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Scotland’s Route 66 -- Does It Live Up To The Hype?
Cameron Dean of We Buy Any Motorcarvan gets on the road to see if the Scottish Highlands deserve their glowing reputation.
In what was undoubtedly a genius pitch from the Scottish tourism board -- comparing the Highlands North Coast 500 to the backbone of America -- motorcaravanners, campers, and glampers have flocked to the northernmost extremities of the country in their droves.
But is the journey really all it's cracked up to be? We decided to find out for ourselves.
But First: Can the Scottish North Coast really be compared to Route 66?
Yes and no. ‘Yes’ if your idea of the ultimate road trip is spending long (and sometimes lonely) stretches on tarmac, with intermittent stops at beautiful locations that a lot of people won’t ever see.
‘No’ when you consider the North Coast can be completed in a few days; whereas it takes at least two weeks and probably a month to tackle Route 66. That and the fundamentally different climates, cultures, population densities, and settlements.
Route 66 is also considered the backbone of America because it runs through the heartlands, similar to the M6 in England. In Scotland, the North Coast 500 is nestled almost exclusively above Inverness, the last great population-centre in in the country.
But let’s remember that this is one of the most scenic roads in a country that Rough Guideslisted as the most beautiful country in the world.
Day One: Starting out on the North Coast 500
Given that Inverness is is the “capital of the Highlands” and one of the happiest places in the UK, we used it as both a launching-off base and a recuperation pad. The route naturally takes the driver in a circular fashion. Although Inverness is thought of as a “capital” of some description, it’s population is numbered only in the tens of thousands.
From there, we took our motorcaravan to over to the “Black Isle” (which isn’t black, nor an island). Black Isle is where the North Coast 500 route officially starts.
Black Isle to the ‘Edge of the World’
From Black Isle, it's an epic two hour drive to Bienn Bahn, Scotland’s “white mountain”. This is a great spot for some mountain climbing, if that’s your cup of tea. The scraggly, eroded sides bare all the marks of Scotland’s glaciated past.
Moving past Bienn Bahn, this time northward, the driver will be treated to spectacular views of the Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye, including the so-called ‘Black Cuillin Ridge’ and the ‘Red Cuillin’.
From then on, perhaps the most logical place for some R&R is the settlement of Applecross; known colloquially as the ‘edge of the world’ because of its position hanging over the Atlantic. We would recommend stopping here for some great food; stick around in the morning to explore the archeological digs.
Day Two: Turquoise Waters, Bone Caves, and Little Villages
The route is almost a straight shot, high up north. If the weather is clear you should be able to see the Outer Hebrides. On a sunny day -- we’re not kidding, the beaches on the Hebrides look postcard-esque; indistinguishable from ones in Miami or Thailand. If the weather isn’t too clear, turn your eyes inwards and keep an eye out for some of the unique Scottish wildlife, such as deer and the great highland cattle.
Day Two also also neatly punctuated with another delightful Scottish village: Ullapool. The waterfront is the perfect place to stretch the legs, take a few pictures, and grab some lunch. The seafood here is as fresh as it comes; pulled right in from the Atlantic, and bursting with flavour and Omega-3.
But the best part of the day is the penultimate attraction: the Bone Caves. Nestled in the limestone cliffs of an old glacial valley, the Caves are tranquil, eerie, fascinating and solemn all at the same time. As the name suggests, the Bone Caves holds the remains of wolves, bears -- even some of the earliest humans -- who sought shelter from the challenging temperatures of the Highlands.
From then on it's a little over an hour’s drive to Durness. If you aren’t staying in a motorcaravan, Durness has plenty of B&Bs to wind down after a long day’s driving and exploring.
Day Three: Fishing, Neolithic Monuments, and coastal cliffs
An early rise in Durness is a treat. The village is spoiled with beaches, moorlands, and walking trails -- just be careful not to overdo it before getting back on the road. If you like fishing, one of the best fishing spots in the UK is only two hours away, in the clear waters separating the mainland from the Orkneys.
And just a bit further up still is the most northerly point in Britain. If it’s in the June - August months, the village of Dunnet Head is a great place to see perpetual twilight of the so-called midnight sun.
From then on it’s a straight run down south back to the Black Isle, with one final point of ancient history -- the Grey Cairns of Camster. The Cairns are burial chambers, constructed by the ancient Celts about 5,000 years ago. Make sure to spend some time exploring this underappreciated touch of our history.
After the Cairns, soak in the beauty of the Highlands one last time, with a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Inverness that will seem like no time at all.