Scottish Coast 500 (SC500)
The SC500 is a tourist route in Scotland that I failed to drive when undertaking the John O Groats to Lands End drive in October last year. The route in essence follows the coast all around the top of Scotland from Inverness, North to John o Groats, then across the top to Cape Wraith, then south down the West Coast to Ullapool. The roads do continue south all the way to Kyle of Lochalsh but the official route stops at Ullapool. For me the route was so overwhelmingly fantastic, I felt it best to stop at Ullapool and save the southern roads and Islands for another holiday.
So Day one (Tuesday Morning) saw me leave home at 10 am and drive to Perth for the first nights stop. There is not a lot to report about the Roads in England, as they are as sour as always. I tend to prefer the A1 when heading north as the views are better than the M6. Holy Island was in mist and cloud so that was missed, I did see the Angel of the north however. The road works were endless and 50mph became the norm most of the day (smart motorways?). Travelodge Hotels might be a bit plain, but they are comfortable and welcome after a day behind the wheel, that welcome included the Harvester pub next door.
Right its time to enjoy the real scenery, having grabbed an early cup of coffee and got the flock out of Perth at 7am (to avoid the rush hour). I drove up the A9 towards Inverness. Having been up this way last year I knew just short of Aviemore by the first Snow gates was a nice little cafe called the Relia cafe (http://www.ralia.co.uk). It has Wifi and very nice coffee and Bacon sandwiches. An ideal breakfast stop and a chance to check the car and make sure all was well. (coffee, its one of those things like Tea, where it represents the bit between driving, where oil & water etc are checked, or occasionally refuelling or sleeping is involved).
After my breakfast I headed north to Inverness and onto the start of the SC500, where it follows the road North to Wick (my overnight stop). As I was making good time I decided to alter the route, so drive around the lochs via the old roads and not over the causeways that cross the lochs now. I also stopped off in a few places to enjoy the views. One stop-off was a village called Lybster, it has a little port. The harbour reminded me of some of the those small places in Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.
The roads had been clear and the sun out so I arrive early in Wick, so decided to continue onwards North whilst the sun was out. The normal tourist John O Groats was visited, but this time I avoided the normal trappings of “paid for photos” and found a new sign I hadn’t seen on my previous visit.
Time was getting on, so I decided to visit the real most northern part of the UK mainland, Dunnet Head, which is a dozen or so miles along the coast, and a good few miles further North than JOG.
The views were amazing if a bit hazy, the Camera lies and withholds the real depth and width of the views, all the way across the coast as far and one could see to the Orkney isles and west to Cape Wraith.
On the drive back towards Wick for my overnight stop, I passed Dunnet beech, which in the sun was beyond my wildest dreams of golden sand, sun and relaxing. So I stopped and sat on the beech for an hour soaking up the sun looking at the crystal clear water.
I have scooped up a small handful of the sand and put it in the back of the car, so it dint feel like it was left out. Stupid I know but its the little things that make memories better.
So after that hour of sun in the North I headed back to the hotel, for my overnight stop and again like the locals, indulged in the local custom of drinking a few pints of “do as your told!”, along with an evening meal of Roast Pork. (living the dream).
Can it getting any better? You bet you it can. The weather started off drizzly and overcast, but having seen the reports of clearing weather by morning to leave sunny spells in the west, I knew I was on course for another good day. Never did I dream it would be 22 degree and sunny but i turned out to be just that!
First I retraced my steps north to Dunnet Head and having left at 7am, and knew I was in for a long day of single lane roads and hills.
Taking a sideways point here, I have been speaking with a friend of mine about riding this route on the mopeds, for a laugh. without ruining the story, one would have to be a real head case and have two weeks spare to ride this. The bikes wouldn’t make it not without spare engines every 20 miles and a lot of pushing. So there you go Moped adventure called off for now. Right back to the drive:
First I passed Thurso, not a lot to tell you about that place other than I passed though it early and in drizzle.
The next major landmark was Dounreay power station (a very remote place to build a power station) but as its nuclear, one tends to stick then away from things in case it goes bang. From here onwards the roads tended to get smaller and smaller, steeper and steeper.
In no order at all, the beeches were golden, the view beyond words and the roads testing to say the least.
