Scotland's North Coast 500 and Orkney Islands

Scotland's North Coast 500 and Orkney Islands

This tour will take you on the stunning North Coast 500 touring route, actually covering 516 miles of the northernmost part of Scotland, skirting the clifftops, meandering through the glens and beginning and ending in Inverness. Be prepared for breathtaking scenery, dramatic coastlines and narrow mountain roads.

Leave Inverness westwards on the A862 following the Beauly Firth which will be just to your north, along the western edges of the Black Isle, so named for its dark fertile soils, and continue to the ruins of Beauly Priory which can be found just to your right on the High Street in Beauly itself. The former Valliscaulian house of worship, which later became Cistercian, has extensive ruins amongst a large graveyard and possibly dates from the 13th century, being abandoned in the 17th. As the initial order of monks that worshipped here were from France the name of Beauly is taken from the French words 'beau lieu' meaning a lovely place. From here continue on to Muir of Ord then turn left and take the A832 West Road. Eventually you will come across the buildings of the Glen Ord Distillery right in front of you. Take a left turn here for the visitor centre and guided tours. The distillery opened in 1838 producing the Glen Ord single malt whisky.

Cross the River Orrin and follow the A832 through Maybank where it turns sharp right then gain access to the A835 once you have crossed the River Conon. Turn left towards Contin and follow the A835 valley road through woodlands of silver birch and oak until you reach a green Forestry Commission sign for Rogie Falls then turn right into the car park. Take the short walk up to the falls which cascade down from Ben Wyvis and watch out for salmon leaping, especially in the summer months. Make use of the suspension bridge to get a great photo of the falls and rapids and enjoy a series of short woodland walks.

Although obscured by birch trees, views of Loch Garve will soon open up to your right as you approach the village of Garve itself then take a left turn here following A832 towards Kyle of Lochalsh.

You will be driving north of Loch Luichart and when you reach its western edge you will find a lay-by on the left hand side with views of the loch and mountains. Another lay-by a little further on to your left will give you a chance to admire the views of Loch a Chuilinn. Follow the River Bran to the roundabout at Achnasheen, bear left on the A890 still following signs for Kyle of Lochalsh and skirt the shores of Loch Dughaill where you will find evidence of one of Scotland's most important industies, that of timber and forestry. Employing over 30,000 people and covering the landscape with spruce and larch trees, which were never indigenous to Scotland, the demand for timber has seen a rise in woodland areas throughout the country.

As you approach the sea loch of Loch Carron the road becomes the A896 and begins to wind northwards. A few miles further on look out for a farmhouse and a signpost on the righthand side of the road. This sign reads Applecross and it points left, taking you west on a narrow single lane mountain road on to the Applecross Peninsula.

This single track mountain pass was opened in 1822 and drives through simply stunning scenery but also boasts the steepest climb of any road in Britain. A series of Alpine-like hairpin bends ascend you up the hillsides until you reach the Bealach na Ba viewpoint with its fairly large car park which can accommodate plenty vehicles. Here you'll experience that 'top of the world' feeling with a stunning panorama of the surrounding mountains The Gaelic name of Bealach na Ba means simply the 'cattle pass' as this was a route initinally built as a drover's road. Decend from the 2,054ft (626m) summit down to Applecross and then turn right following signs for Shieldaig.

Continue on a circuit around the coast of this peninsula skirting Applecross Bay and following the coast northwards across open moorland with wide open spaces and incredible vistas all around. You'll reach the northernmost edge of this peninsula at Fearnmore and then drive southwards down to the sea loch of Loch Torridon which will be on your left, with the upper reaches being Loch Shieldaig. Continue on this single track road until you reach the A896. Turn left following signs for Shieldaig 1 mile and Torridon 7 miles. The village of Shieldaig is a worthwhile stop, just head left off the main road to the left and drive along the banks of the loch. There are plenty of cafes offering great views while you dine, one or two small convenience stores to pick up supplies along with parking and public toilets. Take a break and grab something to eat while gazing over the water to Shieldaig Island, a bird sanctuary owned by the National Trust and covered in Scots pine, the only species of conifer tree native to Scotland.

