by keef & annie hellinger 15 April 2022, 9.51 a.m.
Motorhome trip No 49 : 30th March – 14th April 2022
NOTTS->The North Coast 500 route and Isle of Mull with Friends, Scotland ->NOTTS 1633 miles
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#hintsandtips time suggestion do the NC500 clockwise, that way you are always on the coastal side in wester ross and Sutherland, which in our humble opinion are the best bits scenery wise, means on single track you are not crossing the road for your photo opportunities, just a suggestion, of course it is entirely up to you!
If you would like to see the associated Image Slideshow please click HERE, thanks Suggestion , use the side menu to go directly to Blog 177
Feel free to use the Audio Diary if you would prefer to just listen to the audiobook or combine it with a full slideshow HERE
This trip was the repeat of the one we tried last year when sadly our Motorhome cambelt snapped near Birnam – Dunkeld off the A9 past the gulf garage and opposite the Erigmore Leisure park. See Blog 152. This time we paid tribute to it as we passed but our lovely motorhome, which we had a full engine service on just before the trip passed with flying colours, up hills, and down dales or should it be glens. 😉
I had no ideal Birnam was so famous.
The pretty village of Birnam lies 15 miles north of the city of Perth and sits opposite the twin town of Dunkeld, across the river Tay.
The village is well known for featuring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. You can visit Dunsinane Hill, to the south-east of the village, where the ancient Birnam Oak stands as the sole survivor of an attack by Malcolm III on Macbeth.
Birnam is linked to Dunkeld by a seven-arched bridge built by Thomas Telford. The village is surrounded by lovely Perthshire countryside, especially the Hermitage, a beautiful, wooded gorge. The area inspired Beatrix Potter, who spent her childhood holidays here. She is celebrated in the Birnam Institute’s Beatrix Potter Exhibition & Garden.
Anyhow to the trip. I suggest you read (or listen) to this in conjunction with the Calendar.
Day 1 Having packed up the van beforehand we set off and drove the 250+ miles on the way up to Berwick Upon Tweed in Northumberland. The weather wasn’t great with rain and sleet to keep us company and lots of spray from the many lorries on the M1, M18 and A1, A1M. We stopped for lunch in the snow in Darlington. A place I had bad memories from my Boots days and EPOS of logging out prescription methadone to addicts BT and here is the good news it was actually a much nicer place than I remember. The chip shop we found was in a rather scruffy area but provided the best fish and chips I have ever had, Harry Ramsdens Leeds you are relegated. It had won northern chippie of the year 2020. Yummy. Having feasted we travelled on past where Chris’s rose cottage was in Detchant and beyond Lindisfarne to the Caravan and Motorhome club (C&MC) site at Berwick. We have stayed there before with friends. The icy winds made filling up with water not very nice, anyhow we were in for the night, warm, fed and bedded.
Day2 A further 230+ miles today up to Grantown on Spey in the Cairngorms National Park. We left Berwick after a healthy breakfast, it was still incredibly cold and sleety. Packed up the van wearing my Icelandic hat and gloves, it seems they are essential on this trip, indeed overnight after the heating is off, I wore both a jumper and my hat nearly every night bar one, that will give you a measure of the cold temperatures for this trip. As an aside the motorhome Therma heater is amazing, warms the van in no time, either on electric when hooked up or gas for wild camping #hintsandtips So after Berwick we used the A1 up as far as Burnmouth having stopped for photos as we crossed the border into Scotland, touristy I know but you have just gotta do it, we then turned off onto the A1107 or the Eyemouth coastal path. We loved Eyemouth both the harbour and the town centre and beach. We had a look at each which you can see in the picture show. Having left this coastal loop we came back to the A1 and left again on the scenic coastal route, the A1087, to Dunbar. When Keef was a child living at 10 Lessar Clapham the Scottish family living upstairs where named Dunbar, not sure they came from there though, sadly mum can no longer tell me. #sigh It is worth noting we travelled passed the Belhaven brewery but didn’t stop. Dunbar Highstreet we stopped in, this also contains the birth place and museum of John Muir, OK confession time, I had to look him up as well #smile Naturalist and Preservationist, but big in Dunbar by all accounts, apologies to friends of John Muir.
