Rarely has an isolated road driven a man mad. And yet, the Bealach na Bà can claim that prize for itself.
In the Regency era, a handful of Scottish MPs had the ear of the house, their voices booming far above those from other areas of the country. Mackenzie of Gairloch and Captain Donald Mackenzie of Applecross held the office of MP for Rosshire, from 1797-1807 and 1809-1815 respectively. They were popular men, despite the isolation and almost insignificance of rural areas which they represented in the wider national psyche. Their desire to modernize and build a proper road on the land was often brought up in the house – certainly because both men owned almost all the land across where the road would be built.
With the government footing the bill for 75% of the road’s building costs, a contract was signed in 1818 to improve the road that had been constructed nearly 2,000 years before. But the project seemed doomed from the beginning. No one wanted to take on the behemoth job of building a road on such a treacherous and unforgiving area of the world. Eventually, someone was found to build the precarious hairpins of the Bealach na Bà.
But that first contractor only lasted three months. One after another, contractors balked at the project. Some claimed that the loneliness of the open road, stretching far into the Scottish Highlands, had driven the men insane. Others wondered if they’d been injured by falling rocks and stones from the untamed landscape.
Eventually completed in 1822 at a cost of £4,000 (£500,000 today), the haunting memories of its constructions did not deter its visitors. In the 1950s, three of the tightest turns were widened and the road strengthened with tarmac to accommodate visitors in cars – particularly as more and more people were coming to visit this iconic road. Now, rather than being used to transport stock to markets up and down the island of Great Britain, the Bealach na Bà is considered a holy grail track for drivers looking to give themselves a challenge.
Boasting the steepest ascent of any road in the United Kingdom, its hairpin turns up to the 2,054 feet summit promises stunning views if you can handle the terrifying twists and turns of the treacherous track. Set in the Applecross Peninsula, its single road track even features a turn known as ‘the devil’s elbow’, so tight and unforgiving that it would take a very brave heart (or reckless mind) to attempt to tackle it behind the wheel.
Literally translating to ‘the pass of the cattle’, the road remains one of the most dangerous, steep and unforgettable to drive along, demanding complete concentration from those who dare to try it. But, as many who have conquered it would attest, the view from the top is worth the tension.
But, perhaps it’s most famous distinction: it might be the only road in the world that explicitly tells learner drivers to stay away.