Coral & William had bought themselves a large touring caravan, and came up with the crazy suggestion of taking it on a grand tour of Scotland’s coastline, something called the North Coast 500. William had been looking at various caravan club sites which could serve as stopping points on this epic journey. It would take almost two weeks to drive up to Inverness, complete the 500 mile route (with a few minor detours on the way), followed by the return journey from Inverness to home. It sounded like quite an adventure!
Friday 4th – Durham Grange (115 miles)
A normal day off work for me, so I went to Coral & William’s early to get the car unloaded and put stuff in the caravan, while we waited for Jill to arrive from work. The plan was to set off as soon as possible in order to get to Durham, and there we would camp overnight before setting off on the first long leg to Edinburgh on Saturday.
I’d cooked a chilli and jacket potatoes so that we didn’t have to worry about food when we got there, the idea being that we’d just berth the caravan, warm up the food, and crack open a bottle or two. The two slight flaws in this plan were that I’d grossly undercooked the potatoes, and an obviously stressed William wasn’t able to get the electricity hook-up working. After a long bout of swearing and door slamming, I ventured over to the hook-up post where the instructions read ‘push and twist’… William had already done the pushing bit so I did a quick twist and hey presto we had power! The potatoes still never got properly cooked though.
Saturday 5th – Edinburgh (140 miles)
The journey to Edinburgh took us through some familiar scenery, as we drove along the Northumberland coast, parts of which we’d visited the previous September. A large blue and white signpost on the A1 announced our passing of the border and we were now officially entering Scotland with a cheer.
There were more hiccups as we camped up at Edinburgh; there were problems with the water connection and a leak was discovered as water dripped from one of the wheel arches…there was a bit more door slamming!
A visit into Edinburgh centre helped diffuse the stress. Despite an indifferent forecast, the weather was glorious. We did the obligatory visit to the castle, followed by a wander around the streets, a couple of beers, and an excellent meal in a small cafe which sold mostly vegetarian Indian food which we found on Trip Advisor.
The cafe was a strange experience; run by only one server and one chef, the service was slow but worth the wait. The weirdest thing was that we had go downstairs to access the toilet through the kitchen, where the solitary cook would cheerfully greet you and ask if you were enjoying your visit and meal. Alcohol wasn’t sold, but we sent William across the road to bring in a bottle of red to wash down the excellent food.
Later in the evening, Jill and I visited the Real Mary King’s Close, a low-lying 17th century street which was actually built over by later developers who wanted their premises to be higher up on a level with the Royal Mile. The guided tour was funny, informative, and a definite must for anyone visiting the city.
Sunday 6th – Inverness (153 miles)
The longest leg of the journey so far brought us to the Culloden Moor campsite near Inverness. We had now got into a bit of a routine setting up the caravan and connecting everything up, and as this was to be a two night stay we also decided to attach the awning to give us an outside space. We were just in the process of doing this when an officious camp warden approached us on his bike.
“I hope you’re members?” He asked.
“Yes we are,” said William.
“Well you ought to know where to put your caravan then, it needs to be to the right of the peg with your car on the other side,” he sarcastically replied.
Apparently there were strict rules on spacing between campers, and we had broken those rules by positioning with the marker peg slightly to the wrong side. He insisted that we move, so we had to take everything down and move a few feet, something which William was not overly pleased about, especially when we then had problems connecting the water hose which was threatening to snap…. much like his temper.
Monday 7th – Inverness (37 miles)
We had a bit of a late start to our second day here and for the first time the weather had let us down. We visited the site of the battle of Culloden, and although the museum was interesting, the persistent rain meant that a tour of the battlefield itself had to be cut short.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the city of Inverness. Thankfully the sun had returned as we walked its picturesque riverside, and enjoyed some of its grander buildings.
Disaster struck later on though; we’d parked in a multi-storey car park at a shopping centre, and when we returned there was no sign of the car! We racked our brains trying to remember where we’d left it, walking up and down every parking floor several times until we were convinced that the car had been stolen. Coral and Jill went to ask for advice, whereupon showing the parking ticket; it was obvious to the attendant that we were actually in a second car park, which was on another level at the other side of the centre!
In sharp contrast to the stress of the car park fiasco, we managed to chill out later in the afternoon by driving over to Chanonry Point; where we stood relaxing at the sea front waiting for the dolphins to arrive. They did come… eventually, but sadly kept their distance. If it weren’t for the binoculars we would have seen very little, but we managed to catch glimpses of them as they turned over in the water well away from the shoreline.
Tuesday 8th – Dunnet Bay (120 miles)
Another journey of over 100 miles took us to Dunnet Bay, and for the first time we were on Scotland’s far northern coast, not far from John ‘O Groat’s. This campsite seemed quite remote, and at first glance did not look very promising, but the facilities turned out to be some of the best. We were literally no more than a stone’s throw from the windswept beach, where the incoming waves battled against the wind to reach the shore in showers of spray and foam.
