North Coast 500 (or NC500) is a motoring itinerary around the north coast of Scotland, starting and finishing in Inverness. The recommended route is 516 miles / 830 km but there are several short-cuts, diversions for heavier vehicles to avoid the narrowest roads, and side trips. It crosses the thinly-populated counties of Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness and Easter Ross.
The main roads north of Inverness carve through the valleys to reach little villages along the coast, and taking a loop tour has always been an obvious way to visit the area. In 2015 the concept of NC500 was launched as a tourist initiative, to promote an area that visitors to Scotland often overlooked, and to help small places like Lochinver, Durness and Thurso reach public attention under a collective banner. It was touted as "Scotland's Route 66" but fortunately there is not the slightest resemblance, and Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way is a better comparison. And it succeeded: doing the NC500 has become a "thing", a holiday wish-list item, a commodity with associated merchandising, some of it flaky.
Meanwhile it slowly dawned on all concerned that successfully promoting a driving itinerary tends to mean extra traffic. The main roads are two-lane and in good repair, as they're year-round truck routes, but they're winding and undivided with few opportunities to overtake safely. Tetchy convoys build up behind the cautious fellow from Belgium whose forward view is limited by his left-hand driving position. The back roads are mostly single track, with passing places that can just about fit a single car towing a caravan, but not a cavalcade of them. And the bulk of the tourist traffic comes in a surge in July and August. They all jostle to take the same photo of the castle that was a film location, they all scrummage to buy the same haggis-flavoured ice cream from the exact same cafe-shack that some celebrity enjoyed in a TV travelogue.
It's not a race! - don't mistake NC500 for Northwest 200, that harum-scarum on-road circuit around Coleraine. Cyclists can go as fast as they dare, and since 2021 their circuit record stands at just over 29 hours, but anyone who treats it as the Tour-de-Kinlochbervie is destined to see next to nothing of the area. For it is worth seeing, and realistically you need a vehicle, and to come when the days are longer and the weather is better. A one-week trip is about right, with 70-80 miles of motoring per day plus sight-seeing, moving on each morning. To spend longer anywhere, either extend the duration or use a short cut to skip part of the loop. Shoulder season of Easter to June and September to October is often a good time. In July and August book everything well in advance, and be patient with that slow fellow ahead, who by avoiding an accident is doing everyone else a favour.
You need eligibility to enter the UK, which is no longer part of the EU. You may need proof of covid status to enter, or at least to board transport to come here - these rules continue to evolve.
Some continental visitors bring their own vehicle, so they need to check their vehicle documention will be valid. But this means a left-hand drive on difficult roads - flying into one of the Scottish cities and renting will mean right-hand drive, and cut out days of motoring just to start the route.
The itinerary crosses remote areas, often without mobile phone reception. Filling stations and EV charging points are pricey, far apart and open limited hours, and you do poor mileage-per-gallon on the twisty hilly roads. Refill whenever your tank drops below half-full.
Accommodation books solid in July and August. So you definitely need to book ahead if you come then, which means you commit to a schedule and won't have flexibity to spend an extra day somewhere. Local communities are fed up with visitors parking overnight in passing places and on verges, and it's got so bad that police may turn back campervans and caravans who haven't booked a space.
Bring powerful sun block - even gloomy days transmit a lot of UV, and mid-summer days are very long. And bring lots of midge repellant - the West Highland Midge greats campers in ravenous clouds.
Inverness is the recommended start and finish. Indeed the way Highland transport routes funnel towards it, you'd have to go out of your way to start or finish anywhere else.
Many visitors come in their own car. So factor in another day or two to reach Inverness from the south of England or the continental ferry ports. From Glasgow or Edinburgh airports, which have a much better range of flights, allow four hours from picking up your rental car. A9 is a good highway but mostly undivided, busy with oncoming traffic, and dotted with speed cameras.
The route is here described clockwise, but you can just as well go anticlockwise.
Inverness to Lochcarron
- 1 Inverness is a Victorian town and transport hub with lots of visitor amenities. The ceremonial start and finish of NC500 is the castle, a 19th century baronial concoction that looks like it wants to be a golf hotel.
- Culloden five miles east of Inverness is a side-trip worth making, as here was fought the battle of 1746 that shaped the landscape you'll see on the route. The old clan system was destroyed, modern agriculture and industry penetrated the Highlands, and its traditional small farms were depopulated.
- Loch Ness starts eight miles south of Inverness and some boat trips sail from that marina. However the main base for the loch is Drumnadrochit, touristy and a longer side-trip.
- Kessock Bridge (toll free) is nowadays the standard route out of Inverness, carrying A9 across the Moray Firth to Black Isle. At Tore junction you either head clockwise on NC500 on A835, or stay on A9 to go anti-clockwise. Before the bridge opened in 1982, the old road to John o'Groats (now A862) followed the south shore to Beauly (which has a ruined priory), Muir of Ord (for Singleton distillery) and Dingwall - it might add ten miles to go that way. Unless you've made a late start, Dingwall is too close to Inverness for a first night's stop so it's described below at the close of the route. The roads diverge thereafter, so from Dingwall you're committed to either a clockwise or an anti-clockwise itinerary.