After our Dunbar visit, we re-joined the A1 bypassing Edinburgh as best we could and crossed the 4th road bridge at Queensferry, I remember in my 20’s South and North Queensferry having a ferry crossing available for the Firth of Forth, a very distant memory. It was then on through Fife and turning off to visit Loch Leven at the Kinross turnoff. We parked up for a walk, the sun came out and sadly so did a few early midges, out damn spot! Annie remembers visiting here with her parents and them taking the hire boat out on the loch to visit the castle prison where Mary Queen of Scots was held but Anne’s Mum freaking out when the motor cut out, suck memories not. We had a good look around a very nice spot.
We then headed past Birnam turnoff where the van conked out last time and onto Blair Atholl, a lovely place, stopped near the heritage area with its wood carvings, old bridge and post office, a bit of sun and a few people picnicking. Irn Bru and fish suppers. Keef took pictures of the River Tilt.
We then hit some snow, pretty strong through the Grampians and the Cairngorms National Park arriving at Aviemore a tourist mecca we had never been to before, quite liked the place, especially the Strathspey steam railway station and the views of the snow-covered Grampians Boy it was cold and snowy. We saw the train being readied for the season as we left Grantown the next day outside Aviemore.
We then went onto our campsite at Grantown on Spey just outside the main town, a lovely site and a very helpful warden on his Golf buggy greeted us. Set up for the night, it then started snowing quite heavily, a little worrying. Kept the heating on for quite a bit. Had our usual day 2 lasagne and garlic bread supper with strawberry yoghurt pudding, delicious. Then to bed we start the NC 500 tomorrow snow allowing.
Nice and sunny this morning which meant the snow dump we had had overnight melted quickly. When we first work and drew back the roof light the snow – ice crystals that met us were fascinating to watch from the comfort of our beds as it melted. After breakfast we parked up in Grantown on Spey near the kilt shop and walked from one end of town to the other. What a lovely place it is, with some very interesting buildings and gardens. We liked it so much we have decided in the future we will come back to this area and probably stay at the same site. It is a Caravan and Motorhome club affiliated site which means a discount is applied when you show your club card #hintsandtips
We took a drive out in search of the River Spey but could not find it so returned to Grantown and started heading off to Inverness to start the North Coast 500, allegedly 500 miles hence the name but from our Odometer a bit more that that at 550 miles and we left out the steep climb over to Applecross via the Bealach Na Ba Road (Battle of the Cattle).
So glad we did miss this bit out as it was snowing and it said NO MOTORHOMES 😉
We did indeed cross the Spey on quite a few occasions on our route. We travelled to the City of Inverness, then Beauly to see the town, trees, priory and Shinty ground, must look up what that is, if interested look HERE. We passed the Glen of Ord distillery but did not go in. At Marybank Keef stopped to take both his first picture of the NC 500 road signage and the wonderful old metal school gate, quite a classic. After that we joined the main A835 through Contin past the Museum of Childhood (seen one of those in Sudbury Derbyshire so didn’t stop) onto Garve where we stopped for lunch overlooking the loch.
We then turned off onto the A832 past Gorstan onto Achnasheen where we stopped in front of the remote railway station. This is the Kyle of Lochalsh line from Inverness so you can join up with a ferry to Skye. Less used now the road bridge to Skye is available but we have used the Arisaig ferry and Kyle of Lochalsh ones in the past.
A little about Achnasheen which we loved, the air was so fresh, the views fantastic and the oakmoss on all the trees reflected the clear air.
Achnasheen Train Station is a stop on the Kyle of Lochalsh Line, serving the small village of Achnasheen. Opened in 1870, it was an important connection point for freight, mail and passenger trains travelling from parts of Wester Ross to Inverness.
Today, trains from Achnasheen train station connect the village to Inverness, which can be reached in less than 90 minutes. It is a stopping point mainly for tourists and walkers who wish to visit the village or explore the surrounding area.
