Scotland has always been somewhere we have both wanted to travel in more detail. After travelling such vast distances with little more than a car and a tent in Australia, it seemed ludicrous to us that we hadn’t done the same at home.
After a little research we discovered the newly chartered North Coast 500. A 516-mile tourist route brought to life by the North Highland Initiative as a way of boosting the economy of the isolated towns and villages of the Scottish Highlands.
We borrowed a tent and sleeping bags from our friend in Edinburgh, hired a car and set off into the unknown.
Since the trip Scotland has instantly topped the list of our favourite countries. It’s a place rich in culture, a fascinating bloodied history and heaps of sublime, natural beauty.
Although we only had a 7 days to complete the route and return to Edinburgh, we know that it was the just the beginning of a long love affair with the country.
Spoiler! We veered from the route at the end as we wanted to incorporate the Isle of Skye, Ben Nevis and the Loch Lomond National Park but otherwise followed it to the letter.
Here’s a break down of our own North Coast 500 itinerary.
Inverness – Tain
After an extended stay in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, we decided to make haste and plough through the wet windy weather straight up to Inverness where the North Coast 500 route starts.
We didn’t have any time to spend in Inverness itself and instead opted for a quick detour to see the infamous Loch Ness. Aside from all the inevitable tat surrounding the Loch Ness monster (which despite our best efforts we didn’t see) the area surrounding the Loch is lovely.
It’s a nice detour and a gentle introduction to the Highland landscape but if time is really tight, its maybe one you can afford to miss.
We decided to follow the circular route of the North Coast 500 anti-clockwise in the hope that we would save the best bits till last and in the end felt that this choice really paid off.
The east coast is a much more gentle landscape and is also considerably more populated. This part of the route is dotted with picturesque coastal towns, pastoral land and rolling hills which fall gently into the North Sea.
It eases you into the more dramatic sections of the route to come and has plenty of opportunities to stop for food or drink.
The town of Tain was the pick of the bunch along the South-Eastern section of the route. The town is Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh and is easily the most charming. The high street is lined with grand old town houses, ancient churches, cafes and boutique shops.
If you have time make sure to head out to the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse just north of the idyllic coastal village of Portmahomack. It’s surrounded on all sides by dramatic coastline and is one of the many lighthouses in the area built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Grandfather!
Bits we Missed
A staple whisky that sits on the shelf of any self respecting bar. A very highly rated whisky and the perfect way to start your tour around the home of whisky.
Not as ancient as some of the castles along the route but a stunning example of Victorian architecture surrounded by manicured gardens.
Tain – Thurso
This part of the route is where the true Highland scenery begins to creep into view. The hills shoot up and the forgiving coastline is replaced with towering sheer cliffs which give way to violent waves beneath.
Towns starting becoming more sparse, and humans are replaced by a far more dominant form of life… the Highland sheep.
We went into a little more detail on our previous post about Brora and its hidden gems. The town itself is fairly sleepy but perfect for a quick stopover.
Helmsdale was easily one of our favourite villages along the route. We really lucked out and passed through the town during their Highland Games but even on a normal day it is well worth a few hours of your time. There’s a few coffee shops in the village centre and a nice stroll along the river will afford you views of the impressive foothills and the coast.
Just north of Helmsdale take a moment to stop for some of the amazing viewpoints from the cliff tops.
Wick was a strange one. It felt all at once bleak and spectacular. The town itself felt like little more than a service town for the surrounding area but there’s certainly a few things worthy of your time.
The ‘Old Man of Wick’ is one of Scotland’s oldest surviving castles. It’s estimated to have been built around the 1100’s and is a surviving testament of Scotland’s Nordic history. Standing on the edge of a narrow promontory, the ruins look out over the North Sea towards Scandinavia.
Old Pulteney Distillery
Not far from the castle lies yet another prestigious whisky distillery. Old Pulteney consistently win awards for their single malt whisky and you can find out why for yourself.
The distillery offer tours but unfortunately not when we visited due to renovations. So we had to make do with a spot of tasting instead.
John o’ Groats
Probably the most famous village in the Highlands due to its location, John o’ Groats sits at the most Northerly point of the British mainland. There wasn’t much to keep us in town for long but it’s certainly worth a visit if only to get the photo and say you’ve been!
The beach at Dunnet Bay rivals any we have seen anywhere in the world. A huge expanse of golden sand and towering sand dunes it provided us with the perfect spot to watch the sun set and hunker down for a night camping in the shelter of the dunes.
