So… this blog records our visit to Scotland basically for the month of May. It was intended to take six weeks but the weather broke us and caused us to retreat early after less than four weeks. !
We have always loved the idea of going on the famous NC500 (North Coast 500miles) around the Highlands and Islands at the top bit of Scotland. We considered that we needed to beat the midges and we wanted a good chance of some decent weather so it was either May or September. May seemed ideal for our plans as we could hopefully just nip through before the dreaded (female) midges could launch an attack. Little did we know that the little bleeders didn’t stand a chance as the weather would not let them emerge.
So anyhow it all started well. We left the family events in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire on 8th May and headed North. We parked up at the Metal Bridge Inn at Gretna Green just a few km short of the border. This was the start of some very welcoming Scottish sites equivalent to French Aires. This is a completely free, gravel, flat, ‘Britstop’ motorhome parking area alongside the pub. The only expectation is that you eat, drink or otherwise spend a few quid in the pub. Makes sense as there are enough pitches for 15 or more vans. There are no formal agreements, just good old fashioned good will. So in reality this one night cost us £27..! But we had some right nice food and a pudding and a drink included. This worked well and as we could sit outside Ruby in our camping chairs late into the evening this started our trip well.
9th May and we entered Scotland and we took on the miles to scoot through the metropolis of Glasgow and hit the Highlands eventually finding our planned SearchforSites wild camping spot close to Glencoe on a tarmaced, flat car park with potential views of Loch Achtriochtan and the Glencoe Mountains. This was immediately very, very, wet, with continuous heavy rain and joined by fearsome wind. Thankfully we were backed up to a large bank with trees to reduce the impact but still a night of limited sleep.
Slightly drier the next morning we headed further north again. We had plans to get to the Isle of Skye as a base for several days. Therefore the next few days we drifted further north parking wild alongside the wonderfully named Loch Lochy then alongside Loch Beag where we managed to get out for a long walk without getting completely soaked. We noticed by this point the amount of foreign visitors to the area. We had not yet joined the NC500 but certainly our neighbours were now driving vans registered in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and a huge quantity from the Netherlands. Trouble is that many of the drivers and passengers thought it great when they wave to other motorhome occupants. Bearing in mind that about 30% of the vehicles on the road were motorhomes this was very tiresome. And Weird! Many of the other visitors seemed to be Americans and Japanese families in hire cars. Brits were outnumbered throughout the Highlands surprisingly.
12th May and we decided to hook up to some electric at a campsite at Morvich on the coast for a couple of nights. This was still wet and windy but we had only been around for a few days so there was time for the weather to improve. We managed another lengthy walk and dodged the rain though the wind was however pretty intense.
This was our first sight of our many of the red deer roaming the hills, munros and mountains in this beautiful country. There is something pretty special about seeing the deer who just seem to stand and stare at you from afar. Close enough to get a good view but thankfully fully wild in the remote hillsides. This paid site was good at £29 per night – which to be honest is still quite pricey- but we could fully charge all our kit and have a larger shower experience. And importantly use our Nespresso Coffee machine for a while…! The heavily overcast skies had made our solar panels struggle to charge up all that we wanted and access to the laundry room is always welcome. We did wake up on the Saturday morning to some bright sunshine and blue sky. We all loved it. All chats around the site included ‘Brilliant- love this weather’ and ‘what a great change, hope it stays here’. It gave us all some energy as we moved on to the excitement of the Isle of Skye. This was the main place we had plans for. It always seemed to be The place to visit and with the Skye bridge linking it to the mainland had the added bonus of being able to travel in Ruby without a ferry. To be honest the island was much bigger than I thought it would be. The main roads are terrific, wide and straight and everywhere is immaculate. The improved weather was a bonus and made this visit one of our favourite parts of the trip. So the next three nights we moved away from the main roads and onto the tiny coast roads which are bumpy, narrow and hilly with passing places. This was starting what turned out to be hundreds of miles of this kind of road. Move forward a few hundred metres, tuck into a passing place, repeat… quite fun really and surprisingly successful… most of the time..!
