Seaside Special - NC500 part 2: north and north-west Highland

Day four was a dog-leg day: north from Staxigoe to Duncansby Head in the far top right of mainland Scotland before swinging west along the top of the world as far as Bettyhill. We passed close to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe again before skirting the bay beyond with its pristine yellow-white beach which we had glimpsed from the castle’s ramparts yesterday.  

First stop was Duncansby Lighthouse, where we were lucky to find a park. For the first time, we had hit a populist bit of the NC500 tourist trail. Camper vans of all shapes, sizes and nationalities packed onto the verge parking. The lighthouse held a prominent view (as you would hope, to be fair) towards the Orkneys, Dunnet Head – Scotland’s most northerly point - and in the near distance John O’Groats where the sunshine glinted back from rows of yet more camper vans docked by the famous sign post. Their number was a shock at first, but we soon got used to the idea and it was really only at the most popular stops where they grouped in such a menacing mass. And their bark was much worse than their bite.

Mrs A had bought a walking guide book that proved to be one of our best purchases. The morning stroll out to Duncansby Stacks was a belter: over the crest of the ridge behind the lighthouse and along the cliff edge. Across ravines, around blow holes and avoiding steep drops. The terrain was mostly wind-blown grass either side of decent paths, but quite dry underfoot. And noisy: feathered cliff-dwelling inhabitants were in full squawk. And smelly: gulls and gannets eat a lot of fish.

The rock formations were an impressive sight, and over the years had been given names. The first we met was a sea arch called Thirle Door, followed by a group of large, jagged stacks variously called the Witch’s Hat, the Great Stack and the Knee. Is that the best that our forebears could do? The sun played shadows across their Devonian Sandstone surfaces to accentuate fissures, rents and wave-cut ledges. Those underwhelming monickers did not quite capture the majesty of the structures.

Back across the heathland, we joined an American lady well in to her 70’s who was on a solo holiday through the Highlands. She’d taken the trip firmly by the horns, and having already climbed several Munros, was currently lining up a puffin-spotting boat trip for the afternoon. There’s hope for us all.

We felt obliged to visit John O’Groats. A decision vindicated by the decent pot of tea and crumbly fruit scones in a café wedged between The First and Last Gift Shop and the Turning Tides craft outlet. The place was like a theme park. Not that we were claiming any traveller high ground. No, we queued up politely for our photo at the famous signpost like everyone else, taking our turn between the coach parties of wrinklies and proud bikers who wheeled up their beloved Harley Davidsons to star in their snaps.

Thurso was another port and gateway town, but so different to Wick in character, atmosphere and vitality. Thurso is the main jumping off point from its port at Scrabster for the Orkneys. This helped the place feel busy. We spent time in the excellent little museum on the main square, part of the North Coast Visitor Centre, which included eclectic exhibits of Pictish artefacts, Caithness botany and the nearby Dounreay Nuclear Power Station.

The drive to Bettyhill from Thurso was an even 44 miles (73 in the day), and took us from undulating cliff top vistas to dramatic, steep-sided Highland valleys in a relatively short distance. Along the way, we stopped at one of the many walled, out-of-town cemeteries we had seen all over the route since just north of Inverness. This one was beyond the small settlement of Reay. We gained entry through creaking eight-foot high iron gates that opened onto neat rows of tightly packed, well-kept graves under the protection of high stone walls. The same family names repeated across many headstones; and the pattern repeated across the Highlands.

I can hardly express how perfectly beautiful was Bettyhill. Our hotel on the summit of a hill on the edge of the village overlooked the long, shallow, sandy inlet of Torrisdale Bay. Arriving there after an exhilarating ride along a single-track road through bare or gorse-clad uplands, across busy burns and through twisting valleys simply heightened the experience. We had shelled out not inconsiderably for a sea view room. Agreeably smart, though the vista suffered a little as our stay coincided with the only day of thick, dark cloud on the whole trip. It didn’t matter a scintilla. We walked down through the attractive village to the bay and then back through the woods to the other side of the headland where Farr Bay, gloomed under a glowering sky. We barely saw a soul.