A visit was made to the nearby Mary-Anne’s Cottage; a crofter’s cottage built in 1850, and finally abandoned in 1990, but largely unchanged. The cottage has been preserved as a museum piece and was brought to life by one of its caretakers who had actually known the family who once lived there and guided us around with her stories and commentary.
Wednesday 9th – Dunnet Bay (26 miles)
The next morning started with an early visit to the nearby gin distillery, where a guided tour was ended with a sampling of some their gins. Jill and Coral ended up spending quite a sum in the attached shop.
That afternoon we drove to Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly part of mainland Britain. We enjoyed a tiring but rewarding walk along the cliffs to Duncansby Stacks, before heading for home and the promise of a meal being cooked for us at the Northern Sands Hotel, just along the road from our campsite.
Thursday10th – Kinlochbervie (128 miles)
Day seven of the holiday saw the longest journey so far, a time-consuming leg along Scotland’s winding north coast. Roads varied from reasonable two ways stretches to winding single track roads where progress was considerably slower. The driving was hard going, considering the fact that we were towing a big caravan, but the scenery was absolutely stunning. Every twist and turn seemed to open up a new landscape; rocky and barren one moment, lush green and spotted with yellow gorse the next, and then the beaches! Wide golden bays washed with turquoise water, on one side of a mountain, followed by stunning lochs reflecting blue skies scudding with clouds on the other. If there’s a paradise on Earth then this just might be it. The only word to sum up the journey is ‘jaw-dropping’.
The end of our magnificent journey ended with us rolling into what looked like a piece of abandoned wasteland, but what actually turned out to be the campsite. There were connections for water and electricity at the egdes of roughly marked out pitches but nothing else. There were (not surprisingly) no other campers. The one redeeming factor of this place was the view over the bay as we positioned the caravan to get the best vantage point at the top of the hill. But then came the wind!
We spent an uncomfortable and sleepless night buffeted by 40mph winds, in constant fear that one of the stronger gusts might carry us over. It was made worse by the onset of one of Jill’s migraines. This had to happen at a time when there was no toilet or wash block, so she either had to go outside to be ill or go through Coral and Wiliam’s sleeping area to the small bathroom at the back. It was a relief when morning came.
We spent the morning getting some fresh air with a walk around the harbour, Jill was thankfully on the mend and we were soon on our way again to the next site.
Friday 11th – Ullapool (58 miles)
This was a relatively short trip between campsites as we made our way down the west coast. Even in this relatively short distance Scotland managed to throw yet more amazing scenery our way. The roads may be long and winding but they give you plenty of time to enjoy the view, including our first proper sighting of a herd of wild deer.
It was still very windy, as we set up camp facing Loch Broom. We attached the awning, but had make it was well secured with extra guy ropes. We then visited the town and harbour to find out what Ullapool had to offer, and the answer was not a great deal apart from a few restaurants and bars. We stopped for a pint in one of them overlooking the harbour, a nice enough place only spoiled by the drunk at the bar who was mutterring something unintelligible at us which didn’t sound very friendly.
JIll and I went for an early evening walk along the loch; we caught sight of a seal or perhaps an otter, bobbing away in the seaweed at the water’s edge. Out on a sand bank a heron landed; it was not welcome. Surrounding birds attacked the heron, which took flight. It was pursued into the sky, ensuing in a ‘dog fight’ between the birds as they cirlced and swooped at each other, squawking loudly. The heron rose higher and higher until its attackers could no longer follow and eventually peace broke out.
Later that evening, as I was making my way to the shower block, I was arrested in my tracks by the view over the water. I instantly turned back to the caravan to alert the others.
“Just take a look out of that window!” I called. We were treated to the most glorious sunset I have ever witnessed, with the sun pooling onto the rippling water of the loch as its dying rays were reflected from the clouds in shades of red and gold.
Saturday 12th – Ullapool (24 miles)
Our second day at Ullapool was spent on a trip to Corrieshalloch Gorge. The wind had finally dropped and a warm day was spent walking the gorge and its surrounding parkland. We took a picnic, and ate this on a piece of very boggy land overlooking the road where we’d parked.
After our day-trip, it was back to the campsite for a few beers, and some fillet steaks which we’d picked up in a local supermarket. William cooked them on the Cadac barbecue, well… he nearly cooked them; they were so rare they were in danger of becoming extinct, but we still enjoyed them with crispy potato wedges and plenty of red wine. The temperature dropped as we sat outside for as long as we dare, wrapped up warm and waiting for another sunset. We were not disappointed.
