It was a Facebook post entitled ‘Scotland's answer to America's Route 66’ that grabbed my attention. Apparently the route around the Northern part of Scotland, which has apparently been promoted since June 2015, has been named among the top six road coastal road trips in the world. The North Coast 500 is the brainchild of the North Highland Initiative (NHI), set up by Prince Charles to showcase the area, and is targeting car and motorbike enthusiasts, as well as cyclists and walkers wanting to take in some of the most scenic parts of Scotland.
Well that was tempting as Inverness, the starting point, was only an hour or so from home. The only thing that made me think twice was that this was the coldest and wettest summer in living memory (we had 197% of our usual rainfall in July and the Times later confirmed that Scotland had less than a week’s summer in 2015!). Indeed it was the weather that turned my planned 3 day trip into a 2 day one as the original plan had been to do this on a weekend when I had the Friday off but it had pi**ed down on the Friday and Saturday so instead I decided to delay a week and take Iain on the trip over the weekend of 22/23 August instead. Of course the MX5 would prove to be the ideal transport if we could put the roof down along the way and it stayed down all weekend!
More justice could be done to this route on a 4 day trip and frankly I think I will try to do that next year but for now we had but 2 days. I am going to let the photos speak for themselves as we left home in bright sunshine on Saturday morning making our way to Inverness and crossing the Kessock bridge as our starting point. Through work I am pretty familiar with the drive along the Cromarty Firth but I always find the parked Oil Rigs somewhat awesome as a statement of Human ingenuity. Continuing our drive along the Dornoch Firth we stopped eventually at Golspie to grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the view of the Duke of Sutherland’s statue on the hill above.
For some odd reason I had always assumed this monument to one of the architects of the Highland Clearances was in the North West! There was a movement a few years ago by a bunch of socialist/nationalist types to have this monument to landlordly greed demolished. Thankfully, that all seems to have died down now and this particular rogue remains cold and lonely on his plinth for birds to crap on. We didn’t go up the hill for a look, instead we went straight to the ‘Coffee Bothy’ with every good intention to just have a coffee destroyed when we noticed the all day breakfast on the menu. Sitting outside in the early afternoon sunshine we both devoured the superb, and cheap , ADB and enjoyed a pot of coffee at the same time.
Nowadays, almost all the books I buy are e-books, the exception being made when I visit charity shops and with an Alzheimer Scotland shop almost directly across the road from the ‘Coffee Bothy’ I couldn’t resist going in. This was a treasure trove and within 5 mins and for just £5, I had 5 excellent hardbacks. Shopping completed, we set off again but were soon stopped again. This time at Brora, where there seemed to be a competition for the best-dressed scarecrow with some excellent examples scattered around the town
The route along the top of Scotland is a gem, particularly once past Thurso. We stopped off at Dunnet Head – the most northerly point of Mainland Britain, though we did not go right to the edge of the cliff! From here it was through Thurso and then a most magnificent drive passing Dounreay and getting better and better views of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. The road was quiet and the scenary just got better and better as the A road became single track, with passing places only (though still marked in the map as an A road). All the time we had the roof down as the sky had cleared of cloud and the lowering sun made a beautiful skyscape. Midges had not bothered us all day – we were after all travelling at 60mph so we were complacent enough to stop by the roadside to get a better view of Ben Loyal. Instantly we were covered in the sods. ‘Quick back in the car’. Of course the midges were now also in the car and travelling along with us at 60mph but with a relative velocity of 0 mph! It took a good few minutes to swat the buggers.
As Loch Erribol (Loch ‘Orrible to RN sailors in days of yore) was a great sight as we neared Durness. Chancing the midges we stopped again and got away with it this time before driving the final few miles to Durness and a great welcome at the Smoo Cave Hotel just 2 ½ hours after leaving JoG. Here we found very welcoming locals, a lively bar with Real Ales and 1st class food (the local seafood is excellent). Although a restaurant area was available we decided to eat in the bar. I had Scallops and black pudding starter cooked just perfectly and then joy of joys a real steak pie (i.e.one with sides and bottom as well as a top. We had been advised on calling that no en-suite room was available but this didn’t matter as there was a huge bathroom next to our twin room.
Replete after dinner we were in bed and in the land of nod by 1030 that night having booked breakfast for 7:30. I awoke at 0630 to see just low cloud and rain from the window. Damn! Checking the MWIS forecast however I found that the overnight rain was forecast to clear quickly and that although near gale force winds would be encountered on the munroes we could expect a good day low down. The forecast was to prove spot on as by the end of the day we would both have sun burnt faces!. First though Breakfast which, like the food the night before, was very good. The freshly cooked to bacon, egg, beans, sausage was to die for and should keep us going until lunch time no bother.