The hotel was top-notch. I particularly liked the manager who went outside to berate a lemon-sweater/golf-slack clad knob-head who had parked his convertible Porsche right outside the front door. She made him drive it round the back. We met some of his party later over dinner, although they were more amenable than this bloke. They were travelling round the NC500 as part of a car club. Alongside the Porsche, the car park was studded with Alfa Romeos, sporty Mercs and assorted soft tops. It struck me that the NC500 was being tackled in many different styles and timeframes. This lot were all about slinging stylish motors into curves, staying in swanky hotels, and completing the trip in three days. Nothing wrong with that. The camper-vanners were taking a longer, cheaper approach and those hardy cyclists and bikers were off the scale. There was something here for everyone.

As it happened, the sports-car owning couple we fell into conversation with had made their money in the camper van business. We learned enough about the differences between those and motor homes, RVs and Winnebagos to last me a healthy lifetime. Then they disappeared off to the TV room to watch the Isle of Man TT. Proper petrol heads.

Dinner, for the record, was exactly of the fine quality we expected in a joint like this. We sampled scallops and chorizo with spring onions, followed by smoked mackerel, black pudding, beetroot, sundried tomatoes and rocket. In the bar, I was delighted to see the hotel was catering for all human life. We sat by the pool table underneath the dart board with a poster showing all possible three-dart check-outs from 170 down. Absolute class.

The next morning dawned overcast. At breakfast, one of the waiters told us that the changeable and often extreme weather on this exposed spot was the hotel’s main challenge. Between January and March, he swapped his penguin outfit for overalls and earned his keep repairing gutters, repainting windowsills and fixing roof tiles. At least he did when the Winter elements relented. Those few months of downtime seemed to be crucial in keeping the show on the road. Because bookings were obviously not the problem. He said that every room was booked up until October - we were only at the end of May.

The best bit of advice I’d had in planning this trip was from my school friend Elizabeth who had been round the circuit the previous year. She suggested I book up places early around the most remote sections. They filled up fast. So I had secured this place in January. To hear that they were full through to Autumn proved the wisdom of this advice.

We lapped up more dramatic, swooping road-work as we travelled under the lumbering Naver Rock range, through a pass into Strath Borgie and alongside/over the silver-sanded Kyle of Tongue. Single track going all the way. The key rule for navigating these roads was to pull over often in to the many passing places and let through any drivers who were up your backside. Not everyone wants to rubber-neck the views all day. Workers must hate the NC500. Most vehicles seemed to obey the One Golden Rule, but we did get stuck behind motor homes on a few occasions, fixating on German number plates instead of goggling at scree slopes.  

Our route took us around three sides of Loch Eriboll beneath steep sided peaks whose angle plunged the rock deep beneath the surface of the water. Eriboll is the only sea loch on the north coast and has long provided safe deep-water anchorage from the violent storms blowing in from Cape Wrath. We also passed a promontory from the eastern shore faced with curious buildings which we later learned were lime kilns dating from the 19th century. Pulling up and away from the loch on the western shore, the most recent industry hosted in the vicinity revealed itself: aquaculture – vast beds and hatcheries for shellfish, salmon and freshwater fish farming.

The traffic got quite heavy – relatively speaking – as we struck the coast again and we couldn’t work out why. Then the answer appeared around the next bend. A zip-wire had been built across the full width of Traigh Alt Chailgeag bay and was proving ridiculously popular.  It looked spectacular.

Our first stop was for the highly-touted Cave of Smoo. This sea cavern might have been a bit more exciting had the waterfall been falling or the pools pooling. A dry spring had rendered the feature fairly undramatic; and maybe we resented just a little having fallen for such an obvious tourist trap. Still, we did not linger long and soon we were drawing in to Balnakiel, a few miles off the main NC500 route, for a walk across the bay of the same name and up to Faraid Head.  

We almost had the sweeping bay to ourselves. Ours were the only footsteps on the beach until we neared the northern lip where a couple were playing with their dog in the gentle surf.  A family close to the lee of the cliff was also larking in the water. Our path took us up the slope and through the Alpine-like sand dunes of Faraid Head. The weather was lifting gradually the sun hitting the bright, yellow-sanded, wind sculpted walls and ridges was almost blinding. Walking through canyons of dunes was quite surreal. They gave way to heath and bog as we followed sketchy tracks up to the headland itself. Off to the west was the even wilder and perfectly named Cape Wrath; and to our east an MOD base on the ridge that surely must score highly on the most-remote-posting index for civil servants. Even more isolated than the Nationality Directorate in Croydon on a wet Wednesday.  

