Richard Baynes

A NARROW path leads down to the neat semi-circle of beach. The sea-worn shingle is fine, steep, oddly like the crunching drive to a big house. In an unbroken blue sky the sun is warm, and shady rocks to one side are cool and damp.

I strip and wade in to the deep, crystal-clear blue. The water is like a knife. I flinch then dive under, two strokes one way, two strokes back, before staggering out, gasping, to lie on the shingle laughing.

At the back of the bay is perfect green turf, the small remains of a fire; it’s a fine place to camp, and it’s early May, before the midge season. The coast of Loch Carron here is rugged and ripe for exploring, there’s wood to burn, burns to fish.

It’s day two of a week-long trip around the North Coast 500, and on a dead-end minor road I have found the perfect place to stay and recharge my batteries, and do my battered soul a bit of good.

But the North Coast 500 is a journey, and I have instead to make it to Gairloch tonight via Applecross and Torridon, including some hair-raising driving over the Bealach na Ba.

Such roads around Scotland’s far north have long been a magnet for the adventurous – motorcyclists, determined cyclists, campervanners and caravanners – but the invention of the North Coast 500 (NC500) as a route has put them into a different category.

It has achieved worldwide fame and brought a surge of people, all itching to enjoy dramatic scenery, empty spaces, and spots like my small bay. They also want to move on, to complete the trip that glossy Conde Nast Traveller said “may be the best road trip in the world.”

In doing so they are bringing money and life to a fragile area that struggles to hang on to its population. They also bring change: of pace and of thinking, and a vague sense that something could be lost. How has this juggernaut affected the people in its path?

“Holidays are about compromise,” says John Lennon. It’s not quite up there with “All you need is love” but it’s got a ring of truth and this is, after all, the professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University, brought in as a consultant to steer the idea of the North Coast 500 to its soft launch in May 2015.

It was the brainchild of the North Highland Initiative (NHI), a non-profit consortium set up to help the economy of the area north and west of Inverness.

NHI could see most visitors stuck to a triangle between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness; getting them to venture further north was the challenge. Staring at the map, Tom Campbell, then chief executive of NHI, saw there was an experience they could sell, a ribbon of road that encompassed the area and could fulfil the tourist’s restless need to see and experience, photograph, tick something off and tell their friends.

With the support of the NHI board – including chair Dave Whiteford – and the local tourism organisations, a working group was set up. They started off calling it the Northern Skyway, but then the distance of the route – actually 516 miles – a Proclaimers song, and the simplicity of the idea led to the name.

Lennon was brought in, and saw straight away it had legs. “When I look at routes in other parts of the world, everything from the Garden Route in South Africa to Route 66 in the USA, the first thing is scenic beauty ... a variety of geography and geology, plus iconic elements,” he says.

Another essential is variety. NC500 has mountains, sea, walks, beaches, castles, good restaurants and small towns, and that means family members wanting different things can strike the compromise Lennon good-humouredly says is at the root of good holidaymaking.

“John O’Groats is for many an aspiration – people like going to the top of things – peninsulas, towers – they like doing loops, whether it’s walks or drives, so combining all this had real potential. And I thought NC500 as a name was a no-brainer... having a number, an easy logo, I could see it on a T-shirt.”

The idea swiftly caught the public imagination, with classic car groups taking to it, cyclists vying to get round it in record times, and a tide of social media attention. Early on it was estimated 1.5 billion people would have seen the name, and after a journalist christened it “Scotland’s answer to Route 66”, the die was cast.

Campbell, now managing director of NC500, the company set up to promote it, admits he was surprised at the attention. Whiteford agrees the explosion of interest caught NHI by surprise and says: “You set the hare running, and you can’t turn it off or turn it down ... it’s kind of over-performed, that’s fair but after all it’s still not Cornwall: it’s not busy with end-to-end cars.”

I am keen on my first couple of days on the route to hear its real impact on businesses, and there is still, two years on, a sense of unreadiness.

I stay in Lochcarron at an inexpensive B&B whose owner is busier thanks to the NC500, but she says: “There are just too many people and not enough beds. I had a man sleep in a chair in my kitchen one night because it was raining and he was desperate. We need more people to open up their rooms so we can make more of it.”

The next morning the village is bustling with motorcyclists, classic cars, and more than a smattering of big white camper vans.

