SCOTLAND'S NORTH COAST 500 - a road trip through the glorious Highlands.
I'm smack-bang in the middle of finishing my second book in the series: Late Life Adventures in London & Beyond. I thought you might find our North Coast 500 trip useful to plan your own and to read an excerpt from the book - due to be published February 2024. Pour yourself a glass of wine (or a wee dram!) Do let me know what you think by leaving a comment on this website or message me at email@example.com
It was bound to happen. I was busy packing for Scotland when Steve came home with the news his contract would finish at the end of the month. We’d been so fortunate. What had begun as a six-month contract had stretched into a fantastic year. But it was a small company and forward bookings were slim. The owner could no longer afford to keep Steve on, so it was back to the drawing board for him.
Steve had been keeping a close eye on what was happening in the fire risk assessment market, but no one was prepared to give him a start. Everyone wanted ‘experience’, and now the rules had tightened even further since the tragic loss of lives in the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. Steve would need to expand his search for work outside this field.
“Look, we’re not going to worry about it now, Steve,” I said, squashing my clothes into my carry-on bag. “It’s great you’ve got this next week off. Let’s just go and enjoy Scotland and our time with Margo and Tom.” I didn’t want him brooding over what to do next. We could only do what we could do.
“I know. I won’t. It’s just that it’s been such a brilliant job and so handy up in the High Street. That was the best bit. Right, Scotland here we come,” he said, hoisting his packed bag off the bed, determined not to dwell on it.
The North Coast 500 is a stunning tourist route and road trip through the magnificent and regal Scottish Highlands, linking myriad villages and towns with rugged and wild Scottish landscapes and wonderful hospitality. We couldn’t wait to get started.
Our Highland adventure kicked off with our Glaswegian friends, Margo and Tom, collecting us from Inverness Airport. Our first night’s accommodation was just out of Applecross in an area known as Camusterrach, only an hour-and-a-half away, but Tom meandered us through the back roads so we could enjoy the unfolding scenery. We filled the time with lots of chitchat and several stops along the way.
“Here’s a Trivial Pursuit question for you, Margo and Tom.” I tapped Tom, sitting in the driver’s seat, on his shoulder. “Where in Scotland was the TV series, Monarch of the Glen, filmed?” I’d loved the series and had gaped in awe at the magnificent scenery, which was a huge part of the programme.
Tom, quick as a flash, quipped, “Margo, I think that one’s for you, darlin’. Can you please answer Annemarie?” He gave us girls in the back seat a goofy grin in the rear vision mirror. Obviously, neither he nor Margo knew the answer. I’d have to investigate further.
When we stopped for morning tea, our first taste of Scottish hospitality was in the form of fabulous cheese scones arriving at our table, tantalisingly warm from the oven. They were delicious.
When leaving the tea shop, I noticed a large, framed print of a deer called ‘Monarch of the Glen’, hanging behind the reception desk. Steve and I had seen the original dramatic oil painting by Thomas Landseer hanging in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh in 2018. The Gallery had purchased the painting the previous year for an eye-watering £4M.
I spoke to the lovely local woman at the desk (who also happened to be our waitress – multi-tasking is a must in the Highlands where it’s hard to get staff). “I’m sad to report our Scottish friends here,” I said, pointing to Margo and Tom, “have no idea where the TV series, Monarch of the Glen, was filmed! How can you call yourself Scottish if you don’t know the answer?” I teased. “Would you happen to know?”
She laughed, a pinkish tinge creeping into her cheeks. “Och, I know the one you mean, but nooo, I’m a wee bit embarrassed to say I don’t. You’ve got me there and I should know it. Have you got a minute? I’ll look it up.”
She swung round to her computer. Ta-da! Monarch of the Glen was filmed in Badenoch, only an hour from where we stood. Named Glen Bogle Castle in the series it is, in fact, Ardverikie House, and is surrounded by lush green forests and the cold clean waters of Loch Laggan. Ardverikie House also featured in The Crown TV series, as a substitute for Balmoral Castle, and is resplendent with magnificent turrets, towers and beautiful stonework, set in an even more dramatic Scottish landscape. That kind woman insisted on printing out all the information for us as we left.
