The Diary of a Slow Traveller – The Northcoast 500, Highlands, Scotland

In planning our trip I’d spied some blogs on a drive along the coast roads of the Highlands of Scotland. While time didn’t allow us to drive the full journey of the route known as the Northcoast 500, we were able to cover a big slice of it – Lochcarron to Durness.

The Northcoast 500

From the Kyle of Lockalsh, the mainland adjacent to Skye, we headed up the coast taking a short detour to the delightful seaside village of Plocton, before joining the NC500 at Lochcarron. Over the next two days we travelled upto Durness using Ullapool as our base.

Plockton

NC500 Lochcarron to Ullapool
The forecast was at best average – driving rain and high winds!

We joined the NC500 at Lochcarron which leads onto the Bealach an Ba ( Pass of the Cattle). I’d suggest goat track would be a more appropriate translation.

Leaving Lochcarron the signs warn that it’s likely to be impassable in winter. We were just a little cautious given the day – cold, windy and wet. The road was open and I guess while we’d considered it to be a truly dreadful winter’s day, for the Scots it was an autumn day. My, how they would love a South Australian Autumn day of clear skies, no wind and a temperature in the low 20s!

So with the pass gate open we started up the road which rises over 2000 feet. It’s a narrow winding single track road with “passing places” every few hundred metres. The road was quite busy and we found ourselves stopping regularly to let on oncoming cars pass. We quickly became used to the routine – see car, pull over and wait for the car to come through with a wave of acknowledgement and it’s on our way again. It all seems to work pretty seamlessly but it does mean keeping eyes on the road.

With the pass shrouded in low cloud, we had very limited visability as we climbed up and up. Some of the switch-backs were very tight and we met a campervan on one, requiring  some interesting maneuvering. Eventually we reached the lookout at the top where we could barely see the other side of the road! Not quite the view we’d hoped for but memorable in its own way.

The trip down was just as challenging on the narrow winding road. I doubt we travelled much faster than  30kms an hour at any point in the nearly 20kms between Kilshorn and Applecross that marks the pass and on many occasions we were traveling at no more than 10kms per hour.

Applecross would I’m sure be a delightful seaside village on a blue sky day but not with the wind and the rain. It was cold, foggy and windy but charming all the same. There is definitely something special about the sea in a bleak day. We wondered about stopping in for lunch at the Applecross Hotel which came highly recommended but opted instead for a coffee and scone at The Junction Cafe. The coffee was excellent and the view very pleasant.

Applecross Beach

From there it was on past Applecross House and up into the clouds again. The views although somewhat limited by the fog and rain are still spectacular. We stopped a couple of times and were all but blown way when we got out of the car. We’d planned to stop at Torridon, but the the weather was so bleak we kept on driving. The fishing villages of Shieldqig, Gairloch and Poolwere were all quaint and it would have been lovely to walk along the foreshares of each, but with the weather the way it was we enjoyed each from the car. We did stop a couple of times to take in the views of Loch Maree and Loch Ewe. Loch Ewe has a significant military past having been a World War 2 convoy staging post.

In the late afternoon with the weather lifting we reached the beautiful seaside town of Ullapool, our base for our time on the north coast.

Ullapool

Ullapool to Durness and back via Stoer Head Lighthouse

I’m not sure what we were thinking the previous day when we thought the weather was bleak. We woke to huge winds and rain, hardly a day for the beach! Still encouraged on by our B&B host we headed first to for the petrol station to fill the tank. Both our B&B host and a number of the blogs I’d read warned of the lack of petrol stations on the route.

The drive to Durness direct took about 2 hours. We’d decided that given the weather we’d not stop on the way up. The views of the lochs, glens and the ruins of Ardveck Castle were all taken from the car.

The road is two-way until about 20kms from Durness, at which point it becomes single track, but nowhere near the challenge of the previous day’s cattle track! Again the views from the car are spectacular and much more convenient than the 3 ferries required to reach Durness 100 years ago.

Smoo Cave

 

After a couple of hours we reached Durness. The weather was

Smoo Cave

clearing which was a welcome change. Driving a couple a couple of kilometers on we reached Smoo Cave. The entrance to the cave is at beach level and after a short walk inside we reach the defeaning waterfall inside. The spray from the waterfall makes us again pleased we have our waterproofs.

From the cave we take the walk up to the cliff above so we can take in the stunning coastal views around Durness.

 

Not for the first time on our trip up the coast I am pleased that those few extra kilos I’m carrying stop me from being blown away!

Desparate for a coffee we travel onto the craft village and chocolate shop. The coffee is great as are the chocolate truffles,  so my favourite person tells me! The craft village is located in an old RAF observation base.

After a coffee we take the short drive onto Balkaneil Bay and it’s delightful sandy beach. The sand is whipping along it making a walk not the best idea, but the waves crashing in are again spectacular. The bay also makes home to the UKs northern most golf course. It was hardly a day for golf and the course was deserted.

 

Par 3 across a cliff – Durness

The beaches are all amazing.  We enjoyed short walks on each before heading back toward Ullapool.

The views are just amazing on the return journey and with the weather lifting we are able to truly enjoy them albeit that the gale force winds were ever present.

Feeling game we take the turnoff to Stoer Head Lighthouse. It’s the most difficult road I’ve ever driven.  As we drive on the ridiculously narrow roads, stopping regular to let cars pass we hit a truly blind summit. We crest it at about 2kms per hour with no idea where the road is below me.

It’s a very challenging drive taking much longer than I expect, but the view at the Stoer Head Lighthouse is definitely worthwhile. It’s possible to stay at the Lighthouse and I’m sure it would be quite an experience to do so.

View from the Stoer Head Lighthouse

It’s late in the day and whilst there is more coastline to visit we decide on the main road back to Ullapool and The Arch Hotel for dinner, before an early night at our delightful B&B – Skylark.

Even in difficult weather conditions and with challenging roads the NC500 is definitely worth doing. I’m sure I ever day we will be back to complete it.

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4 Responses to The Diary of a Slow Traveller – The Northcoast 500, Highlands, Scotland

  1. Clive says:

    Fabulous! I’ve never been further north than Mallaig or Inverness, so its great to see what I’ve missed!

  2. coral waight says:

    Is there a time of year when the weather is better or is that just how it is up there?

    • browney says:

      I gather the weather is always chancery but generally better in Summer. Can’t see it would ever be warm enough to swim though!

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