Seaside Special - NC500 part 1: North Lanarkshire, Falkirk, Stirling, Perth & Kinross, east Highland

Bucket lists. Do you love ‘em or hate ‘em? I’m firmly in the first camp. But then I love lists full-stop. I’ve got a gig list going back to my first concert at Hammersmith Odeon in 1984. I’ve got a list of all my Cheltenham Festival winners since 2000 (that’s a micro-list to be fair). Maybe I should have a list of lists? And yes, I have a travel bucket list. The NC500 is on it. Tick.

A circular tour around the top of Scotland, beginning and ending at Inverness, the NC500 was only officially launched and hawked as a tourist route in 2010. It had existed long before that of course, as a loose, undefined journey along deserted, barely serviced coastal highways and byways known best by crusty camper-vanners and belligerent bikers.

The success of the marketing has changed all that. The journey is now venerated as an ‘epic road trip’ up there with Route 66, South Africa’s Garden Route and the Iceland Ring Road. Rightly so. Jumping on trends is something I rarely do, but when it came to the isolated, inaccessible outer reaches of mainland Britain, I had the urge to follow the crowd to remoteness. 

This was not a solitary trip. Though I had half-begun planning for it as such, Mrs A was keen to go. I was not necessarily expecting this. I am a committed non-driver (in the sense that people threaten to get me committed if I ever sit behind a steering wheel again) and reasoned that expecting her to chauffeur me round the fiddly bits of north-west Scotland was an unfair request. Not at all. Mrs A was absolutely up for the challenge and even suggested driving up from Berko, rather than flying to Inverness and picking up a hire car, which was my compromise solution.

This made much more practical sense because we could pack up the car with all sorts of weather and walking related paraphernalia - and wine boxes - without having to skimp. But not the dog. Nuca, never a keen car-passenger, was packed off to the pet-minder’s instead.

To compensate for my absence of driving, I promised witty repartee, sparkling conversation and a comprehensive NC500 Spotify playlist. This didn’t meet with the enthusiasm I was expecting. Nevertheless, we hit the road full of expectation and made for Auchinstarry, outside Falkirk, for our first stop.

Any trip that involves the M6 or the M6 toll is a pain in the arse, and sure enough… but spirits rose exponentially as soon as we shot out of the north-west’s cluttered, conurbated roads like a plastic plug out of Prosecco. Cumbria welcomed us with hills and valleys and sunshine like a big landscape hug. Even the service stations were better. Tebay regularly wins awards for the best one in England. It is independent of the more common pre-fabricated pit stops variety boasting local produce, organic coffee and views down the dale from picnic benches in the car park.

From Tebay, we made a non-stop leap to our overnight staging post. A mere 395 miles since leaving Berkhamsted and we were sitting in the late afternoon sunshine with beers, overlooking a small marina on the Forth and Clyde Canal, and feeling pretty smug. There was time to stroll the pathway along the course of the Antonine Wall, where we learned plenty about this 1st Century Roman border construction stretching from coast-to-coast. Our brief route took us across ramparts, through fortlets and past modern installations explaining the history of this once-formidable barrier. Then after a slightly unplanned detour down a Roman ditch, we found the canal again and were back at the hotel in time for dinner. And still feeling mighty smug.

Next morning, the Kelpies – about 20 minutes eastwards - provided an early highlight on our adventure. These two massive (no other word will do) aluminium sculptures of Clydesdale horses heads stand 100ft tall in a reclaimed park, and were created by artist Andy Scott. They are, it says here, an homage to the lineage of the industrial heavy horse that shaped the geography of Falkirk. That’s all well and good, but the visual presence trumps the history, I reckon. These beasts are quite magnificent.

Helix Park was quiet when we arrived and there was something magical about walking over its landscaped contours to see the thick-necked, powerful animals reveal themselves by degrees against the cobalt blue, cloudless sky; one with head thrown back defiantly; and the other snorting at the ground. We almost had the place to ourselves - even the coffee shop wasn’t yet open – and the sense of privilege at this free public art spectacle almost made us giddy.

