Inverness is the start and finish of what is becoming one of the fastest growing attractions of Scotland: The North Coast 500. This epic driving route is a 500-mile round trip around the very north of the country and is widely considered to be the Scottish answer to the famous Route 66 across America.
You can sign up to be members of the “NC500 Club” with 3 different levels of annual membership, each giving varying levels of goodies and discounts at some of the major attractions and accommodations along the route. Prices start at £15 for the basic Traveller membership, £45 the more advanced Explorer membership but for a mere £300 you could opt for the very top level Gold Package, giving you a whole range of “exclusive gifts and benefits”
Or you can just pick up a map at the local Tourist Information Centre and do it for free like we did.
As the route is circular, you can elect to motor off in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction – the end result will be the same. Wisdom has it that anti-clockwise is the favoured method of travel as the east coast doesn’t hold quite as many jaw-dropping, eye-popping views and rectum-clenching descents as the west coast. Or indeed, any. So anti-clockwise it was to be, and as time was getting on, the Great Adventure began as we drove the 22 miles to the first stop for the night at Dingwall.
After enjoying another night on our new favourite campsite, the time came to move on to Inverness and make a start on the main reason for coming to Scotland in the first place: to drive the famous North Coast 500 route around the northern coastline, but more of that later.
Just up the road from the site was Eilean Donan castle which has appeared in and on numerous publications and websites as another “must see” attraction when visiting the area. For me it was more a “must photograph” experience as many years ago I saw a stunning image made by one of my favourite landscape photographers, Charlie Waite, which I was keen to emulate. Sadly, as has been the case with much of the trip so far, the weather was against us once more, so rather than recreate the vibrant, iconic snap I had in mind, the end result rendered the cloudy scene better in moody black and white.
From here it was onwards and upwards joining the infamous Loch Ness at about a quarter of the way up its western shore. By now the weather had cleared completely and we were treated to fabulous views across the Loch as we continued along its edge.
Despite the chances of “The Loch Ness Monster” actually existing – zoological, geographical, geological and historical evidence have largely and almost categorically dismissed the possibility of the aquatic legend surviving past the last ice-age, local business are still keen to cash in on the name. You can have Nessie-spotting cruises, Nessie themed accommodation, all manner of Nessie-based eateries, and of course a variety of Nessie-styled attire to suit almost all tastes and pockets. Not bad for something that doesn’t actually exist but, then again, Santa Claus seems to do pretty well out of a similar lack of actual being.
Cynicism aside, before long Inverness arrived, and after a quick trip to Tesco to stock up on all the stuff we’d either forgotten or eaten since our last shopping trip, we walked over the bridge into the main part of the town (or city, actually) which had an immediate appeal even though it seemed massively crowded after the virtual solitude we’d enjoyed over the previous few days.
The main reason for going into town was to replace my sunglasses which were stolen by a goat lost a couple of days earlier. Since I have lost SO many pairs of sunglasses over the years, I now no longer buy expensive ones, so when I found a pair in Mountain Warehouse for £10 the deal was done. Unfortunately, on leaving the store and heading into the searing afternoon sunlight I noticed that the lenses had a distinct brown tint to them which gave everything the appearance of being viewed through a used teabag. Note to self: next time, try them on in sunlight first! Actually though, having used them for a bit they do make everything look very warm and cheerful even when it isn’t.
From Portree it was back to the mainland and a very welcome return to the site at Morvich. Arriving at about 6pm and having spent the majority of the day sat in the van, a short trip up the lane to give Jack a bit of run (and park his tea) was in order.
Two and a half hours later, and after a six mile hike we returned. The culprit was a sign promising views of the Falls of Glomach which sounded relatively close by in that we could hear the sound of fast flowing water. So we could, but this mere trickle was not the Falls themselves so onwards we marched getting ever higher as we went. Eventually, 3 miles in and having passed several more waterfalls, each becoming slightly bigger and more ferocious then the last, we came across a reasonably more impressive waterfall which would have to do for now as time was against us. Still more thunderous water could be heard just slightly further up, just around that next bend, just beyond that distant ridge…
By now the evening sun was getting lower in the sky strafing the mountains with its near horizontal rays and revealing even more beauty than we’d seen so far. To continue onwards would mean returning home in the dark and as we’d come out totally unprepared for such a trek, with nothing more illuminating than an iPhone, reluctantly we turned back leaving the elusive Falls of Glomach to be discovered another day. Once back at the van the Map of Disappointing Truths was consulted once again which revealed the Falls were actually about 10 miles up the valley and appeared to be vastly more impressive than everything we’d seen so far combined!
