The North Coast 500 is a recently-designated tourist trail around the northernmost part of Scotland. Everyone will have different motivations for exploring it: just driving and watching the landscape roll by; as a cycling or walking challenge; to step off and explore the countryside; to pop into whatever tourist attractions are on offer. With this in mind, be advised that what follows is merely an account of the things that took our fancy on the way – there’s a lot more we simply passed by. We followed an anticlockwise route.
Stage 1: Edinburgh to John O’Groats
After heading up the A9 through the middle of Scotland, we had breakfast in Inverness (where, at the Tourist Information Centre, you can also pick up the official NC500 map, noting toilets, petrol stations and other facilities along the road). We were too early to stop off at most of the attractions and distilleries nearby in Easter Ross, so continued up the coast to Golspie where we stretched our legs with a walk in Big Burn forest with waterfalls big and small. It was also here we saw the first of many signs noting how many attractions, resurfaced roads, and other infrastructure had been upgraded with the financial assistance of European Union funding.
Our main aim was to get to Thurso for a late-ish lunch, and then take it easy exploring Caithness. Thurso also features the Caithness Horizons museum which features a number of Pictish carved stones, and a good summary of the area’s history from the arrival of the Norse to the present day. There’s also a substantial section dedicated to the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear reactor. It’s not huge, but it’s well-packed and worth a look.
Other points of interest in this corner include Dunnet Head (the most northern point of mainland Great Britain), where you can visit a gallery at the lighthouse (including an outdoor art installation composed of detritus from the shore); Duncansby Head includes cliffs full of nesting sea birds (I spotted a couple of puffins, and a number of birds taking tentative steps to the edge, presumably summoning up the courage for their first flight), as well as a couple of large rock stacks. It’s all good for a walk in the fresh breeze, and requires a few minutes of driving along single-track roads with passing places. (Better get used to these.)
After taking the obligatory tourist photos at John O’Groats direction sign (even in the evening it can get quite busy) we spent a night at the excellent John O’Groats Guest House (run by Mary and Mark who seem to have found their vocation in life; I thoroughly recommend it!). We took a detour on the car ferry from nearby Gill’s Bay to Orkney – but since this isn’t part of the NC500, I’ll skip 24 hours to the next leg of the trip.
Stage 2: John O’Groats to Durness
After a rainy day in Orkney, we were blessed with sunshine for this bit. Just past Dunnet is the Seadrift Centre, and a long, wide beach backed by hilly grass dunes and great views out to sea. This being Scotland, we had no idea when our next chance for a sunny beach walk might be, so we spent a good hour traipsing up and down the sand and exploring the dunes before driving on, back through Thurso and past Dounreay, keeping an eye out for petrol stations.
The map said we could refuel at Reay and Bettyhill, but Reay was empty and we didn’t see anything at Bettyhill. Meanwhile, the tank was getting emptier (it’s a small car with a tank the size of a child’s bladder). Finally, we stopped at Tongue, a village spread out on a steep bend in the road, and asked one of the locals where the petrol station was. She directed us to the store on the way out of town (heading north/west). Finally we realised why we had a hard time spotting it: there were no canopies decorated with well-known brands, or even ‘FUEL HERE’ signs; it was a single pump outside the local convenience store, and had evidently been in faithful service for a few decades (the counter was mechanical). One had to go into the shop and ask the owner to fuel up for you, and then he’d know how much to charge you. It felt like we’d entered another time.
After passing the village of Hope, the roads heading down to Loch Eriboll became single-track with passing places again. Thankfully, it was quiet enough, and passing places plentiful enough, for us to pull over to grab some impromptu photos of the surroundings (this is not recommended – there were some sections where campervan drivers evidently saw ‘passing place’ as a synonym for ‘picnic spot’ and were cheerfully oblivious to the mayhem and traffic jams they were causing.)
Durness is quite scattered, but everything is reachable with a very short drive (or a medium-to-long-ish walk, depending on how you judge these things). One must-see is Smoo Cave, where the river plunges into the ground before reaching the cliffs. Inside, is a waterfall and pool, with the stream continuing out to sea. The cave system has existed for a couple of ice ages and shows signs of human habitation (as the explorer and guide Colin Coventry put it, traces of burned nuts either indicate humans cooking, or a squirrel with a frying pan). Heavy rain can raise water levels inside the cave to the point where the tour boat can’t go anywhere, but luckily we were able to go past the first (entrance) and second (waterfall) chambers to the third chamber where we were given a brief lesson in the geology of the area. Colin has been exploring and digging the caves for years, and you can follow his progress here.
