I’m Alice and I’m a freelance photographer and videographer. I’d dreamed of driving around the coast of Scotland or Ireland for years, but being under 25 has meant I’ve always been unable to hire a camper-van. However in August 2020, the pandemic’s travel restrictions meant that my family gave in to my idea of doing the NC500, came with me, and did all the driving!
The rough idea:
The NC500 is a 516 mile route that loops around the North coast of Scotland and starts and finishes in Inverness. Despite the roads existing for years, the route was only marketed as one long road trip in 2015. It can be done by bicycle, motorbike, car or camper and you can stay in a tent, vehicle or B&Bs. The landscape is a photographer’s idea of heaven and the mountainous terrain is what drones were made for! Make sure you have some waterproof, tough shell cases to keep your kit safe whilst you climb around, and condense your set-up so it fits into just one bag and doesn’t restrict your movement. As much as you’ll want to film or photograph everything, there are times where you’ll appreciate just enjoying the views with your own eyes, rather than through a lens.
The packing list:
Here are what I consider to be the photography/videography essentials for a NC500 trip, as well as what I use specifically in brackets.
- Camera body (Canon EOS R) – read DGTL’s Canon blog here
- Lenses (RF 24-105mm f4.5, 50mm f1.8)
- Laptop (Macbook Pro)
- Hardrive (LaCie 2TB)
- Drone (DJI Mavic Mini – didn’t cope very well with wind…) – read DGTL’s drone blog here
- Batteries & chargers
- Extension lead
- Cigarette lighter to usb converter for charging whilst driving/camping w/out electricity
- Film camera and wide-format polaroid (Olympus OM-1 & Fujifilm 300 wide)
- Midge repellent (ESSENTIAL! More on them later…)
- Toolkit for inevitable vehicle/tech problems
- A paper map or a digital one that you’ve downloaded for ‘offline use’ as there’s often no phone signal.
We hired a Fiat Swift Motorhome for the 5 of us adults. It had room to sleep 6, a toilet, a shower, a hob and a sink. Except for the leaking water tank that emptied itself for the first 3 days within 5 minutes of being filled up (thanks to the kind man we approached in his front garden who lent us tools to fix it), we loved the motorhome and it had more than we needed. We washed in the sea and at campsites and so never even used the shower!
When I return to do the NC500 again (as either a van owner or a 25-year-old!) I’ll definitely travel in a smaller van. My dad was happy manoeuvring the huge vehicle forwards and backwards along roads that were only wide enough for 1 car but had oncoming traffic, and driving over steep winding mountain passes and through villages where (some) locals shout at motorhomes, I’d prefer something a bit more nimble and inconspicuous. Most locals are so friendly and understanding but for those who haven’t driven larger vehicles before, a medium-sized converted van is what I’d recommend for a first NC500 trip.
Many people will say it doesn’t matter wether you drive the NC500 loop clockwise or anti-clockwise, and for the most part, they’re correct. However if you want to be able to pull over and shoot whenever and wherever on the roads, then travelling anti-clockwise is best – most of the coaches that take tourists on the route travel clock-wise and so by being on the other side of the road to them, you don’t have to worry about being stuck behind a huge vehicle, or holding one up.
Whilst the route is planned out, how often and where you chose to stop is up to you and will dictate how long the NC500 takes. We spent 2 weeks away from home, which included travelling 570 miles to Inverness, doing the 516 mile route, plus some detours to the Orkney Islands and Skye (neither of which are to be missed despite not being on the official NC500 route – we wished we’d planned to stay longer in both), and another 450 miles home from Loch Lomond (we didn’t feel the need to cross from the West coast back to the East just to complete the loop!)
Whilst 2 weeks was manageable in terms of the driving, I only had 11 days of shooting. When you account for 3-5 hours of driving a day, a morning swim with breakfast, and getting to your camp spot before dark so that you can cook dinner in the light/shoot the sunset, the days don’t seem that long anymore! So, I’d say 2 weeks is the minimum time to allow for an NC500 trip, 3 weeks is ideal, and you could happily spend more than a month doing the route more slowly and still feel like there was more to see.
