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’

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS - Words and pic­tures: Antony Fraser

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

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