Between the beginning of June and the end of September 2023 I drove 40,000 km around the top of Scotland. I’d taken a summer/winter holiday job as a van driver with Highland Transfers carting around baggage for tourists. It certainly wasn’t for the money or prestige – or as a career move. My longest day driving was over 14 hours, my shortest a little over 2 though the average was much closer to the longer time.

Up in that part of the world it barely gets dark in the middle months of the year. In June I hit an unusual heat wave and regularly stopped off at the beautiful white sand beaches and dodged jelly fish to swim. Where I was house sitting the River Ewe came out of Loch Maree and I’d swim in the river more days than not. August was humid and full of midges – it usually is.

There were Roe deer in the garden and every early start morning there would be dozens of large Red Deer drawn to the warmth of the road in the night. My van was fitted with deer whistles which ensured they’d be heading away from the road by the time I was passing. I saw badgers, red squirrels, polecats and what I assume were Scottish Wildcats. I didn’t see as many birds as I thought I would though in the end I did see a White Tailed eagle – they were reintroduced in the 1970’s.

On my days off I walked or biked in the hills, on one memorable day I did both. Biking in on an old stalkers path that followed Fionn Loch. I dumped the bike and walked up Beinn a’Chaisgein Mor. I was out in what is known as The Great Wilderness for 12 hours on a clear mid-summers Sunday – I saw 5 other people.

My hosts came up occasionally, they would have been there more often if there were more salmon in the river. Daughter Lulu came up for just over a week and worked at home but did ride shotgun with me on two of the days. An old mate from school stayed for a few days and my brother and a good mate drove up from Devon and then my wife stayed for a couple of weeks towards the end of the four months.

It was a solitary existence. Principally I was living and working on my own and then when I had a day off I was gardening to recompense the rent or up alone in the hills. In my job I usually had interaction at the point of pick up and at the point of dropping off. My favourite hotel was the Radisson Blu Edinburgh where I had a good relationship with the porters, Roy and Mathew, we’d work together to unload, me in my shorts and t shirt, them in their full kilted uniforms. At other hotels the porters would go mysteriously awol as soon as they saw my van predicting how many suitcases were likely on board. I swear my arms were longer at the end of the trip.

In the van I’d listen to books and podcasts and BBC radio. During the Ashes series I became hooked to TMS (Test Match Special) and would listen to cricket the whole day. The first book I listened to was Scottish History for Dummies – the way that book describes it is as a succession of kings and “noble” men being duplicitous and self-serving. The murder and fratricide and bloodletting frankly became boring. The listening improved from there; Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was a favourite and I went back to Steinbeck and thoroughly enjoyed East of Eden. I have a list of twenty book I got through.

I had a few regular work runs. Portree on the Isle of Skye back to Inverness was probably the most common and most scenic. I’d pick up the luggage at 8 a.m., 3 hours after leaving home, for the American clients of Backroads. The clients were a similar age to me, I nearly made friends with some of them. Then the drive back via the Skye Bridge, Eilean Donan Castle, over the pass and along Loch Ness.

Another less beautiful run was Inverness to Edinburgh and back on the notoriously busy and dangerous A9. The last regular trip was picking up in Helmsdale on the far north-eastern side of the country and back to beautiful village of Plockton on the west coast.

Between these trips I shuttled bags for our own clients who were cycling the NC500. Incidentally they were cycling a route my brother and I had ridden in the early 80’s. Back then the route wasn’t a “thing”, we camped and carried our own gear. The guys I was following had slick racing bikes and were staying at hotels. On these trips I had more time to do the things I like and for two nights on each of the trips I stayed with the guests at their hotels. One couple took upon themselves to work on my whisky education.

The NC 500 is a tourism initiative invention, predictably polarising the community. Some love it for the increase in business it brings. Others hate it. I saw a group of 40 Vespa Scooters, classic car groups and once a convoy of 16 identical large Italian Camper Vans. Much of the route is on narrow single lane with passing places roads. The signs on the improved sections indicate that staying in the European Union would have ensured better roads if nothing else.

