In 1883 a newspaper reporter wrote of his delight at discovering ‘the most enchanting spot’ on a Highland expedition.

The rugged and spectacular estate at Inverewe in Wester Ross was only twenty years old by then, created from three separate purchases of land in the early 1860s.

Dowager Lady Mary of Gairloch had snapped up the land on behalf of her only son, Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie. 

The estate bordered the shores of Loch Ewe, where Osgood could indulge his passions for fishing and stalking, writes Pauline Butler, volunteer archivist and historian at Inverewe House and Gardens.

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In time an engineer was employed and a road “capable of bearing wheels” was created. 

Fast forward 140 years and those roads are bearing a significantly heavier load. Earlier this week fourteen motorhomes are observed at 8,30am travelling from Inverewe to Braemore.

The convoy prompts an angry response from the followers of the social media group NC500: The Dirty Truth when they are alerted to it by an eyewitness. It is here that grievances about 'Scotland's Route 66' are aired and the behaviour of campervans drivers is a hot topic.

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"Absolutely ridiculous and so unnecessary," replied one member. "Do they never even spare a moment to think about the essential workers and emergency vehicles that will need to get past, as well as those who need to drive faster than 25mph."

The North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 with a simple aim - to boost tourism in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, areas that did not see the high visitor numbers of Inverness and other, more accessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.

READ MORE: The best bars to visit on Scotland's NC500

The figures, at least pre-Covid, do stack up.

The Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development, at Glasgow Caledonian University, carried out an economic impact assessment in 2018 and found that it led to 180 full-time jobs being created while businesses at or near the route saw an increase of £13.4m in sales. 

Demand for accommodation has soared as the plaudits for the route have rolled in.

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The year it was launched it was named fifth in the "Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World" by Now Travel Magazine.

Last week it was named one of the best places in the world for honeymooning couples planning a road trip, alongside such exotic destinations as the Amalfi Coast in Italy, the Andalusian countryside and the South of France.  

The problem is that people in the villages are feeling very disenfranchised and I absolutely agree with them. Maree Todd SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

Stephen Marsh is a member of another Facebook group where visitors share their, mostly positive, experiences of the trip as well as tips and recommendations for good hotels and must-see attractions.

Mr Marsh from Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, completed the route in July 2021 in a 25-year-old Corsa that he had recently restored, with his friend Jamie Martin, who is from Dingwall and describes it as an "amazing experience."

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"Even though he lives close to it, he had never done it before," he says.

"The little Corsa we did it in, I'd just finished restoring it and I wanted to find a challenging environment to drive it in.

"We took a week to do it but we added a few bits in to make it even more interesting.

READ MORE: NC500's most enchanting visitor attractions worth checking out 

"We drove from Dingwall to Mallaig and caught the ferry to Skye and then stayed in Portree and did some of the attractions there and obviously it's stunningly beautiful.

"We then came back over the bridge into Kyle, which again is really really nice. It wasn't 500 when we did it, it was 1139 miles.

"I love driving in challenging places," he added. "I've taken that car all over Europe before I took it off the road."

His favourite stretch was Bealach na Bà, the 11-mile mountain pass with hairpin bends located in the Applecross peninsula, which rises to 626m (2,054ft) above the sea level

"It is challenging but it's not as challenging as people say," says Mr Marsh.

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"It's not as bad as Hardknott Pass in the Lake District (which shares the title of steepest road in England with Rosedale Chimney Bank in North Yorkshire). You can't get a campervan near that."

He says a lot of the criticisms about the roads may be down to the drivers themselves. 

"Some of the roads need work but you don't want to take away from the experience of being in the wilderness either," he says.

"I think maybe more than anything it's the drivers who need experience. I'm very fortunate because I have the Yorkshire Dales on my doorstep so I'm used to driving on country roads but it really shows who isn't.

"When there isn't a white line on the road they will just drive down the middle like they are not expecting anyone else."

He said they booked self-catering accommodation five months before the trip and only had one bad experience.

"One of them was a bunkhouse but what it didn't say was that you had to bring your own everything. You got a bed and a mattress and a mattress protector and that was it.

"The only other bit of it that was a bit of downside was that when we arrived in Applecross, on the Wednesday, every cafe and every pub was shut.

"It could have changed in two years though."

Rupert Allison launched Strathcarron Station House self-catering apartments, just outside Lochcarron, around a year after the NC500 was launched as a road trip.

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They have been full since the end of March and this has been their best year yet.

