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Issue 94 - Journey of a Lifetime

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


This article is 15 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Journey of a Lifetime

Keith Fergus tours the dramatic North Coast 500

The question ‘What’s in a name?’ was one posed by William Shakespeare. But does giving something a tag, a handle, or a label really matter? Well, if the North Coast 500 is anything to go by then the answer is very much yes. Prior to this route being given a designation, the roads that hug much of the coastline around the mainland of Northern Scotland were just that – roads. Albeit ones that granted the intrepid traveller an astonishing journey of breathtaking beauty.

However, since the North Coast 500 was officially launched in March 2015, it has been dubbed 'Scotland’s answer to Route 66' and gone on to be named 'the most spectacular drive in the UK'.

It’s not just car drivers that have been inspired to circumnavigate the coastal road; it is also becoming increasingly popular as a challenging cycling route. In August 2015, adventure cyclist Mark Beaumont completed the entire journey in a staggering 37 hours 58 minutes – this has since been bettered by Commonwealth Games medallist James McCallum, who rode it in an incredible 31 hours 23 minutes. But, with over 30,000 feet of ascent, a leisurely eight days on a bike, or six by car, might be a more pleasurable experience for us mere mortals.

In truth, the North Coast 500 is actually 516 miles in length. It was established to enhance the local tourist sector and ultimately bring greater benefits to the businesses along the route, with a view to boosting the wider economy. It begins in the Highland capital of Inverness then heads around Scotland’s coastal fringes, taking in the drama of the Highlands, Torridon and Wester Ross, the savage beauty of Sutherland and then the stunning emptiness of Caithness. Beyond John O’ Groats, The North Coast 500 heads south, back into Sutherland and the Highlands, and returns to Inverness. Since its inception it is thought that the route has brought nearly 30,000 more visitors to these regions and added over £9 million into the local economies. This first feature exploring the North Coast 500 takes in the 264 miles between Inverness and Durness, the most northwesterly village on the Scottish mainland. With excellent road and public transport infrastructure, Inverness makes for a wonderful place to start. Cut in two by the gorgeous River Ness, it is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and has a population of approximately 55,000.

The hustle and bustle of the urban centre is very quickly left behind as the North Coast 500 heads west along the southern shore of the Beauly Firth and then north to Muir of Ord. Here the choice is yours – head clockwise or anti-clockwise. Our journey keeps left and into the soft, rural margins of Ross-shire, passing a number of gorgeous lochs en route.

It is once the A890 continues southwest from Achnasheen to Lochcarron that the scenery surrounding the North Coast 500 comes into its own. Here the landscape begins to rise, the topography becomes sharper and more rugged, and the roads narrower, which adds to the adventure of travelling through this extraordinary portion of Scotland.

Beyond Loch Kishorn, a narrow road begins its spiraling climb, beneath the mountains of Meall Gorm and Sgurr a’ Chaorachain, over the legendary Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle), its name providing a clue to its history. It takes the road approximately four miles to twist, turn and tiptoe over the 626-metre-high point where the outlook, particularly towards the iconic jagged outline of Skye’s Black Cuillin, is extraordinary. An equally hair-raising descent culminates at Applecross, where nerves can be settled at the welcoming 17th-Century Applecross Inn.

The nature of the roads here are almost all single-track, which means you don’t get anywhere fast. This is just as well as you don’t want to miss the amazing scenery. Loch Torridon and Upper Loch Torridon grant far-reaching panoramas – particularly after Shieldaig, where classic mountains, such as Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe, rise sharply from the road. Enveloping the landscape here is the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, which, in 1951, became the first of its kind in Britain. It was set up to protect the largest remnant of native pinewood in Northwest Scotland.

Now the road leads onto the A832, beside Loch Maree, with the view dominated by the mighty mountain of Slioch. The loch is named after Saint Maelrubha, who established an abbey near Applecross, and it is thought that the word Slioch may originate from Gaelic word 'sleagh', which means 'spear'.

Gairloch and Poolewe offer great places for a break before one of the most spectacular sections of the North Coast 500. This runs alongside the wonderfully rugged First and Second Coasts, near to An Teallach and Sail Mor, and then around the magnificent broad sweep of Gruinard Bay. Sitting a little out in the bay is Gruinard Island, which became infamous as the site of a biological warfare test in the 1940s by British Military scientists. The island remained out of bounds for nearly 50 years until it was decontaminated.

The North Coast 500 then rises above Little Loch Broom, before dropping down to Loch Broom and onto the vibrant and busy village of Ullapool, the main ferry port for Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and one of the largest settlements along the journey. Ullapool has been a major fishing port since 1788, an industry that still thrives today, and it is a fantastic spot in which to relax and enjoy a magnificent fish supper.

There is now a perceptible change of look and character of the North Coast 500 as it leaves Ullapool and heads towards Sutherland. The landscape feels barren and empty, but it is one of exceptional wild beauty and home to golden eagles, red deer and a vast array of flora and fauna. Some of the rocks are several billion years old and there are sumptuous views of Coigach’s incredible mountains, especially little Stac Pollaidh, which rises to 612 metres in height. Its origins lie in the Norse language and translates as 'the stack at the pool'. Coigach means 'the place of fifths', and may refer to carving up of land in the past.

After Elphin, Sutherland’s majestic landscape comes to the fore at Inchnadamph, we reach the 15th-Century remains of Ardvreck Castle, which sit out on Loch Assynt and underneath the unique flowing lines of Quinag, a range formed by the peaks of Spidean Coinich, Sail Ghorm and, the highest, Sail Gharbh. Quinag is pronounced 'koonyak' and comes from the Gaelic 'cuinneag', which is the word for a milking pail.

Onto Scourie, an attractive, peaceful village whose history lies in crofting, before the sparsely populated Kyle of Durness emphasises the sense of space encompassing this section of the route. This first stage of the journey culminates at the village of Durness. Like many of the place names in Northwest Scotland, it has its roots in Old Norse and derives from a word that means 'headland of the deer'. Popular visitor attractions include Sango Bay, one of the finest beaches in Scotland, while the nearby Smoo Cave has Britain’s biggest coastal cave entrance – 200 feet long, 130 feet wide, and 50 feet high. The cave features an internal waterfall and its name, appropriately, means 'the hiding place'. It is thought that the Vikings once inhabited the cave and that Neolithic humans may have occupied it around 5000 years ago.

With everything the North Coast 500 has to offer it is easy to see why this wonderful odyssey has become so popular.

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