UK author Will Self takes us on a Scottish tour
There's a reason, I've always thought, why there's never been a great British road movie. For the most part, the island I call home is too cluttered up with things, people, and even with road signage and furniture. But there's also Britons' own curiously static kind of romance with the open road.
Per capita, Britons are the highest rollers in Europe when it comes to spending on rolling stock. Yet for the most part we just sit about in our fancy mobile sheds – either trapped in jams, as we inch from home to work and back again, or else we bumble along country lanes on a never-ending 'London to Brighton' run, with the ghost of a man carrying a red flag pacing dutifully in front of our dazzling radiator grilles.
Complete motionlessness is, however, our true desideratum: the shed parked up in layby or on verge – its occupants hinged into folding striped deckchairs and chomping on cheese sandwiches as they gaze upon a vista limpid as themselves.
Which is a shame, because you've only to head north, equipped with the right sort of high-performance sportscar – and here, permit me dear reader, to venture to suggest the Ferrari GTC4Lusso – to experience some of the most beautiful driving country to be found anywhere on God's great green rumble-strip of a world.
With its compellingly filmic panorama, the roads on the northern coast of Scotland – with the Orkney Islands rising, like some Avalon, from the wild waters of the Pentland Firth – are the perfect place to start your very own Great British Road Movie. On this – the first day of shooting – the sun is shining on the red sandstone cliffs of Hoy, the southernmost island of those Orkneys, and there’s light snow icing the tops of its conical hills.
After soaking up the view, you turn to face the overcast and grey hinterland of Caithness; a realm of bleak but dramatically desolate mountains in which – were he to suddenly swoop down from the lowering cloud cover − JRR Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug, wouldn’t look in the least out of place. And you shiver as you slip out of your jacket, pull on your driving gloves, then lower yourself into the warm and sweetly leathery embrace of the driver’s seat.
Driving south, you soon face a choice: turn right, and ahead of you lie some sixty miles of single-track road, used by a hundred deer for every one vehicle, before you reach the Garvault Country House Hotel near Kinbrace – the most isolated such establishment in mainland Britain. Or, you could turn left, and take the A9, which lances across the bog lands of Caithness before reaching the North Sea coast at Latheron. Here, you’ll turn right, and experience a superb corniche, as the road – clamped to the moody brows and crumbling cliffs of the littoral – obliges you with an antediluvian roller-coaster of a ride.
Continuing south towards Inverness, you feel the entire wild wide-open onrushing beauty of this coastline – its deep, wooded combes, and desolate, salt-stung strands.
The writer Paul Theroux once described Britain-in-outline as resembling a witch riding a pork chop. Well, as the road swoops up, down and around the firths of Cromarty and Dornoch, you feel as if you, too, are some wizard, whose onward rush is also powering the journey through space-and-time of this ancient landmass. And frankly, things don’t get much more cinematic than that.
As you refuel, after passing Inverness, you stare south to where the Cairngorm Mountains range and you begin to consider the hundreds of miles that lie ahead. Why stop in southern Scotland? Why not press on into Northumberland, and take that great switchback of a thoroughfare, the A68, as it undulates south? After all, your wizard spirit is willing, and your steely grey broomstick is already dowsing toward the open road.