Back in the car, not far from the tea rooms Steve, Margo and I grabbed for the hand bars as Tom abruptly swung into a busy car park.
“Sorry about that,” he said, throwing off his seatbelt. “I just saw the sign for the Rogie Falls here at Allt An Dubh.” I snorted and didn’t bother asking “Where?”, because I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it.
“C’mon, out you get and stretch your wee legs. You ha’e to see this place.” Tom was already ten steps ahead.
Obeying the driver, we hurried out, striding up the dirt track to catch up with him. What a thrill, several kilometres in, to stand on the suspension bridge and witness the salmon run – salmon driven by an internal radar, leaping up an impossible wall of water, on their way to their birthplace to spawn, where most die afterwards. The life cycle then starts all over again with the freshwater hatchlings making their way back to the ocean. It was an incredible ‘first’ for all of us. The innate instinct of the salmon to return to their birthplace to spawn is nature at its best.
On we drove, our heads twisting and turning, this way and that, trying to take in all the glory around us. The clock was ticking, and Steve decided we needed to stop for lunch. What should come into view but a fabulous old stone-built hotel, with a placard at the entrance promoting lunchtime sandwiches.
“That’s us sorted!” Steve announced, banging his armrest. “Pull in here, please, Tom.” Tom, ever compliant, navigated the car through the entranceway.
The car park was virtually empty when we came to a stop outside the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel. It looked grand and inviting, set in a spectacular landscape of craggy mountains and glittering lochs, where wildlife abounds, including the shaggy, big-horned ‘Highland coo’. We’d arrived in the area known as Achnasheen, Wester Ross, with the waters of Loch Maree lapping the shore directly across from the hotel.
I’d never seen so much tartan – there were tartan sofas and chairs, tartan lampshades, tartan carpets, tartan curtains … tartan everything! The hotel was beautiful and elegant, with fireplaces that could swallow a man and thick carpets that absorbed our footsteps. Twinkling chandeliers and low-lit lamps created a wonderful ambience, making the rich, dark-timbered and turned staircase glow. My eye was drawn to the landing and the magnificent stained-glass window, deeply recessed into the same dark timber as the railings. The sunlight streaming through it reflected the colours all around the room. Stag heads adorned the walls, alongside historic, ornately framed landscape paintings, all adding to the rustic Scottish charm.
We devoured our delicious sandwiches in the dining room and, while Margo and I were deeply engrossed in conversation, Tom and Steve sidled their way to the bar. They looked like a couple of old stooges sitting on the stools, captivated by the whiskies lined up on the back shelves. Tom, who worked for one of the top Scottish distilleries, took the opportunity to educate Steve on the different whisky types and tastes.
On our way out through the reception area, the owner got talking with us.
“What a fabulous place this is,” I said to him. “You’ve got a few people staying, I see.” I nodded at several people reading in the sitting room. “Do you get very busy?”
“Heavens, yes!” he exclaimed. “We host a lot of travellers during the summer months, doing the North Coast 500 like you, as well as hikers who come to enjoy our fabulous mountains and lake walks. We’re bursting at the seams when our annual ball is on. People come from all over the Highlands – and if you think there’s a lot of tartan here now, you should see all the revellers when they don their clan tartan kilt and sash. They almost disappear into the carpet and the drapes.” He winked at me. “I’m sure they do,” I laughed.
“Och, it’s a grand affair and guests are feasting from dusk until dawn and jigging and reeling the night away. It’s brilliant,” he said. “Then we do it all again for Hogmanay – our New Year’s Eve. You’ll have to come back and stay for that.” I might just have to do that one day. I know I’d love it.
As we drove on the landscape became more dramatic and breathtaking, falling away from the road at times, down craggy, mossy outcrops and into the glens below. Our climb from Inverness to Applecross was often interrupted for photo opportunities, as well as the stops needed to negotiate the single lane. Passing points along the route enabled the traffic to flow both ways in an orderly fashion, but at times, cars had to back up to make space for an oncoming vehicle. Tom did a sterling job in keeping us safe, with most drivers being just as courteous.