The walk back though was jaw-droppingly stunning watching the sun rapidly disappearing behind the mountains and the clouds starting to roll in giving some amazing light for photos. Back at the van the elaborate culinary creation we had planned for tea (ok, chicken on the barbecue) was abandoned in favour of a quick one-pot rice dish but as we ate this, accompanied as ever by a glass of red, watching the final vestiges of light disappear into darkness we remarked on how doing something ridiculously spontaneous could bring such rich rewards.
Jack will never believe us again when we say we’re just popping up the lane…
A planned detour on the trip was to visit the much-lauded Isle of Skye which is the largest and most northernmost of the islands that make up the Inner Hebrides. Incredibly, right up until 1995 the only method of actually setting foot (or tyre) on the island was by ferry, but in October 1995 the Skye Bridge was opened carrying the A87 from the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on the island’s east coast.
Initially, the bridge was operated as a toll bridge but although the span is relatively short – around 500 metres – the tolls charged by the bridge operators made it the most expensive road in Europe and at one point it was fourteen times more expensive than the Forth Road Bridge in Edinburgh which is twice the length! Needless to say this caused some controversy with the islanders, particularly as when the bridge opened, the existing ferry service was stopped. Over time the toll system became open to abuse by both operators and islanders alike and after years of campaigning tolls were scrapped in 2004.
Today, visitors can choose between the (free) bridge or the picturesque Glenelg Ferry (skyeferry.co.uk) to transport themselves over Loch Alsh and onto the Island. Interestingly, in these times of local councils “twinning” with similar towns in foreign lands (no doubt mainly for an all-expenses-paid reconnaissance trip) Glenelg is twinned with the Curiosity Rover’s landing site on Mars! I’d like to have seen the expenses submission for that one!
Anyway, as ever, I digress. Crossing the bridge was as unexciting as expected and 500 metres later the island arrived so we turned north towards the campsite near Dunvegan.
I don’t know what we expected from Skye – we arrived with no preconceptions, little prior research or indeed any particular plan – but somehow it just didn’t “work” for us. The scenery, particularly in the southern part of the island was still spectacular, but no more so than we had just left on the mainland. Maybe the ever-present veil of cloud didn’t help but it was unanimously decided that a one night stay would be more than enough.
During the night and for all the following day we were troubled by incredible wind (of the meteorological rather than gastric variety) which constantly buffeted the van and led to a fairly sleepless night.
The plan for day two was to travel around the northern part of the island taking in Uig and then stopping in Portree for a look around this charming little town. On the way, we were enticed to stop off and marvel at the Kilt Rock waterfall. Possibly due to lack of rain in the area but I’ve seen more impressive outpourings from our overflow at home.
Portree at least was worth the visit and the smell from the local chippy down by the harbour was too much to resist, so that was lunch sorted then.
Continuing on through Glencoe, the next stop was Fort William – gateway to Ben Nevis and a major outdoor pursuits centre. Our main aim in stopping here wasn’t for a swift ascent of the UK’s highest summit but, rather more mundanely, to visit Morrison’s in order to replenish our dwindling supplies of wine food.
Cupboards stocked, the journey continued to the next site at Morvich in Kintail which was to be our base for the next 3 nights before heading on to Skye.
Morvich was to become our favourite site so far sitting in a fabulous location nestled between the mountains of the Glen Affric valley to the east and Loch Duich to the west. We had originally booked only a couple of nights but the area was so scenically inviting and peaceful that we stayed for three.
The first morning dawned uncharacteristically sunny with an almost cloudless blue sky. After a couple of hours of just sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and warmth Jack was becoming impatient for a walk so with boots and rucksacks donned (us, not Jack) we headed off over the Shiel bridge to Ratagan on the opposite side of the Loch.
