Roadtrip: Northcoast 500, Scotland

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Stacey Fabris

Presented by

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We have the Great Ocean Road but Scotland has the Northcoast 500. It's a breathtaking run across the top


Northcoast 500

Ask anyone who's recently driven in the UK, and you won't find many who have the faintest idea about what is rapidly becoming a famous stretch – the North Coast 500. Now heavily promoted by the local tourism folk, it's a drive you really need to try for yourself.

We did and here's a quick run-down on what it's like. After a leisurely drive from Edinburgh, we arrived in Inverness and decided to tackle the NC500 anti-clockwise heading up the east coast on the A9. Not far from Inverness was Cromarty Firth, home to several decommissioned North Sea oil rigs. Rising eerily out of the sea, these massive leviathans are waiting to be scrapped or refurbished and harshly contrast against the lush green hills surrounding the firth.

Before jumping back on the A9 we arrowed inland to Lairg, where the RAF train their fighter pilots in low level high speed flying through the valleys between mountain ranges. It’s a bit of pot luck as to whether you'll see any jets but the short hop is worth it. Sadly on our day no top guns came by. 

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Back on the A9 we continued north to Dunrobin Castle and its spectacular Falconry display. Watching a bird of prey swoop down on you at over 300km/h and take its feed from the Falconer’s glove by slightly backing off is bloody impressive.

We continued north east at a good rate, enjoying the open flowing roads, some dual lane, some single, but all in excellent condition through Wick and towards John O’Groats, the north-east tip of the UK, before heading west along the north coast, arriving in the fishing and oil industry township of Thurso, for a meal and a well-earned kip.

A guided tour of nearby Castle Mey, the Queen Mother’s Scottish hideaway, informed us of her love of Fawlty Towers and The Two Ronnnies, watched on a rented VCR player and telly from the nearby township.

After having a squizz around Dunnett Head, mainland Britain’s most-northerly point, we were refuelling our Honda in Thurso, along with several members of the Renault Sport Club of UK. They’d driven the NC500 clockwise from Inverness in a menagerie of fast, fettled Meganes and Clios. Club member Nigel Jones was enthusing about the brilliant drive so far, "There’s lots of tight and twisty stuff on the west side", he told me, "whereas the east coast is far more open and flowing, but whichever way you tackle it, clockwise or anticlockwise, it’s terrific fun".

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While the roads on the west coast rival the world’s best for their non-stop assortment of corners and altitude changes and the east coast lets you bop along at a good clip carving through open radius corners, many of the slightly undulating roads along the north coast of are single lane, but there are plenty of passing points to duck into and the local drivers are courteous and skilled.

But you will need to keep your eyes peeled for the local wildlife including the kamikaze free-range sheep that leap onto the road just centimetres in front of you.

Larger and slower are the magnificent highland cattle that graze on the edge of the roadside or stand in the middle of it and watch you amble by. Despite their girth and long horns, the ginger coloured highland natives are very friendly, so stop, get out and pat them, take a selfie with one, they are quite obliging.

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Leaving Thurso on the A836, I jumped into the co-drivers chair and played navigator, (well the sat nav did), okay, photographer. Actually didn’t do much of that either, while my partner Stacey wore an ear-to-ear grin, having the time of her life behind the wheel, climbing steep hills, plunging into deep valleys, tackling switchbacks and sweepers with verve.

Nigel was right – the North Coast 500 is bloody terrific and as close to driving utopia as I have experienced in a long time. And the best part is that for a lot of the time it is deserted. Not another car in sight. Just the occasional sheep or highland cow, watching the wheel work of my chauffeur.

After stopping at Tongue (I kid you not), for the best hot chocolates in the world, we scooted across the Kyle of Tongue and onto the A838 towards Durness, home of the Smoo caves. We stayed on the same road now poking the Honda’s nose south towards our overnight stop at Aultbea on the shore of Loch Ewe.

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Along the way we fuelled ourselves and the car at Gairloch and started chatting with Silver Storic, an Edinburgh-based property developer who rolled into the servo in his gleaming green and gold Aston Martin N430. Silver had recently taken delivery of his dream car and was enjoying its sublime greatness on brilliant roads. The smile on his face meant I didn’t need to ask if he was enjoying himself. "I waited a long time to get this car and thought there’s no better way to enjoy it than the North Coast 500" said Silver. "Both the car and the drive have been much more than I expected. I think I’ll be a regular visitor to the NC500."

With that, he pushed the starter , ignited the 430 horses and vanished.

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Aultbea turned on the best of Scottish summer weather: black sky, a howling gale, horizontal rain and near zero degrees. The accommodation and food in the Fat Whippet restaurant, were superb.

Things had vastly improved on the weather front overnight so we went for a blast on what seemed like a rally special stage, called the Glen Torridon Road marked A896. After an hour of fun, torturing tyres and brakes, we headed to Letterfearn on Loch Duich next to the Isle of Skye farwelling the NC500 route to Inverness. On the way we took a look at Eilean Donan Castle and stopped regularly to take in the views of the sinuous bitumen sprawling out in front of us.

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Next came a night in a delightful B&B with home-caught and cooked salmon from Loch Duich, just out the front gate, before journeying on towards Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness for a cruise.

While Nessy didn’t make an appearance a squadron of RAF Hornets sure did and put on a spectacular low-level fly-past.

It was a fitting way to end such a spectacular drive.

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