Our cottage for the night, in Camusterrach, had previously been the local store and was now converted into a holiday let. It was perfect for us – two bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen, shared bathroom and a sitting room with a picture window overlooking a magical setting. The decor was a time warp from the ’70s. It’s a couple of kilometres on from Applecross village and across the road from the crystal-clear waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, its waves pushing and pulling back and forth along the stony shoreline. Magnificent views of the Isle of Skye and the Cuillin Hills mountain ridge rose up in front of us. Stunning.
Margo and Tom had picked up some essentials back in Inverness, so while our shepherd’s pie bubbled away in the oven, we took wine and beers and the kitchen chairs out onto the footpath to sit and squint in the glorious late afternoon sun, toasting our good fortune while basking in the immense beauty surrounding us. The locals, out on a walk or in their cars, stopped to chat or wave. And who said Scotland doesn’t have a summer? It was hot.
On our after-dinner walk we met a lady, corralling her free-range chickens back into her garden. We all said hello and started chatting, discovering she’d lived there all her life. She seemed a little reticent to talk at first, guessing we were tourists. It didn’t take long to discover why.
“I dinnae mean to be rude, but we get overrun with tourists at this time of year. Our wee, single roads, with the now-and-again passing bays, get clogged up. We cannae even get the wee bairns to school, and if there’s an emergency the ambulance cannae get through. It’s just terrible!” she explained.
We completely understood her frustration and I could imagine some tourists were just ignorant and aggressive, making it even worse for the locals trying to go about their daily lives. It was just business as usual for them, not a holiday.
“Well, I’d like you to know, we’ve been very respectful and considerate coming over here and will continue to be so on the rest of our journey,” I reassured her, hoping she could see how genuine we were.
“Thank you very much, dearie. That would be appreciated. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your time in bonnie Scotland.” And with a-whooshing and a-clucking at the chooks and flapping her hands she hurried them around to the back of the house. A month later, back in London, I read an online article about that very thing – the summer-clogged roads of the North Coast 500 and the effect on the residents, who were fed up. It was set to get worse, by all accounts.
It had been an exhilarating first day, culminating in the sky turning from azure blue to a muted pink and then scarlet, setting the sky on fire. The sun left us where the sky meets the sea, at the edge of the world. Waking to a vivid blue sky the next morning, it didn’t take long to have breakfast, pack the car and get underway to our next stop, Ullapool.
With the sun chasing us, it was another day of breathtaking views. This time, most of the road was dual carriageway; sometimes we even saw a white, dotted line down the middle! But often it was back to the single track, passing-bays road. Many bikers, hikers, cyclists, camper vans and cars were on the same journey, as well as a shaggy, hokey-pokey coloured, Highland coo, which had decided to block the road. “He wisna’ bothered by us,” Tom conceded, slowly edging past it. I was loving his broad Glaswegian accent but did have to nudge Margo at times for an interpretation.
Enormous boulders and craggy rocks, patched together with white lichen, punctuated sweeping carpets of heather in various hues, from cream to mauve to purple. Steve, being an ex-geophysicist, loved the geological strata and waxed lyrical, in a university-lecture style, on glaciers, moraine and Roche moutonnée (humps and lumps in the landscape – well, that’s my layman’s interpretation for you!). Meanwhile, Tom was educating us on the Scottish (Glaswegian) pronunciation of the names of the places we passed, telling us to ‘hoick’ in the back of our throats to imitate him. Not terribly lady-like, but it's the only way to say them right!
Ullapool, sitting on the shores of Loch Broom, where colourful little boats and small yachts bob gently in the calm harbour, is a pretty fishing village framed by rugged mountains. White-washed houses, pubs and hotels line the waterfront and, when we parked opposite our hotel, pillowy white clouds were scudding across the blue sky. A ferry port about a kilometre on around the seafront services the remote Outer Hebrides. The waterfront was busy with foot traffic and, once we’d stowed our bags, we joined the crowds to explore the quaint shops and streets and admire the cute houses.
