The North Coast 500 (NC500)
The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a tourist route created out of existing roads that loop round the very northern part of the Highlands of Scotland. It’s been touted as Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – which is pushing it rather. It’s nowhere near as long or diverse or quirky. But it does give access to some stunning scenery you might otherwise have missed. And it’s another travel challenge to add to the list.
It was the brain child of Prince Charles, designed to get visitors into the lesser known areas of Scotland, around the perimeter. It’s possibly worked too well, as the narrow roads are rather too busy in peak season.
The route isn’t entirely straightforward. It’s not 500 miles (though the Proclaimers would like to have you think so) but 516. And I’m not sure how even that is calculated, as there are various alternatives, especially along the (IMHO) most scenic section - the northwest of Scotland. There’s a choice between scenic A roads (hardly anywhere in Scotland is not gorgeous) and the ultra gorgeous single track roads that hug the coast.
Naturally, the drawback to the latter is that they can be utterly terrifying. They teeter along the side of mountains or above lochs, constrained at times by drystone walls that edge in perilously close. There are plenty of passing places, usually occupied by sheep. But you can’t always see ahead to the on the winding roads. Campervans roar though the gaps and refuse to back down. If you can’t reverse you’re in trouble. And will be subjected to disgusted looks at best and honking horns at worst. Which of course really improve one's ability to manoeuvre in a tight space. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced anything worse than a disgusted face.
When you meet another driver who has given way you have to raise a finger in thanks. The unwritten rules state that they will raise one in return: ‘It was a pleasure to wait.’ Sometimes you get a whole hand or palm instead. However long Google says the journey will take you, double it. Or use the A roads instead and miss the fun – and the views.
The route officially begins and ends at Inverness. But you can start it anywhere - it’s circular. There are plenty of online commentaries on the route and suggested itineraries. If you took the best roads and didn’t stop you could do it in one (very long and exhausting) day. But most folk take a week or longer. I took five days this time, coming from The Western Isles. But I've driven most of this route already, before it became the NC500. Here are my impressions.
Day 1 NC500 - Inverness to Kinlochewe
Inverness is a delightful town with river walks alongside the River Ness (no sign of the monster – I wonder if the water’s too shallow this far from the Loch) and across a series of little islets. There are some great restaurants too. The food at the Kitchen Brasserie, alongside the river, is yummy.
The route is supposed to start at Inverness Castle, but there’s no sign of any route marker around. You won’t pick any of these up till you start to get out of town.
Braving the Bealach na Ba
From Inverness the road winds through Strathpeffer across country to Loch Carron and then follows the coastal road from Applecross, north and round to Shieldaig. This section is not for the faint hearted. The pass beyond Applecross is one of the highest roads in Scotland, known as the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle), for obvious reasons. It is a twisting turning beast. Once beyond here there are iconic views across to Skye and other islands.
After Shieldaig it’s Loch Torridon, one of the most beautiful and wild sea lochs in Scotland. The peaks are at their most awesome tumbling into the water. Just before Kinlochewe is a magnificent viewpoint up Glen Docherty to Loch Maree. Even Queen Victoria stopped her coach here to take in the panorama.
Day 2 NC500 - Kinlochewe to Ullapool
More rugged vistas along Loch Maree, where the mountain ash frames the shimmering water and the mighty peaks. There are streams of bikers here with their Harleys. The most organised are sporting 500 T-shirts and have accompanying vans which tote all their gear and refreshments.
The sea lochs really come into their own, past the little port of Gairloch and around Loch Ewe, which is a glittering feast for the eyes, with islets stretching to the horizon. Poolewe on the shores is a pretty village and there are also the Inverewe gardens with its tropical planting (thanks to the Gulf Stream). Then a string of incredible beaches.
Ullapool is a line of houses (and plenty of B and Bs) along the shores of lovely Loch Broom. This community of some 1500 souls is the largest place for miles around. Apparently it was rated as one of the 20 most beautiful villages in the UK and Ireland, by Condé Nast Traveller in 2020. I'm lost for words. It has its charms, but the setting is what makes it. The loch meanders inland full of bobbing boats and provides a tranquil sheltered harbour. This is where the ferry from the Isle of Lewis docks after crossing the Minch.
Day 3 NC500 - Ullapool to Scourie
The coastal route from Ullapool to Lochinver and then again from Lochinver, to eight miles south of Scourie, gives the Bealach na Ba a run for its money. The second section is known as ‘The Mad Wee Road of Sutherland,’ as it switchbacks along loch-sides, skirts the sea and crests mountain ranges. But the scenery is sublime. Stunning powdery white beaches, the wildest of rocky outcrops and glittering waves. And all crowned by the starkly mysterious hills of Assynt. Stac Poleaidh, the magnificent undulating series of peaks that is. Quinag and unique sugar loaf Suilven, the most recognisable and iconic of them all. Sawtooth Stac Poleaidh is a favourite spot for energetic walkers, rewarded by a breathtaking view of the wilderness. (I did it last time I was here.)
Stop half way at the Lochinver Larder for 'the best pies in the land'.
Scourie is minuscule. There’s a fancy hotel, a couple of B and Bs and a store. Also, a credit card operated fuel pump (very expensive) and a campsite with a bar that’s open until seven and does takeaways. If you want burgers and chips. The hotel only caters for residents and I’m not one of them, so the dining options are very limited. Otherwise, you’re driving to Tarbet, a little further west, up a very twisty loch side road to the north for the Shorehouse, which is only open till seven and does mainly cold shellfish (if it’s not fully booked), or the Old School which is even further up north on the turn off to Kinlochbervie. That doesn’t stay open very late either.
