The Scottish Highlands are forever taken for granted by us lowlanders. Being a city boy, I have only really experienced the epic landscapes and attractions of Scotland through postcards sitting in racks outside what my Dad would call ‘tat shops’. So to blast up the A9, emerge through the Pass of Killicrankie and end up in the Great Glen is a massive eye-opener for me. The sheer scale of the scenery is like nothing I’ve seen in the British Isles; the glens are dangerously steep, covered in Scots Pine from base to summit and descend into a deep chasm from where a loch can easily fill the chasm with its dark, mysterious waters.
The Great Glen itself spans the width of the Scottish Highlands, scything them in half with its glacial power millions of years ago. A small black spec is doing its best to cling to a lochside enroute to the gateway to the northernmost lands of Scotland; a Subaru BRZ doing what it does best – making A-roads spectacularly exciting. I’ve kindly been provided with Subaru’s cut-price sports car for the week, my own little pocket rocket to take me – with a smile plastered ear-to-ear – into the wilds.
The main route will be the North Coast 500 – a combination of A, B and single-track roads that start at Inverness and navigate all the way around the North of Scotland. Setup by the North Highland Initiative in an aid to boost the local economies in the far reaches of the Highlands, the route has quickly become a haven for car and bike lovers. And considering the tight, twisting and narrow nature of the roads up here, the BRZ seems like the ideal package to cope with the demands at hand.
Having driven a Toyota GT86 not too long ago, I know the basic recipe going into the trip – a 200hp boxer engine, pin-point handling and the endless feel and adjustability that comes with a well-sorted rear-wheel drive chassis. I almost see the BRZ as a more powerful MX-5 with a roof, so as an entry-level sports coupe, you cannot do better for the cash.
The Great Glen constricts into a bottleneck at the end of Loch Oich, before exploding into the colossal expanse of Loch Ness, which never fails to amaze me with its sheer size. It has more water within its shores than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined…that’s just scary. And then add a mythical monster in there…emmm, no thank you.
Always being fascinated by the place as a kid, it is truly spellbinding to have a walk around Urquhart Castle. Teetering on the banks of the Western shore of the loch, the ruined stronghold provides countless photographic gems and tickles my ‘frustrated history student’ yearning that has plagued me since I left school. I can’t help but take a decent while surveying the gently oscillating waters for any sign of abnormal disturbances…I’ve always wanted to be a belieb…I mean…believer.
After spending far too long on my feet, it’s time to get back in the Subaru, click the sport button on and chase the last of the tourist traffic up the east side of the loch, really pushing the little car to see if I can find some form of limit.
The Prius tyres still manage to grip the smooth, dry tarmac with vicious force when combined with the perfectly heavy steering that is such a relief from the other systems on the market. The steering wheel position is also the definition of perfect; the ergonomics in this thing are second to none. Although you do feel it in your shoulders after an hour or two of driving, there’s an overriding sense that this is exactly how a car should be set up and therefore exactly how a driving experience should feel.
The BRZ dances. The rear rotates beautifully. There is a couple of oversteer opportunities but I hold back – like the gentleman motorist that I am – and instead find that euphoric level of slip where you can feel the rear axle just start to swivel around the corner, like a drawing compass flowing around a crisp, fresh sheet of paper. I get to the point where there’s no real need for any corrective steering but the grip limit has just been tipped – I love driving. It’s not long before I reach the Caledonian Canal at the north of Loch Ness so it’s time for some snaps and a smooth, easy warm-down cruise back to the Loch Ness Inn, my quaint and homely digs for the night. My my, the Great Glen has set one hell of a high bar.
Day Two brings with it a fairly large Atlantic weather front – heavy rain scheduled for the next 72 hours…great. Today’s drive takes me West, across to the Kyle of Lochalsh before veering North to the treacherous Applecross Pass. After many miles following a great river coursing through the bottom of another sheer-sided glen, the scenery suddenly bursts open into the beautiful expanse of Loch Duich. Like a curtain suddenly being drawn open, the afternoon light pours into the Subaru’s cabin, a cabin that most may look at as fairly sparse.