The views had already been impressive on our way into the Highlands but now Skye was an absolute dream. Without doubt some of the most awesome views anywhere on the planet. Strangely enough I was slightly disappointed by the bridge over onto the island. Previously I had expected something far more dramatic and spectacular however in reality it’s just ‘quite good’.
Once on the island it was incredible with the rocks, the flat plains, the plentiful beaches, turquoise sea and the beautiful white farm houses and cottages scattered randomly around. It is a wonder we made any progress at all having to stop regularly to soak up the view in addition to using ‘passing places’..
Mile after mile we passed plenty of spots to park up for the night. Most of them with a direct view out to sea. It was however quite windy so we chose a cosy spot against a hillside for the night in a place called Hungladder. After a short while a Scottish Rangers van pulled up alongside us. ‘You are not in trouble. It’s alright’ says the smiling Ranger. He was purely there to hand out leaflets and give guidance in order to ensure campers are kind to the environment. ‘We are delighted with the generosity of Scotland in making us feel so welcome’ we said. To which he replied ‘The only problem is that we are victims of our own success, there are now so many wild campers that we struggle to provide enough facilities’..!
Next day we visited and climbed the Quiraing. This is a rocky hillside with dramatic outcrops alongside a mountainous ridge. This location was used for many movies over the decades and made for a terrific long walk/climb for several hours. We even had sufficient good weather to have a nice relaxing picnic at the top with views all around the island.
So in short… The Isle of Skye is well worth a visit. Easy access, good roads up to the coast then calm, bumpy, relaxed single roads around the coast whilst admiring the terrific scenery. Still no dolphins, whales or seals though….we had downloaded a Whale Track app which shows you the best spots over recent weeks for individual species but they all forgot to look at the app…! None in sight.
16th May and we had the opportunity to fully enjoy the Scottish hospitality for motorhomes. Strome Viewpoint, just east of Skye looks across Loch Carron. This tarmaced lay-by is specifically marked out for motorhomes/camper vans to stop for one night only. There are no facilities other than rubbish bins but the important part is the fact you are made welcome and feel secure. No hassles from passers by and no concerns about being moved on. And a great view directly out of the window across the loch and valley. There are occasional coaches arriving and offloading dozens of tourists with cameras to take a quick snap and jump back onto the coach and move onto the next spot. We then moved further north and our first contact with the NC500 route on the A896. We had no plans to do the entire route but wanted to get a good taste for it.
Probably the most ‘exciting’ road we drove on the North Coast 500 came at an early stage. Day 1. We just blindly followed the NC500 signs on a loop along the coast towards Applecross having not bothered (foolishly…!) to get a map, speak to fellow campers or research online. After all what can go wrong.! Bloody hell…was this road dodgy or what..! Surprisingly there were no signs advising large vehicles not to take this on. Nothing to even suggest that this could be challenging. Well… as you know, we have tried many daunting roads but the approach to the mountain at Bealach Na Ba involved narrow single file roads with steep switchbacks zigzagging up the hillside. Tricky enough when alone but when you add motorbikes, cycles, cars, vans in both directions and walkers this becomes a real challenge. Then at the narrowest, steepest, windiest part a large bakery truck appeared travelling down the hill…! With a row of vehicles behind it. WTF…!. How were we going to deal with this.! We were so close to the edge of the cliff that Michelle had to get out to guide us through, while a passenger in another car watched the truck tiptoe down the gravel edge. It was nerve wracking. The view from here must have been great but …. we were a bit too busy to turn around. Certainly a route that I would not want to meet again. Fun as it was. The view from the top was pretty impressive when we parked in the car park area letting Ruby’s clutch cool down and our heart rate to drop.
Thankfully this route improved slightly down the other side. The loop round this part of the coast took 3 hours over a distance of just 36 miles..!
