However, I must start this blog by conceding my error.
Having just returned from a 1400 mile (2250 km), 11 day adventure exploring the Highlands of Scotland via the fabled North Coast 500/(NC500), I realise that England’s gentle grandeur and subtle splendour only entitles it to the runner’s up spot. The west coast of northern Scotland is heart-achingly beautiful. It fills the soul. It literally brings a lump to the throat and tears to the eyes. Repeatedly.
As you crest yet another blind rise on the single-lane-with-passing-places A838 (designated as a major road or highway) Scotland bares herself with another vista that overwhelms. You grip the steering wheel, gasping, and battle to maintain your composure lest the vigorous roads make it your last sight.
In defence of possible hyperbole, I will allow some pictures make my case and move on to more practical matters. Some thoughts on what you should and should not do…
Do not underestimate how big the British Isles are. From my home in lovely East Yorkshire, it’s just shy of 470 miles to Ullapool where we intended to start (skipping a small south western chunk of the route for pragmatic reasons). That’s an optimistic 8.15 hours of non stop driving. Call it 10-12. Add 4 more and about 200 miles if you are ‘down south’. The wise course of action is to overnight somewhere. We chose, more or less at random, Kinlochleven, simply because it let us enjoy Glencoe as a reward for the long, boring motorway drive (though the A66 is quite pleasant).
Which leads to item 2. Do look at whatever is where you find yourself. Everywhere has a story to tell, somewhere to see, local folk to pass the time with. We discovered: a grand pub whose jocular bartender was almost completely unintelligible to me, a hidden waterfall being climbed by a hung over stag party (with professional help), runners readying to run the length of the West Highlands Way, and chickens.
Don’t drive every day. Initially we expected to pick different accommodation each night. The breakthrough in the plan was to book 2 or 3 nights at successive places around the coast. It made all the difference. We had more time to explore, instead of packing and unpacking each day. We found time to walk, explore the towns (more on this later), visit distilleries (noting that there is zero tolerance for drink driving in Scotland), discover remarkable restaurants and take an early ferry to Orkney for a day.
Do take chances with your accommodation. Quirky places, isolated cottages, interesting inns. Most of us have spent far too much time in anodyne hotels, with their shrink wrapped experience. If that’s what you really want then you will find grand hotels, and maybe a night or two would be reassuring. But the real experiences are to be had on AirBnB, or elsewhere. We stayed in a pod with a chicken coop theme, a loch-side guest house, an isolated croft at the lower edge of Cape Wrath, a town house in the metropolis of Thurso (sic), a comfortable apartment within sight of the cathedral at Brechin and a corner room with a view over the harbour in an inn at Eyemouth. Each having different charms and choices. And at a fraction of the cost (useful given the impact of fuel price rises).
Don’t overpack. Travel light. Put some washing in at one of the places you stay.
However, do take clothes for all weathers. Seriously. All four seasons in one day isn’t a song, it’s a warning. Scottish seasons, not those namby pampy southern seasons. There was still snow on the mountains in June, it was 30C in Yorkshire at the time. They say the Scots have a dozen words for the Antipodean phrase ‘blowing a hooley ’, none of which convey the same sense of gentility. Take a hat and sunscreen. Unless you are Scottish (or American) don’t worry about shorts. Do worry about walking boots.
Don’t assume that you can average 60mph on the main roads. Even 30mph is optimistic. You might have a brilliant car and be a classy driver, but that’s going to make little difference. The roads are endlessly entertaining, and almost all drivers are well behaved and considerate. However there will be lots of pulling over into passing places, miles spent behind less willing cars and drivers, nerve wracking manoeuvres around motor homes plus an awful lot of pulling over to take in the view. Again.
Absolutley do try the sea food. While dining at the Shorehouse Restaurant we watched them landing the fish, langoustines etc. they were due to serve next. All the seafood was good everywhere we went. Equally, try the haggis. I’ve never exactly been a fan until I had chicken and haggis at The Caledonian in Brechin; I am gastronomically reformed.
Do not visit any whisky distilleries and then drive. There are few on the west coast (though plenty on the western islands, which we shall save for a different trip); encouragingly, at least one is due to open. The first we discoved was Wolfburn, a young distillery in Thurso. It was a 20 minute walk there from our accommodation; the walk back took longer, oddly. Charlie provided an honest and passionate tour, the reasonable cost of which was more than offset by the tasting. We bought several bottles (the Morven, though relatively young, was excellent). We then bought some more the day after. I am hppy to conifirm that you can get a respectable amount of whiskey behind the seats in a Vantage. There are many, many distilleries on the east coast, so plan your trip accordingly if that’s your thing. There are also interesting gin and rum distilleries popping up in may places.
