Faced with continually dropping tourist numbers leading to a weak economy and people leaving in droves, the Scottish Tourist Board had to take some action to revitalize tourism in the Highlands of Scotland.
This incredibly beautiful but wild and remote area has much to offer tourists, but it also had the reputation of being difficult to traverse. In the middle of 2015, the Tourist Board — in conjunction with the North Highland Initiative set up by HRH Prince Charles — launched the North Coast 500 (NC500), which has rapidly become one of the best coastal road trips in the world.
The NH500 is a 500 km round trip that starts and ends in Inverness and circles around the Highlands at the top end of Scotland. This great drive features breathtaking scenery, twisty mountain passes, battlefields, castles and the hospitable people of the Scottish Highlands.
Make sure you get a hold of a NC00 map. These very detailed maps will ensure that you not only find your way but do not miss many of the exciting locations you will come across on your trip. Let’s take a closer look at the drive.
Black Isle – The Green Peninsula
Starting at Black Isle, which is a green peninsula across the water from Inverness, follow the road out. It soon becomes a narrow country road that leads around lochs through some beautiful country. Don’t miss Eilean Donan Castle and Attadale Gardens. The first serious test of your driving on a country road comes when faced with Beinn Bhàn or ‘The White Mountain.’
The mountain pass is twisty, narrow and in many places, only wide enough for one vehicle, so keep a close eye out for oncoming traffic. When you reach the top, take out your wellies or strap on your walking shoes and take a short walk to the telephone signal point, where the view is out of this world. Looking south, you can see the Red and Black Cuillins of Skye.
To the north, there are the Outer Hebrides. You could almost be alone in the world here. As you descend, be aware that you may come across wild deer and Highland cattle, a heritage breed looking a little like a cross between the Siberian Yak and the Texas Longhorn. Once over the mountain, you come into the village of Applecross. This is a coastal village on the Atlantic Ocean that makes for an ideal stopping-off point.
From Applecross, the road hugs the coast with magical views over the ocean. All the villages along this road will provide a delicious meal of locally caught seafood or salmon caught inland. When you arrive at the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, make sure to stop at the visitors centre and immerse yourself in this stunning area.
The visitors centre is fascinating and has a load of information about the area, including its fauna and flora. Continue until Gairloch, where a visit to the Gairloch Heritage Museum is a must.
Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve to Durness
The heart and soul of this drive stretches from the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve to Durness. It reveals the wild, unpredictable and thoroughly captivating Scottish Highlands in all their glory.
No one can drive this road and remain the same. This is nature’s creation in its most basic form — beautiful, untamed and a feast for the spirit. There are very few humans around, but nature has filled the void with deer and other wild animals. Drive slowly and allow the sense of this mystical place to sink in.
Just outside Ullapool, take the time to walk to the Bone Caves. Archaeologists have found fragments of polar bear skulls that are over 20,000 years old along with bones from reindeer, bears and our ancestors who walked this land at the beginning of human time.
Carry on east across the top end of Scotland, and by the time you make your way to Thurso, the land will become flatter and greener. Make sure you stop at Dunnet Head, which is the northernmost point of the United Kingdom, and admire the sea views. The Dunnet Bay Distillery is an interesting stop at this point.
Carry on eastward past John O’Groats and then the road will turn south, as you have traversed the top of Scotland. When you get to Wick, ask for directions to The Grey Cairns of Camster.
These stone monuments are some of the oldest in Scotland and mark burial tombs that are dated at over 5,000 years old. These Neolithic tombs can be claustrophobic, but if you can creep inside, you will find a profoundly mystical place that is well worth a visit.
As you continue south along the coast, there are numerous places to stop and enjoy the beautiful scenery around you. Make sure you allow time to visit one of the most famous castles in Scotland, Dunrobin Castle. The Glenmorangie Distillery is also worth a visit. Then the road will find its way back to Inverness.
Before leaving Inverness, take the time to visit the Culloden Battlefield. This was the fateful last stand of the Jacobite Rising in Scotland in 1745.
This drive is advertised as the Scottish answer to Route 66, but that does a disservice to this fantastic road trip. Route 66 is characterized by the deserted buildings and dusty vistas that stretch for mile after mile of straight road.
History marks the NC500 at every corner, with lush views, beautiful floral displays and people who welcome you into their lives. Whether you are a motorist, cyclist, motorcyclist or merely a hiker, take advantage of this superb road and enjoy seeing some of Scotland’s soul.