Having spent the past 10 years touring all over Scotland by campervan and canoe, and on foot, one thing continues to amaze me: Scotland’s spectacularly diverse scenery.
One moment, we were driving through an otherworldly, empty landscape where jagged mountains thrust skyward out of loch-strewn moorland; a few minutes later, we were standing quite speechless on a white sandy beach with Caribbean-turquoise seas.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given that we were in the Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area (one of 40 such zones in Scotland) and the North West Highlands UNESCO Geopark, a landscape of truly remarkable beauty. You can immediately see why this place was chosen in 2011 as the film location for The Eagle, an epic set in Roman Britain.
Breaking the journey in Inverness
Our tour began in Edinburgh, with a welcome pit stop at Ardtower Caravan Park, close to Culloden Battlefield, Inverness.
This well-planned campsite was established by the owner, Iain Mackintosh, on a field with immaculate landscaping and tiered hardstanding pitches, enabling all guests to enjoy the gorgeous views of the Beauty Firth.
When Covid-19 struck, Iain knuckled down and built a new facilities block with four large private bathrooms (wet rooms with toilet, sink, shower, and your own access code), costing £10 per night. The site is run by geothermal renewable energy, with Wi-Fi and a barbecue hut for hire (£5 per person). It’s an excellent base for visiting Inverness, or nipping over the dramatic Kessock Bridge to explore the beautiful Black Isle.
Catching glimpses of the sea
The road to Coigach ascends a serpentine single track, with glimpses of the sea en route. At its highest point we passed many cyclists, rewarded with views of the rocky coasts’ Summer Isles, bays and headlands, punctuated with peaks such as Stac Pollaidh (a walk of two to four hours) and Suilven (a climb of seven to nine hours).
It weaves through a flat heather moor from beautiful Achnahaird Beach to Port A Bhaigh Campsite, in the small hamlet of Altandhu. Tarmac roads didn’t reach the Achiltibuie area until the 1960s; today, it still feels very remote.
Tackling this rugged landscape requires a reliable campervan. Our wheels for this trip were a family favourite; a new VW California Ocean rented from Clark Commercials, Edinburgh. We can confirm that our California did indeed “drive like a car”, gliding along the motorways, taking on twisty single-track roads with ease, nippily pulling into passing places near blind corners.
Our pitch at Port A Bhaigh overlooked a pebbly bay with rocks to scramble across. Our children loved playing in the grassy field with its stream, mini-waterfalls and resident sheepdog, Mack. Built on a family croft, there are 42 hardstanding pitches, an immaculate toilet block, well-stocked shop and fishing permits available for local lochs.
Catriona, one of the owners, cooks in the family’s Am Fuaran bar at the top of the hill, a restored 1800s cottage with a cosy, traditional interior, serving local seafood.
After hot chocolate prepared on the campervan gas stove, we met our campsite neighbours, keen kayakers and paddleboarders who had come to explore the sea loch. Jules from Summer Isles Sea Kayaking was based here, offering half- and full-day paddles and longer wilderness camping trips.
Only a few cottages dot the surrounding hills, the legacy of the infamous Highland Clearances. In 1852, attempts were made by landlords to evict the tenant crofters. But the women of Coigach put up a fight, disarming 20 police and sheriff officers, burning their summonses and throwing their batons into the sea. The officers left without evicting a single crofter. Four weeks later, they took on the women again – and tailed once more.
The determined crofters defied then for more than two years until the landlord finally gave up – a rare victory for the people.
Slowing down to enjoy the landscape
Our drive northwards was along a single-track road, where caravans and coaches are not allowed. We took this twisty route slowly to avoid travel sickness, spot wildlife and soak up the landscape’s rugged beauty.
At Inverkirkaig, it’s well worth stopping at Achins, the “most remote bookshop in Scotland”, with café, gifts – and plenty of books! From the car park, look out for the memorial to local poet Norman MacCaig, who loved and wrote prolifically about Assynt. You could team this with a walk to the powerful Falls of Kirkaig, which takes about 2.5 to three hours.
