The Biker Bucket List: Scotland Part 2: The North Coast 500 and Highlands
In the second and final part of his epic ride around some of the UK’s if not the world’s greatest biking roads, Jock McJock takes us around the northern shores of his home country.
After the previous day took in lochs aplenty and the legendary A87 to Skye, Jock heads along the famous North Coast 500 route for jaw-dropping passes and roads under coastal skies.
If you missed Part 1, The West Coast, start here.
Day Three – 280 miles
Saturday comes early again, with another full Scottish breakfast, and plenty of coffee because this is another biggie. 280 miles of fecking awesome. (I know, I can’t help it)
After loading up the bike, squaring up the bill, it’s time to head up to the very north, where the plan is to stop short of hitting the North Sea and stay in Thurso at the comfortable and well placed Pennyland House B&B.
But it’s not that easy, not that simple. We’re going to wear that jaw out again, this time perhaps even more than yesterday as we’re filling the day with Alpine-like passes, stretching sea views and oh so wonderfully mixed roads.
From the Strathcarron Hotel there’s only one place you should head from here, along the superb A896 towards the Applecross Pass, which is one of the jewels in the Highlands crown.
Beautiful roads, expansive scenery, historic and well-travelled, but remote enough to be enjoyed in near isolation.
To get to Applecross you cross the famous and challenging Bealach Na Ba, which is Gaelic for ‘Pass of the Cattle’.
The local dialect gives an impression of narrow and unkempt, but this road is as like any Alpine pass this side of, well, the Alps.
Bealach na Bà, Applecross.
This twisting stretch boasts 20% gradients, with a 2000ft plus descent into Applecross. You’ll be glad you checked those brake pads before leaving home as you ride this 20-odd mile stretch.
Once safely landed in Applecross, nervous, grinning high fives complete, we head up the western unnamed road to the peninsula overlooking the grand Loch Torridon, next stop the Outer Hebrides and the Island of Lewis as the crow flies.
Best head right here and follow the coastline east towards Shieldaig and the A896 towards Kinlochewe.
We’re only 60miles in as we head north-west onto the A832 and onwards to the beautiful Gairloch, via the picturesque Loch Maree, the fourth largest fresh water Loch in Scotland.
At Gairloch we stop for some fuel and maybe a snack whilst we take in the bright, sandy beaches that lead into the sea loch of Loch Gairloch. We’re about a third of the way now, with so much more to come.
From here we follow the A832, north past the sea loch of Loch Ewe and the lsle of Ewe and continue on this road east towards the oddly named Corrieshalloch Gorge National Reserve at the junction with the A835 as it turns north-bound.
Corrieshalloch means ‘Ugly Hollow’ in Gaelic, but the area is far from it and with the 46m waterfall at the nearby Falls of Measach, overlooked by the ‘no way you’re getting me on that’ swaying suspension bridge, the name seems at odds with the local beauty.
The brave may wish to stop for a leg stretch and a wander over to the Falls, but me, I’m made of lesser stuff and am happy to continue on to Ullapool and grab some lunch if we haven’t already done that along the route.
We’re just over half-way now and time for a well-earned break, perhaps at Gelato for an Ullapool handmade ice cream, or something more substantial at the wonderful and popular Seaforth Bar and Restaurant overlooking the harbour, bikes nicely snuck away in their ample car park for a while.
After lunch we continue north along the A835, heading upwards and onwards, amid a flurry of amazing twists and turns, stunning scenery at every junction, towards Scourie, which means ‘shed’ in Gaelic. I’m not sure if that’s important to anyone, but it’s one of those things that stuck in my brain years ago.
To get there we pass the ruins of Ardverck Castle on the banks of Loch Assynt, before joining the A894 and crossing the Kylesku Bridge, famously featured in many a travel guide, bike and non-bike alike.
Once at ‘the shed’ we’re only about an hour on from lunch so a quick leg stretch and we carry on again towards Durness, via the A838 crossing the narrow, B-listed, stone arch Laxford Bridge.
Durness is the first time we get close enough on this route to touch the North Sea. It has a beautiful, golden sandy beach and if warm enough, maybe park at the Durness Visitor Centre, dip a toe and run back to the bikes quick because the coastal road to Thurso is a marvellous, grinning like a loon, finish to the day.
From Durness follow the A838 east, passing the furthermost Munro, Ben Hope, as we ride through the unforgettably named coastal village of Tongue, overlooked by ‘The Queen of Scottish Mountains’, Ben Loyal.
This stretch could easily be called ‘Baywatch’, such is the number of wonderful bays and beaches that run adjacent to the route.
The road flows beautifully. Though narrow by many standards the road has a mixture of single lane with passing places, dual lane with areas to stretch the bikes legs, but all with a mixed beauty, sharing glimpses of the sea on your left, views as far as the eye can see to your right throughout.
On a warm, bright day, taking the pace down a notch, this is a wonderful stretch to be enjoyed before tipping into Thurso and the accommodation of your choice.
For me, I’m happy to head back to Pennyland House B&B again. Right next to a petrol station, plenty of parking, nice rooms and good food, it’s a comfortable place to relax your face after the grand, jaw-dropping and memorable 280 miles done.
