In September 2015 I drove the North Coast 500; this is day 4 of my adventure – Lochinver to Plockton.
TODAY I would be leaving the route of the North Coast 500 because at Strathcarron, instead of driving across the country towards Inverness, I would be going to Plockton before heading to Fort William the following day and eventually back home to Yorkshire via an overnight stay in Stirling.
My day’s journey would see a dramatic change of scenery; gone would be the moorlands and coastal softness of yesterday and in their place the mountains of Wester Ross, including my old friend Liathach, before making my way to Plockton; a journey of 160 miles.
It would prove to be the most spectacular day of the whole road trip, and one that would be greatly helped by the brilliant sunshine that accompanied me for the whole journey; roof down, shades on, factor 50!
Before leaving Lochinver I had another drive along the village’s loch side to witness it in sunshine, and for a walk along the pier wall at the far end where the water’s glistening smoothness was only broken by the soft ripple of a lone fishing boat heading out to sea, and that of a seal bobbing up and down just a few feet away from where I stood. And a black cat, following me and meowing at me; “sorry pal, I haven’t got any fish.”
Did I say I’d be leaving the North Coast 500 at Strathcarron? Well, I actually left it at Lochinver as I decided to take the back road to Ullapool via Strathan and Inverkirkaig which would see me driving past Inverpolly Forest and the 2,008ft high Stac Pollaidh, but I would rejoin the route again at Drumrunie.
The first couple of miles to Badnaban were along lush tree-lined single track roads; after that the scenery opened up with the verges lined by gorse and then, the stunning Loch Kirkaig came into view, and when I arrived at the shoreline there was a Sir Giles Gilbert Scott red telephone box next to the road; a picture postcard before my very eyes.
At the far end of the bay the road turned inland to meet the soft flowing River Kirkaig. After about a mile a narrow bridge carried the road across it and then I started the short ascent to Loch an Arbhair before heading down to the coast and the lovely little Loch an Èisg Brachaidh with Ernard Bay lying beyond it.
The road tracked the east side of the loch and then for several miles followed the course of Allt Gleann an t-Strathain. At the T-junction at Badnagyle I turned left to track the lochs of Bad a’ Ghaill and Lurgainn, and eventually the distinct outline of Stac Pollaidh came into view with Cul Beag up ahead.
At the end of Loch Lurgainn was Drumrinie, which appeared to be just a single house, and I joined the A835 and sped along to my lunch stop of Ullapool, the largest place I’d seen since Thurso two days ago.
Ullapool sits about a third of the way down Loch Broom and was founded in 1788 as a herring port, and was designed by Thomas Telford in a grid pattern. Nowadays it’s the main ferry terminal for boats to Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides.
I parked up and headed to the front. After a walk up and down to get my bearings I then headed to the Frigate café for a coffee and a piece of cake, and then went a walked to the far end of the harbour side near the campsite and sat on the rocks on the loch banking.
I made my way slowly back to the car thanks to a spot of window shopping, although I did buy an Exed dry bag from North West Outdoors “a specialist outdoor clothing and equipment shop and coffee shop situated in the village of Ullapool in the Northern Highlands”.
From here I would now be driving around Loch Broom as well as Little Loch Broom as I made my way around the coast to Poolewe, Gairloch, Kinlochewe, Torridon, Lochcarron and then Plockton; only 125-miles away!
The road down the side of Loch Broom was one of the best I’d been on for ages; slightly sloping downhill, very wide and quite straight. It was a long, fun and fast drive!
As I approached the junction at Corrieshalloch Gorge a wood was being felled high up to my left and beyond that was Beinn Dearg. I turned off the A835 and onto the A832 which would take me up along the other side of the gorge.
I spotted a car parking area from where you can walk around the gorge and along a series of trials and viewing platforms and even a suspension bridge that was built to allow Victorian travellers to look at the 150ft Falls of Measach. The National Trust for Scotland calls Corrieshalloch Gorge “one of the wonders of the West Highlands”.
However, I knew I still had a long drive ahead so I decided not to follow the trail (total distance just over a mile) and got back in the car. Some miles on when I was heading towards the imposing craggy outcrop of An Tealach I started to regret not walking around the gorge, although I didn’t turn back.
I arrived a Gairloch and decided it was time for another coffee. The village is mostly a linear pattern and it lies towards the far end of Gair Loch. I drove along the loch side and eventually found the Mountain Coffee Company, where I bought a coffee and stared out over the bluey clam waters of Gair Loch.
Beyond Gareloch, I would soon be driving alongside Loch Maree, which is 12-miles long and two and a half miles across at its maximum width. It also is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland, and the largest north of Loch Ness, and just like Loch Ness it also has its own monster.
Loch Maree has well over 60 islands and the largest one is the only isle in Britain to contain a loch that itself contains an island.
At Kinlochewe I took the right turn for the road to Torridon and spotted the Whistle Stop Café, which is housed in the former village hall. I decided, for a change, that I’d actually sit down for lunch.
As the village ended, just beyond the café, I entered the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. It was the first of its kind in Great Britain when it opened in 1951, and with the remit to protect the habitat and geology within its 11,861 acres.
