North Coast 500
Devised by the local tourist board to encourage travellers further north into Scotland, the North Coast 500 route is a 500-mile loop around the scenic splendour of the Highlands. We explore its delights, with some help from a ‘native’
It’s a 500-mile loop around the scenic glories of the Scottish Highlands. Shame we only had two days to do it in
North Coast 500? Sounds like some kind of higher latitude Indy 500 equivalent, say in Alaska or Canada. Certainly a race of some sort, surely? Well, er, no. Not exactly. In fact, it’s not an event at all, rather a circular, scenic route around the North Highlands of Scotland, beginning and ending (500 miles later) at Inverness. Dreamt up by the local tourist authority to pull people up beyond the Isle of Skye, Loch Ness and Balmoral, it was announced only as recently as 2015. By all accounts, it’s been a runaway success, but there’s only one way to find out for sure, and that’s to go up there and give it a try.
My steed for the trip is a mk2, kindly provided by Vince Bickers, at Cleverley Repaired Cars, in Suffolk. It’s a bit of a hop from my place on the South Coast to Inverness, at well over 650 miles. I’d like to be able to say that the time simply flew by, but it is some 15 traffic-blighted hours after my departure that I finally pitch up at my hotel, just outside Inverness. I will discover later that our man Vince (rather a lofty gentleman, it seems) has performed what is known as a foamectomy to his driver’s seat, in a quest for more headroom. This involves removing the padding from the seat cushion, leaving the fabulous Fraser posterior in an ever-increasing degree of distress for about 14 of those 15 hours. So, I have to tell you that the Coul House Hotel, in Contin, is a very welcome sight indeed; comfortable and inviting in equal measure. Not cheap, mind – but, as Sir Henry Royce said, the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.
It is here that I meet my guide for this adventure, in the redoubtable form of Morag, motorised Medusa of the Moray Firth. Stout of heart and strong of arm, she stands a terrifying four-feet-seven, from her tartan-stockinged feet to the top of her Tam O’ Shanter. Truly the zenith of Highland womanhood, she would strike fear into the soul of the sturdiest Sassenach. Morag is a dyed-inthe-wool petrolhead, and immediately inspects our transport. It meets with her general approval, with the exception of the ‘overly luxurious’ cockpit, with its ‘softly-softly chairs’. Takes all sorts, I suppose. After a fine evening meal, I retire to bed, while Morag disappears into the darkness, to her more traditional sleeping quarters among the heather. Like I said – takes all sorts.
Another day, another dollar, and I rise with the lark. I’m getting some calories in the bank for the toil ahead, tucking into a hearty cooked breakfast, when Morag reappears. I invite her to join me, but she politely declines, having already ‘feasted on Nature’s bounty’. Could that be rabbit fur at the side of her mouth? Or vole? I hurry through my remaining breakfast, trying not to imagine.
Bags in the car, bill paid, and it’s time to go. To my surprise, I find the driver’s seat already occupied by my companion. I try to weigh up the pros and cons of terrible discomfort versus potential peril (I’m a nervous passenger), but in the end I concede that I’m simply not man enough to protest. A cloud of dust, a flurry of innocent pedestrians, and we’re off and away!
We’ve agreed to tackle the route clockwise, to make the most of the amazing weather, and have the warm sun on our backs for our first day. I’ve booked a hotel for the night near Thurso, a plan that is ambitious at best. To enjoy this fully would take four times this long, but schedules will be schedules.we head south-west, along the A832, skirting Loch Luichart, then hit the A890 at Achnasheen, heading for our first challenge, the Applecross Pass. The roads start promisingly enough – wide, well surfaced and straight – but soon degenerate into the mixture of singletrack sections with passing places and more open stretches, that will set the scene for the rest of the day. The scenery is beautiful, rather than spectacular, and the traffic is refreshingly light.we make relaxing progress, Morag expressing her delight at our little car. She’s right of course – what better car could there be for such a trip? It’s light, just powerful enough to be fun, not too low-slung and (crucially) narrow. Over the next day or so, we will encounter all sorts of more glamorous machinery, from Ferraris to
I will discover later that our man Vince (rather a lofty gentleman, it seems) has performed what is known as a foamectomy to his driver’s seat, in a quest for more headroom
Bentleys to Caterhams and the rest, but none will be as well-suited to the conditions as ours.we allow ourselves a few moments of insufferable smugness. Ahhh…
The Applecross Pass lies to the west of Lochcarron, on a loop of road that could be avoided very easily, but to do so would be to miss one of the most remarkable sections of the NC500 route. Bealach na Bà, as the locals would call it (Pass of the Cattle) was built in the early 19th century, and hauls its way from sea level to over 2000 feet in very short order. It’s steep – very steep in places, at 1 in 5 – and a challenge for any car.