Fake carbon finish and hard plastics are prominent, and the gear knob is some form of composite that really isn’t nice to fondle. This BRZ doesn’t have an LCD touch screen for a sat nav and the media controls, but I couldn’t be much less of an interior snob. I don’t need an in-car screen that lights up every time my Mum asks ‘how I’m getting on’. The interior is brought back to life by the fantastic sport/bucket seats which really hug my ever-growing waistline in the high speed sweeping bends of the road past Eilean Donan Castle.
Turning right off the main road, the ascent into the clouds of Torridon begins, along with the introduction of the dreaded single-track road. The surface suddenly becomes very gravely and the suspension of the Subaru starts to be tested. In all honesty, on these roads, the ride is a smidgen too stiff for my liking. Shallow dips and small pot holes suddenly become a genuine hazard and the need to press on is replaced with self-preservation. That’s not to say the BRZ isn’t set up correctly; on smoothly-tarmacked A and B roads it is sublime, allowing for virtually no body roll and keeping the car hunkered and flat to road, a much more dynamically locked down package than my MX-5. But the Highlands definitely expose the stiffly-sprung Subaru.
Finally, the car starts to get out of shape and the fun level ramps up. The damp, tight hairpins signify the start of the Applecross Pass, a place name that makes any man tighten his grip on the steering wheel. Whenever I think of a mountain pass, that epic battle scene in Mulan springs to mind. But if there were any Huns hiding in the heather bushes and rocky outcrops, the low, thick cloud cover would completely conceal them. The Subaru begins oversteering out of the 170-degree hairpins, but with the traction control on it only takes the slightest twitch of opposite lock to get the car straight again. The rainfall gets so heavy that the back can kick out fairly easily at 20mph making for a wonderfully playful package, but progress is slow as the thin tyres struggle to put down the 200 horses into the road.
I am told that the views from the pass are beyond compare, looking over the sea to Skye and down into the deep Applecross Bay. But as I reach the peak of the mountain, I am left with around 20 yards of vision, staring into a grey sheet of nothingness. Although this is a massive shame, I know that at the foot of the Pass lies the Applecross Inn, which apparently serves the greatest haddock and chips in the Highlands; now there’s a plan.
I continue around the very Westerly edge of Scotland, which between Applecross and my night stop of Shieldaig is all single-track with sheep and highland cattle clinging to the road side. These sheep are rather nice looking creatures though – because there are no fences to snag themselves on, their fleeces look perfectly white and thick. These woollen jackets mustn’t be warm enough though, as every few miles a sheep will throw itself into the road in front of me, obviously wishing to end its life due to its lack of warmth and respect from the tourists who gawp and take unwanted selfies with them.
The suicidal nature of these creatures does give the brakes a good test however, and I can report that they are very much in-tune with the rest of the car. They don’t snatch or bite like a lot of numb systems do these days and instead add to the BRZ’s admirable portfolio of feel and drivability. Sitting at around 1230kg it comes to a stop very quickly using disc brakes all round and that combination comes in very handy as I start to gain confidence in the horrendous weather that has now effectively flooded the roads. So I think it’s time to park up in the quaint fishing village of Shieldaig and grab some dinner. Haggis I think.
Ullapool is the destination today but by the looks of things on Google Maps, navigating the rest of Torridon is a bit of a mission. Yet again the heavens are continually spilling all over the Highlands and the rain has now intensified to a point where it is visually bouncing off the road surface like thousands of tiny minnows leaping for their breakfast. The scenery has changed from the thick pine forests of Grampian to more barren, harsh rocky outcrops that are broken up with lush purple heather and tough, bushy ferns. The entire landscape is now saturated after the last two days of rainfall, with every river and loch swelling to its maximum capacity. The waterfalls have gone from smooth trickles to frothing torrents cascading down the slopes of the glens, sometimes spilling onto the road and creating those arse-clenching moments of lightness as the car ploughs through the miniature ponds at the sides of the road.
I didn’t think the BRZ would cope in the slightest with the amount of standing water with its thin tyres, but the Prius eco-jobs do a very efficient job of wicking away the water. The car is actually one of the most stable rear-wheel drive cars I’ve ever experienced in the wet which reinforces the fact that this car is the perfect fit for this area of the world. Even when it is only the inside tyre being grabbed at, the Subaru piles through the deluge with little more than a slight tug from the steering wheel.