The snaking track climbs and descends through mountains carpeted in rust-coloured bracken and peat bogs, to curve around Loch Inver and Lochinver village. Rest awhile here and visit the café, browse the craft shops or sample one of Lochinver Larder’s famous gourmet pies.
Turning on the B869, it’s an easier road to Shore Caravan Site. This is basic with electric pitches on grass (when we visited, the toilets/showers were closed because of Covid-19).
The location, however, is simply world class: next to the pristine white sands and turquoise waters of Achmelvich Bay, which consistently wins Clean Beach awards. A short walk on grassy sand dunes takes you to a hidden cove, fringed by cliffs, almost more beautiful than the previous view, with a stream flowing down to the sea. This really is a sea kayaker’s dream.
A five-minute walk from the campsite over a rocky, tussocky hill reveals the rather odd sight of Achmelvich Castle, also known as the Hermit’s Castle or Scott’s Castle. Reminiscent of a concrete war lookout, this was actually the flight of fancy of English architect David Scott. In the 1950s, he spent months building it, then stayed in it for one weekend and never returned.
Discovering tropical beaches
Just a few miles up the road at Clachtoll is another soft white sand beach that could be mistaken for the tropics. Campers have been enjoying this spot since the 1930s, when it was common grazing.
From 1972 to 1984 the council ran a caravan site here, after which legendary local Flossie McPhail, in partnership with other crofters, took it on until 2022, when she finally retired at 80.
For 20 years, Tom Lochhead, a Fife police officer, camped here for a month every summer with his family, messing around on boats and fishing. When he retired in 2019, he bought the campsite with his business partner, Andrew Dyson.
“Clachtoll is unique. I’ve travelled all around Scotland and there is nowhere quite like it,” Tom told us. “The same families have been coming here for a month in summer for years. The campsite has a real community, family feel.”
Listed as one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Campsites in the UK, Clachtoll has been well thought out. Tom provides lockers with charging points for tech, a covered barbecue area, microwave (ideal for reheating Lochinver pies!), outdoor shower and hose for washing off sand, complimentary eco washing up liquid and soap powder – there’s even a ‘dog bar’ for pooches, with water bowls and free treats. Our pitch had fine views of Gairloch and the islands of Skye and Lewis.
When Covid-19 struck, Tom set up a rigorous cleaning regime: the place is spotless. Extraction fans run, windows are open nd hospital-grade disinfectant spray is provided for guests to use.
There is so much to do here that a two-night (or more) stay is a must. Our days were spent visiting the Salmon Bothy (operating until the 1980s, now a museum), watching dolphins in the bay and fishing off the rocks (mackerel, sea bass, pollack).
Hiking to explore local history
Walks in the area include a track used by early crofters to carry sacks of corn to be ground to flour at the now ruined Altanabradhan Mill.
After a pleasant circular walk to an Iron Age broch, we rewarded ourselves with a tasty hot chocolate at Flossie’s Shop, a tiny shed with picnic tables and palm trees, which has operated on the campsite since 1972.
Signs everywhere state that wild camping is not allowed. The road to the beach car park is private; locals enforce this by asking wild campers to leave, or find themselves facing a locked gate and a hefty fine to open it.
The drive along the B869 towards Kylesku is breathtakingly beautiful. The waterfall at Clashnessie Falls is impressive, while Drumbeg Stores are a must-stop for local award-winning meats, cheeses and Orkney ice cream (we enjoyed the latter while watching a large sea otter frolicking about at Culkein). From Drumbeg, the road crosses over a splendid mountain plateau, offering grand views of Suilven and shining sea lochs dotted by a scattering of islands.
Taking time to enjoy the sights
Our final night was a stay at the Kylesku Hotel, an 1883 coaching inn, where the ferry crossed Loch Glendhu before the Kylesku Bridge opened in 1984. Today, the hotel is popular for its stylish accommodation and award-winning food, which includes shellfish fresh off the boat.
