Celia’s Scotland North Coast 500 – mid Sept 2021

This long-distance ride isn’t for the faint hearted – 500 miles in 7 days & with 34,000 ft of ascent.

The NC500

The 500 is well known to many as the long-distance ride around the outer edges of northern Scotland – a successful ruse to rebrand the remote northern parts of the mainland as a destination route for cyclists and motorists alike. It isn’t universally loved by every local; for some, the still beauty of the area is broken by the noise of cars, motorhomes and too many tourists. But for cyclists it’s a rare opportunity to cycle through hundreds of miles of spectacular roads through some of the most dramatic, beautiful and occasionally challenging scenery the UK has to offer.

There’s no definitive route and most cyclists who do this probably ignore the east coast and the A9 in favour of this quieter inland route. The map shows the most common variant, starting in Inverness and tracing a clockwise route. Having said that, for much of the way there is only one road, so route finding is pretty simple and riders only need to contend with the beauty of Scotland’s mountains and lochs, some hills, the strong possibility of wind and rain and the probability of the dread midge.

 

Day 1 from Inverness to Lochcarron (64 miles and 2,000 feet)

 

Day 1 is a gentle warm up. Surprisingly flat with about 2000 feet of ascent over 64 miles from the east to west coast. Setting off across the River Ness staying close to the Beauly Firth, passing Muir of Ord and the Rogie Falls it’s a good opportunity to meet the group. In season the Rogie Falls has a platform over a salmon ladder to view desperate fish struggling against the rapids on their way to their spawning grounds.

Food stops are important.  Already the effects of Covid 19 have been very apparent.  The café by Rogie Falls is no more and places to stop without a support van can be as rare as hens’ teeth. Lunch at Achnasheen is by the simple railway station set in an almost empty landscape if you don’t count moorland, rolling hills and heather, lochs and big skies. This is the main road to Ullapool so potentially busy and becomes quieter after taking the Strathcarron road – for the 480 miles or so we are principally cycling along single track roads with passing places, judging who will give way and taking turns.  Just as ever present are the mountains, forests, lochs and rocky outcrops before the long downhill run into Lochcarron.

Lochcarron is a sea loch and the tidal waters are said to be home to otters – but not today.  After a stretch of the legs along the front, the solitary pub hotel, whilst worn, certainly feeds and waters you very well with beers from the local brewery.

Day 2 Lochcarron to Gairloch (79 miles and 7,000 feet)

 

Day 2 has an interesting profile.  From sea level to 500 feet in the first 2 miles is a rugged rude awakening en route to the foot of the Bealach na Ba or Pass of the Cattle, again almost at sea level. The Bealach carries a stern warning for inexperienced drivers not to attempt it in bad weather – motorhome drivers do seem to ignore the large print though.

This is probably the nearest the UK gets to an alpine pass and it’s the greatest height gain we have, rising to 2062 feet in under 6 miles.  Simon Warren’s little book of Scottish Hill Climbs awards it 11/10 for difficulty –  but along the NC 500 there are numerous shorter, steeper climbs than this one.  Luckily the weather is dry with a light breeze and the road fairly quiet. This the second time we’ve done this ride and it’s undoubtedly much busier, especially with motorhomes and general tourism – and the impact on local services after lockdown is obvious.

However, the views down to the loch and the mountains beyond certainly make the effort worthwhile but the hill has a knack of hiding the next climb around the corners.  The road rises gradually and inevitably upwards flanked by immense rock walls; it’s gentle at first, the gradient and the hairpins rack up in intensity, though never over 20%, until eventually you crest the final rise where you can take in the 360º view and the respect from motorists.

From the top, the Cuillins of Skye dominate one horizon:

The descent is truly dramatic, 2000 feet down to Applecross at sea level. We’re held up at one point – a burnt out car is being recovered. We’re told that it’s a common event as brakes fail and cars set alight. Thankfully no injuries but a reminder to the frailty of bicycle brakes.

You might think that the hard part is over but the next 25 miles to Sheildag has a gruelling profile like the teeth of a saw. The compensation is that the road clings to the coast, offering terrific views across to Raasay with the Isle of Skye beyond. Remarkably this dramatic road was no more than a gravel track until 1975!

After lunch at Shieldag, a small, neat and manicured former fishing village, the route turns away from Skye and the road twists and turns with every corner revealing a fresh and spectacular view, leading to Loch Torridon and its surrounding peaks.

Beyond the loch, Glen Torridon is a lonely ride through a broad valley surrounded by immense rock walls formed by numerous Munros – the rocks here are considered some of the oldest in the world (we had a geologist in the group). Ending in Gairloch with a fine beach, a setting sun and a well earned beer it’s been tough day.

 

Day 3 is Gairloch to Ullapool (56 miles and 4,200 feet)

 

From Gairloch the road leaves the coast, cutting inland as no roads follow the coastline, instead crossing a loch strewn plateau with few signs of habitation other than the road we travel along. And the roads are good and the greatest hazards can be the Highland cattle or the resolutely stubborn sheep which camp on the road and just don’t move until they want to.  All the more time to take in the scenery.

