Cycling the north coast of Scotland
20 minute read
The North Coast 500™ is a 500-mile lap of Scotland starting and finishing in Inverness, which many people choose to do as a cycle tour. James Cox and his companions looked at this route but decided instead to design their own, cycling 498 miles around the north and west coasts of Scotland, to Cape Wrath and over the Skye bridge.
Last year, my friends Mark and Rob cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, which gave them the cycle touring bug. Although they spent only two days north of Inverness, they enjoyed Scotland’s Far North so much they were compelled to return this year and invited me and friend Tony along for the ride.
There is a route around Scotland called The North Coast 500™. This is a branded name and businesses along the route can sign up to use the branding and logo. We reviewed the route, but found it wasn’t for us; it missed out a couple of places we wanted to go and it involved going along the busy coastal A9, which many cyclists say is a horror show. We’d decided that 50 miles a day was achievable for us given the terrain, our age and fitness levels, but felt that 500 miles was just a bit too far for us to do in the nine days we had.
We planned our own route instead using an online route planner, starting and finishing in Strathpeffer, a delightful town to the north of Inverness. We hoped to take in Cape Wrath and the Skye bridge on the way.
We are relative novices at cycle touring, and we are ‘credit card tourers’. We like to have a roof over our heads and a meal cooked for us in the evening, and we didn’t fancy riding with a ton of camping stuff.
A fully loaded credit card is all well and good, but in the summer in the Far North, accommodation can be sparse and difficult to find so we chose to book ahead and fix our itinerary. On the one hand it gave us certainty, but it took away any flexibility.
Day 1 Start to Crask Inn
Our plans to get up and get gone were thwarted by the need to faff about endlessly, and to wait for the bike shop to open so we could sort out a chain that had contorted itself during the flight. We had a second stop in Dingwall to pick up some items we’d forgotten. This gave the rain sufficient chance to develop, and we set off in fine Scottish drizzle with much moaning about the weather.
I quickly realised I was going very slowly and that I’d got a cold. I suggested the guys went on ahead as I was going so badly. After some initial ‘we ride together as a team’ statements, they realised they’d be bored and cold riding with the invalid and left me to it.
The route continued over pleasant downland on quiet roads. Approaching Bonar Bridge, I had my first doubts. I’m not feeling well, I am going too slowly, the weather isn’t nice, this is too much.
I started thinking of my options for quitting. Do I find a place to stay and stop early, do I call a cab and head back to Inverness? I decided to defer any decision until such time as I literally fell off my bike.
It was lovely riding the scenic route along the B464 adjacent to the River Shin, and presently I came to the Fall of Shin community café and stopped for a well-earned macaroni pie, massive cake and coffee. The guys had taken a long lunch break in Bonar Bridge, and they were as surprised as me to discover I’d got ahead. Seeing the chaps lifted my spirits and I decided to defer any decision about quitting until the following morning.
Shortly after Lairg, I found myself riding on a main road, carrying the designation A836, but it was a single lane road with no traffic. In much of England and the south of Scotland, cyclists try to avoid main A roads as they are too busy, too dangerous and too horrible, but this was quiet and delightful.
A change had come over the countryside, too; I had come to a very remote place. There was nothing much here; just the narrow ribbon of tarmac winding through stunning and desolate country. The trees and forests had slowly given rise to the vast expanse of the Sutherland Flow Country, offering views through the grey cloud to the flanks of distant peaks. Riding here, even in bad weather and with a cold, was wonderful.
Eventually, even slow riders reach their objective, and the Crask Inn hove into view. Set among the expanse of open moor and under the flanks of Ben Kilbreck, the welcome is warm and genuine, and the situation is stunning. Inside it reminded me very much of an Alpine hut, and in the saloon were a collection of cyclists, bikers, hikers and runners. I treated my cold with tea and a late afternoon nap, and then enjoyed a catch-up with the team.
Day 2 - Durness
The following morning at breakfast, Mark reluctantly informed us he had to return home urgently to deal with a family emergency. The proprietors helped him to get back to Inverness.
Three of us remained, and we made the mistake of checking the weather forecast for the day. There were two stationary occluded fronts sitting over the northwest of Scotland, which meant it was going to rain all day. Lovely.
The plan was to head from the Crask Inn up to the north coast, then head left for Durness. We’d expected rain, but not cold, and as we came through the hamlet of Altnaharra, the temperature sank to just 4°C. It was the end of May, but this was much colder than we’d expected or prepared for.
