Sitting at the dentist’s surgery, awaiting the dreaded drill, I distracted myself by trying to read a travel magazine. ‘The World’s Top 10 Scenic Drives’ grabbed my attention, and with Scotland’s North Coast 500 at number six, the idea for a month of Scottish touring, wild camping where possible, was born.
The first leg of our journey took us from coastal North Berwick to Findochty, on the beautiful Moray Firth. North Berwick, with its small harbour, restaurants and award-winning ice cream, was a pleasurable first stop thanks to the app Park4Night, and an excellent base to explore Edinburgh, an hour away by train.
Leaving North Berwick, we filled up at the Lobster Shack, in the harbour, and visited the ruins of Tantallon Castle.
The scenic and leisurely A93 was our first taste of the epic landscapes of northern Scotland. Entering the Cairngorms National Park, with bright sunshine lighting up the green valleys, reminded us of why we love motor caravanning.
Parking in Braemar (our night-stop), we found a friendly local who recommended a walk uphill to Creag Choinnich, offering magnificent views across the Cairngorms and the Balmoral Estate. After descending, we enjoyed a local ale at the Moorfield House Hotel, its terrace overlooking the world-famous Highland Games arena.
The next day, we followed a beautiful route across the Cairngorms, taking in the splendid Burn O’Vat river walk, the remote and intriguing Watchers art installation and the Strathisla Distillery, in Keith – apparently the oldest continuously operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands. My wife, Melanie, partook of a wee dram, but I was strictly on driving duties!
Onward to the Moray Firth coast and Cullen, famous for its delicious Cullen skink, a hearty soup with smoked haddock. Stopping by the shore made for a pleasant night. Next day, heading westward, we discovered another fabulous cliff walk, this time at Portknockie, with a gorgeous, tranquil bay and a dramatically precarious sea arch.
Two friends we met touring in Europe, Margaraet and Shirley, kindly booked us a surprise night next door to them at Findochty Caravan Park. Overlooking the sea, this campsite provides great views and has excellent facilities. For those who enjoy a round of golf, there’s a (rather windswept) course adjacent to the site.
Our next destination, Culloden Battlefield, was equally impressive, but with the car park crammed full of tour buses, an early start to your visit is highly recommended! This haunting, fascinating place is the site of the last battle of the Jacobite rebellion, fount on 16 April, 1746.
Mysterious Loch Ness
Our journey continued, to join the famous North Coast 500. The NC500 is mostly traversable if you have a smaller motorhome, but you should always plan your day’s journey, to avoid narrow or steep roads.
We parked overnight at the Dores Inn, Inverness, waking next day to an eerily deserted Loch Ness. We took a quick jaunt around this elegant town, which straddles the River Ness.
We travelled on to the Black Isle and Chanonry Point, where we lingered to watch dolphins frolicking, and then a stop at Cromarty with its charming cottages and not so charming oil rigs standing guard in the estuary.
Hugging the Caithness coast, there’s a plethora of historical sites to explore here, from Camster Cairns (Neolithic tombs), to Hill O’Many Stanes, Cairn o’Get and Whaligoe Steps – all fascinating. Once a Pictish heartland and an important Viking kingdom, it is well worth tarrying in this area.
Another highlight was Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, just north of Wick. One of the oldest castles in Scotland, this spectacular edifice dates from the 12th century. In a truly stunning clifftop location, its crumbling, vertiginous walls plunge down to the sea far below.
Standing proudly nearby is the splendid Noss Head Lighthouse, one of 26 Scottish lighthouses built by the famous Stevenson family. Our next visit was to Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly part of the Scottish mainland, where the spectacular 6000-year-old Duncansby Stacks stare down the beach. Sadly, the weather gods abandoned us, sunshine turning to angry clouds and gusting winds.
Parking for the night near a keen whale-watching group, their joyful enthusiasm after spotting minke whales helped us to forget the buffeting we received.
Selfies at John O’Groats
After stopping for the obligatory photos at the famous John O’Groats signpost and a perusal of the Dunnet Bay Distillery, producers of Rock Rose gin among other enticing brands, we drove along the glorious Pentland Firth coastline. The scenery here, ever more rocky and rugged, was beautiful, but the weather was not, making for difficult driving; so we pulled in at the Farr Bay Inn, near Thurso, hoping to park overnight. The landlady welcomed us and, after drinks and jovial conversation, we’d forgotten the storm outside.
We couldn’t leave without a walk to deserted Farr Beach, with its white sands and stunning setting, before striking out to see the 200ft-long limestone Smoo Cave, near Durness.
We discovered that John Lennon spent many childhood holidays in Durness – hence the John Lennon Memorial Garden here. You can also visit the grave of his aunt, Elizabeth Parkes at Balnakeil Church. This is a beautiful area – the beach is just spectacular, with magnificent dunes and sunsets.
