It’s an idea – and a road – whose time has surely come. North Coast 500 began as a marketing idea, designed to draw adventurous tourists north from Inverness and around a five hundred mile route up one coast, across the far north and back down the other coast.
The five hundred mile route plan was, it was suggested, Scotland’s answer to the USA’s Route 66. The so-called Mother Road originally ran between Chicago and Santa Monica in California, bisecting a series of states and driving into American culture via a television series of the 1960s, and a song.
Scotland’s version has not, so far as I know, inspired anything as world famous as “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”. But there’s plenty of other stuff. The Gaelic language television channel BBC Alba has been featuring weather person Ann Lundon on a road trip round the route: the intrepid Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith have set off on their own pilgrimage, for Radio Scotland’s popular “Out of Doors”, in an electric car, no less; and there are books.
Right now, my local bookshop features at least two tomes purporting to be the number one guide to North Coast 500. There will undoubtedly be more, as the road north grows in popularity. Who says the book trade can’t spot an opportunity? If you’re planning a trip round the top, you may find yourself confused as to which one you should choose.
But, being a public spirited sort of a fellow, I’m here to help with my own small suggestion: none of them. Instead, I recommend a book that will give you more – and further – for your money. “Where Seagulls Dare”, published by Kessock Books, is the one for you.
I should declare an interest. I am co-author of the aforementioned publication. And it is not, primarily, aimed at towing you round North Coast 500. But it will.
“Where Seagulls Dare” is an insider guide to the north Highlands and a few islands. As such, it will take you to a place where the Beatles once played to just a handful of people; introduces you to the woman who stole the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey; tells you about a competition where the senior prizes are awarded to the top Old Tosser; and takes you to the island where one man alone built two miles of road to his own front door. It has many a tale and many a tip. And it has an entertaining guide to the north coast and how to get to it.
There is a North Coast 500 website, on which you can join up to be an NC 500 member. A gold membership will cost you two hundred and fifty quid, plus VAT. There’s an NC 500 clothing collection, baseball caps, tee shirts and more; and a gift collection, featuring tastefully-designed tote bags and cork coasters. There is, God help us, a passport. There is also copious advice.
How to travel on it is a case in point. The website recommends that “the route way runs to and from Inverness, venturing round the capital of the Highlands, up the West Coast and back via the rugged north coast.” Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
As “Where Seagulls Dare will explain to you”, you should first head up the East Coast, swing left, head along that spectacular and largely unsung north coast and gladden your eyes on a final lap down the spectacularly beautiful west coast. Trust me, I’ve done it.
The east coast is where people were resettled during the Highland Clearances. As such, it boasts bigger towns than the opposite side, though it’s plenty dramatic, with oil rigs out to sea and grim towns on the landward side. There are places of serious interest to see, culminating in John o’Groats. Which is NOT the northernmost part of mainland Scotland, whatever you’ve been told. The book tells you what is.
Across the top, beyond the “atomic town” of Thurso, you’ll come on a rugged, spectacular, wind-blasted coastal road that crosses causeways, jinks between headlands and arrives at the cavernous Smoo Cave. Here the tide runs in and out, while a sixty foot waterfall crashes down at the back of the second chamber. You can descend by a staircase to the place that people once believed was the entrance to the Underworld. Don’t miss it. It’s in the book.
Then you come out at Durness where there’s great chocolate in a wartime military base, and the sound sometimes of modern day military at play bombing the hell out of an offshore island. And then you turn for home, through Kinlochbervie and Lochinver, and then the village of Applecross, where the seafood is fantastic and there’s the Swiss-style Bealach na Ba, possibly the most spectacular road in all of the Highlands. Read about it in the book.
So, there you are. It’s all in the book. And a great deal more. Where Seagulls Dare will take you on that North Coast trip. And then you can pop into the village that’s twinned with a crater on Mars. It’s in the book too. Can’t say I’m not good to you.
Iain MacDonald is co-author of ‘Where Seagulls Dare – The insider guide to the best of the Highlands and Islands’. The book is available to buy at www.kessockbooks.com