NC500: The Long and Wounding RoadWritten by John Macpherson
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.