Next morning, chocolate heaven awaited at Cocoa Mountain, before we rejoined the NC500 to Ullapool, with single-track roads making for some interesting manoeuvres.
Durness to Scourie is a wonderful drive, cutting through rugged, gorse-covered landscapes. The many highlights include Ardvreek Castle, on Loch Assynt, and the circular walk at Knockan Crag, ion the North West Highlands Geopark.
A quick dip in the sea
Back on the A832, the azure sea and famous pink sands of Gruinard Bay had us stopping off for an invigorating dip! Then at Gairloch, we followed a gentle coastal path walk to Flowerdale Bay, with a pit stop at The Old Inn.
We’d also read about the fabulous seafood at the Badachro Inn, and a quick detour gave us the chance to sit overlooking Loch Gairloch feasting on creel-caught langoustines and scallops.
Later, a scenic drive to Loch Maree provided a lay-by for the night and magnificent views of the soaring Slioch mountain.
We awoke to snow-dusted peaks and set off for Kinlochewe C&MC Site. Tackling the alpine switchbacks of the Bealach na Bà is not for the faint-hearted (and definitely only doable if you have a small campervan), but the views are amazing. The alternative is to take the A832.
Leaving the NC500, we passed the expansive waters of Lochcarron and continued to Invergarry, pausing at the magnificent Eileen Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed monuments. Then it was through Foirt William, past towering Ben Nevis and many glens, peaks and lochs, until we arrived at the Glencoe Inn, our night-stop.
Glencoe (Valley of Weeping) didn’t disappoint, with a day of walks around Signal Rock. Staying by the River Coe overnight, an early start saw us stopping at every turn to admire the vistas.
At Tyndrum services, we turned towards the coast and Oban, where we enjoyed locally caught shellfish at the Seafood Hut. The skyline of this charming seaside town is dominated by McCaig’s Tower (inspired by Rome’s Colosseum).
Next, we headed for the stunning Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Melanie had done some research, so we could park at a pre-booked loch side pitch.
The following morning, we cycled along by the calm waters of Loch Lomond to the pretty village of Luss – a great ride, although the traffic in high season would make it less enjoyable.
For hikers, there are also walks aplenty here, including the West Highland Way. Alternatively, the Mail Boat Cruise is an excellent way to see the loch’s 37 islands, gently chugging along and enjoying glorious views. We agreed we must return to explore this lovely region in the future, but now, Glasgow beckoned.
Parking at Gourock Battery Park Pavilion, we took a train along the banks of the Clyde to Glasgow.
With its great architecture, world-class museums and friendly people, the city soon had us under its spell. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is one ‘must visit’ among many.
A bus day pass made sightseeing easy and the city’s West End is a great place to wander around. The Mackintosh House is a fascinating recreation of the home of Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Macintosh, full of their designs.
We also took a walking tour through Merchant City and George Square – the grandiose buildings a reminder of the city’s rich heritage. To round off the day, we slipped into the elegant Corintihian Club to enjoy a glass of bubbly.
Later on, heading south-east, we stopped at the mesmerising UNESCO World Heritage Site of New Lanark, built by Robert Owen in 1798 as a ‘village of unity’. Its beautiful buildings, hidden away in a gorge, make an impressive sight. Owen, a textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer, believed the welfare of his workers was crucial to the success of the cotton-spinning industry.
Exploring a treasure house
Arriving in the Borders area, which offers lush countryside walks and great historical interest, we headed to the Tweed valley and Melrose, with its narrow streets, fine old cottages and the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which dates back to 1136.
With our time now running short, we picked Traquair House from the area’s many attractions; Originally built around 1107 and occupied by the Maxwell Stuarts from 1491, this is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. The mansion is packed with treasures and the gardens are sumptuous.
Our final day, at Glentress Forest, was fantastic, with great mountain biking routes, wondrous Tweed Valley views, trails winding through the towering Douglas firs – and an excellent café.
A last ale in Melrose’s cosy Ship Inn had us reflecting on our 1200-mile tour of ever-changing landscapes, pristine beaches and jaw-dropping vistas. Even after four weeks, there were still so many reasons to return and explore further.
Now I can’t wait until my next dental appointment – for more travel inspiration!
Need to know
The North Coast 500 is generally accessible to motorhomes, but you must be able to comfortably reverse your vehicle, and there are sections that you should avoid in anything other than a small camper.
Also, toilet facilities can be limited on the route, so bear this in mind if you are travelling without a washroom.
You can also familiarise yourself with some of the dos and don’ts to remember when doing the NC500 too.
When to go
We set off in mid-May and ended our trip win late June, in an attempt to avoid the peak tourist season – and the pesky midges!
If you do travel in midge season, you need to be prepared – you can find out more here.
Where we stayed
We booked our Loch Lomond pitch for the night at www.lochlomond-trossachs.org, where you can choose from nine different lochs.
Find out more
Food and drink
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Durness to Scourie is a wonderful drive, cutting through rugged, gorse-covered landscapes