Caravanning in Scotland: North by North West
What draws discerning caravanners back time and again to the wild and rugged North West of Scotland?
Written by Steve Goodier
It’s no surprise that Scotland’s new ‘North Coast 500 Driving Route' takes in most of the stunning coastline of the countries far north-west. The route billed Scotland's answer to America’s ‘route 66', starts and ends in Inverness.
It takes in the east and north coasts of the far north of our islands - but it is surely the winding and dramatic way it works down through Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty and The Applecross Peninsula that make it so unique.
On a recent visit to the North West Highlands, I met, purely by accident, an old acquaintance who was driving the route and camping as he did so. We met near the beautiful fishing village of Lochinver, and he was convinced, having driven clockwise from Inverness, that there would be nothing ahead that could compare with what he had already seen.
He was a happy man and when I asked him again recently how the rest of the journey went he was adamant that although there were other highlights to the trip, nothing compared in rugged splendour and breathtaking scenery to the coastline of Applecross, Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland.
And that’s the thing with The North West Highlands.
It offers the caravanner something different which he will find nowhere else in the United Kingdom. The vast land and seascape there is filled with the wild and breathtaking terrain. As you travel around the region a plethora of unbelievable mountains, beaches and lochs unfold before you each one seeming to supersede the one before regarding splendour and scenic beauty.
It’s this wildness that inspires holiday makers to make the very very long trip north each year. It’s a massive drive for most of us, and you need at least a week of holiday time (with two weeks being better) to get the most out of the area.
But it is not uncommon to come across caravanners ‘up north' who have taken as much as a month to immerse themselves in the landscape, attractions and culture that the North West Highlands have to offer.
For the majority of us, it will involve a two-day trip with our caravan and a break in the journey at some suitable half way point. And that goes for the way back too, so you can say four days of your break may be taken up travelling, so you need to allow plenty of extra time to enjoy it.
To give you some conception of the distances involved it is 478 miles/769 KM from where I live in Cheshire to the village of Lochinver in Sutherland and for anyone travelling from London the distance becomes 658 miles/1,059 KM.
Is it worth it?
You need to go there yourself (or speak to someone who has already been) to get the answer to that, but I think most would say that the effort required to make the journey is more than justified by the destination reached.
The North West Highlands must rank as one of the last great wildernesses this land of ours has to offer.
Go in Late May, June or early July, and it never seems to go dark. The time of year is great as it gives you plenty of time to look around and get active.
North-west Scotland is a region for the outdoor lover, for the bird watcher the mountain or road biker, the walker and mountain climber and for the general tourist who just likes to drive down narrow roads and be astounded by hidden cliffs, lost sandy bays and spectacularly sandy beaches.
You have to see the mountains to believe them with the likes of Suilven (rising above Lochinver) looking un-climbable. It isn’t, but boy are you in for a long tiring day if you set out to reach its summit!
It is the land of castles and cliff top ruins, the home of golden eagles and sea eagles and an outdoor wonderland just waiting for you to explore them.
Geographically we are talking about the northern Scottish counties of Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty, but you can't ignore The Applecross area of Inverness-shire either.
For the purpose of this article, we will concentrate on the rugged coastline that winds north from The Torridon Area. Torridon is a small village lying on the shore of Loch Torridon, but the name is used to describe the area around it too.
You are already over a hundred miles north of Fort William at this point, and it slowly starts to sink in just how far north Scotland extends. The region we are concerned with continues northerly from here with the likes of The A832, The A835, The A837 and The A894 following the coastline and giving you the sort of motoring of which you have probably only dreamed.
It is not often you can say anywhere in The United Kingdom that it is a pleasure go out driving but here in Scotland’s North West Highlands it is a delight to get behind the wheel.
Lochs seem to appear from nowhere; Mountains tower majestically skywards; the coast seduces you into stopping to see if you can spot seals, dolphins, porpoise and even the odd killer whale and the traffic is rarely heavy.
Even if you are towing a caravan and taking it slowly, you soon realise that you don't want rush through this landscape.
Where to base yourself?
