Sometimes all it takes is someone to look at a map. Someone looked at the northern Highlands of Scotland and realised there was a circular route from Inverness Castle up to the British mainland’s most northeasterly spot, John O’Groats, and back down via the wild, scenic west coast. It’s just over 500 miles (800 kilometres): doable in a long weekend, perfect for a week.
It needed a name – a brand. America has Route 66, the original romantic road trip. South Africa has the Garden Route, Ireland the Wild Atlantic Way. Now Scotland has the North Coast 500.
It’s a sign of its success since opening in 2015 that it’s already been shortened to NC500. You can buy t-shirts and quilted jackets with the logo, as well as a thick inspirational guidebook.
But it’s not until you’re on the road that you realise what a phenomenon it is. On two trips this year, I’ve met born-again bikers from Leicester, a busload of models and stylists from Germany and two old mates from Glasgow having a reunion in their Volvos. The good restaurants along the NC500 insist you make a booking and the bad ones grumble that it’s a lot of fuss over nothing. The bed-and-breakfast owners are getting a lot more people through the doors, but they’re staying a night, not a day. It’s the NC500: you have to move on.
Rather than take you around the whole thing, I’m going to offer three of my favourite drives on and around the NC500. You’ll drive into some of the most magical, strange and mysterious landscapes not just in Scotland or northern Europe, but on the whole planet.
It’s been a big thing for me. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be sacked from a job I wasn’t enjoying. I got to keep my somewhat unusual company car for six months, a black 1988 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. I went home to my London flat, dumped my office gear and said to my soon-to-be-wife, ‘We’re driving to Scotland’. We were off within the hour. A mate in Edinburgh suggested Ullapool, so we roared up the A9 in perfect summer weather, top down, a tonne of Italian carmaking art roaring beneath us – and never looked back.
I’ve never matched the Spider on the dozens of trips I’ve taken up there since. So I asked a petrolhead friend what to do and he said, ‘Borrow a Bentley Bentayga.’ Why? ‘Because it’s the fastest 4×4 out there. You’ll need it to get around the motorhomes. And it’s also the swankiest SUV on the road. Might as well enjoy the ride while you’re crawling along those single-track roads.’ So we did, and off we went.
Drive One: Inverness to Alladale
There are a many things that are easy to get wrong about the Highlands. One is its history. People see this rugged land and assume it was always remote, untamed and dangerous, inhabited by warlike tribes like the Picts.
We are in Pict Central. We’ve driven from Inverness over the Cromarty Bridge and lodged in Glenmorangie House for the good reason that on your first night it’s right and proper to stay in a place owned by a whisky distiller. And we’ve walked through meadows and along a beach to meet a man by a very big stone.
He is Barry Grove, a sculptor. Here on the Tarbat peninsula, archaeologists found the Hilton of Cadboll stone, one of the greatest surviving works from the Pict people who dominated this land from roughly 200 AD to the 10th century. They didn’t leave any written evidence of their culture and ways. But they left these monumental stone carvings depicting their faith, practices and everyday lives.
The original stone is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Half the engravings had disappeared, so Barry was commissioned in 2000 to reimagine the missing work. The Glenmorangie people will arrange for you to meet him and listen to his and the Picts’ stories.
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done on my travels. The Picts were clearly bloodthirsty when required, but one respected academic says it’s more accurate to describe them as ‘arty Christian farmers’. And remote from civilisation? After the Romans bunked off 1,500 years ago, this was civilisation in northern Europe: a Silk Road of the North Sea. The trade routes from the Pict territories to the Viking lands and Ireland brought art, precious metals, ideas and Christianity among the occasional episodes of pillage.
My drive leads to Royal Dornoch, a place of pilgrimage for golfers and a handsome Georgian town; and high into a wild place called Alladale.
Here’s another thing people get wrong about the Highlands. The majestic, wild landscape you see today is man-made. Or rather, by men who saw commercial opportunities: the natives – trees, plants, people – were cleared so landowners could make money from stalking deer, shooting pheasants and selling timber.
Now one landowner has a different idea. At Alladale, Paul Lister is ‘rewilding’ 9,300 hectares of Highland monoculture with native Scottish pine, oak, aspen, birch, rowan, holly, willow and juniper. The otters, pine martens, ptarmigans, eagles and foxes are returning. But he has bigger plans: to bring back bears and wolves – which disappeared from these parts centuries ago – in a controlled release programme. Not everyone is happy about that. But wolves change habitats. And if I could hear the howl of a Scottish wolf, a sound not heard for 400 years, I’d die happy – preferably safe in my bed.
