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UK Road Trip 2020 - South to North and Back-Scotland's NC500

Route: Scotland: Killin - Inverasdale - Lochinver - Farr Bay - Tain, Castletown - Inverness

semi-overcast 8 °C

OCTOBER 2020

NC500 Route

NC500 Route

During our travels we have been fortunate enough to go on many beautiful road trips, so when we heard that Scotland’s North Coast 500 (NC500) had been rated as the 2nd best coastal road trip in the world (Pacific Highway, USA - rated the 1st) we thought we should check it out. Anne also has an ambition to travel the whole coast of Britain and this was a good section to add to her achievements so far.
The NC500 is a 516-mile (830 km) scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. We planned to do the whole circuit but start from a different spot. With the challenge set, we left the village of Killin and drove north.
It would be several hours of driving before we joined the NC500 but we didn’t have to wait until then to get some stunning scenery on our journey. The first area with an overdose of beauty was Glencoe. The road cut its way through a deep valley (glen) with towering mountains on either side. Hundreds of rivers tumbled down their slopes, forming waterfalls where the gradient was too steep. With the weather being quite pleasant at this point it was hard not to stop and go for a walk. Instead, with a long drive ahead, we limited our stops for photo’s only.

Glencoe

Glencoe

View of Highlands approach to Glencoe

View of Highlands approach to Glencoe

Our route kept taking us north until just after Fort William where we went west. By now the weather had changed and heavy showers were interspersed with glimpses of sunshine. Finally just before Loch Carron we joined the NC500.

Eilean Donan Castle, where 3 sea lochs meet, frequently appears in films, doc etc

Eilean Donan Castle, where 3 sea lochs meet, frequently appears in films, doc etc

We were now driving on single track roads, fortunately with frequent passing places to allow us to squeeze past the numerous camper vans that seemed to be doing the route in the opposite direction.
At this point in the road trip we had a new challenge. As we wouldn’t be self catering again for a few days, we needed to find places to eat. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but with new tighter Covid-19 restrictions coming in to force (to try and tackle rising cases), many eating establishments were closing their doors. We eventually found a cafe in the coastal village of Gairloch to have our main meal of the day.

Fed and refreshed, and with rain still falling, we continued the journey to our accommodation for the next two nights. Along the banks of Loch Ewe and out on a peninsula pointing towards the Isles of Lewis and Harris, lay a small hamlet called Inverasdale, this is where we were staying. Run as a bed and breakfast by two very friendly hosts we had a comfortable room in a beautiful location.

View from our B&B at Inverasdale

View from our B&B at Inverasdale

Already the NC500 was living up to its reputation as we can’t remember the number of times we said “just look at that stunning scenery”. Mountains, valleys, wild rivers and waterfalls were all around us and that’s before we mention the wild coastline we were following. We were on an adrenaline rush of scenic wonderment.
Although the rain had stopped, the weather on our only full day in the Inverasdale area didn’t look very promising. Undeterred and with our wet weather gear on, we went out to explore. First stop was the end of the peninsula, where on a clear day you can see the Isles of Lewis and Harris. But it wasn’t a clear day so we settled for a short walk around a war memorial site and visited some sea arches.

The Arctic Convoy War memorial at the end of Loch Ewe

The Arctic Convoy War memorial at the end of Loch Ewe

Looking toward the Arctic Convoy War memorial and remains of anti Aircraft batteries WW2

Looking toward the Arctic Convoy War memorial and remains of anti Aircraft batteries WW2

Arch at the end of the road

Arch at the end of the road

Firemore Beach

Firemore Beach

However, the highlight of the visit was the sighting of a rare White-tailed eagle gliding along the cliff edge. An enormous and magnificent bird with the only UK population found in this part of Scotland. A real treat and a first for us.

White-tailed-sea-eagle (courtesy of the internet from countryfile.com)

White-tailed-sea-eagle (courtesy of the internet from countryfile.com)

The day’s activities were completed by a visit to one of the beautiful beaches in the area. This was followed by lunch in a local hotel restaurants, which was still open to non-guests. By the afternoon the rain had returned so we were happy to relax at the B&B.

