The Northern Roads

The northern coastal route of Scotland is a right of passage for all UK motorcyclists. I'd had a year of riding to prepare, so now it was my turn.

This is my NC500

Day-0 : 373 miles

It was time to put my money where my mouth is…I own an excellent set of waterproof panniers and duffel bag that worked brilliantly for my last moto-camp adventure. But since then I’ve started selling my own motorcycle luggage so I felt it was time to give them a proper road test; a four day trip around the north coast of Scotland, the famous “NC500”.

The first day was simply getting from my home near Manchester to Inverness. I chose to stay at Bunchrew Caravan Park because I’ve stayed there before, I know you don’t need to pre-book and they’re motorcycle friendly. 373 miles would be my longest day in the saddle so far, so this ride alone would be a test not just for the luggage, but for me also.

A little wind-battered from the motorway work, I arrived just after 5pm, quickly set up my tent overlooking Beauly Firth and settled down for a well earned rest and cup of tea. The actual ride I came all this way for began the next morning, so that’s why I’m referring to this as '“Day 0”.

Day-1 : 212 miles

I hadn’t noticed it raining overnight, but waking up to everything being soaked and feeling the pressure of heavy grey skies made my heart sink a bit. The forecast was clear though and since I didn’t really have a choice, I packed up early and treated the campsite to the glorious sound of my T120 mingled with the early morning bird songs.

Like most cities, getting out of Inverness is more of a chore than a memorable part of the ride. Kessock Bridge marks your exit from the big smoke, but it isn’t really until after Cromarty Bridge that you start to get a feeling of being on an adventure. The east side of the NC500 is often referred to as the ‘not so nice’ end of the route; and while it’s true that the scenery can’t match the West Highlands, the roads are nice enough and there are numerous places to visit on your way up to John O’Groats.

Now, I cannot, and will not, portray John' O’Groats as a great place to visit. There’s really nothing of interest there apart from the famous signpost. It’s not even the most northerly part of mainland Scotland (this honour goes to Dunnet Head). However if you arrive early enough, or are willing to force your way through the endless lines of people waiting to have their photo taken, it’s possible to ride your bike up to the signpost to get ‘that’ shot. You may of course annoy a few people getting your bike up there, but it’s a small price to pay. The ground is quite gravely so you might want to check it out before riding your pride and joy up there, I’ve seen a few videos of experienced motorcyclists almost dropping their bikes on the loose ground, personally though, I found it ok.

From John O’Groats it was just a simple task of following the A836 west until it turned into the A838 at the Kyle of Tongue Causeway, then continuing until I got to my next overnight stay at Sango Sands Campsite in Durness. This part of the route marked a real change in the quality of riding to be had. The further west I rode, the roads and scenery got better, and better, and better. Particularly the section that follows around Loch Eriboll from Hope to Rispond, it’s incredible. I was lucky enough to find myself on this stretch of road at sunset with no other vehicles in sight, and it’s a part of this trip that I’ll never forget.

Day-2 : 300 miles

Snoozing to the sounds of crashing waves, I almost overslept. Luckily, a small dog barking and pissing on my bike woke me up just in time for the early start I needed. Leaving the campsite and heading west, there’s a self service petrol station a few hundred yards from the campsite, this is a great place to fill up for the day ahead if you’re running low on fuel.

Not far along the A838 from Durness, there’s a section opposite Loch Lambknowe where the view you’re greeted with is incredible. I may have just been lucky, but I’ve been down that road twice in two years and both times the view was jaw-dropping. Keep your eyes peeled for it if you’re going that way.

I had intended on following the normal NC500 route, but a wrong turn at Laxford Bridge had me meandering inland, alongside Loch Shin towards Lairg. But since it turned out to be a great road and there was a cafe at the end of it (The Pier), I decided to head for that, then ride back out toward the coast after breakfast. I couldn’t be happier that I did, the A839 and A837 leading to Ledmore is one of the best roads I’ve ever ridden or driven on. One of the highlights of doing the NC500 is the Kylesku Bridge and if you go the way I did then you’ll miss this spectacular viewpoint…but I’d go as far as to say it’s worth missing for the ride from Lairg to Ledmore, plus you can always ride back up to Kylesku if you have the time (I didn’t realise I’d missed it!).