Rob and Tony rode ahead, and we agreed to meet at the only café on the route for lunch. Again, the countryside we rode through was remote and stunning. By the time I arrived at lunch, I was soaked through; even the best equipment can keep a cyclist dry for only a few hours of the worst that Scotland can throw at you.
It was hard to leave the warm fug of the café. We still had 30 miles (50km) to go, and it involved a mountain crossing and a long ride around a sea loch. The ride was stunning, and only slightly spoiled by the bad weather. The mountain crossing proved to be manageable and the run to the south end of Loch Eriboll was lovely. But then I had to turn north and into a very fresh headwind. I was making almost no speed and I was so cold I was shivering, but I decided not to sacrifice the dry clothes I’d saved for the hotel at the end of the day. My doubts about my competence grew, and even if I’d wanted to give up, I couldn’t have because there was nowhere to go. No traffic, no houses, no phone signal, no one who could help if I did call. Nothing, but the narrow strip of road and a stunning loch surrounded by mountains in the rain. Psychologically, I shrank into myself, focussed right in and uttered the mantra over and again that this would pass.
Day 3 - Cape Wrath
I’ve no idea when I first heard about Cape Wrath, but I have the feeling that I’ve always wanted to go there. It being so far out of the way, it requires a special effort to get to and it was with a mounting sense of anticipation that we set off from Durness in poor weather.
Bikes for Cape Wrath
I used a conventional steel-framed touring bike with panniers and 36mm tyres.
Rob and Tony both used gravel bikes, with either aluminium or carbon frames, fitted with panniers and 36mm tyres.
Both types of bike were more than suitable for the track to Cape Wrath.
We saw people out on the trail on mountain bikes, which are arguably the most suitable bikes for this trip.
Although Cape Wrath is part of mainland Scotland, a river estuary runs along its eastern side, giving it an island feel. Its only road is reached from Durness using a ferry that runs at the combined whims of the weather, tides and the ferryman. We were in luck today: all three fates came together and John the ferryman loaded our touring bikes into the open-topped boat for the short estuary crossing in weather that looked increasingly promising.
As we set off along the rough road to the cape, the clouds cleared to sun, and I was elated to be here, in this wonderful environment, and heading towards a long-cherished objective.
The road is rough and wends its way over green moorland, hill and dale for 10 miles (16km). Although rough and steep in places, it was perfectly passable on our touring bikes. And then suddenly the ride was done – all too soon I rounded the last corner and the Cape Wrath lighthouse hove into view.
There’s a very welcome café there, so we opted for an early lunch in the sun and an agreeable chat with the mountain bikers and hikers who’d made the ride over. We took a moment to explore the lighthouse, its massive red foghorn and to peer over the 250m cliffs.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps. The return leg seemed quicker than the outbound, and we were back at the ferry. Our arrival had coincided with lunch, and we had to wait for 30 minutes for John to finish and come over and collect us. The wait meant that 10 cyclists had accumulated on the dock, all wanting a ride back, but John knows how to pack his boat and he was able to fit us all in on one crossing.
This would have been a good point to finish, but our rule of 80km days had to be obeyed, and there was another 40km of cycling to our overnight accommodation. The run down to Scourie was glorious, though. The landscape was ‘epic Scotland’ at its best. Big wide valleys running below soaring peaks, with the added benefit of nice weather and a tail wind.
Day 4 – ‘You don’t go to Achiltibuie by accident’
We’d divided up the route into days that made sense on the map, averaging 80–88km each, except when availability of accommodation forced a longer or shorter stage. The thing we forgot to do was allow for elevation. At a zoomed-out view on the route planner, the scenic coastal route from Scourie around to Lochinver looks like a fine and beautiful ride that never climbs above 140m. The problem is that the route contains a dozen or more 100m climbs, to total over 1400m of climbing. The route’s shark’s tooth profile, on the heavy touring bike, felt like a whole mouthful of shark’s teeth.
The route to Lochinver, despite the hilly profile, was stunning. Crinkly rock country with lovely views of the nearby hills, dotted with dozens of lochans and hardly any traffic. Although it was long and arduous, the time seemed to fly by. The flying time wasn’t accompanied by flying progress. After Lochinver, I turned off the well-known route for the lonely but beautiful ride across the Coigach peninsula to Achiltibuie. The weather was lovely but, by 7pm, I was still 5km short of the hostel at Acheninver, and I was so hungry I wanted to faint. The only option was an emergency dinner at the pub in Achiltibuie, the last settlement before the hostel.