Our next exciting moment was just a day later at a place called Kylesku bridge. We had decided to put some miles in and headed some distance north, stopping for a nice fish and chip lunch in Ullapool. Also managed to fill up our LPG gas at the last pump before the remote northern roads.
So after a busy driving day we arrive at the scenic Kylesku bridge with surprisingly good weather and once again a terrific view across the valley with the bridge alongside. We had the added bonus of a dozen red deer wandering round just 50 metres behind us on the hillside. They just seemed to be watching us as we and other travellers gathered in the car park. Seemed an idyllic place to spend the night and we confirmed with a passing police sergeant that we were most welcome. As it got dark we were joined by two other motorhomes setting up for the night. Large tarmac car park, right alongside the deep valley, great weather. Can only go downhill from there.. Well at about midnight it started to windy, by 1am it got very windy and by 1.30 it was howling right into the side of Ruby and rocking her from side to side. It was then joined by heavy pounding rain coming sideways. It was very scary. We know that motorhomes do not just blow over in the wind but we really felt that Ruby’s right hand wheels were coming off the deck. It was too horrific to consider driving away down unknown roads in the pitch black but we decided to at least turn round and put the back of Ruby into the wind to ease the fear somewhat. We managed to ‘hang on’ without sleep in this position until 4.30 am when it got light so we felt confident enough to ‘escape.’ As we turned out of the car park I then noticed the warning sign on the road for ‘strong side winds’ – Well no sh*t…!
Within about 5 miles from the valley we parked up in a sheltered car park with hardly any wind and slept soundly until 8am. Phew.. We didn’t die… ! Just..
So moving on we battled through more yucky weather. Several times thinking ’Shall we give up and head back into England’ then after some consideration… ‘well it can’t stay horrible completely for two months– we just gotta be patient’- Really…! So we kept on and did, of course, enjoy the scenery and the trip and the driving. Loved it really. But sure, we would have loved it a whole lot more with some warm sunshine and/or reduced wind.
So by the 19th May we were up at the top end. Durness close to Cape Wrath. The furthest point north on the west coast. We decided to stay a few nights on the Sango campsite right on the coast against some beautiful beaches. A few days parked up would allow the good weather to arrive…surely. Well in actual fact this Thursday turned out to be quite sunny. Still cool and breezy but one of the better days. This gave us the chance to show our toughness by going into the North Atlantic for a swim..! Well it was bloody cold, we were the only crazy fools out there in the sea but we cracked on. Took Bobby our faithful skimming rubber ball in with us to keep us entertained and spent a good 20 minutes or so swimming, chucking the ball and trying to look warm for all the folks in their motorhomes overlooking us on the campsite..! Then immediately over to the hot, powerful modern shower block for 20 minutes to warm up. This was our one and only wild swim during the trip but we did enjoy it. The following day we got bloody soaking wet again with heavy rain damit. We did go for a walk which started out warm and sunny and trudged along through Banakeil Beach and onto the military firing range. The beach has incredible sand dunes that have drifted into unusual patterns and shapes which are then grazed on by sheep. Bizarre looking area and most interesting. The beaches round here are probably some of the best anywhere in the world. Just needs some beach weather to go with it. So yes we got the soaking on the way back to the camp site. Proper dripping, miserable, cold, yukky wet..
Another 20 minute warm up in the shower.. We were most impressed with the site.- despite the wind and rain (not the fault of the site owners I feel..!). £20 per night with electric and brilliant showers, great views and solid pitches. Very busy with multi types of campers and from multi countries of origin. The other reason we stayed for several days was so we could settle down and watch Leeds United on TV. Very last minute of the very last game of the season and with the help of other teams we just managed to hang onto the Premier League. God was that stressful…!
After a couple of other stops along the north coast – still on single track roadways with passing places – we ended up at the famous John O’Groats. An important milestone in anyones Scottish highlands trip. It felt good to have arrived there and we walked over to the fingerpost for photos and to look out to sea. A wonderful moment. Even the sun came out and the wind dropped…. a little..we even witnessed a beautiful sunset. It is strange to witness that at this distance north in late May the sun does not set until well after 10.30pm so it is still light at midnight. And by 4am it is getting light again. ! Takes some getting used to.
