I recently came to my dad one afternoon with a trip idea, fully formed, and triumphantly presented him with a map showing a wiggly fine line tracing the border of northern Scotland. Fast-forward a couple months later, and the two of us touched down in Inverness, rucksacks and canoe in tow – ready for an epic coastal adventure on the North Coast 500 (NC500).
What is the NC500?
The NC500 is a 516-mile scenic road that winds along Scotland’s north coast. Today the route ranks among the “Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World” and is nicknamed Scotland’s “Route 66.” Despite this trip effectively being a ‘staycation’ for my father and me, the immense variety and contrast of landscapes in the UK cannot be underestimated.
A plug here for Scotland in general: voted in 2017 as the “Most Beautiful Country in the World,” Scotland draws many landscape lovers to its wild and rugged perch at the top of the UK. September is a great time to visit, as the weather is in a lull before gearing up for winter. The gorse is popping yellow and the purple swathes of mountainous heather makes for a spectacular scenic display.
The Wild West
Forever intrigued by #vanlife, we opted for a campervan to allow us the freedom to explore the most remote areas and test Scotland’s famous “right to roam” mantra. Heading west and taking the route clockwise, we were soon shrouded in classic Scottish mist and deep into the mountains. The west coast is remarkably more mountainous and less inhabited than the north-east, offering a true hideaway from the rush of modern life.
Starting near Applecross and opposite Skye we started wending our way north. We were impressed at the quality of the road with its frequent and helpfully labelled “passing places.” We relished the near-people-free landscape and the astonishing silence outside. Every corner delivered a spectacular vista, an unforgettable view all to ourselves and winding tracks hugging the mountains.
Morning dolphins and evening summits
One of the best days was spent in Ullapool, a lively fishing port on the west coast, with cruise liners docking from Scandinavia and ferries out to the Outer Hebrides. Keen to explore the rather dreamily named ‘Summer Isles’ and feed my hunger for wildlife, we took a boat trip in search of all things wild. Diving gannets, fulmars (a smaller cousin of the albatross) and a small pod of common dolphins quickly surrounded us. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic!
We rounded the day off with an epic hike up Stac Pollaidh, a popular circular ridge walk with an optional summit ascent (which of course we did!). It was golden hour, warm and sunny and we had the entire route to ourselves for the evening. It was one of the best hikes I have ever done, with otherworldly views.
Heading North exposed us to more of Scotland’s wild and wonderful ways. Spectacular rains and winds often broke to reveal the most glorious sunsets over the coastal islands and inlets.
The freedom of wild camping, a policy that allows camping on any unenclosed land, allowed us to stumble upon unique camping spots, natural harbours so peaceful we went to sleep to the sound of seals barking and splashing. We also camped in tiny coastal hamlets overlooking turquoise (but freezing!!) water out to sea.
The village of Tarbet was one such place. It overlooks Handa, an uninhabited island run by Scottish Wildlife Trust and an absolute haven for breeding seabirds. We took a boat trip out there one morning, spending a glorious three hours on the 6-km circular hike around the island, taking in some of the highest sea cliffs in Great Britain and surrounded by white sandy beaches and 360 ocean views...heaven!
Heading further north we began to encounter even stronger winds, and entered into The Lonely Lands. Forget Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones: these are the real deal. Vast glacial valleys and rocky mountains create an outstanding swathe of natural scenery. The best bit? Not a town or person in sight!
Heading to John O’Groats and the mysterious Orkney Islands were high on our list. We spent the night before teetering over the edge of the northernmost point of mainland Britain: Dunnet Head!
After the classic Instagram shot posed at John O’Groats, we embarked on a rather turbulent crossing across the treacherous Pentland Firth to Orkney. Loving it up on deck watching gannets and fulmars ride the updrafts created by the chop, I was enjoying imagining the Vikings crossing this very body of water in their famous long ships – ready to take Orkney by storm.
With only a day to spare, we opted for a guided coach trip around the main island to take in Kirkwall, Stromness, Scapa Flow and the Neolithic sites of Scara Brae, a 5,000-year-old village that fast became one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the world! With its archaeological diversity and important it's no wonder that the Orkneys are dubbed as “The Egypt of the North.”
Back on the mainland, we checked the map ready to make our way south and traverse the very different east coast. By this point, Dad and I had settled into a wonderful road trip routine. Dad drove and I (somewhat inconsistently!) was the navigator and snack provider. A
fter another windy night spent at Duncansby Lighthouse, we hiked to the astounding Stacks of Duncansby, an excellent coastal walk to two huge sea-stacks eroded from the mainland, surrounded by wheeling fulmars. Such a landscape was a powerful reminder of the authority the elements have up here!
The gentle slopes and moorland of the east coast, with its cosy fishing harbours, regular towns and impressive castle ruins made us slightly nostalgic for the empty mountainous scenes on the west, and the contrast made the journey even more enjoyable. The castle ruins hinted at ferocious clash of clans and past family discord, yet the landscape was largely unchanged.
Moray Firth Magic
Ask any marine biology fan and they most certainly will have heard of the Moray Firth. This body of water off of the northeast coast is a hotspot of dolphin activity.
It’s home to the UK’s most northerly pod of bottlenose dolphins, whose resident location in the North Sea also make them the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world. Some are as big as 4 meters long. Many dolphins pass through here in search of migrating Atlantic salmon and we were lucky enough to be treated to a mother and her 10-day old calf right near the marina of Inverness!
Seeking the wilderness once more, we decided to spend our final night in the Cairngorms, the UK’s largest national park.
A final meal in a cosy riverside pub and a celebratory “wee dram” of local Scottish whiskey closed the circle on a fantastic father-daughter road trip adventure. Scotland, you were a dream and I will certainly be back!
Ambassador Sophie Pavelle is an adventurous zoologist and science communicator, with a passion for using adventure to share stories about wildlife. Sophie creates unique and engaging online content to inspire others to get outside, push themselves and stay curious about the natural world. Follow her at: