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Geeks on Tour: The North Coast 500

The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile route that winds through the Scottish Highlands, and is sometimes called Scotland’s version of Route 66. How you travel the route is up to you–campervan, luxury tour, motorbike enclave, cycling tour, or even walking. Different travelers also tend to focus on different aspects of Scotland; some are coming for the wilderness, others for the history, many for the usual tourist spots.

Lee and I had talked about doing the NC500 before, if we could ever find the time. When the opportunity came up, we booked an 11 day road trip that mostly focused on history and wilderness, and leaving some room for spontaneity. If you’re at all interested in the NC500 experience, then you might find some of the recommendations here useful to pick through. I’ve tried not to go overboard with picture sharing!

Day 1: Leeds to Hamilton

  • Accommodation: Days Inn, Hamilton
  • Friendly animals: No
  • Highlights: Crossing the border!
  • Notable Meals: Evening dinner at The Kurry Lounge in Hamilton. Brilliant South-Indian cuisine, lovely atmosphere, and fantastic service.

A grueling start to the trip. My morning kicked off early, around 3 AM, as my kids are poor sleepers. After handing them over to their father around 1PM, I went to get my second Covid vaccine at 1.30PM. Vaccine-illness set in almost immediately, giving me a temperature and wiping me out.

Lee picked me up from the pharmacy directly, to save time. He was tired, too, having only got off work the day before and then been burdened with most of the packing and prep, plus the vast majority of the driving. We cruised for a few hours to cross the Scottish border, finally washing up in our first (and least glamorous) stay: the Days Inn at a motorway service station, just over the border. We crashed out early.

Photo of a roadsign painted like the Scottish flag, saying WELCOME TO SCOTLAND
Welcome to Scotland

Day 2: Hamilton to Drumnadrochit

Another early start, and the first proper day of our road trip. I woke at 5am with a temperature, and still vaccine-sick. Lee was also up early and a little frazzled. After some paracetamol and coffee, we set off early.

On a whim, we pulled up at Loch Lomond around 9AM, pleased to discover it was beautifully calm and sunny. The loch was so lovely and warm that I couldn’t resist a morning swim and a short walk around the shores.

Loch Lomond at 9AM on Thursday morning

The drive through sheer-sided mountains was long and glorious. We stopped near Fort Augustus to complete an easy 4-mile walk along the River Oich, got lost in the woods, and finally found our way back to the car.

Woman standing by a river bank
Walking by the River Oich

The fever was wiping me out by then. We drove to Drumnadrochit, following the road that runs along Loch Ness. If you’re traveling in Scotland, a dip in Loch Ness is practically obligatory. In hindsight, it wasn’t my best decision. The water was cold, deep, and fast-moving, and I still had a temperature. But I didn’t drown or get eaten by the Loch Ness monster, so we’ll call it a success.

Woman swimming in Loch Ness
Swimming in the Loch Ness. No monsters in sight.

We drove on, exhausted, to Drumbuie B&B (not to be confused with Drambuie, the drink), a working farm with friendly heilan coos (Highland Cows). For the second night in a row, we crashed out from exhaustion.

image of a highland cow
Heilan Coo on Drumbuie Farm

Day 3: Drumnadrochit to Dingwall

  • Accomodation: Castle Tulloch
  • Friendly Animals: Dolphins, birds
  • Highlights: Fairy Glen Falls walk, dolphin spotting, ghost tours, whisky tasting
  • Notable Meals: Posh meal at the castle and good whiskys!

This was the first day that I woke without a temperature! Hurrah. Lee seemed better rested, too. We drove up to do a short walk at Fairy Glen Falls, squeezing it in before sprinting over to catch our Ecoventure dolphin-watching boat.

Woman standing in front of a waterfall
Fairy Glen Falls, Rosemarkie
Man standing on a bridge above a river
The bridge at Fairy Glen Falls

The boat trip was cold and long, but very much worthwhile. In addition to the beautiful coastline, plenty of varied birdlife, and the thrill of being on a speedboat, we did actually find dolphins–in fact, Lee was the first person to spot them. There were almost a dozen at one point, swimming and jumping and diving around the boat. Everything about them was joy.