That said, improving weather seemed to have brought out more people, and on our circuitous return we found both the dune paths and beach busier.

Not only had we received good advice that informed our accommodation strategy, but Mrs A had also been given a red hot tip from Sam, a Scottish-based friend, for the best hot chocolate on the NC500. A café in a craft centre a couple of miles up the road proved to be a bang-on recommendation and a perfect pit-stop.

This just left the drive over to Scourie for our berth for the night. Just. Yep. Just another heart-stopping, pulse-racing, eye-popping career on tiny roads through wild moorland, under intimidating mountains and across rivers reflecting back the clear blue sky that had broken out everywhere.

The best drive yet? Probably. Our instinctive plan to traverse the route anti-clockwise, saving the best topographies for later, was working out well so far. Every day seemed better than the last. Laxford Bridge produced a sublime moment that encapsulated that feeling. It is a road junction in the valley bottom where our route headed north-west and the road to Larg struck out south-east. We crossed the Laxford and I looked back over my shoulder to see the twin mountains of Foinaven and Arkle framing the wide, slow moving river in the foreground. A fly-fisherman was casting his line into the cobalt waters, the sun catching the line as it zipped through the air. Just to add a dollop of symbolism into this glimpse of perfection, the names of those mountains were given to two famous racehorses in the 1960’s: Arkle, still regarded as the greatest steeplechaser who ever lived; and Foinaven who has a fence named after him in the Grand National. What more could a landscape-loving lifelong fan of the turf possibly ask for?

Our accommodation choices were diversifying. After a couple of pubs, a residential semi-detached and an up-market hotel, that night would be a touch of glamping. Provisions were collected from the village store in Scourie and we headed up the hill to find our ‘pod’ located at the end of the owners’ Good Life-inspired garden, behind their substantial house. Our pod was one of a pair, a little reminiscent of a pig-sty in shape... but well equipped with anything the modern glamper could want tucked ingeniously in to its sturdy structure: double bed, power shower and (ahem) air fryer. We WhatsApp-ed our mates Dave & Sue who like a bit of camping. ‘Very jealous’, said Dave. ‘Although I’m not sure it counts, even as glamping, if you’ve got double-glazed doors on your “tent”.’

We lapped up that late evening sunshine, sat on the picnic table at the front of the pod. Mrs A with a  a dash of red wine, me with a local brew, scoffing cheese and savouries from the village shop. Nick, the house/pod proprietor, popped over to say hello after his shift at work. He was accompanied by his inquisitive two-year-old was happy to pass the time of day for a few minutes. We told him how much we liked the accommodation. He had plans for a couple more, but he didn’t want to site the pods too close together. We agreed. Our neighbours hadn’t yet showed up, but retaining a sense of privacy sounded good. Nick said his 9-5 job was over at the fish farm we had passed earlier in the day at Loch Eriboll (really only that morning?) and that most people had two or more jobs to make ends meet. The pods were in their second season and the NC500 had made a big difference to the local economy. Even if took him twice as long to commute to work.

Some time later, we strolled out through the village and around Scourie Bay as far as the enclosed cemetery and headland, before back via the bird hide on the shore. Very peaceful as the fading light cast a sheen on the water. We diverted to the Anchorage pub on the edge of the camper van site (every village on the route seems to have one) and there was still a glow in the sky for a few sunset shots when we returned to our pod.  Next door was now occupied, judging by the light from the window, but we didn’t see them before we turned in.

We awoke to another beautiful day. Is this getting boring? Breakfast was lightly boiled free-range eggs courtesy of the chickens running around the small-holding and croissants from the welcome pack. Our neighbours were up and about too. Sat around the tables outside the pods, we fell in to easy conversation. This couple were spinning round the NC500 clockwise, but taking bigger chunks out of the route each day than us. I was tucking into the eggs when Mrs Neighbour came over with a frying pan and said she’d done too many sausages, could we help her out. Could we? Not only that, but without any prompting she also popped a bottle of brown sauce on the table. Northerners, you see. Proper.