I’d wanted everything to be perfect on this trip for Tom and Margo, but our accommodation in Ullapool was awful and I was embarrassed, as it was me who’d booked everything. I don’t mind ‘old’, but I do mind ‘tired and rundown’. The carpet in the bathroom and toilet was threadbare, with ghastly damp patches, and was coming away from the walls. In the stairwell, wallpaper hung off the wall, and in the reception area our shoes stuck to the carpet. There was mould in the shower, where you were either scalded or frozen while standing under a pathetic trickle. I’d booked two months earlier, requesting two rooms with a view. Our room looked at the concrete wall of the pub next door. It was all horribly disappointing but, thank goodness, the beds were comfy with nice clean linen. We didn’t let the negatives spoil our time in Ullapool, and after expressing our disappointment at the state of the place (and the inflated cost), I was refunded two weeks later by the owner – with an apology, saying the place was about to undergo renovation. Hmm…
Luckily, the weather was a delight and after a leisurely stroll around the shops and village, we joined other tourists and locals at the pavement tables outside the bars. It was so hot it wasn’t long before we pulled our table into the shade. Other visitors sat on the sea wall, catching the breeze, enjoying their drinks while nattering and taking in the stunning views out over the water and to the distant mountains.
Deciding against breakfast at our accommodation, we chose a nearby café that had excellent online reviews. It was busy, but sliding into our seats, the boys quickly put their order in, having already scanned the menu while we waited for a table. A full ‘Scottish’ arrived for each of them. When in Scotland … It was the usual, humongous plateful of bacon, eggs, hash browns, a roasted tomato, and a side of black pudding. Steve had already tried ‘haggis, neeps and tatties’ as an entrée when having dinner the night before. Margo and I were terribly lady-like and ate a healthy, modestly sized bowl of muesli and fruit with Greek yoghurt.
On Day 3 we navigated the road around the loch, passing many historic stony ruins, including the burnt-out Calda House and Ardvreck Castle, eerie and with a violent past, standing on a lonely promontory in Loch Assynt. Our destination was Tongue, and there was lots to see and do on the way.
The Cocoa Mountain store in Dornoch is high on the tourist list of stops on the NC500, mainly to sample the intensely chocolatey, hot chocolate they serve. I tried it, but it was much too rich and sweet for me, and I couldn’t finish it. The others sensibly, drank coffee. A bag of Dark Organic Ginger Chocolate Wedges did, however, end up in my bag as a wee treat for us to have with our evening cup of tea. They looked too delicious to resist, among the many chocolatey treats on offer.
On we drove to the fabulous Smoo Cave at Durness, the largest sea and freshwater cave in Britain. The gaping chasm is some 15 metres high and 40 metres wide and situated at the end of a 600-metre tidal gorge.
Standing at the top looking down, everyone entering the cave looked like ants on the march. Walkways wend down from the immense clifftops to the entrance below, where you can explore both the inner and outer cave. It was enough for me to just walk a short distance in, to get a sense of the size of the cave, but we did walk the clifftops right out to the end, where the sea pounds against the rocks. It’s an incredible piece of nature and well worth a visit.
Back in the car, and on to our bed for the night in the town of Tongue, we passed old white-washed and thunderstorm-grey stone cottages, which popped up in the most isolated spots and surrounded by empty fields and beautifully crafted drystone walls. Some of the walls were intersected by lichen-covered wooden gates, dividing the paddocks and fields and creating green and straw-coloured patchwork quilts.
Whenever we arrived at our stop for the night, Tom was rewarded with a long, cold beer. It’s so important to keep the driver happy, don’t you think? So it was no different when we arrived at the Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue. Tom, quite predictably, smacks his lips with pleasure after the first sip. Here, too, we began chatting with two locals – Fergus and Findlay. Yes, they were called Fergus and Findlay. They are Scottish, after all! They were both very welcoming and friendly.