The following day was very different. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the clouds on top of the mountains soon cleared to present a beautiful day. This was lucky as we had an action packed day ahead of us.
A narrow road hugged the coast, passing more spectacular scenery before we reached the first stop of the day, the Corrieshalloch Gorge.
This mile-long canyon, through which the River Droma rushes, takes its name from the Gaelic for ‘ugly hollow’. But that’s as far from the truth as can be.

Loch Ewe

Loch Ewe


View on the NC 500

View on the NC 500

Corrieshalloch is one of the most spectacular gorges of its type in Britain and provides striking evidence of how glacial meltwater can create deep gorges. We walked through the surrounding woodland to get a variety of views before crossing over the Victorian suspension bridge. From here and the nearby viewing platform we could look down to see river crash over a series of waterfalls as the River Droma made its way to Loch Broom.

Looking towards Loch Broom from Corrieshalloch Gorge

Looking towards Loch Broom from Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

With lots still to see, we pushed on to the lovely town of Ullapool for an early lunch. Ullapool sits at the end of Loch Broom where its waters flow out into the Atlantic Ocean. It's an attractive town and we couldn’t resist investigating its shops and harbour front, especially our stop at the West Coast delicatessen.

Loch Broom Reflection

Loch Broom Reflection

Looking down Loch Broom toward Ullapool

Looking down Loch Broom toward Ullapool

After lunch our route took us north once more, more beautiful scenery, until we reached our next stop: the Bone Caves.

Part of a Geopark - See next photo for more info

Part of a Geopark - See next photo for more info

Geopark Information board

Geopark Information board

In 1889, whilst undertaking a survey, two geologists uncovered animal bones buried in the mouth of a number of limestone caves. Later excavations found hundreds more bones. These were of creatures that roamed the area thousands of years ago and included Polar Bear, Brown Bear, Lynx and Wolf. How they got there is still unclear but believed to have been deposited by glacier movement. Later finds were even more interesting as they were bones of humans and dated back 5000 years. In this case they were thought to be burial sites.
Although the caves have since been emptied of all their artefacts they can still be visited, and that was next on our list.
From a small car park a trail wound its way up a valley, crisscrossing the River Loanan as it went. By now we were losing the sun and the wind had got up but this didn’t deter us. Deep into the valley the trail turned steeply up hill. We followed it and finally arrived at a number of shallow caves, the home of the bones. After a quick look around and fearing we were about to be blown of the ridge we descended back into the valley and returned to the car park.

Trail to the Bone Caves

Trail to the Bone Caves

View from the trail

View from the trail

Inside one of the Bone Caves

Inside one of the Bone Caves

View of the Bone Caves from the trail

View of the Bone Caves from the trail

Our route back provided us with an unexpected discovery, the birth of a river. We came across a spout where clean clear water was bubbling up from underground. This had been created very recently as the water hadn’t yet worn away the grass it now flowed across. Further down the valley this new river formed a tributary as it joined the River Loanan.

Birth of a River

Birth of a River

We were now not far from the final destination of the day, but still had a couple of sites to check out. Both on the shore of Loch Assynt, Ardvreck Castle and Calda House are ruins and didn’t take long to look around. Which was good as we were a bit knackered by then.

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle

Calda House

Calda House

Ardvreck Castle and Calda House in the background

Ardvreck Castle and Calda House in the background

The end of a long but very enjoyable day came with our arrival in Lochinver. We were here for two nights and crashed out early at our guest house ready for more fun the next day.
A good nights sleep prepared us for a day of local exploration. I say a good night, but one that was disturbed a couple of times by what sounded like a cattle outside our bedroom window, too tired we didn’t get up to investigate. We later found out it was a randy Red Deer stag calling out to all the does in the area. We also had the pleasure of his company the following night, earlier this time fortunately.