I take a wrong turning and end up taking a long single-track road that climbs all the way to the top of Beinn Alligin. Again I’m immersed in the clouds when I know there are stupendously spectacular views all around me. Although all this rain and mist shows a key feature of the BRZ that makes it a truly great sports car. Even at 25mph on the twisting mountain road, it is exciting and involving to drive, feeding back every chip of gravel and pool of freshly-fallen precipitation through the steering wheel, seats and pedals. While a supercar would seem relatively docile at these speeds, the less powerful nature of the BRZ means it never feels held back or boring as slow speed – I’ve yet to come across a car that is this rewarding at a cruise.
The road ends at Lower Diabaig, and I decide I love the small fishing villages up here; the tiny jetties that protrude out into the shallows used to anchor the local’s boats combined with the tiny cottages have always stirred my heart a little. Although I have been to plenty around the country, especially in Fife, nothing compares to the tiny villages up here on the North-West coast. Each village is engulfed by huge mountains and cliffs that tower above them like the devil from fantasia. And enclosed within their quiet bays, the cold, harsh Atlantic Ocean awaits the brave souls that wish to venture beyond the bay’s grasp.
After a quick millionaire shortbread in the Gille Brighde cafe, I double-back and find my intended route North.
The single track road from Torridon to Kinlochewe genuinely makes me quite emotional. It is pure driving. The low-lying heather means I can look far up the tight and twisting road, allowing me to really press on and push the car to its limit. And here comes another situation where I’ve realised I’ve brought the perfect companion. I can actually floor the BRZ and get it through a couple of gears before breaking for the next blind crest or sharp left-hander, something that in a car with twice the power just isn’t possible.
I can actually use the Subaru up to a decent percentage of its ability rather than cowering into the floods of torque from something much more exotic. 200bhp is MORE than enough for the Scottish Highlands, trust me. With the local shrubbery invading and enclosing the single-track road, 45mph seems blisteringly quick, and the BRZ has enough grunt to pin you into the seat from every corner exit up to whatever speed you dare attempt.
As I’m in the process of learning how to heel-and-toe, the Subaru makes it unbelievably easy due to its ideal pedal setup. After flooring the throttle between the bends, it only takes the tiniest of flicks from my right heel to blip the revs to exactly where they need to be, making the progress along the track fast but silky smooth.
Despite this praise, I do have a couple of little gripes about the transmission. Finding second gear seems consistently tricky, be it from first or coming down from third which can suddenly disturb the heel-and-toeing process. And I think Subaru have gotten the ratios slightly wrong; the jump from second to third seems slightly too large, making third a particularly dull gear to try and rev out. And the shift itself feels slightly cheap and clunky, far behind the likes of the Porsche Boxster’s transmission which has much more mechanical quality to it.
The road is so tight and full of inclines that it almost resembles what would be a scintillating hillclimb or time trial course. If the Grampian Police decided to close it off for events, I’d be up every weekend.
It’s a little disheartening as I reach a crossroad to the A832 at Kinlochewe; there’s something tangibly primal about driving a car that quickly down such a narrow road. I can see why people get into time attacks and amateur rallying. The sudden opening in the road does however allow me to use all six gears in the Subaru’s arsenal, but it does expose the problem with the 2-Litre boxer unit. It pulls well until between 3000 and 4000rpm, where there seems to be a slight lack of sharpness as the engine finds a dull spot in its map. Once past this range however, the horizontally-opposed pistons work their asses off right up to the 7200rpm red line where there is actually one hell of a kickback once you hit the limiter; the BRZ definitely doesn’t like to be red-lined.
The A832 glides smoothly past the colossal Loch Maree but grows more convoluted and exciting once you past the port of Gairloch. The road then begins to ascend and descend hill after hill and the torque characteristics of the engine become plain to see. My conclusion is the BRZ has just enough torque to keep things enjoyable. A few more lbft would be great but it will happily pull up the steep gradients of Sutherland and makes short work of the road to the fishing town of Ullapool.
The last ‘large’ settlement before things start to get even more sheepy and deery, Ullapool nestles within a bay that feeds out to the Atlantic. And on this night, with the dreich horizontal rain, low menacing cloud and eerily-choppy waters, the bay takes on a fairly spooky persona, as if there’s something at work in the waters that would scare me into my cosy bed at The Arch Inn. I normally look at Scottish waters and am always tempted to go for a paddle because ‘it can’t be that cold’. But there’s no chance tonight. I toss a few boulders into the water from the pebbly beach for good measure and call it a night.