Dolphins swimming in the wild

About 200 dolphins live around that area, and they are chonkily built to withstand the colder temperatures in these parts. The folks running the boat trips are local residents with years of experience watching wildlife and obvious passion for their job; our tour guide knew many of the dolphins by name and could point them out.

Dolphin leaping out of the water

Back to shore for hot chocolate and pizza from the local cafe, then onwards to Castle Tulloch. The Castle was, of course, reportedly haunted, specifically the room next to ours. I would expect nothing less from a Scottish castle. Neither of us are superstitious but we enjoyed the stories and claims.

A large castle
Castle Tulloch, exterior
A lush room inside a castle
Castle Tulloch, interior

We ate at the castle and tried a fair few of their whiskys on offer, before tagging along to the late-night ghost tour. Supernatural claims aside, the history and local legends were genuinely interesting, and it’s a good way to see other rooms in the castle itself. This was the first night of the road trip we went to bed just tired, instead of shattered.

Woman holding a sign that says "I am Safe to Use"
Jokes that are only funny after too much whisky

Day 4: Dingwall to West Helmsdale

  • Accommodation: Tall Pines Yurt in West Helmsdale
  • Friendly Animals: Two gorgeous dogs, falcons, hawks, and SEALS
  • Highlights: Dunrobin castle, Brora shoreline, SEALS, Carn Liath Broch
  • Notable Meals: Helmsdales has a rather quirky restaurant called Thyme and Plaice, but they were unfortunately booked up. The other restaurant seemed unwilling to serve us? Instead, we got (very good) fish and chips for Lee, and a haggis and chips for me.
An imposing white castle with gardens sprawled beneath it
Dunrobin Castle, Scotland

First port of call was Dunrobin Castle, an incredible fairytale-esque structure with a commanding view from land and sea. There are a lot of castles in this country and castle-fatigue is a real thing. Still, this was one of the more memorable ones I’ve seen, simply for how beautiful and well-preserved it was.

A falcon on a leash
Dunrobin’s Falconry display

The Dunrobin gardens were phenomenal, and the falconry display was fun–lots of different birds being shown. There was also a rather odd little taxidermy museum attached to the garden that was more horrific than anything else, but it held a kind of morbid interest.

A room full of dozens of animal heads mounted on a wall
The taxidermy museum, including a BABY elephant head

After a morning spent at Dunrobin, we drove to the seaside town of Brora. Following a Highlands walking guide, we walked south along Brora’s shores, avoiding its busy beach north of the river mouth, all the way down to Carn Leith Broch, a prehistoric ruin. Lee has a keen interest in prehistoric people and I was desperate to see wilds seals, both things which the online guides promised this walk would provide.

And seals there were! About half a mile south from Brora, seals dotted the black rocks, lounging cheerfully in the sun. There was no one else around; we had the entire shoreline to ourselves. I borrowed Lee’s phone, since his camera is far superior to mine, and waded out to try and take pictures.

A wild seal doing a banana pose

Forty feet from shore, up to my ribs in seawater and kelp forests, and I began to suspect I’d maybe made a mistake. The seals were further out than I’d realised, and capable of swimming in the water around me (I’d assumed it would be too shallow.) In fact, some of them were swimming between me and the shore, dipping and diving into water where I had no visibility, due to the thick seaweed clusters.

And cute as I find them, seals are still wild animals. A small seal will still weigh well over 300 lbs, enough to knock me over if they felt like it. This time of year they can be grumpy, too, due to having pups around. In hindsight, not my smartest decision of the trip, though I got away with it in the end.

Three seals slumped on rocks

I took pictures, tried not to get too close (by law, seals are protected from harassment), and waited till the seals blocking me from shore had swum further out before slogging back to land. I can’t in good faith recommend emulating what I tried to do, but someone less foolish and seal-crazy than me would probably still enjoy seeing so many seals, for free and in the wild, not part of a tour or with a crowd of other people.