Red Deer Stag outside our bedroom window at night, very noisy rut call

Red Deer Stag outside our bedroom window at night, very noisy rut call

Red Deer calling

Red Deer calling

We awoke the following day to a beautiful view out of our bedroom window. Below us was the pretty fishing village of Lochinver with a few small vessels going about their daily business. Beyond that we could see mountains and forest as our eyes followed Loch Inver out towards the Atlantic Ocean.
A short drive out of town was the protected inlet of Loch Roe. We were told that if you were lucky you could see Otters there. We positioned ourselves at several good vantage points overlooking the loch but never managed to spot an Otter. However, our efforts were rewarded with nice sightings of Common Seals in the water and lounging on rocks, together with another randy Red Deer stag on a hillside and a number of sea birds resting between meals.

Loch Roe

Loch Roe

Common Seals

Common Seals

Sea birds

Sea birds

Red Deer on a cliff

Red Deer on a cliff

Pleased with the morning’s wildlife activities we were ready for lunch and returned to Lochinver to get fed. As previously mentioned, finding somewhere to eat these days is not a simple task. Many establishments in Lochinver have found it difficult to comply with Covid-19 regulations so our lunch time options were limited to one place. Set on the edge of woodland and with views of the harbour, An Cale Cafe served us a very nice lunch and got us ready for the afternoon activities. With the weather now on the turn we limited ourselves to a look round Lochinver before returning to the guest house.

View from our bedroom to the other side of Lochinver

View from our bedroom to the other side of Lochinver

View of our B&B in Lochinver

View of our B&B in Lochinver

The next day we were on the move again but with heavy early morning rain the drive didn’t look that pleasant. Fortunately, the rain eased quite quickly allowing us to enjoy the journey. The route hugged the Atlantic coast and was mostly on single track roads. The scenery was breathtaking as the road wound around mountains usually with a sheer drop to a loch below. Small forests gave way to moorland and water was everywhere, in the rivers we crossed, the lakes we past and waterfalls that plunged down either side of us. Very few people live in this part of the country so villages were few and far between, all this added to the wildness.

Northern Highlands view on the NC500

Northern Highlands view on the NC500

The only thing to spoil the pleasure of the drive was the constant flow of camper vans coming in the opposite direction. Although pulling over to let them pass did allow the driver to see the scenery better whilst stationary.
After a couple of hours we reached the north coast of Scotland and our stop for the day, Smoo Cave. A steep stairway got us down to the entrance of the cave, then a wooden walkway allowed us to get inside this large combined sea and freshwater cave. From a safe distance we were able to witness the river that crashes through a hole it has eroded in the roof of the cave and also see where the sea water enters at high tide. The cave name is thought to originate from the Norse word 'smjugg' or 'smuga', meaning a hole or hiding-place.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave with fresh water coming in waterfall and sea water at cave mouth

Smoo Cave with fresh water coming in waterfall and sea water at cave mouth

By now the weather was quite nice with even a bit of sunshine. We therefore decided to take advantage and walk to the nearby headland to take in the views.

Cliff walk from Smoo Cave

Cliff walk from Smoo Cave

Our route now took us along the north coast to our next accommodation in Farr Bay. By now the weather had changed again, allowing us a quick look at the beach before we took cover in our cottage as the rain poured down again.
We were self catering once more, there was no searching out places to eat, having shopped before we left Lochinver. We would be able to prepare our own meals.

Farr Bay Beach

Farr Bay Beach

Footsteps in the Sand at Farr Bay Beach

Footsteps in the Sand at Farr Bay Beach

As is the whim of Scottish weather, the rain had cleared overnight leaving us a sunny start to the next day. It was time to visit a castle that boast one of the best views in Scotland. A short drive to the town of Tongue got us to the start of our hike up to the aforementioned castle: Castle Varrich. The route was first through farmland, then Varrich wood, before a steep climb up to the castle itself. Although now only a ruin with a few walls still standing, it was clear that Varrich had never been a very big castle but had some amazing views. On one side you could see all the way down to the town of Tongue and across the moorland beyond. On the other side you looked down sheer cliffs into the Kyle of Tongue where the Kinloch River cuts its way out into the Atlantic Ocean. The castle is believed to be the ancient seat of the Mackay Clan. Built in the 14th century on top of an existing Norse fort. It was thought to incorporate the caves under the main structure as a safe area during attacks.