You can see the roads is a bit thin, and if you find yourself behind a slower vehicle it can be very painful to try and get past. I found myself behind two Italian camper vans, just outside a small village called Hope, they were driving at 20 mph and after 10 miles the que of cars behind myself was a dozen long. No amount of horn beeping from the other cars or me would distract the drivers of the campers. It was with some frustration that an oncoming lorry stopped them by blocking the road (as it was big) and after getting out that truck, the driver telling them in no uncertain terms, that one has to use the rear view mirrors of the camper and be polite to fellow road users. They pulled into the passing point and let the rush hour traffic pass.
I followed this road for miles with my mouth open at the beauty of the coves, hills house and roads. It was all far beyond what I could imagine. In weather like it was I can understand the lure of living in Sutherland. Its remote and quiet (in fact so quiet when I got out the car to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere, on occasions it was silent. No birds, no wind no cars nothing!)
Soon I arrived in Durness, which is realistically as far as one can go North West, as all the land beyond is military and doesn’t have vehicle access. There is a ferry across the sound to Cape Wraith and access out to the lighthouse about 10 miles across the cape in a transit minibus. Time was pressing on due to the Italians and one could feel the every presence of them catching me up, if i stopped for more than 20 minutes anywhere. I just couldn’t entertain the thought of watching the rear of a camper van for the rest of the day as it rumbled along at 20 mph. So i didn’t take the ferry (not that i could as the tide was too far out for it to run. The bay was just solid golden yellow sand, no mud in these places.
From here the road gets back to some normality and widens to mainly two lanes wide, with a few thinner bits up hills and around step bends, but having made so much time on our “20 mph cousins” I felt stopping now was not going to be an issue. My fist port of call was a village called Rhiconich, which has a sea bay with great views and a beech of white sand. Ideal for dinner that evening also popped into view. How weird to share a beach with sheep?
The roads got progressively larger until they became normal A roads, and the moutons became an ever more present companion to the route, less sea and more up and downs. I did however take a small diversion off the route to one small coastal harbour called Tarbet. Now there are lots of targets in the UK, but this one is so remote (in my eyes) that is so easy to miss on a map. The road in and out was single lane, involved a few 20% hills with no barrier to stop you driving into the odd loch. but after a good 8 miles of scary roads I arrived at the ferry port to the Isle of Handa the target Harbour. I didn’t catch the ferry over as Birds are not my things and I still had the entire southern leg to drive and it was now 11am.
As I said earlier the scenery turned to mountain’s and the most beautiful mountain I have sen in years took my attention (all be in stuck in clouds most of the time), its called Quinag, its very dramatic and the roads lend themselves to stopping in lay-bys to soak it all in. The views I was getting were fantastic, and starting to get to me, how could I take this all in. 100’s of miles driven and every turn another dreamscape. This route lives up to its name in every way (bar the Italians).
Day Three part two
Onwards I drove and arrived in Ullapool by 2pm, a good days drive. After a spot of lunch in a cafe, I made the mad decision that:
a) The southern half of the route which includes the Isle of Skye, Isle of Mull & Torridon need to be saved for another holiday. I don’t think I could or can soak it all up in one trip.
b) That I was in a position if I tried hard to get home that night (I like my own bed) based on the time of day and my driving ability.
c) Fuel consumption in the VW was stupidly high, I had pushed it to 68.4 mpg and having only used one tank of fuel so far, I should top up in Ullapool and see how far I could get.
So the die was cast and homeward bound I was.
To cut the story short I got back to my house for 11:45pm a good hour later than planned due to silly A1 road works (remember those roads I talked about at the start of this post ?) Noticed were put up north of Scotch Corner to warn of road works ahead and one should use the A19, so I duly did to get back on the A1 as the A19 joins it just north of Wetherby to find myself in a hour long que of traffic as the A1 was closed south of the A19! So why shove us on the A19? The trip south involved three stops one in Aviemore, the second in Berwick and the last just south of Leeds. Just under 16 hours and 713 miles. I got home jumped in the shower laid in bed and relaxed, at no point was I tired. A record for me, one which I don’t intend to repeat.
The car, behaved faultlessly and averaged 66 mpg for the whole three days, I topped just under 1400 miles in all (713 on the last day) I drove most days from dawn to early afternoon, apart from yesterday.
scores out of ten for the views and roads TEN!
P.S. never did get that minted lamb meal… need to get that in tonight I think.