Lochcarron Hotel owner Nigel Saggers says business is up by a fifth since the NC500, and the season is months longer. Peter Mackenzie at DMK garage has just replaced a torn tyre on an Audi TT and says such repairs caused by the narrow, rough road are run-of-the mill.

“There’s been an absolute influx... we are a heck of a lot busier in the summer with tyres damaged like that. The extra business for everyone from NC500 is great but the road is not up to it – our local Highland Council don’t seem to care about us in the back of beyond.”

At the Lochcarron Weavers store Joy Moran says one in five customers is now a NC500er: while we talk a pod of restored VW classic campers pulls up, and Moran and her young sales staff get to work selling upmarket woollens.

The awesome mountain pass of the Bealach na Ba takes travellers into the one-time sanctuary of Applecross. I have driven it before and locals warned me it’s now packed and drivers are not coping with its twists. It is distinctly busier but the motorists for the most part seem to have the right idea about single-track roads.

The giant white camper vans and the slow old VWs have avoided it today, sensibly; even a three-year-old car labours a little on the steep 2000ft ascent. The views to Raasay and Skye from the top are stunning.

At the Applecross Inn a comment on how busy it is – the sunlit terrace outside is packed – brings the waitress’s response: “Busy? You should see it when it’s really full.”

Another local has that little hesitation that is becoming familiar. “Yes, it’s busy, we can’t complain...” with an unspoken “but” which seems to refer to so many people, all moving so quickly.

The beautiful coast road winds north, and 30 miles on, in the sunlit garden of the upmarket Torridon Hotel, joint owner Dan Rose-Bristow serves tea and tiffin and declares the NC500 to be the best thing to happen in a generation

“Yes, if you live in Applecross and you retired there and you’re looking for a quiet life then it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.

“But with all due respect, this is one of the poorest economic areas in Europe, and anything that can generate income that can allow businesses like mine to employ people, to generate revenue and tax, create more housing and infrastructure and sustain schools, create a place that people can live, has got to be a good thing.”

Along with other initiatives it’s helping his business grow, and he is planning to build 16 homes for staff: accommodation here, as across the West Highlands, is so hard to find that in the meantime he’s hiring portable buildings.

The only downside is that the main attraction, the road itself, is in a poor state, but he believes supply will follow demand: “The infrastructure in the north Highlands needs to be improved. It needed that, though, before the NC500, it’s just getting used more.

“But that’s got to be a good thing because the council will end up having to do something about it. Where before Wester Ross didn’t matter because it wasn’t busy and was so far away, now it matters. We have one of the best driving routes in the world and the infrastructure needs to catch up.”

The single-track road up Glen Torridon to Kinlochewe is a good place to see the problem that Rose-Bristow complains of, and that’s bringing Peter MacKenzie so much trade.

The centre of the tarmac strip is solid if occasionally bumpy but cars that have missed passing places squeeze past each other on the soft peaty turf; the ground at the side gets worn away, and eventually there’s an eight-inch drop from the tarmac that can tear off a tyre and dent an alloy rim.

Worse, along these unsupported edges the road starts to crumble. It’s what Tracy Urry, head of roads and transport at Highland Council, calls “overrun” when I speak to her a few days later.

The council – which manages most of the NC500 roads, excluding the A9 and the A835 – has no extra resources for the route, despite having measured a 12 per cent increase in traffic on it last season alone, and Urry admits the road was deteriorating before NC500.

Taxes from new jobs and extra business income go straight to HMRC, of course, but Urry and her team have begun a study into the economic impact of the road that she plans to present to the Scottish Government to argue for more money. This week, a Highlands and Islands Enterprise report found the road has brought in an extra 29,000 visitors, and £9 million of spending, in the last year alone.

Any more Government cash is unlikely to mean single-track being upgraded to two-lane, but she says the network could be made stable and more passing places and signs provided.

“Road safety is the paramount consideration,” she says. “Nobody wants to think the condition of the road could contribute to a serious incident. It hasn’t happened so far but there are definitely indications that additional work needs to be done.”

I turn with relief onto the broad two-lane A832 and enjoy the drive down to Gairloch where camper vans are ranked at Gairloch Holiday Park.

