THE North Coast 500 (NC500) is a road trip around northern Scotland that starts and finishes in Inverness and takes in Easter Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross; and it officially launched on 9 May 2015 at the Inverness Classic Vehicle Show.
Of course, it’s always been there but thanks to the North Highland Initiative, a non-profit organisation established by Prince Charles to spread the love across less-visited parts of the northern Highlands, it’s now official and is being spoken in the same breath as America’s Route 600 and Australia’s Great Ocean Road.
Since late summer 2014 I’d wanted to do a road trip around northern Scotland but for various reasons I kept having to delay it, however, last September it finally happened and while my journey wasn’t going to follow the NC500 in its entirety it was still a great feeling knowing I’d be venturing into the unknown; and that I’d be one of the first people to “test” it.
My route would take me from my home in Otley, West Yorkshire, to Callander and then to Inverness to join the NC500, before heading to John O’ Groats, across the top to Durness and then down the west coast to Plockton ending up in Fort William and then returning via Glencoe, Crianlarich and Stirling.
One of the reasons that my trip was delayed was that back in April I’d ordered a new car; an actual new car, from a showroom, not a second-hand one new to me.
It was the new model of Mazda MX-5 which wasn’t due out until late August so I put my plans on hold. I was tempted to go in my old car, a Citroen C4, but it was forever breaking down and I lost all faith in it and besides, the Mazda was a soft top so what better way to discover Scotland than with the roof down?
About two weeks after taking delivery of the MX-5 I packed my bags and set off on a damp Monday morning along the A65 road that would take me to the M6 and across the border to Scotland.
North of the border my first scheduled stop was a slight diversion to the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift linking the Forth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. It opened in 2002 reconnecting the two waterways for the first time since the 1930s.
The drive up had mostly been wet so my trip to Falkirk had been looking doubtful, and at one point I thought about doing it on the return journey instead and hope for decent weather then, but at some point south of Glasgow I realised the rain had stopped; so my detour was back on and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The Falkirk Wheel actually carries the Union Canal and juts out of a hillside where previously there’d been 11 locks, which took almost a day to pass through, and it rises 79 feet above a basin where another lock connects it at a right-angle to the Forth & Clyde.
After a leisurely stroll around, including a snoop in the ubiquitous gift shop, I began walking back to the car and then realised a boat was on the wheel and it was about to rotate; something I didn’t think I’d see. Three minutes later and the wheel had gone through half a turn clockwise and the boat was on its way.
Adjacent to the basis there was a 1:10 scale model of the Kelpies which are horse-head sculptures four miles to the west where the Forth & Clyde joins the River Carron at Helix Park, a 740-acre regeneration project.
This was my next stop and despite them being almost 100 feet high it wasn’t until I pulled into the car park that I got my first glimpse of them, and they were truly breathtaking.
The Kelpies are Clydesdale horses known as Duke and Dan and were unveiled in 2014. Designed by sculptor Andy Scott, the inspiration for them came from the heavy horses which pulled boats and cargo along the towpaths of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canal in their heyday.
With my sightseeing done for the day it was time to head to my overnight stay in Callander – the Gateway to the Highlands – where I was booked into the Dreadnought Hotel via Booking.com which showcased it via several photographs and said of it: “Originally built in the 17th century by the Clan McNab, whose motto remains as the hotel’s name. The Dreadnought provides a blend of history with modern day comfort and style”.
The reality was that it was beyond faded glory, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the images on Booking.com were of the Dreadnought; which several people on TripAdvisor had also pointed out.
At some point in the recent past the interior had been painted, but whoever had done it was blatantly not a skilled craftsman; gloss paint on the floors and dripping down skirting boards, door signs partly painted over.
Textured paint on the hallway walls seemed to be covering up the structure’s many cracks while the faded Impressionist paintings that looked like they’ve come from a car boot sale (or a skip) didn’t take my mind off the smell of cold meat on the ground floor, and neither did the storage heaters which seemed to be the hotel’s main source of heat.
Around the back of the building was a small gravel car park that resembled wasteland and that might, or might not have, been owned by it.
My room was on the A84 main road and came with rattling sash windows; thankfully I always take earplugs with me wherever I’m away from home.
The bathroom was at least 30 years out of date and had a tap that was too powerful for such a small hand wash basin so that the water was forced out over the lip and onto my trousers. The room did have carpet though, which the website suggest was one of the hotel’s features.
After checking in I wandered along the deserted main street and went for a curry at the Spice Delight where my bhuna consisted of lots of oil, spices and frozen vegetables such as peas, carrots, green beans; and a naan bread from a supermarket. Pitiful.
Callander lies on the River Teith which, appropriately, is Gaelic for quiet and pleasant water and into which Loch Venachar drains before spilling into the River Forth near Stirling, some 15 miles away.
In actual fact the Teith starts in Callander at the point where the Garbh Uisge and Eas Gobhain rivers merge and the immediate countryside either side of this new watercourse is gentle and low lying with the Highlands lying a few miles up the road, and it’s this which might be part of the town’s problem – it’s become somewhere to stop for a cup of tea and to stretch the legs before the real beauty begins about a mile and a half up the road at Kilmahog; and monikers such as “Gateway to Somewhere” aren’t exactly helpful; “You’re almost there but not quite, but this is the last place for many miles where you can stop for a wee”.
A few months after my road trip the Walkhighlands website included Callander in an article listing 15 Scottish towns “which make great bases for outdoors activities”, saying that it’s the largest town entirely within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and its position makes it very popular both as a gateway to the Trossachs and into the true Highlands beyond.
It added that the area was romanticised by Sir Walter Scott and “has many associations with Rob Roy Macgregor; the many lochs, forests and mountains led to it becoming known as the Highlands in miniature. Callander Crags and the Bracklinn Falls offer short walks from the town, while Ben Ledi provides a challenge in every view. The town also lies on the route of both the Rob Roy Way and the Scottish National Trail”.
Callander really needs to market itself better, although being part of a national park it’s fighting with all the other town and villages in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to be noticed.
The next morning at breakfast I was the only person in the dining room although I did see two hikers leaving the hotel as I tucked into my full Scottish veggie breakfast, which was actually very good.
The following day it was Callander to Inverness.