We had always been keen on going onto the Orkney Islands so had booked a ferry/coach trip from John O’Groats the next day. As we had no plans for where to stay we simply parked up in the newly resurfaced John O’Groats car park on site. No motorhome restrictions, no charge, no problem other than being a bit of a slope. So good that we spent two nights there. Once again Scotland welcomes the travelling
Our Orkney trip on 25th started with a ferry from JOG (John O’Groats) over to Burwick and then spent most of the day travelling round the islands of Orkney that were accessible by road. This was pretty decent weather really and was only windy and cold without any rain (Wahey). Really enjoyable, very informative and somewhat surprising. Who knew that the islands were so important through history and particularly during the WW2. Scapa Flow, Italian Chapel, Churchill Causeway and more…. very nice. Thank you Rob the coach driver. £69 each. Good value.
Well now we had to head back south, nowhere else to go. And as the weather was now failing once again we decided to make a little more haste in our retreat. A nice free night at the Falls of Shin Forest and a night in a motorhome friendly car park in Inverness was the point in which we eventually left the NC500. The remainder of the route would run down alongside Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal and back to the west coast to complete the loop., but we turned left instead and headed towards the east coast. We had covered a good 70% of the route and the most scenic, challenging, exciting parts. Very well worth doing.
Inverness turns out to be a good spot. Back into some civilisation, proper shops, cafes and shopping centres. Not all of this is a good thing..! We did also see a couple of large otters swimming and playing in the middle of the Caledonian Canal. Brilliant.
There is still a lot of Scotland to see on the east side so we drove along the east coast past Lossiemouth and Kinloss before landing up on the seafront in Aberdeen. Now this was a surprise. As far as I previously thought Aberdeen was just a scruffy place where the oil rig workers operated from… well… it is in fact a most impressive beautiful city with some incredible historic architecture alongside modern, lively developments. Really clean and safe with many places to visit. We spent the night parked on the sea front esplanade for free amongst other campers and feeling most welcome again. We managed to park on a more remote area away from other motorhomes and with views across the sea at pods of a dozen or so dolphins. ! Wow.. just a hundred metres out to sea they were playing and leaping from the water. A magical sight.
Next morning we did have the irritation at 4.30 am of a generator starting up just 30 metres from Ruby. Noooo…. Turns out this was the reason for the this being such a remote spot. Everyone else knew not to park here. ! One of the seafront coffee outlets had an early start and obviously every morning starts up the geny to start getting breakfasts ready. Bugga. Time to move on. Drive forward along the esplanade 200 metres, back into bed… zzzzzzz
I do remember the walk into Aberdeen City Centre though. There are several scruffy looking tenement buildings on the way to the magnificent buildings in the city. As I looked across I saw a tenement occupant of the highest Scottish heritage emptying his nose over his balcony and onto the balconies below…nice. He then saw me watching and pushed his middle finger proudly into the air giving me the ‘bird’ in a warm Aberdeen welcome…! Thankfully the rest of the city was rather better..
29th May and we turned up at Ballater in the Cairngorms. Yet another very special place. The nice lady in the Tourist Information place called it ‘the Scottish version of Camberwick Green’– Very clean and truly well loved. Whilst enjoying a cup of coffee in the central cafe we watched a bloke that obviously worked in the local garage (judging by his oil soaked overalls), stop at the kerbside and pick up a couple of small bits of paper and put them in the bin. Apparently the kids are taught from an early age to pick up at least 3 bits of litter every day when out and about. Bloody lovely idea. A small town but with lots going on. Our site alongside the river was excellent and had everything we needed. Sufficient to stay over for 3 nights. The weather was slightly improved Scottish wet and windy, sufficient to have a walk into the hills one day and the next we decided to cycle the 8 miles or so into Balmoral. Well what a wonderful thing that was… HM Queen Liz was in residence at the Castle resting up just two days before her Platinum Jubilee. Well that added to the excitement as we hoped to see her standing at the window waving to us gawping in from the posh gardens. None of it though. She was tucked away somewhere quiet. It was good to be there at such an important time in her life. We even enjoyed one of her venison burgers from a ‘hairy coo’ from her estate. The weather was much improved and we failed to get proper wet on our long cycle back to the campsite.
