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