Elsewhere around Durness we stopped by Balnakeil Craft Village, a collection of arts and crafts studios (and a chocolatier) occupying a former military listening post. Further on is the small settlement of Balnakeil, with its ruined church which marks the start of the beach around Faraid Head. With the early evening sun over turquoise waters, this makes for a great walk over grassy dunes and abundant sands covering what was once a tarmac track, towards a military observation post looking out to the firing range on Cape Wrath, on the other side of the bay. After all this, we reckoned we deserved a good meal, and got it at the Smoo Cave Hotel before heading to our cramped little room at the local hostel.
Stage 3: Durness to Ullapool
We were woken at 4.30am by flashes of lightning, and listened to the thunderstorm for the next hour before the rain began. We were just glad we weren’t at the campsite nearby (a waiter at Sango Sands Oasis said that the previous week, campers had to chase their tents around in the high winds). We opted for an early breakfast on the hostel’s deck, watching the sea fog roll over the coastal cliffs. At least the rain had stopped.
We turned the corner from west to south under threatening clouds. It was amazing how fast they moved: within a minute, a storm cloud rolled in, hiding the mountains and drumming rain against the windscreen. When you read warnings to mountain climbers to prepare for all conditions, even if they start out in sunshine, this is why. The road wound its way up and down the coastline, offering spectacular glimpses of forests and glens, mountains, and surreal cloudscapes.
After Kylesku, the NC500 route takes a coastal detour to Lochinver along another single-track road, this time offering great views of classic rugged, west coast scenery: cliffs, bays, and islands. Just be prepared to keep the car in low gear with all the steep sections and sharp corners. There aren’t any road markings, and only a few barriers or warning signs. You’ll be sharing the road with local sheep, too. Lochinver is a good place to make a pit stop for a more substantial breakfast and much needed cup of tea (the Lochinver Bunkhouse cafe is sure to be open) and a walk to stretch your legs. After this, there’s Loch Assynt and the forlorn, modest ruins of Ardvreck Castle (which look great even in clouds and rain) to potter around.
South of Lochinver is Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, which features a ‘rock room’ containing a lookout point over Lochan an Ais towards the mountains of Cul Beag and Cul Mor with Stac Pollaidh peeking between them. The rock room also has a good information display on the area’s importance to the history of geology: it is where it was proven that older rocks could be pushed upwards, on top of younger rocks – the start of a chain of evidence that led to our understanding of continental drift (Scotland was once joined to North America; the land here bears a strong resemblance to Iceland, where the process is currently visible). Beyond the room is a set of walks (short, medium, or long) which take you to sculptures and points of interest. At time of writing, it’s still all very new and in good condiction; I hope the years are kind to it. The view from the top of the crag, above the clouds, is wonderful.
We got to Ullapool in lashing rain, enjoyed a couple of burgers at the Seaforth Inn and a short rest at our motel before paying a quick visit to Corrieshalloch Gorge. The highlight here is a walk across the wobbling, swaying Victorian-era suspension bridge over a 46-metre waterfall into the narrow gorge below. It’s deep enough to have its own clouds loitering around the greenery below. Only six people at a time are allowed onto the bridge. You can almost feel the brown-white water thundering below your feet. After that, we decided to have an early night. Travel gets a bit tiring after a while…
Stage 4: Ullapool to Loch Carron
The next morning was warm and sunny, so we took a bit of time to enjoy Lael Forest Garden before continuing past the gorge to Inverewe Gardens. Well, this is a little oasis of colour! After tea and cheese scones (made tasty with the addition of mustard seeds; the buggers must’ve stolen my secret family recipe!), we spent a good two or three hours walking around the plants and sculptures. It was like a labyrinth full of delights. Everything was fragrant and fresh. Walk for two minutes in any direction and you’d be in completely different surroundings. Highly recommended.
