NC500: The Long and Wounding Road

The NC500 was ‘launched’ back in 2015, a tourism marketing strategy to ‘sell’ the concept of a ‘Highland Route 66’ taking visitors through some of the UK’s most remote landscapes and arguably its most impressive scenery. Its been incredibly successful, attracting thousands of visitors, and with current ‘staycations’ due to Covid travel concerns, has recently attracted many campers, caravanners, motorhome-dwellers, motorbikers and cyclists. Visitor impact has been a source of controversy with the consequent financial benefits weighing the scales on one side, and on the other tipped by the perceived problems such as increased pollution, littering, irresponsible camping and damage to already fragile narrow roads not intended to carry such a weight of traffic.

I’ll not wrestle with the various details here but a google search will reveal all you need to know about the contentious issues, such as increased travel times for locals (eg trying to go to work, appointments, hospital etc) and increases in road traffic accidents and deaths. For some insight into local concerns have a look at this news item about parking, or this blog post by a local NC500 resident (and worth also reading the comments sections for a flavour of the polarized views the NC500 elicits): “Poo, Potholes and Park-Ups – Why Highlanders Are Tired of Scotland’s North Coast 500 Route”

(Click images to enlarge/sharpen)

 

Visitor with NC500 T-shirt, near Durness, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Approaching Strathy, Orkney Islands behind, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Morning mist, NC500 Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

As a native Highlander, I’m very familiar with the area having been fortunate to explore it extensively during my childhood, at first with my parents and then later as a teenager, and have now amassed more than 40 years of working professionally all across it on a diverse range of projects, many tourism related, whilst others have been concerned with (the less visible to the casual observer) natural heritage & land use issues such as forestry, ecotourism, deerstalking, military use and so on, but virtually always working closely with local communities.

 

Megan doing deer control work, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©JohnMacPherson

 

View west from near Betttyhill village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

And so I decided to take a dip into parts of the NC500 route, and with my ancient Land Rover ‘campervan’ become a part of the throng and see first hand what effects were visible, and maybe gather a few personal observations from people I casually encountered. My route north & back home again would be through the centre of the North Highland area, along the long glens leading to the coast, but not technically part of the NC route as they stray too far inland for most to contemplate as a casual wander unless open moorland and huge skies are their motivation.

And so my drive north to Durness was marked by a virtual absence of traffic and those few vehicles I did meet had polite and courteous drivers, both local and visiting, who observed ‘Highland road etiquette’ of passing place use, allowing following cars to overtake, and enabling uphill drivers to have right of way by pulling in to let them ascend without drama, something I really value as I’m navigating more than 2.5 tons of Land Rover.

 

Campervans, motorbikes, campers, and walkers near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Arriving in Durness was a rude awakening after the remote and peaceful glens, with a throng of visitors enjoying the coastal scenery and beaches, the 24 Hour petrol station busy, the toilets with a queue waiting outside and campervans galore jostling for parking space to access the delights of Smoo Cave, as motorbikes and cars weaved their way between them.

 

 

Smoo Cave, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Smoo Cave, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Sango Beach, Durness, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Campfire scar & litter, Kyle of Durness, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland © John MacPherson

 

I found a quiet spot for the evening and next morning the unmistakeable roar of powerful cars echoed across the moor, as a convoy of half-a-dozen big motors blapped along and disappeared. I packed up and cleared the few bits of litter from a previous visitor’s stopover and drove back towards Durness. A zipline has been installed just outside the village beside Ceannabeinne Beach, with a row of campervans nearby packing the carpark, several more parked in passing places and a small parking area on the bend, and more of them motoring through looking for a parking spot. As I walked up to the zip line start point the sound of an argument rose above the revving engine of a car trying to do a hill-start on the very steep single-track road which was unfortunately covered in loose wheel-spinning grit, foiling another frustrated driver trying to get down the slope and discovering their way blocked. They resolved it, but with lots of red faces and shouting.

 

Campervans at Ceannabeinne Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Signs at Ceannabeinne Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

The convoy of sports cars was already jammed into the small pull-in and a group of young men, some with baseball caps and tattoos, got out and ambled over to the start of the zipline. I listened and watched them enjoy the view and then spoke to them. They were from Yorkshire and said they having a week or so doing the NC route.

“Are you a car club?” I asked

“No mate, just a group of pals on holiday together!”

“What do you think of this then?” and pointed to the view…

“Brilliant, what a place!”

“Have you been here before, or first time visit?”

“First time, and its so impressive!”

 

Golden Eagle zipline at Ceannabeinne Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Toilet roll behind rocks, Ceannabeinne Beach near Durness, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

A wee bit more social chitchat revealed they were booked into hotels for every second night and staying on campsites or just remote camping if no sites were available. “How are you finding the facilities on offer?” I enquired. “Good, hotels are nice but difficult to get a booking for all of us because we’re quite a big group, but its manageable, and we planned well enough ahead, toilets are a bit few and far between but we stop often for food and coffees so are coping ok.” I asked if they’d been aware of the controversy over the NC500 route and one lad said yes he’d heard there was local concern over visitor impact, so they were trying their best to be respectful. So I asked how they were achieving that: “Well we take care on the roads and try and be sensible with the other vehicles, but those campervans and caravans can be a nightmare because they have trouble reversing, and we’re cleaning up our rubbish as binning it, except for bottles and cans.”  “Bottles and cans?” I repeated “…what are you doing with them then?”

