Riding the North Coast 500… unexpectedly

A few weeks ago I took you on a journey from Reading to Edinburgh. In three short posts I documented the various twists and turns of the journey and the incredible wilderness I rode through.

This time I’m doing it slightly differently. The trip took eight days but instead of eight short posts I’m giving you one long one. Well, longish. We all have lives after all. In this post you will find the journey westward, the intended trip onto some of Scotland’s incredible western islands, and the eventual desertion of that plan for the NC500.

Hope you enjoy.

The plan


Actually the initial plan was never to actually hit the islands. I was to take maybe five days heading westward to Skye, then swooping down near Oban and back across. Then I was told of the beauty of Lewis and Harris and the trip was lengthened and adapted to seven days. I was to ignore Skye for now and head northward towards Ullapool, where I would catch the ferry to the islands and spend a couple days riding around, exploring the beaches and winding roads.

But before all that was to happen, I had to first get there. From Aberdeen, I rode through the Cairngorms National Park, up through the Glenlivet Estate (which was so windy my helmet felt like it was about to fly off), and into Inverness. There I stopped for a doughnut as per the recommendation of a man who did a similar journey to me but on bicycle (because he’s hardcore).


I didn’t dillydally and was soon on the road journeying south, caressing the eastern side of Loch Ness (it was here where I actually ate the doughnut). The weather was beautiful and my spirits were high. In about an hour or so I would curve the bottom of Loch Ness and arrive at my campsite for the night. I had a new and improved tent and was excited to try it out.

Then came the rains.

I learned very quickly that Scotland laughs at the word waterproof. It started raining before I arrived at the campsite and it continued to rain for about fifteen hours. Everything got wet (except, luckily, me while in my tent). In hindsight, things actually worked out much better than they could have. But during I was miserable and doubting I was even tough enough to complete such a trip (while subsequently berating myself for being a wimp for being miserable and doubting I was even tough enough to complete such a trip).

Needless to say, I barely slept.

Day Two!

In spirits less than soaring I set out. Luckily, the campsite had a drying facility and I could at least get what I needed dry for the next day. It was a northward journey up Loch Ness before cutting west and heading towards Applecross. The weather, aside from a few patches of rain that were nothing after yesterday’s onslaught, was gorgeous.

That was, until I turned into the pass that took me over to Applecross. It started raining and then started hailing. Luckily there were few other vehicles around and except for two close calls (one of which involved a giant truck running me off the road) I was fine. It was probably for the best as I’m sure those snaking roads have tempted many a motorcyclist to take them too fast.

Sunset wildcamping

As I dropped over the pass the sun came back out and I wound down to the coast. Greeting me was a vast expanse of blue and a camping spot to rival all others. I had chosen this night to wildcamp and found myself atop a hill overlooking the ocean as the sun set on my second day of adventure. What the hell, I asked myself, was I doing?

Aside from the stunning scenery (a staple of this trip), Day Three was uneventful. I headed to a hostel in Ullapool to dry my gear and allow myself plenty of time to catch the morning ferry.

That was, until I got there and realised it was cancelled. Predicted wind speeds for 50+ mph had cancelled next morning’s ferry and the afternoon one wouldn’t get in until too late. I was stuck in Ullapool for a day.

Day Four.

Ullapool Hill

The weather was still forcing my hand. Lewis and Harris looking unpredictably windy for the foreseeable future. Northward, it looked bad today but clearing. I had already inadvertently ridden a chunk of the North Coast 500 (I journey I was going to do at some point anyway) so I decided to wait out the weather and just go north.

I had coffee, resupplied, read, and took a hike up Ullapool Hill to keep active and see if the winds were really as bad as they said. Spoiler alert: they were.

Somewhere in the north of Scotland

Day Five. In my original trip I was heading back now. In this trip I was heading north. The winds, which had technically died down, turned out to still be pretty savage along exposed parts of the northern route. I stopped for a haggis bap and a cappuccino which turned into a flat white as the wind whipped off all the foam. For the whole day I found myself riding slow and taking frequent breaks to gawk at the random pristine beaches and rocky outcrops (and to take breaks from the wind). That afternoon I stopped at a campsite and set up my now-dry gear. I took a walk along the coastal rocks, almost fell in, got lost, had another mild panic attack/crippling self-doubt about what I was doing, and got soaked by the rain and sweat. Oh, and I got a job offer from an application I’d done before starting out on this trip.