Sunday 13th – Kinlochewe (56 & 78 miles)
Another fairly short hop to Kinlochewe, and a chance to recharge a little as we would be here for three days; apart from William who was still doing all the driving. No loch or sea view this time, but snow capped mountains instead which was still pretty damn good as views from your window go.
We soon set up camp and set off on the road again to the coastal village of Applecross. We had a choice of the slightly longer coastal road, or to go across the mountains on the infamous Bealach na Bà. This steep, winding, and single track road is very treacherous in parts, with hair-pin bends and passing places which put you perilously close to the edge. It’s not suitable for towing vehilces, or for vehicles over a certain size, but it appears that doesn’t apply to you if you’re French. There was one point on the road where we could see congestion ahead, too many drivers on the road and not enough spaces to squeeze into. But then there we three large mobile homes heading our way and they didn’t even have the sense to keep apart. Our nearside wheels couldn’t have been any closer to the edge as William reversed to let these idiots through. Later on, a scream from the back accompanied William’s screeching turn into a bend which he’d underestimated.
“William!” Came the shout from both Coral and Jill together.
I have to confess to being very relieved when we got to the other side, and descended into Applecross. It was a pretty village, small, with a busy pub overlooking the sound, across to the Isle of Raasay. Not so sure it was really worth the arduous journey though, and I would certainly never attempt the Bealach na Bà in high season. We returned via the coast road!
Monday 14th – Kinlochewe (97 miles)
It was further than we had realised, but today’s journey was to the Isle of Skye where we intended to go out on a glass-bottomed boat trip. We were hoping to be taken out to maybe catch a glimpse of whales or dolphins, but disappointingly, we never really got far from the harbour, and the most exciting things we saw were lots of jelly fish and plenty of sun-bathing seals. The guide was very knowledgeable, and gave a great commentary on everything that we encountered, including a salmon farm and an old shipwreck, but overall we left feeling a little let down by the experience.
After a short trip to the Co-Op to replenish groceries, we were waiting at traffic lights when a seagull decided to drop its load upon us. The hot guano somehow made it through my partially open window to land on my leg, but poor William got hit through the sun roof!
The day was rounded off by a short walk in the forest adjoining our camp site; drizzle had set in however, and most of us were pretty tired so we didn’t get very far.
Tuesday 15th – Kinlochewe
Day twelve started with a bang. Coral and I were preparing breakfast stuff in the caravan while William saw to the Cadac outside. He’d lit the gas and put the big semi-circular lid on, but the wind had blown out the flames. When he realised this, he turned on the ignition once more, but hadn’t taken into account that the lid was now full of butane. I heard a loud bang and saw William launching himself through the flap of the awning onto the floor by the caravan door. I thought he’d kicked something and fallen over until he stood up with smoke curling from his hair and a distinct smell of burning in the hair.
“Am I alright?” He asked, looking at me through wide eyes and brushing off bits of grass and singed hair. He’d had a lucky escape, as when he’d lit the gas the second time he’d actually been bending down so the main force of the blast fortunately missed him.
We didn’t do much else that day; it rained on and off, and apart from a short walk we just hung about the camp, reading and relaxing. The evening was spent enjoying a nice meal at the Kinlochewe Inn.
Wednesday 16th – Strathclyde, Glasgow (217 miles)
Day 13 was really the beginning of preparations for home. We started with a short walk to the excellent Whistle Stop cafe which we’d driven past previously. We wished we’d called in earlier during our stay at Kinlochewe; everything was homemade, right down to the freshly squeezed orange juice and the food was great.
Following this was a long drive back towards Inverness in order to complete the ‘500’ circuit, before heading south and an overnight stay to break up the journey at a site on the outskirts of Glasgow. It was a really hot day, and after setting up, we enjoyed a few cold beers then hit the local chain pub for a carvery and a bottle of wine.
It was odd, but during most of the holiday we’d encountered people working in bars and restaurants etc., who were from anywhere other than Scotland. It seemed all the Scottish natives we’d expected to meet had left. But here in Strathclyde we had a lady serving our table who I’m sure Rab C Nesbitt’s wife was modelled upon; she had the accent we’d expected to find elsewhere and was utterly incomprehensible.
Thursday 17th – Home (243 miles)
The final drive home was the longest but passed reasonably quickly owing to the fact we were now on main roads and motorways. We passed Lockerbie, Gretna Green, bypassed Carlisle and Penrith, before picking up the A1M and veering eastwards to East Yorkshire. The mountains and lochs had all gone, the scenery now more familiar rolling hills and green pasture, but no matter how great an experience it is to travel; it’s always good to come home.
In total, we’d covered nearly 1500 miles in order to do the North Coast 500, a titanic driving effort from William and a fantastic experience. It’s something I would highly recommend, but if you want to do it, I’d get there now before it gets too popular!