This is my tour on North Coast 500.
They call it Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – the historic highway that cuts through the very heart of America from east to west. The two roads don’t have much in common physically – the long, straight and flat tarmac of the iconic US route is a far cry from the steep, winding, narrow, roads that snake round the Highland coast. And while, Route 66 is lined by flickering neon signs advertising lonely truck stops, rusting gas stations and kitschy American diners, the Scottish version is more about the country’s natural beauty – particularly the golden beaches, magnificent mountains and heather-covered moors – and its rich, often brutal, history.
But what the two routes do have in common is that they both take you to the very heart of what these countries are all about. Just as Route 66 captures the essence of middle America, a trip round the North Coast 500 will open your eyes to many of the things that have shaped Scotland’s history and geography. From the Highland Clearances to secret wartime operations, from the decline of traditional industries like fishing and crofting industries to the development of nuclear and wind power. It’s all there, and it comes against the backdrop of some of the most incredible scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Although it has always existed as a route, it was only in 2014 that the North Coast 500 officially came into being. In two short years it has already gained international recognition as one of the most exceptional road trips in the world. As a camper, the best part about it is that there are loads of sites along the route, allowing you to travel a section by day (either by car, motorbike or even bicycle) then spend the night in your tent. My wife and I decided to complete the route in five days, but if you have the time, you could quite happily take twice as long working your way along the route without getting bored.
But does it match up to Route 66? Well as a Scot I’m probably biased, but for the incredible, ever-changing scenery and the insight into millions of years of history, I’d have to say this Highland tour knocks it into a cocked hat.
DRUMNADROCHIT – APPLECROSS
Our journey begins at Drumnadrochit on the banks of Loch Ness, about 15 miles south west of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands and the official starting and finishing point for the North Coast 500. Technically Drumnadrochit – home of the Loch Ness Monster – is not part of the route, but we decided to start here because it meant we could leave the kids with their grandparents for a few days and enjoy the rare luxury of a child-free week.
After a night at the handy, but fairly basic, Borlum Campsite on the outskirts of the village, we set off west in dreadful weather. It’s the beginning of June, but the rain and hail storm is more akin to something you’d expect in mid-winter. As we drive along the A835, the looming black clouds in the distance don’t look promising and we begin to wonder about the accuracy of the weather forecast for sunshine and warm temperatures. Then just a few miles from Lochcarron, the weather suddenly changes. The rain stops, the clouds clear and the sun comes out. In glorious sunshine, we stop for a rest and a bite to eat on the banks of Loch Carron itself, watching the local sailing school pootle around on the beautiful bay. After a short pit-stop we hit the road again, heading towards Applecross, our first overnight. We pass through Kishorn, admiring the lovely, sun-soaked Wester Ross scenery and passing the award-winning Kishorn Seafood Bar. Tempting as it is to stop for a bowl of Cullen Skink, we’ve just eaten and are already a little behind schedule.
A few miles on and we reach the start of the Applecross road, known as the Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle). It proves to be one of the highlights of the trip. Nothing really prepares you for what is to come, but the warning signs are there, literally. A huge sign at the start of the road tells you that it is not advised for learner drivers, very large vehicles or caravans. For anyone who falls into those categories and is determined to reach Applecross there is an alternative low-level route via Shieldaig.
Driving up the Bealach na Bà is at once terrifying and exhilarating. The single-track road boasts the greatest ascent of any highway in the UK, winding back and forth in the manner of an Alpine pass, to a height of 2,053ft. The knowledge that all that’s preventing you from plummeting hundreds of feet down the hillside are a small barrier and your driving skills, makes it an unforgettable experience
We eventually reach the top and pull into a parking place where we take in the spectacular views back down the pass. A short distance further on, there is a larger stopping place, where we gasp at the stunning vista across to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The drive back down towards Applecross is a little more gentle, although we don’t envy the cyclists we pass going in the opposite direction! We set up our Outwell Birdland tent at Applecross Campsite, and after a quick exploration of the facilities (all pretty top-notch), we wander down to the village then take a walk along the coast towards the neighbouring hamlet of Milltown. With the Isle of Raasay as a backdrop, and the sea glistening like diamonds in the sunlight, it is a wonderful way to pass an hour or so. Back in the village, and we have dinner and a couple of beers in the hugely popular Applecross Inn, followed by delicious treacle ice cream from the Airstream caravan parked outside. Stomachs full, we stumble back up the hill to the campsite and start planning for tomorrow.