"We have no availability until well in October - I had a cancellation last week but someone booked it straight away," said the businessman.

"We are literally about half a mile off the main route so we market that we are part of the NC500 and we are also about a 25-minute drive from Skye.

"It perfectly positions us for people who want to do the NC500 and those who want to do a day trip to Skye."

While he's clearly benefited from the route he recognises that it's not all rosy.

"A lot of people will say it's too busy," said Mr Allison.

"There are problems with the infrastructure and the condition of the roads is dreadful.

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"There are huge potholes everywhere and it only takes one tourist with a burst tyre to have a day of their holiday ruined to get bad publicity.

"I know the garages are under pressure because they are out all the time rescuing people," he added.

"They have all had to take on more mechanics to go out on trucks.

"It's simple things like bursting a tyre. It seems that cars don't come with wheels and if they do [the drivers] don't know how to fit them."

He hopes Highland Council will push ahead with plans for a visitor tax to fund improvements to the roads.

"That's certainly the hope that it will be used and won't go into a central pot to be used in Edinburgh."

READ MORE: 'Suicide driving' on NC500 route by 30-strong group sparks local anger 

He said complaints about tourists "using the countryside as a toilet" have lessened but added: "You will still find campervans parking up and emptying their chemical toilet into the middle of the road."

"There is a need for more public toilets. I lose count of the amount of times people pull in because we are an old station and they think there will be a toilet. The nearest toilet is 25 miles away."

Tourism group SkyeConnect has raised concerns a tourist tax will put visitor off but he disagrees.

"I'm sorry but I'm hearing of hotels in Portree charging £400 a night for a bog standard hotel room," said the businessman.

"They haven't got spas and concierges and butlers. They are cashing in and unfortunately, people are paying it.

"I think that's going to turn more people away than a 1% charge.

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"We charge £140 in the height of the season for one of our apartments for which they get a sleep-four apartment with all the facilities."

In contrast to many short-term let owners he is also fully supportive of the Scottish Government's licensing scheme.

He said: "We stayed in a lot of self-catering properties which were quite frankly below standard and if licensing helps to remove some of those properties from the market then we are fully in favour because it gives the Scottish tourism industry a bad name at home and abroad, when people arrive at a property and it's dirty, it's shabby.

"One maybe unfortunate side is the fact that there will be pressure on accommodation in general.

"I know Skye is under a huge amount of pressure at the moment."

He says it's possible the popularity of the NC500 might have a finite lifespan.

"There will always be people looking to go to Skye but I don't know if the NC500 in 10 years will have lost its appeal.

"It's not showing any signs at the moment, that's for sure."

While businesses who pay to be accredited to the NC500 are reaping the benefits, locals who are not involved in the tourist trade have asked, "What's in it for us?".

Frustrations over dangerous driving and littering, problems which are not unique to the NC500, are said to have led to some vigilante action from locals including blocking passing places and for the Highlands but it must not be done at the expense of those who live there.

There is a balance to be struck, says Maree Todd, SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. Tourism is a crucial money-spinner for the Highlands but she says it must not be done at the expense of those who live there

She mentions that her father, a native and possibly mistake for a tourist, was yelled at while driving through a village.

"I absolutely sympathise with local people," said the MSP.

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"There is a heightened level of awareness and there is a heightened level of concern.

"The problem is that people in the villages are feeling very disenfranchised and I absolutely agree with them.

"They are feeling like this is happening to them and it's completely out of their control and they get no benefit from it.

She added: "The onus is on everybody to ensure that they don't feel like that, that they have a voice. 

"We are a part of the country that has forever been known for our hospitality.

"Most people do want visitors to come but they don't want people to go tearing through their villages, driving recklessly, defecating at the side of the road.

"They want people to go slowly, to show respect for their homes and to spend money locally. I think the situation is improving but we are up against it."

She said she had written a number of strongly worded letters to private companies that rent motorhomes and are promoting the idea that you "don't need a penny to travel to the Highlands" and owners are free to park anywhere they like. 

"That is utterly irresponsible," she said. "You can go and camp anywhere but in a tent, not a motorhome."

She believes the numbers doing the route have dropped slightly from the post-pandemic peak when staycations boomed.

"Some people will dispute this but anecdotally on the ground it seems there are fewer visitors this year so the peak was definitely 2021 both in the number of visitors and the type of visitors."

She said Highland Council is doing a lot to improve the roads and "money is available" from the Scottish Government.