If you want a place to party in the far north then Thurso’s your town. Although we didn’t get the chance to revel in the nightlife, Thurso provided us with a much-needed dinner and breakfast either side of our camping and is the last chance you’ll have to stock up before things start turning really wild!
Bits We Missed
In our haste to find a spot to camp we completely overlooked the Duncansby headland. But we’ve been told and reassured by photographs that it’s truly stunning and something that we will certainly return for one day.
Thurso – Drumbeg
This was our favourite stretch of the trip. The landscape is unreal and looks like it has been plucked from the pages of a fairytale. Visiting in summer meant that the hills and mountains were covered in pops of purple heather and pockets of dried amber ferns.
The vibrant colours just added another layer to the unworldly scenery. Islands bubbled from the sea and misty mountain-tops waited around every corner of the winding single track roads.
When the mountains melt away they are replaced by some of the best beaches in the country, if not the world. This is coming from a pair who live in Australia. You can trust our beach judgement!
Just outside of the small historic village of Bettyhill is Farr Bay. A perfect stretch of sand awaits you a short stroll from the car park. It’s a beautiful spot to stretch your legs whilst keeping your eyes peeled for the resident golden eagles and otters!
Our favourite beach of the trip. Pull up at the side of the road and fumble your way through the ferns down a steep slope to the beach. We had the whole beach to ourselves and it was the perfect place to unwind and take in our incredible surroundings.
Coldbackie – Drumbeg
Kind of cheating, but this whole stretch is breathtaking. All that fairytale stuff we mentioned earlier? The best bits are unveiled here.
Stop at every opportunity you can. Often the road is too narrow to stop so make the most of rest areas and pull-ins wherever possible!
At the end of this section sits Drumbeg, an impossible pretty village with amazing views from the Drumbeg Lookout. It’s also a great spot to pick up groceries, discuss plans over a pint and get some sleep in one of the many hotels and B&B’s dotted around the area.
Bits we missed
Practically everything from Thurso to Farr Bay
We were hit with can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face fog for this whole section. Who knows what incredible scenery we missed?!
On a positive note, there’s something bewitching about the misty Scottish moors…
Drumbeg – Applecross
I hope you’re not sick of those one-track roads – this is where the roads get wild(er).
Game of Thrones fans will appreciate the similarities between this region of Wester Ross and it’s namesake in the fantasy series. This is Wildling territory after all!
A visit to this sleepy village is worth it just to stop by the Lochinver Larder. Heaving with home-made pies it’s a great place to stop for lunch or a big mug of coffee to steel you for the drive ahead.
The busy hub of Ullapool can come as a bit of a shock after four days lost in the highlands. There are actual people here, groups of them gathering over lunch or heading out onto the water for wildlife excursions. Ullapool is a tourist town, there’s no denying that, but seems to manage it so well.
As a stand-alone holiday destination there are loads of things to do around town, from walks to day trips you’re spoilt for choice. We were stuck for time so contented ourselves with a stroll around the charming town and a meal and pint at the Argyll Hotel.
Not far out from Ullapool you’ll chance upon a small car park and Natural Trust signs for Corrieshalloch Gorge.
It’s definitely worth a stop. A small 20 minute round walk will take you down to a small Victorian suspension bridge revealing views of the Falls of Measach as they cascade down into the 50 metre slot canyon below.
A huge reward for a very short walk. Certainly worth a look if you can stomach the heights!
We pulled up at the castle ruins as the fog began to descend. You never get used to the amount of castles and crumbling ruins that appear along the roadside of the North Coast 500.
Ardvreck Castle was one of our favourites. We had it all to ourselves and it didn’t take a lot of imagination to transport yourself back to the 16th century when the castle stood intact in all its glory.
But now, lying in ruins surrounded by mountains and the still dark waters of the loch, it’s an eerie reminder of Scotland’s ancient history and an incredibly atmospheric subject on which to practice our fledgling photography skills!
The Drive From Ardvreck Castle to Applecross
Thinking that the best bit of the drive might be behind us, this section of the route took us completely by surprise. The mountains close in and the valleys become narrow. The single track round winds its way between towering peaks along the valley floor, climbs up to incredible viewpoints over the lochs and rolls precariously alongside the ocean atop lofty cliffs.