Dropping down by Loch Ewe the road passes Inverewe Gardens, famous for the sub tropical flora, a little oasis of warmth created by the North Atlantic current. We don’t have time to stop and there is another hill to climb. The roads here are wide enough to ensure that what little traffic there is doesn’t bother us much and there’s time to cycle and just admire Loch Ewe, its islands and the land beyond without interruption.

Aultbea is elevenses.  Another tiny fishing village tucked into an inlet, quite lovely and picturesque.  But both hotels are closed, no shops and there are no signs of any activity.  Above the village on the main road is the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum. Compact but full of memorabilia and personal accounts of the seaman who were critical to Allied success in the second world war, it’s worth some time and reflection when passing by.  Eagle eyed riders might be able to see the ruins and remains of the wartime efforts in the remote corner of Scotland

Heading north there is a point where you crest the next headland and see the next few days mountains and roads laid out in front of you, maybe Harris and Lewis of to the left before rolling down into Gruinard Bay. Beautiful sands, usually empty but busy in post-Covid times (in relative terms) its name will forever be linked with anthrax. Tested in WWII, the offshore island in the bay wasn’t decontaminated until the end of the 20th century but I can’t imagine it’s a recommended destination even now.

Turning the corner and you’re treated to a great descent down the side of Little Loch Broom to Dundonnell. A gaudy orange hotel on the side of the Loch – except it’s closed. Lunch before a hefty climb up and away from the water before yet another long descent ending at the Corrieshalloch Gorge. There’s a spectacular suspension bridge here spanning the gorge, 200 feet above the Falls of Messach throwing up clouds of mist and filled with vegetation.  A place of great beauty and the forces of nature, except that it’s currently closed – the aging bridge is now unsafe.

Around the corner we join the main Inverness to Ullapool road, some traffic but wide enough and with gloriously smooth tarmac encouraging a fast descent. But the last five miles do feel like a torture before finally hitting Ullapool.  Two main streets, a harbour, glorious landscapes and the capital of this part of the world.   A fine place to rest after another magnificent day, sitting on the harbour wall, pint in hand.

 

Day 4 Ullapool to Kinlochbervie (80 miles and 8,000 feet)

 

Somehow each morning starts the same way. After the usual preparations, it’s a very short while before the first hill climb kicks in. Turn left from the hotel and there it is, for the best part of 8 beautiful miles.

 

This ride may be the most spectacular day but then it’s hard to pick the best. Sea views, islands in glistening seas and a growing mass of highlands. Turning away from the main road is one of the greatest sections of the ride, another 8 miles rolling alongside Lough Lurgainn flanked by magnificent mountains on both sides. Stac Pollaidh dominates to the north before the road turns to the north and rises uphill to encircle it. The next ten miles or so twist and turn through seamless, deserted landscapes filled with water and mountains. No phone reception out here either.

 

Stac Pollaidh’s distinctive jagged ridges:

Lochinver for lunch – another peaceful inlet. The tourist information office photo shows it off to great effect:

The next 25 miles is true single track road and is just fantastic. Mountains, seascapes, everchanging colours but sadly growing evidence of the popularity of the 500 with traffic of all shapes and sizes. Bikers, a scooter club, a convoy of flash (hired) top of the range sports cars and a tide of motorhomes. Some locals have had enough but their hand drawn signs demanding that the 500 is stopped are unlikely to have any effect. You can’t help but feel for the residents in these once isolated cottages. But we came across no other cyclists enjoying the scintillating descents, steepling and gruelling climbs separating one magnificent view from the next.

Kinlochbervie seems an odd destination, off route but a clear sign of how little accommodation there is in this part of the world.  Scattered, sprawling outcrops of houses with a modern harbour developed for modern industrial fishing, there seems no other reason for its existence.  For those with more time than us, it’s a waypoint to Sandwood Bay, inaccessible to many and just a few miles walk from Cape Wrath it is fabled for its scale and beauty.

As far as the fishing goes, anyone who had the haddock fish supper in our hotel declared them the best they’d ever had.

For no reason, other than it was a remarkable effort, this photo is of our friend Patrick who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s earlier this year. He’s using a battery assisted tricycle and completed all of the major climbs and the remotest areas, just bypassing built up areas and the weird extensions.

 

Day 5 Kinlochbervie to Thurso (91 miles and 7,000 feet)

 

Another brilliant blue sky and a cold start, quickly warmed by the miles of gentle climbing, rewarded by a long and rolling descent towards Durness through the neverending empty scenery. Before reaching Durness those with time could follow the side road to the ferry and onto the track that leads to Cape Wrath.  We’ve known some who’ve run there in the Cape Wrath Marathon, but many more who have had to retreat in the face of the weather.  But we’re riding in fine weather but have a long day ahead so must press on.

There’s a great chocolate shop and cafe in the local industrial unit overlooking the view towards Cape Wrath where there’s a likelihood of seeing RAF training runs.  A little oddity about Durness is the memorial to the family link with John Lennon and his summer holidays here just before passing the access point for Smoo Caves.