Drive Two: Alladale to Ullapool
Dornoch and Glenmorangie are in the hilly, softer eastern stretch of the NC500. Now we’re going to lop off the far north and go directly west. We’re venturing into Assynt.
This is an ancient land. There are rocks here that were around when the Earth first cooled, 3.8 billion years ago. Stare into a seam of Torridonian sandstone or even older Lewisian gneiss and you get a feeling very like vertigo.
And it’s not hard to find. This is a naked landscape gouged out by the last Ice Age, and the shapes of the mountains are like something created by an inexperienced videogame designer: the ragged teeth of Stac Pollaidh; multi-peaked Suilven.
Now we take the seriously weird, single-track road to Drumbeg and beyond. You’re in a land of moor and rock. Those misshapen mountains are properly called inselbergs: and they do indeed look like marooned icebergs of the land.
You drive 10, 20, 30 kilometres along the single-track rollercoaster road from the Kylesku turn. There’s the occasional lochside settlement, but this is an empty place: there are 1,011 souls in Assynt parish and an estimated 47 hectares per person.
Then, just as you’re getting used to the buffeting winds and miles of heathery loneliness, you discover the west coast’s other extraordinary secret: beaches.
Achmelvich Beach is on a latitude of 58 degrees – the same as Kristiansand, in Norway, and Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Yet, especially on the fine summer day I visited, you’d swear you were a good 40 degrees close to the equator. The sand is powdery-pale and the sea a vivid turquoise-green. There are thriving palms and yuccas in the gardens of the whitewashed house. We have the Gulf Stream to thank: that marine miracle that ferries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to these otherwise frozen, northern lands.
We end the day in Ullapool, on the shores of Loch Broom. Since my Spider-Man days, I’ve been back half a dozen times. You can always rely on two things. First, that something odd will happen.
We once found ourselves invited for a 12-course New Year’s dinner by the officers of a Romanian fishing boat moored there. (Since the late 18th century, this Scottish town has been a meeting place for people from across the globe united by fish.) Before that, we’d had a six-course meal at the Ceilidh Place: the other Ulllapudlian thing you can rely on. Thirty years on, this hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-bookshop-cum-arts venue is still doing its thing, holding back the years, interior designers and fashionable cuisine. May it be forever safe from the branding consultants.
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Drive 3: Ullapool to Diabaig
Cutting out a western chunk of the NC500, we’re speeding from Ullapool to Kinlochewe and thus into the Loch Torridon area. There’s a point on the A382, beyond Achnasheen, where the valley suddenly fills your windscreen like a John Ford Western, the pale grey road snaking towards the Isle of Skye between russet hills and the ice-topped Munros. This is majestic, uttermost Highlands.
We took our final detour at Torridon, the 13.8-kilometre fork road to Lower Diabaig. I’m prepared to bet this is the scariest and most exhilarating 13.8 kilometres of road in Britain. It dips and swerves above Upper Loch Torridon, with nothing but seagulls between you and a plunge into the North Sea.
In time – and it can feel like a long time – you reach the cheerful lochside village of Lower Diabaig. This really is a no-through road. You are at the edge of the world, gazing at the lonely western islands, distant mountains and the endless Atlantic beyond.
And there’s a restaurant. The Gille Brighde is everything you dream of: a homely, sturdy building with a garden and a kitchen cranking out the kind of healthy, fresh grub you crave after a day in the mountains, on the water, or just behind the wheel of your everyday supercar.
It’s a couple of hours back to Inverness and your flight south. It takes rather longer for the magic to wear off.
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Glenmorangie House and Alladale Lodge focus on group bookings, so if you’re a solo traveller contact them well in advance. In Assynt, I stayed in Taigh Na Fraoch close to the magical beach at Clashnessie; in Ullapool, the redoubtable Ceilidh Place. The Highlands has finally got the kind of smart, cosy, top-drawer hotel it deserves in The Torridon. Originally a Victorian hunting lodge, it now has 18 bedrooms and a wonderful boathouse if you want total seclusion.
The Torridon’s 1887 restaurant is as good as anywhere in the region, and focuses on local ingredients. Glenmorangie House’s food and whisky pairing is not to be missed. If you’re visiting Kylesku make sure you book in advance. Gille Brighde has fabulous, homestyle food in a cosy restaurant. (Mind, it’s closed from October until around Easter.) And if you’re planning the perfect beach picnic at Achmelvich, head to the Lochinver Larder and stock up on their justly celebrated pies.