Accommodation options are also limited. I turned up at my B and B at 3.20 to be told to go away and come back at four. I won’t be hurrying back to Scourie Lodge, even if it was built by the Duke of Sutherland, especially as the only breakfast choice is poached eggs.
Day 4 NC500 - Scourie to Thurso
Past the turn off to Tarbet again. You can take a ferry boat to Handa Island from here. It's home to a few puffins (who departed in early August) and plenty of guillemots, razorbills and other seabirds.
The scenery continues to be stunning. Shimmering lochans, glittering seas and the wildest of awe inspiring hillsides. It's said this is where John Lennon got the inspiration for his lyrics:
'There are places I'll remember
All my life'
Sandwood - The Best Beach in Britain?
Further north, off the Kinlochbervie road, past Blairmore, is the start of the walk to the ‘Best Beach in Britain’. It’s a four and half mile slog over peat moors bedecked with lochans, each with its own stripe of sand. In the distance. more gently rugged mountains form the backdrop. Today I have companions, Tim and Vicky from Barry in Wales. We chat non stop, which lengthens the walk, but also makes time go more quickly if that makes sense. It's taken two and half hours by the time we've battled our way down the steep path through the sand dunes.
Sandwood Beach, it has to be said is glorious. It's deep, enlivened with tiny rivulets that wander into the sea. There’s a small stack to one side and several softly pink striped islands, as well as a whole line of cliffs of the same hue, dividing the far reaches of the bay into coves. Awesome.. But the best beach in Britain? The jury is out. and I maybe I will have to revise my Best Beaches in the World List.
Though agreeing on the title justifies the ache in my legs as I struggle back - only an hour and a half this time. And the constraints on the amount of time you can actually spend there. Especially as it was actually hot enough to sunbathe today. Though the water is still a little too fresh for comfortable bathing - it’s good for a refreshing paddle. Unless you’re wild camping.
There are stories that a sea captain ghost has appeared to numerous walkers on this path. Though not for some time, or I would be speeding back even faster.
A little north east and I'm now on the very top of Scotland. Through the village of Durness, absolutely packed with tourists and onto Smoo Cave, just the other side. this area is packed too. it's almost impossible to find a parking space, so I drive out of town a little and pull up on a verge. It's worth the effort. It's a huge cavern, with lights inside reflecting on a lake. It was carved by a burn that still feeds it. You can get boat trips along the water and deeper into the cave, but you have to sign up on a whiteboard and the board is leady covered in names. I wasn't planning to spend all day here.
The A road swings round and I'm now traversing the very north, the top of the country. The road continues as a single track route nearly the whole way to Thurso. And this section of the NC500 continues to be extraordinarily busy. Annoyingly, there are hundreds of huge campervans. These behemoths thunder along the narrow roads taking no prisoners and refusing to reverse - it’s extremely tight when two of them meet. There’s an astonishing amount of other traffic too. At one point I have to wait while 12 cars lurch past at one passing place. It makes for a very long and frustrating journey.
The scenery here in the north is still gorgeous, but more low key than the north west coast. The mountains are low and rugged and, as I progress east, become huge curtains, with velvety folds, rising into the mist. There are further incredible swathes of golden sand, Like Ceannabeinne Beach, where there's a zip line nearly 40 metres high. It's not open, inclement weather. It’s rained all day and the frustration of missing out on views is almost as great as my exasperation with the campervans. The cloud is too thick at times to be mysterious. I just can’t see, and it's wet out there. I shouldn’t complain. I’ve been really lucky with the weather so far in Scotland.
Thurso doesn’t improve my mood. It might boast that it’s the most northerly town in the United Kingdom, but this is yet another town that isn’t sure if it’s actually open. There's a tumbledown castle, the buildings are grimly dark, the streets are deathly quiet and it’s unclear if the few bars and restaurants are serving. I find one where I’m admitted. But the food is mediocre.
The moral is not to travel this section of the NC 500 in high season - or during the time of Covid – to and lobby for the powers that be to ban campervans.
Day 5 NC500 - Thurso to Inverness
Across the rest of the top of the country to John O’Groats, the most northerly point on the mainland. It has to be done and if you get there early you will beat the crowds and can have your photo taken under the signpost. It’s happily much less touristy than Lands End, which has been bought up and turned into a theme park. Jan de Groot was a Dutchman who operated the Orkney ferry in Tudor times.
Just off the coast I can see the Orkney Islands, flat pancakes stretching into the distance.
Slightly south, and off to the far east is Duncansby Head. This is the most north easterly point on the UK mainland and, actually, the furthest point by road from Land's End in Cornwall, the most southwesterly point. There's yet another Stevenson lighthouse here, though its fenced off. It’s well worth the short walk to see the mummy and daddy and baby stacks half a mile down the coast. They’re arrestingly shaped. Giant whipped ice creams shrouded in mist.
Now, it’s definitely south; the A99 through Wick (another grimly dark town) and the A9, all the way though to Inverness again. No single track roads here, though the A9 is two way for the most part, only increasing to a dual carriageway close to Inverness.
It has to be said that the scenery is no longer fabulous. Right in the north east it’s flat and even possibly, tedious. There are some seascapes - beaches and cliffs. A (closed) museum with traditional crofting houses at Laidhay . Further south, a few gentle mountains ringed with pink rose bay willow herb. They tantalise and disappear again.
Dunrobin Castle, with its turrets, perched right on the coast, the most northerly great house in the country, beckons and is swallowed by the trees.
Dornoch is a pretty town. Here, the houses and cathedral are constructed of mellow sandstone rather than the granite of elsewhere. It’s a middle class enclave with tis championship golf course, cathedral and plate glass cafes.
A few rigs in the estuary off to the east and I’m picking up traffic again, as Inverness hoves into sight. My circle is complete.