The North Coast 500. Scotland’s answer to Route 66. Or perhaps not. ‘Get your kicks on NC 500’ does not quite have the ring of Nat King Cole’s original. The North Highland Initiative’s branding of a 500-mile circular route that begins and ends in Inverness as Scotland’s answer to the iconic US highway may make sense in terms of marketing, but not much else. But however one brands the route, what is unquestionable is that this is one of the most spectacular road trips in one of the most remotest corners in Britain. The NC 500 has been named as one of the top six coastal routes in the world (the others on the list are Cape Overberg in South Africa, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the Atlantic Road in Norway, America’s Pacific Coast Highway and the Coral Coast in Australia), and it is not difficult to see why.
I did more like the NC 350 than NC 500 – driving directly from Inverness to Ullapool, I missed out the south-east section, around Applecross and Garlochy. But it is the northern section, especially from Ullapool to Tongue, and then to Dunnet Head, that is the real glory of the route. This is wild country, full of astonishing landscapes and sublime views, vast undulating moorlands, studded with fantastically-shaped mountains, rarely sitting as part of a range, but each individually and dramatically rising out of a maze of a thousand whiskey-coloured burns and turquoise lochans, and all bordered by a succession of cliffs, stacks and golden beaches that seem to run as far Route 66 itself.
The photos below are of five sections of the route: Assynt is the area of south-west Sutherland, around Lochinver, that hosts a string of remarkable mountains such as Suilven, Stac Pollaidth, Quinag and Cul More. Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most magnificent beaches, a mile and half of pinkish sand and dunes, protected by cliffs of gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world, and the great sea stack Am Buachaille, and facing right into the wildness of the North Atlantic. It is unreachable by road but requires two hours of walking across bleak moorland to get there. Little wonder that it was completely deserted when we were there. The road beyond Sandwood Bay towards Tongue is perhaps my favourite part of the route, for its bleakness and majesty, wild moorland bursting through with hills such as Ankle, Foinaven, Cranstackie, Benn Spionnaidh, Ben More and Ben Loyal. Forsinard Flows is an RSPB nature reserve, that seems to have very few birds but more astonishing scenery, and an abundance of bog pools and moorland flora – and the odd snake. The final photos are of Orkney as seen from Strathy Point and Dunnet Head on the north coast, and of moonrise over Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain (and far lovelier than the kitschness of nearby John o’Groats).
One day I definitely intend to get my kicks on Route 66 as ‘it winds from Chicago to LA/ More than 2000 miles all the way’. But in the meantime the NC 500 provides a romance uniquely of its own. And if you want to see more photos, you can see them on Flickr, 500px and on my photographic website Light Infusion (from which you can even buy a print).
From Sandwood Bay to the Kyle of Tongue
A glimpse of Orkney