Northern Scotland Trip Recap

by Keith Savage · 3 comments

A gorgeous highland loch

Northern Scotland has many names: the northern highlands, the northwest highlands, the “real” highlands, the North Coast 500. Such a large swath of land is not easily defined. Here you’ll find moor and mountain, coastline and cliffside, beach and bush. Red deer outnumber the inhabitants, and villages humbly huddle beneath the mountains. There is true wilderness here, the kind where mankind’s mark feels like a distant thing. In that way, northern Scotland casts our vision beyond our collective selves, and that can be a scary or exhilarating feeling depending on your point of view. For my part, I found it to be an invigorating place that carried away the stress of modern life on its crisp winds.

For the record, two weeks is not nearly enough time to do justice to this region. It’s simply too large and varied. Despite 3,000 photos and 1,300 miles, I’m already working out how I can get back next year because, and this might sound funny, I want to see Wester Ross overcast. I’m still recovering from my sunburn.

Hopefully you’ve had a chance to read my impressions from the road about Wester RossSutherland, and Caithness. Those posts collected my thoughts on each area while I was on the road. Today’s post serves as a brief recap of my trip to let you know what went right, what could have been better, and to inform your own trip planning in Scotland’s far north.

The west coast is the highlight. The scenery from Applecross to Kylesku blew my mind, and it’s this region that deserves the lion’s share of your time. The town of Applecross is reminiscent of Hobbiton, and on its doorstep you have the harrowing Bealach na Bà pass — pictures do not do it justice. Torridon, Loch Maree, and Gairloch are all stunning sights, and as you go north you’ll see An Teallach, Corrieshalloch Gorge, Ullapool, Achiltibuie, Suilven, Lochinver, and Kylesku. Do you see how long that list is? That’s just scratching the surface. There are loads of forgotten but perfect beaches, convivial pubs with excellent seafood, and unforgettable hikes. This ranks up there with my favorite parts of Scotland.

The Orkney Islands and the Western Isles make sensible add-ons. All that said, the northern highlands are not the easiest to fit into a visit to Scotland that includes other regions. One way to make it work is to wrap in visits to the Orkney Islands and/or the Western Isles. Ferries to Orkney leave from Scrabster and Gill’s Bay in Caithness, while ferries to Lewis leave from Ullapool. A good way to explore part of the North Coast 500 is to drive up through Easter Ross, eastern Sutherland, and Caithness, visit Orkney, and then return to the mainland and drive west and south down to Ullapool. You could ferry to Lewis and back to Ullapool, then continue south through gorgeous Wester Ross and onward.

Their are stretches of desolation. It’s not all rainbows shooting out of your eyes. To be completely honest, there are stretches of empty, somewhat uninteresting moorland along the North Coast 500. In particular, the road from Tongue to Thurso on the north coast and the stretch from Wick down to Brora on the east coast are bland in comparison to the rest of the drives. The highland clearances hit this region hard, scooping out much of the area’s cultural history, and that coupled with more pedestrian scenery makes these stretches forgettable.

This is not the ideal trip for novice/nervous drivers. There are a lot of single-track roads out here, many of them main roads. For example, much of the road from Kylesku to Durness — the only road north — is single-track where the only signs are painted on old tires and read “SLOW DOWN! Lambs on road.” Most of the time these small roads aren’t an issue, but there are certain stretches like the road from Achiltibuie to Lochinver and the ‘Wee Mad Road of Sutherland,’ with their hairpin turns and blind corners, that can test the stoutest heart. You’ve been warned!

The North Coast 500 is geared toward a certain type of traveler. Explorers, hikers, and those seeker natural beauty and solitude will love the North Coast 500. Perhaps there is no other place in Scotland so perfect for such travelers. But if you’re the type of person who needs to be around people, prefers cities, and feeds on history, then you might be less impressed. If you’re not prepared for just how far out there northern Scotland can feel you will chafe at the “emptiness.”

Do yourself a favor and head inland. The North Coast 500 is called that for a reason — much of the northern interior is composed of vast stretches of empty moorland, high heath, and peat bogs. There are a few roads that cross it, however, and you might just find something incredible, like thousands of years old Dun Dornigail Broch standing beneath the heights of Ben Hope and surrounded by a herd of red deer.

Another trip in the books, another swath of Scotland researched and explored. Get ready for a cascade of articles about the incredible northern highlands!

NormandNo Gravatar September 23, 2016 at 10:00 AM

I have been reading your post on Northern Scotland with great interest. I felt in love with Scotland in 2011, when I walked the West Highland Way & Great Glen Way for 2 weeks. After we rented a car and traveled from Inverness to Skye to Ullapool and back to Inverness. I will be on sabbatical for one year starting October 2019 and I am planning and extended stay in Scotland: so much to explore…Thanks for your blog.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 25, 2016 at 10:10 AM

Sounds wonderful, Normand. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog!

Jim StuhtNo Gravatar July 6, 2016 at 11:29 AM

Gotta admit the stretch from Bettyhill to Thurso is a bit of a slog. But on the drive from Wick down to Brora (stayed at the Royal Marine near the golf course & it was incredible!) there are some interesting sites such as the Whaligoe steps, the Hill o’ Many Stanes, the Grey Cairns of Camster, plus the Laidhay Croft museum – with a really nice tea room sharing the parking area, plus a lovely museum in Helmsdale (Timespan). All are just a short way off the main A9. Plus, if you are a reader of Neil M. Gunn (Highland River – The Silver Darlings – et al, his home village of Dunbeath has a nice museum plus a statue of Kenn & the Salmon in the harbor.

Have to admit tho that I am a tad biased since my wife’s clan – Clan Gunn – has their clan lands & clan museum in Latheron and the surrounding area. YMMV 😉

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