024: A slow adventure: The NORTH COAST 500
At the end of October last year, Dan and I planned an impromptu trip to the north of Scotland. A birthday wish for me, and a chance to escape city life for both of us. We'd never ventured up to the wild, remote north of the British Isles before–we have recently been making a conscious effort to explore more of the islands we call home–and this felt like the perfect opportunity to witness some of the astounding beauty our homeland has to offer.
I'd heard about the North Coast 500 route, Scotland’s answer to Route 66, but as I started researching soon realised how popular it had become in the last few years and had my suspicions about how awfully busy it was going to be. As it turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong. The roads were blissfully quiet.
We were aware that October was a little late in the year to be heading out on a Scottish road trip, but we did it anyway and just hoped that the occasional campsite might still be open.
It was a little on the colder side–there was no snow yet, but we did wake up with a frozen windscreen (on the inside)–and as we expected, a lot of the campsites were shut for the winter. But, the sun still warmed our backs when it made its way through the clouds, there were no midges (apparently a problem in the summer) and the roads were empty. Plus, we managed to find 2 campsites that were just about open. It's the only time of year I've been to Scotland but I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it.
The idea was to live as simply, and slowly, as possible whilst we were up there, taking our time to appreciate our surroundings, free of the need to rush. And, with that in mind, we plotted a route following single-track roads and most of the North Coast 500 that began, and ended, just outside of Inverness.
Although it was still fairly mild down in the London, Autumn was drawing to a close up in Scotland–the temperature was beginning to drop and the camping conditions deteriorating–which made finding a van to hire a little difficult. But, to our relief, we stumbled across a small, family-run business that was happy to rent us one of its VW T3 campers for the last few days of October. They kindly picked us up from the airport upon our arrival and offered us a lift back at the end too, it was heart-warming to be met with such generosity – the trip started well and only got better.
We began and ended our journey in a little town called Strathpeffer. It was dark by the time we had collected our camper so, after stocking up on a few essentials, we headed west towards the famous Bealach na Ba pass. After just 10 minutes of driving we found ourselves in complete and utter darkness–I think I’d forgotten what real darkness looked like. When there are no street lights, no road signs and the moon is tucked behind the clouds it’s so black, it’s almost surreal. It can feel quite disorientating, yet equally peaceful–a much-needed reminder of what night time should be like.
The ascent to Bealach na Ba pass was remarkable, ineffable scenery around every corner and not car in sight. Unfortunately, as we neared the summit, our little van was engulfed by thick fog. Our expectations of magnificent views of the steep, zigzagging road we'd just navigated up were far from met. But, I guess that’s just nature’s way of gently reminding us how little control we have over the wonders of our natural world.
Despite the lack of vision at the top of the pass our descent was spectacular, storm clouds billowed behind us as blue skies stretched out ahead. It seemed mother nature had some slightly more unusual views in mind for us that day than those in the guide book.
The route we plotted took us to the marshy edges of vast lochs, along wild and rugged coastlines, into small fishing villages and through golden tunnels. Each day we felt more deeply immersed in our natural surroundings, and all the better for it.
There's something indescribably satisfying about preparing breakfast in a little campervan in the middle of nowhere, the powerful aroma of freshly ground coffee, the gentle heat of the little stove quickly warming the van and the realisation of how little you really need to enjoy life. Our journey continued along narrow roads, twisting and turning their way down towards the Applecross Penninsular, before heading north up to the little village of Shieldag, a village founded in 1800 with a view to training up seamen for war against Napoleon.
The next challenge was to find a campsite that we'd heard stayed open all year round. There was also mention of a restaurant and bar which didn't sound too bad either). The drive to the campsite alone made the night there worthwhile. We headed off route and west towards Achiltibuie, eventually we caught site of a few other caravans parked up, overlooking a small, choppy bay. The wind was ferocious and we just hoped our little van would hold its own. We found ourselves a spot, got the camper hooked up to the electricity and braved the howling winds in search of a pub dinner.
The west coast was rugged, wild and inexplicably beautiful. We could have spent weeks exploring the inlets, mountain passes, bays and lochs that form such a unique coastline but our next stop was Durness. We didn't make it out to Cape Wrath (the most north-westerly point in mainland Britain) but we did manage to find the best hot chocolate in the world at the famous CoCao Mountain which made up for it.
The northern coast was quite different to the west. The majority of the drive was along high cliff tops looking out over the Atlantic Ocean and everything felt immediately sticky as it came into contact with the salty sea air.
After speaking to a few people we met on the first half of our journey we decided to change our plans slightly and may our way back to Inverness via an inland route rather than following the North Coast 500 down the East Coast. If you have your heart set on driving the entire NC500 then I understand but if you’re open to a little exploration I strongly recommend the route we took.
Before we left, in fact I think before we even decided on Scotland as our destination, I had come across a sustainable seafood restaurant via Twitter called Captains Galley. The restaurant, once an Ice House & Salmon Bothy, was renovated by Jim and Mary Cowie upon on 5 pillars: Simplicity, Integrity, Traceability, Seasonality and Sustainability. Luckily it wasn’t too far out of our way and much to my delight we managed to book a table.
After I had washed my hair in an ice cold stream we managed to find a campsite near by (basically a driveway with a little shower block on it and space for about 3 vans that was being rented out by a farmer) and find our way down to Captains Galley. The location was not what we expected, it felt industrial and far from idyllic, but once you were inside everything changed. The old stone walls oozed history, the smell of fresh seafood wafted out of the kitchen and we were warmly met and looked after by Mary who made us feel at home instantly. If you drive the NC500 or simply visit Scotland at any point you must make it here if you can.
Captains Galley was in a little town called Scrabster which is quite far east so to get back to our route we drove back towards Bettyhill. This is where we turned in land and headed South towards Lairg. We were continually surprised at how quiet the roads were and spent most of the drive in complete silence simply taking in the indescribable beauty of our surroundings.
We spent our final night just north of Lairg where we found ourselves a little parking spot just off the side of the road. Admittedly, it wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds. First, we drove past Lairg and tried to find somewhere to stop in a wooded area we came across but couldn’t find anywhere flat enough and something just didn’t feel right, we then drove back on ourselves to find somewhere else slowly getting more and more frustrated as it got later and later and eventually started getting dark which made it a lot harder to spot a good location. Once we eventually found somewhere, we tried to get a fire going but the air was damp, as was all the wood we could find, and we quickly ran out of matches. It wasn’t the most romantic of evenings but I think it’s fair to say that everyone has those days when navigating unknown routes in the dark!
But, after a good night’s sleep, we woke to pale pink skies, a delicate frost and a thick mist gently breathing its way through the valley. It took a lot of will power to climb out of the blanket I was wrapped in and put ice cold jeans on but it was worth it to watch the sunrise, coffee in hand and not another soul in sight.
On our final day we made our way back down towards Strathpeffer stopping for the occasional coffee and taking time to appreciate the magnificent weather we’d had over the last few days. There many places still to visit and we’re itching to get back to Scotland soon, but as an introductory visit we really couldn’t have asked for more.
I could go on and on about the incredible time we had, the bits we did and the bits I wished we’d had more time for, but honestly it’s just one of those trips you need to make your own. And, although no one experience is ever the same, here are a few things that will help you to plan yours.
Strathpeffer VW Campervan Hire
Where we camped:
Port A Bhaigh Campsite - Campsite in stunning location, bit of a drive but worth it and open 365 days a year
Murkle - Tiny camp spot with electricity, have to call farmer to pay and arrange spot