He grinned and pointed at his mate “His car’s boot is the bottle bank!” and laughed, as his mate grinned too, and then pointing to another lad said “…and his car is the very fast tin can recycling bin! We’re keeping all that junk until we get home and it’ll go in the recycling!”

 

Parking at Golden Eagle zipline, Ceannabeinne Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

 

And then they asked about me and what was I doing, so I explained the type of work I do and to underline the point asked them if they thought the landscape was actually ’empty’ or whether it was being used. One said “Well it looks empty, there’s sheep and thats it, and obviously tourism?” So I explained a bit about the rural economy, tourism, deerstalking & fishing, windfarms, and pointing further along the coast towards Durness, detailed the MOD Live Firing Range and its use for military training and some of the work I’ve done there, all of which surprised them. I suggested a detour on their route west to see the beach beyond Durness at Balnakeil where some of the live firing occurs and that they could get something to eat in Durness on the way, and off they roared.

 

MOD Live Firing Range, Faraid Head, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

The area around the zipline was a bit messy with old campfire scars and litter, and down below beside the road handwritten signs on the track onto the beach warned about machair damage, dog mess and litter, whilst overhead the screams of zipliners mingled with the vocal seagulls always on the look out for food scraps. But everywhere people enjoying themselves, walking, flying kites, swimming, surfing and padddleboarding. A walk up behind the parking area revealed a large tent hidden in the bracken, bogroll behind rocks, and various signs of visitor’s carelessness.

The few miles to Durness had its frustrating moments as a stream of vehicles jostled their way along the single track road, my own temper finally snapping when an oncoming small car driving down the hill as I lumbered up pulled into the passing place then decided not to bother stopping for me and came back out again and accelerated straight down towards me, obviously assuming I would stop and reverse back down the hill and around the corner to the nearest passing place, or drive into the long grass and ditch on the roadside to let them pass.

Nope. I kept going, the smug grin on the man’s face changed to one of confusion and then fear, culminating in a mad swerve into the side whilst trying not to topple his car off into the ditch. I eased alongside, (hot day, windows down) and leaned out, and remarked grumpily “Use the passing places pal, thats what they’re there for, and give uphill vehicles right of way, especially big ones, it really helps!” Eyes wide, he nodded and slowly proceeded on his way.

 

Fast food & a killer whale, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

I caught up with my sports car lads again near Durness at Sango Beach enjoying takeaways. It was, to be perfectly honest, a rather surreal sight involving a life-sized glassfibre killer whale advertising a launderette, a gaily decorated hamburger van, several huge rumbling motorcycle trikes and a herd of campervans. More chitchat ensued, then I found a place to park and took my bicycle off my van and headed away up on to the moors behind Durness village for some solitude. Within 5 minutes the landscape was deserted, mist descended and curlews called off in the distance, it was quite glorious. I took a detour off the main track that headed towards a high pass but it got a bit steep and rocky so I retraced my route and found another narrower path that appeared to lead back through the common grazings to the main road.

 

Grass on the moorland, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Common grazings, Durness, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

It wound through the outskirts of the village past a few council houses, a pile of newly cut logs dumped beside one home and a tired looking woman leaning on the fence nearby. I stopped for a chat, yes the logs had just been delivered and she was contemplating carrying them round the back of her house. I asked her about the NC500 and its effect “Its been grand, lots of tourists mean more income in the village, its good for people as the economy needs it.” I left her to the log hauling and after a short hop on tar I was heading downhill to the glorious beach at Balnakeil.

 

Trike riders, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Waving vigorously at me from a line of cars parked on the roadside was a young BMW driver, one of the Yorkshire convoy, obviously recognising me. “Great place!” he shouted “I’m getting my chair!” and as I rode across the sand I could see what he meant. The whole team had lined themselves up and were lying back soaking up the spectacular view! They spotted me “Yo Scotty this is a grand place, thanks for the tip!” “You boys certainly know how to do holidaymaking in style!” I joked. “We do!” they replied.

 

Friends from Yorkshire, Balnakeil Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

“Where do they do the military shooting?” asked one, so I pointed out the area they fire from on Faraid Head, and the target, An Garbh-eilean (Garvie Island), the wee rock off Cape Wrath that is used as a target. “Its not very big” said one fellow “…what will they do when they’ve blown it to pieces?” “I’m sure they’ll find something else to shoot at!” I replied. “But the Vikings landed here long before the Army!” I remarked, to their surprise, “The Vikings?”. “Aye when you think about it, they’ve come down from Scandinavia, stopped for some refreshments on the Shetland and  Orkney Islands, and this is one of the next big sheltered bays they’d have found. There was a Viking grave found over there on the hill, with bones and jewellery and various other grave goods, including a sword and spear. Goodness knows what else is buried around this part of the coast…”

I left them to their enjoyment and lost myself in the extensive sand dunes and jagged rocks for the rest of the afternoon, mental images of longships easily conjured from amidst the sea haar (fog) threatening to advance into the bay. At the distant end of the beach I saw only one other person in several hours of poking about cliffs and moorland, but was accompanied by curious fulmar and seagulls as they soared effortlessly along this edge where land becomes ocean.