This part of Scotland is beautiful but difficult to sum up. On a good day I seemed to drive from one jigsaw puzzle view and around a corner into another. There were mountains and heather and lochs and forests and rivers and moorland aplenty. Where I lived the view across the river was onto granite cliffs and outcrops that glowed pink in the late sun. From the corner of the property I could look up the expanse of Loch Maree which has been described as Scotland’s most beautiful. It has multiple islands, one of which has its own loch complete with an island, it is lined on both sides by rocky barren mountains. The heather was magnificent, violet and purple hues. In my area much work was being undertaken to regenerate native forest. Expensive deer fencing has been installed

There were castles all over. I was too busy to stop at most of them, though Jacs and I had a couple of hours walking around the formal grounds of the extravagant Dunrobin Castle on the north east coast. It’s a massive house built like an extravagant French Chateau, opulence rather than defence being the object. There was – and still is money in the Highlands. Sir Charles Barry the architect was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

Historically much of Scotland was forested but ever since early agriculture it has been on a downward trajectory. Being used for early industry and later cleared along with the people as the estates replaced crofting as the economic basis. World War One cleared out even more and shortly after that the Forestry Commission was introduced when the land covered by trees was down under 5%. Now it’s back over 18% and much of the more recent increase has been in native species rather than industrial planting. Deer make it more difficult, there are apparently a million deer in Scotland now and the population has doubled since 1990

Other than tourism the local economy where I was doesn’t have a lot going for it. Fish farming is very unpopular being blamed for the demise of the native salmon and trout fisheries. There are still some commercial fishing boats out of Gairloch that was six miles away from where I was staying. It boasted several café’s, a bookshop, fish and chip shop, Chinese takeaway as well as a small Morrison’s supermarket. Most incongruously though was the Black Pearl Creole Jamaican restaurant, very good, though I did miss out on the Goat Curry which was apparently – to die for.

Much of the food in Scotland was surprisingly good. I had the best pie I’ve ever had from The Larder up in Lochinver, some stunning baking, great seafood and the tastiest soft fruit going. Scottish strawberries and raspberries really are good.

The Gulf Stream comes in on this side of Scotland which accounts for the botanic gardens at Inverewe. It has quite a few New Zealand plants including a good clump of Flax. As per elsewhere in the UK there are plenty of Ti Kouka/Cabbage Trees/Cordyline Australis. Daughter Lulu could only roll her eyes as I pointed them out to the American guests at the hotel in Portree.

My boss was called Ryan, a South African Scottish bundle of energy and enthusiasm. We only met 5 times in four months. Including when I arrived at Glasgow airport and when he put me on the train at Edinburgh on my way out. We took a punt on each other after I made the mistake of scanning the internet on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Wellington and fired off a speculative email. Two hours later there was a reply already. He had four vans operating out of Glasgow supporting walkers and cyclists on the West Highland Way, the John Muir Way, The Badger Divide. And then he had me up in the north.

I didn’t make as many friends as I thought I might up there. Ryan of course and then there was Raymond the local ghillie I’d met on previous visits. It’s not the usual way I operate.

One morning I talked to a girl on a laden touring bike outside the Post Office. “Where are you from?” she asked and of course she was also from New Zealand. I picked up a pair of hitchhikers – as you still do up there – they were from Nelson.

My first visits to Scotland were on family walking holidays in the late sixties when I was 8 or so. This time I popped up a small mountain called Staic Poillidh. My brother reminded me that I’d been up before on one of the family trips and there were so many midges biting when we got back to the car , that I cried. To be fair on Tim he also remembered one of our cycling trips and going up what is now a classic cyclist’s hill called Bealach na Bà. I was fitter at the time and so got to top first. He found me lying in the bucket of a parked up road digger to keep out of the wind whilst I waited.

I returned home in early October to meet my first grandchild – that was special.

So, would I do this again? I’m comfortable with my own company but this to be honest was at the edge of the comfort zone. There was a lot of alone time. Ryan though has stayed in touch, there’s an additional route this  year that needs a van to go from Skye out to the Hebrides once a week for an overnighter – that would be tempting.


1 – It was only through the help and generosity of great old friends, who know who they are, that I was able to pull this adventure off.

2 – I’m not going this year and Ryan is hiring – get in touch if you’re interested and I’ll put you in touch with Ryan. 2025 – I might be tempted.

Pete Carter is the author of This is Us. Due out in June 2020 it will be published by Exisle and tells the story of more than 200 New Zealanders in words and pictures. The book is really a portrait of the nation and how it is made up. Pete wrote Our Dog Benji a children’s book illustrated by his nephew, published by EK in 2017. He is also the author of two books of poetry. He has had magazine articles published and poetry in anthologies. As a photographer he has had two solo exhibitions and work included in group exhibitions in NZ and overseas and has sold work to and been commissioned by corporate clients.

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