Also somewhere in the north of Scotland

Insomnia plagued yet another night of my trip as the winds crashed against my mind and the tent. I was beginning to realise that throughout it all, the defining factor of this trip was simply that it was overwhelming. In ways good and bad, it was overwhelming. The beauty, the immensity, the rain!

Anyway, Day Six came eventually and I embarked slowly. It was the shortest ride today and I planned on taking things at a snail’s pace. I rode northward to the furthest northwest I would go and stopped at a chocolate shop to have the best mocha I have ever had and buy the best chocolate bar I would ever buy (it had espresso beans in it). Then I bought firewood and headed for the bothy where I would stay the night.

The bothy

The bothy!

I had discovered the bothy earlier and knew I had to give it a go. It was only a mile and a half from the road so I parked my bike and headed over. Unfortunately, I had no gear designed for bothy camping and I couldn’t leave some of the gear on the bike. So I lugged my gear and the firewood towards my night’s stay. Oh, and my gear was designed for a motorcycle so weight wasn’t the most significant factor. Why would it be? Nobody in their right might would remove it from the bike and lug it to a bothy (which, I forgot to mention, was on the other side of a bog).

On an unrelated note, through trial and error I now know how to navigate a bog.

Anyway, I made it… eventually. The fire started quick enough and began to warm me up. Not to make this an R-rated blog but I did strip out of my wet clothes and stand in front of the fire naked. And it was glorious. Luckily, no other travellers popped by during that time.

With the fire going I could dry my gear, more or less. I could also relax, and to prove I was still young and fun I ran down to the stream (in swimming trunks) and waded in. I couldn’t quite fully submerge but I could sit there, freezing, enjoying the madness of life.

I then quickly ran back in and sat by the fire.

Aside from a couple travellers arriving at the bothy late that night it was uneventful and I actually slept quite well given the circumstances. It was to be an early start for me. The last few days had seen very little actual riding and I was keen to put in some good miles. Plus, truth be told, my adventurous spirit was waning a little and the thought of being home in two days was rather exciting.

The next morning I packed up all my gear and headed out. I had no firewood but did have the experience of the day before and I navigated the bog hilariously quickly given the faff of yesterday. When I got back to the bike I rested for a moment, had some of that chocolate I’d gotten the day before, and headed off.

The northeast of Scotland is remarkably different from the northwest. The roads are straighter and the landscape is flatter. There are more what I call traditional farmlands. The wind is different too. It’s more… predictable?

I don’t know.

Clocking miles

John O’ Groats

I rode on till I got to John O’ Groats. I took a photo of the sign that everyone who goes there takes a photo of. I had some lunch sheltered from the wind. Then I hopped on the bike and headed south. It was here that the sun broke through the clouds and the slow snaking of the roads lightened the intensity of the last few days. It was still absurdly windy but it was gorgeous.

It was maybe a hundred and fifty miles or so before I stopped. I’d heard of a wildcamping spot on a loch just north of Inverness that I wanted to check out so I pulled up and set up my tent. The quiet of the north was replaced by the noises of traffic and distant conversations in holiday homes. I had arrived late and wasn’t disturbed until the morning when a few walkers walked by. But it was still clear that I was not in the north anymore. The real north anyway.

I also realised that I hadn’t peed for seventeen hours and was severely dehydrated. With all that riding I had forgotten to drink and fill up my pack so I ate a quick breakfast and headed out to refuel both me and the bike.

I stopped in Inverness again for a doughnut. They were out of my favourite but I had a Biscoff one that was delicious. Then I headed back, more or less, the way I had come, only stopping on the side of the road to have lunch and make myself a coffee to warm me up. I learned later that this morning was the first frost and that my gear probably wasn’t quite adequate for temperatures that low.

Live and learn, right?

Anyway, that was the trip in a rather large nutshell. I’m still processing it if I’m honest. A great deal happened, a great more than I can mention here. It was great and awful and everything in between. But whatever I feel, I’m glad I did it. Now onto the next adventure. The adventure of trying to make a living.

I’ve tried to post a few photos of my trip here but if you want to see more, check out my Instagram (link below).