Scottish Highlands, North Coast 500, Scotland

Driving open sports car in the Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK

Let’s take a quick tour of the west Scottish Highlands. At 0-60mph in 2.88 seconds this isn’t going to last long. Photo by Steve Carter.

What are the Scottish Highlands?

The Highlands is a sparsely populated area – less than 250, 000 people in 2015 – in northwest Scotland dominated by hills and mountains, including Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. It’s bleak, beautiful and especially popular with hill walkers and climbers though sufficient snow for good skiing is not commonplace as the mountains don’t reach the heights of, for example, the French Alps. The many large and tranquil lochs make for fine kayaking and of course Scottish castles make memorable places to stay.

A map of the Scottish Highlands, Scotland

The Scottish Highlands North Coast 500 route for cyclists or drivers

North Coast 500 cyclist, Scotland

North Coast 500 cyclist Bob Cherry, photo by Cherry family.

The North Coast 500 is a  spectacular 516 mile circular drive (actually rectangular) opened for business in 2015 in order to promote the northern Highlands. The route encompasses magnificent mountains, white sand beaches, lochs, castles and vast natural spaces devoid of humanity so it has become extremely popular with wheeled tourists in camping cars, sports cars and endurance cyclists as well as regular family vehicles.
The North Coast 500 runs roughly from Inverness on the upper east coast, directly west to the Isle of Skye, then northwest to Durness (near Kinlochbervie on our map), west to Britain’s far north tip of John O’Groats, and back south to Inverness along the east coast.

However! The immense popularity of the route has caused problems, particularly along the frequent narrow, winding or steep roads where slow vehicles such as camping cars (hired by newbies in Inverness) or older drivers can slow progress to a crawl.

North Coast 500 map, Scottish Highlands, Scotland

North Coast 500 route map, Scottish Highlands, created by Thincat. Official website.

Shieldaig

Shieldaig Island, west Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK

Shieldaig, a saltwater loch off the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Steve Carter.

Shieldaig Island is populated with Scotts Pines that were used to make masts for sailing ships to fight Napoleon two centuries ago. It is now a bird sanctuary and has nesting Sea Eagles.

Shieldaig Loch joins Loch Torridon and has a fleet of 6 fishing trawlers which mostly fish for Langoustine (which are transported to London, Madrid and even China the next day). The village itself was built to raise and train sailors to fight Napoleon.

Torridon Hills

Winter in the Torridon, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK

Winter in the Torridon Highlands. Photo by Steve Carter.

The Torridon Hillsare the oldest in Europe. Rock in the Torridon area is between 2600 and 3000 million years old. Very nearly the highest in Britain, they rise in places almost vertically to 3500 feet from the deep sea lochs.

The hills are not only famous for the magnificent and dramatic views but also generally have steep terraced sides that provide excellent scrambling and climbing activities and are consequently popular with hikers, climbers and mountaineers.

Ben Nevis

Mt. Ben Nevis seen from the Allt a'Mhuilinn path, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK

Mt. Ben Nevis seen from the Allt a’Mhuilinn path. Photo by Blisco.

Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom at 1, 344 metres (4, 409ft) above sea level, and is known to Highland folk as ‘The Ben’. It’s located near the town of Fort William and makes a terrific hiking or climbing destination though too many hikers and mountaineers go ill-prepared.

Weather conditions can deteriorate very rapidly leading to fast temperature drops and heavy fog or snow that conceals trails and escape routes. In some places snow is visible all year round. People die on the mountain regularly and the local Mountain Rescue team is kept busy.

The easiest and most popular walking route to the summit of the Ben is the Pony Track, sometimes known as the Mountain Path or Ben Path, starting on the east side of Glen Nevis at Achintee on the south side of the mountain, about 2km (1. 5miles) from Fort William town centre. The Pony Track is trod by about 75, 000 walkers a year!

Plockton

Plockton village, the Highlands, Scotland

Plockton promenade. Photo by NessyPic.

Often referred to as the prettiest village in Scotland, Plockton – population 378 – is on the shore of Loch Carron, off the Atlantic. The TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed there.

Highlands Beaches

Gairloch beach, west Highlands

Gairloch beach and loch, Atlantic Ocean. Gairloch is small fishing town with banks, shops and a museum. Photo by Steve Carter.

Achmelvich beach, Atlantic Ocean, west Scotland

Achmelvich beach and loch, Atlantic Ocean. It’s just north of Lochinver and a popular camping destination. Photo by Steve Carter.