We feel a bit guilty being ‘driving tourist’ but honestly that’s what this part of the route is all about. There’s very few places to pull in and there aren’t really any maintained walking trails in the area. So unless you’ve come prepared with a supply of heavy hiking and camping gear, driving is about the only thing to do. Just follow the road and become utterly mesmerised by the surrounding landscape. It is a driving tourist route after all!
Applecross – Invergarry
Now we have to admit, this is the part of our trip where we decided to deviate from the North Coast 500 and strike a slightly different route. With time running out we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Isle of Skye and of course the tallest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis.
And once again the road failed to disappoint. Every day you think the best must be behind you but the route keeps on giving and this part of the route offers the most dramatic mountain pass road yet!
Bealach na Bà
With tight hairpin bends and a 20% gradient on a single track road, this mountain pass boasts the greatest ascent of any road in the UK climbing (or falling) 626 metres in just over half a mile. And the views keep coming too with the picture-perfect Loch Kishorn slowly pulling into view as you descend the pass.
At the bottom of the pass as you approach Ardarroch you’ll come across the Bealach cafe on your left hand-side.
The cafe was completely unexpected and was the best cup of coffee we had along the entirety of the North Coast 500 route. The cafe is also a part of a small local tourism initiative, The South West Ross Arts and Eats Trail. The route links together a trail of cafes, restaurants and galleries to highlight the regions incredible produce and thriving creative community.
It’s an awesome local initiative and one that is only possible thanks to the increased number of visitors taking on the North Coast 500.
Isle of Skye
This small Scottish isle really needs no introduction. It’s the most visited and most accessible isle of the Inner Hebrides, dotted with a few whisky distilleries, innumerable cute water side towns and villages and some incredible hiking trails linked to the mainland by bridge.
We didn’t have too much time on the isle but managed to get to the world-famous Fairy Pools. It’s only a short 40 minute round trip to get to the small chain of waterfalls and crystal clear pools.
Apparently the most photographed castle in Scotland and it’s really no wonder why. The castle commands a position on small island where three lochs meet and was a stronghold for the Clan Mackenzie right up until the early 18th century.
The restored castle makes for impressive viewing and is best when the tide is high as the castle reflects perfectly on the still, glassy waters of the loch.
Saddle Mountain Hostel
We stumbled across this gem of a hostel in fairly desperate circumstances and were astonished at how comfortable and welcoming a hostel it was.
You can read more about it in our previous post . Although it only served as an overnight stop for us we would definitely recommend staying a few days and exploring the surrounding area of Invergarry!
Invergarry – Stirling
This was really the final proper day of our road trip and we woke up to brilliant crispy sunny morning and the smell of pine needles.
Parts of this drive definitely started to feel more familiar although in no way any less impressive. It was tangibly more busy and we were even held up in small pockets of traffic for the first time in nearly a week.
This section of our route was Scotland exactly as we had imagined it prior to our trip. Everything suddenly felt very green and imposing. The scenery changed dramatically around every corner and the route was spoilt with cute mountain villages and towns.
A site of pilgrimage for any Harry Potter fan, the small village of Glenfinnan is home to a certain little viaduct made iconic by the Harry Potter films.
Make sure you check train times and you’ll even see the Hogwarts Express as it chugs its way over the bridge and off into the distance.
One of the most spectacular and dramatic places we saw in Scotland. The road follows the course of the river Coe as it cascades its way down the small valley, wedged between vast volcanic mountains on either side.
For history buffs the Glen is also of huge historical significance as the site of the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. Nearly 40 men of the Clan Macdonald were slain in the valley after failure in pledging allegiance to the newly crowned monarchs King William and Queen Mary.
There’s plenty of walking options through the Glen and numerous spots to stop and take in the views. It is incredibly busy however and after days of tranquil solitude in the remote north-west it can feel a bit overwhelming!
Our final stop and another spot of huge historical intrigue and the royal stronghold in the numerous battles for the Kingdom of Scotland. The castle was the site of more than eight sieges and today stands as a testament of Stirling’s importance in the shaping of the country.
The town itself is immensely attractive and easily worth a couple of days. Cobbled streets wind their way down from the ancient castle through the medieval town and into the more modern parts of the city below.
So, there you have it, our take on the North Coast 500 itinerary. That ended up being a lot longer post than we thought – there’s just too many highlights! Thank you for sticking with it, and let us know if it has inspired you to take a trip to our neighbours in the North.