The original Achnasheen Hotel, built soon after the station, burned down in 1994 but accommodation for visitors can be found at the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel, which is located half a mile from the station. Four trains from each direction stop here daily on weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays have one train all year round and two during the summer. The two platforms at Achnasheen station are connected by a footbridge and both have small shelters and seats.
After Achnasheen we travelled through Glen Carron and on the Wester Ross coastal route past loch carron , a lovely village, very touristy where we stopped and then again on the wonderful loch Kishorn, a sea loch for many a photo opportunity.
Just past Ardarroch with sleet, snow and mist in full swing we came to the start of the Bealach Na Ba Road which said no Motorhome, its possibly the steepest road in the UK. Annie convinced Keef, quite rightly that we shouldn’t do it, friends have since told us its scary enough in a car, let alone a motorhome in snow, so a good call, Keef however would love to do it one day in a car, maybe in better weather and get across the steep hills up and down to Applecross. Anyhow we took the mucg flatter single track road across to Shieldaig through the forest. We had forgot that the Torridon hotel lauded by Susan Calman, and Giles and Monica was at Shieldaig, we knew we were on the lookout for this plush hotel on the NC500, keef promising Annie via a 2nd mortgage to buy her a high tea there, sadly it didn’t happen, maybe another time.
After Shieldaig it was through the Glen Torridon onto Kinlochewe and the fab loch Maree which seems endless as a freshwater loch in an area of so many sea lochs. The weather was finally beginning to clear a little making the views even more spectacular. We then went on past Victoria falls arriving at Gairloch harbour now sadly in the rain and sleet. We stopped momentarily knowing we would return tomorrow, as it was now getting late we went out along the coast road to out Sands resort campsite at Big sands for the night. Not the greatest site facilities wise but the sand dunes and views were to die for.
Day 4 A nice bright but cold morning, not that we knew it at the time, but potentially the best weather of the holiday maybe bar the last day on the way back at Bolton Abbey in the North York moors, anyhow after breakfast we drove back into Gairloch, filled with diesel and Keef bought a route 500 road sign, why not you may ask. Not the tourist tat that Susan Calman is so keen on however in my defense, ha-ha.
We parked up in the estate walks car park, had a look at the river Kerry from the old bridge and then crossed back over the main road to the old fishing harbour which we walked all the way along via the fabulously named sit-oot-erie, with lovely spring bulbs. Keef went to the end of the pier talking to a few deep-sea fishermen on route, mostly lobster and mussels was their catch.
We called in at the little harbourside shop to buy a few things on the way back to the motorhome, we absolutely love Gairloch, what a special place.
Having left Gairloch we travelled back on the A832 through the very rocky area up to Poolewe. The next bit we have done before in reverse order as we travelled anti clockwise through parts of this area on our third trip in the motorhome back in 2012 Blog 38. So we drove past Inverewe gardens which wasn’t open anyhow and stopped once again at the WW1 lookout over loch ewe. In the current climes we by passed the Russian Arctic Convoy museum, we would have done anyhow, way too boring. Tee-hee.
It was then past little sea loch Broom and then stopping at Ullapool for lunch. We love Ullapool and all of Sutherland, but the huge Viking Venus cruise liner was in the port harbour ferrying lots of American tourists off the ship into port so with walking tours led by old men in kilts it was a little too busy for us, so we moved on into the somewhat more remote and relaxing Assynt. Stopping off at the old Ardvreck castle , Annie stayed in the van after reading the tourist info boards but Keef walked along the short path to the old 1490 castle, the home of the Macleod’s of Assynt. The area also had a fascinating Calda manor house c 1730 ruin with information stating it belonged t the MacKenzies of Assynt. Some of the clear reflection in loch broom were amazing and I hope I have captured that in some of my pictures.