Return to the A896 and head north to Kinlochewe and take a left on the A832 following the shores of Loch Maree and through the Beinn Eighe nature reserve towards Gairloch. About halfway along Loch Maree there will be a left hand turn to a small car park to take you to Victoria Falls. Although not as spectacular as it's namesake in Africa the cascade of water is fed by streams decending from Beinn Eighe and is named after Queen Victoria's visit of 1877. There is a wooden footbridge over the falls, a viewing platform and impressive panoramas back over Loch Maree.

Stay on the A832 to Gairloch on the banks of the bay known as the Gair Loch (Gaelic for short loch)  and then head eastwards to Loch Ewe. Here, for something a bit different to rocky mountain scenery you could pop into Inverewe Garden, signposted off the A832 to the left. It is a 54 acres site created as a botanical garden in 1862 with native and non-native plants, shrubs and trees. Continue eastwards on the A832 followign Little Loch Broom to the spectacular Ardessie Falls, one of which you will see to your right when you cross the bridge. This may be enough for you if the weather is bad or you do not wish to get out and walk, but there are a range of stunning waterfalls further up the hill. Parking is to be found back the way you came. Just turn around and park a few yards down the road at a lay-by next to a large brown metal building which is a water treatment plant then follow the steep, muddy path up to the rest of the falls.

Following the main road southwards now through Dundonnell you will soon find signs for the spectacular Corrieshalloch Gorge with parking on your left hand side. Waterfalls and river rapids here will be easier to walk to than back up at Ardessie. Use the specially built viewing platform to see the amazing Falls of Measach dropping 150ft (46m) to the River Droma below and take a walk over the 200ft (60m) deep ravine by suspension bridge designed by Forth Bridge architect Sir John Fowler in 1874. Further down the main road you will cross the River Droma and take a left on the A835 to Ullapool.

Ullapool lies on Loch Broom, not on it's little namesake to the west, and as it's a sea loch the village lies on coastal waters. It was founded in 1788 as a fishing community specialising in catching herring. To visit the village bear left after the petrol station and follow the seafront promanade with the rows of whitewashed cottages to your right. Turn right on Quay Street and then left on Latheron Lane next to the Tesco supermarket. This car park is the main parking area in the village and it is a short walk back to the lochside.

The A835 will continue to Ledmore where you turn left on the A837 passing Loch Awe and Loch Assynt where you can see Ardvreck Castle on its shores. There is a large lay-by and parking area to your left on the side of Loch Assynt. You can walk to the ruins of the castle from here. Built around 1590 it is essentially a large stone keep but provides a stunning photo opportunity with the Quinag mountain range as a backdrop. Follow the loch to its western end and continue on until you reach the B869 signposted to Stoer and Drumbeg. Take a right turn here. This road starts off quite wooded but soon breaks out into open rocky moorland. Drive along here to Clashnessie, by now the road will get very narrow, and just past the scattered cottages of Clashnessie village there will be a lay-by on your right where you can park to walk to the delightful sandy beach or up to the incredible Clashnessie Falls which shouldn't be missed.

Keep on the B869 heading east via Drumbeg where there is a small car park and an ocean viewpoint to your left, the road will eventually lead you to a remote junction where you join the A894 turning left for Kylesku and Scourie. Cross the stunning and spectacular Kylesku Bridge, a curved box girder bridge built in 1984 and once on the other side you will find a parking area to view what you have just crossed. You will reach the A838 when you cross the River Laxford at Laxford Bridge and then drive north to towards Durness. On your left side will be following the dramatic Kyle of Durness and eventually you will find a large parking area to your left known as the Kyle of Durness viewpoint. Immediately after this parking area is a left turn for Cape Wrath and if you wish to make the journey to one of the remotest corners of the British mainland take a side trip this way. You will not be able to journey all the way in the campervan, only to the ferry which will cross the Kyle of Durness where a minibus will take you up to the cape and lighthouse (but only when military training is not taking place, and currently, only in the summer months). There is 107 square miles (227 square km) of wild moorland and awe-inspiring clifftop views where the Atlantic and North seas meet. The 1828-built lighthouse stands like a sentinel overlooking the treacherous waters and the impressive Clo Mor cliffs stand 921 ft (281 m) above the angry sea. Out here, away from the world you are used to, among the rare plants and protected birdlife, as the wind whips around you and waves crash against the rocks, you will really feel at one with nature.

