Scotland’s North Coast 500

I’ve been meaning to share a fuller picture of a road trip we took last summer around the far north coast of Scotland. Billed by the tourist board as the ‘North Coast 500’, it’s also been touted as the best road trip in the world. You certainly get a hugely varied amount of spectacular scenery, from views to the western isles, right through the prehistoric Torridon mountains, past the flowlands and pristine beaches of the north, round to the fishing villages and farming countryside bordering the North Sea. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. We chose to travel clockwise and to mostly opt for the youth hostels as accommodation. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Scottish youth hostels – the facilities are excellent, the locations are perfect, each welcome was warm. The official starting point for touring the 500 miles is Inverness Castle.

Inverness Castle at night – starting point of the NC500

Strathpeffer Pump Room on the route of the North Coast 500 road trip Scotland

Strathpeffer Pump Room

Attadale Gardens – rain not a problem!

We were so impressed with Attadale Gardens – really welcoming and a beautiful walk! The perfect place for a good leg stretch, a sculpture trail and some hot chocolates.

And then we headed up into the clouds on the notorious Bealach na Bà (a single-track, winding, ancient cattle pass and Britain’s steepest ascent of any road climb) – visibility down to about 5m at the top!

So once you’re on the Applecross Peninsula, you’ll find it’s where all the hairy coos like to hang out.

I also had my Mamiya medium format camera with me – heavy to port about, but quite nice to record something that felt like it could be from any age! I’ve included some of the scans amongst the other pictures:

Our first taste of Scottish youth hostelling was at Torridon, and mighty impressive it was, too. Fantastic location, superb kitchen, huge picture windows (the tail end of Storm Harvey was just catching Scotland) and the option of buying a frozen boil-in-the-bag curry for your dinner – complete with the usual accompaniments – which couldn’t have been more delicious!

rowan berries in the rain, Torridon

A small detour away from the NC500 route is the Bealach na Gaoithe, my favourite of the cattle passes and looking out over Upper Loch Torridon. Unfortunately, travelling the trip route means sticking to a schedule rather than waiting for the cloud to lift and the good light to come, but it’s worth taking in the vista whatever the weather!

Driving past the wonderful Loch Maree, and we were still being followed by low cloud and feeling that we were missing out on some of the best scenery. We took a walk around the Beinn Eighe nature reserve for a break from the car, and then on to gorgeous Gairloch.

Take a look at this – it’s the youth hostel in Gairloch, in what used to be a hunting lodge. THE most fantastic location and views to take your breath away, not to mention the warm hospitality of the people who work there and the other travelling families.

I would relive this evening, sitting drinking tea on a warm evening & sketching the Torridon mountains in complete peace, every day for ever if I could…

In the morning we packed up and headed down to Gairloch harbour, where amongst the boat tours on offer, we were able to spend time exploring the sea floor on the glass-bottomed boat:

…and if you’re lucky and behave yourself, you get to steer!

Inverewe Gardens to the north of Gairloch are a great example of how this area of the west coast is temperate and sheltered enough, due to the Gulf Stream, to cultivate tropical plants. Below are some really giant redwoods:

child with giant redwood tree at inverewe gardens national trust for Scotland

We took another little detour for a beach break at Mellon Udrigle – not just legendary for its brilliant name, but look at the view; my favourite mountain Suilven to the left (looking like a hump-backed whale from this angle).

beach at mellon udrigle wester ross scotland

The view of the harbour from our window at the youth hostel in Ullapool:

Stac Pollaidh is another fave of mine! Look at it – so beautiful, craggy, and distinctively-shaped. It’s a great wee walk with the most breathtaking views but sadly, although we’d planned to climb, we didn’t have enough hours in the day. You forget that travelling on rural – and often single-track – roads means that you just don’t cover the distance that you think you might in the time. So much to see!

fiat 500 driving past Stac Pollaidh on the route of the North Coast 500 Scotland's NC500

Lochinver’s Larder is the pie shop mecca for many a traveller and biker. We’ve now had a selection of their pies, tasted each other’s, and can confirm that it’s WELL worth it. (Pork, apple & cider, top tip, but to be honest – any of them!).

motorcycles outside the lochinver larder pie shop scotland NC500

If you get to Durness, a trip to Cocoa Mountain is an absolute must. Really impressive hot chocolates and a wonderful selection of flavoured chocs to choose from.