For art lovers, further north at Loch Eriboll is internationally renowned Danish ceramic artist Lotte Glob’s ‘sculpture croft’ (visits by appointment only). On the A835, don’t miss Knockan Crag, a stunning geology, sculpture and poetry trail on the site of the Moine Thrust, where billions of years ago, two continents collided.
Forming part of the popular North Coast 500, Assynt and Coigach are worth exploring in depth. Some visitors seem to rush around the NC500, ticking off the sights and thus contributing little to the local economy.
Our advice is to tour Assynt and Coigach slowly, taking time to enjoy the awe-inspiring mountains, moorlands and tropical-looking beaches. Support the local cafés and shops, go walking, kayaking and wildlife spotting, and chat to the locals about the area’s history – you’ll be rewarded with a far richer experience and many lasting memories.
Our rental ‘van
Clark Commercials is an independent dealer in new and used vehicles, including Volkswagen for sale and rental.
Hiring a Volkswagen California costs £150/£125 per night (high/low season), with a 10% deposit at time of booking.
Where we stayed
Ardtower Caravan Park
- Culloden Road, Inverness, IV2 5AA
- Tel 01463 790 555
- Web www.ardtower-caravanpark.com
- Open All year
- Charges £27 per night for two sharing, £3 per additional person
- Touring pitches Hardstanding electric
- Details Barbecue hut £5 per person, underfloor heating, private bathrooms (£10 per night), geothermal renewable energy, playpark, free Wi-Fi, small shop
Port A Bhaigh Campsite
- Altandhu, Achiltibuie, Ullapool. IV26 2YR
- Tel 01854 622 339
- Web www.portabhaigh.co.uk
- Open All year
- Charges Campervan £12.50, hook-up £4.50, children (five to 15) £2, dogs welcome
- Touring pitches 42 hardstanding
- Details Site shop, Am Fuaran restaurant and bar, chemical waste, laundry, Wi-Fi at reception. Fuaran Bar Fishery offers boat fishing (20% discount for campers)
Shore Caravan Site
- 106 Achmelvich, Lochinver, IV27 4JB
- Web www.shorecaravansite.co.uk
- Open April-October
- Charges £15 grass pitch; £3.50 hook-up
- Touring pitches 20 electric hook-ups on grassy field by white sandy beach
- Details Toilet block, launderette, indoor/outdoor washing up, on-site shop and fish and chip takeaway
Clachtoll Beach Campsite
- 134 Clachtoll, Lochinver, IV27 4JD
- Tel 01571 855 377
- Web www.clachtollbeachcampsite.com
- Open Late March to 31 October
- Charges £25 per night (two adults, two children)
- Touring pitches Two large, grassy fields
- Details Facilities include chemical waste, coverage red BBQ, outdoor seating, shop,, outdoor/indoor washing up, kettle, microwave, lockers with charging points, outdoor shower, dog bar
Find out more
Clachtoll Beach, Salmon Bothy museum and Iron Age broch
- Web www.walkhighlands.co.uk
- Walking route takes one to 1.5 hours
Summer Isles Sea Kayaking
- Web www.summerislesseakayaking.com
- Half-and full-day trips available, wilderness camping/lodge holidays
Cam-Mac boat and fishing trips
- Web www.cam-mac-boat-trips.co.uk
- Loch fishing permits are available at campsites. Boat trips, sea angling
- Web www.lochinverlarder.com
- Famous gourmet pies, take-away or eat in at the bistro restaurant, loch views
- Web www.walkhighlands.co,uk
- Spectacular ridge, views of the Summer isles, takes two to four hours, 2.75 miles
- Web www.walkhighlands.co.uk
- One of Scotland’s most iconic peaks, climb takes seven to nine hours, 12.5 miles
- Web www.kyleskuhotel.co.uk
- Award-winning hotel and restaurant by Loch Glendhu. Open to non-residents for breakfast
- Web www.visitscotland.com
- Geology, sculpture and poetry trail with plenty of amazing views along the way
- You’ll be spoilt for choice, wherever you look! On our tour, we saw sea otters, dolphins, basking sharks and minke whales
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The road to Coigach ascends a serpentine single track, with glimpses of the sea en route