A woman standing in hip-deep water
Wading out unwisely…

We finished our walk and investigated Carn Liath Broch a couple of miles down. Brochs are stone dwellings, partially submerged in the ground, and formerly inhabited during the Iron Age about 3000 years ago. You can walk around and above the broch, and there are information stands explaining what life was life for people at that time.

A man standing admist a ruined broch
Bit like a hobbit home, really

That done, we hiked back to Brora, and drove on to one of my favorite overnight stays of the trip: Tall Pines Yurt.

Woman sat on a bed in a colourful yurt
I’m in a yurt! In Scotland!

I can honestly say I’ve never stayed in a yurt before, let alone one in the Scottish Highlands. Specifically, situated above an old Viking settlement-turned-village. In a weird way, it was pure modern Scotland: quirky, eco-enthusiastic, steeped in history. If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track and don’t mind the lack of electricity (everything is battery or solar-powered, and it has an outdoor compost toilet/shower) then it’s a great option. And the house dogs are lovely, too; lots of cuddles.

A woman cuddling a dog
Dogs belonging to the yurt owner

I enjoyed chatting to the owner about how and why he decided to build a yurt, but I won’t relay all that here. If you ever meet him, you can ask him yourself.

Day 5: West Helmsdale to John O’Groats

  • Accommodation: Horseshoe Croft B&B, in Wick
  • Friendly Animals: 3-legged cat, dogs, horses, seals
  • Highlights: Badbea Clearance Village, John O’Groats, Salt Stacks
  • Notable Meals: Since the yurt didn’t have breakfast, we stopped off at the River Bothy Cafe, an incredible little dive. The best breakfast I’ve had in awhile, and fantastic coffee, all packaged in a lively little shop. As a sidenote, investigate your food options well in advance; a lot of places along the NC500 book up fast in the summer.

The morning drive took us past Badbea, a clearance village. Scotland has a long fraught history of villages being forcibly relocated from fertile glens and made to live on dangerous, bleak cliffsides. Life there was so hard that eventually the “clearance” villages had to be abandoned, with only a monument and ruined buildings remained to mark them.

A row of "beach" houses painted in rainbow colours
The bleak beauty of John O’ Groats, aka “The End of the Road”

Onwards to John O’Groats, the town which is considered the “end of the road” for the United Kingdom. It’s not quite the northernmost point geographically, but it is the longest possible route through the UK, from Land’s End on the south coast.

A man stood in front of a sign that says John O Groats
John O’ Groats (so named for a European man who made a famous beer)

We walked a few miles along the shore to the infamous Salt Stacks (geographical features), past striking shell beaches, dramatic cliffs, and a few seals bobbing in the water.

A woman walking along a windswept headland
The northernmost shores of Scotland

Back to JOG for dinner and an early night, because tomorrow we had a ferry to catch.

Unusual pointy rock formations jutting out of the sea
The famous “Salt Stacks” of Duncansby

Day 6: Orkney Islands to Thurso

  • Accomodation: Pentland Lodge House
  • Friendly animals: Lab mix dog, hairy pigs, more seals, swimming puffins, swallow murmation
  • Highlights: Orkney Island Tour, Skara Brae, 2 Stone Circles, Folklore & History
  • Notable Meals: A Sri Lankan cafe in Thurso which I cannot find on Google
A woman stood in front of a signpost that points the way to Orkney Islands
Taken just before boarding the ferry to Orkney Islands

We caught the Orkney ferry at 8:30 AM. The Orkney islands are special to the UK–drenched in ancient history, vitally important to WW2, and culturally distinct in many ways from the rest of Scotland. They’re also hard to get to: the ferry is a good 40-60 minutes, often canceled in bad weather, and the main islands (connected by man-made walkways) span about 50 miles top to bottom. For all those reasons and more, we booked a bus tour to get around Orkney, and I’d recommend you do the same unless you’re planning to stay overnight.