Day Four – 360miles
Right, now it’s Sunday and we rise for another epic mixture of amazing sights and sounds, inspiring roads and experiences. Got space left on the camera? Good, you may very well need it. Another filling Scottish breakfast and lots of coffee, we’re up and away early again.
Get this far north, do you go to the furthermost tip of the country? Well if you want to tick that box, I guess so.
We head to John o’ Groats then, to Duncansby Head Lighthouse to be more precise, the start of the famous 876 mile ‘End to End’ trip to Land’s End? Err, no, we don’t actually.
Well not immediately. If we want to go to the furthermost tip of mainland Britain then we head to Dunnet Head Lighthouse, a 10minute detour along the B855, off the A836 we’re travelling on as we aim for John o’ Groats.
Both Lighthouses visited, we’ve ticked off two boxes. Be prepared to be underwhelmed though, especially after the last few days, because like Lands’ End it’s more box ticking than jaw-dropping.
Still, on a clear day you can easily see the Orkney Isles, which is a pleasant reward for the early morning efforts made.
After we’ve ticked the boxes, taken the group hugging photos, mandatory selfies, we start the journey south.
But it’s all still good, no deflation because the A99 through Wick, as it later joins the A9 towards Inverness is a cracking coastal road.
On the flowing, open roads there’s the chance to open the bike up whilst still having time to take it all in and after spending mile after mile with a slack jaw on more challenging roads it’s a nice break to sit back and enjoy the easier flow and the open views the North Sea provides alongside the A9.
As we enter the Dornoch Firth area we have the choice to stop if we like and have a look around the famous Glenmorangie Distillery before we travel on.
Skirting Inverness, only stopping for fuel, we have more entertaining areas to ride further south and inland. Keep your eyes peeled around this coastal area mind, the resident Moray Firth population of bottlenose Dolphins don’t hide their mischievous behaviour and are easily seen on a daily basis.
From Inverness we head down the A82 and along the banks of Loch Ness, Scotlands most famous and largest loch by volume, hoping to grab a glimpse of Nessie.
I’ve spotted Nessie several times myself. Mainly at Nessieland in the hugely Scottish sounding Drumnadrochit, but you know, Nessie is historically very shy. (As an aside, go to Google Street View and you’ll see Nessie wandering around the banks of Loch Ness!!)
A couple of miles from the banks of soft cuddly Nessie is the famous Urquhart Castle and well worth a stop and wander around if you have the time.
From here we continue to the town of Fort Augustas, renamed as such after the Jacobite Rising of 1715.
My historical connection to this area is through my father. He was thrown out of the prestigious, though ultimately infamous Fort Augustus Abbey, a Benedictine run boarding school, due to behaviour unbecoming of a good Catholic boy. Turns out his relationship with the nurses at the military hospital also situated on this site didn’t fit in with what was expected of him and his friends. He was rather proud of that.
We continue south along the A82, passing the Commando Memorial from a couple of days previous but instead of heading on south from here we head east and inland, onto the A86 towards Laggan before turning south again to the A889 before joining the A9 at Dalwhinnie.
The A9 takes us into Perthshire and is reportedly the most dangerous stretch of road in Scotland and because of this and the regular high speeds recorded on this road it has some of the highest police presence of any road in Scotland. Beware of unmarked cars and bikes along here.
But travelling at reasonable speeds still reward, for all the reputation this is a cracking piece of road. The terrain surrounding the road is uniquely pretty and very different to that of the Highlands.
After a stop for fuel perhaps in the quaint Blair Atholl, we’re heading inland again, this time west along the narrow but twisting B8019 towards Loch Tummel and the beautiful Queens View. This is always worth a stop and I do every time I come past this point.
A cuppa at the very tidy and welcoming café at the Visitor Centre, it’s a few minutes walk to the most spectacular view which gives rise to this being the most popular tourist spot in the area.
Don’t fear, this is relative and rarely busy. Queens View was visited by Queen Victoria in 1866, but is rumoured to have been named some 500 years earlier, after Isabella, the first wife of spider watcher and perennial try, try againer, Robert The Bruce.
Regardless, the views along the loch and onto the mountains of Glencoe which we rode past a couple of days previously, are worth every penny of fuel to get to.
From here we ride onwards, towards Tummel Bridge, crossing over and south along the B846 to the market town of Aberfeldy.
Turn right onto the A827, ride by the banks of Loch Tay, overlooked by the imposing Ben Lawers, Central Scotlands highest mountain.
We may only have a couple hours left riding today, but this is such a wonderful way to get to that end.
We continue on past Killin to the junction with the A85, turning left here towards our final destination of Perth, via Lochearnhead and Crieff.
From here it’s a simple run into the centre of Perth, maybe grabbing some fuel on the way into ready for the next day’s early start.
There is a wide choice of accommodation in Perth, known as ‘The Fair City’, but I really like the Mercure Perth Hotel, formerly known as the City Mills Hotel, its history dating back as a 12th-century watermill, converted into a hotel the 1970’s. Slap bang in the middle of town, food here is great, but Perth has plenty to offer the weary traveller so a wander out always rewards.