‘What’s the quickest meal you cook, please?’ I asked the barman.
The ensuing fish and chips were delicious, and I ate them out in the sun, watching it begin its gentle slide down over the Summer Isles. We’d seen a lot of beauty in Scotland already, but this was the cherry on the cake.
An hour later I finally pulled into the hostel and met up with Rob and Tony and we spent the remainder of the evening drinking tea, enjoying the changing colours of the sunset and thinking what a wonderful detour this had been.
Day 5 – Poolewe
After the usual round of messing about getting ready, we set off later than we’d wanted. Today’s plan was for a longer route than usual – 108km with another 1500m of ascent. The first couple of hours were lovely; narrow road, little traffic and stunning views of Stac Pollaidh as we came along the peninsula. Eventually we re-joined the main A835 road that runs north to south along the coast. It carried more traffic than we were used to, and the scenery was nice but slightly less spectacular then we’d enjoyed up to now. It turned into a bit of a dull drag down to Ullapool; dullness broken only by a lovely coffee stop with a massive cake at the golf club on the outskirts.
Beyond the town, our carefully planned and researched route very clearly left the main road and headed over the mountain. After 15 minutes’ searching, we decided there was no viable route and came to the reluctant conclusion that our route planner had led us astray. The detour round the mountain and along the main road added another 30km to what was already going to be a long day.
The final few kilometres of the day took us round Loch Ewe, used during World War II as a sheltered anchorage for assembling arctic convoys. Today it is peaceful and serene, and I enjoyed conjuring images of what it might have been like when full of merchant ships preparing for the arduous and dangerous journey to Murmansk. My regret was that I couldn’t stop at the Russian Arctic Convoy museum to learn more about the fascinating history of this place.
Today’s finish wasn’t quite so late, and I pulled into a warm welcome at the Poolewe Hotel at about 6pm.
Day 6 – Torridon
We’d been looking forward to today – it was a shorter and easier one at just 60km – so we enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast at the hotel in Lochewe. As on the first day, the leisurely start meant it was raining as we left.
The morning was spent riding pleasantly along Loch Maree looking up at the curiously isolated form of Slioch mountain. Each day of the ride had its own distinct character; always beautiful and rugged, but somehow different. Today was characterised by lochs, woodland and high mountains. The road was wide, but had far less traffic than we expected, and the riding was lovely. At times I rode down the centreline, whooping like a small boy, simply because I could.
Each day, Rob and Tony were riding less and less far ahead of me, and I caught up with them at the coffee stop at the petrol station in Kinlochewe at the south end of Loch Maree. Despite its name, Kinlochewe seemed to us to be nowhere near its eponymous loch.
The last section, from Kinlochewe to Torridon, was one of the best rides of the whole trip. A narrow road with little traffic, which gently gained height before a long, fast descent in a wide-open spectacular valley, guarded by high summits, to Loch Torridon.
We arrived at the Torridon Hotel in time for a late lunch and gained access to our rooms as soon as the cleaner was done. This night’s stay was the most luxurious and expensive of the trip, so we were glad we were there early to maximise the benefit. Tons of food, gallons of tea and a couple of baths each allowed for a recovery of sorts from the previous gruelling days.
Day 7 – Applecross and Bealach Na Ba
The Applecross Peninsula is the part of the Scottish mainland that sits across the sea from the island of Skye. In Gaelic, the area is known as a Chomraich, which means the sanctuary. It is a vast area, with just two roads, one at the top and one near the bottom, and half a dozen tiny settlements around its edges. Everyone I know who has visited speaks reverentially of it, and I’d been looking forward to this day as much as I had Cape Wrath.
Tony had to sit out; the reason I’d caught up with him and Rob yesterday was because he had aggravated an old knee injury, forcing him to limp into Torridon. He could barely walk and sensibly decided he get a taxi to the day’s objective at Lochcarron.
In dry and overcast conditions, with an unpromising forecast, Rob and I set off for Applecross. It didn’t disappoint. Wild, lonely and rugged, with extensive views back to Torridon and across to Skye, the northern part was some of the best riding of the trip. Hilly, too. When we later reviewed the route, we realised riding around the coast accounted for half the day’s climbing. As we headed south around the west side of the peninsula the weather gradually deteriorated and the wind came up. Rob, being stronger, set off ahead to avoid getting too cold. By the time I came to Applecross and stopped at the café for lunch, it was very wet, cold and windy.
And impossible to turn back.
