The areas of Assynt and Torridon are mostly known because of the popular North Coast 500 which goes right through both territories. For anyone who has not yet heard of the NC500 (which is almost impossible 😉) – it is basically Scotland’s answer to the Route 66. The route is 516 miles (830 km) long and goes around the north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. The NC500 was launched in March 2015 by the Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative. Since then it has increased considerably in popularity and especially this year because of lockdown, it seems that half of the UK was heading up North to do the route.
I am not a fan anymore of rushing from one place to the next. I did that as well, when I came to Scotland for the first time but for me, it is just stress and you do not really get to experience the real beauty of the country. So doing the whole NC500 in one go will never appeal to me. I know I am in a better position by living in Scotland to do it in sections. Most people plan around 10 days for the whole route. You definitely see a lot in 10 days and as such it is not a bad thing to do if you just don’t have enough time at hand, but the impact on the communities of people only staying 1 night at one place is not really positive. There is a lot of resentment rising among the villages along the route because of the over-tourism and unfortunately a lack of respect towards the people living there and the whole environment.
I had 4 nights booked in Ullapool exploring Assynt up to Unapool and down to Lairg and 2 nights in Shieldaig to spend some time in Torridon. On my way up North I stayed one night in Inverness and one night in Fort William on the way back home.
On my way to Inverness I already did like a mini roadtrip through the stunning autumnal Perthshire. Perthshire is very popular in autumn because it has a lot of forest which turns into amazing red, yellow and orange colours in October. I left Dunfermline in the rain but it turned into an amazing day in terms of light.
My first stop was at the Queen’s view. It is a view point at Loch Tummel on the way towards Kinloch Rannoch. My drive there was messed up by yet another tyre pressure warning even though the car was completely serviced the day before including 2 new back tyres. So I did not really spend my time at the view point but slowly drove to Pitlochry to have the tyres checked at a garage. They adapted the pressure and everything was fine for me to hit the road again.
I went back to Faskally Forest for some lunch on the go along Loch Dunmore. It was so beautiful with the sunlight and the autumn colours – plus perfect reflections on the water. The place it quite popular among photographers 😉. And normally in winter there is an event called “The Enchanted Forest” which is mostly sold out 1 year in advance. This year because of COVID it did not take place at all.
I also stopped at the River Garry bridge at Killiecrankie but only for a quick walk over the main bridge. You can do a walk through the woods down to a smaller bridge as well that crosses the river. Some great views for sure. I then took the back road to the Falls of Bruar. The Falls of Bruar are a series of waterfalls on the Bruar Water. They have been a tourist attraction since the 18th century. There is a big shopping and visitor centre at the start of the walk as well. While trying to get a better view on the gorge while walking up to the falls I slipped on the wet forest floor and landed on my bum and right arm… Luckily I did not hurt myself too much and was ok after a while. The forest itself is very beautiful too, and with the low standing afternoon shining through the trees it almost looked magical and you could easily imagine fairies dancing around in the sunlight. I only walked up to the lower falls as it was already about 3pm in the afternoon and I still had to drive another 1.5h to Inverness. But there I met one of my Instagram friends and his girlfriend. I love stumbling across people I normally only know from Instagram – it makes it all more real.
The drive up to Inverness with the slowly setting sun was breath-taking. The light shining through the highlands, on the rivers through the glens, the golden trees against a dark clouded sky on the other side, with rainbows appearing – this is the Scotland that takes your breath away.
I arrived at my B&B and basically went straight to bed because it was quite a tiring day with all the driving , stopping, walking and the worries about the tyres.
Inverness to Ullapool
The next day my actual adventure started with my first stop at Culloden battlefield which was just a few minutes drive from my B&B. The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745. On 16 April 1746, the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart was decisively defeated by a British government force under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on Drummossie Moor near Inverness. It was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. Today, a visitor centre is located near the site of the battle. It was built with the intention of preserving the battlefield in a condition similar to how it was on 16 April 1746. One difference is that it currently is covered in shrubs and heather; during the 18th century, however, the area was used as common grazing ground, mainly for tenants of the Culloden estate. The most recognisable feature of the battlefield today is the 20 feet (6.1 m) tall memorial cairn, erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. In the same year Forbes also erected headstones to mark the mass graves of the clans. Because of the series Outlander the headstone for Clan Fraser is obviously the most “popular” one.
It was a very eerie atmosphere. It was quite a grey day but with some sunlight coming up in the East. Walking across the field felt weird, especially because I was basically alone.
My next stop was then at Rogie Falls – Rogie Falls are a series of waterfalls on the Black Water, a river in Ross-shire. The falls are about 2 km north-west of the village of Contin, next to the A835. It was my forth time at the falls and they never get boring. Especially with the autumn colours and heavy flow it was stunning. Last year when I passed them on my way to Ullapool to get the ferry to Stornoway I witnessed salmons leaping up the falls. That was a highlight in itself.
During my drive to Ullapool the weather was pretty mixed but that also resulted in some stunning rainbows. I continued on the A835 but the actual NC500 route goes via the A323 towards Kinlochewe if you drive the route clockwise. I love the vastness and view when you drive along Loch Glascarnoch and was granted with a stunning rainbow across the Loch. The closer I got to Ullapool though the heavier it started to rain… After I parked at the big car park near the Tesco ion the village, I waited for it to dry up a bit before I headed to the Seafood Shack for some lunch. I had a battered haddock in a wrap and it was just the best battered haddock I ever had!
Luckily I was then allowed to check in earlier into my B&B because I was the only guest. Again due to COVID… I stayed at the Riverview B&B and Nadine, the host, was really lovely. It must be so hard this year for all B&B and Guest House owners. She even upgraded me to a bigger room which had a small fridge and a table with cutlery to eat. She could not serve breakfast, so I was very grateful for the alternatives offered, so I could get my own food.
1st day Assynt – Getting an overview
On my first day I just wanted to get an overview of where I am actually 😄. And what is there to see and how far everything was away. So I drove the normal NC500 route up to Unapool and stopped more than I can count on the way… The views on Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor, view on Suilven, passing Ardvreck Castle, going up with stunning views back on Loch Assynt and then across Loch Gleann Dubh.
I tried to get to Wailing Widow waterfall but there is no actual path along the river and I was too scared to go alone while no-one knew where I was actually. I then tried to get a view from the top at Loch na Gainmhich but it was just bog and I was not too keen to get stuck there… So that was not very successful 😅.
I drove further to cross the Kylesku Bridge but now realised I missed the view point above the bridge to have a great view… Drove further on up to Laxford bridge and went down towards Loch Shin because of the views across Loch Stack and to find the Wee Hoose – which was not where I thought it was 😄 And almost missed it when I finally passed it when leaving Lairg. Also called “Broons hoose” is a tiny house, that looks like a Leprechaun house on a tiny little island in the village of Lairg. Jack Broon is said to have built the ‘wee hoose’ to mark his new status as a landowner but died shortly afterwards when he shot himself in the foot while out hunting. The house was actually built for a float for the local Lairg Gala 20 years ago and the story around Jack Broon was just created for fun. I have to say though it was a bit of a tiring drive all along Loch Shin and then the drive back to Ullapool definitely took longer than I had expected. It was raining a lot in-between but when I came up towards Ledmore with views on Suilven in the far again it was worth it.
And when I passed Elphin there was another rainbow with Suilven in the back for me. Got myself food at the Seafood Shack again – macaroni cheese with smoked haddock and chorizo and had it in the B&B. And a very early night for me as the weather was miserable anyways.
2nd Day – Hiking in mud
My original plan was to walk the way to the ascent of Suilven. So not going up the hill but hiking to it at least. I just wanted to see it closer and get a general view across the whole area. Because I had published a story on Instagram the evening before, I was asked if I had planned to hike it. After denying it, I was suggested by an Instagram friend to hike to the Kirkaig Falls. Looked at it on Walkhighlands and thought it was quite a good idea. I arrived at the car park for it and it said 2 3/4 miles on the sign which in my head did not sound too bad. Well… in kilometres it certainly would not have been but in miles it was a little bit longer than I kind of thought 😅. But I set off and walked and walked and walked… And I was getting really stressed out because I had a complete different idea in my head of that walk. Then it started raining and the path was already very wet and the water was actually running down the path. I waited in the woods for a bit until the heaviest rain had past and kept walking. The terrain was getting rockier and I left all trees behind me. The way was gradually going up as well. And I was alone. I did not see a single soul since I left the car park. And this was really getting to me. I sent my friend a WhatsApp with my location because I was getting so stressed out. Slowly the clouds started to lift over the hills and I could see the peaks of Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh.
And then I finally saw other people 😅. Some were coming up behind me and one couple was on their way back. I asked them how far it still was and they obviously said – not far. Common hiker answer 🤣. However, the path was now just mud and if I had not had my walking poles I would have looking like a little pig and probably would have landed heads down in bog. It got worse and worse and I just had enough. It was all taking much longer than I had thought, the path was more mud and water than actual path and the views I expected were not coming. So I turned around… And I was shattered when I arrived back and the car and my legs felt so heavy.
I did drive to Achmelvich beach afterwards, as it is so close to Lochinver and just relaxed strolling on the beach but it was soon getting darker, so I headed back to Ullapool. Same macaroni cheese from the Seafood Shack and early night.
3rd Day – Hiking up Stac Pollaidh
I had not planned to hike up Stac Pollaidh when I decided to go to Assynt. I have huge respect of the Scottish mountains and I am constantly surprised how easily unexperienced people take a go at them. The weather can change quickly, you can have an accident, get lost, not be prepared enough for certain circumstances. And I am still not experienced enough which still makes me nervous to tackle more challenging hills. Ben Lawers last year has really humbled me.
However, I kept looking at the Walkhighlands website and read reviews and kept checking the weather forecast and it sounded all pretty manageable. So I thought I give it a go. And oh my God – I am so glad I did it! I had the most amazing light and weather in general while walking up. I arrived at the car park at about 8am, when there were only 3 other cars parked (when I came back at lunch time, it was completely full, and all passing places near by as well…). It looked quite intimidating from below looking up but I was determined to get at least to the other side to get the view across Inverpolly. I never planned to get to the actual summit as the last bit is very steep with some scramble. But you can actually walk around the summit from further below and get a view to all sides. When I arrived at the gate to the “wild” part I was already blowing out my backside. It was steep… And again, wet and with running water down the rocky steps. As always, people that arrived later than me, started to overtake me 😀. I did not only stop to catch my breath though but to take a million pictures because the views were just insane. They alone made the whole climb worthwhile. When I arrived at the loop path with view on Cul Mór and Suilven it got much cooler and clouds started to come in. I had a little break and enjoyed the views but was soon actually freezing because I was completely soaked in sweat which started to cool. On my way down it got cloudier and cloudier but more and more people came up. When I arrived at the car park a couple with a little child started to walk up and it was already after 12. This is another thing I don’t quite understand – leaving so late in the day when you know the sun is setting in late afternoon already and the weather is clearly getting worse – plus a little child! This kid was maybe 5. It does not surprise you anymore that Scottish Mountain Rescue had so many call outs after lockdown ended.
I did no go back to the B&B straight away though but used the last time I had to drive the backroad to Lochinver. I am glad I did as you have great views on all the hills as well. I even drove all the way up to Drumbeg. I would suggest if you do the NC500 in one go and cannot go back then you should drive down from Drumbeg to Lochinver. The views are insane. And one white beach after another with turquoise water. I forgot to check out Clashnessie waterfall but it is just another reason to go back. In general I look forward to explore the area between Lochinver and Drumbeg in more detail next time then.
Back in Ullapool I had my last meal from the Seafood Shack – breaded lobster bits with salad and potatoes. It was very delicious again. The weather had turned pretty bad again and was forecasted to be quite wet for the next day, too…
Driving down to Torridon
When leaving Ullapool it was still dry but on the way down to Shieldaig it continuously rained in-between and overall was very grey. It was a shame because I wanted to see An Teallach – not a chance. I still had some nice views across Little Loch Broom and across the sea while driving. The best bit was however driving from Gairloch, along Loch Maree via Kinlochewe and right through Torridon. It was even stunning in the moody grey weather.
I loved the autumnal views across Loch Maree despite the grey sky. To get one shot I even managed to slip and dive nose ahead into the mud…. Only because I thought it was a good idea to take a shortcut – in trainers… Result: completely covered in mud, hole in my leggings and a painful hand. I washed it off a bit in the Loch and changed leggings in the car… I laughed about myself for the rest of the day… It must have looked hilarious.
I definitely want to go back in spring or summer and maybe even go up Beinn Eighe.
When I pulled into the car park to walk up Beinn Eighe I had no idea it was the famous Torridon car park where a stag is walking about. I only wanted a mountain picture and if two guys had not posed with the stag, I would not have seen it – it was well camouflaged. I also stopped at the Torridon hotel again where I have been 2 years ago on my trip as well. Unfortunately no coos out the day. I still hope I can spend a night there one day. It just looks so cool!
When I arrived in Shieldaig I first discovered I had no 4G signal and the WIFI in my hut was weak af…
I was getting a bit stressed about not having proper internet for 2 nights. That might be all fun when you are with someone and not in the middle of nowhere all by yourself haha. Unless it is your conscious decision not to have internet. The hut itself was amazing and very cosy. I did not light the little oven because I could not bother for myself and it was warm enough anyways. The only thing that was a bit annoying was the smell of cold smoke from cigarettes. But I am super sensitive when it comes to smoking and its smells. I had lunch at Nanny’s where I at least had proper WIFI for a while and then spent the rest of the day in the hut tired from the drive and my fall…🤣.
The next morning I left for sunrise to drive up and down to the viewpoint of the Bealach na Bá.
Bealach na Bà is a winding single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It has the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft), and is the third highest road in Scotland. The name is Scottish Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle, as it was historically used as a drovers’ road. The route is often impassable in winter.
I had the most amazing light on my drive and saw deer herds crossing the roads and running along. At the viewpoint itself it was completely foggy and freezing cold so I did not spend much time there but turned around and drove down again with lots of stops for pictures and videos. Normally you can see Skye from the viewpoint – if it’s clear. I was also not in the mood to drive all the way to Applecross because the weather was supposed to get worse and it is already challenging to drive the Bealach in good weather. I am not keen on driving it in heavy rain, fog or even snow. Instead I drove up to Loch Maree again, just because I enjoyed the landscapes so much.
The weather got worse and worse and after lunch at Nanny’s I spent the rest of the day again in the hut. And the storm came… I almost wet myself during the night because of the howling wind… It was definitely scary. I was already imaging my car swimming in Loch Torridon the next day 😂.
Thankfully it was ok and rather dry the next morning when I started my drive down to Fort William with a detour to Sligachan on Skye. I was so happy I made the decision. The weather was crazy mixed again but resulted in several rainbows all over the island. Generally the light during the whole drive along Loch Cluanie and Loch Lochy was amazing. It just makes you fall in love with Scotland again and again. The light in this country when the weather is a mix of rain and sun is just magical.
I also made a stop at Manuela’s Wee Bakery near the Eilean Donan Castle and bought a Castle bread and apple cinnamon pastry which I ate at the castle admiring the view from the warm inside of my car.
Because I arrived in Fort William too early to check in I did another detour to Glenfinnan and Corpach. And this was then definitely enough for one day.
The next day I had to drive home in the most horrendous weather ever. Strong winds and heavy rains – especially when I drove through Glencoe. It was pretty impressive though with all the waterfalls suddenly coming down the hills. I was pretty relieved when I arrived in Dunfermline in one piece and did not blow away or was washed away.
In summary my highlights were:
- Every stop in Perthshire on my way to Inverness
- Rogie Falls
- The view from the main road on Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor
- The drive from Ardvreck Castle to Unapool
- Achmelvich Beach
- Hiking Stac Pollaidh
- Driving from Lochinver to Drumbeg along the coast
- Driving from Gairloch along Loch Maree and Kinlochewe to Torridon
- Bealach na Bá at sunrise
- Driving to Skye and down to Fort William