Information panels dotted around the sculpture told us that The Kelpies’ name reflects the mythological transforming beasts that in legend appeared from Loch Coruisk in Skye. Interesting, because on the only occasion I visited that place, the only transformational event was my mate Pat flipping from bone dry to dripping wet when he fell in the said loch. I suspect he didn’t have many  mythological connections at the front of his mind right then.

We headed north and had a last lingering look at the Kelpies from the slow lane of the M9, reflected back from the River Carron. The world opened out again beyond the Edinburgh hinterland, through Stirling (gateway to the Highlands, natch) and Dunblane. Then onwards, picking up the A9, which would be the spine of our route for the next day and a half. Beyond Perth, we crossed and re-crossed the River Tay and were making for Pitlochry for a bite to eat. We still faced a decent mileage count before hitting our first true NC500 destination beyond Inverness that night.

Although nothing like the trek from Berko the previous day, we banged in some extra clicks when Mrs A decided to go off-piste. I thought that was my job! So it was the scenic route to Pitlochry via the handsome villages of Crieff and Comrie. Pitlochry was a lovely town full of well-to-do visitors on the fishing and castle trail (reflected in the price of our tuna baps, we reckoned. And don’t get me started on the cost of a wee…)  

Then the Cairngorms beckoned on the horizon and soon we were amongst age-old mountains with conifers around their stout girths and scrub around their bald heads. My mates Bryn and Ben had been up this way the previous month. I would have been with them if Mrs A and I hadn’t already planned this trip.

Bryn had been in Aviemore for a hiking weekend, training for his assault on Everest base camp later that year: an adventure that made our road trip around Scotland feel like an errand to the garden centre. Ben had joined him for a couple of days and I was keen to have a look around where they had stayed. Neither of us were prepared for the Hoseasons-cum-CenterParcs feel of the place. Resort hotels encircled the town like an impenetrable curtain wall and the packed high street felt like Skegness had been sliced off the coast, given a wash and brush up, and dumped here amongst the mountains. We didn’t stop.

The last few miles seemed to take an age. So Inverness provided a hasty pit-stop. But strangely, we were both a bit frazzled by the time we had negotiated the one-way merry-go-round and found somewhere to park. The town was busier and maybe less pretty than I remembered from my last visit a mere 24 years earlier. A drink and bit of cake by the bridge provided the much needed chill pill. And honestly, this was the last time on the whole trip I remember either of us feeling that kind of harassed annoyance at the unwelcome intrusion of the world. We left Inverness and all that clutter behind as we crossed the Kessock Bridge. For us, the official start of the NC500.

Ballintore was a quiet village amongst a number of similar small coastal settlements that made up the Seaboard villages on the Easter Ross peninsula. We arrived mid-afternoon after 220 miles from Auchinstarry and were mildly surprised that our inn for the night didn’t open week daytimes. This was Whitsun Bank Holiday Monday after all. But only in England. This Sassenach half-term doesn’t translate to Scotland, where schools break up earlier for Summer, so it’s not needed. The extra bank holiday gets tacked on to New Year. A wise move in these parts.

We parked up in the empty bays on the sand dunes and set off to explore the coast. Public art already seemed to be a theme early in to our trip. Whilst nothing in these villages was as dramatic as this morning’s Kelpies, the slinky, copper Mermaid sitting atop a slab of granite on the shore cut an eye-catching image. 

Further up the beach there was another modern sculpture of three giant salmon; and then something with a little more weighty provenance in field set back from the beach. The Hilton of Cadboll Stone is a magnificent 1200 year old Pictish carving, each of its faces filled with intricate abstract patterns. The sort of design a death metal lead guitarist might have tattooed on his (or her) forearms. All made more impressive and fascinating because the Picts left no written records, only symbols carved in stone like these. Reading about this later, it seems that there is also a lack of agreement amongst experts about what became of the Picts and why they disappeared from history so suddenly. Also true of death metal, really.