Owner Colin Hoggart says locals are all for the NC500. He is too but he’s happy to explain what that “but” is all about: it creates lots of work.

“They’re only here for one night but you have to book them in just the same, and it can be a bit trying,” he laughs. “They ask for the wifi code, and you tell them it’s on the door, and then they come back and ask for it again. Three times, one woman... You sort out a problem with their electricity and then you have to do the same for someone else the next night.

“Our average stay used to be three nights, now it’s two and that’s down to the NC500.

“There are lots of people who regret planning to do the route because they have booked ahead and want to stay longer ... it ends up feeling like a route march – 100 miles up here can take a whole day. Driving these roads is hard work.”

Later a local hotel waitress says: “Single-night bookings can mean we have to turn away people who want to stay for a whole week because the room has gone for one night. The NC500 is a mixed blessing.”

Out at Gairloch sands the tent and caravans among the dunes remind me of coming here in the 1960s with parents, brother and sister in an old caravan. Straight from the door to the beach down the sandy slopes, then fishing a burn for trout to fry in hot butter...

Hoggart rode the NC500 route 30 years ago on a motorcycle and wonders why anyone needs a route planned for them. My memories of a bright, wonderful childhood holiday makes me feel the same: who needs a marketing tag to fall in love with this place?

A man dressed as Churchill, complete with cigar, wanders along the verge; real Russian sailors spill onto the road. Poolewe is celebrating its history as the place from which convoys sailed through the Arctic to resupply Russia in the Second World War. There are re-enactment groups and a visit from a Russian sail training ship.

I roll through, on past great humped hills and saw-toothed mountains: there is no time to join in the celebrations or walk the hills, to stroll the sandy strands and glittering bays or enjoy the climbs on the beetling Jetty Crag. I need to be in Lochinver tonight.

In crowded Ullapool I talk to Angus MacLennan, who sells used cars and vans. “Ullapool is a busy place anyway, and we already don’t have enough hotel space,” he says. “The NC500 is really good for bringing people in the winter, but in the summer we probably don’t need it ... unfortunately now it’s here you can’t pick and choose to turn it off and on.”

North through Inchnadamph and on along wild Loch Assynt I get to Lochinver where a party of motorcyclists from Bremen in Germany stop near the shop. They have thousands of pounds’ worth of motorcycles apiece but a couple haven’t acquired the good manners not to relieve themselves in a corner of the car park.

I’m fed up of driving so I get my bicycle out of the car and use it to ride the next section of the NC500, along a dusty single-track road.

The road starts with a series of steep climbs, but the upside is the swooping, eye-watering descents through the craggy landscape, across Clachtoll and beyond Stoer. This, I think, is the way to travel this route, and when I talk to cyclist Elaine Dick from Leith next day, she agrees.

She goes on to complete the NC500 in nine days and says the experience has brought her highs and lows: “It’s quite emotional because some of it is so exhausting ... at the same time it’s so beautiful, and travelling at this pace you are immersed in it.”

But like so many of those travelling this route, I don’t have time to ride it. I have to head for Durness and the real north coast, unfamiliar ground promising a new experience.


It’s a big change from the Borders to Kinlochewe but the North Coast 500 was enough to persuade Sharon and David McLean to make that move.

They run Kinlochewe Service station, at a crucial junction on the route. It has fuel pumps, a store, a coffee shop, and in one corner a display of all things NC500, including maps and guide books.

Sharon, a secretary, and David, who worked in IT, travelled the route last year. They saw the service station was for sale, and were interested.

“It was a glorious day without a cloud in the sky, “ says Sharon. “We walked through the trees and stood at the foot of Loch Maree and looked at the scenery and thought gosh, what should we do?”

At the end of the route they had decided: their house in Peebles was sold within a fortnight, and they moved north. “We’d done 20 years in offices and just didn’t want another 20 years of that,” says David.

Their son, aged 17 and in his final year at school, was the only obstacle, but now, says Sharon, he’s loving it. “Tonight he’s at a barbecue on the beach with his pals and he’s playing for the local football club.”

They arrived after the summer season, when trade was slack, but it gave them a chance to revamp the place and get to know the locals. Now they work 95-hour weeks to build the business, but still make time to enjoy the area.

“Last night we shut up at 7pm and just left everything and went down to the coast. It was what we came here for,” says Sharon.