In Scotland you can wild camp everywhere unless there are signs forbidding it, so any lay-by, field, beach or mountain is yours to park or pitch your tent on, as long as it isn’t private land or obstructive. However, ‘No overnight Camping’ signs have been put up in some places along the NC500 route so a great way of checking if you can stop somewhere in advance of arriving in Scotland is to use the street-view function on google maps and check for signs.
Depending on the battery-life of your cameras/drones/tech and your need for hot showers, you’ll probably want to book one night at a campsite for every 3 days of wild camping. You can fill up your water tank at most campsites without having to stay there if you just ask nicely or pay for what you use.
This is where I stayed each night of our NC500 trip and I’ve included links to the campsites we stayed at too.
Day 1: WILD – Dornoch Beach
Day 2: SITE – Wick Campsite
Day 3: WILD – Brough of Birsay, Orkney
Day 4: SITE – Halladale Inn Chalet & Caravan Park
Day 5: WILD – Ceannabeinne Bay
Day 6: WILD – Shegra Beach
Day 7: WILD – Next to Ardvreck Castle
Day 8: WILD – Gruinard Bay
Day 9: WILD – Near Old man of Storr, Skye
Day 10: SITE – Sheildag Campsite
Day 11: WILD – Loch Duich
This is what we did each day, but there’s so much more to see that what is on this list so do plenty of your own research too!
Day 1: Drove from Inverness across the Black Isle
Flew the drone through the arches of Fortrose Cathedral (ruin)
Stopped in Cromarty to fix the van
Cooked dinner on the beach (locals put up no overnight signs but it was fine)
Camped @ Dornoch Beach
Day 2: Photographed sunrise
One of my favourite songs is Tiger Striped Sky and now I know what one looks like! See photo in end gallery)
Dunrobin Castle (we didn’t pay to get in, you can see gardens perfectly well from outside!)
Cairn Liath circular ruins (amazing for drone)
Camster Cairns (lots of sheep and you can crawl inside)
Dinner at Mackay’s No 1 Bistro (on Ebenezer Place, the world’s shortest street – 2.06m)
Camped @ Wick Campsite
Day 3: Castle of Old Wick (very exposed to the wind so wrap up warm even if it looks sunny)
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Wick
Ferry from Gillis at 1:30 (going to Orkney)
Ferry arrives at St Margaret’s Hope at 2:30
Churchill Barriers (great road across the water and sunken boats great for drone)
Italian Chapel (genuinely interesting history!)
Ola Gorie Jewellery (I found a 40 year old ring of Ola’s in the Lake District years ago. I bought a second Ola ring on this trip. They’re beautiful silver rings with mythological Norse birds and Finnish beasts on them)
Ring of Brodgar
Yesnaby Castle sea stacks
Walked over to the Brough of Birsay island and saw puffins (only there nesting in July/Aug)
Ran back across the water as the tide came in and cut off the island! Some people had to wade back!
Camped @ Brough of Birsay, Orkney
Day 4: Birsay Earl’s Palace (ruin)
Ferry from Stromness at 11 (going to mainland)
Ferry arrives in Scrabster at 12:30
Picked up surf boards & c-skins wetsuits (SO warm) from North Coast Watersports
Owners Iona and Finn, current and previous Scottish surfing Champions, are so kind and friendly
Surfed and flew kites on Dunnet Beach
Other beaches nearby: Sandside, Melvich, Strathy, Farr. Bays: Armadale & Torrisdale
Strathy point (the most northerly bit of the UK, it’s not actually John O’ Groats)
Dinner at the on-site pub at the campsite
Camped @ Halladale Inn Chalet & Caravan Park, Melvich
Day 5: Kyle of Tongue Bridge (great drone shots)
Walks on Ceannabeinne Bay (arrive early for THE BEST wild camp of the trip)
There is a zip wire across the whole beach!
Camped @ Ceannabeinne Bay
Day 6: Sunrise and swimming at Ceannabeinne Bay (the water looks Caribbean!)