- 2 Strathpeffer is a 19th century spa village with accommodation. Lucky there isn't a distillery, as the spa water is sulphurous. Rogie Falls are along the main road a few miles west of the village; the footbridge is notoriously wobbly.
- Shortcut by staying on A835 to go directly to Ullapool, but the NC500 branches west on A832.
- 3 Achnasheen is a tiny place hemmed in by mountains. Not much here except, amazingly, a railway station: the Inverness - Kyle of Lochalsh trains thread their way along the glen. Branch south here on A890 for the main NC500 loop towards Lochcarron, Applecross and Torridon, or stay on A832 to shortcut to Gairloch.
- Skye can be reached by staying on A890 at the junction two miles before Lochcarron: this links up with A87 and the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. However this only brings you to Sleat, the lowland portion of Skye. Reaching the dramatic scenery of the centre and north is stretching it for a side-trip and needs a few days.
- 4 Lochcarron is where NC500 first reaches the west coast. It has a cluster of B&Bs and the road becomes A896. Turn off briefly on A890 (as if for Skye) to see Attadale Gardens. A dead-end lane south from Lochcarron runs to the abandoned village of Stromemeanach, a victim of the 19th century clearances, and Strome Castle a victim of clan feuding.
West coast: Lochcarron to Durness
- Applecross Pass branches off A896 about ten miles beyond Lochcarron. This is the first section of single-track lane encountered on NC500, and it's a stern first test. It's not suitable for caravans or large vehicles - these should stay on the main road to shortcut to Torridon. The lane has a good surface but is a long gradient with hairpins. It crests at 2054 ft / 626 m at Bealach na Bà, "Pass of the Cattle", though cattle are seldom your biggest concern. It feels utterly miles from anywhere, because it is, and a real holiday break for your unused fourth and fifth gears. But the descent west into Applecross needs even more care than the climb, a five-mile zigzag with a maximum gradient of 12.5% or 1-in-8.
- 5 Applecross strictly means the peninsula - the village is called "The Street". It has accommodation and views out to the island of Raasay, which is reached from Skye. Continue north on the shore road, built in 1975, which is narrow and winding but avoids the gradient over the Pass.
- 6 Torridon has spectacular loch scenery.
- 7 Gairloch is the village at the start of Melvaig Peninsula and is near Inverewe Garden.
- Corrieshalloch Gorge is the dramatic ravine where A832 to Ullapool re-joins A835 the shortcut from Inverness. Don't worry, you explore on foot and don't drive into it.
- 8 Ullapool has accommodation and amenities. It's set in great scenery but itself is a humdrum port. Ferries sail to Stornoway on Lewis but this isn't a good side-trip, it's a 2½ hour crossing to just about the least scenic spot in the Western Isles. You need several days (and preferably a separate trip) to enjoy those isles.
- Achiltibuie is a side-trip west along a long narrow lane off the main road out of Ullapool. Go that way for boat trips to the Summer Isles.
- 9 Lochinver is a fishing village on a loop of road from Ardvreck Castle beneath the peaks of Suilven. The B-road north takes in Clachtoll Broch, the lighthouse and Old Man of Stoer, and Drumbeg village. This narrow road gets congested in summer, and with a caravan or other large vehicle you might do better to back-track to Ardvreck then take A894 north via Kylesku.
- 10 Kylesku: Caolas or "Kyles" means straits, crossed until 1984 by a ferry but now spanned by an elegant bridge.
- 11 Scourie further up the coast has a cluster of accommodation. The road signs count down the miles to Laxford Bridge, but it's literally just that, a bridge and road junction with no local facilities. A838 is the shortcut back towards Inverness.
- 12 Kinlochbervie is a small harbour village.
- 13 Durness is near Smoo Cave, a curious hybrid of karstic and sea cave. A mile west of Durness is the little ferry giving access to Cape Wrath, where a minibus lurches 11 miles to the mainland's northwest tip. Balnakeil is an old military look-out station converted into a craft village.
- North West Highlands Geopark covers the whole northwest coast and hinterland from Achiltibuie to Durness. Here are traces of the great geological tumults that threw up the mountains and carved out the valleys.
North coast: Durness to John o'Groats
- The road signs still favour Gaelic but this stretch is definitely Norse. Their grip on mainland Scotland was broken at Largs in 1263 but they continued to control the islands, and this coast was so far from anywhere else that in medieval times you got here by boat, as if to an island. But fear not, the highways A636 and A838 are in good condition, two-lane undivided, with no steep gradients.
- 14 Bettyhill has views but not much else. The road is a straight run now across the heath.
- 15 Thurso is a transport hub, a miniature Inverness with a tumbledown castle - amazingly the 3rd Viscount still lives there.
- Stromness in the Orkney Islands is an excellent side-trip, a charming old port near megaliths and Neolithic tombs. The ferry from Thurso takes 90 min, passing close to the Old Man of Hoy.
- 16 John o'Groats is frankly a disappointment, just a signpost, car park and tourist-tacky shops, while the real attractions lie further along the coast. West as you approach from Thurso are Dunnet Head the true north point of Great Britain, and Castle of Mey a royal summer residence. Continue east to Duncansby Head, the northeast tip of the mainland.
East coast: John o'Groats to Inverness
- 17 Wick is a small port with maritime heritage and the world's shortest street. North as you approach from John o'Groats, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is the redoubt that a feuding family cherished so dearly that they smashed it. South of Wick, teeter down Whaligoe Steps into a former herring harbour. The country south towards Lybster is dotted with prehistoric sites: Cairn o'Get and Grey Cairns of Camster are good examples.
- 18 Helmsdale is another side of the Clearances: it's where they were evicted to, not from. In Badbae they built a village, then despaired of Highland life and headed to the cities.
- Dunrobin Castle at Golspie is the grand palace of the fellow doing the evicting, the Duke of Sutherland.
- 19 Dornoch has a 13th century cathedral. The Bishop's Palace is now a hotel.
- 20 Tain has the Glenmorangie Distillery.
- Portmahomack east of Tain is a short side trip for its Pictish stones. They discovered that part of the town museum dated from the 9th century, so they had to put it in a museum.
- 21 Invergordon has a deepwater harbour, so this is where cruise ship passengers land, with the obligatory bagpiper between gangway and tour bus.
- 22 Dingwall is basically an accommodation stop if it's getting late for arrival back in Inverness. Its castle won't take you long, but there's a distillery at Muir of Ord.
- Hike: lots of trails, see Walk Scotland for each area. These include the "Munros" - mountains above 3000 ft / 914.4 m. None are technically difficult, so you hike not climb them. Many valley trails were historically used to drive cattle to market and are just as muddy today.
- Dark skies but not in mid-summer. This sparsely populated area has no light pollution, so any clear night the stars and moon shine bright, and you might see the Northern Lights. But May through July it's never properly dark, just a brief "simmer dim".
- Golf courses are mostly down the east coast, with only a couple west, such as Ullapool.
- Highland Games, Clan Gatherings and Agricultural Shows are held in various villages in summer.
- Distilleries produce whisky in Dingwall, Tain, Wick and Thurso; tours may be available.
- Camping and caravanning: you normally won't have a problem finding a pitch or hook-up except at the height of the season. Check the site instructions for any size restrictions on the approach lane, and what to do if you arrive after office hours. Wild camping is usually tolerated, but please leave the place clean and tidy, and be very careful about lighting fires - this may be prohibited in a dry season. What you cannot do is park up and stay overnight in a layby or passing place. The police will rap on the door at midnight, fine you, and order you to move on.
- Hotels and B&Bs are small independent places, and may have quirky rules. A few are grand converted castles, so you might feel a bit sheepish if you don't turn up in a classic car to match. If you get stuck, try asking in local shops or cafes, and the bush telegraph may discover that Mrs Mackay ten miles up the road does indeed have a vacancy. This became more problematic in 2022, as anyone offering short-term accommodation in Scotland requires a licence, and can't informally open up a spare room for you. In the long run it's bound to benefit businesses and travellers by curbing out the flaky providers.
Road safety is a top concern just about anywhere, and here the added problem is single-track roads along the west coast. The Applecross Pass out of Lochcarron and Drumbeg loop north of Lochinver are not suitable for caravans or large motorhomes. Along with that goes road courtesy on the lanes: use the passing places not only to let oncoming traffic through, but to let faster traffic overtake. Always pull to the left, even when the loop is to the right. Keep in mind when you last passed a loop, because you might have to reverse to it if something big and ugly looms into view.
Bad weather can set in any time, any day.
- Skye initially disappoints, as you arrive in low-lying Sleat. But in the centre are the Cuillin mountains, and Trotternish peninsula north has dramatic scenery.
- Orkney Islands are easily reached from Thurso, a landscape of prehistoric monuments, red cliffs, and bright sea inlets between its pastures.
- Stornoway is reached by ferry from Ullapool. Lewis is a sparse moorland landscape, Harris (southern part of the same island) is more rugged.
- Moray and Aberdeenshire lie east of Inverness, with a string of scenic fishing villages, big-name whisky distilleries and crumbling castles.
- Aviemore is the first large settlement on A9 south of Inverness, the best base for exploring the Cairngorms.
- A9 south of Aviemore crosses bleak Drumochter Pass then descends towards the lowlands at Perth.
- Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland was the inspiration for NC 500. But it's 1550 miles / 2500 km long, so only plan for a short section per trip, unless you have an insatiable appetite for craggy coves strewn with bladderwrack and the occasional lobster pot.