If you are looking for a place to base yourself, then you are spoilt for choice. I would suggest making your break long enough to split it into two separate parts with, say, a week in the Assynt region of Sutherland a based around maybe Lochinver and then the second week a bit further south in The Wester Ross region of Ross and Cromarty stopping at somewhere like Poolewe or Gairloch.
Splitting the journey like this gives you the chance to sample the different areas.
It is easier to move than to try and travel out each day going longer distances to see what you want to see. Make no mistake, even when you are pitched up, driving distances can be long and slow up here.
But what’s the rush?
You go on holiday to slow down and unwind and believe me; this is one area you can do just that.
When should you go?
The weather is probably most settled (and the days longest) in May and early June, but the summer can throw up some good days although it is not often as clear as the perfect days you frequently get in late spring and early summer. And of course the midges can be worse in the hotter months, but because a lot of the caravan sites are near the coast, the breeze off the sea usually keeps them down (usually!).
That said, th,e early spring can be quite lovely if a bit cold and autumn brings its special kind of beauty to the region with mellow days and purple heather on the hillsides.
Keep the car well topped up on fuel as in some regions it can be a long way between petrol stations and don’t expect to find large Morrison’s or Tesco’s dotted everywhere. There are sufficient shops to get by with, but they will be smaller than you are used to. And besides, there are lots of pubs, restaurants and cafes all serving good food and often with stunning views from their windows!
The North West Highlands is sparsely populated, but surely this is the attraction?
Caravan sites can be small and located down narrow roads that make you think a bit as you tow along them, but facilities are usually quite good although the ground can be very rugged so take good sturdy steel pegs if you plan on putting an awning up. Many of the caravan sites are in stunning locations overlooking sea lochs or facing mountain ranges.
And speaking of mountains, The North West Highlands is blessed with some stunners. For mountain walkers and climbers the region is a draw. But be warned, distances are long and the going rugged and rough. You will need to be sure of the weather and competent with a map and compass, or you could very easily find yourself lost in a real wilderness setting miles from anywhere.
There are numerous mountain guidebooks to the region, and there are also many walking books that stick to lower level paths and coastal ways. These can be just as demanding in many respects, but you have less to worry about if the weather does turn bad and you have to abandon the route quickly.
Mountains to watch out for, even if you have no intention of donning boots and climbing them, are the likes of Suilven, Foinaven, Canisp, Arkle and Cul Mor. These isolated sandstone peaks are very dramatic looking and especially so in the evening when the sun catches the upper reaches and makes them glow.
Others worth taking the time to seek out are the likes of the bristly Stac Pollaidh (known as ‘Stac Polly’), Slioch, Beinn Eighe and An Teallach
Stunning Sunsets and Beaches
Having just mentioned sunsets it would only be fair to point out that the West Coast of Scotland is also famed for its unbelievable sunsets. You may suffer from a few cloudy days when there is little to see, but hopefully, you will fall lucky, and things will clear up as night approaches - then you can sit up late and watch the impressive spectacle of the sun dropping into the sea as a great red globe.
We have mentioned the beaches already (you will be amazed at how golden the sand can be) but let’s not forget the rocky bays too. These are quite beautiful and may not show much sand even at low tide, but here you can spot seals and the shy otter too. Sandwood Bay is a long way north and only accessible on foot, but it must rank as one of the most spectacular beaches not only in Scotland but throughout our lands as a whole.
Wildlife and History
For wildlife lovers, it's worth looking out for deer, but you will have to be up early or out late to spot the elusive Pine Marten. Sutherland is so remote that it is reputed to be the last haunt of the native wolf the last one of which hunters shot in the 18th Century.
Historically Sutherland is remembered by many as the land of the sad Highland Clearances of the 18th Century when landowners forcibly evicted crofters from their homes who wanted to make way for sheep farms. The People removed scattered across the world as a result, and the sparsely populated interior of the area became even more barren as crofters had to move to the coast and learn to make a living as fishermen.
Today all is peaceful and quiet, and it is hard to imagine this sort of thing happening.
