Bleakly beautiful, the North Coast 500 is Scotland’s very own Route 66. Buckle up for a road trip around Britain’s outer limits, where you’ll find otherworldly landscapes and down-to-earth welcomes
Words: TIM MOORE
Photographs: DANIEL ALFORD
INVERNESS to INVERGORDON
From the capital of the Highlands, head north, making stops for a roadside feast and a walk to an eerie hilltop monument before bedding down in a baronial mansion
Even in its brisk overture, just another A-road ferrying commuters and HGVs to and from Scotland’s northernmost city, the NC500 can’t help exuding a sense of hardy portent. Thirty minutes into the journey is the Storehouse of Foulis, a restaurant in an 18th-century granary that sounds like a place where Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow might victual his men for a ride to the Wall. It looks it, too, with steam rising from a platter of potato-and-sausage stovies, through a view of windswept bracken and the blue-black waters of the Cromarty Firth. Working off Highland food becomes a routine duty on the NC500. I reach the lofty 18th-century Fyrish Monument after an energetic hike over a carpet of brown heather studded with fairy-tale red toadstools.
The reward for seeking out this tribute to Scotland’s colonial past – built after a siege in India, won by the local laird – is a prospect of its uncertain future. Moored down the firth looms a fleet of mothballed North Sea oil rigs. Further on are the turrets of Kincraig Castle, a baronial clan-mansion reinvented as a grand but convivial hotel. “People think the NC500 is all about the great outdoors,” says owner Ray Grant, proffering a fireside armchair in the wood-panelled sitting room, “so it’s nice when they find out the indoors aren’t bad, either.”
INVERGORDON to JOHN O’GROATS
Skirt the northeast coast, exploring an incongruous French-style château and a flight of cliff-hewn steps before pausing for views at the very edge of Scotland
The NC500 sticks fast to Scotland’s benign but blustery northeast coast, through villages of rust-streaked whitewash. Traffic thins and so does the tarmac. I make a footwell-muddying stop at Dunrobin Castle, pimped-up apotheosis of the Victorian aristocracy’s Loire-in-the-Highlands phase, its mighty towers circled by buffeted flocks of crows. Into Caithness, and the coastline starts to tilt and crack, waves crashing distantly against cliffs topped with Macbeth-like ruins. At Whaligoe Steps, a steep flight of 350 hand-hewn stairs descends one dramatic cleft to the remains of an old herring station, legacy of the periodic ‘silver darling’ booms that brought blurts of wealth to a desperately poor region.
The Steps’ custodian, Davie Nicolson, stands by a ramshackle outbuilding festooned with antlers and glazed with doors from the old red phone boxes that are an enduring feature of the NC500. “They got the name from the whales that used to get beached down there,” he says, the tips of his Hulk Hogan ’tache shuddering in the briny gusts. “In my granny’s time, they lived for a year off one of those. See that little waterfall going off the cliff? When the wind turns, that flies about 90 metres straight up in the air.”
Another 20-odd-mile drive north brings me to John O’Groats. A drab scatter of windswept pebbledash, it seems an underwhelming start or finish line for all those transnational journeys. But, at second glance, through the yawning glass frontage of a Scandinavian-style cabin at Natural Retreats, the views are majestic. Huge vessels battle through the Pentland Firth, one of the world’s mightiest tidal straits, its bed scattered with hundreds of wrecks. Behind them loom the sheer-sided Orkneys, each cliff crowned with a lighthouse.
Later, with the wood burner aglow and a bottle of NC500 IPA in my hand, a humbling spectacle annexes the world outside that great big window. High above those wind-whipped tussocks, a wavering, ghostly searchlight of luminous green steadily creeps across the star-jewelled sky. The Northern Lights, to the rest of the world down south. Heavenly Dancers in the soulful poetry of Caithness.
Drive the North Coast 500 to enjoy the beautiful Scottish landscape, To know more about this trip NOW, check out LPMI’s December 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.