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Scotland: Take the high road

A home-spun take on Route 66, the scenic new North Coast 500 Highland route boasts everything from salmon rivers and soaring cliffs to sea caves and secluded, sandy bays

Scotland: Take the high road
Ardvreck Castle. Image: Daniel Allen

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I remember a friend from Edinburgh laughing once when I enquired about Scottish weather in the spring. “You guys in London have the ice bucket challenge,” she explained, with a twinkle in her eye. “Up north, we just call it ‘going outside.'”

Waking up in the village of Gairloch, on the northwest coast of Scotland, I’m therefore mildly surprised by the view of golden sand and a cloudless sky from my bedroom window. Just below the hotel, a pair of seals frolic in the surf, while the horizon is edged by the distant mountains of Skye. So much for the dismal weather.

Perhaps because of Hollywood and Jack Kerouac, the phrase ‘road trip’ typically conjures up images of convertibles, flat-topped mesas and lonely desert highways. But today I’m continuing a road trip of a very different kind. The North Coast 500 — a new, home-spun take on Route 66 — is a journey as Scottish as Rabbie Burns or Nessie. No roadside diners or bumper stickers here.

After a hearty breakfast (“Would you like some white pudding with your black pudding, sir?”), it’s time to get behind the wheel. First stop: the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, where I’m promised some of the finest smoked salmon in western Scotland.

Passing through a succession of gorgeous whitewashed villages, I skirt the shores of Loch Maree and Loch Ewe, their wind-ruffled waters overlooked by mountains with tongue-tangling Gaelic names. Highland cattle and tumbledown crofters’ cottages dot the iconic landscape.

Paula and Alistair Gordon, the husband-and-wife team who run the smokehouse, turn out to be utterly charming. Situated in Ormiscaig, on the northern shore of Loch Ewe, their home and garden boast magnificent views of the Torridon Hills, still dusted with snow in late March, and the more low-lying Outer Hebrides.

“Our products are imbued slowly with aromatic wood smoke and a west coast breeze,” explains Alistair in a lilting Scottish brogue, as he passes over a freshly smoked scallop for sampling. I make sure to pick up a gift box containing more of these divine creations on my way out.

Conceived by the North Highland Initiative — a project that aims to highlight the varied attractions of northern Scotland — the NC500 was launched in 2015, and has already won rave reviews. The 500-mile loop, which starts and finishes in Inverness, boasts everything from salmon rivers and soaring cliffs to sea caves and secluded, sandy bays. After a day-and-a-half’s driving, I’m already smitten.

Less than 15 minutes after leaving Ormiscaig, a short drive down a single-track road reveals one of the most idyllic stretches of British coastline I’ve ever seen. Lapped by a turquoise sea, the beach at Mellon Udrigle turns out to be a deserted arc of sand bisected by a meandering burn. To the north east, the mountains of Coigach provide a stunning backdrop, while a gentle breeze carries the plaintive cries of oystercatchers and curlews patrolling nearby Gruinard Bay.

Driving onward to Ullapool, I pass the sheer-sided spectacle that is Corrieshalloch Gorge, which, rather inappropriately, turns out to mean ‘ugly hollow’ in Gaelic. Then it’s on into an even wilder, more imposing landscape, as peaks such as the table-shaped Ben Mor Coigach and the colossal nunatak Suilven rear up from the rolling moorland.

I stop briefly beside Loch Assynt to admire the marvellously atmospheric Ardvreck Castle. Constructed in the late 15th century, this ruined fortress sits below the brooding bulk of Quinag, a reminder of man’s fleeting presence in this rugged, timeless environment.

The day ends in Lochinver, where I’m just in time to sample the wares of Lochinver Larder, northern Scotland’s most famous pie shop, before closing time. Gobbling down hunks of succulent venison, I look out over the local harbour as the engine cools. Geographically, I’m in the middle of nowhere. But if the next 300 miles are anywhere as good as the last 200, I’m in for a real treat.

northcoast500.com