After a very welcome rest day at Gairloch, arguably the most impressive part of the trip lay ahead – namely Applecross and the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle)
Up to this point, many of the roads had been single-track with passing places but still functioned as main roads with all manner of traffic passing along them. In places, the road widened to two whole widths (not a dual carriageway, just a “normal” road!) Such was the case leaving Gairloch where the road meandered alongside Loch Maree to Kinlochewe before shrinking back once again to minimalist proportions.
It was at Shieldaig where things became interesting. From here you could choose to uphold the status quo and follow the road along to Lochcarron or take your life (and the lives of whichever passengers you’d locked in the vehicle) in your hands and head to Applecross.
A large sign suggesting that caravans, learner-drivers and HGV’s should opt for the former route was prominently displayed at the turn and it wasn’t long before we could see why.
Initially, despite being a bit narrower and slightly more twisty-turny, the going wasn’t too bad, but things got really interesting at Applecross. Just in case a caravan/learner-driver/HGV had miraculously survived up to this point, another sign at the start of the climb out of the village warned them that impending doom would be imminent if they set tyre over this point.
Built in 1822 as a cattle drovers’ pass through the mountains, the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle in Gaelic) starts at Applecross, which is at sea-level, then rises – very steeply – to 2054ft at the summit before plunging, even more steeply down again towards Tornapress and Lochcarron, both of which are back at sea level. All this in about 7 miles!
We were promised spectacular views and buttock-clenching moments and wow, here they were! This was, without doubt THE MOST SPECTACULAR ROAD WHICH I HAVE EVER DRIVEN! Superlatives abounded at every turn although I think poor Annie held her breath for the entire duration!
Wilma is 6m (20ft) long and weighs 3.5 tonnes and although she performed superbly both climbing and descending the 1-in-5 gradients (20% in new money) I certainly wouldn’t have relished driving anything bigger over that pass!
As our previous night’s camp was just up the road from Lochinver, the first stop of the day was to visit the Lochinver Larder – a legendary pie shop which has been featured in various BBC radio and TV programmes as well as in numerous magazines. In fact the place is much more than just “a pie shop” being also a restaurant, riverside bistro and coffee shop. The crowning glory of the place however is that you don’t actually have to travel hundreds of miles to sample their wares as you can actually order them by post! Having sampled their lamb and apple pies (two separate ones) we can certainly vouch for the fact that they live up to the hype: absolutely, hands down, without doubt, the best pies we have ever eaten.
From here the journey continued onwards towards Ullapool stopping briefly to admire, well, look at, Ardvreck Castle. As castles go, Ardvreck is a bit of an oddity. Normally, a castle is built either as a fortification to defend the surrounding territory or as a dwelling; a symbol of wealth and power. In both respects poor old Ardvreck falls a bit short. As a fortification it could probably only hold a garrison large enough to defend something the size of a football pitch and in terms of stately piles it’s about as impressive as a garden shed.
On the opposite side of the road however was a slightly more impressive waterfall which made up for Ardvreck’s shortcomings.
As ever, the scenery along the way lived up to – in fact, exceeded – expectations and we could see why people travel hundreds of miles (us included) just to experience driving on such a picturesque route.
The charming seaside town of Ullapool was up next where we lunched on some amazing mackerel pâté from the Seafood Shack, another well-documented foodie haven, before continuing on to our final destination for the day, and campsite for the night at Gairloch.
The route from Ullapool to Gairloch passes alongside the eastern shores of Loch Ewe – famous for the Arctic Convoys of World War 2 and still housing a military presence today with a large warship in dock and two more out on manoeuvres in the loch. An impressive sight, even at a distance. To avoid being inadvertently shot we decided not to hang around and continued onwards to the campsite.
The site we’d chosen was a couple of miles outside of Gairloch near a place called, appropriately, Big Sands. The site itself was simply called “Sands” (well, Sands Caravan & Camping Park actually) and it too lived up to its name sporting a fantastic beach and a mixture of pitches set amongst the dunes. We chose a slightly elevated pitch giving a wonderful view down Loch Gairloch and across The Minch to Skye in the distance. The weather had also picked up tremendously so it was not only sunny but actually WARM for the first time on the trip and necessitated the shorts being woken from hibernation and given the first airing of the season.
Later that evening we took a stroll along the beach and were treated to a most magnificent sunset. Happiness prevailed and we decided the next morning to take a break from driving and stay on at the site for another day which allowed us to just sit back and enjoy the place. One of the unexpected highlights of the site, for Annie at least, was the fantastic laundry, which we utilised to the full! Unfortunately, everyday chores such as washing are still prevalent when touring, so finding such a well equipped laundry, at a very reasonable cost, was a delight. Who says life on the road can become boring? We had industrial tumble-dryers to play with!