 

Friends from Yorkshire, Balnakeil Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

MOD live firing exercise, Balnakeil Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Garvie Island live firing range, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Rocks and sky, Balnakeil Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Barnacle encrusted rocks, Balnakeil Beach, near Durness village, NC500, Sutherland Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Balnakeil Beach, Durness, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Ruined building, Durness, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Next day I headed east through Bettyhill and on into Caithness towards Dunnet Beach. Passing through the small community of Reay I stopped to photograph some makeshift NC500 road signs and a nearby resident and his wife came out for a blether. Turns out we had mutual acquaintances from Strathnaver, and they gave me the lowdown on local doings, mainly frustration with the NC500 and cars speeding through the village,  which they’d put up the signs to combat and also a pair of fake speed camera Policemen. And as he explained this a Ferrari and Lamborghini yowled through, “See what I mean, not exactly obeying the speed limit!” he observed.

But the real frustration, and evident in their voices, was the lack of sensitivity to local culture, such as described by his wife, who’d witnessed overnight campers near the church further along the coast where her family are from. The visitors had hung their laundry out to dry on the cemetery wall, where her ancestors are buried, oblivious to the offence it might cause. She added for good measure the tale of her friend finding a bag of human excrement in her garden hedge, thrown from a passing vehicle, by someone caught without a toilet and desperate, who’d taken advice on ‘bagging’ it if desperate but then carelessly tossing it instead of binning it.

 

Signs by roadside, Reay village, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Speed cop cut-out by roadside, Reay village, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Dounreay Nuclear Facility dominated the skyline for the next few miles, now being decommissioned yet still exerting considerable influence over the local economy, fostering innovation and research that’s now globally signficant. It marks its presence in the landscape in no uncertain terms. As I motored on, I was overtaken by sports cars, motorbikes, scooters and a small convoy of gaily coloured & beautfully maintained VW vans, obviously another group of enthusiasts doing the NC500. Dunnet Beach was glorious, I parked and cycled the 2 miles along the sand, did some beachcombing then found a sheltered spot to sit and watched the world go by through my telescope for an hour or two.

 

Sea potato (Echinocardium cordatum), Dunnet Beach, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Gannets dived offshore, various seabirds came and went, and I thought I spotted a large black fin at one point but in the choppy sea it was hard to tell. At the other end of the beach through the heatshimmer I could see campervans coming and going, then a Range Rover pulled in to park beside my vehicle, a smartly-dressed elderly couple with dogs got out and the animals scampered joyfully down the beach. One dog squatted in the unmistakeable pooping hunch and let rip, the owners studiously averted their eyes and stared seawards. Rounding their pets back up they shoved them in the vehicle and carried on their way, leaving the pile of poo for someone else to worry about.

 

Dounreay Nuclear Facility, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Dunnet Head did its usual magic, dolphins patrolling in the sea below the huge cliffs, the backdrop a glorious view across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, and then later a splatter of sunset. Several campervans squeezed into all the available roadside spots but one large group with several vehicles filled a substantial area, though next morning they were off early and clearing not only their own stuff but some other bits of rubbish I’d noticed as I’d passed by earlier.

 

Campervans near Dunnet Head, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

My return home was down through the Flow Country, mile upon mile of moorland & bog, the most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world, blessed with a backdrop of mountains and endless sky. It was sublime, the road was deserted and my frequent stops to listen the the silence were amply rewarded. I cut across from Kinbrace to Syre past Garvault and “Mainland Britain’s Most Remote Hotel” (which proudly boasts of its off-grid and sustainable credentials) to cycle into Rosal, one of the Clearance Villages, the inhabitants of which had been driven from their homes in the early 1800’s north towards the north coast so that the landowner could replace them with sheep. Now surrounded by forestry and managed by Forestry & Land Scotland the Rosal site is maintained as testament to the brutality of the evictions. A sign at the start of the rough access track requested ‘No Unauthorised Vehicles’ and unsure of whether that was for parking or track access I enquired at the nearby cottage.

 

Forsinard Flows RSPB Reserve & viewpoint, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

A young woman with her two year old daughter answered the door, the Estate stalker/gamekeeper’s wife, and an hour of delightful blethering ensued, topics ranging from deer management and fishing to windfarm developments, absentee landowners and tourism. Yes, she confirmed, the sign referred to parking, as campervans had made it impossible for her husband to get his 4×4 and trailer in their gate, and parking for his fishing clients to access the river had become impossible as well, so they’d reluctantly had to forbid parking.

We talked about visitor impacts, and once again the subject of cultural insensitivity surfaced, with several examples from her personal experience but perhaps best encapsulated in her story of a supported cycling holiday group. They had erected a gazebo tent in the small carpark for the local village cemetery and War Memorial one Sunday without permission then filled the area with bicycles and a couple of vehicles, preventing those wishing to access the cemetery from being able to park. Maybe not a huge problem for fit people who could park elsewhere along the road and walk, but as many local residents who visit are elderly & infirm she explained that it had created significant upset.

 

Flow Country landscape, near Forsinard, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

River Helmsdale, near Kinbrace, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

The conversation meandered onto the subject of the Clearances and my new acquaintance, who said she was originally from Glasgow, spoke emotively about the history of the glen that was now her home, and the ruins which she’d often walked to, but remarking that she’d been unaware of this brutal aspect of Highland history when younger, and expressed considerable dismay that “…it was never a part of my school curriculum as far as I can recall. How could I have been so ignorant about such an important part of our own past, such that I had to move here from the Central belt to find out what has gone on, and how its shaped this landscape and its people?” We shared a moment’s contemplative silence, abruptly punctuated by their collie pup escaping, having been released by her free-range daughter, and which was now joyfully but mischieviously stalking the sheep in the adjoining field. She smiled, resigned to the chase that was imminent, and bid me farewell and went off to retrieve the pup whilst I cycled off down the track to Rosal, with her permission to leave my van opposite her house.

 

Garvault House Hotel, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

 

Milestone (west face – ‘Kinbrace’), Garvault, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Milestone (east face – ‘Syre’), Garvault, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Far inland from the bustle of the NC500 the glen was deserted. No cars passed on the narrow single-track main road on the opposite side of the river that I could occasionally glimpse through the trees, and I was surrounded by birdsong and insect buzz intermingling with the low soft rustle of river water over rock. I cycled up through head-high bracken untamed due to the Covid-induced absence of visitors and soon reached the Clearance ‘village’. It was an evocative sight, low piles of stone marking the remains of house walls, piles here and there, scattered, and even more further up the slope.

In this idyllic scene it was easy to imagine a thriving community, the river providing fresh water and fish, fertile soil to grow crops. And all this brutally destroyed, a whole community removed, to allow sheep to reign supreme. As if to underline the irony of this, from behind one of the walls, and disturbed by my presence, two sheep lounging listlessly on this warm afternoon popped their dozy heads up and realised to their utter horror they were not alone, and spooked by my unexpected presence found themselves on the receiving end of an eviction and fleeing to wherever might offer some sense of sanctuary.

 

Fleeing sheep, Rosal Clearance Village, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Rosal Clearance Village, Strathnaver, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Church interior, Syre, Strathnaver, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

I drove on towards home, contemplating the history of the glen, wondering at the lives that it had supported, but my peaceful ambling abruptly halted at the entrance to Creag Riabhach Wind Farm. I’d to stop for a massive truck & trailer with heavy earth-moving equipment destined for the construction site being carved out of the landscape. What had once been open hillside and moorland was now a huge industrial site, a reminder of  the presence of climate change, the need for local solutions to the challenges of energy production, and the continuing and evolving story of this one glen and the ways its inhabitants lives are shaped by wider influences and changing priorities.

 

Creag Riabhach Wind Farm development, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

The final 20 miles to home was instructive. A following vehicle, deciding to ignore the road signs, gave me a moment of mild concern. Further on at a 4-way junction a bit of a snarl-up meant I ended up pulling in beside the passenger side of the same car, so politely remarked on their earlier manoeuvre and their wilful ignoring of the road signs, and for my trouble received a mouthful of abuse, implying they had local knowledge that I was not privvy to, could do as they pleased, and not recognising me as ‘local’ decided I was a tourist and angrily told me to “…clear off back wherever you come from…” and they roared off, tyres skidding.

 

Birds egg shell hidden the heather on the moor, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

It was a reminder, if any was needed, that we’re all from somewhere, our status, and our perceived impact, shifting from local to tourist, to local and back again as our locations and circumstances dictate, such is the complexity of mobility and the varying effects our presence can have on the experiences of each other.

I’d been dismayed by some of what I’d encountered in a few days, some ‘road safety’ that was questionable, a fair amount of litter and ground damage, the carelessness of apparently ‘respectable’ older people, but I have to say more than balanced by the heartening actions of many others, including the group of young men whose preference for sports cars and tattoos belied their environmental awareness and sense of personal responsibility.

 

Ruins of WW2 Coastal Defence site, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

 


Ruins of WW2 Coastal Defence site, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

The Scottish Highlands has always been a contested landscape, incursions by the Vikings, the Clearances, controversy over North Sea oil and Dounreay Nuclear Reactor, the benefits or otherwise of wind farm developments, the NC500, and slowly poking their heads over the horizon the new “green Lairds” intent on utilising landscape for carbon sequestration and offsetting. All imposing change, and altering lives in fundamental ways.

