Tourist route the North Coast 500 is beautiful – but do locals love it?

James McEnaney found the NC500 was not without its bumps.
James McEnaney found the NC500 was not without its bumps.
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On a trip that began as a tribute to Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, James McEnaney found the NC500 was not without its bumps

I was never the wee boy who wanted to be a footballer or a fireman or a racing car driver. The only thing I can remember always wanting to do, at every age and stage, through every phase and passing fascination, was write.

And then, at the age of 32, I finally got the chance to produce a book. I had been inspired by Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, a fascinating piece of work – part travelogue, part polemic – which I had first encountered in 2012. I was 26, a newly-qualified English teacher at Arran High School, and had been handed the challenge of teaching the Advanced Higher curriculum. I immediately fell in love with the book and thought even then that a modern version could make a worthwhile contribution to contemporary Scotland – although I did not for a second ever think I’d have the chance to make it happen.

The first big job was planning the route, which was a long, complicated and frustrating process. In its earliest incarnations, the journey was an attempt to replicate Muir’s movements eight decades earlier, following the same twists and turns, and finding the same stopping-off points, as the man himself. However, I realised that, in this form, my work could only ever be an echo – an inescapably pale imitation of a great, though under-appreciated, piece of writing.

After this realisation, my plans mutated – an extra village here, a bypassed motorway there – until I finally settled on a project that was really mine. My Scottish Journey would use the Scottish Parliament as the start and end points for a ten-day, clockwise, broadly coastal loop of the country in the spring of 2018.

Where Muir travelled alone in a borrowed Standard car, I’d be on a 16-year-old motorbike. Instead of hotels and B&Bs, I would stay with local people in places including Gatehouse of Fleet, Ullapool and Aberdeen, incorporating their thoughts and feelings about their homes and gathering up, to borrow Muir’s phrase, my own “bundle of impressions”.

Over those ten days I experienced Scotland’s incredible, infectious beauty in all its hues, from sparkling waters beneath the brightest, bluest skies to prehistoric peaks shrouded in gathering storm clouds. Wrong turns introduced me to a millennium-old site of worship on Orkney and the beautiful Art Deco remains of Tarlair’s enchanting outdoor swimming pool, while recommendations I picked up along the road took me to a location from film The Wicker Man and the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I visited an amazing outdoor nursery on the west coast, and in the east was introduced to long-forgotten artwork left behind by Polish airmen during the Second World War.

Best of all, in every corner of the country, I met generous, warm-hearted people, many of whom had been born elsewhere but found a home in Scotland, who were willing to share their passions, their stories and, in many cases, their homes with me. It was a privilege, and one for which I will always be grateful.

So much of what I saw during my journey surprised me. I didn’t expect the brutal snow storm on day two which very nearly ended my trip, or my emotional response to the Orcadian island of Wyre, where I stood in Muir’s boyhood home.

I hadn’t anticipated the anger I felt in Helmsdale, in Sutherland, standing beside The Emigrants statue remembering those forced from their homes during The Clearances. Matters of local democracy and the alienation felt by many of Scotland’s communities became consistent threads running through the fabric of my story, despite my insistence that I did not want to write a political book.

I had realised during the planning stage that I would be covering the majority of Scotland’s shiny new “ultimate road trip”, the North Coast 500. Like everyone else I was aware of the increasing buzz around this initiative – a few friends had already completed the trip, and in 2016 the journalist Peter Ross had written a typically wonderful piece about it for National Geographic.

Having only ever completed isolated sections before I was looking forward to experiencing the whole route for myself and hoped I might be able to tell my own version of what appears to be a quite incredible success story. But the reality that I encountered was very different from the rhetoric.

Day five of my adventure began with an early departure from Geary in the north of Skye, with an ultimate destination just south of Ullapool to be reached by early evening. I arrived in Lochcarron, ready to cross the famous Bealach na Ba towards Applecross, just before lunchtime and decided to stop for a cup of tea and some fuel. I had only joined the North Coast 500 route a few minutes earlier but already couldn’t miss it: outside the Lochcarron Hotel stood two huge advertising flags and even here, in this tiny West Highland village clinging to the shoreline, I had several opportunities to part with my cash in exchange for a variety of route-related merchandise.

I had lunch at the Applecross Inn where I spoke to Alison Macleod, a community development worker, who told me about life on this beautiful, isolated peninsula. She spoke honestly and passionately, and offered some pretty cutting observations about the local council, the Scottish Government and various infrastructure companies, all of which have failed communities like hers in a variety of ways.

But she reserved particularly harsh words for the North Coast 500, saying: “It’s been awful. The whole thing has been a nightmare.”

She wasn’t alone in expressing serious reservations about the purported benefits of this new tourist draw. My hosts that evening were Ailsa McLellan and her partner Joe Hayes, whose driveway joins directly onto one of the many roads that makes up the route. They echoed Alison’s criticisms, highlighting above all the lack of appropriate infrastructure of investment to make such a scheme sustainable even in the medium – never mind long term.

The ultimate fear is a simple one: that carelessness will transform these amazing, must-see nooks and crannies of our country into over-crowded, over-exploited shells that travellers decide aren’t worth the hassle.

These sorts of concerns have been echoed in a number of conversations I have had since writing the book, and have reinforced some of the thoughts I had at the time. In some places – such as along the northern coast of the Applecross peninsula, or the stretch of road around Drumbeg – the narrow and contorted Tarmac presented a challenge even on two wheels. While negotiating some of the particularly uncompromising sections I remember wondering how large cars, never mind tour buses and American-style campervans, could possibly cope – and how bad things could get if two people with no experience of passing places met head on.

It is easy to understand the appeal of “Scotland’s Route 66” and there’s no denying that it showcases some of the very best that Scotland has to offer. For many people, that 500-mile northern loop, carving through scenery which, at times, seems able to transcend the very idea of beauty, will be unlike anything they have previously experienced.

We live in an astonishing corner of the planet and should be proud to show it off, but in the rush to celebrate success we also risk forgetting, as we so often do in Scotland, that apparently “remote” areas are still the centre of the world for the people who actually live there, and not just a holiday playground for the rest of us.