Introduction to the North Coast 500 in Scotland
Join me on the greatest motoring adventure in the British Isles on the North Coast 500 in Scotland.
I’ll take you along some of the most challenging roads in the country and will show you some of the most amazing scenery that you will ever see in Britain. Deserted beaches made of silver and golden sand. Forbidding mountains covered in cloud. Dramatic changes of weather and places where there is a real sense of history in the air.
You will see where the WW2 German Atlantic U Boat fleet surrendered to the Royal Navy in 1945. You will also see where a Jacobite ship, loaded with French gold for Bonnie Prince Charlie, was captured by the English Navy in 1746.
I’ll show you a “ghost village” that stands as a sad memorial to the Highland Clearances in the 1840s and the memorial by the loch where the heroic X-Craft Submariners were trained in WW2.
I’ll also show you a pretty village where you can buy what I consider to be the finest smoked salmon in the country, direct from the smokehouse. In the same village you can watch 2.5 metre wing spanned Sea Eagles with the naked eye from the roadside.
You will be given plenty of tips to help you plan your own journey. This is a trip that requires a lot of preparation both for your safety and your enjoyment.
A very brief history of the North Coast 500 in Scotland
In 2015, the Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative launched the concept of the “North Coast 500.” It is now commonly referred to as the NC500. The idea was to increase tourism in the counties of Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness, by encouraging people to travel on existing roads around the coast of each county. From start to finish, it is about 500 miles long and will take you through some of the most dramatic scenery in Britain.
Very few people who you know will have covered the North Coast 500, which is now being compared to Route 66 in America as one of the greatest drives in the world.
It has been a hugely successful initiative and everyone who I talk to about it or who sees my photographs wants to add it to their “Bucket List.”
These articles are not meant to be a comprehensive guide to the North Coast 500. In addition to resources on the internet, the best book to read is “The North Coast 500 Guide Book” by Charles Tait. At the time of writing, costs £12.95 and is worth every penny.
What I hope these articles do is to give you a taste of a remarkable part of our country that very few will have ever visited, coupled with some helpful hints to make your trip successful and safe.
Long before anyone thought of the name “North Coast 500”, I drove this route in 1983, on my own. I didn’t stop very much to admire the scenery – which I should have done. In a recent readers’ poll of the Rough Guide, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world. Our recent trip round this route reminded us just why.
Officially, the route starts at Inverness Castle, heads west and goes clockwise round the coast. Back in 1983, I did it anti-clockwise and my wife, Liz and I did it that way again this year. I would encourage readers to do the same, particularly if you are not used to driving on twisty single-track roads. You encounter these quite early on in the clockwise route. This can be a bit off putting for anyone who is not used to roads like these.
Twice a year, my wife Liz, our West Highland Terrier, Rosie and I visit an Aunt of mine who lives in Dingwall, north of Inverness. Nanna (Gaelic for Anne – my mother’s family all spoke Gaelic) is 94 and is the last survivor of my mother’s generation. We combined a couple of visits to my Aunt and a visit to cousins I have on the West coast, with a trip round the NC500.
Before you travel to Scotland
This trip requires some serious planning. The success of the “NC500” concept has taken everyone by surprise and there is not yet the tourism infrastructure in place to cope with the surge in visitors. There aren’t enough hotels, bed and breakfasts or campsites to handle the number of visitors, so make sure that you book all your accommodation in advance.
Some of the roads you will encounter on this route are not for inexperienced drivers or the faint-hearted. If you have driven on the Wrynose Pass or the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, you will know what to expect.
In my opinion, this route is not really suitable for caravans, though you do see a few on the route.
We saw a lot of motorhomes on the route, many of which had been hired. If you have never driven a modern, large motorhome before, this is not the place to start. Winnebago size motorhomes are definitely unsuitable for this route. Because of the number of blind summits you come across, very low sports cars are also unsuitable.
The route is also popular with motorcyclists (usually in pairs.) Cyclists and walkers use the NC500 as well, so keep an eye out for them all.
Satellite navigation systems and mapping software calculate how long it will take you to reach your destination, based on the speed limit of the road you are travelling on.
Apart from when you are in a town or a village, most of the NC500 is on the national speed limit of 60 mph. This is misleading as you will struggle to average 60 mph on even the best stretches of road. You would be lucky to achieve half this average speed on the single track roads. Allow yourself extra time for each stretch of your trip. This isn’t a race.
Mobile phone coverage is patchy and broadband in hotels is often a bit hit and miss. It’s probably not the fault of the hotel, as much of this area is only now beginning to catch up with the rest of the country in communications. If you do need to be reachable for family or work reasons, circulate an itinerary of where you are staying each night, giving the phone number and e-mail address.
Allow yourselves plenty of time to go off the NC500 and explore places that are close to the route. If you are travelling up from England you will see Stirling Castle from the A9 and not far from Inverness is Cawdor Castle. Read about the top 5 castles in Scotland in an article written for alltherooms.com which you can find here
1. This route has become very popular with drivers from other European countries. You will see many cars and motorhomes with Dutch, Belgian, German and French number plates. The problem that these drivers sometimes have is when they are coming off single-track roads onto dual-track roads and they forget which side of the road to drive on.
2. Always be prepared to do an emergency stop in situations like this. As the single-track roads often have sheep grazing next to the road, they will sometimes wander out in front of you. If you are travelling in the early mornings, beware of deer on the roads. Many years ago, I had a Red Deer Stag jump over the roof of my car in this area.
3. Most people who will be travelling on Scotland’s NC500, will have travelled up on the A9 from Stirling to Inverness. There are now average speed cameras along the entire length of the road and the speed limit for cars is 60 mph. For HGVs, the speed limit is 50 mph and you can sometimes find yourself sitting in a queue behind several HGVs. Be patient and admire the scenery.
4. There are not many convenience stores in villages on the NC500. Those that are open mostly sell the most awful sandwiches and snacks. A better idea is to ask the hotel or bed and breakfast you are staying in to make you up a packed lunch. They will welcome the extra business and you’ll get a much better lunch that you can find in the chill cabinet of a convenience store.
5. Do fill up your tank in Inverness, as the price of fuel en route is rather high. There are petrol stations but their remoteness is reflected in the prices you’ll pay, which are some of the highest in Scotland.
I will give you three “top tips” to help you make this a really safe and enjoyable adventure at the end of my blog post about the fourth day we spent on the NC500.
Click here to read about our first day on the North Coast 500, as we travel from Inverness to Melvich.