Back on the A838 drive up to Durness where there is parking on your left side for a short walk up to Sango Bay Viewpoint along with a small tourist information centre and a local shop. Continue around Loch Eriboll and over the causeway that crosses the Kinloch River estuary into Tonge to then take the A836 to Thurso. This road is now taking you onto the very northern edge of mainland Britain.  Just after Bettyhill you will see signs for the Strathnaver Museum that reveals to the visitor the layers of history behind both Norse and Gaelic settlers in these parts and continues through the rise of the Clans and the tragedy and despair of the Highland Clearances.  From here follow the north coast road passing the former nuclear power station at Dounreay and  into Thurso, Britain's northernmost mainland town. Just at the edge of the town take the left hand turn on the A9 to Scrabster for the 90 miute ferry crossing over to the Orkney Isles. This journey will cross the Pentland Firth and around the island of Hoy into Stromness.

The Orkneys are a collection of 70 islands of varying size with 20 of them being inhabited, the largest island being simply known as Mainland. You will arrive at Stromness on Mainland and drive on the A965 towards the Maeshowe on your right which is a great place to get additional information about the multitude of Neolithic and Iron Age sites on these islands. From the Visitor Centre you can make the short journey over to the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, a large and impressive 5,000 year old burial site with a complex of chambers and passages built with stone floorways and sides. A little further east on the A965 you will find the B9055, turn left here to head up to the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The first site is signposted to the right where you enter a lay-by. These are the ancient Standing Stones of Stenness which can be seen right by the roadside. Four huge upright stones up to 20ft (6m) are all that are left of a more complex circle that is claimed as one of the very earliest 'henge' monuments in Britain. A henge monument is a stone circle with a circular ditch and embankment surrounding it. Here at Stennes this earthwork is no longer here but historians believe one existed and radio carbon dating from excavations suggest the site was constructed around 3100BC. It is still an impressive site and you can walk among these ancient megaliths freely.

Further up the B9055 you will reach the Rings of Brodgar which are again just off the roadside. The lay-by is to your right, the stones in a field to your left. This is a more complex site with a circle of stones (36 stones today but once believed to have held 60), a 10 foot (3m) deep rock-cut ditch with 13 prehistoric burial mounds. Dating from the later part of the Neolithic period, possibly around 2,500BC it is the third largest stone circle in the UK after Avebury and Stonehenge.

Continue on the B9055 towards East Aith at the eastern end of Loch of Skaill, you will see a brown tourist sign pointing right. This takes you on the B9056 towards Skara Brae. This world famous site is regarded as one of the most important prehistoric monuments in Europe. It was the severe winter storms of 1850 that literally unearthed the secrets of this place. Not long after the harsh winds and rain had passed the local village noticed that the earth had been washed away from the bay of the loch revealing a cluster of primitive housing with flagstone passageways and walls, complete with spaces for cupboards and beds. It is believed that the site was occupied from around 3100BC to around 2500BC. For an accurate look at how these families lived 5,000 years ago there is a replica of one of the homes on display.

There is now a chance to circumnavigate the north western part of Mainland by following the B9056 to the junction with the A966 heading left for Birsay. This will take you up to the north coast and past the Loch of Swannay all the way around to Finstown. Turn left here on the A965 towards the Orkney Island's capital of Kirkwall.

Under Norse rule until the 12th century the name Kirkwall comes from Kirkvoe, derived from the old Norse word Kirkjuvagr, meaning church bay. The church today is St Magnus Cathedral, in Broad Street, dedecated to a canonised Viking earl and the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles. Founded in 1137 and completed about a century later the cathedral contains the remains of St Magnus. The ruins of the 12th century Bishop's Palace lie next door and are open to the public. Over the road is Tankerness House containing the Orkney Museum. It lies in one of Kirkwall's elegant 16th century townhouses and tells the story of the Orkney Isles from the Neolithic period through the Picts and Vikings to the present day.