"Things had deteriorated quite badly but there's now a programme in place to improve that situation," said the MSP, who is also a government minister.

Growing up in Ullapool she says it was "always a puzzle" to her that many tourists didn't travel beyond Inverness.

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"My village has always been dependent on fishing and tourism and we've loved having visitors over the years," she said.

"People weren't so keen to travel that far north but it is stunning, it's God's own country. 

"It's great that people are exploring it now. There is a question over whether that shouldn't have been done in a more managed way."

She would like to see NC500 do more to promote local produce and arts and crafts and not just restaurants and hotels who "pay to be part of the marketing."

" You would convince more locals of the economic model," said the politician.

Muriel Eaton lives in Beauly but is originally from the village of Bettyhill near Tongue and travels back often because four generations of her family are buried in Strathy Cemetery.

She says one area of concern for locals is camping next to cemeteries and campervans staying overnight in designated car parks. 

"Before the NC500 was created you would maybe get one person doing it and it wouldn't be every day or every week, it would be one person once in a while," she said.

"Since the NC500 there's been up to 20 motorhomes and campervans in the car park.

"This is a carpark that was put there for the cemetery.

"Anyone visiting graves or going to a funeral has to walk past folk enjoying themselves on holiday and sometimes you can't get a space to park.

She added: "It [the NC500] has done some good for businesses but the majority of people in the Highlands don't work in the tourism industry and therefore don't benefit from it."

A petition has been lodged about a similar problem in Luskentyre Cemetery on the Isle of Harris.

In response a spokeswoman for Highland Council said it was "entirely inappropriate and totally disrespectful" for tourists to use burials grounds and cemetery car parks for overnight parking.

She said work is progressing to introduce parking restrictions, which will allow penalties to be issued to unauthorised vehicles.

David Hughes, chairman of the NC500 group, wants to reassure the communities that live on the route:"We are listening".

He said: "We constantly speaking to people and people are speaking to us whether we like it or not.

"For me the NC500 is no different from the M8. People on these roads use it with proper regard for other users.

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"If you are doing the NC500, then you stop in a layby, there are plenty of them.

"We go round the route and if we spot something that is not good we speak to Highland Council and Visit Scotland to try to improve things and we speak to local businesses. 

"The bad parking and the disposal of waste and that kind of thing doesn't seem to be as much of a problem but it's still a problem.

"Some of the campsites will allow people to use their facilities for a nominal charge  like the one at Scourie."

He said there are plans to carry out another economic impact assessment but says the next will be more wide-ranging to measure the benefits for local people and not just those who run hotels and restaurants.

"There is a plan to do it but the question is money, it's not a cheap exercise," said Mr Hughes.

"We are deliberating at the moment who we fund it and we are looking for help from bodies who have an interest in the outcome.

"Our assumption is that it is going to show a similar picture in terms of economic outlook but what we are hoping to do is expand the survey to include sustainability and community impact and not just about the pound notes."

He believes local people do benefit from the marketisation of the area as a destination road trip.

"Even if you are not involved in the tourism industry, it creates jobs for the community," said Mr Hughes.

"Because there are more people there maybe the shops open a bit later.

"We are trying to improve mobile phone charging access. All these things add up for a wider benefit."

Anders Povlsen, Scotland's largest private landowner who owns conservation initiative Wildland is one of two main shareholders in the NC500. 

The other is a charity called North Highland Initiative, which was launched by King Charles an offers grants to community groups.

"So there is an indirect benefit," he said. "But the plan is to improve that."

He said it was disappointing that Highland Council had twice been rejected for UK Government levelling-up funding, which could be used to improve the roads and infrastructure.

"We don't know why it was turned down and of course that would have been great as one of the issues is that Highland Council is struggling for resources," said the chairman.

"We need the Tour de France to come to the north Highlands and the roads would be immaculate. 

"Where we are now is that the route is there and if the NC500 Ltd company stopped today people would still go on it.

"So our view is that people are coming in and we need to make them use the route so that it benefits both the visitors and the communities."

They hope to achieve this by promoting the idea of 'slow tourism'.

"Instead of people hairing around it in five days at breakneck speed, blocking the roads and creating a bit of a nuisance people do it in three or four visits," he said.

"I was up in Scourie recently and there were three or four Germans and French in motorhomes and they were doing that.

"They were doing the bit from Ullapool up to Durness in five or six days and stopping for a couple of days here and there.

"Therefore they are spending more time in the local communities and spending more money.

"We are not going to please everyone, ever but we are trying."