The road was certainly long and winding and in an Austin Maxi in 1969, the 500 miles between Liverpool and Durness in Sutherland would have challenged the most experienced motorist. 

Add to the mix two possibly fractious young children in the back seat, a frosty reception from relatives less than thrilled by the new wife and John Lennon’s notoriously poor eyesight, and it really was an accident waiting to happen. 

Today the North Coast 500 is arguably Scotland’s most popular tourist trail, luring visitors from across the world in cars, bikes and campervans to remote roads which cling to the coastline and stunning scenery. 

READ MORE: 'Food is what we do now, even millennials go to restaurants': Pete Irvine on the best of Scotland

Part of its charm are the single track stretches, the hidden dips that give way to breathtaking views, its twists, turns and dramatic weather that can change in the blink of an eye.

But while they may be quaint, they can challenge even the best driver, never mind one with few motoring skills and poor eyesight.

Fifty years ago this July, one of the world’s most famous men, his new Japanese wife and their two children from previous relationships set out to explore at least part of what would become that famous coastal route. 

And, bizarrely, the Lennon family’s NC500 jaunt would almost change the course of music history and leave the Beatle, pregnant Yoko Ono and her daughter in hospital for nearly a week.

“John Lennon was a dreadful driver,” says lifelong Beatles fan Ken McNab, who has just written a book that reflects on events of 1969, the year the Beatles finally unravelled and cut their final albums together.  

“He was horrendously shortsighted. He had passed his driving test in 1965 but never had to drive a car. He was a Beatle, and there was always some flunky on hand to drive for him. 

“He decided to go from Liverpool to Durness which, even by today’s standards isn’t an easy journey.”

Lennon harboured fond memories of the remote north-west corner of Sutherland – closer to Oslo than it is to Liverpool – after spending summer holidays amid rolling hills and dramatic coastal scenery with close family in Durness, 120 miles north of Inverness

Perhaps he wanted to recreate those carefree childhood days with his new family, or just to escape the glaring spotlight of life in The Beatles and the controversy that met the couple’s anti-Vietnam “bed-in” protests. 

Whatever the motivation, Lennon hit the road – as it turned out, quite literally. 
Before long the Austin Maxi would be lying in a Highland ditch, Lennon’s chin gashed wide open, his wife dazed from a head injury and two startled children requiring hospital treatment. 

READ MORE: How does North East 250 compare to North Coast 500?

The accident, on one of those picturesque single track roads, would result in possibly one of the strangest hospital admissions Scotland has ever seen, with the Lennons – fresh from a two-week long Amsterdam bed-in for peace – taking over the tiny Lawson Memorial Hospital in Golspie. When they eventually emerged, Lennon was sporting 17 stitches in a nasty wound across his chin, and his avant-garde artist wife and her daughter were nursing facial injuries. 

It rounded off a grim summer for the Lennon clan. His marriage to Yoko Ono in March 1969 had caused upset among fans and family. No doubt the road trip with his son Julian, then six, and Ono’s daughter Kyoko, five, seemed a good idea at the time. 

“He was close to his cousin Stan Parkes, whose mother he called Aunt Mater,” explains Mr McNab, whose book, And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles, has just been published.

“The family had a croft in Durness. The open space and fresh air were quite different from the heavy industry and pollution of Liverpool.”

The croft overlooked Sango Bay, where the white sands are edged by dramatic, rocky cliffs and blue sea.  As a child, Lennon had spent hours playing there with his cousin, Stan, exploring Smoo Cave with its impressive waterfalls or just playing in the wide open spaces. 

It could have been the perfect antidote to the pressures of summer 1969. 

“His marriage to Cynthia had ended and he wanted to reconnect with his son, to mend fences. But all his family knew of Yoko was that she was the very antithesis of his first wife, Cynthia, who was a home-spun Liverpool girl,” adds Mr McNab.

The family headed first to Wales and Liverpool in a Mini, before upgrading to the Austin Maxi to head north to visit his aunt and cousin at their Durness croft.  

READ MORE: 6 incredible highlights of the North Coast 500 to visit this summer

“He decided to head off in the car to do a quick tour from Loch Eriboll to Tongue,” adds Mr McNab.

“Stan later spoke of telling him to remember the golden rule of driving on a single track road – to be prepared to give way to oncoming vehicles.

“Outside of Tongue on a single track road, and they are met by a car coming towards them.

John panics and drives the Austin Maxi off the road and into a ditch.”

The family was rushed to Golspie Lawson Memorial Hospital for treatment, while the world’s press dug out maps and tried to figure out how to reach the far-flung corner of Scotland. 

“What’s strange is the time the family spent in hospital,” adds Mr McNab. “There’s a sense of intrigue about why, if their injuries were quite minor as they seemed to be, did they spend almost a week there?”

Perhaps the Lennons were simply making the most of the peace and anonymity. Ono, after all, was pregnant and had already suffered one miscarriage; indeed, by October, the pregnancy would also end in loss. 

Another theory is that the couple was taking advantage of the health care to wean themselves off the drugs that had increasingly encroached on their lives. Perhaps their recuperation was a chance to go “cold turkey”. 

Eventually they emerged, walking wounded, and within days were back in the global spotlight as the Beatles gathered to record their final album, Abbey Road. These days back in Durness, a memorial garden pays tribute to the area’s adopted son. “He loved Scotland, and he particularly loved Durness,” said Mr McNab.