If the trip along the North Coast on Saturday Evening was special then from Durness right through to Bealach na Ba that would take us from 0800 right through to 1700 on Sunday was truly amazing as the scenery was in a class of its own. At 1st we still had a little low cloud on the hill tops but this was clearing quickly. For the most part of the morning we would have a watery haze in the sky which had the odd effect of foreshortening distance, making even smaller hill look like giants. By the Afternoon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Starting from Durness we travelled south on the single track A838 towards Scourie. Before long meeting a German motorcyclist stopped by the roadside. A quick chat ensued, the motorcyclist full of praise for the almost empty landscape. Continuing south we found the sea again at Loch Laxford, familiar to me only through John Ridgway’s ‘Floodtide’, before refuelling at the automatic fuel pump at Scourie – where fuel was cheaper than in Inverness. As we made our way further, Quinag loomed above the landscape and barred our immediate way south pointing us instead westwards towards the point of Stour along a steeply undulating B-road that we had to ourselves as far as Lochinver. This was MX5 driving country of the highest order. There are 3 Corbetts on Quinag which gives me a reason to return again next year.
The Stour Peninsula eventually throws you out on to the fast A-837 for a quick run into Ullapool. On the way though for a late morning coffee, we were greeted to fine views of Suilven looming through the haze which not only made it seem bigger than it is but made it seem incredibly atmospheric. Passing Loch Assynt we sighted the ruins of Ardvreck Castle but didn’t stop – it seemed too early in the day, though I now wish we had spent a few moments there. As one travels through the west coast of Scotland one rapidly runs out of superlatives. Ian noted that he was getting blasé with the photography (I had made him Expedition Photographer) as every look in every direction just revealed more and more great views.
Ullapool was quiet but open and we were able to replenish our scone and coffee reserves near the harbour before continuing south once more. Keeping to the coastal road we skirted the southern shore of loch Broom as we circumnavigated Wester Ross and caught great views of the Summer Isles (a great kayaking location – next year perhaps?) and Gruinard (where Churchill tested Anthrax as a biological weapon during WW2).
After passing Gairloch we headed east with Beinn Eighe, the 1st of the Torridon Munros soon coming into view. At the end of Loch Maree is Kinlochewe where there is a small Petrol Station. As the sun was now high in the sky and the day had turned hot we decided that as well as it being petrol time, that it was also Ice cream time so I bought a Raspberry Magnum for each of us which we devoured as we headed towards Loch Torridon. Here we were faced by the 2 magnificent Munros – Liathach and Beinn Alligin. Looking at Liathach from the east made me wonder how on Earth I had ever walked up and down her as the steepness of the mountain’s sides is exaggerated from this side. Here we stopped several time to take photographs.
From Torridon we progressed on into Applecross – a completely new experience for me – on an unclassified road which gave wonderful views to Rona and Skye through a shimmering haze. For me Applecross was the highlight of the whole trip. This peninsula is reached and left only with difficulty but it is worth the effort. It was 3pmby the time we reached Applecross itself. Here the sun was beating down, a few families were paddling in the water by the beach and we felt we deserved a fine lunch so stopped at the Applecross Walled Garden Restaurant. This walled garden is a in need of some green fingered attention but the Café was wonderful. Again a real Ale for Iain and a coke for me ( I was driving so under the SNP’s nanny statist policies could not even indulge in 1 pint for fear of being in breach of the recently introduced lower driving limit for blood alcohol). But the food was truly magnificent. Freshly caught fried fish in a massive portion – so large I could have slept even without the beer.
On leaving Applecross the road climbs rapidly to the Bealach na Ba. The road is signposted as not suitable for caravans and the reason becomes very clear when one reaches the top as the road boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 2054 ft (apparently this is the third highest road in Scotland) and whilst the climb is steep, the descent on hairpin road is a precipitous 25% gradient most of the way to Strathcarron, again at sea level.
For me Strathcarron really marked the end of the journey as the rest of the route through Glen Carron and on to Inverness is on a standard fast A-road and traffic returns. This part is not pleasant but after then endlessly rolling film of gorgeous scenery that had been with us since breakfast, these last miles back to Inverness were for me an anti-climax, and for Iain a chance to snooze.
So overall impressions. North and Western coasts are stunning. The whole journey provides great opportunities to see and do more than we had time for in our 2-day trip and it will be worth a re-visit, perhaps by bike next year. If you get the chance go and do it. Iain’s comment on the trip ‘The whole cost of the MX5 was repaid in that 1 trip’
Website for the route is at:
this has a good cyclists itinerary:
and a better article than mine from the Gaurdian: