Travel – NC500, Scotland: How to break your motorhoming virginity!

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Parked up for the first night at Loch Morlich

So, you think motorhoming is something only the over 65s do? I know what you’re thinking, the retired vicar and his wife, a small dog, probably a Chihuahua, trundling along in front of you, at 40mph, refusing to let you, and quite likely, your BMW pass.

Well, think again folks. More and more younger people are taking to the roads with their hotel room on wheels – and why not?

It’s just so convenient as a mode of both travel and accommodation. Stop and start where you want, pick your viewpoint; by the mountain, the sea, next to a town – it’s all in your hands.

But, and it’s a biggy, make sure you do your homework first and pick a rental agency that doesn’t just offer what looks to be a cheap deal. It’s absolutely imperative that who you choose offers a full package. This should include the motorhome rental, backup, advice, travel tips and the one item you can’t pay for – experience.

And that’s where Scottish Tourer Motorhome Hire in Perth comes in. From the initial email contact through to the vehicle handover, there was a level of professionalism that provided comfort in the knowledge I was dealing with people who knew what motorhoming is all about.

The owners, Gordon and Corrine go out of their way to ensure their customers get the very best experience possible – at no small cost to their own family lifestyle. On call 24/7  via mobile telephone, I can attest to the veracity of that statement on the occasion when I needed assistance during my trip.

And they are a hugely helpful and friendly couple. It’s an old statement but true nonetheless. You may well arrive as a customer but leave as a friend.

Scottish Touring Motorhomes change their vehicle stock regularly. In my case, the Bessacarr 599 was brand-new with only 23 miles on the clock! I’m going to stick my neck out here and challenge you to find another company in Scotland who can offer the same deal.

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As I mentioned earlier, Gordon and Corrine are avid motorhomers themselves. They’ve been doing it so long, not only do they know all of the pitfalls we virgins can stumble into, and believe me there are many, they can ensure you stay well clear in the first instance.

To my mind communication is key. From prompt responses to email enquiries, and an easy way in which to gain an answer to a query or a problem via a call or a text is just one of this company’s unique selling points. It became obvious very early on that it’s not just a business to this couple, but so much more.

There are many companies who hire motorhomes in Scotland, and a quick search of Google will confirm that, but both Gordon and Corrine are literal fonts of motorhoming knowledge, and you’ll have to go a long way to find another hirer who offers the all-encompassing package they do.

Bookings can be made online via the company’s website and require a £300 deposit for UK residents with all hire balances due six weeks prior to travel, or, if hired within that period payment in full will be required at the time of booking.

There is a range of motorhomes available to rent but I chose one of the largest, the Bessacarr, at 8.11m plus the extra one metre, for the bikes, and you’ll need a C1 licence category in order to drive it due to the 3900kg weight. If you passed your driving test after 1997 the chances are you won’t have it and will be limited to the choice of vehicle you are legally allowed to drive.

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So, was it ambitious thinking I could be the next Eddie Stobart recruit – hmmm, perhaps a tad, although I’m sure they also have a tail swing in excess of 2m!

So, hire day arrived and off we trundled to Perth with the £700 damage deposit safely tucked in Mrs GATGs bag along with the identity documents required by the company to prove we were who we said we were. On driving into the industrial estate unit we were welcomed by both Gordon and Corrine and once the formalities had been attended to were then given a tour of our motorhome and a breakdown of all the features it included. This took over an hour to go through it was that thorough. But, here’s a wee word of advice, listen carefully and take it all in because, like us, you park up and then wonder why you can’t switch your lights off, get the water pump on, adjust the central heating temperature and other features that you were told about. I’m luckier than most men, in that I have a Mrs Grub and Travel Guides who is like a sponge and misses nothing – including how many gins I’ve poured of an evening.

So, if like me, you’re a motorhoming virgin then it’s fairly important not to mix the freshwater top up with the chemical toilet, or the LPG for the heating and showers with the diesel tank. And, if you’re a wee bit squeamish, and the very thought of emptying a chemical toilet makes you ill, then maybe this type of holiday just isn’t for you, and you should walk away now.  Remember, what goes in must come out – and someone has to empty it all.

So, car unloaded, motorhome loaded, and here’s my next wee tip for you. Don’t take all the gear you would if you’re doing a week in Ibiza. This is essentially a hotel room on wheels and space is at a premium, if you think it’d be a good idea to do a week’s food shopping in advance, don’t!

There were three of us going away for 10 days touring the north of Scotland, and in particular, part of the North Coast 500 route, said to be the U.K.’s equivalent of Route 66 in the USA.  For more info on the delights of this route see this website.

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It’s just one vista to enjoy after another.

Anyway, back to space issues. There’s some locker space on either side of the rear of the vehicle which will store a fair bit of kit. Included in the hire fee was our picnic chairs, table, barbecue, along with other essentials such as the bicycle helmets that been provided for the bikes fitted to the rear of our motorhome. We used this space to store fishing kit, excess bottles and cans, our bags once we had emptied them, and there was still plenty of room for the water hose and electric hook-up cable both of which were supplied by the company.

So, off we set from Perth up the A9 the 84 miles to Aviemore where we did a light shop for the bits we felt were needed within a couple of days. Another word of warning here, watch out for the average speed cameras which are active on the A9. On single carriageways, the speed limit is a maximum of 60 mph whereas on the dual-carriageway sections it’s 70 mph. There’s a handy website which provides much more info than I can include in this blog on the A9 speed cameras here. Handily there is a new retail park which has both an Aldi and a Home Bargains store. It’s probably also helpful to tell you at this point that it has a lovely big car park making parking 33-foot long vehicles easy. Harvey, the name we’d given him for the next 10 days had no difficulties manoeuvring at this location.

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Be careful on the A9 as the speed limits change regularly.

Duly stocked up, we didn’t want to go any further north so drove to Loch Morvich on the outskirts of the town. While there are signs saying ‘no overnight parking’, we were advised by Gordon as long as you don’t abuse your stay – arriving after 6pm and leaving by 10am, the owners, the Forestry Commission won’t bother motorhomers. We parked up at the watersports centre where there is some excellent woodland wild camping with small private bays for motorhomes and other vehicles. Just along the road is a fully serviced campsite also run by the Forestry Commission where you can pay to access both freshwater supplies and empty chemical toilets for a fee of £10, as at April 2019. Details of this site here.

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Loch Morvich, Glenmore, just on the outskirts of Aviemore

If, like us, you want to grab some decent images, then take a drive further up the same road which is the one leading to the ski centre where you can look down over Loch Morvich and the old Scots pine forest as well as the Cairngorm Mountains it’s quite stunning.

The following day, after some more images we were off up the A9 heading for our next stop, Scotland’s most northerly point at John O’Groats. Well, we would have been had it not been for a quick repair job. Although our motorhome was brand-new, and it should be noted that these are coachbuilt specifically to order with the manufacturer only making around 20 per year we still had some minor issues with ours. I’ve mentioned earlier that the company we hired from have an on-call 24/7 system and it works a treat. The faulty control panel in ours was promptly switched over by Gordon driving north with a replacement panel which he duly fitted within 30 minutes and we were on our way once again.

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John O’Groats was a bit of a dissapointment.

The journey, thankfully was uneventful although the weather wasn’t great and on arrival, we were slightly disappointed in that it looked a little run down and a bit of a tourist trap. This is where the passenger ferry to Orkney leaves from. The John O’Groats Ferry Company have their own website at this location. We spent 30 minutes here, grabbed some pictures beside the ubiquitous sign, visited one of the tourist gift shops, used the public toilets at the small bus station (already becoming more seasoned motorhomers) and then promptly left for our evening stop.

We travelled a further 12 miles into Caithness on the A836 and found a spectacular wild camping spot by Dunnett Bay South. To reach this stay on the A836 through Dunnett, and at the next village, Castlehill, take the small road on the right into a car park which has spectacular views over the beach and sand dunes. Please note there are no facilities at this location. And, we were lucky because we had the place to ourselves with not a soul to be seen. You can even take the marked shore path for an after-dinner stroll. I’d imagine, because of the scenic nature of the location, in summer you’ll struggle to find a space to overnight here. There’re many other things to do locally around this location including the Queen Mother’s Castle and Gardens of Mey and Dunrobin Castle. There’s a list of places to visit and things to see and do at the end of the blog with links attached.

The following day, Sunday, April 28 following a hearty breakfast we packed up in glorious sunshine and toddled off to visit the Dunnett Head Lighthouse. You’ll need to follow the A836 and the B855  to reach this location. If, like us, you’re driving something which could seat 32 passengers were it a coach, take it easy and slow on the singletrack road. There’s plenty of passing places so be courteous and use them. Don’t expect people to bow to your superior size, not all will and while I’m on the subject, don’t expect to drive your home on wheels like you do your own car. These things are designed to be driven sedately, failing which you’ll feel like you’re on a rollercoaster. Plus, did I mention the rattling of crockery, cutlery and anything else not wrapped up in towels or kitchen roll – no, well I have now, so be warned.

Anyway, I digress, having taken some pictures at the lighthouse we then made our way to Skerray Harbour via the A836 driving through Thurso, and passing Dounreay on route.  Stay on the A836 at its junction with the A897 to Helmsdale. This will take you through  Strathy to Bettyhill where our satnav said a water tap may be available. Unfortunately for us, and many other drivers who end up in the wrong place, satnav’s are not infallible. So, placing our faith in a system that had already let us down once, we headed for Skerray Harbour. To reach here turn right off the A836 at Borgie and follow the road to its end. On a map, it looks eminently doable, but it’s not for the more nervous driver. A singletrack unmarked road with few passing places. In saying that, it was still a delightful drive with great scenery and continual picture opportunities.

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Skerray Harbour was another great find for an overnight stop

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We arrived into a small local harbour of sorts, with only four boats tied up along the breakwater and slipway. And what a lucky decision for us.  We parked up and after a bit of a search found a water tap which seems to have been installed sometime previously when a field formed a caravan site but was no longer in use at the time of our visit. No sooner had we got the awning out,  set up the picnic table and gotten the drinks cabinet open we set down to watch the sun setting over the cliffs. I guess, as you can see from the pictures, it has everything you’d want from a wild camping location. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore lulling you to sleep is an experience everyone should try out at least once. There were even plenty of opportunities to fish for your dinner from the nearby rocks. I’ve taken a short video to show you the delights of this particular overnight spot.

And here’s a wee fun fact for you all. It seems that everyone else driving a motorhome likes to wave to others driving similar vehicles.  At first, this just felt downright odd, but, ‘in for a penny’ and all that and soon we were waving back like maniacal idiots.

Having duly filled up with fresh water we were ready to leave Skerray Harbour the following morning by 10am. Monday, April 29 dawned bright, clear and sunny yet again as we followed the road to Coldbackie taking a right turn onto the A838 and across the Kyle of Tongue on a  gorgeous coastal drive to what can only be described as a hamlet that time forgot – Talmine. There’s some wild camping here suitable for our behemoth so no matter what you’re driving you should be fine.  Just after you cross the causeway look for the road sign to Talmine on the right. It’s a single track road, but leads you to an absolutely stunning beach with white sand and a couple of different wild camping sites. The one overlooking the beach however rather than the one out at the harbour is, in my opinion, the best one.

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The gorgeous hamlet of Talmine
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I’d have happily stayed here for weeks, never mind overnight

It’s a single road in and out so you have to leave by the same route. At the end of the road, this time turn right again onto the A838 and follow this route across moorland to Loch Eriboll. Now the road winds its way around the head of the loch passing through the hamlet of Laid. There are some quite narrow areas of the road on the section so take your time and you should manage just fine.

Follow the route to Sangobeg and as the road climbs up to Durness.watch out for the signs to a new tourist attraction, well I say in the loosest possible sense, as it’s a zipwire from a headland down to the beach. Their website Golden Eagle Zipwire states  “The only zip wire in the Northern Highlands of Scotland. Jump off the cliff and fly like an eagle for 227 metres at a height of more than 30 metres above the beach at speeds reaching 40 mph next to the Atlantic Ocean. A little further on your find the tourist attraction of Smoo Cave. 

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If you ever have constipation, then this is the way to cure it!

Just as you leave Durness, look for the signs to Balnakeil and the chocolate factory. It’s an unmarked road on the map, but it leads to a small community co-operative type marketplace who seem to have taken over some old Ministry of Defence buildings. This now hosts an assortment of glassmakers, artists, booksellers, a chocolate shop and factory, a small restaurant and a host of other artisan workers. It’s well worth a wee stop off. On leaving, turn left and follow the road to the end of the track. There is a parking area next to the cemetery with views which overlook the huge long white sandy beach at Balnakeil Bay. This is a stunning location, and if you have kids with you, it couldn’t be a better spot to park up for a couple of days. But be aware it gets very busy and at the time of our visit, 3pm on a Monday, the car park was already full.

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The beach at Balnakeil Bay goes on for ever.

We turned around and followed the A838 along the side of the Kyle of Durness.  There are several wild camping spots around this area, but we found ourselves a nice flat piece of ground by the sea just after the snack van at the junction leading to the ferry service to Cape Wrath.

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This parking spot was a lucky find.  Enjoying a gin and tonic while the sun sets

So, day four arrived, Tuesday, April 30 and once again lady luck was shining down in the form of another gorgeous day. We packed up following a showering and toilet routine which was by now becoming second nature. We were definitely not motorhome virgins any longer! And that’s probably why you could hear the shout reverberating across the motorhome in the morning “you’ve been in the shower long enough, you’ll use all the water.”

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You too could wake up here…

So off we went leaving Durness behind as we trundled along the A838 over yet more moorland in Strath Dionard in the shadow of Foinaven towering above at 908m high. Another wee tip – keep the camera handy and make sure you only stop in sensible locations. Follow the road through Rhiconich until the junction at Laxford Bridge when the road becomes the A894 and climbs up to Scourie. We found a good sized car park area for yet again another picnic by a white sandy beach. Do as we did here have a wee scramble across the rocks to the headland looking out over Scourie Bay. After you leave here follow the road past Badcall Bay and follow it until you reach Kylesku Bridge. Opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1984. The bridge crosses two lochs: Loch Glendhu and Locha Chairn Bhain. There is a large car park and viewpoint area here and it’s worth a stop to get some great pictures of this amazing structure. On the northern side of the bridge look out for the memorial to the men of the XII Submarine flotilla who operated out of the area in 1943. The flotilla’s submariners trained in nearby Loch Cairnbawn in the use of X-craft, 52ft-long subs armed with explosive charges, for an attack against the mighty German battleship, Tirpitz.