A stone circle on a hill of heather
Orkney stone circle

There was a whole day’s worth of things to learn about Orkney, and I could do an entire blog post on just the islands (don’t worry, I won’t.) Some stand-out points: the legend of Eynhallow (and its finfolk / seals), an island that can only be reached one day a year; the sunken battle ships in the various harbours (Orkney was vitally important to the British war effort against German submarines, controlling both the Atlantic and the North Sea); and finally, Orkney’s own stone henge, known as the Ring of Brodgar.

A wide frame shot of the stone circle
Orkney Stone Circle

Most people know about Stone Henge. Less well-known is that the people who built Stone Henge originated from Orkney before abandoning the islands (which were fertile and lush at the time) for the mainland. These ancient people move gradually south through the UK, building stone circles as they went. Stone Henge is the best-known of those, but the circle on Orkney is the oldest, and arguably the most important.

woman walking towards standing stones

We also visited the Stones of Stenness, another prehistoric (5000~ years old) stone henge–less impressive than Brodgar’s 60-stone collection, but still cool. Similar to Brodgar, these stones are tall, almost 6 metres in height, and were cut from different parts of the islands.

Picture of a ruined settlement

There are several live archeological digs on Orkney where you can go and watch archeologists at work, if that’s your thing. Alongside that, you can also visit Skara Brae, an ancient settlement (about 5000 years old, so even older than Carn Liath Broch) that is incredibly well-preserved, given the timeframes involved. It was a brilliant insight into how ancient people lived and dwelt, with surprisingly comfortable lives: houses that had cavity insulation, “central” heating of a kind, a rich diet, beautiful jewelry, and complex social/religious beliefs.

Two people on a boat, wearing heavy clothes
Dressed for a #HotGirlSummer in Orkney… it was cold out here, friends!

Fair warning, Orkney is chilly! It’s midsummer here in the UK, and was around 25C when I left Leeds. In Orkney, it was about 10C – 13C, plus windchill. (The winters are a trifle bleak, according to the locals). On the ocean, it’s even colder, especially at high ferry speeds.

Sunset on a lonely beach

We finished the day with a Sri Lankan meal in the town of Thurso, some 30 miles past John O’Groats, and went for a walk along the beach to watch starling murmurations before heading to bed.

Day 7: Thurso to Tongue

We originally had Sandwood Bay pencilled in for Day 7, but Lee could not resist the lure of bagging a nearby Munro, so we switched gears and climbed a mountain instead. It was a good choice!

A vast mountain trail with two tiny walkers in the distance
The scale of Ben Hope is hard to capture

For folks not familiar with the lingo, mountains and hills in Scotland have classifications based on height. Those which qualify as actual mountains are called Munros, named after the hillwalker and mountaineer Munro, and there are around 300 if you want to climb them all in Scotland (quite an endeavor.) Chasing these mountain climbs is called munro-bagging.

A man stood on sheer cliffs above a dizzying drop
NOT at the summit, but an area where the mist had cleared enough to see the land below

I’ve done my share of hiking and climbing around the UK, including some very steep scrambles. But I’ve not done nearly as much as Lee, and hadn’t officially done a certified Munro yet. This mountain is called Ben Hope, and it is the northernmost munro in Scotland.

The summit of Ben Hope
The summit of Ben Hope, lost in the mist. On a good you can see for dozens of miles!

“Ben” is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic word “Beinn”, meaning hill. Almost all the mountains or hills in Scotland are named Ben-Something. Hope, in this case, is also an Anglicisation of the Gaelic word Hòb, meaning Inlet or Bay. The full name translates to “Hill of the Bay” or “Hill of the Inlet” which is not particularly romantic, though it is accurate.

A man and a woman on a mist-covered summit
The view wasn’t quite what we’d hoped atop Ben Hope.

It’s a short hike, only four hours or so, but very steep going up. We came down cheerfully knackered, if a bit put out that the mist had hidden the glorious view, and set off for my second-favorite accommodation of the trip: the glamping pods! These were brilliant, apart from the lack of internet signal. Cosy, warm, self-catering cottages with an incredible view across lakes and hills, and a ruined castle in the distance.