APPLECROSS – ACHMELVICH
There’s a lot of driving ahead of us today so after a hearty breakfast of bacon rolls and a couple of mugs of tea we set off relatively early, heading round the coast of the Applecross peninsula. A couple of miles down the road we pull in to Sand Bay for a quick run (OK, brisk walk) across the sprawling beach. It had been recommended to us by friends as a lovely place to visit, but what we didn’t realise was that this is an important archaeological site, with recent digs placing an ancient settlement here at 7,500BC (9,500 years ago), making the peninsula one of the earliest known settlements in Scotland. This is part of the beauty of the North Coast 500 – you pick up interesting snippets of info on your travels that you probably wouldn’t learn otherwise. On this trip, every day is a school day. From Sand, the single-track road hugs the coast until we reach Shieldaig. The village was established in 1800 to attract families to take up fishing while the Royal Navy also saw it as an opportunity to build up a stock of trained sailors who could be called on during the Napoleonic Wars. The Admiralty offered grants for housing and boat building, and even after Napoleon’s demise the village continued to prosper due to the success of its fishing fleet. A few miles further along the road, we have a brief stop to take in the lovely views over Loch Torridon, with Beinn Alligin looming in the background, before heading inland. We pass through the Beinn Eigh nature reserve, with the road running alongside the spectacular multi-peaked mass of multi-peaked mass of Beinn Eighe itself. Here you’ll find some of the oldest rock in the world (no, not the Rolling Stones), as well as a rich variety of wildlife. After 10 miles, we emerge at Kinlochewe, then drive alongside Loch Maree towards Gairloch. We decide to break off from the driving for a while and take a cruise on a glass-bottomed boat, for a close-up view of the undersea marine life. Above the water, sea eagles, puffins and black-throated divers are regularly spotted on cruises, as well as otters and seals. Back on the road, and a few miles further north we arrive in the village of Poolewe and Loch Ewe, where we learn more fascinating history. During World War 2, the loch was a significant naval port, serving as one of set off point for the Arctic convoys that took vital supplies to Russia. As a result, the entrance to the loch was guarded by anti-aircraft guns and mines, anti-submarine nets, and boom depots to protect it from German U-boats. For security reasons, the loch was known as Port A by Admiralty chiefs. Military personnel outnumbered the local population by 3-1 during the war and due to the constant fear of espionage, everyone around Loch Ewe had to carry official passes. A memorial stone marking the wartime role of Loch Ewe and those who lost their lives on the Arctic convoys was unveiled at Cove in 1999.
After a brief stop for lunch we return to the car and tackle the next leg of the journey. The A832 takes us north alongside Loch Ewe, then onto the coast and inland along the side of Little Loch Broom. After a grey-ish start to the day, the sun breaks through the cloud and turns the water a brilliant shade of azure. I love the coast anyway and on a day like this, the natural beauty of this part of the world is breathtaking. We stop for another break at Corrieshalloch Gorge, and soak in yet another amazing view, this time down a long valley towards Loch Broom. We carry on through the picturesque fishing village of Ullapool (famed for its moderate temperatures all year round and its New Zealand cabbage trees, often mistaken for palms) before veering away from the coast towards Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve and the Moine Thrust, an important geological feature that serves as an important record of thousands of millions of years of the history of Scotland.
We plough on, towards Assynt, one of the more sparsely populated corners of the UK mainland, but also one of the most beautiful. Rugged mountains rise dramatically from the moorlands and bogs, while every bend in the road provides the possibility of encountering a shard of sparkling blue water. People are few and far between here, and you’re much more likely to encounter sheep or deer than humans. The biggest centre of population is the town of Lochinver, Scotland’s second largest fishing port, which is dominated by the steep sided peak of Suilven and boasts several decent restaurants. From here it is only a few miles more miles, along a narrow, winding single-track road, to our destination. After more than 150 miles and around six hours on the road, we trundle into Shore Campsite at Achmelvich. It is more than worth the drive. The site sits right on the coast, alongside one of the most gorgeous beaches you’ll ever see. Stunning is an overused word, but there’s simply no other way to describe this white sandy bay. On a warm, sunny day like today, you really could be in the Caribbean and we could have happily spent two or three days here.
ACHMELVICH – DURNESS
In the morning we head back along the single-track road towards Lochinver, where we have a late breakfast at the Lochinver Larder restaurant, famous for its range of pies. We have a quick look round the village before heading north again in the direction of Durness. A few miles along the B869, on a whim, we veer off the main route and take a detour towards Stoer Head Lighthouse. Standing guard over the Minch, this is one of around 200 lighthouse dotted around Scotland’s coastline, operated and maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Between 1797 and 1938, most of these were designed by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson) and his descendants, and Stoer Head is no exception. Built in 1870, it was designed by Alan and Thomas Stevenson, and until it was automated in 1978, the principal keeper and his assistant lived at this remote and lonely outpost. These days the keeper’s cottage is used as holiday accommodation, and the area is a popular spot for birdwatchers and walkers.
You can’t visit Stoer Head without having a cuppa or a slice of homemade cake from Leigh Sedgley’s Living The Dream snack van. Leigh moved from Leeds to Assynt to run the café when she was made redundant from her job in the pharmaceutical industry and has never looked back. She also came up with the idea of opening a public toilet at the site, and raised more than £1,000 to start the process. In 2013, the Loo At The Light – described as probably the most remote public toilet in the UK – was opened. What a relief for all visitors!
We head back onto the main route towards Drumbeg, where we pick up some sausages and black pudding for tomorrow’s breakfast from the award-winning village store. Half an hour later we reach the distinctively curved Kylesku Bridge, cross over Loch a’ Chairn Bhain (Loch Of The White Cairn) and carry on towards Durness. For many people, the stretch of highway that leads inland towards the north-west corner is the best part of the North Coast 500; a bleak, wild and windswept single-track road that encapsulates loneliness and isolation of the Highlands. You can’t help but be impressed by the rugged scenery, but for us, it is just a little too desolate and unwelcoming, compared to the coastal routes we’ve become used to on the trip.
At last we reach Durness and the Sango Sands campsite, possibly one of the most spectacularly located sites in the country. It is perched at the top of cliffs, overlooking the beach, with magnificent views out to sea. Tents, campervans, caravans and motorhomes vie for the best positions along the edge of the site – the early you arrive the better your chances of landing a prime pitch with the best view. However to be quite honest, anywhere on the site is great, especially on a sunny day. Before settling down for the night, we take a run out to the Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop at Balnakeil Craft Village – a collection of buildings constructed in the 1950s as an MOD early warning station in the event of nuclear attack. Thankfully it outlived its military usefulness and was turned over to the creative community, who have turned it into a hotbed of artistic invention. The hot chocolate on offer claims to the be “The Best” and while we can’t attest to that, it certainly hits the spot.