From Kirkwall drive south on the A961 to visit the Highland Park distillery which was established in 1798, the northernmost single malt distillery in Scotland. You can then use the A961 to skirt the edge of Scapa Flow to the tiny islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm and return to Stromness on the A964, this body of water is famous for its multitude of shipwrecks which are popular with divers. Although there are a number of British warships sunk in both World Wars lying on the seabed, the most notorious wrecks are those of the German High Fleet deliberately scuttled at Scapa Flow in June 1919. Rather than lose the ships to the British Navy under the Treaty of Versailles the German Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered his ships to be flooded and sunk. Out of the 74 ships moored here on Orkney a large number were beached and saved by the British navy but even today there are seven German wrecks on the ocean floor, these remaining ships were considered uneconomical for salvage. Also notice the deliberately wrecked "blockships" from World War II used to block the harbour from enemy attack, the most prominent being the rusting hulk of the SS Reginald on the A961 about 4 miles (6km) south of Kirkwall, just after Glimps Holm.

 Also note that the islands are linked by causeways known as "Churchill barriers" erected as naval defences in 1940 and now used by islanders and tourists alike to get from one island to the next. On Lamb Holm you can see the little prefabricated church known as the Italian Chapel built by Italian prisoners of war in 1943 with its highly decorated Baroque interior. Journey along the history shoreline of Scapa Flow using the A964 via Hobbister to Stromness to make your way back to the ferry for Scrabster and a short journey on the A9 into Thurso.

Thurso lies just over 500 miles from London and has a population of about seven and a half thousand people. Although fishing was very important to the community, many people would have found work at the nearby Dounreay power plant. The name Thurso is from the Norse meaning Thor's river. Your journey into the town will be on the A9 that comes in from the north via the ferry port at Scrabster. Use the A9 to head into Thurso turning left on Durness Street and left again on Beach Road to gain access to the seafront and Pentland Crescent car park. From here you can walk along the beach and visit the ruins of the 12th century Old St Peter's church then continue walking along the River Thurso into the centre of the town. The drive from Thurso will take you on the A9 over the river then left on the A836 to John O'Groats. Here you will see a number of scattered farming communities with cattle grazing and, now and again, a few crops. At John O'Groats you will no doubt be amongst charity hikers and cyclists who will be starting or finishing the  874 mile (1,407km) journey from Land's End in Cornwall. John O'Groats takes its name from Jan de Groot a 15th century Dutch ferryman that used to ply his trade between here and Orkney. The village is considered a bit of a tourist trap like its Cornish equivelent at the other end of the island of Great Britain. It isn't even the northernmost point on British mainland, you have already passed the turn for that a few miles back. Not long after leaving Thurso you will go through the village of Dunnet, you need to take a turn north here on the B855 to Dunnet Head to reach the northern edge of Great Britain.

From John O'Groats the A99 heads south via Wick, once the busiest herring port in Europe in the mid-19th century and lying on the estuary of the Wick River. An interesting little side trip out of Wick is to drive north on Broadhaven Road following signs for Noss Head. Eventually you will arrive at the car park for Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the seat of the Clan Sinclair, comprising of two ruined castles sitting dramatically on the clifftops, the 15th century Castle Girnigoe and the 17th century Castle Sinclair. Back in Wick take the A99 south to Latherton through farmland and scattered hamlets and villages to pick up the A9 which is the main road following the east coast back to Inverness.

The long journey on the A9 to Inverness can be broken almost at its halfway point by calling in at Dunrobin Castle just after the town of Brora. The crenellated gatehouse comes up on your left with the brown tourist sign sending you in that direction to the castle car park. This impressive stately home was designed and rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry (also the architect of the Palace of Westminster) and was built beween 1835 and 1850. It is the ancestral home of the Clan Sutherland. Earliest parts of the preceeding castle can be found incorporated into the remodeling work but it was almost all swept away by this early Victorian Scottish Baronial style house boasting 189 rooms. The gardens are in the French formal style with box-edge parterres and avenues along with fine views over the Dornoch Firth. The Castle Museum holds a large collection of archaeological relics including Pictish symbol stones and the stuffed heads of animals that members of the family have shot.