Having left our overnight mooring (after another, inevitable, run along the beach for Jack) we briefly stopped at Smoo Caves to admire the underground waterfall (Scotland has A LOT of waterfalls!) before turning south at Durness to start heading down the scenic west coast bit.
Although the trip so far had given us some memorable views, nothing could prepare us for the sheer jaw-dropping beauty that lay ahead, and I can see now why those who have gone before favour completing the trip in an anti-clockwise direction to keep building the scenic magnificence around every turn.
As this part of the adventure was primarily a driving one, stops along the way, and therefore photographs, were few, but one place at which we definitely wanted to pause was the iconic Kylesku Bridge which crosses the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin (Caolas Cumhann) – and no, I’ve no idea how to pronounce it either!
The bridge is iconic because, unlike other similar structures which use basic engineering, economic and physical principles to cross a gap in the shortest possible distance – i.e. a straight line – the Kylesku Bridge continues the curvature of the road at both ends by beautifully arcing horizontally across the Loch.
It came as no surprise therefore to find that the civil engineers behind the bridge were none other than the Danish firm of Ove Arup and Partners, they of Sydney Opera House fame who stepped in to make the world famous landmark actually happen.
Fellow Dane Jørn Utzon was the architect who had won the design competition for the new opera house by wowing the judges with what amounted to little more than a sketch showing the amazing sail-like structures which appeared radically different when compared with the more traditional cubist designs. The trouble was that Jørn had given little, if any, thought as to how these structures could actually, physically be constructed – an omission that ultimately had him removed from the project.
Into the breach stepped Ove Arup who, after many years of consultations with both Jørn and the client and no doubt much late-night head-scratching, modified the design slightly to produce something that was actually feasible to construct and thus become the renowned iconic masterpiece it is today.
Designing the Kylesku Bridge therefore was probably done one Friday night as he was heading out of the office, but nevertheless it’s still an amazing structure.
Onwards from here and passing through Drumbeg, Clashnessie and Stoer we arrived at what was to become the stop for the night and another wildcamp overlooking the rhino-hornesque Suilven mountain flanked by Canisp to the east and Cul Mor to the west, the trio making a very impressive backdrop.
Once again Scotland set itself apart by providing a carpark actually inviting people to camp overnight with a small box under the sign for donations if you felt like contributing anything. We did, with pleasure. It’s little things like this that make you feel so welcome here and, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s because you don’t feel that you’re being blatantly ripped-off everywhere that you feel more inclined to spend money locally. Are you listening every single English council in the land?!?
The only slight downside with the carpark was that getting the van level was nigh-on impossible (which probably explains why we were the only ones there) but after 40 minutes of trying every which way we eventually settled on a spot where the wine glasses didn’t fall over and we could actually walk from one end to the other without the aid of ropes and crampons.
That done, we settled back to watch Suilven and her sisters consumed by the sunset; another fantastically memorable day drawing to a close.
From Brora the next stop on the list was the most northerly. Almost. John O’Groats is widely perceived to be the most northernmost point in mainland Britain; after all, most charity events spanning the country make a route from “Land’s End to John O’Groats” thus covering both ends of the land. Although geographically correct at the Land’s End bit the Scottish element is technically out by a good few miles. But who has ever heard of an event going from “Land’s End to Dunnet Head” which actually IS the most northern point of mainland Britain. (I say “mainland Britain” because of course the title of northernmost point of the British Isles goes to Out Stack in Shetland)
Anyway, John O’Groats arrived first so it was there we stopped first. The day had dawned to cloudless blue skies (presumably, because it was still that way when we surfaced at around 9am) but as we drove towards JOG (I’m going to refer to it as that from now on because it’s a pain to type) the clouds arrived, then thickened, then parted, heralding our arrival at JOG by depositing what felt like half the Atlantic Ocean over us.
JOG is a pretty dismal place even in good weather giving the impression that it should try to offer something to compensate for its erroneous title, but that something is fairly tackily presented with the usual mix of run-down cafes, gift shops and even a Christmas Shop! Maybe they feel somehow connected to Lapland being relatively closer than anywhere else, but really? A Christmas Shop?!
There was at least a modicum of cheerfulness present in the form of a fairly recently built hotel which appeared to have been designed by two different architects – one going for the more traditional style with a nod to Scottish heritage and the other heading off in a more Scandi-themed direction with a collection of beach huts fashioned from multi-coloured clapboard. An odd mix but least it brightened the place up a bit!
