The idea of travelling the North Coast 500 (NC500) had been milling around my brain for more than a year. The NC500 is possibly the top-selling attraction bringing tourists to my patch here in the north of Scotland.
The North Coast 500 was the brainchild of the North Highlands Initiative, a committee set up by Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay. The route was seen as a way to encourage visitors to spend time in the North Highlands. The region has always been seen as on the way to the Northern and Western Isles.
Planning the Route
I decided that the “greenest” and positively sociable way to undertake the route would be public transport. This is where things started to get complicated. There is no public transport serving vast swathes of the North Highlands, particularly on the northwest coast. There is just one bus service that runs between Durness (in the northwest) and Thurso (in the northeast), and it only runs once a week on a Saturday. With that as a fixed link, the rest of the route slowly came into focus.
Wick – Inverness – Oban – Mallaig – Portree – Ullappol – Durness and back to Wick.
Seven destinations over a week vaguely following the NC500 route with Skye added in for good measure. I was pretty confident about most of the route, except for one weak link. Ullapool to Durness on Friday was a tortuous route involving a trip almost back as far as Inverness by bus before catching a train out to Lairg from Dingwall and then a bus out to Durness.
The next stage was finding places to stay each night at my day’s destination. The restrictions on movement due to Covid were loosening, so hotels were filling up all along the route.
Once again, Durness became the lynchpin of the trip as the best place to stay in the village had just one Friday night available in the next couple of months. That decided the particular week I would be taking. I set about hunting for a bed in the other destinations.
You may not remember how we did things before using the internet and Google with its integrated maps and hotel booking facilities. It would have been days of poring through printed timetables and looking at directories at a High Street travel agent. Hotels would need to be individually phoned and booked, train tickets would arrive through the post, while the bus journeys would be in the hands of the gods.
These days it is all possible to arrange on a smartphone, and we can spy on a bus’s location with GPS monitoring. After a good days effort and planning, I had as much of the trip nailed down as possible. Now all I had to do was wait.
A long-running industrial dispute meant that there would be no train from Wick to Inverness on Sunday. I decided to head out on Saturday and spend an entire day enjoying the Highland Capital and getting into the holiday spirit.
Some nights I would be living a life of luxury and others in the most basic of accommodation, though not deliberately. It was just what had been available by the time I was booking rooms.
The weather on Saturday was fine, a change from the previous week that had been pretty dull. I had been expecting a typical Scottish holiday with its mix of weather. I took the lunchtime train down to Inverness. Though it was pretty busy, we were all masked up and socially distanced, so there was little opportunity to engage in conversation and make new friends. The scenery was as beautiful as ever, and I started practising with my handy-cam. I hoped to record visually exciting spots on the route.
At Inverness, I checked into my attic room at the Royal Highland Hotel. It still bears the ornate tiles indicating its original name of the Station Hotel, which was opened soon after the railway arrived in Inverness in 1856. The modest entrance leads into a grand reception area with an imposing staircase directly opposite that leads up to the rooms on the first floor. The staircase is the twin of the staircase that was on the Titanic and was used in the making of the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett.
On the sunny Sunday, I took myself on my own Walking Tour of Inverness because there is always something new to be found, as familiar as I am. Always remember to look up, as the buildings above the big glass shop fronts can hold all sorts of little treasures and decorations.
Of course, I had to visit the Great Glen Way Marker at the Castle, the official starting and ending point for the NC500 route. It’s a massive slab of Caithness flagstone close by the entrance at the western foot of the castle hill.
Monday morning saw me on a bus to Fort William. I made sure to get a seat on the left side to maximise my opportunity for views over Loch Ness. I experienced the frustration of the coach tourist with the barrier of trees on the Loch bank, planted deliberately that way to prevent drivers from being distracted or just parking in random places.
There were fabulous views at several points, though, particularly near Urquhart Castle.
The views opened out a little after Fort Augustus and on to Loch Oich with the ruins of Invergarry Castle. Later we passed by Loch Lochie to see the massive Ben Nevis range just outside Fort William.
At Fort William, the bus to Oban was waiting just a few metres away. This time I sat on the right-hand side to enjoy Loch Linnhe’s views. The sea loch leads to the Sound of Mull and Oban.
