By J Peter Estibeiro
If you fancy a genuine wilderness experience and road trip in the UK then you won’t be disappointed with a few days spent on the North Coast 500.
Billed as ’s Route 66, the NC500 was created in 2014 by Prince Charles’s North Highland Initiative follows the coast roads round the extreme north of Scotland bringing visitors, business opportunity and economic growth to isolated Highland communities.
Whatever the weather, the Highlands are simply magnificent. In the sunshine this is a delightfully romantic place with fairy-tale mountains, lochs, pure blue skies and miles of unspoilt golden beaches on the north-west coast that are the equal to any tropical paradise. When the weather turns, it becomes brooding, grey, heavy with an austere and menacing beauty. If you are lucky you may glimpse a great stag against the skyline. You can feel the history now, seeping out of the mist. Imagine the clan chieftains of long ago with their intrigue and conflict, plotting in smoky crofts, over peaty whisky, against each other and against that old enemy, the English! Feel the despair of families forcibly removed during the clearances. Land farmed for generations was taken from them and turned over to raising sheep. Many highland families were forced to seek new lives in faraway places like America, Australia and , families that remain fiercely proud of their Scottish heritage to this day.
The NC 500 begins and ends in Inverness, capital of the Highlands and seat of the Gaelic king Macbeth, immortalised by William Shakespeare. It’s conventional to drive it clockwise, travelling through glens, past lochs and mountains to Applecross. Follow the coast north to Ullapool, right over the top of Scotland to Thurso then back down the east coast to Inverness. Some of the roads are challenging, single track with tight turns and steep gradients. Take your time and enjoy the ride!
Detours and side-trips
Although there is an “official” route, many travellers make detours or side-trips to explore more of Scotland or to visit ancestral homelands. We made three detours on our trip. A visit to Culloden battlefield near Inverness where, on 16th April 1746, the Jacobites made their heroic last stand against the government forces (). It was the last pitched battle on British soil and 1500 men were slain in less than an hour. We also did a short run from Thurso to John O’Groats for a selfie () (you have to if you’re that close, don’t you?); and a longer detour south to drive through the Great Glen and along the shores of Loch Ness in the hope of seeing Nessie () (I have seen her once before but this time she kept a low profile).
This trip is as much of an adventure as you want to make it. It’s just about possible to do it in three days but I’d recommend at least five, more if you want to explore off the official route. My dog, Kitchi, and I travelled and slept at lovely campsites in a 1974 Land Rover Forward Control. Originally built as a light artillery tractor it is now living out a quiet retirement as a basic expedition camper. We met other campers and motorhomes, many rented for the trip, as well as tents, hikers, motorcyclists and one group with a beautiful selection of classic cars including an E-Type Jag, Triumph TR-6, Porsche 911 and a Sunbeam Stiletto. They were staying in nice hotels but crossed our path from time to time at view-points and coffee-shops.
No tale of the Highlands is complete without a caution about the midges. These tiny biting devils have spoilt many a holiday. They love still, humid air and are at their worst in quiet woodland, near streams or leafy glades. Many of the sort of places that look from your car like ideal camp-sites or picnic stops! If they get you it can feel as though you are being eaten alive, you can’t breathe properly and you can’t see. However they are very manageable so don’t be put off. Pick a breezy exposed campsite and they won’t bother you. As long as you keep moving they can’t keep up and there are some very effective midge repellents and midge-net hats and jackets available. Take a tube of antihistamine in case you react to the bites, some people do, some don’t. They tend not to come indoors so hotels, cafes, visitor centres, restaurants and pubs are all midge free. When Kitchi and I went in late May we were only once bothered by midges when we stopped for lunch on the shores of Loch Maree. I’d taken a midge hat and a scrim but actually didn’t need them.
Overall a fantastic basis for a motoring tour of the Scottish Highlands and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Slainte!
To learn more, click the following link to the official North Coast 500 website, including an interactive map and details of accommodation, itineraries, food and drink to suit any budget from five star luxury to basic camping ().
Contributor J Peter Estibeiro is half Goan and half Manx, was born in Wales and resided as a child in Sudan, Argentina, India and the UK. Now living in the Scottish Borders, Peter is a life science entrepreneur and enthusiast for all things unusual. A keen radio ham, he plays both guitar and mandolin, loves dogs, classic Land Rovers and motorcycles, and is an occasional writer and gentle adventurer.