A few years ago, no-one had heard of the North Coast 500, “Scotland’s Route 66”; now it seems everyone and their dog is travelling it. It’s done a great job in bringing tourists and, importantly, employment to a formerly quiet part of the country. But it’s getting crowded. The good news is there are other ways of seeing the country, especially when you have a motorhome and aren’t dependent on B&Bs.
Like the North Coast 500 (NC500), our route starts in Inverness, but we’re heading south-west first. We’re going to visit Nessie; Loch Ness doesn’t feature on the NC500 route, which seems a shame.
From Inverness you can take the south side of the loch if you want to avoid the crowds, or the north side if you want to visit Urquhart Castle, magnificently and tactically placed on a promontory jutting out into the loch. The roads meet at Fort Augustus, built in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rising.
The road from Fort Augustus to Fort William was, unsurprisingly, built for military traffic. You’re unlikely to see redcoats now, but the scenery is stunning, with Ben Nevis dominating the view.
Go west, young man
At Fort William, turn west towards Mallaig, passing the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Monument on your way. This is some of the most beautiful countryside in the whole of Scotland, so take your time to explore it. There’s a wonderful campsite at Arisaig, just before you reach Mallaig, overlooking the sea, with white beaches a stone’s throw from your pitch.
From Mallaig you catch the ferry to Armadale on Skye – the only way to go “over the sea to Skye”, these days. Skye gets very booked up in summer, so it’s wise to pre-book your campsite; alternatively, you can just drive along the coast to Kyleakin and cross the bridge back to the mainland.
Follow the coast road northwards to Plockton, home of the TV series “Hamish Macbeth” and unexpectedly planted with Australian cordyline palm trees. Keep following the coast ‘til you meet the A890 near Stromeferry. The whole of this coast is part of the Loch Carron Marine Protected Area; the loch is dotted with small islands and is very photogenic.
The A890 joins the NC500 just after Strathcarron. Follow it (against the “official” direction of flow) to Achnasheen and continue on the A832 to Garve. At Garve, turn left on the A835 to Ullapool. There are mountains to the right of you, mountains to the left, with occasional lochs to add spice to the route. For the last stretch you follow the beautiful banks of Loch Broom (and connect with the NC500 again).
Ullapool is a fine small town, worth exploring; it was a planned town, built to re-home Highlanders dispersed by the Clearances and help them make a new living from fishing. The ferry leaves here for Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, and there are plenty of pubs!
Stay on the A835 to its junction with the A837. At this point the NC500 heads on north but we’re going south-east. Just after Rosehall the A837 heads down to Bonar Bridge; cut off on the A839 eastwards instead, towards Lairg and Loch Shin.
You skirt the tip of the loch on the A836, following (approximately) the route of the River Tirry and then the River Vagastie, through mountains and woodland, before running up the west side of Loch Loyal.
The A838 heads off west at Tongue but we continue towards the north east on the A836 (which is now part of the NC500 route). There are wonderful beaches all along this part of the coast where you can park up for the night.
Just past Melvich you take the A897 heading back south and away from the NC500, following the Halladale River to its source. After that the railway line, and later the Helmsdale River, keep you company all the way to Helmsdale village on the coast. From Helmsdale you follow the A9 (and the NC500) down the coast to Brora (famous for its knitwear), Golspie, Dornoch and Tain.
South of Tain there’s a roundabout where the B9175 heads off towards Nigg. Follow it right down to the North Sutor point. There’s a small ferry across to Cromarty from here, from the beginning of June to the end of September, and it’s much more fun than following the A9 down to the bridge. The Black Isle is worth exploring, too: a delightfully friendly, scenic and surprisingly warm part of the east coast (it’s called the Black Isle because it doesn’t go white in winter and the trees look black against the snow on the distant hills).
This is dolphin-watching country. Take the A832 to Fortrose for the best chance to see them from land: a spit of land called Chanonry Point almost meets the promontory Fort George is built on, on the opposite bank, and dolphins are regularly seen here shortly after low tide. You can take a boat ride from Cromarty and see them up close, too.
To avoid taking the A9 before you have to, follow the A832 to Tore and Muir of Ord and skirt round the Beauly Firth via Beauly on the A862, which will take you back to Inverness by the scenic route. If you’re in a hurry, just pick up the A9 at Tore and cross the Kessock Bridge to Inverness – the views are worth the traffic!
This route avoids most of the heavy traffic on the NC500. It’s a bit longer and you’ll see more than just sea, too – inland Scotland is just as beautiful and much quieter. Which means it’s sensible to fill your fuel and water tanks whenever you get the opportunity – petrol stations are far between.
Take care on the narrow roads and let people pass: they may be heading to work and needing to move faster than you. And don’t park in passing places if you want the natives to remain friendly!
You’ll be helping the local economy by buying from local shops, as well as maybe discovering new foods and flavours. Take time to talk to people: find out what life’s like in such remote places, enjoy the “craic” and the music in local pubs.
And discover the countryside for yourselves by foot or bike on tracks where your motorhome won’t go. Scotland’s right of responsible access means you can go wherever you like as long as you do no damage, keep dogs on the leash and leave everything as you found it.
Enjoy your visit!