I’ve recently spent a week in the company of 12 bikers from around the world, riding the North Coast 500 in Scotland. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, travel opens doors to great friendships!
The people in the group are all members of Expat Bikers Netherlands, which meets up to ride both locally in the Netherlands and within Europe.
This is not my first trip with the international motorcycling group but once again I am charmed by the friendship that surrounds a group of people who have nothing more in common than being strangers in a foreign land and motorcycles. The friendships that develop around these two things are signs of hope in our troubled political climate.
There is no politics, no intolerance, no bigotry … just friendships based on a love of exploration and a desire to learn from and appreciate each other.
Nationalities are put to one side, as we become our own tribe, reliant on each other, supporting each other in times of personal difficulty. The world could learn a thing or two from this experience.
The essence of Scotland in 500 miles
The ride we took was essentially the North Coast 500, with a twist, as one of our Scottish members had taken on the role of tour guide and was planning some add-ons. The NC500 is the Scottish tourist board’s version of the USA’s Route 66 and was launched back in 2014 with the promise of “a truly unique touring experience” around the Scottish Highlands, in 516 miles.
THE NORTH COAST 500 IN SCOTLAND WITH EXPAT BIKERS NETHERLANDS (All photos by Jackie Harding for Dispatches Europe)
The official route starts in Inverness but our group gathered in a small village, Cairndow, on Loch Fyne, in the county of Argyll and Bute. The weather was grey and promising rain but we were filled with delicious local produce from the kitchen of the Stagecoach Inn and eager to start our adventure.
That first day was wet and, despite the amazing scenery and desperate positive attitude, none of us were having that much fun, although the stunning glen or valley, of Glencoe is as evocative in the clouds as the sun. The general fear was that this would be the weather for the week. Believe me, rain on a motorcycle is not amusing; it finds it’s way into everything you are wearing!
The second day was amazing and we hadn’t even hit the NC500 yet! We woke to grey but dry … how weird that it seemed like a great day! From then on the weather got better and better and the Scottish coastline shone like an undiscovered gem. From the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge to our destination at Gairloch, we travelled the highlands and lowlands towards the west coast, passing lochs, or lakes and secluded castles such as the 13th century Eilean Donan on Loch Duich.
Unspoiled beaches azure water … and no one in sight
Now we were on the North Coast 500 and it promised to be spectacular. We climbed through isolated mountain passes such as Bealach na Bà, the steepest road climb in the UK, with solid highland cattle ambling on the roadside “twisties,” down to the coast and the delightful village of Apple Cross.
There, we sat enjoying a nice cup of tea whilst gazing at the clear blue sky and the Isle Of Skye, in the distance. The rest of the Wester Ross section of the NC500 was breathtaking all the way to the picture postcard harbor town of Ullapool.
The west and north coast sections are in Sutherland and the area has a plethora of unspoiled beaches, with white sand and azure water…and not a soul to be seen. The gorse and bluebells clad the hillsides in gold and indigo and the road curled its way past lochs so tranquil they mirrored the surrounding hills. The blue sky and white clouds above us were reminiscent of Scotland’s flag of St. Andrew. Spring comes late in the northern highlands and we quickly learned to keep an eye open for sheep and alarmed young lambs on the roadside. It made a change from avoiding Dutch cyclists!
The courtesy of the car and camper van drivers towards our group of motorcycles was often remarked on, as this is something we rarely experience in the Netherlands. Many of the Scottish roads were single track with passing places, and each car would pull in and let the group, as a whole, pass. No impatience, no superiority, just a cheery wave.
Even when one of our group had a spill (the motorcycle was more damaged than him, fortunately) every car that passed us stopped and asked if we needed help. What a reassuring example that road courtesy is alive and kicking.
We arrived on the most northerly coast of the UK and swung by the iconic John O’Groats for the obligatory photo. John O’Groats is famous as the northern end of the longest distance between two inhabited points on the British mainland, with Land’s End in Cornwall lying 876 miles (1,410 km) to the southwest.
We then rode down the east coast of Easter Ross, through chilly sea fog to the unofficial capital of Scotland, Inverness on the Moray Firth. The city is a bustling place full of great restaurants, stores and a great location for visiting some of the iconic tourist spots such Loch Ness and a plethora of Highland castles.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The North Coast 500 route ends here so we wound our way down the side of the legendary, and long (37kms), Loch Ness to Fort Augustus that lies on the Caledonian Canal and the entry point to the loch. The area thrives on the tourism of the legendary monster of the deep, so I suppose it is helping the Scottish economy but the only beast we saw was the Triumph Rocket being ridden in our group.
Our group was heading to Edinburgh to end the trip but, as the sun was shining, we had to see Glencoe once more in all its glory. The glen is stunning, a glacial valley, surrounded by soaring mountains that dominate the skyline and is popular with walkers, climbers, and skiers in the winter.
The area is also popular with moviemakers, as it has featured recently in “Harry Potter” and James Bond’s “Skyfall.” We stopped at the charming Clachaig Inn for a lunch surrounded by vast hills, before heading back through the glen to slowly begin our descent from the high lands to the built-up area surrounding Edinburgh.
As we wound our way downhill I think we all cast a look of longing back at the peaceful, imposing countryside that had been blessed by sunshine, seemingly just for us and our great adventure.
About the author:
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past seven years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States for as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing. Writing for Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat issues.
She also covered Women’s March Amsterdam.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.