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Drive through Unapool where you might be tempted to take the B869 to Lochinver – don’t! You’ll only get stuck and will end up in trouble as it has some hairpin bends and severe gradients. Stay on the A894 and turn right at Loch Assynt for Lochinver on the A837. The road from Unapool climbs up and crosses remote moorland with high mountains, similar to my own home area of Glencoe,  before dropping down again to Loch Assynt itself.

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Loch Assynt, Sutherland

Turning left at this junction stay on the A894 and you’ll see the ruins of Ardvreck Castle. There are many parking locations around here so have a stop, brew up a cup of tea and grab some pictures. This is a ruined castle that dates from the 16th century which stands on a rocky promontory jutting out into the loch. The castle is thought to have been constructed around 1590 by the Clan MacLeod family. Indeed Sutherland, the area in which Ardvreck is situated, has long been a stronghold of the Clan MacLeod. The most well known historical tale concerning the castle is that on 30 April 1650 James, Marquis of Montrose was captured by the Laird of Assynt and held at the castle before being transported to Edinburgh for trial and execution.  Montrose was executed on 21 May 1650, by being hanged, drawn and quartered.

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Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt

Stay on this road and travel to Inchnadamph and Ledmore junction. The road splits here, turn left for the A837 to Inveran. Turn right onto the A835 to Elphin and Knockan and the viewpoint for Knockan crag. Follow the road until you reach the coast at Ardmair overlooking Isle Martin. Drive-through Ardmair and Morefield before dropping back down to sea level at Ullapool where we stopped up for the night at the local Broomfield campsite.

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Broomfield Holiday Park, Ullapool. Copyright: Broomfield

Time once again for a word of warning about the local sheep. They are suicidal and have a magnetic attraction to motorhome bumpers. They have no common sense and having been born and raised by the roadside no amount of flashing your lights or tooting your horn will make an ounce of difference to them. They are simply an animal looking for an accident. Drive slowly past and you should be fine.

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These animals live simply to attach themselves to your motorhome at any opportunity.

I can also now understand why so many locals are appealing for drivers to exert a modicum of common sense to be applied when using local roads on this NC500 route. Twice that day we were overtaken, or rather, we let past, a group of wannabe racing drivers in their rented Porsches, McLarens, and Ferraris driving at insane speeds, overtaking at the most inappropriate locations. I have no real objection to these lemmings killing themselves, that’s their prerogative after all, but don’t endanger others with your lack of driving skills in your big flashy sports car.  What is it they say about small men driving big cars – let me think about that for a moment?

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Apparently, it’s fun to do doughnuts when it’s not your car!

Surprisingly, although Police Scotland’s website states that they carry out regular patrols, in the 430 miles we covered to this particular location we didn’t see a single patrol car, not even a bobby on a bike!

Having parked up for the night on a campsite it allowed us to refresh the water tank, empty the chemical toilet and eat out for a change. We ate at the Seaforth where we had a fantastic meal. The quality was excellent, there were great portions, and good friendly service at very reasonable prices, I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere to eat in Ullapool.

Unfortunately for us our journey in Harvey came to an abrupt halt. Due to the engine management light illuminating, and a local mechanic having looked at the vehicle, he decided that because the engine had gone into limp-home mode it would require to be returned to a Fiat dealership for repair, with the nearest being in Inverness. Having discussed the problem with Gordon and Corrine at Scottish Touring Motorhome Hire in Perth, a decision was reached that we should return the vehicle to them directly who would then make arrangements for repairs to be carried out by Fiat under warranty. Unfortunately for us, the company is so busy all year round that all other motorhomes were fully booked and we had to call an end to our trip at that point.

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So, would we do this again? Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s a great way to travel, with fabulous opportunities to stay in locations where there are no hotels, with views that people would pay huge amounts of money to wake up to. On that basis, I’m already looking at dates suitable to take another break next year and to carry on where we left off.

Links:


12 Submarine Flotilla – click here.Balnakeil Craft Village – click here
Dunnet Head Nature Reserve – click here
Kyle of Durness – click here
Cape Wrath – click here
Sango Sands – click here
Dunrobin Castle – click here

Loch Eriboll – click hereKylesku Bridge – click here
Skerray Harbour – click here
Dunnet Bay – click here
Talmine – click here
Ullapool – click here
The Seaforth Restaurant – click here
Broomfield Campsite – click here
Kyle of Tongue – click here

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