 

Wind turbine looming out of morning mist, near Bettyhill, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

A current issue that perhaps best encapsulates the tensions that prevail in this apparently ’empty’ and peaceful landscape is the Melness Spaceport, near Tongue on the NC500 route.  As if to echo the opening scenes from Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ – the iconic sequence where the flying bone morphs into a spaceship – the bones I photographed at Rosal Clearance Village, lying on the ruined croft walls, have a surprising & direct link to ‘the future’ and to the Spaceport.

Bones on wall of ruined house, Rosal Clearance Village, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

Some of the descendants of the Clearance families from this glen, whose ancestors were cleared north to the coast to make way for sheep, are now involved in a fight to steer this development to their mutual advantage. An excellent article by Dani Garavelli in ‘The Scotman’ digs deep into the issues  ‘Insight: The battle to build UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland’ and crucially, explores the personalities behind the opposing forces, and their motivations.

 

Morning mist and cottage, looking west of Bettyhill with the Mhoine behind, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

As Garavelli observes:

“The Battle of the Mhoine, then, is not only a fight for the survival of one community, it is a microcosm of Scotland’s wider land debate. It pitches locals against incomers; the environment against the economy; preservation against progress. It raises questions about the commodification of “wilderness” and the balancing of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“There is a history of rival visions for the Highlands – the tension here is to what extent do these visions coalesce and diverge?” says Calum MacLeod, policy director for Community Land Scotland. “What factors are shaping what is done in Sutherland? Whose vision takes precedence and why?”

The nub of all of this is simple: what is the benefit to be gained by development, to whom does it accrue, and at what cost to others? Big questions with no easy answers, and ones I’ll leave others to wrestle with for now.

 

Red throated diver on a small lochan on the Mhoine, Melness, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Long abandoned cottage, A’ Mhòine, Melness, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

I’ll finish with an observation, in itself insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and easily overlooked, but from this Highlander’s perspective an unmistakeable sign that the values that underpin so much of the ‘spirit of community’ in this ‘remote’ place still thrive.

Wherever I went, from Strathnaver to Durness, from Strath Halladale to Melvich, and all along the North Coast that lends its name to the NC500, tucked into driveways and hedges, prominent on the roadside in the middle of ‘nowhere’, even in one of the busiest carparks between Rhiconich and Tongue, I saw honesty boxes. Unattended little stalls filled with locally produced jams, jars of honey from bees stravaiging over the heather moorland, tablets and toffees made with care in little kitchens and bound in tartan ribbon neatly tied with bows, boxes of eggs from midge-brave hens, and all this goodness left for passing visitors to buy and to take away and enjoy, simply trusted to leave money for it in return.

 

Honesty box, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Honesty box, carpark near Durness, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

Its rarely if ever mentioned in the many observations of the NC500, but here, still evident in all these ‘invitations to honesty’ that these little ‘shops’ represent, is trust. Unlike the scars of careless campfires which, in time will heal, trust once destroyed is harder to re-establish.

When we who live here forego that mutual investment we make in those who want to come and share our culture and utilise our amazing landscapes, we’ve had it. But for now? Well, as far as I can see trust is alive and thriving, and that delights and heartens me. Long may it continue.

 

Cioch Mhor, near Durness, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Mist rolls over Ben Hope, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Evening light on Loch Eriboll, wires and wind turbine, near Durness, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Wind turbines near Bettyhill, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Morning light, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Grasses on the moor, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Melvich Village Hall, Melvich, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

 

Landscape near Eriboll, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Landscape near Eriboll, NC500, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Waste bin, Dunnet Beach, NC500, Caithness, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

View west to Cape Wrath from near Bettyhill, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Gate, Strathnaver, Sutherland, Scotland ©John MacPherson

 

Pentland Firth, sunset, NC500, Scotland ©John MacPherson

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (31 Comments)

  1. Margaret Wilson says:

    Thank you for absolutely breathtaking pictures of North Scotland. The world should see these and visit at least once.
    I’ve spent a lot of years in northern Scotland but reluctantly had to return south to Glasgow. I’m so glad I stayed in the wonderful North. Your pictures took me back. Thank you.

  2. Ally says:

    A really thoughtful and carefully written piece. Those last few photos (clouds, cliffs, etc) are truly stunning.

  3. John says:

    Your last paragraph re honesty boxes and trying to link that to thriving communities etc is naive and idiotic. As someone living on this stupid man made tourist route that, let’s not forget, existed for years before idiots arrived, I and everyone else that sold excess produce used honesty boxes. What are we going to do? Stand by our gates all day?
    Idiotic article and done soley to encourage readers to your site. The nc500 doesn’t need advertising it needs shut down. I hope Applecross vote to leave as the idiots trying the bealach need to be stopped, turned back and told to just “fuck off”

    • Hi John, thank you for the response. May I clear up some of your assumptions please?

      “Idiotic article and done soley to encourage readers to your site.” Maybe you can explain how you think it benefits me? Its not my site. It carries no advertising at all. It is the property of a separate company that I have no financial or any other stake in, and one that rarely (if it ever has) does any work in Scotland. In fact I was invited to contribute to it as and when I see fit, as have several other people before me. I hope that clears up your assumptions?

      In fact the blog is a bit like an “honesty box” for words, pictures, ideas and observations, and put out there to see what people take from it, and what responses and insights they might offer in return.