In Oban, I checked into a faraway corner room at the Royal Hotel. I had to shuffle around to close the bathroom door and get in the shower because the bathroom was so small. It was clean, and the single bed was comfortable enough. I spent much of the afternoon clambering up to the rather extraordinary McCaigs tower that dominates the town. The folly was built as a job creation scheme at the end of the nineteenth century. It was never finished as its architect and funder, the philanthropic banker John McCaig, died. His heirs were not inclined to complete the building.
For my tea, I stopped in at the George Street Fish Restaurant for a haddock supper. For dessert, I had a really delicious creme brulée and a good chat with the host and a character at the neighbouring table who lives on a small yacht.
On a warm Tuesday morning, I wandered down to the railway station on the pier to catch a train to Crianlarich. The views were once again terrific and very different to those of the day before. I hadn’t really thought how far off the North Coast 500 this public transport route would take me, and now I was heading deep into the Trossachs!
The reason for that was to get the connecting train up to Mallaig via Fort William, and it was worth it for the views. The train from Crianlarich was packed, but I managed to get myself a window seat on the left facing forwards. I hoped to get a good video of the Glenfinnan viaduct as the train approached. That was until we got to Fort William. At Fort William, the train reversed out of the station and started for Mallaig. I was now facing backwards on the right and would not see the viaduct at all! Now, rather than relaxing and enjoying the view, I monitored the train’s progress on the Ordnance Survey app on my mobile phone. About a kilometre ahead of the viaduct, I left my seat and went to find a free door on the other side. Other passengers had the same thought, so I was lucky to find myself a good viewpoint in the next coach along and managed to film the viaduct as we approached and crossed.
Mallaig is a small but pretty little town, and in the summer sunshine, the whole place seemed to have been transformed into one large tea shop. The Heritage Centre was just by the station and I visited to learn a little more about the area and its history. I was reminded that Flora MacDonald had landed in July 1746 to pick up Bonnie Prince Charlie and take him over to Skye.
It was news to me that Arisaig, an area around Mallaig, had been used as a commando training area for the Special Operations Executive.
My bed for the night was at the Steam Inn, where my allocated bedroom was small but elegant. There were lovely extra touches, including a small fridge with fresh milk for my tea. I decided to eat at the Inn and had “moules mariniere” made with locally farmed mussels which were absolutely delicious. This I followed with strawberry cheesecake, and the meal was accompanied by a pint of their own Steam Inn IPA.
The sunshine continued into Wednesday as I made my way onto the ferry across to Armadale on Skye. I passed the time chatting to other passengers, including a pleasant lass from Sheffield who was up riding her bicycle around the west of Scotland and camping out for a few days. The bus journey into Portree was less spectacular than much of what I had seen over the previous few days. Sadly, a low mist obscured the Cuillins as we passed by them. We pulled into the town at around lunchtime as the last haziness burned off with the promise of a bright afternoon.
I dropped my bag at the Portree Hotel as it was too early to check-in and returned to the bus station to find the 57 bus. I had discovered this bus took a circular route all around the north of the island and decided to take the trip. For most of this scenic trip, I was the only passenger on the bus, which was both a privilege and a pity. The tourists thronging around the streets of Portree had no idea that such a treat was available and so cheaply.
My room at the Portree Hotel was large and comfortable, with a lovely view out over Somerled Square. Dinner there was not quite so good as I had come to expect on this trip. The food was okay, I had an Angus beef burger and salad accompanied by Skye Gold beer. Service was just too efficient and impersonal, probably due to the pressures of serving so many diners at once.
There was a low sea mist on Thursday when I boarded the bus to Kyle of Lochalsh. Once again, my views of the Cuillins were a little less spectacular than I had hoped though still very beautiful. The mountains slowly drifted in and out of sight, and shafts of sunlight picked out rocky outcrops here and there.
As the bus crossed the Skye Bridge, I looked down on the location of Gavin Maxwell’s house from the story Ring of Brightwater. I felt how easy it must have been for an artist to fall in love with the place.
The train from Kyle was packed with holidaymakers admiring the stunning scenery through Strath Carron and Loch Carron as the high mounds of the Western Highlands dominated the northern view.
