Adventures Along the NC500 and Beyond – Loch Maree to Loch Carron
Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the rugged landscape from the Loch Maree to Loch Carron stage of the North Coast 500.
Over the years, we have explored the sections of the NC500 route several times, although not necessarily the complete route in one single journey. Indeed, our travels in this area began well before it had been called the North Coast 500. Our travels have opened our eyes to the beauty of the route and has given us the opportunity to also find hidden gems off the beaten track.
Commonly known as “Scotland’s Route 66”, the North Coast 500 has quickly become an iconic, must-do tourist route, having only been formally marketed as such back in 2015. The NC500 is actually 516-miles long, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, running along a mainly coastal route through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness. It has become so popular that has been described as "Scotland's Route 66".
Just a quarter of an hour drive from Gairloch is the stunning Loch Maree, which is often regarded as Scotland’s most picturesque loch. It is 20 km (12 mi) long, with a maximum width of 4 km (2.5 mi), and it is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland, framed beautifully by the 910 metre tall Slioch. There are many places along the road that skirts Loch Maree’s southern shore to stop and take in the scenery, and we also tried a bit of monster spotting as well, since the loch has its own rival to Nessie, a creature called Muc-sheilch. We didn’t have much time to stop and explore the loch, but we were interested to learn that on Isle Maree, the remains of a chapel can be found which is believed to be the 8th century hermitage of Saint Máel Ruba (d. 722).There is also a scenic waterfall just slightly off the beaten track on the southern side, called Victoria Falls, which is meant to be well worth the short hike.
Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve
As we continued our drive towards Loch Torridon, we couldn’t help but be impressed with 1,010 metre tall Beinn Eighe and the other peaks around it which make up what was the first National Nature Reserve in Britain. It is several rare animals such as Golden Eagles, Scottish Wildcat and Pine Marten. Dragonflies, and many rare birds. 48 square kilometres of Mountain, Woodland, and Lochside scenery.
As we drove around Beinn Eighe, the other two giants of the Torridon estate - Beinn Alligin and Liathach – came into view, both rising almost 1000 metres from sea level. We’d thoroughly recommend a trip along the single-track road through Glen Torridon if you have time and found it to be an unforgettable experience. The estate also has many breath-taking hiking trails, with paths suitable for most walkers. However, even if you are just driving through the area, you will receive views over some of the best and most celebrated landscapes of Scotland.
Bealach na Ba Road (Applecross Pass)
The highlight of this stretch of the NC500 must be Bealach na Bà. It is a historic pass through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula and the name of a famous twisting, single-track mountain road through the pass and mountains. The pass really reminded us of some roads in the Alps or Norway and we received great views at every point on this route. If you are not restricted by your trip itinerary, this is one attraction that we would always advise to do on a clear day – otherwise all you will experience is a tight, difficult road to navigate, without the spectacular views. Once you reach the top of the pass, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are now on the third highest road in Scotland, having ascended 626 metres in a matter of three or four miles. For those of you a bit squeamish, there is an alternative coastal road that goes from Sheldaig to Applecross, which has its own attractions, but nothing else will quite compare to the Bealach n Ba.
The Applecross Inn is a traditional bayside B&B, with home cooking and a lively local bar scene. It is notoriously difficult to book into the inn, as the accommodation is booked up months in advance. Instead, we stayed at the Cul an Dun B&B, just at the back of the campsite, which we found very welcoming, with a great view and breakfast. We did, however, have an evening meal at the Applecross Inn and we can report that the seafood was exceptional.
We descended Bealach na Bà the next day, winding our way down to the small village of Lochcarron. We took a slight detour off the official NC500 and headed to Strome Castle. Guarding the strategically important ferry crossing at the mouth of Loch Carron since the 1400’s, Strome Castle sits silently in ruins looking out sea towards the Isle of Skye. This relic, with such a romantic backdrop, was the scene of violent clashes between the Macdonalds of Glengarry and the Mackenzies of Kintail - that was until the former clan blew the castle up in 1602. Having never been rebuilt, the castle is testament to the vicious clan warfare hundreds of years ago.
Our NC500 detour carried us around the southern shore of Loch Carron and on to the idyllic Plockton harbour. Scotland has hundreds of picture postcard villages, but Plockton is consistently regarded as one of the best. This attractive village, with the neatly painted cottages hugging the shoreline, follows the curve of the tiny harbour. Like Ullapool, Plockton is a planned fishing village, being built in response to the land clearances of the early 1800’s, when people were replaced with sheep. When we visited, we had a childish snigger, since the work ‘plock’ in the Gaelic language means ‘pimple’, with Plockton being the little pimple on the end of the peninsula!
Eilean Donan Castle
A twenty minute drive from Plockton took us to one of the most iconic castles of Scotland - Eilean Donan. This fortification sits proudly on an island at the point where three great sea lochs meet. Understandably, the castle is very popular with tourists, so try to get there as early as possible, or risk bumping elbows with coachloads of visitors. The castle, as you see it today, is actually a recent construction, having been totally rebuilt in 1932. The castle had been partially destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1719 and had been deserted until bought and restored by Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap. As picturesque as this castle is, Eilean Donan is, for us, forever associated with the 1980’s film Highlander – we always remember when the lead character Connor Macleod is banished from the castle and pilloried as he fled over the bridge. It is worth noting that the castle has an excellent gift shop and is well stocked with souvenirs, both classy and touristy.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue along the North Coast 500, travelling from Garve to Inverness.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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