After the castle we left onto the A837 along the side of lock assynt through little Assynt and then down 5 miles at the start of the wee mad road to our campsite at Clachtoll beach, run by the amazingly helpful Tom and Andy, a glaswegian and a yorkshireman. What a nice campsite in such a nice area. They had a fire going so you could sit out under the stars, wet suits, and body boards to borrow, plus fire pits for your own BBQs. The only downside was the stupid female couple who blocked me in on entry to the site and I had to initiate a 10 point turn to get out of it in very narrow surroundings whilst they watched, grr, no effort to move or help at all oh plus despite saying we saw 2 cases of folks lighting fires on the ground when the owners clearly pointed out that that was a no-no and you could borrow their safe grates. How silly and disrespectful is that! In the eve we took a long walk down and along the beach via the boardwalks as the sun was beginning to set, just magical.
Day 5 Not the greatest weather today. Packed up and left the Clachtoll beach site early which was a very sensible move considering the challenges of the Wee Mad Road. I saw a 30-foot-long trailer pulling a caravan combo which in my humble opinion was nuts. Luckily, he went in the opposite direction and did the 5 miles back so no obstacle for us. I also did not know it was a book by Jack & Barbara Maloney. Here is a simple synopsis of that book which says more than I could.
Lovesick sheep, rumours of war, storms at sea, whisky galore - a midlife escape from an 'empty nest' in America to start afresh in the wilds of Scotland. When their children grow up and leave home, authors Jack and Barbara Maloney sell their house in a Midwest suburb and run off to the Highlands. Following a one-lane track called ''The Wee Mad Road,'' they discover an isolated remnant of traditional Gaelic culture, peopled by characters as unique and memorable as the surrounding mountains. The Maloney’s settle into an old stone cottage and spend two years in repeated collisions with quaint Highland ways. Entries from Barbara's diary detail the realities of village life, while Jack recounts tales of poachers, crofters, and lairds in one of mainland Britain's most scenic and isolated corners. The Wee Mad Road is a warm and witty account of two years in the Highlands, with illustrations of everyday life in the wildest reaches of the United Kingdom. It's a 'how to' book for anyone who dreams of escaping the doldrums of suburban midlife and starting over.
We were looking for somewhere to get milk along the road. We stopped at the Drumbeg viewpoint overlooking Eddrachillis bay where we met a white-haired ex-hippie who was also doing the same route as us, indeed we saw him often on our travels, next popping up at Sango sands in Durness. We exchanged witticisms about how we were only doing the NC500 to find a rubbish bin, there were none at Clachtoll beach site where we had both been the night before. We thought we would walk to the shop in Drumbeg but the wind was so overpowering we got back in the van and drove there, only to find it was shut anyhow as it was Sunday. No worries we carried on round the very twisty steeply inclined (both directions) road, its name is not without cause, but we loved it, the remoteness and views are what the NC500 is all about in our humble opinion.
Back on the main road A837 at Unapool we were able to make a little more progress, we stopped at the only open shop in Scourie to get milk. After that we went to Laxford Bridge, Rhiconish then the single-track road all the way across the “rock ridges” of upper Sutherland to Durness, where we had been before in 2012 when we visited Cape Wrath. Note the single-track road was a breeze after the Wee Mad Road, I can tell you. Much of this area is a route called the rock route with tourist info boards, I read a few but rocks are just not my thing unless forgive me it is reclassified as Rock music, now you are talking! Tee-hee
We checked into Sango Sands site, one we have stayed at before, choosing a pitch on the cliff edge with fab views. It was raining , we had looked for diesel here in Durness but none was available. Luckily, we had enough to get mostly across the top of Scotland. The rest of the day and night was rain, sleet, snow and what I can only describe as near gale force winds that rocked the van for most of the evening and night, not the most relaxing, and indeed our second experience of horrendous winds at this campsite. As no one was in the office when we arrived and we certainly didn’t fancy walking anywhere the kind lady came to collect our fee at the door, which almost blew off when we opened it. Not sure we will return to Sango Sands ever again although our pals from Mull went there in Storm Dennis and were the only ones on the site, not surprising, but either brave or foolhardy , I wouldn’t.