The next 50 miles heading east or so are a constantly unfolding sequence of steep climbs and rapid descents, thankfully fairly wind free on this occasion. On one side sea cliffs and sandy bays, on the other apparently barren and empty moorland heading into the mountains, including Foinaven, one of the more inaccessible Munros. The coastline has a couple of huge indentations, notably Loch Eriboll – yet more beauty and grandeur combined especially heading north – and the Kyle of Tongue – the causeway is yet another spectacular lunch stop. This truly is the only road so shared with locals trying to do their work and motorhomes who, it seems, don’t know quite how wide their vehicle actually is. They’ve even created websites advising drivers how to negotiate these roads but it feels clear that not everyone knows the rules. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usfeatures/singletrack/index.html

 

Later, the western side of Betty Hill is a good call for a roadside coffee. Some of these climbs up from the sea level are getting really long and tough as the miles clock up. Melvich is the logical stopping place but lack of room at the inn sends us another 17 miles (into a brutal headwind) to Thurso making this a 90-mile day.

 

Day 6 Thurso to Altnaharra (65 miles and 3,000 feet)

 

Some say the only reason for going to Thurso is to leave.  We do this the next morning and have a rare encounter with fellow cyclists setting off on their JOGLE. A blustery start which develops into a full on headwind after we head south from Melvich. After the rigours of the last few days this should be a gentle undulation by a river but the wind makes it feel like one continuous, never ending hill climb. 

We’re cycling through the Forsinard Flows – Europe’s largest areas of blanket sphagnum moss.  Forestry is dying out and conservation work is busy trying to restore the land to traditional boglands.

All along this one can still catch a train and be dropped off at these isolated stops.  One is Forsinard – a settlement of one or possibly two houses. The Forsinard Hotel is closed and derelict and attracted no bids when the auction closed on November 12th this year. The route though is punctuated by large walled graveyards as a clear sign these desolate moors were once at least populated if not busy.

South of Forsinard the road swings off to the west, the wind abates and cycling is almost perfect.  The road is smooth, there are no cars, the landscape just rolls along so you can push on as fast as your legs will take you with almost zero chance of meeting a car in either direction.  Just fabulous.

At another graveyard, the road joins Strath Naver, running all the way the loch to our destination at Altnaharra. This beautiful and isolated area has remained empty since the savage depopulation of the valley in the early 1800’s.  These clearances removed some thousands of subsistence farmers, deliberately destroying homes so people could not return and deposited them on the coast to live in wretched poverty.  A sobering memorial details the brutality of the period.

Loch Naver has is a beautiful road following the curves of the loch and takes us to the Altnaharra Hotel, an old hunting lodge at the head of the loch. A very welcome stop which at the time of our journey was home to an excellent chef and a host of midgies.

 

Day 7 Altnaharra to Inverness (75 miles and 3,400 feet)

 

Midgies don’t go away overnight and even on a bright, chilly morning they gather in multitudes to greet you.  So no hanging around, as soon as you’re ready it’s best to set off or else be eaten.  It’s another climb to start the day, about 7 miles this time. But it is the final morning, spirits are high and the weather is fine.

The Crask Inn, almost certainly the nation’s most isolated pub, is at the start of the gentle descent into Lairg and Loch Shin.  I’ve sheltered from the storm here in the past.  In all directions it is surrounded by no signs of human interference – there’s a fine video on their website showing the surrounding solitude.

This text is copied directly from their website, complete with a Shropshire connection:

Thomas Telford upgraded the nearby road in 1819 and it remains a well-maintained single-track road today. There are no street lights to pollute the clear night skies or to disturb the sheep, which are cared for by former owners Mike and Kai Geldard, who recently gifted The Inn to Bishop Mark Strange of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Mike and Kai now live in the nearby Bunkhouse, which has been converted to the Crask Cottage. Current guests are looked after by Dr Denise and Douglas Campbell on behalf of the Church.

To the south of Lairg are the Falls of Shin, another famed salmon leap.  This used to be the entrance to an estate owned by Mohammed Al Fayed who opened a branch of Harrods in the car park. The entrance of the shop, long gone, was dominated by a larger than life size wax statue of a kilted Al Fayed.

The mountains are starting to shrink to hills and civilisation is returning which feels slightly odd after six days of quietly negotiating single track roads. Still, the final climbs between the Firths of Dornoch, Cromarty and finally back to Beauly continue to offer great views and no little effort.

 

So, having completed the required 500 miles or so with 35,000 feet of climbing, seen spectacular mountains, moors, islands and ocean, we are back to where we started – a memorable experience.

2 comments on Celia’s Scotland North Coast 500 – mid Sept 2021

  1. Great adventure Celia, thank you for sharing with us. Every picture and every line of your post tempted me to add this tour to my bucket list. But all along I was asking myself “no midges ?” until they appeared in the final section.
    I suppose they are no bother if you keep moving. One should definitely not have any breakdowns or punctures.

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