Castle Varrich

Castle Varrich

View from Castle Varrech looking towards Kyle of Tongue

View from Castle Varrech looking towards Kyle of Tongue

Our second day of exploration was much more local as we did everything on foot from the doorstep of our comfortable cottage. Once the rain stopped we walked west to the small town of Bettyhill then up on to the Cliffs. From here you had a great view all around: the cliffs on the other side of Farr Bay, the beach in the bay, the amazing rock formations and the weather out at sea. In the distance we could see dark clouds forming as they drew water up from the sea. These same clouds would then deposit their load whilst the sun shone to create a perfect rainbow.

Cliff across Farr Bay

Cliff across Farr Bay

On our way back to the cottage we stumbled upon an interesting structure in the local graveyard. Known as the Farr Stone this is a Pictish rectangular slab dating back to between 800 and 850 CE (AD). The basic design is a ringed cross, which has been elaborated with decorated panels all produced with great skill to be in harmony with each other. Despite local tradition, there is no mystery about its origin. It marks the grave of an important local person.

Farr Stone

Farr Stone

We were then on our way again, fighting the morning rain as we made our way along Scotlands north coast towards Thurso. Since leaving Farr Bay the scenery had changed. The mountains had gone and been replaced by a much flatter landscape. There was now also a greater level of habitation.
Our first stop was in the hamlet of Dunnet to visit the Dunnet Gin Distillery. Covid-19 had put pay to any tour options but the distillery shop had lots of thing to buy. Having contributed to the local economy we left the Gin Distillery and retraced our steps back to the town of Thurso. It was time for a food shop.
Stocked up, we left Thurso and drove out into the countryside in search of our next accommodation. In an area known as Tain, surrounded by fields and amongst a cluster of houses, we located our cottage. A beautiful property that was well equipped and comfortable would be our home for the next four nights.

The weather over the next few days was variable to say the least. We had strong winds, heavy rain and sunshine, sometimes all on the same day. Suffice to say this limited our activities a bit, but we were happy to stay in the cottage when the weather was at its worst.
We did manage a walk in Dunnet Forest and visit to Dunnet Head though. The forest was not all that spectacular but it gave us a bit of exercise.
Dunnet Head on the other hand was much more exciting. The headland here is the most northerly point in mainland Britain and is on the same latitude as southern Norway. It is also only a few miles from the southern shores of the Isles of Orkney, but with the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth standing in your way. We considered a day trip to Orkney, but decided to leave it to another occasion when we would have more time to do it justice.

We have done. Most northernly point in mainland Britain

We have done. Most northernly point in mainland Britain

View of the Orkney Isles from Dunnet Head

View of the Orkney Isles from Dunnet Head

That brought us to the final leg of our NC500, a one day drive south towards Inverness. The day wasn’t a direct drive from A to B though, we had some interesting things to see on route.
Just before we started down the east coast we had one final stop to make in the north. The small village of John o’ Groats (see below) represents one end of the longest distance between two inhabited British points on its mainland, with Land’s End in Cornwall lying 876 miles (1,410 kilometres) southwest, being the other. The reason for visit was purely touristic, to see the signposts and to be able to say we have been to both John o’ Groats and Land’s End.

More John o'Groats Signs

More John o'Groats Signs

Another John o'Groats signage

Another John o'Groats signage

John o'Groat signs

John o'Groat signs

From John o’ Groats it was only around 10 miles to our next stop of the day, the ruins of Bucholie Castle (see below). There is no formal access to the castle so it required a muddy trudge down a farm track and along the cliff edge to reach it. But it was worth it, the views were magnificent and the setting amazing. You can’t actually get into the castle because of its position perched on an outcrop, or very close due to the crumbling cliff edge. But it was well worth the effort, especially as we had it to ourselves bar a few birds birds and a curious Seal that watched us from the water below.

North East Coast of Scotland

North East Coast of Scotland

Bucholie Castle

Bucholie Castle

Our route now took us further south to the town of Wick and our next stop, Castle Sinclair. The visit this time was much more organised with a dedicated path to the site and boards to explain what you are seeing. Castle Sinclair was much larger than Bucholie and more of it has survived. In fact the ruins are the combination of two castles, one built in the 15th century and another in the 17th. Its setting was once again on a cliff edge, spectacular, but a little less wild than Bucholie. This time we could get inside and explore some of the remaining structure, making it all a bit more real.

