NORTH COAST 500
When Isak Dinesen wrote God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road, she obviously hadn’t experienced the back roads of the Scottish Highlands. Along these single-track lanes, undulating between thick shrubbery and dry-stone walls, it’s quite impossible to gauge what lies beyond the next bend - a column of German motorcycles, a Belgian campervan, a brace of tricked Porsche 911s, a local tractor, a Tesco’s Home Delivery van, or even a half-dozen, ambling cows. Besides, with views like these it really doesn’t pay to look too far down the road.
By early evening we leave the city of Inverness behind us, escaping north, soon peeling west along the A832. After Garve we veer left, touching the shores of Loch Luichart, running beside the railway to the Kyle of Lochalsh. For a mile or two the road penetrates a shambling green passage, rhododendrons throwing splashes of unruly colour. Further still and the vista starts to narrow as the hills gain stature. Soon the traffic subsides to a trickle and the lush air buffets at the open window. Out here is no place for the frantic commuters.
The weather is not being kind to us. Wind and rain have chased us across the Southern Uplands and over the Grampian Mountains. Now, as we round a bend, a vast loch shimmering in the windscreen, a rare flash of evening sunlight casts a golden hue, nature conveyed in perfect clarity.
We grab one of the last two places in the Lochcarron campsite. A group of Asians have locked themselves out of their hire car and huddle in a circle until the local mechanic arrives. Finally, they lay out their tents on a stretch of grass, crack open bottles of beer and ogle at the scenery. A veil of light rain drifts in from the sea.
The North Coast 500 hugs the coastline of the Scottish Highlands for some 516 miles, offering the most dramatic scenery you’ll encounter on any road trip. From Inverness it crosses the regions of Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Easter Ross, the Black Isle and Inverness-shire, finally arriving back in Inverness.
The concept and branding of the NC 500 is owned, managed and promoted by the privately funded North Coast 500 limited. The aim of the company is said to be focused on growing the brand and its reach, in turn delivering an outstanding economic impact for the communities in the North Highlands. Since the company was established three years ago, they claim their promotional efforts have reached a global audience of 2.3 billion. But has it become a victim of its own success? Certainly the volume of traffic has grown exponentially. Approximately one third of the 500s route involves remote, single-track lanes and whilst there are plenty of passing places, in the main summer season vehicle numbers are already in danger of overwhelming the positive impact of this tourism initiative. We made the journey at the start of June and dodging into Passing Places became a regular feature along the west coast section, bordering on the tedious.
Leaving Tornapress for the Applecross Peninsula, we begin the ascent of the Bealach na Ba (the Pass of the Cattle), the crags of Meall Gorm and Sgurr a’ Chaorachain lost in the mist. The wipers thrash at the steady drizzle as we rise above a listless and moody-looking Loch Kishorn. The track is steep and twisty, rising to a height of 626 metres. Pulling aside, a line of vintage motorcycles rumble and crackle as they pass. Belted and buckled in waxed-cotton suits and open-face helmets, the riders peer at us through goggles pre-dating the Battle of Britain. From Can Glas we return to sea level, to the settlement of Applecross, stopping to catch the fresh, saline breeze. Later, the track hugs the shoreline, wandering amongst a once-forgotten land, passing through the settlements of Sand and Fearnmore, before emerging at Upper Loch Torridon. The road meanders northwards, until reaching Mungasdale, where we ditch the camper and strike out on foot to Loch na Sealga. After 6 miles we reach its pebbly shore, stopping to gaze as the waters ripple in blues and greys beneath the dense cloud, the heights of Beinn Dearg Mór lost beyond them. Here is solitude, a complete peace that has become so hard to find. Lulled by this magical land, we perch on rocks and unpack our lunch.
Dawn brings a change in the weather, bright sunshine lighting up Achmelvich Bay and putting vigour in our step as we pack up camp. We press on through a region of sandy beaches and rugged moorland. Along the A838 the mountains of Ben Stack, Arkle and Cranstackie dominate the easterly sky. At Durness, centre of the ancient land of the Clan Mackay, we track east, rounding Loch Eriboll and crossing the Flow Country, an expanse of blanket bog rich in wildlife. After Bettyhill the winding lanes are left behind us, the mountains diminishing in the rearview mirror as we enter a more gentle landscape. The Atlantic Ocean is ever present to the north, whilst Melvich, Reay, Thurso and Dunnet come thick and fast. It’s been a long day at the wheel when we find the Crofter’s Snug, a tiny campsite overlooking the Pentland Firth. A half hour walk to St John’s Point stretches our legs and precedes a stunning sunset that invigorates the soul.
The following day, a tour of the Castle of Mey, the former home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, makes a welcome break from the road. As does the short stroll in John o’ Groats. At the Fingerpost, the famous starting point for so many record breaking and charity fundraising events, three lads fuss over their luggage-burdened Vespa scooters, vanquishing the 500 firmly in their sight. And then we’re southbound, through a rolling, fertile landscape, stopping at Lybster, a former herring station in the 19th century and once the third largest herring port in Scotland. Those days are long gone, the harbour now home to a handful of boats fishing for crab and lobster. The invigorating walk along the clifftops, watching cormorants and razorbills, delays our return to the road. We camp for the night at the harbour in Helmsdale, for centuries a salmon fishing and curing station. By the 1900s the port and its curing sheds lay abandoned. Much like Lybster to the north, it is now the homebase for a limited number of inshore trawlers.
After five days on the circuit, we arrive back in Inverness. In truth, our time on the 500 has passed too quickly; time constraints and heavy weather have weighed against us. Still, the glories of Scotland do not begin and end at Inverness. Our journey home will take us along the Great Glen to Fort William, a hike in the picturesque Glen Nevis and then the mountains beyond. And some day in the future we shall certainly return, though it’s best never to look too far down the road. Isak Dinesen, undoubtedly, would approve.
When to go
Winter could provide tricky driving conditions but is undoubtedly quieter. The summer months are obviously the busiest and I would say best avoided, if possible. We went early June and traffic was already building. Having said that, we never had to book ahead for campsites. Wild camping, for now, is very much an accepted option. Please remember to respect your surroundings and leave no trace. When planning a trip to Scotland don’t bother waiting for a sunny day - just get on with it.
Clockwise or anti-clockwise
We did minimal planning before departing for the 500. In Inverness we dived into the tourist office and bought Charles Tait’s The North Coast 500. As his itinerary was clockwise, that’s the way we went.
www.northcoast500.com is a good source of information to help plan the 500.
Also, Charles Tait’s The North Coast 500 is an informative source including maps, natural history, archaeology, history and the economy of the region.
www.walkinghighlands.co.uk is a useful guide to hiking in the Highlands.