      You seem to think I am unaware of the presence of honesty boxes around the Highlands, and what they represent. I’m curious whether you’ve noted (in whatever experience you have) that there has been an increase in dishonesty. Has there?

      If you seriously think telling people to “fuck off” is a solution then I think you may have a rude awakening in store. The NC500 is here, like it or not, and the challenge for people like us living on it (I routinely get held up whilst trying to do my day-to-day work in the Highlands) is to find ways to make it more sustainable and ameliorate the worst effects whilst not ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg”. My family’s direct involvement in tourism in the Highlands goes back to the 1860’s and I am under no illusions about the benefits and disbenefits it brings, and to be honest without tourism-derived income a lot of people in the H&I area would lose a substantial proprtion of their income.

      If you want to make this a dialogue, I am more than happy to respond and discuss more reasonably what solutions you might have to offer, hear what your personal experience of “honesty” has been and maybe add some ‘depth’ to my original piece if that experience differs from mine (and I will happily add your observations as an addendum to the piece I’ve written if you want, to give you the chance to make a direct response to its content).

      Finally, roughly (so as to preserve your anonymity) where on the route do you live?

      Regards
      John

  4. Susan Black says:

    Beautiful photos-a real eye. Interesting article, only two quibbles, one minor- why call passing places laybys- they are not that and it causes problems: one major- trust- I’m afraid too many tales of honesty boxes being raided and too much property and environmental destruction-there is a fairly pervasive distrust of tourists now due to huge numbers and some bad behaviour. It used to be balanced, it no longer is which is a great pity. The over tourism has deprived the local population of much of the pleasure they had in their own environment and has also driven away many of our regular visitors who were welcomed year after year. Another sad time for the Highlands Perhaps there is a little hope in the efforts of the Melness crofters in encouraging small scale high tech industry in the area and in another potential community buyout at Inchnadampdh. There is also a small but appreciable increase in local food production on crofts- all good things and not dependent on tick box tourism. There is potential for repopulation- people can co exist with nature, it is only when things are out of balance that all elements suffer. (For example , one individual owning too much land- still a common feature in the area.)

    • Thanks for commenting Susan. I am interested to learn that the boxes are being abused. Is this a widespread problem do you know or more localised? Yes the effect of ‘too many tourists’ is in part due to a ‘perfect storm’ of factors over the last few years which is only exacerbating existing problems caused by lack of infrastructure, and I suspect also a different type of visitor perhaps not as environmentally aware as in previous years. Community management and preferebaly ownership is the way forwards to solve many of the pressing issues, and at the very least a lot more community consultation should take place.

      Point about the laybys (guilty as charged) fully taken on board – I’ve already had a wee reprimand from Madeline, and will correct the blog to reflect their purpose more accurately. In my defence I had a dad who insisted in calling cemeteries ‘passing places’ and well it kind of stuck!

      Appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  5. Norman Ross says:

    John, A very well written and balanced article. As a native of the Highlands since birth and someond who has worked and still works and lives within the NC500 area we have seen the huge increase in tourism. Many of these folk are just doing it as a tick box exercise, to say they have been where Jeremy Clarkson has been. Others come because their friends have been and have to keep up with them. Others come for the scenery as shown in the adverts. However to get to the scenery they do not realise they need to drive 100s of miles, often on single track roads that do not exist in Surbiton or wherever, do not read up on the area. Expect to book into a Travelodge or similar every night eithout booking hence end up ‘camping’ in unsuitable locations and leaving mess behind as they are totally unprepared for where they have found themselves. We, the locals had no advance warning of the influx, no opportunity to create the infrastructure to deal with the increased numbers. In fact, we oftem used to venture forth within the Highlands often on days off or at weekends. We no longer do this now due to the increase in traffic, lack of parking, road rage etc. I know the areas you explored, the quiet off route places, we must keep these off the route, as little private sanctuaries of tranquilness, known to few and not so easy to get to.
    Thank you for sharing with us and for sharing your info with the folks you encountered on your tour.

    • Thanks for reading Norman. Yes I agree with most of your observations, the lack of consultation and necessary infrastructure is something that needs to be tasckled as a matter of urgency, also the educative process so people understand something more about the area and how it actuaklly ‘works’ and their role in either helping or hindering that process.

  6. Madeline Macphail says:

    It is a pity that a Highlander calls passing places laybys. No wonder visitors use them as such.

  7. William says:

    Interesting observations John. As one who lives on the route and makes my living from tourism I have a foot in both camps. Since 2015 we’ve seen a marked change in the people that come to the Highlands. Most visitors now are just passing through, ticking the box to say they’ve done the route and not taking the time to really see it. The amount of roadside toilets is frightening, I’ve come to the conclusion that the council could provide toilets every couple of miles and it wouldn’t solve the problem, people would still despoil the countryside. The area round Ardvreck Castle is now just one huge toilet with an incredible amount of casual campers staying there. I know Durness has the same problem. I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t think we can stop this anti social behaviour, we still get a lot of really nice people but also an increasing amount of individuals who are not. I’ve been called a w***** and worse a few times this summer already for using passing places correctly.!

