The North Coast 500 – before it was invented ! 

 

In 2014, in a bid to promote north of Scotland tourism, the North Highland Initiative created the North Coast 500, a circuit of northern Scotland, starting/finishing in Inverness. However, 3 pioneers from our group, did the NC500 in 2011! 

Well, we almost did it, we missed the first bit, Inverness west to Applecross, but apart from that, John, Keith & Andrew had a great 5 day trip covering most of what is now known as the North Coast 500 

Starting lunchtime on the Thursday before the August bank holiday, heading up the 65, to Kirby Lonsdale, then B & A roads to Penrith & on to Dumfries.  We’d be tenting it on this trip, & I’d spotted a tiny campsite north of Dumfries, the Glenmidge Smithy (Auldgirth) & we booked in there. Great little site, with a barn complete with kettle/cooking facilities, & seating area. We wouldn’t be cooking on this trip, only downside was we had to ride to the pub for a meal. 150 miles today. 

 Friday saw us away for 0700, & northwest to Kilmarnock for fuelling bike & body, then up to Largs & Gourock for the ferry across to Hunters Quay. I‘ve done this ferry several times now & I always think the ride north through Argyll, is a great route to the west coast, rather than the Glasgow drag. On past Loch Fyne (no stop for seafood today) and to Inverary, for a tea stop. 

Keith & I, wanting to pay homage to our hosts, had each brought a bottle of the good stuff & of course we had all enjoyed a dram at Glenmidge. Inverary has a great whisky shop, & John, was feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t brought any with him, we spent some time trying to get him to buy the £700 bottle in the shop. John wasn’t to be persuaded. 

North of here, from Inverlochy, we headed north east up Glen Orchy. This is a really scenic Glen & a must if you are in this area. Unfortunately, the road had just been resurfaced, & was gravelly, and heavy rain now, which spoilt it a bit on the day. Bridge of Orchy & on to Fort William for a late lunch. Heading now for Mallaig, we realised time was tight for the Skye ferry, & the pace became progressive. Well, we made the ferry, & onto Skye to a campsite near the bridge.  

The Ashaig campsite is an interesting one, informal definitely, and unmanned. There was a honesty box for the £4 camping fee, and a numbered wooden spoon to place by your tent to “prove” you had paid . A mile walk to the Red Skye restaurant for local smoked salmon & mussels. Back at the campsite, still light & the midges were in full force. Keith & I put on our midge head nets, John didn’t ( cos he didn’t have one)  & in the morning looked like a plague victim.  Ha ha. 280 miles today. 

Another early start, north through Torridon, & Ullapool. At some time today we stopped overlooking a loch, with a pier, & some concrete platforms built into the hillside. Keith told us there were underground fuel tanks hidden under the concrete, it was a submarine fuelling station.  Can’t remember where though (If I could, I couldn’t say, it’s a secret!!) Onto to Durness, which is about as far north & west as you can get in this fine country. On exiting the coffee shop the wind was getting up a bit. Eastwards now, we camped at Bettyhill, half way to Thurso. The pub was very lively, the local football team had won the local Cup, & had been celebrating since late afternoon. A good crack. 250 miles today – a long way on minor highland roads! 

Picture those newsreels of hurricanes in Florida, with tree branches horizontal in the wind/raid. Well, that was our view as we left the pub. We spent an uncomfortable night in heavy wind/rain, in the morning my tent was destroyed – I left it in the camp skip! Worst summer storm for years, apparently 

We were away for 0600 – no chance of sleep, & rode in the most testing conditions I recall. Strong winds & rain, you’d ride past a gateway & be blown across the road, Or round a corner to find a flooded road. Or road covered in leaves ripped from the trees. There really was no option but to ride through the floods, at one point I rode through deep water & flooded the bike engine, Water in the oil & everything. Fortunately restarted & no apparent damage. We stopped for fuel at Thurso (30 miles, 90 minutes) & on to J O G. Been there, done that, won’t rush back. 

The first café we saw open was at Helmsdale, 80 miles & 4 hours from our early start. We enjoyed breakfast with a group of cyclists, equally soaked & both wondering who was the most daft, riding in these conditions. Fortunately, the weather improved & we were on dry roads as we got to our Inverness stop, early afternoon, The longest ever 180 miles today. 

Our Inverness stop – the highlight. Did I say, Keith is a builder & a bit of a heritage building expert. He had overseen the renovation of the only inhabited castle on Loch Ness, Aldourie & his boss offered  to put up Keith & his biker mates tonight. Absolutely fantastic, we all had our own luxurious room, & a guided tour by Keith. Have a look at https://www.aldouriecastle.co.uk & if you can find a way to stay here, then do it. Unforgettable. Roger the owner, joined us for breakfast, waiter service, order what you want, all FOC, Roger is very generous.

Home today, good roads via Speyside, St Mary’s Loch, Moffat, then the M6 to Kirby Lonsdale. 390 miles, no worries 

This was a great adventure, you don’t know what a trip like this will bring, but it’s ALWAYS worth doing.

 Andy Pratt

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