After lunch it was time for the day’s main event – the climb from sea level to the 626m pass of Bealach Na Ba – in bad weather. But I did the mental maths and worked out that I had the mental and physical strength to get over safely. Even in the poor conditions, the ride was amazing. The narrow road climbs and twists improbably through heather moor and then rock and goes on for longer than you’d expect. Near the top it becomes very steep and I was forced to get off and push, before riding the last few metres to the hilltop car park and a little plinth that marks the road summit.
The descent was quite heart-in-mouth: it was wet, steep, narrow and twisty, and there were a few cars and camper vans to contend with on the eastern side, none of which was helped by my back brake failing. Even so, it was spectacular, as the road comes down a narrow gorge that opens at lower altitudes into a broader valley. Presently, I came out below the clouds to find views of distant sea lochs and hills.
All too soon it was done, and I was pulling into the café at the eastern foot of the pass. The proprietor saw me walking, soaked and cold, into her café and immediately offered a towel, which was as welcome as the coffee and cake that accompanied it.
Refreshed, warmed and with a tail wind, the last kilometres into Lochcarron passed quickly and easily. Meeting up with Tony, he had his own tale to tell. Arriving at our accommodation he’d discovered that they had no record of our booking, so he’d spent a frantic hour arranging something else. Luckily, he was successful; it would have been a hard blow to arrive cold and wet after a long day’s riding and then find new lodgings that could have been miles away.
Day 8 – The Skye Bridge
I last visited Skye 40 years ago, when it was still reached by ferry across the short sound from Kyle of Lochalsh. The bridge was opened way back in 1995, and tolls were abolished in 2004, but I’d never found the time to get up there and see it. As an engineer by trade, albeit in the computer industry, I like to visit big bits of civil engineering, and the Skye Bridge is a beauty.
The trip to Skye was another pre-planned bike-friendly diversion from the branded route. Tony was once more unable to join us because of his knee injury, and so in overcast but improving weather, Rob and I set of around Loch Carron towards Skye. Along the loch, the road is a single carriageway blasted from a cliff and jammed up against the West Highland Railway. It provided fine cycling, even though there was more traffic than you’d really want on such a narrow road.
After a dozen or so kilometres we left the main road behind and branched off onto the Plockton Scenic Route. This minor road meanders its way quietly and pleasantly along the coast of Loch Carron, offering fine views over to the Applecross Peninsula. At the coffee stop, in a converted croft, the whisky and banana cake complimented the coffee perfectly.
Kyle of Lochalsh, the last town on the mainland, didn’t score highly on our index of most beautiful towns we’ve seen, but it did provide access to the cycle track to the bridge. A causeway to the island of Eilean Bàn is followed by a graceful concrete arch reaching about 35m into the sky. Being on bikes, we were able to stop at the highest point and admire extensive views inland along Loch Alsh and the coast of Skye.
We felt we should set foot on Skye, so we descended the bridge into the small town of Kyleakin and found a nice café for lunch. While we ate, the wind freshened up from the west, and that served to speed our return the way we came, back to our accommodation in Lochcarron.
Day 9 – The Last Day
With some sadness, we dawdled over breakfast on our last day. Then we dawdled some more in the hope that the ongoing downpour might abate. Tony had recovered sufficiently to ride, and we set off as a team for the last leg in pouring rain, singing silly songs.
The road towards Dingwall is a main road that doesn’t carry much traffic, and that doesn’t really pass through anywhere. It was a delightful last taste of highland wilderness. We crested a rise, descended a short hill, and suddenly we were back among farms, villages, towns; proper lowland country once more.
At the turn for Strathpeffer, Rob and I realised we were, in fact, within striking distance of the magical 800km (or 500 mile) mark. Tony took the direct route back, but Rob and I wanted to hit 800km and planned a detour to rack up the few extra kilometres. An hour later we met Tony back in Strathpeffer, tired but elated that we’d completed the tour.
When I added up the distance, it came to 801km, but on conversion to imperial, that is 498 miles, so two miles short of the official objective distance.
We christened our route The North Coast 498. There's a YouTube video below.
We flew from London Heathrow to Inverness with British Airways. We all paid for a 23kg hold bag, which was more than enough to carry our bikes and the luggage items not allowed in the cabin. Airline policies and costs regarding bikes vary.
We’d pre-booked a minibus taxi from Inverness with an operator specialising in transporting people and bikes.
We chose the same hotel for both our first and last nights and arranged to leave our cycle suitcases there for the duration of the trip.