Single story houses on the shore became more like beach shacks the further north we walked. Fitting as the going transitioned from paved path to sand dune and fescue. The weather was glorious. I mean, ridiculous. High sun, crystal ocean, t-shirts, comedy shades. We walked back through the village, noting the multi-use village hall, regular bus service and Costcutter supermarket, but all the while hoping that the main community facility -  the Balintore Inn - would be open on our return.

It was. Friendly welcome, dinner booking and room check were completed swiftly and soon enough we were occupying a table overlooking the beach, necking well-deserved pints. Even Mrs A was on the ale at that stage, supping one of the new-breed west coast IPAs. This one was by Belhaven. Light, crisp and a smidge fruity. A world away from the dark and stormy pints of traditional Belhaven Best I used to drink in a back street Lambeth boozer too many years ago.

I mean, bliss. Just that. Pinching ourselves, squinting into the heat haze. Even though the previous night’s stopover had been a perfect way to start the holiday, this felt like we had hit the trail in earnest.

A good few punters were in for dinner, which we had to order early. The kitchen was shut by 7pm. Not all were residents and we watched as people who were in before us ate and didn’t hang about, driving off to wherever. Later, we strolled out into the long light night. Passing Balintore harbour with its dubious looking boozer and then meandering out to find another Pictish slab – the Shandish Stone. This one was bigger – and more original – than that we saw this afternoon, which we learned was a reconstruction. The real thing is in the Museum of Scotland.

The pub was empty by the time we returned. Sheepishly we looked behind the bar into the back room to see if there was any chance of a quick drink. The hosts sprung back out front and were only too happy to serve. We sat by the (unlit) fire chatting with them for a couple of rounds. These are sometimes my favourite bits of these trips. The chance encounters and the random conversations.

We were fascinated to hear how Raj, a German-English-Indian had looked at many pubs and restaurants before settling there. Ballintore is off the official NC500 route by a few miles, and we realised throughout the trip that such a diversion can really dry up the tourist flow (often in a good way!) But not here. Business in the Balintore Inn was year round. Hard to believe on such a benign late May evening, but the storms could be ferocious off the North Sea and this could often draw storm spotters and other nutters to stay here.   

Tuesday dawned clear and fresh. Nothing ferocious here I mused, packing up the bags and looking out at the ponies in the field next to the pub, bathed in morning sunshine. We pointed the Vauxhall north-east and followed the coast of Easter Ross up to Dornoch Bay, crossing over the firth just beyond Tain. We called in at Dornoch for a coffee on the beach, driving though the stoutly built, upmarket streets and past the imposing Royal Dornoch Hotel overlooking the town square. Dornoch became the first entry on our new list of ‘places we need to come back to’.

We parked up by the championship golf course and I squeezed a look at the billiard table greens and perfectly turned out players with the half-timbered clubhouse in the background. A proper links course, the fairways merged with the rough and then into massive dunes which tumbled down to the yellow beach. From there we could just make out the tip of the Easter Ross peninsula, shimmering in the clear light, where we had been just the previous evening.

Onwards, up the coast through Golspie - very smart - a fleeting glimpse of the chateau-styled Dunrobin Castle over our right shoulder and then past Brora, before a break at Helmsdale. The village hugs the slopes of Strath Ullie through which the River Helmsdale pours through the harbour.  In Couper Park above the village, we stumbled upon a heart-breaking monument to commemorate emigrants from this village and other places along the coast who were evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances. Part of the inscription reads ‘The emigrants…. and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy. Their voices will echo forever through the empty straths and glens of their homeland.’

The monument comprises a family group with a kilted man staring out to sea and woman with a baby looking back to where they have left. The symbolism was clear and literal enough for even me to grasp. I like to take things at face value. I read and enjoyed Life of Pi and - spoiler alert - was staggered when someone later told me that the tiger wasn’t real. FFS!

Beyond Dunbeath we left the uplands behind and the earth flattened out once more. We parted company with the A9 at Latheron. Our new road was still an A-class, but progress was noticeably slower with a surface more narrow, uneven and twisty than before. Merely a foretaste of the funtime tarmac we would encounter deeper in to the journey.

Wick was pencilled in for a stop and a shop. We had been warned about the absence of filling stations across the more remote northern stretches, so we topped up here and then parked for a look around the town. I had Wick pinned as a bustling town. A hub for this isolated stretch of north-eastern Caithness.

The opposite was true though. This settlement, claiming provenance from the Vikings and once the busiest herring port in Europe, was pretty much closed. Walking through the town centre, signs of former affluence and prosperity were present in the fine Victorian public buildings and commercial premises. But they were all empty now, or repurposed many times. Some boarded up, others ‘To Let’. The town was not necessarily filled with dereliction, more a sense of prevailing abandonment. The latest census shows the population has declined by about a third. The harbours here no longer hosted ferry crossings or shipbuilding. 

Pulteneytown, the world’s first modern industrial estate, designed by Thomas Telford on the south side of Wick Estuary to handle the demands of the burgeoning herring trade was worryingly quiet and pretty run down. Maybe we needed longer to immerse ourselves in the detail of Pulteneytown – fish carvings in the lintels above doorways abounded apparently, and the Wick Herring Mart was allegedly worth a look. However, the museum was also closed and we were left to imagine what the place might have been like in the mid 19th century. There is a real story here, struggling to be heard. The former fish-processing sheds and tight-packed workers housing were all ripe for the magic touch of heritage investment to lift the gloom and claim their legacy. Even the Lidl on the edge of town was deserted. I’ve never seen such a phenomenon.

Our berth for the night was a couple of miles up the coast at an Airbnb in the small village of Staxigoe. This settlement also owed its existence to herring fishing. This was the centre of the herring trade locally before Pulteneytown was built. There were a few buildings by the tiny, pretty harbour that bore testament to its history, including a barometer and weather vane by the quayside that was used by fishermen to decide on the meteorological perils or otherwise of setting out to sea. Hard to believe such a small harbour had the capacity to land very much fish at all.

The driving was done for the day – 84 miles – and we struck out along the coast towards Noss Head, skirting the cliffs and flagstone outcrops of Caithness stone. This layered sedimentary rock is quarried for the slabs which are used as walls, roofing and paving. It looked pretty good in situ to be honest.

There were magnificent views north and east from Noss Head lighthouse and though the weather had been very benign until then, the breeze whipping across this particular corner of the Highlands made me question my decision to wear shorts.

Turning west and out to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the wind relented and streaks of blue sky emerged from behind rushing clouds.  The castle is really two structures. Castle Girnigoe dating from the 16th century and the larger Castle Sinclair bolted on top and along the rocky outcrop from the 17th century onwards. Impressive during its opulent heyday as the seat of Clan Sinclair, it is no less striking now in its ruinous state, looking like a wrecked galleon moored off a crumbling pier. The wooden bridge over the ravine giving access to the castle felt like the gangplank over to The Black Pearl. There has been loads of restoration to the castle, but it takes some faith to believe that a stiff north-easterly wouldn’t simply tip it off the crumbling promontory into Sinclair Bay.

We sat under the square tower on a sunny, grassy slope ending at a shale beach, scoffing scotch eggs. Then Mrs A had a phone conversation (get that reception!) with the dog sitter about a cough Nuca had suddenly developed. Did she have kennel cough inoculations, she was asked. That’s all we needed – a 650 mile trip to rescue the dog. Mrs A suggested that our canny hound maybe putting on the ailment in a small attention seeking ploy, but to let us know if it didn’t go away. We heard nothing more. Nuca sometimes puts on limp, too. The dog is an absolute prima donna.

Our route back to Staxigoe skirted the tiny, seemingly deserted John O’ Groats airport and then between fields to complete a circular walk back to the house. No pub in town so it was a quiet night in with a brace of ready meals, bottled ale and the trusty box of wine.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: Skye is the limit: west Highland

Next episode: NC500 part 2


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