I would have missed so much if I had driven

<span>Varrich Castle, reached by a walk ‘through bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers’, and the Kyle of Tongue.</span><span>Photo: Alamy</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ug3QBROwn_ei.rLX5mDZJA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/40d2ed7342032b13255d 34c8091f99df” data src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ug3QBROwn_ei.rLX5mDZJA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/40d2ed7342032b13255d3 4c8091f99df”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Varrich Castle, reached by a walk ‘through bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers’, and the Kyle of Tongue.Photo: Alamy

There’s a festive atmosphere around the lighthouse at Chanonry Point near Inverness, the best place in Britain to see dolphins from land. It’s an hour after low tide and there are pipers, picnics and children running barefoot on the long evening sand. Already in late spring the sun hardly seems to set in the Highlands. The kelp-strewn pebbles glow as I walk along one side of the promontory from the Fortrose Cathedral bus stop (bus 26/26A from Inverness). 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 the 9pm bus, past wild lupines 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. Designed in 2015 in the style of US Route 66, this 516-mile loop through the north of Scotland attracts thousands of motorists and campers every year to narrow roads with bottleneck passages. Locals complain that the route’s popularity has driven up house prices and speak in terms of pre- and post-NC500. Some cyclists complete or partially complete the route by bicycle. I explore some of it by public transport and on foot. It takes a little 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 train journey to enjoy.

The Far North Line winds along the coast and forests, moors and mountains on the four-hour journey from Inverness to Thurso (advance tickets £16 each way, scotrail.co.uk). One end of Cromarty Firth, one of three huge estuaries, is made up of reedbeds, waterfowl and hares in the long grass. The other end is littered with disused oil rigs, which are towed here when not needed in the North Sea. Across the broad blue of Dornoch Firth I can just make out Skibo Castle, a huge stately mansion that was the Scottish home of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Later there is a half-timbered station building and glimpses of turrets above the trees as we pass Dunrobin Castle. The railway line runs along the sea between Brora and Helmsdale, passing miles of deserted sand and rocks teeming with cormorants.

In the middle of the dense Flow Country we stop at Forsinard, where the old station building is an RSPB visitors center and a paved path leads through bird-rich lochans. Some children on the path wave cheerfully at the train and a deer runs past the window. Broch, broch, hut circle, cairn highlights the map in Gothic letters. Mostly I can only see the more recently destroyed circular sheepfolds, but it is clear that this is a vast and ancient landscape. There are intricately carved Pictish stones and Viking shield bosses at the north coast visitor center at Thurso.

After a half-hour journey, through cottongrass-covered moors dotted with glistening lakes, I arrive on bus 803 in Melvich. I walk through the dunes to the beach, where oystercatchers fly over peaty waves. In neighboring Portskerra, purple orchids, columbines and carpets of samphire with starry blue flowers line a clifftop path, and the clear, sheltered waters of the harbor are perfect for an invigorating dip at high tide. As I warm up at the Coastline Coffee Shop, I tell a fellow swimmer that I’m worried I’ll miss the twice-daily coastal bus 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 children running barefoot on the long evening sand

Very early the next morning I take bus 274 to Bettyhill, where the Strathnaver Museum reopened in April 2023 after a major renovation. In an old church near the white sandy beaches of Farr Bay, the museum houses all kinds of curiosities, from a Bronze Age cup to a dog-skin buoy. There is a lot of information about Clan Mackay and the evictions in the Highlands which still feel tragic to some people living locally. “I hate sheep,” says a woman whose grandfather was forced to move. Later, as I stroll along quiet streets near Tongue, I pass a roadside memorial to local Gaelic poet Ewen Robertson. He wrote movingly about the evictions, which drove farming communities from the land they had cultivated. Some of Robertson’s best-known lines curse the sheep and the treacherous Duke for turning Sutherland into a desert.

From Tongue it’s a four-mile walk to Kinloch Lodge, where a group of us meet for a walk, through blue milkweed flowers and aromatic bog myrtle, to the remote Loch an Dithreibh. It is organized by the team from Feragaia, a signature non-alcoholic Scottish spirit, distilled in Fife from a number of plants including west coast sugar kelp, lemon verbena and blackcurrant leaves from a Perthshire farm. The walk 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 luxury properties. Outside, Ben Loyal’s many peaks are crowned with clouds or illuminated by a coppery sunset. Other places to stay locally include the Tongue hotel, a Victorian lodge with wood-paneled walls, fireplaces and mountain views, recently revamped by the Highland Coast Hotels group (doubles from £158 B&B). There’s also a hostel, right on the seafront, near the wide Kyle of Tongue (doubles from £70, rooms only).

The next day I follow a marked path over the rust-red Rhian Burn, past bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers, to Castle Varrich. The steel viewing platform, added by Wildland in 2017, overlooks the mountains and marine lake. Back in the village there are gnarled beech trees, duck eggs for sale, a lone fisherman on the crumbling pier and Tongue House, another former seat of Clan Mackay. The Norwegian Bakehouse serves home-cooked Italian food, and the blue-and-gold view from the garden is one of many postcard-worthy seascapes.

I leave tomorrow via Inverness, where the Caledonian Sleeper, taken over by the Scottish Government last year, runs six nights a week (seats from £55 Inverness to Crewe and London Euston). As you walk to the bus stop in Tongue the next morning, past heather-sunken rocks with strange markings, the sun is bright enough to keep the mosquitoes 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-scented gorse, wood sorrel under lime-green birches, the sound of mountain streams and the cuckoo calling hoarsely. the valley.

This trip was supported by Feragaia and Visit Scotland

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