We paused in Gairloch but decided to push on to the notorious/famous Bealach na Bà, the road to Applecross. Getting there meant joining a convoy of cars, trucks, motorbikes (mostly German plates), campervans (predominantly German and Dutch, with a few Belgians and French), and a Swiss caravan crawling along at the head of the line. It was with some relief we were glad to get past the caravan when it pulled over for a map check. Unfortunately, our convoy was presented with a convoy behind a lorry coming the opposite direction, and there weren’t enough passing places to cope. Despite the insistent horn-honking from the campervan of impatient Germans behind us, we crept past each other. The next step was to wait for the lead driver in our line to pay attention to all the Police Scotland warning signs telling drivers to pull over to allow following cars to overtake. (We got there in the end, and the roads cleared.)
The Road to Applecross
All that was just on the road from Kinlochewe to Torridon. The road to Applecross starts after Sheildaig, and is unsuitable for caravans or large vehicles, or inexperienced drivers (I’d be tempted to add campervans to the list), and is closed in wintry conditions. Going anticlockwise, you’re presented with sharp, uphill corners and blind summits. With a line of cars coming downhill towards you, you quickly get used to a lot of hill starts from passing places. Getting into second gear becomes a novelty. You start to wonder what the fuck you’ve let yourself in for. Amazingly, there are still people who think it’s OK to stop in passing places for food and water and taking photos (instead, there’s a suitable parking spot about halfway to Fearnmore.)
For international readers, I should note that it’s customary when you give a driver space to get past, they’ll wave at you (just raising their fingers off the wheel a bit) and you wave at them. It’s all very amicable; like a community of drivers acknowledging that yes, we’re all on this difficult road together, but we’re looking out for each other; nobody’s going to act like a dick.
The road soon heads downwards (past a beach with views of the islands of Raasay and Skye behind it, which is under military jurisdiction because of the listening post nearby) to Applecross. If the waterfront is a bit too busy, I can recommend Applecross Walled Garden for a relaxing place to eat. You’ll need it: the hardest part is the short section between Applecross and Tornapress.
The southernmost part of the road is the original ‘Pass of the Cattle’. Near Applecross, the road winds up with a wall of rock on one side and crumbling cliff edges on the other. This is not the kind of road where you want to be caught between passing places when a campervan comes the other way. Well, guess what? I ended up having to reverse downhill on a sharp bend, trying not to roll over the edge as a campervan that was just too damn big tried to squeeze past. It’s not for the faint-hearted, this road! The views for your passenger are great, though.
After that, you have the steep, sharp, switchback curves on the way down to the bottom. I stopped to let a couple of motorbikes past, and then a couple of cyclists (and wound down the window to wish them well; heading up near-20% gradients on a bicycle is something I wouldn’t even contemplate…). The only problem this time was a white pick-up truck full of young-ish guys going too fast uphill. Clearly they expected others to get out of their way. I ended up reversing uphill to let them past, since the driver clearly wasn’t going to reverse back to the nearer passing place. Some people just get by with the good manners of others. The roads themselves aren’t a problem – but other drivers might be.
Our last stop was Loch Carron. We intended to stay the night at the Lochcarron Hotel, but after managing to avoid being bitten by midges (Avon Skin So Soft is vital up here!), we were attacked by bedbugs instead. No wonder: the decor and carpets don’t appear to have changed since the early 1980s, and it’s a good bet you can say the same for the mattresses too (which make the same sort of noise as sinking battleships). I think they’ve been running the hotel the same way since 1980, but without the realisation that the British hospitality industry has moved on quite a bit since then. It’s a shame they hadn’t kept their prices at a 1980 level, but we considered it an expensive lesson in being extremely picky about where we stay in the future.
I managed two hours sleep until midnight, but after that noises of the pub below us, and possibly the cleaning up afterwards (at least, that’s what I hope all the banging and thumping was) kept me awake and fully aware of whatever things were crawling over my skin. After a discussion of the pros and cons of driving at night on unmarked single-track roads, we got up at 1.30am and were on our way within 20 minutes.
We got back to Edinburgh before breakfast time. Despite the final night, we were immensely happy to have travelled the North Coast 500. It’s an amazing route with spectacular sights whatever the weather. It’s only been around a year or so. How will it look in the future? Will the tourist industry outgrow the infrastructure and clog it up (in a manner similar to the Lake District, perhaps)? Or will it remain remote, and only for the keenest visitors – after all, it is the remotest and least-populated corner of Britain. Time will tell.
But as an experience – if you have the wherewithal to do it, then do it!