The Golden Eagle zip line at Ceannabeinne operates according to the weather and we were fortunate enough to be there at just the right time – highly recommended, friendly staff with the highest safety standards, and a breathtaking view!

There is a ‘town trail’ at Ceannabeinne which takes you around the former thriving village near Durness, site of highland clearances in 1842 which resulted in riots. It’s very moving to read about how these farming families stood up to the forceful removal of their homes and livelihoods, leading to new crofting legislation and changing the lives of those who followed.

Durness’s youth hostel is housed in two buildings right next to Smoo Cave, another fantastic location.

From Durness, the route takes you along Scotland’s northernmost coast, past Loch Eriboll.

I’d seen pictures of ‘The Unknown’ skeleton statue at Borgie Glen and it intrigued me. Kenny Hunter’s installation is intended to weave together the Scottish oral traditions of those rejected from society, such as giants and ogres, as well as the historical exiles – Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Highland Clearances, William Wallace – and into the present with asylum-seekers and refugees… So here he stands, in his rusted iron, contemplating the wilderness on a little rocky knoll in Sutherland and as far away from any large populated centres as it’s possible to go. It’s certainly a thought-provoking piece.

The former home of the Queen Mother, the Castle of Mey, is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. It has a wonderfully relaxed feel to it, perched high on the cliffs with views across the Pentland Firth.

As we carried on around the tip at John O’Groats, Duncansby Stacks and any views towards Orkney were completely obscured by the haar (the cold sea fog that’s so common around this area). We did stop for great chips at the John O’Groats Cabin, though.

The following day brought completely different weather, and we enjoyed a visit to the Whaligoe Steps – around 330 winding steps (I stopped counting!) carved into the deep cliffs around Whaligoe Haven, an important area for the fishing industry in the 1800s and beyond.

whaligoe steps and the north sea on a sunny morning

Davy here is the legend who maintains the steps, following in the family tradition of fishing the seas around Ulbster. If you’re lucky enough to bump into him, he’ll entertain you with many tales of the steps and its visitors!

Our next stop took us to Dunrobin Castle – it’s like a Bavarian fairytale and so different to anything you’d imagine a Scottish castle to be! We thoroughly enjoyed the birds of prey demonstration in the gardens, but I was completely entranced by falcons swooping low over people’s heads, and managed to take no photos of the demo at all! It’s very impressive, to say the least.

We reached the beach at Brora in time to catch a fading rainbow across the North Sea.

I think this set of fishing net photographs on the Mamiya are my favourite medium formats from the trip.

For our final night on the official North Coast 500 route, we’d booked into Clynelish Farmhouse, a beautiful place on a working sheep farm and right next to the whisky distillery. Victoria was a brilliant host and cooked the most delicious breakfast!

Ever since I visited the wild reindeer herd in the Cairngorms National Park, 15 years ago, I’ve hoped I would have the chance to go back. Well – here they are! My favourite animal, they have so many interesting ways in which they are perfectly suited to a cold climate.

cairngorm reindeer herd close up hand feeding

As we headed back down to the border, we spent time at the Bannockburn Experience – it’s so well thought-out, interesting and interactive, with its 3D screens explaining exactly how the battle panned out in 1314, leading to Robert The Bruce’s famous victory.

kathleen jamie poetry at bannockburn visitor centre Stirlingshire

I’m very taken with the way Bannockburn has used Kathleen Jamie’s poem, ‘Here Lies Our Land’, in a new installation around the Bannockburn monument. She’s one of my favourite writers and this piece of poetry really moves me:

Here lies our land: every airt 
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.

We are mere transients, who sing 
Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes, 
Northern lights and siller tides,

Small folk playing our part. 
‘Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.

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