As the Editor-in-Chief of Gentleman’s Journal, I have been fortunate enough to drive some pretty special cars in some pretty special places. The most memorable of these, perhaps, was Italy’s Mille Miglia, aptly named “the world’s most beautiful race” by none other than Enzo Ferrari. It was an experience that I thought would be hard to beat, let alone equal. But that was before I encountered Scotland’s NC500.
For those of you not au fait with this acronym, it stands for the “North Coast 500.” It’s a route that spans 516 miles around the Highlands, taking in stunning coastal scenery, rugged mountains and remote fishing villages. In other words, it’s a complete assault on the senses and one of the most enjoyable ways to see one of the beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.
While contemplating this epic drive, my friends and I thought we’d dive into various online forums to get the lay of the land. Almost all of these recommended that we allow about eight days to complete the jaunt, and that we only approach it between the months of May and September. Due to a heinous amount of wedding and work commitments during this period, we soon realised that this wasn’t going to be possible.
And having put off this journey already for a couple of years due to covid, we settled on the 17th to 20th March — four days for an adventure that demands double that, in a month that even the locals would describe as “pretty damp.” Alongside this, it turns out that many of the guest houses and hotels don’t actually open till May. Undeterred, we pressed on.
It really is up to you which route you take on the NC 500 and how long you make each leg. We decided to go anti-clockwise, and day one would see us collect the cars (more on these later) and head to the newly refurbished Glenmorangie House. Day two would see us drive to John O’Groat’s for lunch and then on to the Village of Scourie right on the North West tip of mainland United Kingdom. The third day would see us head down to Torridon. Lastly the fourth day would be a sprint back to Inverness to drop off the cars with the transport and catch the next flight back down south. It sounds exhausting already.
With this being a Grand Tour around Scotland, we decided that this had to be done in, well, proper Gentleman’s Grand Tourers. The line up included some of the automotive world’s most prestigious names. First up, we had Britain’s Aston Martin DBS. Secondly, from our Italian friends, we had the Ferrari Roma. And last, but by no means least, we had the noble McLaren GT.
To support these machines my trusty Range Rover Sport would follow us around the winding route. It soon emerged that we would need the Range Rover a great deal more than we thought — but again, more on that later.
To drive these cars around the course I had lined up five friends whom were all familiar with that level of horsepower (or at least up for the challenge) We arrived at Inverness airport to be picked up by our trusty delivery driver in the Range Rover, who had driven all four vehicles from London right up to Inverness in a frankly miraculous 24 hours. We were driven out to a field outside of the airport where our pedigree friends would finally be revealed to us. After a pointless argument on who would drive which car on the short hop to Glenmorangie House, we set off.
The beloved single malt whisky Glenmorangie was taken over by the luxury group LVMH in 2004, and like all the marques that Bernard Arnalt acquires, only the best will do. Located outside of Tain, just a few miles from the distillery on the eastern edge of the North Coast 500, the house has recently been refurbished to the very highest standards. The decor is respectful of its Scottish roots, whilst also adding the luxury elements and feel that you would expect from LVMH’s 5-star hotel stable, such as The Belmond Group and the ever-expanding Cheval Blanc roster.
That evening, before an incredible dinner, we were given a tasting of the Glenmorangie portfolio by Ed Thom, Glenmorangie Distillery Manager. Here we discovered, amongst many drams and revelations, that us southerners had been pronouncing the brand wrong for years: It’s ‘orangie’, like the colour — not ‘Angie’, like the Rolling Stones song. The following morning, after a full Scottish breakfast, Ed took us on a whistle stop tour of the distillery before we headed off for a long and memorable day of driving.
First came a four hour leg to John O’Groats. On this part of the route you could easily pop into the lovely Royal Dornoch Links — but unfortunately our compressed trip meant we had no time to spare, so it was very much pedal to the metal. We were whizzing along nicely — until, about an hour outside of Tain, the McLaren GT decided to blow its coolant tank.
After gingerly lifting the bonnet, we decided our engineering skills were no match for a malfunction of this magnitude. So, after a nice chat with a garage owner, we handed over the supercar for McLaren to collect and squeezed into the Range Rover Sport to try and follow the Aston and Ferrari up towards the most northerly tip of Great Britain.
After John O’Groats, we sped past Castle May, home of the Queen Mother, before ploughing on to Thurso, the road that hugs the northernmost edge of the route. Here, the path begins to narrow and bend — and this is where the North Coast 500 really comes into its own. Sometimes a little congested in the Summer months, in the colder climes of March the roads were amazingly, blissfully clear.
On top of this, the gods had decided to shine on us and the sun broke happily through the clouds. It was fair to say that we all became rather mesmerised by Scotland’s incredible beauty. The Grand Tourers seemed to glimmer and roar with new intensity. And it was even enjoyable in our trusty Range Rover Sport support car.
We decided to stop for the night in the fishing village of Scourie. With the local hotel shut till May (and, in a charming, particularly Scottish way, rather implying they didn’t much want our business anyway) we found ourselves in a delightful B&B called Scourie Lodge. The husband and wife owners couldn’t have been more accommodating.
The Lodge itself was perched on the side of Scourie Bay looking out to Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle. After a quick shower we headed to the Kylesku Hotel for an incredible seafood dinner washed down perfectly with a few bottles of Chablis.
Day three was the last real day of driving. It would be a four hour drive to Balgy, a friend’s lodge 15 minutes from Torridon. For those foodies among you I hear it’s worthwhile booking the Torridon Hotel for dinner (warning: the secret is out, so you’ll have to book well in advance). Before we arrived at our final destination we drove over the awesome Kylesku Bridge, which curves over the Loch a’Chairn Bhàin.
On reaching Balgy we discovered that McLaren had decided to be awfully good people and drop off a replacement GT. This was perfect timing, as that afternoon we were headed to the renowned Apple Cross Pass — slightly off the NC500, but certainly worth visiting nevertheless. As we came down the rather sketchy back of the Apple Cross, we had a well deserved drink looking over Apple Cross Bay. That evening we headed to the Sheldig Bar for another excellent seafood Dinner.
Finally, it was time to head back to Inverness. Although only a 90 minute drive, it was a reflective one. We had been extremely lucky with the weather and the roads. But more importantly, this trip had reignited my love of Scotland and made me vow to never underestimate its beauty again. Lastly, if you have a group of five friends who all share a love of driving, then the North Coast 500 is a must — truly one of those bucket list trips. The only question now is: how do we top this?