    Anyway, be sure to call on us next time you visit Clachtoll!

    • Hi Billy – the changing demographic is something many have remarked on. I was in the Applecross area last week working and the same observation was offered me by several locals, a distinction made between visitors: ‘the type we had previously who were responsible’ and ‘the type we have now who are less responsible’, but being careful to note that one hasn’t completely replaced the other, that its just now more common to see bad/careless and downright irresponsible & rude behavior from some, where previously that was virtually unheard of.

      The situation at Ardvreck is not isolated, sadly. A walk up the side of any hill near/opposite a frequented viewpoint or scenic corner with a handy layby or passing place (!) will quickly reveal used toilet roll stuck in the heather, and worse. Your remark about ‘tick-box’ tourism is one many have made, and maybe it’ll be the case that post-Covid some of these issues will become less serious as the demographic changes. In the meantime – well, more toilets might help, more litter disposal points, who knows. But you’re right at the sharp end – both in the nature of the business you’re in, but also in ‘community’ terms with regard to the place you live, so are obviously really feeling and seeing the impact.

      Not been over your way for ages, long overdue for a visit – M having some more cardiac surgery soon and then recuperating so we may manage a wander during that. Regards to C, hope all is well with you both.

  8. Mary King says:

    I was just on the point of wriuting a similar, though shorter blog post. Do you mind if I direct my (very few) readers to yours and just write a summary instead?

    • Hi Mary – I think it would be really good if your own piece, on your blog. However, if you’d like (I can see where you live from your address) it might be useful if I add a copy of that blog as an addendum to the piece I’ve written? That way we have different voices which can only add to the insight offered. Let me know if thats something you’d like to do and I’ll be happy to do that.
      John

  9. Hugh Scott Smith says:

    Thank you, John MacPherson, for an interesting and insightful piece. You have described the best, and the worst of tourism in the NC500 area but, more importantly, you have given me a very poignant reminder of how beautiful is our little corner of the world. Thank you!

    • Hi Hugh – thanks for commenting and glad you enjoyed it. Its a real dilemma and one I wrestled with when contemplating writing it – if I show only the ugly/damage in my images and be critical (easy to do) it might make people who are unfamiliar with the NC500 wonder what the fuss is all about, yet if I show the beauty and drama its very easy to be accused of simply adding to the problem by making it look ‘too pretty’ and attracting even more visitors! Always a fine balance and sometimes one I get wrong!
      Regards
      John

  10. Maz says:

    Interesting article – I recently “did” the West Highland Way and was appalled at the numbers of bottles, cans, and other waste left behind by people who were supposed to be walking for the experience of enjoying the remoteness, openness and relative tranquility – and having found a lovely spot for a wee break or lunch, left their rubbish behind.. I used my midge net to carry others rubbish to deposit in bins – I give that as my reason for being last to arrive at bed and breakfast every night. It does rather make you despair about some peoples total lack of respect for the environment and those around them. Anyone who has ever attended Glastonbury – will have seen tents and rubbish left by “save the planet” people which leaves little hope for a cleaner country. Or I am I just a grumpy pensioner……

    • Hi Maz – thanks for chiming in. Yes I know exactly what you mean – there’s a ‘disposable’ attitude that some people exhibit towards the ‘the outdoors experience’ whether as you note at fetivals, or on walking routes. They’re not the majority and probab;y only a small minority but the cumulative effect – Glastonbury or on sections of the WHW makes a huge impact. I wish I had some answers but sadly I dont. I guess all we can do is call it out, and certainly clean up where we’re able to, and inclined to, and as I do teach my son and his pals that respecting nature/countryside/wild places is the right thing to do. Its only a small impact I know, but if cumulative it will and does make a difference.

  11. Charles says:

    A very interesting piece. I too have travelled the Highlands and Islands for decades. Camping with the family years ago, photography, writing travel guides and like you speaking to folk. The biggest difference in recent years is of course the irruption of camper trucks. Before the marketing invention of the NC500 the North Highlands was popular with visitors ever since the arrival of railways then cars and caravans. I suspect that the glut of camper vans and first time campers will dissipate somewhat once Europe and the US opens up again. In a sense the route is good because the vast majority never go off piste. Years ago some cousins had a Dormobile of which I have many fond memories. I went back to camping a long time ago interspersed with some nights in hotels. On my last trip a few weeks ago 15 year old Fiesta died but the craic with Ullapool Billy on the recovery to Scrabster was worth every minute.

    • Yes campervans have increased in number dramatically, and you can understand why, but the sheer number of them is way beyond what anyone envisaged, or planned for. Aye it will be interesting to see if the bubble bursts when overseas and european travel starts back up in earnest. Thanks for commenting.

  12. An interesting article, very balanced- well written.

    I am the widower of a Highlander, still staying locally- near Dingwall. I enjoy driving on much of the route as well as many other Highland roads.