About halfway down the valley I realised that I could see my old friend Liathach. I’d walked it in 2000 when I was on a week’s holiday of munroing. I knew little of the mountains of Scotland back then and my walker partner for those seven days had done all the planning.
The Liathach ridge came the day after we’d climbed Sgurr nan Conbhairean, Carn Ghluasaid and Sail Chaorainn to the north of Loch Cluanie; and despite a tough first day it didn’t seem to hit home that the next day would be the same, or even harder.
According to Walkhighlands, Liathach is rated by many mountaineers and hillwalkers as Scotland’s finest mountain, challenged only by An Teallach and the Cuillin of Skye, and “its traverse is an expedition that will be remembered forever”. And it was.
Even though it was summer there was a slight dampness in the air which turned to a cooling mist on the main ascent only for the weather to turn into full sunshine as we neared the main top, and because Liathach towers up almost from the road, with every step and every glance back the cars were getting smaller and smaller very quickly.
Liathach is 3,461ft and has two Munro peaks; Spidean a’ Choire Lèith at the east of the main ridge, and Mullach an Rathain, and our anti-clockwise hike took about eight hours.
Just before Strathcarron I took a right turn across the valley bottom of the River Carron, meaning that I was leaving the route of the North Coast 500 for the final time. The NC500 continued in the opposite direction to me, as it made its way to Inverness some 60 miles away.
At Strathcarron the Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh railway line appeared on my right-hand side, while beyond that was Loch Carron. It hadn’t taken long to get from the harsh rugged mountains and watery moorlands to the coast; a coast that was evidently fertile.
The light-coloured greens of the moors and mountains had been replaced with the vivid greens of trees and shrubs of an entirely different nature; a product of the warming North Atlantic Current and, possibly, landscaping projects carried out by the wealthy Victorian’s who made Scotland their playground.
At Attadale station I pulled over, still not too sure how far Plockton was, but the view across the loch was too much to resist so I went and stood on the platform (annual passenger numbers around 750) and admired the views the loch.
Beyond Attadale lay Stromferry (No Ferry) – fans of Ian Banks will understand – I turned left onto the winding tree-lined single track road that lead to Plockton. I arrived at the local railway station with the high school on the left, but with still no clue as to what to expect. The road started to descend and it wasn’t until I got to the Haven Hotel where I got my first glimpse of the harbour that I really started to get a feel for what was coming up.
Out of all the places I’d planned to visit on my trip Plockton was top of the list, after Inverness, and there it was in front of me; a line of stone-built houses with dormer windows on the left with a line of trees jutting out of the hill behind, and the bay stretching out on the right.
I always thought that Plockton would be similar to Tobermory, they’re both on a large bay with buildings of local stone overlooking it, they’re both on the west coast and have a mild climate thanks to the North Atlantic Drift, but whereas Tobermory is gorgeous “Am Ploc” is simply stunning.
Plockton was originally a crofting community but was rebuilt in the early 1800s as a fishing village in an attempt to stem the tide of emigration from the Highlands, but nowadays it is very much a tourist resort.
It might only have a population of 378 but it has its own airfield and has been used in television programmes such as Hamish Macbeth and the Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, as well as the Wicker Man film; which, even though it showcased Plockton’s many charms, might have put potential visitors off with its sinister subject matter.
My accommodation for the night was at Mackenzie’s Bed & Breakfast, about halfway along Harbour Street and, again, booked over the phone in Inverness. My room was on the first floor at the front of the house and from my window I could see the bay spread out in front of me. The tide was out and I there was an island, Eilean nan Gamhainn, only a few feet away. Time for a wander!
The tide might have been out but it was evident as I walked the 100 yards or so across the seaweed-covered ground that it was on the turn so I decided on a quick circuit of the island, which was a shame as it had picnic benches on it and it would have been nice to sit and relax for while.
It’s only a small being around 100-yards across, and the name is Gaelic for Cattle Island. It’s covered in small trees such as birch, oak, hawthorn and holly along with gorse, blackberry bushes, heather and wildflowers.
Back on Harbour Street I headed to the Plockton Hotel for some food and a drink and then went for a walk around the “Jewel of the Highlands” ending up on Cooper Street where there was a small jetty where I sat and watched the sun go down.
I then made my way back to Harbour Street and walked northwards to the headland along off Frithard Road. This road eventually became Camas An Arbhair, and near the top I spotted a sign for a footpath on the right leading to the Carn na Frith-Aird viewpoint.
It’s worth mentioning that it was now dark and I that had a head torch with me. I couldn’t see very far along the path but followed it anyway and I soon began to head uphill and it became obvious that I was ascending some kind of large rock jutting out at 45 degrees.
A few minutes later and I was at the top where I found a rather convenient rock to sit and enjoyed the tranquillity. There was hardly any natural light and it was silent; apart from what a large dog barking somewhere from one of the gardens along the road I’d just walked along.
The next morning I went back up the hill, and it really was a large rock sitting at 45 degrees and with a jaw dropping view across the western end of Loch Carron and the Applecross peninsula.
I made my way to the rock I’d sat on the night before, and then spotted a bench a few feet away that I’d missed in the dark. And then it was time to drive to Fort William, which would be the final leg of my road trip.
To be continued…