What Not to Miss
There is still a haunting sadness to some of the more remote regions, but overall this is an area that you will only have happy memories of when you look at your photos on your return home.
There are lochs aplenty with the likes of Loch Assynt and Loch Maree being particularly stunning. But, to be fair, most of the lochs look beautiful when backed by rugged mountain ranges and glistening in the afternoon sunshine.
For the general tourist, there is so much to see and do, and you should not miss the likes of Ullapool, nor the chance to go out on a boat seal or whale spotting.
Inverewe Gardens, near Poolewe, need a mention.
The Gardens are worth a visit, and it is owned and run by The National Trust for Scotland. It is a large garden famed for its exotic plants despite the fact it is farther north than Moscow.
This sub-tropical paradise is very popular and is perched on a peninsula at the edge of Loch Ewe amid the rugged landscape of Wester Ross. It is world famous and one of Scotland’s most popular botanical attractions.
If you are looking for a region that offers you the chance to site your caravan in remote locations, where you can explore a true Highland wilderness, then may I suggest you make the long journey north then north-west to this stunning region. You will no doubt start a new love affair that will last for many years to come?
Tourist Information Centres
Gairloch tourist Information Centre 01455 712071
Assynt Tourist Information Centre (Lochinver) 01571 844194
Visit Scotland Ullapool 01854 612486
Where to Stay
Shore Caravan Site
T 01571 844393
Shore Caravan Site has a stunning location next to a sandy bay and a rocky headland. The impressive mountain of Suilven is visible from the site. The caravan fields are to be found down a twisty and up and down, narrow lane that seems to take you into the middle of nowhere and is certainly not for the faint-hearted when towing. It’s well worth it when you get there, however. Grass pitches, electric hook-ups and a small toilet and shower block make up the site.
Clachtoll Beach Caravan Site
T 01571 855377
Another beachside location near to Lochinver. Clachtoll Beach is really in the middle of nowhere, and the approach road is windy and twisty with lots of passing places – again it’s a towing challenge to get to the site entrance but more than worth the effort involved. Clachtoll Beach is a medium sized site with an adorable shop in a field near the entrance. Popular with campers and campervan owners the site offers electric hook-ups and a toilet and shower facility but it is the stunning location that will appeal most.
Ardmair Point Holiday Centre
T 01854 612757
Ardmair Point Holiday Centre is to be found three miles north of Ullapool and is located on a peninsula jutting out into a sea loch. The site is right next to a lovely pebbled beach that takes the form of a curving bay. The ridge of Ben Mhor Coigach rises behind the camping and caravanning fields, and there are a small shop and café on site. There are pitches (with electric hook-ups) right next to the seashore by the reception and these are always popular. There is a secondary field away from the shore behind reception. The site has toilets and showers and is popular with boaters and fishermen.
Northern Lights Campsite
T 01697 371379
Northern Lights Campsite is a small location set above Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross. It has stunning mountain views across the loch. The site is to be found on a croft and has a limited number of electric hook-ups (about 8). Pitches are a mixture of grass and hard standing, and the site closes at the end of August. Northern Lights Campsite is in a remote location, but you will find toilets and showers on site. The site is a great place to explore Wester Ross from and is very popular with hill walkers.
Inverewe Gardens Camping and Caravanning Club Site
T 01445 781249
The Camping and Caravanning Clubs most northerly site which is open to non-club members (on payment of an additional pitching fee) and set on the shores of Loch Ewe. There are 55 pitches with lots of bush and tree screening. Pitches are hard standing with electric hook-ups, and the toilet and shower block are near to reception and kept clean and tidy. Just a short walk down the road from the site you will The National Trust for Scotland’s Inverewe Gardens which are well worth a visit.
Gairloch Caravan and Camping Holiday Park
1, Mihol Road
T 01445 712373
A stunningly located site above the village of Gairloch and Loch Gairloch with impressive mountain and sea views. This family-owned park has around 80 pitches with grass and hard standing pitches with34 electric hook-ups. The site has clean and tidy showers and toilets plus a launderette. There are two sections to the site with tents being on a field to the rear and the caravans located at the front of a good sized field that has the best sea views.