I got off the train at Garve, a small village in the middle of nowhere and made my way out to the bus stop on the main road. The Stagecoach app told me that the bus to Ullapool was running late. I may have become more agitated as the appointed time passed and minutes ticked by had I not known. When it arrived, the journey was worth it. Once again, I enjoyed a lovely trip along the clear blue waters of Loch Glascarnoch, looking over to the imposing Beinn Dearg. Later, taking in the views of the sea loch Loch Broom and the surrounding hills before pulling into the town of Ullapool.
Travelling Back in Time
I found my way up the hill to the Caledonian Hotel and found myself stepping back into the early eighties. My little room had no view through the window as the was a large pine tree directly outside obscuring everything. The fire warning notice advised me that the “North British Trust” owned the hotel, a phrase harking back to the bad old days. The television instructions had only four channels listed. When I turned the TV on, it didn’t even have BBC 1. I went through the autotune process, and modern-day Freeview imposed itself on the small screen with numerous channels showing nonsense.
I had my tea, a fish supper, at the Ferry Inn on the waterfront, followed by a sticky toffee pudding, both of which were delicious. The restaurant was very busy with tourists, but they were families and groups, so I had little opportunity to engage in conversation.
Friday started bright and fresh as I boarded the bus all the way back to Dingwall just north of Inverness. Soon a mist descended, and many of the views were obscured. At Dingwall station, I very much enjoyed sitting out on the platform drinking tea at Em’s café, waiting for the train up to Lairg. The train pulled in on time, and we set out for Invergordon, where the conductor announced that there would be a twenty-minute delay.
This, as you can imagine, was the thing I had most feared for the whole trip. I did not have twenty minutes to spare for my connection at Lairg. I rang the bus company for the Durness bus and begged for the bus to wait for me, and the lady promised to ring the driver and tell him. Then I found the conductor and told him of my predicament, but there was nothing that he could do, and Scotrail would not pay for a taxi. This was looking to turn into a costly day.
A Brilliant Driver
We pulled in to Lairg nearly half an hour late, and I had pretty much given up hope that the bus would be there, but it was! The driver had been expecting three passengers off the train and decided to wait. He was a bit annoyed that two of them had not turned up, and it was only me, but I was hugely relieved. Still, I cheered him up with a hefty tip as the alternative would have cost me a fortune.
The West Highland Geopark is a place so full of stunning vistas that it is hard to know which way to look from a moving bus. We started our journey along the north side of Loch Shin, where the crystal clear waters reflect the scenery and sky perfectly. Later I looked across Loch More to the craggy and immense mountain ranges to the north. I swung my video camera back and forth in the vague hope that I had captured some elements of the magnificent views.
As we approached the west coast and Scourie, the mountains receded. The land became dotted with hundreds of tiny lochs glittering in the summer sunshine. We followed the valley between the grassy hills back north to the Kyle of Durness and into the village itself.
I checked in to Mackays Rooms, where the receptionist warned me of the limited choices for dinner, which were something from the fridge at the local shop or a takeaway from the local pub. My allocated room was the most luxurious of the whole trip, with an elegant modern bathroom and the bedroom featuring some quirky furniture giving it a unique character.
The beach was crowded with families enjoying the sun, sand and sea, most of whom will have been touring the North Coast 500 in hired motorhomes that more than filled the camping site. I did a little filming and collected my pizza to thoroughly enjoy my splendid room for the evening.
I wish I had gone down to breakfast a little earlier as the special haddock and scrambled egg dish was incredible. Instead, I found myself rushing it as I needed to be on time for the bus.
The views along the north coast of Sutherland at Loch Eriscoll clearly showed the change in geology as the moine schist gave way to the old red sandstone that Caithness is well known for. Sadly though, as we travelled east, the clouds thickened and lowered and by the time we reached Thurso, it was actually a little chilly.
I took a stroll down to the empty beach, so different to the day before in Durness and dropped into Reids café in Rotterdam Street for a Scotch Pie and beans before taking the bus home to Wick.
The North Highlands by Public Transport. Not only was it possible, but I also did it in a week!