incredible conservation work – that’s one for you to square.

They did have gorgeous Scottish wildcats though, which they are breeding ahead of releasing them back into the wildcat. Sola could still chin them though.

View of the Cairngorns

Mountains everywhere, and we aren’t even on the NC500 yet!

The rest of the afternoon was spent making my way to my accommodation for the night and after many stops to get out of my car, put my hands on my hips and say ‘oooh but isn’t it lovely’, I arrived at the Macdonald Drumossie Hotel, which you can take a look at here. It’s perched up on a hill above Inverness and looked really quite something on the photos. Knowing I would be back in Inverness in so many days, the plan was to eat dinner there and get my head down early. I was checked in by a very breezy and efficient receptionist and given a room on the third floor, which is always fun when you’re carrying eight years worth of luggage with you. The hotel itself was perfectly fine, even if it did have a touch of the Overlook about it. I was pressed to make a dinner reservation as it was ‘very busy’. I deferred this invitation, thinking I could pop down a little later (and then promptly fell asleep, missing dinner entirely) – but here’s the thing. From the end of that conversation to me departing the next morning, I didn’t see a single soul. It’s like she checked me in and then went home for the day. Despite wandering around the grounds, popping out to Inverness to pick up supplies, nipping out for smoke breaks, there was no-one else there. It was genuinely unsettling – walking through a seemingly abandoned hotel at midnight isn’t good for the nerves. The room was very ‘old school hotel’ – very comfortable, but nothing which would indicate it was 2021. I didn’t mind: I enjoyed a tiny bath, threw my clothes everywhere and spent a happy minute or two dismantling the kettle.

Before I finish, can we take a moment to agree that hotels who use the room key to keep the lights on need a telling off? Every time I left the room I was required to take my key, a proper old fashioned key with a heavy tag so you didn’t lose it, which immediately plunged the room into darkness. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the corridors outside been lit up, but seemingly they had forgotten to pay the electricity bill because I left the room into more pitch black mystery. It was very much an adventure trying to make my way to the lift with only the tiniest of emergency lighting strips to guide the way, I can tell you. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a fumble in a dark corridor on holiday, but I’ve normally on my knees through choice in that situation. After a final adventure outside, I returned to my room, popped Question Time on, realised our local Conservative MP was on there flapping her bewhiskered jowls about, realised I didn’t need more anguish in my life, and went to sleep.

That’s a good place to leave it, I feel. The NC500 starts properly in the next entry! I’m terribly conscious of the fact I’ve prattled on ever so, but I love having a story to tell, and this is a great outlet for my writing. Again, would love to hear your thoughts! Regular readers, food recipes are coming back this week, I promise!

Stay safe, all.

J

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