Once back on the NC500 route I headed south then west to take on the infamous Bealach na Bà (Applecross Pass). Much like the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, the Bealach na Ba has a reputation for unseating motorcyclists. A problem that’s only gotten worse with camper drivers increasingly taking no notice of the signs saying it’s unsuitable for large vehicles. Luckily since I was doing my trip early in the year, I hadn’t really been too inconvenienced by campers so far on my adventure, and this was the case for my trip over the pass. Unimpeded by inappropriate vehicles, I found the pass to be fairly easy. Although I think in the height of summer with a lot more traffic, I can see how the road could become very dangerous indeed.

After conquering the pass, I headed south for my overnight stay in a B&B on Skye. There’s not much to write about this part, it was just a great ride, that’s all.

Day-3 : 450 miles

I’d decided to stay in an Air B&B for my last night on the trip as I’d had a lot of problems the previous day with the charging cable coming loose from the auxiliary power socket on the bike (something I’ll have to fix for the next journey). This might not be too much a problem for most folk but as I was filming the trip, I really needed a wall socket to get everything charged up for my last day.

I didn’t travel too much in Skye as it’s not part of the NC500 and I might make another video series on that journey on it’s own. The first part of the day was simply heading south and taking in the final (and best) parts of the NC500. The whole area around Glen Coe is stunningly beautiful, it’s worth travelling to Scotland just for that.

Just south of Glen Coe on the A82, you’ll find the River Etive Bridge, immediately north of the bridge there’s a small road branching off to the right (if you’re headed south as I was). This is Glen Etive, or as it’s otherwise known, the Skyfall road. Having been featured in the James Bond Skyfall movie, the road is predictably busy with traffic, very large campers on a very small road don’t make a good combination so if you’re visiting in high season, it may be best to give this road a miss. But if you’re there when other’s aren’t, it’s a stunning road that dead-ends at Loch Etive, a perfect spot for some lunch before heading back to the main road.

After this it was a great ride down past Loch Lomond until eventually the traffic became dense and the motorways beckoned. Then it was just the long boring slog home.

My Thoughts on the NC500

Firstly, if you can help it, don’t do it in summer. I did it in summer in a car and Spring on my bike. Spring is by far the better choice. Although it’s still quite cold (below 10c most days), the lack of midges and other road users make the trip an absolute joy at this time of year.

Wild camping: Technically it’s allowed. In practice though, on a motorcycle it’s almost impossible. The few sites where you could potentially do it will almost for sure have a camper-van parked up in it. If you’re going in low season, most of the campsites will allow you to just turn up without pre-booking. Personally I didn’t encounter any anti-biker feelings from either campsite I stayed at. If you’re going in high season, it may be worth ringing ahead just to check they’ve got space, although I think it’d be a hard faced person to turn down a lone biker looking for a small pitch for the night.

Fuel: I’ve heard folk talk about it being hard to get fuel when doing the NC500 as some of the areas are quite remote. This wasn’t my experience at all. If you’re sensible about refuelling and don’t leave it until you’re almost empty before even thinking about finding a pump, then you’ll be totally fine. There are quite a few self service pumps along the route so you shouldn’t have any worries about running out in the middle of nowhere.

If you’re considering doing the NC500 then my advice is to just do it. It’s a great ride with some amazing roads and jaw dropping views. Some folk will pretend to be too cool to do the NC500 because “everybody does it”; but there’s a reason for that, it’s a really great ride.

Lastly, how did my luggage fair? They took it with ease. My only thoughts on how they could’ve been better was that they could be a little bigger, but that’s something for the future. So if you already have a set of my bags or are wondering if they’d be ok for touring, I can now say yes, because I’ve done it with them and they were great.