So while the Queen was heading down to that London for the big celebrations we moved onto Glenshee and parked up at the Glenshee Ski Centre. We had been advised that there was space for motorhome parking and electric hook up available. The area was in the main car park directly at the bottom of the ski slope. And despite the wet, cold Scottish weather there wasn’t any snow…! There were however still many walks up the surrounding hills (munro’s) alongside the ski runs. Lots of hills, lots of deer and minimal rain. Win win.
There was no one of officialdom within the Ski centre so we stayed for two nights, free, with wonderful views across the valleys. Only disturbed by screeching Oyster Catchers (black and white birds with bright red beaks).
2nd June was the first day of the ski lift opening for the summer visitors so we were the first batch to use it. We took this lazy route up the munro and then walked several miles across the peaks with a picnic. The whole thing was great. Nice and relaxing area with plenty of people and car watching. Still though… difficult to escape from the fact that this was now into June. Temperature had not yet reached 15º at the peak and blue sky was in short supply. Add to this a constant appearance of wind and we were getting downhearted. ‘Scotland cannot possibly stay so gloomy for so long’ – ‘Surely’…!
3rd June was spent leaving Scotland – a few weeks earlier than planned – and stayed overnight in the car park of the Belford Farm shop and cafe in Northumberland. This was a ‘Britstop’ venue which permitted free motorhome parking with an agreement that some purchases were made in the shop/cafe. No problem. Nice breakfast. This place is close to Bamburgh and our favourite castle. This time we were able to visit the inside which made the place even more spectacular. If you ever visit any castle in the country then Bamburgh Castle has to be the top of your list. What a beauty…
4th June we spent two nights at a previously used free site in Warkworth then heading further south we visited Cayton Bay in East Yorkshire parked on the old Filey Road before arriving for a pre-booked four nights at the Royal Bridlington Yacht Club in East Yorkshire. This is a ‘pop-up’ temporary site in a field along the beach about 2 miles along the coast from the Bridlington town centre. It had only the basic amenities without electric though still cost £15 per night. However it’s location is ideal alongside the beach and an easy walk/cycle/road-train ride into town. The major problem was immediately obvious. We were right next to a very large wind farm…! So guess what..? Yup, four days of being blown around and rocked back and forth on the site. We did manage to enjoy the town and one day we cycled along four miles to Sewerby then walked the rest of the way to Flamborough Head for lunch below the lighthouse. Very nice indeed. Didn’t get wet. Nice and sunny. Just damned windy. Oh and we did get to watch ‘Top Gun – Maverick’ at the cinema. Top film..
So…as you may gather..as sun seekers and worshippers, the trip to Scotland was hard to take. We absolutely loved the country, the roads, the people, the views, the experience and the walking/driving/riding but WE NEED SUN…
So we immediately booked a lastminute.com to Hersonison in Crete. Ten days in the hot sun of Greece was entirely necessary.
But that is another story……
Did you know… There is a huge daylight difference between the north of Scotland and the south of England through the year with big increases in Scotland in Summer and several hours less in winter. Almost a case of the midnight sun in the summer. It really does seem like the sun never goes down. Below are sunrise and sunset figures but, of course, it is still light for a considerable time after the sun drops and before the sun arrives..
- Mid summer- 21st Jun daylight is
- John O’Groats 04.02 – 22.25
- London 04.43- 21.21
- An incredible extra 1hr 45 mins between sunrise and sunset
- Mid Winter – 21st Dec
- John O’Groats 09.01- 15.18
- London 08.03- 15.53
- An equally incredible 1hr and 33 mins less daylight