CLIMBING up from a series of lakes, closer towards a timid sun, the road suddenly reveals the soft-sand bay of Rispond Beach below, and its banks of wild thyme. Driving on, another bay comes into view, and this time a wave of shiny buttercups flutter against the sapphire sea.
At this, the midway point of our road trip along Scotland’s North Coast 500, it is the exuberant palette of colours that strikes the most.
This circular route of northern Scotland, launched in 2014, has been dubbed the Route 66 of Scotland. But, frankly, this road doesn’t need to hide behind any other great touring route. It has enough charm of its own, and is up there with the very best road trips in the world.
To talk about the North Coast 500 having been “created” suggests that it is brand new, but these roads have long been here. The touring route was developed, and then launched three years ago by a non-profit organisation established by the Prince of Wales, the North Highlands Initiative, in an effort to develop economic growth in some of Scotland’s most remote regions.
Such is the success of the route so far that campsites and cafés, art galleries and artisan workshops are springing up in the most far-flung places; village stores, vital to remote communities, are enjoying the extra trade which is keeping them alive for residents who truly need the facilities.
istockphotoThe sand dunes at Balnakeil Beach, on the northern coast
THE 500-mile (officially 516-mile) road trip starts and ends in what is regarded as the Highland’s capital, Inverness. After an explorative walk around the city, taking in the historic castle and the best views of the River Ness, it is mandatory also to make a stop at Inverness Cathedral (St Andrew’s). This imposing salmon-pink Victorian Gothic-style sandstone cathedral has an impressive position on the riverbank — it was the first new Protestant cathedral to be completed in Britain since the Reformation.
The cathedral café, serving delicious homemade fare, also sells “suspended” coffee — an idea based on an Italian goodwill tradition. You simply purchase two fresh roasted coffees: one is for you, the other for a visitor in need. And, as we depart to enjoy the hospitality of the Highlands, it is a pleasing thought that someone else will soon be enjoying the warmth of the cathedral’s hospitality.
From Inverness, we stop to explore the Moray Firth by boat. Dolphin Spirit operates Dolphin Space Programme-approved tours, with sightings of the 200 bottle-nosed dolphins that live in the Firth a regular occurrence. Our beachside campsite, in pretty Rosemarkie, provides a further opportunity to see these gentle giants (neighbouring Chanonry Point is regarded as the best place in the world to see them).
istockphotoThe city of Inverness, situated on the River Ness, is the start and finish of the North Coast 500 touring route
BY MORNING, we are taking a short detour off the North Coast 500 to the Falls of Shin: a great location to watch leaping salmon on their migratory route back to the spawning beds upstream. A community-run exhibition centre close to the waterfall explains the importance of Scotland’s salmon rivers, but viewing a salmon’s struggle to return “home” beats any display panel. Of the dozen or so salmon we see attempt the falls, only one manages to swim against the flow. It’s a humbling sight.
And so we set off on our long drive north, the scenery progressively more remote with each mile. Wick, the only complete example of town planning by the 19th-century engineer Thomas Telford, is the largest town in Caithness, which is the most northerly of Scotland’s ancient counties.
But, despite Wick’s heritage and its Guinness World Record credentials (it is home to the shortest street in the world), the town is in need of investment to maintain its appeal with visitors. Those touring the North Coast 500 will, it is hoped, add to the town’s economy.
Wick’s loss of tourist trade is partly due to its location, just south of John o’Groats, where every road tripper heads. While many regard John o’Groats as the north-eastern tip of mainland Britain, it is nearby Duncansby Head that claims this honour.
Bird colonies of shags, kittiwakes, gulls, and puffins reside on every rocky promontory here, including the sandstone Stacks of Duncansby, two pyramidal lumps around which we watch the Pentland Firth swirl menacingly.
Caroline MillsCaroline’s campervan on the North Coast 500 at Fearnmore, on the road between Torridon and Applecross
JOHN O’GROATS is named after Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who settled in the area 500 years ago, and who began the first regular ferry service to Orkney. He is buried at neighbouring Carisbay Church. (An ancient carved stone stands in the entrance, an unassuming offering that sits amid a wild, windswept landscape.)