Friday brings YET MORE RAIN. I overhear from a local that this has been the worst summer up here for a while, but to be honest I’m not bothered. I drive up the A837 right up until it terminates in Lochinver in the continuing deluge. This journey to a dead end is no mistake as I’ve entered the Assynt Highland Games. Crammed into a football pitch beside the harbour, a 204m track has been stencilled onto the grass along with a heavy throwing cage. I’m a (very average) sprinter so I enter the 60 yard dash, 220 yards and 440 yards and manage a couple of third places. The locals are quick around here…or maybe I just need to get fit again.
The sense of community is extremely heart-warming and I can tell that although there is a twinge of fun within the event, the local Highland Games are in fact a huge part of the culture up here. I really think the rest of Britain is missing out by not holding more events like this and I wholeheartedly advise you to find a reasonably local games or pick a holiday destination close to one. I’ve never felt more Scottish.
To top off a great day at the Games, the weather dries up and I happen upon the quickest stretch of A-road I think I’ve ever come across. It is the A894 from Unapool, which crosses the Kylesku bridge and climbs all the way up to Laxford Bridge…and it’s simply manic. Every corner is extremely high speed, something that suits the BRZ to a tee due to its talent for momentum driving. The skinny tyres grip the road incredibly well and the Subaru and I are finally completely let off the leash together. I throw it into every fast sweeper with absolute faith in my own ability, something that only cars like the BRZ can accomplish. For such a ‘baby’ sports car, the speeds it can reach and then handle with ease are absolutely staggering. The stats say that it’ll do 0-60 in 6.4 seconds and only reach a top speed of 139mph; I think the Subaru engineers are annoyingly modest.
The A894 then sadly ends and turns North with the A838, another single-tracker to add to the list. I almost welcome the sudden slowing in pace as I am now at the very top of the country, heading towards my overnight B&B in Durness. I’m about as far away from home as I possibly can be, without straying into the military testing zone at Cape Wrath so it’s potentially one of the worst places to have an accident in the country. Despite this, the day’s driving will stick with me for a very long time.
Despite rain hammering against my bedroom window all night, the drive from Durness is finally a dry one. Skirting along the top shelf of the British Isles, the A838 continues as a single track road surrounded by peat bogs that feed into large low-lying lochs that spread reeds and thick moss all the way to the road side. Up here seems to be motorhome heaven but thankfully, since leaving the mountainous lower-Highlands behind, sight lines are fantastic. Progress is fairly slow so I decide to crack open the windows to suck in some Highland air. And in doing so, the exhaust tone of the Subaru comes immediately under scrutiny.
It’s not that the boxer sounds bad…it just doesn’t sound good. I floor the throttle with the windows closed and get a nice deep gargle from the engine within the car, but once the pure exhaust noise is allowed to venture from the pipes and into the cabin, it’s a much more raspy, harsh tone that is a little uninspiring. This brings me to the conclusion that pure engine noise is being pumped into the cabin straight from the engine bay, probably through the footwell. Although this brings a much-needed audible theatre to the car, I’d rather it wasn’t so artificial and was engineered properly to emit from the tailpipes. I know it can be a tough ask for a four-cylinder to sound great but the K-series accomplished it, and that’s without the classic boxer burble.
Bettyhill is the next stop and is a stark reminder of the atrocities that were the Highland Clearances during the early 1800s. Small ruins of past crofts are dotted throughout the coastal area, where some poor souls were burned alive in their dwellings by their greedy landowners. They were replaced by thousands of sheep to make more money off the land, so there is a fairly dark reality to the woolly creatures that populate the local laybys.
The next epic stretch of road then ascends out of Bettyhill and allows me to really open the taps all the way to Thurso. Huge long straights climb up and over the hills and marshland and are interconnected by a flurry of tight, technical corners that almost resemble chicanes on this fiercely quick section of tarmac. The BRZ is as flat as ever through what are probably the most demanding corners on the trip thus far, with the tyres stressed even further by the complete confidence that I now have in the machine under me. The scenery is too flat for the sense of speed to match that of the Kylesku road but the Subaru still seems much quicker than any of the numbers would suggest.
