Travel: Scotland - Highlands minus the tartan tat

`Scotland in February? You must be mad,' they told Bob Carter. But it pays to take the high road without the tourists in tow
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The Independent Online
At this time of year the Highlands of Scotland are peopled by strange folk wearing shiny plastic boots who look up with frowns at a shining sun but will welcome any leaden, snow-laden clouds that might coax an at-best diffident skiing season into March.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the winter sports fraternity have the place to themselves now. The normal tourist traps, the visitor centres, the toilets and even many pubs stay cold, closed down as if every day was like Sunday, their shuttered faces blindly awaiting the hordes of holidaymakers from around the world who will descend with the midges when the weather warms up.

I ended up there by simple accident, really. First, let me say something about timeshare. It can be a great way of getting holiday accommodation, where you trade your week in one part of the world for someone else's in another. But the system creaks noisily when it comes to British holiday destinations, and when we came to trade in our time in Florida for something closer to home it was neither close to our London home nor a very attractive prospect: the Scottish Highlands in February.

And as "Auntie", our 39-year-old Rover, lumbered up the A9, the snow started to fall and we only just got to our first stop, at Laggan, a few miles from Loch Ness along the Great Glen, before the blizzard set in. Next morning, the ski set looked happy setting out in their minibus for Aonach Mor, and Loch Lochy looked pretty becoming - extending a wintry welcome to two people and their dogs out for a walk in the snow.

That was it for snowfall (though some is forecast for this weekend); but the walking, especially around Loch Ness, remained a delight as the ice at the lower level melted away from the snowdrops in a manner reminiscent of a natural history film of a year in the life of some fluffy Scottish mammal or other.

With the spring sunshine glinting off the snow, driving became motoring again. Isn't it strange how motoring sounds so much nicer than driving? Motoring means that as you trundle over the twisting, turning road from Invergarry to Loch Alsh through Glen Shiel you stop to take in the view of miles of white peaks stretching to the distance as you suddenly find yourself in what seems like familiar territory.

Where once the Kyle of Lochalsh brought to mind the Skye Boat Song, there is a bridge there now and a car park where taciturn locals cast an eye over my 1950s bank manager's car and refused to be impressed. But they have seen a lot lately, living in a place where the scenery plays host to images of a dope-smoking policeman.

This is Hamish Macbeth country, where the tourists teem in summer. Happily, as with so much in the area at this time of year, we had Plockton to ourselves, and yes, it is just how it looks on the TV: squat Scottish cottages in pink and white lining a placid harbour where small fishing boats bob as only Scottish fishing boats can.

Once on the west coast, there are other quiet corners of the country where, wrapped up warm and snug, we would smugly stop to take in our exclusive view. At Arisaig, whence Bonnie Prince Charlie is said finally to have sailed off into exile, there is a stone cairn, in February a quiet spot to stop for a sandwich, so quiet that an otter came out to find out who was stopping at such a strange time of year.

It was even stranger in the seaside resort of Oban, where the watery late winter (or was it early spring?) sunshine also tempted out the odd bather. Or rather a boy in swimming trunks was being almost forced into the water by his parents. I guess that's how they get them toughened up in Oban.

Those lonely roads and those empty glens were in such contrast to my previous experience of this area, a decade before, in August. My chief memory from then is of crowded camp-sites and a view, when driving, of coach company logos from Bonn and The Hague on the backs of those lumbering tourist hells-on-wheels. It really does pay to take the high road when nobody else is doing so.

Halfway through our fortnight we travelled down the A9 - the only road I know to have had its own commemorative postcard, which of course invites you to burst into McGonagall verse:

Oooooh, it's a wonderful road, the Old A9,

It runs down Scotland in a wiggly line.

We followed it down to Kinloch Rannoch, the very heart of Scottish shortbread and tartan tourist country with the picturesque pass of Killiecrankie (deserted), Pitlochry (almost deserted, with almost desperation prices in the shops) and Queen's View over Loch Tummel where we watched the sun go down, setting the loch on fire, a view crowded with tourists in the summer but, again, an experience on that day shared by just the two of us.

From that spot you can just see the top of the one mountain we did go up, Schiehallion, 1,083m above sea level, where mud on the lower slopes made way for up to a foot of old snow at the top, carved into curious shapes by the winter wind but in places untouched by human foot, a bit of a contrast to Ben Nevis where packed ice from too many boots made the going too treacherous. The mountain glared down through the mist daring us to come and have a go if we thought we were hard enough. We weren't and didn't.

The search for true solitude reached its successful conclusion on the marshy expanse of Rannoch Moor, proudly described as Europe's largest wilderness area. You drive from the hotel on Loch Rannoch to where the B846 peters out by Rannoch station and then set off along the side of Loch Laidon. Pretty soon the only sound is the wind and the birds and you can imagine the moor stretching off into infinity. It is lonely enough to send you a little bit mad, but then wasn't that what everybody said when we told them we were driving from London to the Highlands in a 1959 Rover in the bitter days between New Year and spring.

"Scotland in February? You must be mad."