I would have missed so much if I had driven

<span>Varrich Castle, reached by walking ‘through bluebells and bright yellow reed flowers’, and the Straits of Tongue.</span>Photo: Alamy</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ug3QBROwn_ei.rLX5mDZJA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/40d2ed7342032b13255d34c8091f99df” data- src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ug3QBROwn_ei.rLX5mDZJA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/40d2ed7342032b13255d34c8091f99df”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Castle Varrich, reached by a walk ‘through blue bells and bright yellow reed flowers’, and the Strait of Tongue.Photo: Alamy

There’s a party atmosphere around the lighthouse on Canonry Point near Inverness, the best place in the UK to see dolphins from land. It is six hours after low tide and there are pipers, picnics and children running barefoot across the long afternoon sand. Already in late spring, the sun barely sets on the Highlands. The kelp-streaked pebbles are glowing as I walk from the bus stop near Canuna cathedral (bus 26/26A from Inverness) on one side of the headland. The dolphins don’t show up. But, somehow, it’s okay – the first of many reasons to return. It’s still light as I walk back along the beach for the 9pm bus, past wild lupins and views of Fort George and pink clouds over the Moray Basin. I’m in Inverness at the start of a week exploring the wild north coast of Scotland by train and bus.


The North Coast 500 is a victim of its own success. Conceived in 2015, in the style of America’s Route 66, this 516-mile circular road trip around the north of Scotland draws thousands of motorists and motor homers every year to narrow roads with a tangle of passing places. Locals complain that the demand for the route has driven up house prices and talk in terms of pre- and post-NC500. A few cyclists cover all or part of the route by bike. I’m exploring some of it on public transport and on foot. It takes a little planning. I’m used to the mild frustration of missing an hourly bus; Losing a weekly head is another matter. But first, there’s an epic rail ride to enjoy.

The Far North Line passes coast and woodland, moorland and mountain on its four-hour journey from Inverness up to Thurso (advance tickets £16 each, scotrail.co.uk). One end of Cromwell Strait, one of three huge estuaries, there are all the reeds, waterfowl and hares in the long grass. Oil rigs are out of use on the other side, towed here when they are not needed in the North Sea. Across the wide blue of the Straits of Dornach, I can just make out Barn Castle, a baronial mansion that was the Scottish home of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. Later, there is a half-timbered station house and a view of the turrets above the trees as we pass Dunrobin Castle. The railway runs next to the sea between Bróra and Bun Ilidh, over miles of deserted sand and rocks and cormorants.

In the middle of the peat bog country, we stop at Forneach Ard, where the old station house is an RSPB visitor center and a surfaced path leads through bird-rich ponds. Some children happily ride the train on the sidewalk and a deer runs past the window. Broch, broch, hut circle, cairn the map occupies in Gothic letters. I can usually only see the recently destroyed circular folds, but this is clearly a vast ancient landscape. The North Coast visitor center in Thurso has intricately carved Pictish stones and Scandinavian crested shields.

After half an hour’s journey on, through cotton grass moors dotted with sparkling lakes, I arrive on bus 803 to Melvich. I walk through dunes to the beach, where oysters fly over waves of turf. In nearby Portskeire, purple orchids, doves and reed carpets with starry sky-blue flowers line a cliff-top path and the sheltered clear waters of the bay are perfect for a high-tide swim. Warming up in the Coastal Coffee Shop, I tell another swimmer that I’m worried about the twice-daily weekday bus along the coast tomorrow that she’ll miss and she says that someone would probably give me a lift.

It’s six hours past low tide and there are pipers, picnics and children running barefoot across the long afternoon sand

Early the next morning, I catch the 274 bus to Bhiataigh, where the Strathnavar Museum reopened in April 2023 after a major renovation. In an old church near the white sandy beaches of Farr Bay, the museum has all sorts of finds from bronze age beakers to dog skin buoys. There is a lot of information available about the Mackays and the Highland clearings which still feel tragic to people who live locally. “I hate sheep,” says one woman, whose grandfather could barely move. Later, wandering the quiet lanes near Tongue, I give a roadside memorial to the local Irish poet Ewen Robertson. He wrote passionately about the abductions that took nomadic communities from the land they were farming. Some of Robertson’s most famous lines curse the sheep and the treacherous duke for making Sutherland a desert.

From Tonga, it’s a four-mile walk to Kinloch Lodge, where a group of us are meeting for a walk, through blue milkweed flowers and aromatic bog rabbi, to remote Loch Dithrieb. It has been prepared by the team from Feragaia, a distinctive Scottish alcohol-free spirit, distilled in Fife from a number of plants such as west coast sugar kelp, lemon verbena, and blackcurrant leaves from a farm in Perthshire. The tour is led by a ranger from Wildland, a long-term conservation project that featured in David Attenborough’s Wild Isles. Their work includes restoring forests and restoring wetlands.

Kinloch Lodge, where we are staying, is one of Wildland’s portfolio of posh properties. Outside, Ben Loyal’s many peaks are crowned with cloud or lit by a coppery sunset. Other places to stay locally include the Tongue hotel, a Victorian lodge with wood paneling, open fires and mountain views, recently renovated by the Highland Coast Hotels group (doubles from £158 B&B). There is also a hostel, right on the coast near the Tongue Strait (doubles from £70, one room).

The next day, I follow a signposted path over the rust-red Rhian Burn, through streamside bluebells and bright broom flowers, up to Varrich Castle. The steel viewing platform, added by Wildland in 2017, looks out over mountains and a sea lake. Back in the village, there are beech trees, duck eggs for sale, a lone fisherman on the crumbling pier, and Tongue House, another former Clan Aye site. The Norse Bakehouse serves home-cooked Italian food, and the blue and gold view from the garden is one of many postcard-ready seascapes.

I am leaving tomorrow via Inverness, where the Caledonian Sleeper, which was adopted by the Scottish government last year, stops six nights a week (seats from £55 Inverness to Crewe and London Euston). Walking to the bus stop in Tonga the next morning, over heathered rocks with strange markings, the sunlight is bright enough to keep the midges at bay. There are so many things I could have missed if I had driven along this road instead of walking: a white marble butterfly on the coconut juniper, a wood moth under lime green birches, the sound of mountain streams, and the a cuckoo calling loudly over there. the valley

This trip was supported by Feragaia and Visit Scotland

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