Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the stunning scenery of the Assynt-Coigach stage of the North Coast 500, from Kylesku down to Ullapool.
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".
Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area
On this section of the North Coast 500, the route leaves the main A894 road and winds round the coast from Kylesku, through Drumbeg and Stoer, down to the fishing town of Lochinver. The route then heads back inland, along Loch Assynt, before rejoining the A894 and heading south to Ullapool. This part of the route travels through the Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area, The western region of Sutherland, and we found that this must be the most spectacular drive in Britain. The area has many distinctively shaped mountains, including Quinag, Canisp, Suilven and Ben More Assynt, that rise steeply from the surrounding "cnoc and lochan" scenery, while on the coast, there are some of the most spectacular small beaches.
Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area is one of 40 such areas in Scotland. There is a tradition that the name Assynt comes from a fight between the two brothers Unt and Ass-Unt, (meaning Man of Peace and Man of Discord). We can attest to the fact the it must have been a mighty tussle, judging by the dramatic scenery, with Ass-Unt having been declared the winner. It could be, however, that the name Assynt may derive from an Old Norse word meaning 'ridge end', which would be equally appropriate.
The start of this stretch of the NC500 begins with a drive over the stylish Kylesku Bridge. It is worth stopping at one of the vantage points to really appreciate this curved bridge, which was opened in 1984, saving travellers many miles of a diversion around the loch. If you are stopping, you may as well make the most of it and enjoy a meal at the Kylesku Hotel. Perched on the shores of Loch Glendhu, we had a fantastic meal at this historic hotel. The original building was a coaching inn dating from around 1680.
After driving through the picture postcard crofting village of Drumbeg, we arrived at Stoer Lighthouse. It’s amazing to think that Stoer Lighthouse, built in 1870, could be constructed in such a remote spot. The lighthouse overlooks The Minch, which is one of Britain’s most dangerous stretches of water, and it has prevented the deaths of countless seafarers. The lighthouse is quite short, but its location means that the light is actually 54m above sea level. If you are lucky like us, you may catch a glimpse of a pod of minkie whales – whales and dolphins are regular visitors to this stretch of water.
Old Man of Stoer
About two miles north of the lighthouse, across open countryside, which is often a little boggy in parts, is the Old Man of Stoer (not to be confused with the more famous Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye!). The Old Man of Stoer is a 60 metres (200 ft) high sea stack of Torridonian sandstone.
Just south of Stoer we drove to the glorious white sands of Clachtol Beach. If you time your visit in August, you may also be able to participate in the sand sculpture competition as well. Don’t forget your bucket and spade!
Further south, Achmelvich Beach is one of Britain’s most beautiful beaches, as well as being one of the most difficult to reach by road. About five miles north of Lochinver, along a single-track road, Achmelvich Beach is a stunning collection of small, white sandy beaches, punctuated by rocky bays and headlands.
The port of Lochinver is the largest settlement on the west coast of Scotland north of Ullapool. Its heart is the main street running along the eastern end of Loch Inver. This contains the main shops and services and is focused on the striking war memorial on the shore of the loch. At the southern end of Lochinver is its harbour, the busiest of the 102 harbours and jetties in the Highland Council area. At one time, the Assynt Visitor Centre was a great resource and introduction to the area, but unfortunately this closed sometime around 2016. We haven’t been able to confirm, but it seems that a similar centre has or will be opening up in the Leisure Centre.
Falls of Kirkaig
At this point, the route of the NC500 heads back out of Lochinver’s north entrance, however, there is one area well worth checking out just south of the village. If you take the ten-minute drive to the small hamlet of Inverkirkaig and carry on through to the car park at Achins Bookshop, there is the start of a great hiking trail which goes inland to the Falls of Kirkaig. The bookshop is well worth checking out and was our starting point for a return journey of just over 4 miles along the River Kirkaig, up to the Falls of Kirkaig, which is on the ascent to Suilven mountain. Despite the short distance, the walk will take the casual hiker around three hours to complete, and the final descent to the falls is quite tricky and not for the faint hearted, but the reward is a beautiful waterfall and a chance to have a little dip into the river below.
Head back to Lochinver and along Loch Assynt. At the end of the loch, you will probably see the tourist buses and cars before you see Ardvreck Castle, but don’t let that put you off. There is little left of Ardvreck Castle, but what there is proves to be a magnet for travellers to Sutherland. All that is left is a finger of stone, perched on a small nub of land, almost cut off in Loch Assynt. The castle dates back to about 1490 when the lands were owned by the Macleods of Assynt and has had a bloody history, especially during the conflicts with the Mackenzies.
While at Ardvreck Castle, check out the small waterfall at the other side of the road and take note of the derelict Calda House, just to the south, which superseded the castle in 1726, and took many of the castle’s stones for building material.
Continue travelling through some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK, but make sure that you don’t drive past Knockan Crag. This dramatic line of rocky cliffs is celebrated internationally because of an important geological feature that is known as the Moine Thrust, which was originally identified here. Amazingly, the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs are actually younger than those at the top. It was during a study of these rocks at the start of the 1900s that the theory of tectonic plates crystallised. There is an excellent display at the site explaining this geological marvel and from there a well-maintained path takes you up the cliffs, pointing out the geological history of the land as you go. You will also be rewarded with a stunning view when you reach the top, as well as being able to check out some interesting stone art pieces. You may also be lucky like we were and witness a flyby from RAF fighter jets, which use this area of the country quite regularly for training.
The short drive from Knockan Crag to Ullapool continues to be inspiring. Make sure that as you approach Ullapool that you slow down and prepare to pull over. You will understand why, when you reach the brow of the hill just north of Ullapool, as you will get possibly the best view of Loch Broom and the village sitting on its shores.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue along the North Coast 500, in and around Ullapool.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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