"When your arse is in the saddle, the forecast will be the skies in front of you. In Scotland, there’s little point in looking any further ahead,” Calum Murray, owner of Saltire Motorcycles says prophetically, smiling at my comment that the weather forecast looked promising. I slip out the clutch of my black-and-cream Indian Roadmaster loaner and head back to Edinburgh’s über-artsy Radisson Collection Royal Mile in sunshine.
“That’s a braw bike for our dreich climate,” says the hotel’s tweed-kilted doorman, hinting, like Calum, that even in July Scotland’s weather is famously fickle.
Sure enough, I awaken the next day to a slate-gray sky, and a chilly smirr—a fine misty spray of a drizzle—eddying up the Royal Mile. Passersby snap photos of the retro-glamorous bike as I prepare to set out for a week-long Scottish Highlands adventure on the North Coast 500 (NC500).
Marketed by Visit Scotland since its 2015 conception as an equivalent to America’s classic Route 66, the 512-mile NC500 begins and ends in Inverness. It stitches together various roads to form a tortuous loop around the untamed northern extreme of Britain. The already iconic NC500 combines epic scenery with thrilling twisties and switchbacks, presenting perhaps the most exhilarating motorcycle tour in the British Isles. You can add to that artisan whisky distilleries, white-sand beaches, salty-aired fishing villages, and historic castles. No wonder bikers are drawn to the NC500 like bees to brambles in bloom.
Most of those bikers, I will discover, ride adventure-tourers. My attention-grabbing Roadmaster seems an oddly deluxe ride by comparison. However, I planned on staying at some of Scotland’s finest historic hotels, and I wanted a suitably luxurious heritage ride. Plus, in 2015, I’d ridden the rhino-sized pride of Indian’s retro pack through South Africa. I knew that the behemoth bagger was responsive enough to handle the NC500’s sinewy single-lane roads.
My two-day ride north to Inverness via the Cairngorms Mountains gives me plenty of time to readjust to the big twin’s nearly half-ton brawn … And to a quintessential Scottish hazard, hinted at when, after a night of Relais & Châteaux comfort at Kinloch House (think racks of antlers over the fireplace and four-poster beds atop creaky floorboards), I pass a sign reading “deer for four miles.”
Seconds later, as if on cue, I note a flash to my left and spy a deer running almost within fingertip reach. The next instant it skews right and bolts in front of me. As I jerk on the brake lever, the panicked buck misses me by inches and goes sprawling with hooves flailing. Thank God for the Roadmaster’s automotive-quality triple-disc ABS brakes!
Towers and Pea Soup
A light rain is falling as I depart Inverness’ boutique Rocpool Reserve Hotel—a chic conversion of a Victorian villa. The drizzle gradually thickens to a prolonged pish-oot, the North Sea barely visible as I pick up the A9, hugging the coast throughout my 100-mile ride north to Wick. Already I was singing the praises of the full-dress tourer’s vast, wrap-around batwing fairing, sculpted leg-guards, and push-button powered half-moon windshield with four-inch range. Ensconced in a sculpted well-heated saddle, I ride cocooned in top-of-class comfort. On an adventure bike I’d have been drookit (drenched)!
This early NC500 section offers heaps of cultural draws, including neolithic burial chambers and Pictish stone stelae. No fun in dreich weather! Instead, I call at Dunrobin Castle, which emerges from the mist like a welcoming Brigadoon. Pinned by fairytale conical towers, the Duke of Sutherland’s dramatic French-style chateau boasts 189 antique-filled rooms, which I explore with a tour group. Alas, even the twice-daily hawking displays given in the castle’s garden are canceled, the birds grounded by heavy rain. So, I ride another five miles to the Clynelish Distillery for a Whisky 101 tour and a wee warm-me-up sample dram.