We had a quick chat with the young Belgian couple next to us who were touring in his converted Sprinter van, they needed some change from us to do their washing.
I think with the worry we managed to sleep at least a bit but it wasn’t great, couldn’t wait to leave.
Day 6 Up early couldn’t sleep because of the wind anyhow, it had lessened a bit, we drove over to the only amenities open all the ones near us were boarded up against the weather, not great really. The two good things they had done since last time we visited 10 years ago was set up many more level graveled pitches and a breakfast bar, not that we used it but the lady who took our money was thankfully tucking into a bacon butty. We reckon the reason so much of Scottish food is grease ladened is to shut out the cold, it’s a bit like covering yourself in fat to swim the channel. It reminds me of our deep-fried mars bar experience in Blog 131.
Didn't know that there was a memorial in Durness to John Lennon. Here is a write up about the Durness stuff, indeed In My Life off the Beatles rubber soul album, which he wrote was inspired by childhood stays at the croft in Durness. We are collecting visits to John Lennon Memorials as back in 2019 just off Reykjavik on Videy Island Yoko build the Imagine Peace Tower. (See BLOG 135) .
We then went past Smoo Caves which we still haven’t seen, to the Robb Donn trail clearance village. Then it was around loch erribol on the single-track road onto tongue across the kyle of tongue causeway which was being repaired. The famous youth hostel Chris and I stayed at back in 1974 which was a posh yoof hostel by 2012 was sadly now closed, boo! At tongue we finally found some diesel and at £1.97 a litre I had no choice, I would have paid even more. Saw castle Varrich and quite a few more clearance villages before the long scenic drive through highlands Caithness to initially scrabster where we once caught the ferry to the Orkneys back in 1985. Then into Thurso and buying some much needed provisions in Lidl there, having lunch in their car park overlooking the bay before heading on through Dunnet-to-Dunnet head and visiting the lighthouse at the most northerly point in the UK past Brough.
We then returned down the awfully maintained single track back into Dunnet and then onto the wonderful Caravan and motorhome club site at Dunnet bay where we stayed for 2 days.
We set up camp and whilst the weather was reasonable walked down onto the beach via the boardwalk and walked quite a long way along, it is allegedly 2.5 miles long and when the wind is up makes a great surfing beach, lovely sands, but as the tide was coming in and the wind bitter, we turned around and returned to the van for some warming soup.
Then it was time to read and relax, listening to the new Bryan Adams album so happy it hurts, just wonderful.
Day 7 2nd day at Dunnet Bay campsite, not great weather in the morning, rained most of the time, a clear patch mid-afternoon gave Keef time to walk into Dunnet and visit the Gin distillery there as well as walk up to the turning for Dunnet head. The gin place was closed but I was able to look into see the process and some of the Gins they sold. I was also able to stroll around their gardens where there were lots of herbs I had never heard of which they used the flavour the gin. Hugely expensive the cheapest in the shop window seemed to be £57 a bottle, wow! By the time I had walked back it was raining again but at least I got a little exercise and some learning. The viewing platform at the other end of the beach was interesting at was the displays but school kids outside the cap site.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and reading. I am reading a historical novel about Katherine De Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, later on in the holiday this enable us to say that Allyson and Annie are distantly related.
On the site there was an auto sleeper executive very similar to ours only somewhat older, just shows they keep going.
Day 8 Left the fab Dunnet bay past the Queens Mums castle of Mey (which we visited in 2012) and travelled onto to John O’Groats hoping it had improved since our last visit 10 years ago. The brochures said the quaint village of John O’ Groats, on the way we stopped at Gills Bay where a ferry goes to both the near island of Stroma and St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands which we visited in 1985. The ferry is run by Pentland Firth, I need investigate whether it carries vehicles because the John O’Groats one is only passenger. It may be an alternative to Scrabster – Stromness when we return to the Orkneys which we are thinking of doing in Wendy house as well as the Shetlands assuming there are enough campsites.
Sadly, John O’Groats is still a dump, and the new holiday pods look more like WW2 bunkers, note to self never go back again.