    Firstly- “lay-bys “, yes we do have them as well as passing places, they do permit us staying a bit longer. Perfect for a few photos, a cuppa from a flask, a rest for a fatigued driver. We are quite entitled to dally there, they are very different from the clearly marked passing places. But I am 100% fed up, seething, on finding vehicles left there, or set up for an overnight stay in their campers! Bugger off and pay for a site!

    I am sickened by people who are so ignorant as to not disposing of either dog or human excrement properly. I feel desperately sorry for those whose privacy and space are intruded upon by these morons.

    This over marketing is very ill thought out- go away and think again, NC 500 Ltd!!

    • Hi Val – laybys and passing places – well I could have laboured the point previously but they’re often a bit ill-defined. Some bits of road have passing places (signed as such) but also laybys (also marked, usually with a dotted line), but sometimes there are unmarked passing places which common sense would suggest (because of their location) are not laybys, whilst others (also unmarked) are safe enought to stop in. All that aside, consideration and courteous behaviour can help immensely!

      But yes, more infrastructure is needed, and some people really have had a pretty unpleasant time as a consequence of its success.

  13. Judy Mills says:

    Thank you, John, for a well-balanced blog. Me, I’m a Softy Southerner, but was privileged to spend a week at Durness annually from 2001 – 2019 and I count many of the residents as friends. Over that time I have seen people go from concern that there will be no income from tourists if the puffins disappear, to rage and frustration at the huge numbers of NC500-ers some of whom contribute nothing to the local economy at all. Your piece puts those 20 years into perspective, reflecting on the bigger picture and the longer history with Viking invaders and the Duke of Sutherland’s sheep, but the pain of those living there today is not lessened by knowing ‘thus it ever was’.
    I hope this is just a passing phase: it could have worked so well if it had been properly planned and prepared-for and sadly there still seems to be little done to channel and accommodate those who come, other than on a small, local level.
    Thank you too for the beautiful photographs: I will return one day, though I can never really go back.

    • Hi Judy – thanks for commenting. Its a complex picture indeed, the balance between local income/development and over-exploitation of those ‘natural’ resources (of all sorts). I have no idea what the answer is, but it certainly has to take into consideration local needs and aspirations, and ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’ is a phrase I’ve heard muttered several times in the context of the NC500 but the horse is still bolting and some efforts need to be made to rein it in. Infrastructure is a good starting point, but there’s a role for education too (many visiting have scant understanding of the issues and problems of rurality that sit uncomfortably and often concealed, alongside all the perceived benefits). My own work in tourism, environment etc is one aspect, but I’ve also worked in Social Work in the Highlands and the issues of rural deprivation, depression and a host of other problems all lie hidden beneath the apparently idyllic exterior. Rural homelessness, poor transport links, low-paying jobs and seasonal employment and accommodation (rental on short term lets so holiday rentals can happen etc) are all issue that affect individuals and communities in fundamental ways. But work I did over several years in the Cornwall area revealed similar issues, the Poldark Factor etc etc. Globally its a growing issue, areas in several US states have similar problems of higher priced homes pushing out local residents, ditto southern end of South America and many other lcoations where resident poulations find themslelves competing against wealthy incomers able to outbid local young people intient on staying but driven out by unaffordable costs. See this one: https://www.outsideonline.com/culture/opinion/did-airbnb-kill-mountain-town/

      also: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/aug/26/american-west-income-inequality

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/emmareynolds/2021/01/14/the-wealthy-are-moving-to-these-5-us-mountains-towns/

  14. John MacPherson says:

    Interesting and informative. From another John MacPherson. A crofter fisherman’s son from near Gairloch now in ABERDEEN.

  15. […] they could better support and engage with the communities most affected by the ‘NC500’. This article by a Highlander travelling parts of the route this summer offers a more nuanced look at the […]

  16. I thought this article was interesting and well balanced John – clearly with such a devisive topic you could not please everyone, as is shown by some of these comments, which you have responded to with good grace. Lovely photos too. I’ve never driven the route myself, but spent quite a lot of time speaking to people on Skye (Mull too and even Islay to a lesser extent) about their similar issues. I don’t have any answers, but as others have said, the speedy tick-box style of travelling is something I would like to discourage (in any small platform I have available). Less people who stayed longer would bring the same amount of money (in terms of nights’ accomodation, food bought etc) and less total vehicles; it’s also a much more fulfilling for the visitor themselves in my opinion. It’s pretty hard to know how to push that enough for it to make an impact though, or where that push should be coming from.

    • Hi Vicky thanks for commenting. Aye well its really easy to wind people up and achieve precisely zero in achieving any contemplation of the substantive middle ground, so arguing over diversionary aspects intended to create controversy seems a waste of most folks time, particularly mine!

      You may not have any answers but I think you’re on the right track re solutions though. ” It’s pretty hard to know how to push that enough for it to make an impact though, or where that push should be coming from.”

      ‘Communities, coming from communities’ has to be the start point. Local democracy in action, some consensus on what a specific community needs and some guidance & assistance to achieve that.

      It complex, difficult but needs to be locally led, and that leadership properly supported and funded if needs be so people can work free from the burden placed on them (time/cost etc).

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