16th June 2016
There is a moment on the North Coast 500 when the enormity of the terrain through which you are travelling through is suddenly brought into stark relief.
This happens several times during the course of the roadtrip, but it’s the first time when it has the greatest impact – triggering a sudden sense of acute disorientation and an inescapable feeling of being a tiny figure within an elemental, almost primal landscape that humans have never even attempted to tame. It’s the horizontal equivalent of ground rush – the optical illusion that the ground is rushing to meet you.
For us, this happened at around the halfway point, but where it hits individuals can be influenced by any number of factors: the weather, the time of day and – perhaps most importantly – the direction in which you choose to follow this world class 514-mile touring route.
Go clockwise and within an hour of leaving Inverness you’re in amongst the good stuff, the scenery becoming ever more impressive as you charge across Highlands to immerse yourselves in the magnificent vistas of the West Coast.
But taking the anti-clockwise option saves the best ‘til last, offering a more gradual process of acclimatisation to the scenic delights of the north of Scotland. Head up the east coast and within minutes you’ll find yourselves admiring densely wooded hills and handsome coastal views as the route passes the firths and estuaries of Easter Ross on excellent roads.
Ruined buildings beside Loch Assynt
Dingwall, the Black Isle, Cromarty and Dornoch all whizz by in a matter of a couple of hours and its only upon reaching the fishing port of Wick that you begin to realise that you’re almost a third of the way though this odyssey without seeing anything that’s really taken your breath away.
Fear not, the moment of revelation isn’t far away. John o’ Groats is something of an anti-climax and you’ll need to get there before breakfast to snap a picture of the ‘van in front of that famous sign.
Just a few miles offshore, the enchanting archipelago of the Orkneys is clearly visible, but the road west beckons. Dunnet Head – furthest point north on the British mainland – seems an indulgent diversion, so you plough on westwards, eyeing the prominent mountain in the distance to the southwest and wondering where the rest of the Highlands are.
Then, just before the pretty inlet and beaches at Bettyhill, cresting a seemingly innocuous incline, it happens. The road races away into the most extraordinary scenery, leading the eye to an improbable landscape in which a series of ridgelines flow away to an almost infinite horizon like so many waves crashing onto a distant shore.
Ben Loyal from Loch Hope
There’s a car park to the right of the road here and we pull over to take photos and marvel at the scenery that lies ahead before diving headfirst into this awesome corner of the Highlands.
From here, the journey takes on truly epic proportions; the mountains get higher, the glens deeper, the sea lochs longer. Cape Wrath looks like a tempting detour on the map, but the road urges you on, southwest and onto the west coast proper.
This is where the islands begin to appear: from the dozens of shoals, islets and skerries just offshore to the hazy outline of the Hebrides beckoning like sirens on the horizon.
With 350 miles of tarmac under your belt, you begin to get a bit blasé about the staggeringly beautiful scenery through which you are passing.
Stopping off at Kinlochewe Stores
Pretty Loch Maree and the whistle stop village of Kinlochewe offer some respite before hanging a right at the brilliant white quartzite dome of Beinn Eighe and plunging into the grandeur of Glen Torridon, passing beneath the towering steeples of Liathach before negotiating the tortuous roads across the Applecross Peninsula.
Rounding the northwestern tip of this beautiful promontory, the outrageous serrated skyline of Skye’s Trotternish Ridge hoves into view, but you’re more worried about finding room at the iconic inn made world-famous by Monty Halls beachcombing exploits in his Great Escape TV series.
This compressed itinerary could be crammed into three or four days, but this completely misses the point of touring in Scotland. All those places you bypassed on the way up: the Black Isle, the Orkneys, Dunnet Head, Skye? You really should have stopped and explored them.
Because the North Coast 500 is the equivalent of a compilation album. Sure, it includes most of scenic Scotland’s greatest hits, but to properly comprehend the highlands and islands that characterise this – one of the greatest coastal landscapes on the planet – you really need to stop and look around.
Following these detours and diversions will add days to your trip and hundreds of miles to the odometer, but trust me, this is where the real story of the highlands unfolds.
Sea Pinks at Scourie Bay
Speeding round The North Coast 500 may tick off a box on the bucket list and provide you with some great photos to share on Facebook, but to do justice to this amazing journey will take much longer than a headlong dash of 500 miles shoehorned into a frantic three-day itinerary.
Mark Sutcliffe and family completed the North Coast 500 in May 2017 in a Bailey Autograph 79-4T, stopping at Caravan and Motorhome Club sites and Certificated Locations at various points along the route.