This is what was in the Dunnet Bay Caravan and Motorhome Club site marketing leaflet, we looked for it honest but didn't find it, hugely disappointing.
After John O’Groats we stopped near Keiss castle, went past the lovely Sinclair Bay and after that we travelled onto Wick to buy shortbread, Scottish products and visit Old Pulteney distillery to buy Doug a rare whiskey for his collection. In wick we even visited their old castle, not that wonderful.
Then it was on down the A9 past Dunbeath castle, Helmsdale, Wolfstone and onto Dunrobin castle which we had not been to before. We spent a pleasant few hours there, in what seems like a French chateau, owned by successive Dukes & Duchesses of Sutherland, the earlier ones being responsible for the Highland clearances so not that popular. Loved the fact that one so rich built his own station nearby and ran steam trains to it, he was an engineer . I personally loved the old clocks of which there were plenty. The gardens were very formal, we took hundreds of pictures and tried to spot the falconry. The images were in case we decided to invest in some solid real estate, ha-ha.
It was then back to the start of our NC500 trip and the Torvean campsite on the other side of the city of Inverness, by the Caledonian canal, a very overpriced campsite for what it was, we would never use it again preferring Grantown on Spey that isn’t that far away #hintsandtips
Day 9 Filled the van water tank to about half, then we left for the lovely drive along the edge of Loch Ness, didn’t see Nessie but we stopped at Urquhart castle for a squint at the relic. We then stopped at the Commando monument mostly for the view of the mountains especially a snow-covered Ben Nevis.
From here it was through a somewhat built-up Fort William, along the side of loch eil and stpooing for lunch just the other side of the Ballachulish bridge off the A82. From here we motored on to Oban , got some diesel did a bit of shopping and joined the ferry queue for our 4 pm departure to Mull and Craignure. Allyson had collected Chris from Oban hospital and was in lane 1 in the queue beside us. So great to meet up with our pals on the ferry.
Chris was recovering from an op and as they were in a car went ahead of us who are somewhat slow in our van across the 34-ish miles of south Mull to their house in Ardtun near Bunnessan
Days 10-13 lovely times with pals Chris & Allyson plus the Harveys whom we picked up from the ferry terminal in Chris’s car which I borrowed, besides friends time, escape room games, great food, chat, music - especially Skippernish - trad scottish with a hint of sea shanty, walk to Bunnessan, chic feeding , car practise to Fionnphort , seeing Iona at a distance , Annie and I first went there and to Mull in August 1976 before we were married, walks on Uisken beach, sitting on Peter Morris’s chair, walk to Ardalanish beach across the river and Dunes, near the Weavers we went to before, Annie visiting Monica from NZ with Allyson, venison and oh so many wonderful meals, they sure did look after us, just a great time spent wih pals, so loved it.
Stopped for David to take this picture on the way from the Ferry to C&A's at Ardtun.
Day 14 up early washed, packed and ready for the long drive back to Craignure to catch the ferry back to Oban, from there we drove via Inverary , Rest and be thankful, Loch Lomond, Fish and chip lunch in Dumbarton with its strange castle / prison riverside, The Erskine bridge and mass traffic around the outskirts of Glasgow back to the Strathclyde country park Caravan and motorhome club site we have stayed at often, a great stopping off point.
Day 15 Back across the border into England today leaving Glasgow via the M74 right next door to the campsite, how convenient. Right down as far as the North York moors, pulling off the motorway past dales through Hawes, we stopped for lunch and a bit of shopping in Skipton, quite a busy place especially as the market was on, then it was onto Bolton abbey via Bolton bridge, through the low arch next to the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire plush estate and into Strid woods and the Cravan and motorhome club site named Bolton Abbey, used to be Strid Woods. Greeted by our pals Yvonne and Lawrence who are sole wardens there, had a fab evening meal and time with them catching up, we will see them again soon.
Day 16 said our goodbyes and headed back through Harrogate, Weatherby, A1 , A1M to home and unpacking the van, a truly lovely holiday doing the NC500 and seeing friends. We both loved every moment of it.