The North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 as an initiative to bring people to the north of Scotland, and demonstrate exactly how much there is to see. From the start it was compared to the Historic Route 66, perhaps the most famous driving route in the world, and there are certain similarities (although there are other coastal driving routes that may be closer in nature, such as the Garden Route in South Africa). Both roads pass through deserted ghost settlements, abandoned and returning to nature, and both have seen enormous changes in their history.
In many ways comparing the NC500 to Route 66 is too easy, and perhaps a little lazy. One thing that makes a drive across America so alluring is the sheer scale of the journey, the enormous distances you cover — almost five times the distance of the NC500. With the NC500, however, there is a considerable density of destination to consider. There are no vast fields here, but there are stupendous views, vistas that open up suddenly and often without warning, drawing a sharp intake of breath and perhaps the odd exclamation. Even those who have been travelling these roads for many years still take a moment to pause and smile at the beauty and wonder.
Once you have decided you want to travel along the North Coast 500 your first decision is whether to travel clockwise, heading west then north, before turning east and finally south, or perhaps go the opposite way? This is a personal choice, and both options have their own merits. Most people seem to prefer to go clockwise, but there are no rules!
The density of things to see is an important consideration when planning your route, as otherwise you might well run out of time on your journey. Part of the pleasure of an adventure like this is in the planning, and sitting down with maps and guidebooks, reading internet articles and blogs, staring at photos and ticking off those days. Perhaps you want to concentrate on one thing, such as history, or nature, or maybe do a ‘NC500 Greatest Hits’, visiting the most famous places on the route, such as John o’Groats? Other options include food and drink tours, timing your stops to coincide with restaurants or distilleries (which often offer a free sample to take away, so you do not have to miss out if you are driving!), or perhaps pausing to fish in certain coasts, lochs or rivers.
The weather in Scotland is never the same for long and nowhere is this more true than along the route of the North Coast 500. As you drive along from mountain-side to glen to coast and then over the next set of hills, or around another bend in the road, the weather can be completely different within a very short distance. It is important to be prepared for all possibilities, but the fact that clouds can appear out of a clear sky is not a bad thing — it simply gives more atmospheric and moody photographs, to accompany those blue blue skies you just snapped five miles ago!
History on the NC500 is everywhere, whether the splendid castles, such as the Queen Mother’s home at the Castle of Mey or Dunrobin Castle, the remains of Iron Age brochs, or the fishing villages from the height of the herring boom. Another example are the poignant reminders of the Highland Clearances, when families who had worked the land for many generations were herded on to boats, sometimes violently, and shipped to Canada, the US, Australia or somewhere else totally alien to them. You can still see whole villages, stones tumbling into piles, overgrown and now just names on a map. This is relatively recent history here, still talked about, but these same decaying villages bear names that are sometimes Viking in origin, or sit in the same glen as Bronze Age standing stones and Neolithic cairns. People have lived here for many thousands of years, and each age left a mark.
Scotland’s wildlife and nature is widely celebrated, and many of the most iconic species call the route of the North Coast 500 home. Whether you are interested in birds, or marine life, or mammals, the NC500 can get you close to all these. As an added bonus you often don’t even have to leave your car, just sit there with your binoculars or camera, and use it as a hide! If you travel along the route in October, expect to hear and see the annual Roaring, when the red deer stags clash in the rut, and the glens echo with their calls. In summer the long hours of daylight mean you have an excellent chance to see nocturnal species, such as badger and pine marten.
There is a long tradition of hospitality in the Highlands, and those who live along the NC500 still exhibit this. Whether you turn up to a wild ceilidh, or simply pause to say hello, you can be guaranteed to feel welcome. Scottish people are proud of their heritage and love to share it with guests. Museums abound on the route, from Inverness to the Wick Heritage Museum, or Caithness Horizons, in Thurso.
Perhaps the main thing that makes this route so special is the drive through the landscape itself. Whether the jagged cliff edges in the far north and north-east, the vast open areas of the Flow Country, the rich and green lands of the Black Isle, the miles of empty white and golden sands, or the towering mountains, their tops often white for much of the year, it’s all here.