Having posed for the obligatory pictures under the signpost and had a very quick walk around what little there was to see at JOG (bypassing the Christmas Shop, of course!) we turned west and began the north coast bit of the North Coast 500.
First stop, obviously, was to see the actual, geographical northernmost point which is at Dunnet Head, a few miles west of JOG. To get there though necessitated a five and a half mile drive up a narrow, winding, uneven road to be presented with, ultimately, another disappointment. To say that JOG has over-compensated for its misconceived title, Dunnet Head hasn’t even bothered getting out of bed. There’s a fine lighthouse there – more for practical purposes than for any kind of monument – a rather small car park with a very stern sign warning not to take dogs any further in case they suddenly develop suicidal tendencies and attempt to leap off the cliffs (no, really!) and, almost as an afterthought, a carved granite slab telling us, in an almost apologetic way, that yes, this is the ACTUAL northernmost point of mainland Britain.
But at least they didn’t have a Christmas Shop!
The next few days were mainly spent driving on what had now become a quest. Because we didn’t know how far we’d get everyday we didn’t book campsites in advance trusting that we’d always find somewhere to stay when we felt like stopping.
The first night along the north coast was spent at Dunnet Bay, a Caravan & Motorhome Club site right by the beach – which Jack absolutely loved of course!
From here it was on to experience our first bit of “wild camping” the next night. Wild camping is only legal in Scotland (unfortunately) and for many is what this lifestyle is all about as it allows you to pitch up in any suitable location and stay the the night. There are “rules” of course but these are more commonsense than actual rules: arrive late & leave early; leave no trace of being there; respect your environment and others around you. The main appeal though is the freedom it gives you. In our case we pulled into a large, flat deserted area by the side of road overlooking a bay with yet another unbelievable beach. Within minutes of arriving, 2 more motorhomes and 3 cars pulled in to join us with the occupants of two of the cars unloading myriad bags, holdalls, and hampers before scurrying off to the beach to indulge a spot of swimming (it was 5 degrees Centigrade!) followed by a BBQ on the beach. Tough lot these Scots!
Ultimately, just us and a dutch motorhome actually stayed the night and after another quick post-breakfast stroll on the beach we were off again, continuing the journey along the north coast…
The stopover for the night was to be at the Brora Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) campsite which gave us the biggest surprise so far. After arriving and pitching up (in uncharacteristically glorious sunshine I might add) it was time for Jack to go for a walk and park his tea and for us to stretch our legs. Just across from our pitch was a golf course leading onto sand dunes and then a fabulously vast, sandy and totally unoccupied beach! Having successfully dodged the hailstone of golfballs the beach was a great place to unwind and for Jack to enjoy rekindling his absolute fascination with the sea where his pleasure in fetching any kind of driftwood we could toss into it was seemingly endless. Eventually, as ever we had to almost literally drag him away from the beach and back to the van after which he spent the rest of the evening in a mood with his back turned to us.
We spent the rest of our evening planning the next part of the itinerary which was to finish the east coast section of the route heading north to John O’Groats…
Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland being occupied since the early 1300s. As is the case with many of these old piles, the cost of upkeep necessitates the current owners opening their doors to the good old General Public allowing them to flock through in their coachloads admiring the centuries-old decor and furnishings. All this for a very reasonable £11.50 which included a free falconry display if you arrived at the right time (we didn’t)
One of the most notable things we’ve found with Scotland so far, apart from the unfailingly friendly and welcoming people, is that most places allow you to park for free – including Dunrobin Castle even if you weren’t actually visiting the building itself. And if you were planning to actually set foot inside the attractions, the entrance fee is very reasonable too. Compare that to anywhere in England run by the National Trust, English Heritage or the ghastly Tussauds Group that seems to exist purely to solicit as much money out of visitors as possible to boost their profits, rather than protecting our heritage for future generations to enjoy. I’m looking at you Warwick Castle!
The knock-on effect of not being ripped-off wherever you go is that you actually feel more obliged to spend money on other things – like purchasing local goods or visiting local attractions. Again, compare that to England; height barriers on many carparks, those that are accessible charging ridiculously exorbitant prices and an overall feeling of not being welcome. Ok then, let’s go and spend our money elsewhere…
Dingwall, home of Ross County football club, managed to captivate us for 2 nights despite arriving to the cacophony of a full stadium situated next door to the site, trains running right past our pitch well into the night and an estuary that has seen better days and makes the sea at Weston-Super-Mare seem positively on the doorstep. The town itself was nice enough though, and the campsite wardens, Helen and Brian, were charming and very helpful giving us a valuable insight into life running a campsite. VERY hard work apparently!
From Dingwall the east coast route took us up to the next stop at Brora via a planned stop at Dunrobin Castle