So, why anybody would be foolish enough to attempt to scale it on a bicycle is a mystery to me.yet try they do, these Lycra-clad lunatics, agony etched onto their faces as they heave and strain for just one more revolution of the pedals. Morag has little sympathy for their predicament (or their fashion sense) as we find ourselves slightly held up behind their efforts. She screeches like a Highland Harpy, waving her Claymore around and threatening to poke them up the hill with it. I yearn for a hat to pull over my head…
In time, we do squeeze by (it really is that narrow) and stop at the summit to admire the view. It might be stretching a point to call it a Scottish Stelvio Pass, but our Caledonian Col is, nonetheless, as beautiful and impressive a sight as you will find anywhere in this scepter’d isle, especially on a glorious day such as this. (Bear in mind, reader, that the forecast was for thunderstorms.) More insufferable smugness. Ahhh…
By the time we’ve indulged in happy snappery, it’s the wrong side of 11 o’clock, and we’ve covered barely a quarter of our planned route. I make the schoolboy error of pointing this out to Morag. She takes it to heart and pushes on like a woman possessed.
Bony fingers clutching the wheel, right hoof firmly pinned, Meerschaum pipe clenched between her tooth, she pulls in the horizon as only a local could, wispy ginger beard fluttering in the breeze, and the kind of steely eyes that only come from a diet of Irn-bru and girders. I warm to her, from my foetal position in the footwell.
When I dare to emerge, I’m greeted by the kind of sights that make you wonder why everybody doesn’t live here. Seascapes, lochs, mountains, they’re all here. And dotted amongst them all are beautiful, isolated stone cottages, some occupied, some empty for decades. Crinkly tin seems to be the roofing material of choice for many, red-painted above whitewashed walls. Most are modest in scale, some rather grander, but all are completely dwarfed by the scenery in which they sit.
Despite Morag’s best efforts the pace is slow, while we admire the visual banquet on offer. To scream by in a whirl of opposite lock and tyre smoke would be to miss the point entirely.we wonder out loud whether the drivers of some of the more powerful cars will be feeling cheated that it’s not a huge coastal race track. I have to say, I’m very glad it isn’t. If it were, the area would be ruined by now, and it’s very far from that.
We point ourselves at Ullapool, passing Beinn Eighe on the way. At over 3000 feet high, it classifies as a Monro, for those keen on bagging such a thing. Tragically, we’re much too tight on time to be trudging – I mean sprinting – up there.we drive on. Ullapool is a bustling little port town, from where you would catch the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry to Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, a couple of hours or so away. Just the job as a little extra day trip for people of leisure: sadly that doesn’t describe us…
Time and tide and all that, so we press on up the A835 to Ledmore, then onward to Lochinver on the A837. This is more open country, with wider, faster roads. Once again, sparks fly from the Meerschaum; once again, you find me in the footwell.
I have only two things to say about Lochinver: it is the second biggest fishing port in Scotland, and wild deer roam the streets in the middle of the
She’s right of course – what better car could there be for such a trip? We allow ourselves a few moments of insufferable smugness. Ahhh…
I’m greeted by the kind of sights that make you wonder why everybody doesn’t live here. Seascapes, lochs, mountains, they’re all here
afternoon.we follow a red doe, little antlers in velvet, trotting along the main road into the port, accompanied by its own small personal cloud of insect life. The customers outside Peet’s Restaurant seem unfazed, in a way that suggests this happens all the time.