A woman lying on a bed in a small wooden hut
Awkward picture of me being tired

Day 8: Tongue to Scourie

Caves aren’t exactly rare but Smoo Cave is visually impressive. It’s free to walk around and over the cave, and if you want to explore further inside the guided tours are an option, weather permitting. In heavy rain the caves flood badly and become unsafe. We lucked out: the rain was only intermittent.

Picture of a vast cave entrance
This place is massive!

Ancient peoples lived in these caves, though their quarters are now flooded and inaccessible. The folks running these tours are committed to discovering and preserving its secrets, though, and the short boat ride / walk through the interior is well worth your time, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Picture of a water-filled cave
Watch your head!

After exploring Smoo Caves, we considered our options. I’d fallen in love with the idea of visiting Sandwood Bay. It’s famous among both wild swimmers and NC500 travelers, and considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Britain. However, Lee wasn’t sold on another heavy walking day after the punishment of Ben Hope the day before. But this was our only chance to visit Sandwood Bay, due to the driving schedule we were on, so Lee yielded to my whims and we did the walk. In my defense, we’d done Ben Hope yesterday instead of Sandwood–turn and turnabout.

A woman walking through moors and lochs along a path
En route to Sandwood bay, through moorlands and big lochs

Pictures can’t convey the beauty of this place. It’s a 9 mile (round trip) hike to reach this remote and gorgeous beach, through moors and lochs that slowly give way to shifting, grassy sand dunes, finally morphing to a stretch of ivory sand and aquamarine ocean.

A woman walking towards a sandy beach over green hills
The long approach to Sandwood Bay. It’s bigger than it looks! This is half a mile away.

The shifting dunes of Sandwood Bay are rare and unusual, and the whole region is under Special Area of Conservation, the highest level of environmental protection in Europe. Perhaps because of that, it is absolutely pristine, the cleanest beach I’ve ever been to in this country. The rugged landscape behind us only added to that beauty.

A woman on a wide, sandy beach
Soft and clean, just coming out of the grass

The ocean was crisp (about 13C, because this is still Scotland) but not unbearably so, and the water crystal clear. I had a good swim despite the strong undertow. It washed away my aches–cold swims are brilliant for this–and the waves were a joy to dive into. We stayed about half an hour before having to make the return hike in order to get to our next check-in on time.

A beautiful blue beach
Another famous Salt Stack in the distance

Nota bene: I wouldn’t recommend this beach for everyone; it’s more of an explorer’s reward than a paddling spot. Between the cold temperatures, strong undertow, unexpectedly big waves, and steep beach incline, it could be a dangerous place for small children or nervy swimmers. I’m reasonably experienced and also very cautious, mostly due to my fear of drowning and open water (yes, you can be a wild-swimmer who is afraid of open water!). I tend to take a lot of precautions, and I don’t go in if I’m at all dubious.

A woman swimming in blue ocean waters
I’m the speck of a person visible in this photo.

Sidenote: At this point in the trip, we’d done 57 miles of walking in the past 7 days. Good effort all round, I reckon.

Day 9: Scourie to Gairloch

Today was a heavy driving day, as the road trip began to wind down. We were needing to make significant progress southwards on the North Coast 500. However, we did find time to stop at two beauty spots for a short walk. The first of these was Clashnessie Falls, a short walk off the main road. For a fifteen-minute detour, it was quite impressive.

A woman standing beneath a waterfall rockface that is five or six times her height
Clashnessie Falls, with me for scale in the foreground

Next stop of interest was the Corrieshalloch Gorge, located inside a nature reserve. You can pay to cayoneer up the gorge, if you’re feeling slightly suicidal and/or have more time than we did (only half an hour to spare), but the bridge alone is incredibly impressive. Warning signs shout in bright yellow that only six people at a time may use the bridge, as it’s rather fragile. It also sways in the wind, and shakes when you walk on it. Absolutely brilliant.

Another shot of the gorge from an alternate viewing platform, which again can only take the weight of 6 people.

A man and a woman in front of a deep gorge
From the viewing platform

We stopped a few times for a couple of breathtaking photos. You’ll have to take my word for it how stunning the land was to drive through.

mountains and lochs
No description available.
more mountains and lochs

Day 10: Gairloch to Fort William

  • Accomodation: Fassifern B&B
  • Friendly animals: Heilan Coos
  • Highlights: The coos, Applecross Inn, beautiful views
  • Notable Meals: As has frequently been the case throughout this trip, a combination of remote locations and covid restrictions has made eating a little awkward. If you can fit Applecross Inn into your itinerary, though, they’re a brilliant little pub restaurant with the nicest haggis on the menu that I’ve had in some time (bearing in mind, I ate haggis every day of this trip, so… it stacked up well.)

Day 10 was mostly driving. Rather than return to Inverness, which technically is required to complete the North Coast 500 circuit, we chose to drive down the western coast of Scotland, taking the scenic route if you will.

a shaggy heilan coo with very large horns

Since I keep banging on about these coos, here are some photos of them. An entire herd had decided to sit by the roadside with their calves, looking perfectly and quintessentially Scottish.

beautiful heilan coo from the side
moo :3

Applecross Inn is noteworthy enough to get a photo. Most of the places we ate were nice but not stand-out (because in addition to being massively nerdy and very outdoorsy, we’re also amateur foodies).

A large inn by the loch shores
Applecross Inn

Past Applecross and you get into proper mountain territory, with a scarifying path up and over the bens and fantastic skylines in every direction. These mountain roads are no joke, either, and a couple of the older or bigger vehicles were struggling to navigate them. I have to say, if you have ambitions to come out here in a campervan, give some advance thought to your route, as many of the roads are campervan-unfriendly.

A winding mountain road
The mountain roads near Applecross. Very winding and steep.
A woman atop a large rock, overlooking seas and mountains
Vantage point

Day 11: Fort William to Carlisle, via Dumfries

Random stop en-route

Most of today was spent driving, but we did make time for a couple of stop-offs. The first of these was at MakBrar’s Neuk, in Dumfries. My maiden surname is McBrayer, which is a bastardized Irish version of MacBriar / MacBrier / Brar, which in turn is an Anglicised version of the Gaelic name, Mac Brathar (meaning friar or priest, ie Son of a Priest). Supposedly, Makbrar is yet another tormented spelling of MacBriar / MacBrier.

There are no museums or clan homes dedicated to the MacBriars, the way there are for wealthier lairds. But a few “Makbrars” and MacBriars have served as councilors in the Dumfries area, so there is a small cluster of streets named after them. This is one such street; Makbrar’s Neuk (MacBrar’s Nook.) It’s really not much of a heritage, and I’m hardly what you’d call Scottish by any stretch of imagination 😂😂 but interesting and funny to me nonetheless. And it’ll please the American relatives, I’m sure.

Close to Makbrar’s Neuk, and en route to our final B&B, we pulled in at Caerlaverock Castle, which is a double-moated castle on the Scottish border. I’ve commented before that there are just so many castles in the UK, but like Dunrobin, this one stood out to me as a little more unusual. It’s very old, for one thing; there’s been a fortification of some kind on this site since 1270 AD. Over the centuries, the castle has been taken apart, rebuilt, captured, lost, seiged, and abandoned a multitude of times. It’s also tied to the origin story of the bard, Myrddin, who is believed to be the inspiration for the wizard of legend (Merlin).

A ruined castle with a large moat of water
This is the kind of castle you imagine as a child, with a proper moat!

Castle inspected, ancestors investigated, we drove across the border to Carlisle. Back in England! We finished the night with dinner at a Thai restaurant and stayed up late like nerdy teenagers to play the Marvel Superhero card game. Tomorrow would still have a lot of driving to get back to Leeds, but there would be no more stopovers from here on out; our North Coast 500 road trip was complete.

Two people playing a cardgame on the floor of a B&B room
Highly recommend this as a travel game!

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