Castle Sinclair

Castle Sinclair

Castle Sinclair

Castle Sinclair

Having now had our fill of history for the day, we had a late lunch and continued our drive south. Just before Inverness the NC500 turns inland, but we didn’t.
Although this would mean we wouldn’t complete a whole circuit, we had covered 483 mile (777km) of 516 miles (830km), which suited us fine. Instead we continued on to the Black Isle where new adventures awaited us.
Does the NC500 deserve the accolade of being the 2nd best coastal road trip in the world? Based on the west coast section I would say most definitely, it would be a tougher sell if just based on the east coast.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Less obvious sights of the NC500
Together with the more obviously amazing things we saw whilst driving the NC500, there were a few unusual things as well:

We were surprised by the number of derelict churches we saw. Usually sitting in open ground surrounded by graves stones, walls intact but with the roof missing. This was probably the result of shrinking communities, people moving away in search of work, and the congregation numbers falling accordingly. It would then become unviable to keep the church open.

It was nice to see red telephone boxes again. Most towns and villages had at least one and they had a telephone and phone book inside. Although we didn’t use one we assumed they were all in working order.

Although for the most part the weather en route was pretty good, rain was never far away. This meant rainbows and lots of them. Almost every day we would see one and usually quite clearly. So much so their sighting was no longer a surprise.

Highland Rainbow

Highland Rainbow

Two very different types of vehicle appeared to represent transport on the NC500. There were a lot of Camper-vans. Not the mobile homes you see in north America, but smaller versions more suitable for UK roads. These seemed to cater for small families or young couples. Then at the other end of the scale, Porsche’s. Usually travelling in a small convoy and driven by more mature travellers.

Finally, crows. On the west coast of the Scottish Highlands there only seemed to be Hooded Crows, whilst on the east only Carrion Crows. There were a few exceptions but this seemed to be the general rule. The dividing line between the range of the two species appeared to be around Thurso, an area we spent time in. It was though there was an invisible barrier in this area preventing the Carrion Crows from venturing any further west, meaning that they congregated in vast numbers.

John o’ Groats
The settlement takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who once plied a ferry from the Scottish mainland to the Orkney Isles, which had recently been acquired from Norway by King James IV. Local legend has it that the "o' Groats" refers to John's charge of one groat for use of his ferry, but it actually derives from the Dutch de groot, meaning "the large”.

Bucholie Castle
In 1140 the notorious Norse pirate and robber Svein Aliefson built himself a fortress called Lambaborg on the site. However, this only lasted 12 years before his castle was besieged by Earl Rognvald whose displeasure he had incurred. Svein's henchmen had slain an important local nobleman in an argument over rents. The nobleman's son had complained to the Earl who arrived with a strong force to arrest Svein. Svein refused to hand over his personal henchman, Margad, to the Earls justice and secured himself and sixty of his men in the castle. When his provisions are almost exhausted he and his companion-in-arms, Margad Grimson, got themselves lowered to the sea from the hundred foot high castle rock by means of a rope and then both swim along the shore to safety to escape from the Earl.
The present visible structures were built by the Mowat family, who were granted the lands by King Robert the Bruce. They lived in the castle until 1427 when together with their followers, were burned to death in the chapel of St Duthac at Tain by MacNeil of Creich.
The castle stands on a peninsula 100 feet high, cut off from land by a trench 7 feet wide and 9 feet deep. The keep which rose from the edge of this trench measured only 14 feet by 20 feet in total. Only the west wall, standing 30 feet high, and part of the south wall remain. The walls of the vaulted basement are 4 feet thick, but on the floor above only about 2 feet thick.

Posted by MAd4travel 07:21 Archived in Scotland

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Comments

Glad you enjoyed your trip. The scenery looks wonderful. That's pretty normal to have all weathers in Scotland. It's very changeable.

by irenevt

The west coast in particular looked amazingly scenic. This could be an idea for our future staycation explorations!

I noticed that the signs in John o'Groats have two different distances to Lands End - someone needs to get their tape measure out

by ToonSarah

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