And while we’re on the subject of animal life, it’s all here in abundance. Lambs are everywhere, beautifully white after a run of dry weather. Highland cattle appear quite relaxed at the attention lavished upon them by tourists. Game birds peek out of the heather left, right and centre, yet very few seem to be squashed on the roads. A corollary of the slow pace, I guess. Midges. Or, in fact, no midges. Perhaps we’re ahead of the annual plague, or perhaps it’s the coastal route. Either way, we’re spared the discomfort of these little blighters, in spite of the good weather. Thank goodness.
From Lochinver, we trace another peninsular route, via Drumbeg, on the B869. Again, this could easily be cut, but we want the full-fat experience. It’s tight and narrow, but most of the day is now behind us, the roads are quiet and the campervan quotient has eased considerably. Most are now parked up in gloriously scenic laybys, cheerful occupants pulling corks and enjoying the last rays of warm afternoon sun. It’s early June, so there’s plenty of light left this far north – in fact, it scarcely gets dark at all – but our meteorological luck is starting to run out.we’ve been dodging showers in the latter part of the day, but now they catch us here and there. They’re heavy, but brief. The lightning-fast MX-5 roof arrangement means we don’t get wet, to the obvious disappointment of my driver, who clearly regards shelter as some kind of middle class affectation. I can’t say I agree.
As evening draws in, we pass sea lochs where great sausages of fog are rolling in along the water. They are harbingers of things to come. Soon enough, visibility on the roads starts to close in, and it’s a simple run to the hotel for us. There really aren’t any shortcuts, but Morag seems to have a second sight through the murk.wide-eyed and muttering dreadful obscenities under her breath, she darts left and right, never missing an apex. How, I’ll never know.we finally reach the Bettyhill Hotel, just in time for dinner, then Netflix and chill.
Day two brings precious little respite from the gloom. Our hotel overlooks the sea, but you’d never guess looking out of the window. Even Morag has opted for the indoor life, and troughs into her breakfast with all the enthusiasm of a woman who has spent fully 11 hours at the wheel the previous day.
We head for John O’groats. It’s the most northerly point of mainland Britain. And, well, that’s about all you can say for it. We take a snap or two, in front of the obligatory signpost. It’s 3230 miles to New York, and you never know when that kind of knowledge will come in handy. Morag seems unmoved by this revelation. It occurs to me that she may never have heard of the place.
Now, I don’t wish to be uncharitable to the north-east coast of Scotland, but the truth is that it is really just a way of returning to Inverness. It’s pleasant enough, and perhaps the likes of Brora would be just the place for some knitwear shopping, but for us the deed is done.we’ve covered as much ground in two days as most sensible people would manage in a week, and we’re proud of our achievement. we’ ve tasted the joy of the northern latitudes, and our car has acquitted itself tremendously. In spite of Morag’s ‘encouragement’, it has held together faultlessly and – seat issues notwithstanding – has been an unalloyed joy throughout.
I take my leave of Morag, appropriately, in a field of her choosing, just to the north of Inverness. I turn to the car to pull her bag from the boot, only to realise that she doesn’t have one. By the time I look back to her, she has lashed two sheep together, and is standing atop the overwrought ovines.with a battle cry that would send a shiver down the spine of Cruella De Vil, she disappears into the Scotch mist.
Forever? Who knows? I check back into Coul House for a drink and a lie down. I reckon I’ve earned it.
Above: ready for the off outside Coul House Hotel in ContinBelow: we’ll take the high road and you take the low road… Top: Loch Luichart gleams in unexpected sunshineRight: MX-5 just the right size for the Applecross Pass
Above: a deer wanders along the main road through Lochinver. As they do…Below: great sausages of fog rolling in from northern sea lochs The rest: in the right – sunny – conditions, Scotland is as ravishingly beautiful as anywhere on the planet