Balnakeil craft village – artists’ commune in a disused military camp. Beautiful art, pottery, food and barber!
Drove to Shegra Beach and cooked fresh salmon on fire on beach
Here we were geographically closer to Iceland than to London
Camped @ Shegra Beach
Day 7: Kylesku Bridge
Loch na Gainmhich (for drone footage like this)
Loch Glendhu – looks the same as it did in Viking times
Sunset at Ardvreck Castle
Booked my parents a meal at Newton Lodge for their wedding anniversary
Camped @ Ardvreck Castle
Day 8: Picnic lunch at Achnahaird Beach
Cooked BBQ dinner on the beach (VERY midgey!)
Camped @ Gruinard Bay/Beach
Day 9: Eilean Dinan castle
Saw Old Man of Storr (we didn’t have time to climb it but that would’ve been epic for sunset)
Camped @ Near Old Man of Storr, Skye
Day 10: Uig & Idrigill (find the circular tower and fly your drone inside for a surprise!)
Bought the best fresh & smoked salmon from Loch Torridon Smokehouse
Dinner on the terrace at Shieldag bar and costal kitchen
Camped @ Sheildag Campsite
Day 11: Saw Highland Cows
Drove the Bealach na bà (pass of the cattle) – amazing for drone footage
Listed as one of the top 10 cycle rides in the UK so bring a bike if you’re keen to ride
Driving the pass is not recommended for those uncomfortable with reversing for miles or round corners
Visit the Applecross Photographic Gallery – Jack is so friendly and talented and makes all the prints’ frames
He camps in the mountains and shoots on a drone (it costs about £10k, and that’s not including the camera!)
Camped @ near Loch Duich
Day 12: Saw the Harry Potter train at the Glenfinnian Viaduct – there’s a guide to finding/shooting the train here
Ignore the ‘no drone’ signs – they’ve been put up by a local landowner who has no authority to do so
Drove to Fort William to see Neptune’s staircase – 8 consecutive locks, 1/4mile long (great for drone)
The country’s longest lock staircase raises the canal by 19m & it takes 90 minutes for a boat to travel through
Stopped at the valley at Glencoe during golden hour (we wished we’d stayed the night here)
Drove to Kilcreggan so that the drive home the next day wasn’t too long
Camped @ Kilcreggan
The time of year:
I went during the first 2 weeks of August and was unbelievably lucky with the weather – the heatwave everyone in England was telling us we were missing out on had in fact worked its way north and most days of our trip were about 26° C. In Fort William, the rainiest city in Scotland, we had blue skies and ice-creams, and at the most northerly mainland bays like Dunnet beach, we were able to surf for hours before getting cold.
Whilst this kind of weather is unlikely to ever happen again, summer is obviously still the best bet for weather. However, even in a pandemic, we had to book campsites at least 2 weeks in advance and with a deposit, because the summer months are always busy (and social distancing requirements meant capacity had been limited to comply with Scotland’s regulations.)
What was so wonderful about the trip was the grandness of the landscape though, and so sun and stereotypically ‘good’ weather is completely unnecessary to a successful content creator’s trip. The few days we had with fog and mist added drama to the composition of my photos and I can only imagine how magical the route would look either blanketed in snow in Winter, or golden in Autumn.
I thought people were making a fuss when warning us about midges, and on the east coast we were fine. But come the north and west coast, we were swarmed at dawn and dusk, and so hoodies with drawstrings that you can tie tight against your face, as well as clothes with tight cuffs on your wrists and ankles are essential for evenings. So is Smidge spray – this one is made by Scotts, specifically for Scottish midge protection. Don’t try and be brave, the itchy bites are not worth it!
The final verdict:
Anyone with a camera, an appreciation for the outdoors, an interest in van-life or a desire to hop from beach to beach for a couple of weeks, has to make the NC500 their next trip. And if you don’t have time for everything on the list, here are my unmissable photo spots:
The best sunrise spot – Dornoch Beach
The best non-photography activity – surfing with North Coast Watersports