Do book accommodation before you go. We started looking in March for a mid-June trip and a majority of hotels were already full and BnBs were getting thin. Also book restaurants as you go, rather than just turn up. We tended to look at our options for the next day each evening; Google Maps was as useful a guide as any other. Watch out for Sundays when Scotland is mostly shut for business; maybe eat in that night. We bought spectacular pies from the Lochinver Larder, following an insider tip.
Don’t plan everything. Give yourselves scope for serendipity, be flexible, expect change. Weather will happily disrupt your travel plans and that of other transportation. We took the small ferry to Cape Wrath; the debate amongst those waiting with us was whether the ferryman would bother today; he had cancelled all passages the day before. The minibus driver at the other side spent much of the drive saying we would be lucky to see anyting when we reached the headland due to the fog. As it happened it was glorious.
On the way back the minibus driver assured us that the encroaching rain would almost certainly not stop the ferry, probably. Read the last chapter of The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson for his experience with the same ferry. Once back we found ourselves with great weather again and 3 hours in hand, so we took the drivers advice and walked the beaches and dunes on the headland north of Durness from Balnakeil Beach, this was sound advice, unexpectedly. In summary, having two to three waypoints in a given day is probably plenty, then you can stop whenever you feel like it, add more stuff in if the occassion arises, or simply repair to the pub, cafe or whatever you come across.
Do become an the NC500 member. It’s only £15 and you get a great digital map and guidebook. However you can pretty much all the infomratoin you need from their website, which includes a handy interactive map.
Don’t try to do it all. It’ll still be there next year. Treat your first adventure as a trial run.
Do fuel up when you can. There just aren’t that many petrol stations. Few of them will have Super Unleaded E5 petrol. There are, however, a respectable number of EV chargers most run by ChargePlace Scotland for those of us with electric vehicles (less fun than an Aston, but rather more economical); almost every town/village has one, mostly 50kW.
Don’t hurry. I mean, with this landscape, why would you?
Do leave your computer/ipad/work expectations behind. You are not going to be spending much time on the internet/phone/office VPN/Zoom. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of not-spots. Everywhere we stayed had wifi, but it was sometimes 1990’s slow, possibly on account of being tens of miles from the nearest telephone exchange. Expect fibre to the cabinet, where the cabinet may be in the town, over the mountain, across the loch. Download your Google (or whatever) maps before you leave. And your music.
Don’t try to do it in less than a week. You could comfortably take 2 weeks and still be left wanting.
We were continually struck by the differences in population and economy of the settlements along the routes. Significant locations, such as Ullapool or Thurso would turn out to have population (1500 and 8000 respectively) smaller than our East Yorkshire village or the nearby tiny town of Hessle (4000 and 15000). Yet they had superior ranges of shops and facilities. When your nearest city (Inverness, 47000) is often over an hour’s gruelling drive away in summer and unreachable for much of winter then local economies and communities thrive in a way denied to us in England. Expect more than a few “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” moments. In a good way.
As noted, we chose to start in Ullapool. This meant that we got the full glory of the west coast right at the beginning. If I’m honest, the east coast was tame by comparison. On the other hand there was a lot more by way of attractions, distilleries, castles and all that on the east, most of which we skipped over. I remain undecided whether there is a preferred direction, clockwse or anticlockwise? Starting in the west gives you the full emotional impact and then let’s you down slowly as emotional fatigue sets in later in the trip. The more conventional anticlockwise route gradually introduces you to greater and great experiences, but coming down from the high as you pass Glasgow is something to be wary of.
Until next time
This trip had been on my bucket list for several years. As you will have gleaned, it was remarkable. Warnings about man eating midges were thankfully overstated, we literally only encoutnered them once, at teh lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Likewise caravans, which totalled just three over the course of the NC500. We are already planning our retirn as half a day cycling on Orkney was insufficient, the east coast deserves more of our time and the south eastern part of the drive is utterly unexplored.
If you have a beautiful car, like our Aston Martin, then these roads and cars were made for each other. If you haven’t, absolutley don’t let stop you. I would advise everyone to head there at once; thankfully most will ignore my advice and the Highlands will remain blissfully free of sassenachs, which serves the wonderful people and the few of us in the know all the better.