From coast to coast, without using one public road... in a Merc more used to pootling around town
Driving across Scotland, for the most part, is not exactly an adventure. Admittedly there aren’t many motorways once you get north of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the M8, and the kind of roads further up tend to be smaller and more time-consuming. But nevertheless, traversing the northern part of the UK isn’t usually something that takes months of preparation to achieve.
The route from Cromarty Firth to Ullapool, to take an entirely specific example, is about 65 miles. On the A835, there might be a few slow moving tractors and views worth a few minutes’ contemplation, but generally, you can manage it in about an hour and a half. Strange then, that the same journey between the same two places recently took me two full days.
Because I didn’t use any actual roads.
This is more complicated than it sounds. To drive across Scotland without using any public tarmac, even across just 65 miles of it, requires getting permission and arranging access from everyone who owns the land you want to drive on. Which is the logistical equivalent of organising a marching band consisting entirely of cats. I know, because I’ve tried to do it twice, but had to give up because I have a mortgage/life/want to do at least two other things before I die.
There are nasty, inconvenient things like rivers, bogs, enormous deer fences and railway lines. And above all, there is always the possibility that the last 100ft of the whole lot can be rendered impassable by a fallen tree, or a broken bridge, or someone forgetting the key to a vital gate. It is not the work of a minute.
So when Mercedes Benz told me that not only had they arranged everything, but that they were going to take a convoy of G-Wagens along the route for the first and only time, my hand shot up like a five-fingered firework. I would finally be able to complete this particular route, all without having to go to all the usual trouble of actually organising it. If it went wrong, in other words, it would not be my fault - a uniquely attractive situation.
The exact route I shall be vague about, firstly because I’ve been asked to be vague. One, in case hordes of ill-equipped owners of Renault Capturs decide to tackle it and end up upside down wearing a Scottish bog as a hat. And two, because I can’t actually remember it properly.
Suffice to say, it began on a crisp winter’s day with both feet in the waters of the Cromarty Firth - a large, tidal prong of the North Sea that spears inland towards Dingwall. There are many G-Wagens, all lined up like the world’s most butch school assembly photo, all looking suitably hardcore, some bedecked with winches and off-road lights.
All are shod with tyres that look like they’ve been nicked from a tractor. A couple of large GLS SUVs loiter at the edges, and there’s a small, lost-looking GLE. I’m not surprised when I realise which car I’ll be using.
So I get the tyres, but my singular GLE hasn’t got any other non-manufacturer extras. The optional ‘off-road’ pack is fitted, giving me extra slow-go options for the gearbox and more high-riding choices for the air-suspension. Oh, and a sump guard, 100-per cent locking centre diff and ‘reinforced underfloor panelling’ for driving over bad things. But compared to some of the big Gs, I’m looking like a toddler at a WWE party.
No matter. Confident in my off-road driving skills - which Baja 1000 winner BJ Baldwin has described as ‘never knowingly undercommitted’ - I happily trailed after the G-Wagens and through a muddy underpass below the A9. A simple farmer’s field was the first obstacle, so I listened to the on-hand off-road professionals, selected low-range and relaxed as the GLE lifted itself on silent air-springs, clicked into low and proceeded to completely electronically s**t itself.
We are approximately six minutes into the trip.
Uh. Right. That’s every light on the dash, and a menu cycling through everything that isn’t now working. There are a lot of things not working. Still, confident in my off-road driving skills - which Baja 1000 winner BJ Baldwin once described as ‘a story I never want to see the end of’ - I managed to drive myself and the GLE across a slight rise, in some light mud, without failure.
There are no excuses, simply because there’s no way I can have broken this car by simply sitting in it and driving it 400 yards, but I still feel guilty. A Mercedes tech guru is called in (this really is a professional operation, and I’m not used to it) and we decide between us to sleep cycle the car’s electronics. Which basically involves switching it off and on again by getting out, locking and ignoring it for ten minutes. Miraculously, the GLE then heals itself and I can continue without the dash looking like a tiny tribute to the Blackpool illuminations.
It is shortly afterwards that we encounter the first example of the organising teams’ wily brilliance. Understandably, train companies spend many, many pounds advertising that one should not, under any circumstances, drive on railway lines. That being so, allowing a full pseudo-expeditionary convoy of light trucks to meander across a working railway line is met with stern faces and many exclamations of the word ‘no’ at increasing volumes.