As if the roads hadn’t been challenging enough so far, this day presented the most hair-raising set of hairpins, gradients and blind bends yet encountered. Luckily, I’d remembered to download the Spotify NC500 playlist, so we could rattle along on death-trap, pot-holed roads with sheer drops on alternate sides, listening to AC/DC ‘Highway To Hell’, Talking Heads ‘Road To Nowhere’, Travelling Wilburys ‘The End of the Line’, Chris Rea ‘The Road To Hell Part II’ and many, many others. I like my playlists to be literal.

The stretch from Scourie to Kylescu was sound enough on decent roads, tracking the west coast. Kylescu bridge was a thing of modern beauty, curving serenely high over the Caolas Cumhann strait with the attractive Kylescu hotel dominating the headland, and framed by mountains looking wispy on the other side of the water.  Every twist in the road brought a new highlight.

The fun really began when we swung north-west beyond Unapool, rising all the while on the Assynt coastal road, with a precipitous drop on our right down to the loch. Onward, cautiously through Glennan na Caorach and tentatively over the uplands between various crags and through narrow glens. We paused at Drumbeg, breathless and wide-eyed. And that was just me navigating. Mrs A needed sponging down.  The car park was mostly occupied by cars. As oppose to camper vans. Although some had attempted the crossing, piloted presumably by drivers with ice in their veins, mercifully there were not many bigger vehicles on this stretch.

Drumbeg, a crofting village, qualified as a metropolis measured against other settlements, boasting a hotel, post office and shop. We had stopped on a ridge at the edge of the village and had fabulous views north-west over Eddrachillis Bay over to Handa Island and mainland Sutherland where we could just about pick out the route we had taken that morning. A monumental perspective in real-life Panavision.

Ascending the ridges again, the land opened out into a ‘lochan’ landscape – the name given the western Assynt’s mass of small freshwater lochs hemmed in by hummocks and hillocks of very old Lewisian gneiss. Obviously I had to look up that geological reference. My old geography teacher Mr Douglas would have been so proud.

We dropped into the next crofting village, Clashnessie at the head of a beautiful beach on its eponymously-named bay. We would have stopped to explore and maybe wander up to the nearby waterfall spilling out of the lochans, but the car park, hard up against an escarpment, was full of surfer types unloading boards and wetsuit paraphernalia ready to enjoy the sea. There was nowhere else to park on the single track in the village (and everywhere else, for that matter), so we carried on through more crofting settlements at Stoer and Clachtoll.

The Assynt played an important role in Scotland’s land reform history. Thirty years ago crofters united to buy the estate on which their farms stood from the landowner. They clubbed together and campaigned for public sector support, eventually paying £300,000 for the estate. It marked “a historic date in the struggle to change the laws of land tenure in Scotland, to enable the ordinary people who live and work on the land to have some control over their own economic future”. The move lead the way for other areas across the Highlands and Islands to become their own landlords.

Heading south towards Lochinver, the horizon became dominated by the higher, steep-sided peaks of Quinag, Canisp, Suilven and Ben More Assynt. Mrs A had found a good walk from here into their hinterlands which afforded great views of the range from the relative lowland safety on the banks of the River Inver and then across moorland through the Glencanisp Estate. Hunting-shooting-fishing land. I felt out of place without a stitch of tweed on me.

After a good seven or eight mile stretch, we had earned some late lunch. Lochinver was a pretty-enough extended village on the loch-side, elevated to the Premier League by the presence on the main road of the Lochinver Larder. Pies! And in abundance too: savoury lamb, smoked haddock, spiced butternut & goats cheese (Mrs A), steak & ale, venison & cranberry (me). The punters were also in abundance. There was a queue, which was a bit of a culture shock, but we took our place politely and scoffed a feast in the sun-drenched garden.  

The final leg of that day’s trip was away from the coast and through the glens and straths between those giant, grey, striated mountain-sides we had seen coming in to Lochinver. This time we were on an A-road and there was a little more time to admire their hefty girths.

Just one more jaw-dropping moment to be had on this 72-mile day. We rounded the corpulent Meall Mor, ascended up to Morefield and then shimmied south-east where from behind the trees, the full elongated extent of Loch Broom played out before us, flanked on either side by the An Teallach and Beinn Dearg ranges. Resting by the shores at the bottom of the mountains was the serene looking Ullapool. Our home for the next two nights.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: NC500 part 1

Next episode: NC500 part 3


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