A fuel stop and a chicken-haggis wrap in Thurso spurs me on to John O’Groats. My sole aim? To piss off every tourist there by reversing the car right up to the classic signpost for a photo. Just doing my job folks…
Wick is the night-stop and I can’t help immediately forming a favouring towards the West Coast once I arrive in the more industrial fishing town. Due to the oil, shipping, wind farm and fishing money pouring in from the North Sea, Wick has become a bit commercialised and unkempt for my liking. Public houses litter the harbour front but seeing as the heyday of Herring fishery are over, plenty of them are boarded up and smashed in. The dark waters of Ullapool suddenly seem much more appealing.
One surprise though is the presence of quite a large car scene here. Although it is mostly the ‘cruise’ genre of motorists that parade around the town, the night is full of the exhaust sounds of VXRs, STs, Imprezas, Cupras and I even see a Supra flash past the window of my hotel room. There’s also an aftermarket parts shop just up from the harbour; Wick seems to be some form of petrolhead haven of the Highlands. After a fairly uninspiring Tikka Masala, it’s off to bed.
After a bit of off-roading to venture my way to Old Wick Castle (I love that kind of thing) I hit the A99 down to Golspie. Finally, the once constant cloud cover has blown away and the East Coast of Sutherland is bathed in striking sunlight that is blinding when compared to the bleakness of the past five days. The road is a solid drive as it becomes the A9; nothing too adventurous but there are some cracking downhill hairpins perched on the clifftops just before Helmsdale that get the rear of the Subaru playing ball wonderfully. Unfortunately, at the end of the combination lies a freshly written-off Polo GTI, a stark reminder that although these roads are enthralling, it only takes one mistake to have a complete catastrophe in what is pretty much the middle of nowhere.
A quick reality check and a couple of large accelerations later and I’m in the grounds of Dunrobin Castle…what a place. Privately owned by the Countess of Sutherland (watch how you say that), Dunrobin is a proper fairy tale castle if I ever saw one. Sharp turrets frame each side of the 16th Century colossus and obsessively-manicured gardens lie between the castle and the Moray Firth. Some lad pitches up in a flat cap (I already like him) and puts on an unbelievable display of falconry. Although it slightly depresses me that nearly every bird in his keeping has a higher top speed than the BRZ, his Peregrine Falcon topping out at 248mph.
I’m a sucker for novelties, which makes Balintore a must as I close in on the last few miles of my route. Perched on the rocks a few yards from the beach is the Mermaid of the North, a beautiful sculpture that personifies the popular fisherman’s tales from years gone by. It’s such a simple thing and yet inspires me to drive a good few miles out of my way just to glimpse it. Although my aim for the trip was to see a seal, a basking shark and a Russian submarine, the Mermaid makes up for all of my failures.
And after a calm evening jaunt, I’m back at the shores of Loch Ness, parking up at Drumnadrochit. I toil with going for a drive after dinner but to be honest, I know the best of the driving is behind me. And nearly a week of driving as intensely as the NC500 demands is one hell of a task, but one that I will admit has matured me massively as a driver. There is such a large road network in the North of Scotland that is seemingly untouched and unmolested by any law-enforcement or government protocols, making a playground for proper drivers who yearn for a time capsule back to a time before there was such a stranglehold on speed in this country.
The North Coast 500 is driving nirvana, an intense but rewarding hit that I know I’ll be yearning for next summer. In terms of the road layout consistently on tap, I believe there is nowhere else in the UK that gets close to the combination of beauty, scale and drama.
And for the car? I couldn’t have asked for a better companion. The Subaru BRZ is a true hero in the sports car world, an up-and-coming legend that is everything you could ever need from a pure driving machine. It balances lightness and stiffness with comfort and functionality, proving itself as one of the most driveable cars out there. You can drive the BRZ at a cruise or flat-out and it will feel equally stupendous in both scenarios. You can have the tyres screeching to within millimetres of their Prius-derived lives or simply coast in a high gear, feeling every morsel from the steering wheel through your fingertips. Whatever you need on the North Coast 500, the Subaru BRZ has got it. In fact, other than on a dragstrip, I can’t see someone having any hesitations in saying it is one hell of a sports car.
Scotland in a Subaru BRZ. A perfect introduction to the performance car market. A perfect introduction to the greatest roads in the British Isles. Haste Ye Back they say; I very much intend to.