Thus, to utilise the 100ft of bridge to get us from one track across the line to another private track, the organisers closed the road as a ‘processional’ - complete with walking bagpiper. For the three minutes it takes to get the cars across, the road is designated as closed, private. And bingo, we are still on course to not have used any public roads, and the 9.01 from Invergordon to Strathpeffer hasn’t collected a Mercedes bonnet ornament. Also there are bagpipes. Which are just cool.
Next up we skirt the lower half of the Novar Estate, turn left behind some barns, and head uphill. The tracks are well-used though unpaved, and we manage a brisk-feeling 15mph for over an hour, before pausing at the Fyrish Monument on top of a hill with a spectacular view of the steel greys and worn browns of the Firth.
Now, apparently, the Fyrish is a replica of the gates of the City of Negapatam in India, site of a Novar ancestor’s famous victory in 1781. Unfortunately, with my knowledge of the Second Anglo-Mysore War somewhere on a par with my understanding of antique pottery of rural China, they could be exact replicas of the gates of Narnia and I’d be none the wiser. Pretty though.
It is here that the black G-Wagen unfurls yet another surprise and sprouts an actual satellite dish from which the various media types can check their FaceTwitter and update their vlogs. I pretend to have to do the same, just to fit in.
The black G-Wagen - fast becoming my favourite by this point - also vomits out four small Honda petrol generators and a cappuccino maker, a wheel of cheese and a slab of fruitcake. Adventure? Usually by this point I’ve already eaten my garage-bought sandwiches and am eyeing up a second bag of Wotsits.
Suitably refreshed, we continue, through hill and dale, windfarm and stream. The views start to widen, and the breathing becomes deeper. It’s beautiful, and calm, and still. The only things that really move are the scudding clouds and occasional deer, and the big challenge is navigating the various estate tracks - because apart from the odd rocky bit or slippery descent, the actual off-roading is pretty tame. But one wrong turn and we’ll end up heading the wrong way or in Loch Morie, the glassy expanse of water below. It’s also the place where they source the water for Dalmore whisky, and I doubt that they want it tasting like petrol in 15 year’s time.
We pass a castle on the Kildermorie Estate, though not some medieval pile, but one built in 1994. It looks vaguely like something robbed from Alton Towers theme park. A bit Disney. It’s like a magical mystery tour, and not many people get to see Scotland from this angle.
Many, many hours later, we end up somewhere called Alladale and a night stop. It’s not been particularly technical in terms of the driving, but it’s easy to be distracted by countryside on a par with any vista anywhere in the world. Bronzes and rust reds, dusty browns and virulent greens, magic forests and spooky little hollows. Stags doing Zoolander strutting on ridgelines, proper Monarch of the Glen posing, lonely crofts and deep, still lochs.
There are stories in the views and myths in the woods. And Alladale’s fantastically eccentric owner has already planted nearly a million native trees on the estate, and hopes to re-introduce common wolves - and eventually the odd bear - to the countryside. Which should provide one or two more stories. In the meantime, he’s released a mob of red squirrels, which, according to legend, were the things that made the local wolves extinct in the first place.
Next day, and a small section of road to link two tracks, this time closed for a ‘regularity trial’ where timings must be maintained in strict order. Unfortunately, to win, one must do some simple mathematics. I therefore didn’t win.
Then it was onto a boggy section, where off-road masterminds had created a kind of impermanent sand-ladder waffle bridge, where sections of weight-distributing boards allowed painstaking progress. This is the kind of terrain that, while not actually that difficult, would cause serious pause if you only had a single vehicle. Getting stuck would mean a very long and lonely walk; the AA doesn’t do rescue this far out. Fortunately, the entire crew made it across without drama. I’m not going to mention the last vehicle driven by the off-road crew who forgot to engage their diff-locks…
Up, out and across more breathtaking scenery, past ruined crofts and miles and miles of those stalag-esque 15ft high deer fences. Rudimentary bridges had been constructed to cross previously insurmountable small streams cut deep into soft peat, and there were several places in which the little GLE scraped and crawled where the G-Wagens remained imperious and undisturbed. But it didn’t get stopped - not once.
Eventually, we dropped out and down, drove a herd of sheep across a road, and ended up on a golf course in Ullapool. A golf course that happened to be bordered on one side by Loch Broom, which feeds into the North Atlantic.
Parked on the fairway, we suddenly realised that over 23 hours of driving, across 11 different estates and at an average speed of just four miles per hour, we had crossed mainland UK without officially using a public road. I stood with both feet in the water, on the opposite coast to where I started, and considered something of a magical trip. Somewhat appropriate, seeing as the road we used didn’t even exist.