Part of the route ran alongside the main A82 and some local feral goats had decided to choose a tight bend as their preferred crossing point nonchalantly wandering out into oncoming traffic accompanied by much screeching of tyres and gesticulating from drivers. After several minutes of trying to explain the Green Cross Code to them, without success I admit, they all took off into the bushes like lightning as soon as I got the camera out. Maybe they thought I was going to use the pictures as evidence, who knows.
Somewhere along the route I managed to lose my sunglasses and since I was fairly sure I knew where was confident that on our return I’d find them lying on the path by the side of the road. Sadly, this was not to be – there was no sign of them anywhere. Coincidentally, it was at the goat-lecturing point and I swear I saw the one I’d been admonishing earlier scurrying off into the distance wearing them and flicking two hooves up at me in defiance! Or maybe it was the effect of the sun and my overactive imagination…
Although the day had started clear and sunny the clouds started rolling in as we were about halfway back and inevitably proceeded to dump a massive amount of water. Thankfully, a local bus shelter was on hand to dodge the worst of it, after which the rain stopped as abruptly as it had started, the sun blasted through a tear in the clouds and treated us to one of the most magnificent and vibrant rainbows we’d ever seen.
Day two saw a return to cloudy skies but, thankfully, no rain so a walk was planned on the Affric-Kintail Way – another long distance footpath up the Glen Affric valley and one that, again, we would be covering a very small part of! Despite the lack of sunshine, the scenery didn’t disappoint and made for another wonderfully enjoyable afternoon. Annie and I walked, chatted and took photographs and Jack happily sniffed and weed his way along beside us. Another wonderful day for all.
After three days we had savoured enough of the gloom enveloping Loch Lomond so it was time to move on again. One of the “must see” places on our trip was the Isle of Skye but rather than decamp there immediately, we broke the journey by stopping at Morvich campsite in Kintail, about 40 minutes away from the infamous Skye Bridge which was to be our favoured route across the water.
Leaving the site we had to initially backtrack down the eastern side of the Loch in order to swing around the southern shores before heading north again along the western edge. Loch Lomond itself is over 22 miles long so it was a while before we’d cleared the water’s edge en route to Fort William on the A82 which took us through the most stunning scenery experienced so far as it snaked its way through Glencoe. From here on in, every turn revealed yet another breathtaking view as the magnificence of the Scottish Highlands unveiled itself.
James Bond fans may recall that it was on this route through Glencoe where Bond stopped briefly as he was escaping London to take “M” to be killed in his childhood home of Skyfall – although that wasn’t his intention, of course. (Apologies if you haven’t seen the film by the way)
The real star of the show here though was the scenery. The views may have certainly stirred us, but the shaking from the, still, appalling road surfaces marred the experience somewhat.
Once we’d ploughed our way off the previous night’s pitch we set off towards our next destination which was to be on the shores of Loch Lomond. Such is my Scottish geographical ignorance (or possibly just general ignorance, Scottish or otherwise) that I had never realised how close to Glasgow Loch Lomond actually is. Literally a day trip can be had for little more than 40 minutes in the car (or van) each way.
Our location for the next few days was to be the surprisingly named “Cashel, Camping in the Forest” campsite literally on the shores of the great Loch itself. I say surprisingly named in that there wasn’t much forest around but an awful lot of water very near by. I suppose that “Camping in the Loch” might have given the wrong impression.
The site itself was OK. Not stunning but OK. What didn’t help was that the washblock nearest to us was closed for refurbishment (demolition would have been kinder) necessitating a reasonable trek across the site to the one working amenities building. Certain ablutions had to be planned well in advance!
Running right alongside the campsite was the West Highland Way – Scotlands best loved long distance walking route from Milngavie in the south to Fort William in the north: 96 miles in total. Although we didn’t quite have the time (fitness, stamina or inclination) to do the whole route, we did at least walk some of it during our time at Cashel. The first day was a trip north on a route that, given that it was largely alongside the Loch, had some remarkably steep climbs along the way. Once back at the van we consulted the Map of Disappointing Truths and were surprised to find that we’d actually covered a distance of 9.6 miles and climbed (in total) over 2,000 feet! The next day was a trip south with a more leisurely 5.5 miles covered and all on one level.
Unfortunately, the weather was very dull for our time at Cashel which meant that we didn’t manage to experience the Loch and its surroundings in their full glory, but made for some moody pictures which I feel work best in black & white..