From the bar in the Ben Loyal, we could see the tower and ruins of the nearby Castle Varrich. Once Steve and Tom had been fortified by a wee dram, bought for them by our new best friend, Fergus, we walked the dirt track and path down to the water, crossing the bridge and climbing the hill to see the castle.
Castle Varrich is the ancient seat of the Clan Mackay chief, and is thought to be over one thousand years old. It’s been suggested the caves under the castle were once inhabited by the Mackays, who built their castle in the 14th century on top of an existing old Norse fort. Now, there’s a modern spiral staircase installed for visitors to climb and absorb the magnificent views over the lochs.
Firmly ensconced back in the bar – and thoroughly enjoying the company of the locals – Steve returned Fergus’ hospitality, buying him and Findlay a dram. Draining his in a single gulp, Fergus picked up a guitar and handed Findlay a piano accordion. And away they went. The music was so fast-paced and energising we found ourselves clapping and jigging along to it. Fergus, deciding to leave the music to Findlay, came and pulled me up to dance. And before you ask, no, he wasn’t drunk! Well, maybe a little tipsy… He, like me, just loved music and dancing. It was so much fun, and our evening disappeared in a haze of frivolity. It was another great Scottish welcome.
At breakfast the clouds, weighed down with their heavy burden, crashed and clashed, and the heavens opened, dropping a torrential downpour. An hour later, the sun smiled at us, making for another picturesque drive through to John o’ Groats.
Dunnet Head was en route. It is the most northerly point of Scotland and is listed as another must-see. As well as the lighthouse, the buildings alongside it were used as observation posts to protect the naval base at Scapa Flow during WW2. They are now used as a wedding venue, with cottages further up the hill rented out to guests. Tom took us off the main road, climbing higher and higher, giving us a magnificent view of the undulating hills of the Orkney Islands. Hundreds of gulls were wheeling and cawing, swooping up and down the cliff face, caught on the updraughts and landing on one of the many precarious-looking nests they’d built into the side of the cliff.
John o’ Groats is a place where you take a photo under the signposts, to say you have reached the northern-most town in Scotland. One sign indicated John o’ Groats to Bluff, New Zealand – 12,875 miles. We’d certainly come a long way. There’s very little at John o’ Groats except a hotel, and a few souvenir shops and cafés, but daily ferries do leave from there to take visitors to encounter the wildlife at the Orkney Islands.
Trawling through one of the souvenir shops Margo, Tom and I had great difficulty containing ourselves as we watched Steve prancing around in the aisles, wearing a Tam o’ Shanter hat, complete with fake orange hair fanning out from underneath the brim. What did he look like! A deranged escapee from a local lock-up facility, that’s what. It was so funny, and we couldn’t stop laughing. Tom quickly corralled us, still giggling, out of the shop and back to the car, away from the raised eyebrows of the shop assistant.
After a quiet night at a local B&B it was time to head back to Inverness. Tom had a full day of driving ahead and, after stopping briefly to see the magnificent Dunrobin Castle, he deposited us safely in Inverness city. It was sad saying goodbye, as we’d had a brilliant time together and seen so much. He and Margo then drove on to Glasgow and back to their own bed.
Inverness is yet another beautiful jewel in Scotland’s crown and is known as the capital of the Highlands. With the limited time we had, Steve and I only managed a short walk up to the castle and along the River Ness, which flows through the heart of the city. The architecture here is a mix of classic, historical and contemporary. The town has a thriving cultural heart, and I wished we could have stayed the night to explore more, but after lunch at the stunning Caledonian Hotel it was time to fly back to London.
The weather had been outstanding for the whole NC500 Scottish Highlands tour. Apart from one major downpour and dense fog on our last morning, we had brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures all the way – with the odd bit of Scottish mist rolling in.
It was rather ironic, then, that the heavens opened just as we boarded our plane for Heathrow. We sat on the tarmac for 30 minutes, while lightning cut through the sky, waiting until it cleared.
Scotland, once again we embraced your beauty and generous hospitality. Thank you.