The church is where the Queen Mother worshipped while resident at her private home, the Castle of Mey, and where the Prince of Wales visits during his annual stay at his grandmother’s former home.
The Queen Mother bought the castle in 1952, soon after her husband, King George VI, died, and holidayed here every year until her death in 2002. It was the only house she owned personally, and a guided tour reveals all sorts about her life — including where she fed her corgis.
Stormy lashings of rain stop us from admiring the castle’s walled gardens for as long as they deserve. Instead, we head for Dunnet Head, the most northerly point, where tempestuous waves crash about the cliffs in an alarming spectacle. By evening, the storm has tamed and a calming soft and pallid pink light ensues.
The next day we drive west along Scotland’s northern coastline, and from the mile-long beach at Torrisdale Bay the views become ever more dramatic.
As we cross the Kyle of Tongue, and skirt the land-intruding Loch Eriboll (on the way to Rispond Beach), evidence of the previous day’s storm has all but evaporated, leaving shimmering jewel-like bays, each one more inviting than the last — although Balnakeil Beach, overlooked by its ivy-suited church ruin, easily stands out as the most striking.
Caroline MillsThe village of Rosemarkie, just north of Inverness, as seen from the Rosemarkie Camping and Caravanning Club Site
AT THE small, scenic village of Durness, where we stop for an overnight stay (in a bid to catch one of its renowned sunsets), we reach our far north-westerly point. The drive south-west takes us through the North West Highlands Geopark, and the rugged beauty of the Assynt region and parish. The Assynt’s combination of knobbly ancient rocks, imposing peaks, and brooding lochs makes quite an impression.
Crossing the Kylesku Bridge, we peel off to Drumbeg, a small crofting village that is worth a stop for the panorama of outlying islands, lakes, and stunted trees on which we cast our eye during a picnic lunch (having gathered lunchtime goodies at the award-winning village store).
A detour takes us to the Point of Stoer, where orca whales had been spotted earlier that day. It is a worthwhile trip — not least for the views of the Outer Hebrides and a visit to the Culkein Store, where a young couple have begun making home-made jams and chutneys in a scenic “edge of nowhere”.
Later, as we stare out across the mystical Loch Assynt, it is hard to comprehend that the mountainous rocks before us are more than 3000 million years old. A little further —on the road towards Ullapool (the port for ferries to the Outer Hebrides) — and we stop again, this time to admire another rocky panorama in Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, an area created by the collision of two continents.
And, in the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, protecting the largest remnant of ancient Scots pinewood in the western Highlands, we take a mile-long signposted woodland walk that provides magnificent views through the pine canopy of Loch Maree and Mount Slioch, two important geological features of the Reserve.
With a stop in Torridon, where the village shop doubles as a café overlooking Upper Loch Torridon, we take the “Wee Mad Road” via Applecross; a west-coast village that is popular with tourists on a warm summer’s day. This is not a route for bad weather, but we time it just right.
Cloudless skies mean that every corner turned creates another vista — with sights of seemingly endless peaks across the Highlands, and views out towards the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides — until we begin the remarkable hairpin descent to Lochcarron.
We are grateful for the road thereon to Inverness, which drifts into open countryside, and, after the dramatic scenery, provides a gradual return to “normality”. In soft sunshine, we arrive back where we began, just in time to see the dolphins come out to play in the Moray Firth.
Inverness, the start and finish of the route, is easily accessed from the A9. Maps of the North Coast 500 route can be downloaded from the official website (www.northcoast500.com), which details the route in a clockwise direction. I recommend touring anti-clockwise, however, as we did, to save the most dramatic scenery (which is on the west coast) until last. Much of the route uses single-track roads: there are passing places every 50 to 100 yards. May to September is the best time to travel, as some of the roads may be hazardous, or closed owing to snow during winter. Most campsites are open from the end of March to October.