Day Five – 460 miles
Monday may be the last day in Scotland, but it still has some great roads, both north and south of the border. Depending on whether you are fresh enough from the night in Perth, you will probably want to get down south in one hit.
If you live nearer than me, then the shorter day makes it much easier. For me, into the South East, it is a long days ride but hell, if you like big days, you got plenty of time to sleep the trip off the following day, dreaming of the images that went before. But hey, no time to sleep just yet, we got to get up, get at em!!
You know the drill, up proper early, Scottish breakfast, huge amounts of coffee this time, loaded, paid up, we’re off and heading south.
The Munros and grand lochs may be behind us now, the land may be lower, but there is no lack of great roads.
First, we must get clear of Edinburgh so out of Perth we head south, down the M90, which yes, is a motorway, but even this has its views all the while we make good ground.
We pass Knockhill Racing Circuit on the way to Edinburgh. If you split the trip south into two days, there’s time to have a look.
If not, carry on and perhaps consider stopping for some authentic ‘I was there’ photos of the Forth Rail Bridge (the road bridge is nothing to write home about in all honesty and nowhere near as iconic). The best ones are taken from the south bank of the Firth of Forth, in the village of Queensferry, also known as South Queensferry.
Park at the Biker’s Cove café, grab some photos, some snacks and boast about the trip so far to the envious around you.
From there we’re skirting Edinburgh on the M9, M8, you don’t want to ride through Edinburgh, trust me on this one.
On to the A702, signs to Biggar and we get out of ‘Dodge City’ to less traffic, better roads.
At Dolphinton we hang a left on to the A721, then A72 through some Royal Burghs (no, not a typo) where we take in the towns of Peebles and Selkirk along some sumptuous roads.
Flowing, twisty, they lead us to the A7 and Hawick where we then head for the end of the Scottish part of this trip where we cross the border just south of Canonbie.
This area may not have the dramatic mountains, or open views, but the A7 is a peach of a road and will bring a smile.
Ok, for me that smile momentarily drops as we cross the border, almost ignored given we pass the Welcome to Scotland on the other side of the road, yet receive no greetings or notification of our entering England on our side. Boo, cheap bastards.
Back in England
Luckily though, we still have some great roads to play on as we twist and wind our way south and homeward bound.
At Longtown we join the A6071 and head to Brampton to pick up the A689 as we skirt the top of the fabulous North Pennines, before diving head first into it and passing from Northumberland into Cumbria at Alston.
Fill up at Alston if needed, we drive hard up the cracking, flowing A686, noting the temperature change due to the elevation for the first time since we crossed the border, stopping to catch the views at the top.
Perhaps grab some cake, maybe some lunch at the biker friendly and popular Hartside Café. This is Englands highest café at 1904ft, as the folding sign outside tells us.
From there we continue down the Hartside Pass, onwards all the way to Penrith. At Penrith, we finally make the best of the last engaging roads and continue the trip homeward bound along the A66 to Scotch Corner where we pick up the A1(M) south and high tail it home completing the final part of the journey in the reverse from Day One.
That’s 530 miles for me and time for bed.
This is a long trip, no doubt. In 5 days, 1900miles maybe, give or take depending on where you start from.
I often take the following day off after a trip like this to sort out all the post-trip necessities. But it also leaves the potential to catch a bed for the night somewhere on the route on the last day if needs be. Gives you a little less stress and some time to have a few beers and with luck makes for an easier ride home the next day, leaving enough time to unpack, load the washing machine, wash the bike, check her over for wear and tear, ready for the post-trip blues.
But if you stick to 5 days, worry not, sleep can be caught up and big days only add to the experience.
No matter where your home tends to be, whatever time it ends up being that you get in, I’ve never met a single rider who hasn’t found themselves almost surprised how fiercely intense the experience was, how much they want to go back, how proud they are of having gone.
There is something magical about a trip to Scotland that I’ve never managed to replicate elsewhere.
I often find it difficult to connect to my local rides, it all seems too similar, too tainted by complaints, and righteous ones at that.
With overbearing levels of traffic, the awful condition of the roads, the ever-increasing levels of speed enforcement and all too often negative public tone towards bikers in the South East, it can often be difficult to be inspired by the ride.
In Scotland and the further north you go, they see the biker as a person, as a traveller, as someone who is willing to brave the challenge of the roads, the potentially hostile conditions, ready to soak up what the Scots never take for granted.
Want to know why Scotland and the people have such a visible identity? Go there by bike, be a participant, be a romantic, idealistic, modern-day gladiator, like the Scots often see themselves to be and find out for yourself.
You’ll come back a little more Scottish, I promise you. Plus, maybe with a soft cuddly Nessie to put in a pannier perhaps?
This article was first published in January 2017.
More from Jock:
Did you miss Part 1 of this trip: Scotland’s West Coast?
Wondering what to pack, without weighing the bike down? Read Jock’s advice on packing light without forgetting the essentials.
The stunning photo of the ‘Alpine Pass’ at Applecross is used with the very generous permission of Michael Carver. See more of his stunning Scottish landscapes at Facebook.com/MichaelCarverPhotography