A car-free trip in the Scottish Highlands: I’d have missed so much if I’d driven

<span>Castle Varrich, reached by a walk ‘through bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers’, and the Kyle of Tongue.</span><span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Castle Varrich, reached by a walk ‘through bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers’, and the Kyle of Tongue.Photograph: Alamy

There’s a party atmosphere round the lighthouse on Chanonry Point near Inverness, the UK’s best place to see dolphins from land. It’s an hour after low tide and there are pipers, picnics and kids running barefoot over long, evening sands. Already in late spring, the sun barely seems to set in the Highlands. The kelp-strewn pebbles are glowing as I walk from the bus stop near Fortrose cathedral (bus 26/26A from Inverness) along one side of the promontory. The dolphins don’t show up. But, somehow, it’s fine – the first of many reasons to return. It’s still light as I walk back along the beach for a 9pm bus, past wild lupins and views of Fort George and pink clouds over the Moray Firth. I’m in Inverness at the start of a week exploring Scotland’s wild north coast by train and bus.


The North Coast 500 is a victim of its own success. Devised in 2015, in the style of America’s Route 66, this 516-mile circular road trip round northern Scotland draws thousands of drivers and motor homers every year to narrow roads with bottleneck passing places. Locals complain that the route’s popularity 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 by public transport and on foot. It takes a bit of planning. I’m used to the mild frustration of missing an hourly bus; missing a weekly one is another matter. But first, there’s an epic railway journey to enjoy.

The Far North Line winds past coast and woodland, moor and mountain on its four-hour journey from Inverness up to Thurso (advance tickets £16 each way, scotrail.co.uk). One end of Cromarty Firth, one of three huge estuaries, is all reedbeds, waterbirds and hares in the long grass. The far end is studded with disused oil rigs, towed here when they’re not needed in the North Sea. Across the wide blue of Dornoch Firth, I can just make out Skibo Castle, a huge baronial mansion that was the Scottish home of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. Later, there’s a half-timbered station house and a glimpse of turrets above the trees as we pass Dunrobin Castle. The railway runs beside the sea between Brora and Helmsdale, past miles of deserted sand and rocks bristling with cormorants.

In the middle of blanket-bogged Flow Country, we stop at Forsinard, where the old station house is an RSPB visitor centre and a surfaced trail leads through bird-rich lochans. Some kids on the path wave cheerfully at the train and a deer runs past the window. Broch, broch, hut circle, cairn insists the map in gothic lettering. I can usually see only the more recently ruined circular sheepfolds, but it’s clear this is a huge and ancient landscape. There are intricately carved Pictish stones and Viking shield bosses at the North Coast visitor centre in Thurso.

After half an hour’s onward journey, through cotton-grassed moorland dotted with glittering lochs, I arrive on bus 803 in Melvich. I walk through dunes to the beach, where oystercatchers are flying over peat-tinged waves. In neighbouring Portskerra, there are purple orchids, columbines and carpets of squill with starry sky-blue flowers beside a clifftop path and the clear, sheltered waters of the harbour are perfect for a bracing high-tide dip. Warming up in the Coastline Coffee Shop, I tell a fellow swimmer I’m worried about missing the twice-daily weekday bus along the coast tomorrow and she laughs and says someone would probably give me a lift.

It’s an hour after low tide and there are pipers, picnics and kids running barefoot over long, evening sands

Very early next morning, I do catch bus 274 to Bettyhill, where the Strathnaver Museum reopened in April 2023 after a big refurbishment. In an old church near the white sand beaches of Farr Bay, the museum houses all kinds of curios from a bronze age beaker to a dog-skin buoy. There’s plenty of info about Clan Mackay and the Highland clearances that still feel freshly tragic to some people living locally. “I hate sheep,” says one woman, whose grandfather was forced to move. Later, rambling along quiet lanes near Tongue, I pass a roadside memorial to the local Gaelic poet Ewen Robertson. He wrote poignantly about the clearances, which evicted crofting communities from the land they had farmed. Some of Robertson’s best-known lines curse the sheep and the perfidious duke for making Sutherland a desert.

From Tongue, it’s a four-mile walk to Kinloch Lodge, where a group of us are meeting for a hike, through blue milkwort flowers and aromatic bog myrtle, to remote Loch an Dithreibh. It’s organised by the team from Feragaia, a distinctive alcohol-free Scottish spirit, distilled in Fife from a bunch of plants like west coast sugar kelp, lemon verbena, and blackcurrant leaves from a farm in Perthshire. The hike is led by a ranger from Wildland, a long-term conservation project that featured in David Attenborough’s Wild Isles. Their work includes re-establishing woods and restoring wetlands.

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

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

I’m leaving tomorrow via Inverness, where the Caledonian Sleeper, taken over last year by the Scottish government, sets off six nights a week (seats from £55 Inverness to Crewe and London Euston). Walking to the bus stop in Tongue next morning, past heather-sunk rocks with strange markings, the sunshine is bright enough to keep the midges at bay. There are so many things I might have missed if I drove along this road instead of walking: a marbled white butterfly on the coconut-smelling gorse, wood sorrel under lime-green birches, the sound of mountain streams, and the cuckoo calling hoarsely over the valley.

This trip was supported by Feragaia and Visit Scotland