Today, I’m whisking you off on an armchair tour of the North West Highlands. It’s an area popular with tourists thanks to the North Coast 500 (NC500), but many rush round the route without lingering long enough to fully appreciate what this spectacular corner of Scotland has to offer. I love the NC500 – we usually loop round it a couple of times a year, but never in one go. We prefer to savour it in bite-sized chunks, really getting to know the places we visit. The itinerary featured in this blog is from a summer 2019 trip, when we spent a night in Ullapool, before heading further north to Lochinver. You’ll find it packed with things to do in Ullapool, Lochinver (and beyond).
Day 1 – things to do in Lochinver (and beyond)
It’s a five hour drive to Lochinver from Edinburgh. Keen to enjoy two full days on the doorstep of the coastal village, we broke our journey there up, by spending a night in Ullapool en route. Ullapool is a vibrant harbour village, located 36 (incredibly scenic) miles south of Lochinver.
With only a short drive between us and our weekend base, we’d have plenty of time to explore.
A scenic drive on the NC500
Leaving Ullapool, we journeyed north through one of the most dramatically beautiful sections of the NC500. Each and every time I see the rugged peaks of Assynt, they stir my soul.
Likewise, the lonely ruin of Ardvreck Castle on the shore of Loch Assynt, still captivates me as much as it did the first time I set eyes on it.
What’s not to love about a castle steeped in tales of mermaids, wailing ghosts and treachery? It’s said the devil himself had a hand in building this one time stronghold of the MacLeods of Assynt.
Heading north from Ardvreck Castle, we made our way to the tiny settlement of Kylesku with its much photographed bridge.
Normally, we’d snap the bridge from above, but this time we walked beneath it to view it from a different angle.
Our morning, spent road tripping had left us hungry.
After grabbing takeaway sandwiches, cake and coffee from the Elphin Tearooms (super tasty), we were ready for an afternoon adventure.
A boat trip round the Summer Isles
We’d booked a two hour cruise round the Summer Isles with Summer Isles Sea Tours.
We made the cruise by the skin of our teeth, after a misunderstanding saw us waiting at the wrong pier, disappointed at having been stood up. Meanwhile, a boat load of passengers and our skipper Ian, were waiting patiently for us to arrive, a few miles away.
After a phone call to Ian we finally located the ‘Isabella’ and apologised profusely as we stepped aboard.
It’d been an overcast morning, but the sun arrived as we set sail for the Summer Isles – how apt.
The Summer Isles are a group of twenty islands, skerries and rocks, located just off the Coigach Peninsula.
Only the largest, Tanera Mor (large) is permanently inhabited. It’s thought the island inspired the 1970s cult movie The Wicker Man.
The island’s smaller neighbour Tanera Beag (small) has a really cool sea cave, known as Cathedral Cave on its rocky shoreline.
As we approached the cave the water became pretty choppy. We staggered around the ‘Isabella’ trying to remain upright, as we stared into the gaping jaws of the cave. It reminded me of a basking shark.
Ian skilfully navigated us inside. Our voices echoed as we bobbed about on crystal clear water – what an experience.
Sailing round this islands we spotted seals snoozing on rocks and lots of seabirds huddled on the skerries of the Summer Isles.
Passing Tanera Mor, I didn’t spot any wicker effigies, but my overactive imagination was glad we wouldn’t be stopping there, just in case.
We really enjoyed our Summer Isles cruise – Wee White Dug included. It was a fun way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Walk – Culag Woods, Lochinver
Before heading to our accommodation to settle down for the night, we decided to stretch our legs with a walk at Culag Woods on the outskirts of Lochinver.
The forty acre mixed woodland is managed by Culag Community Woodland Trust. It contains a number of paths, to suit all abilities.
We rambled around the lower trails, before looking for a bit of elevation and a view.
Our efforts were rewarded with two fab views, one looking out over Loch Inver, towards our home for the weekend and further uphill, in the other direction, a stunning view of the instantly recognisable summit of Suilven – Scotland’s answer to Sugarloaf Mountain.
We sat a while, enjoying the sunshine, bonnie mountain scenery and perfect, blissful calm.
We completed the walk without bumping into another soul. My kind of walk.
It’d been a fun-filled first day, now it was time to unwind.
Accommodation – Suilven View Pod
Our accommodation, Suilven View Pod was a luxury glamping pod, located on a quiet hillside looking across Loch Inver to the village of Lochinver. It had an enclosed garden and decking with patio furniture and a barbecue.
Best of all was the view of Suilven.
The boy approved. He loves decking and will happily sit outside for hours, at one with nature.
Inside, the pod had two reclining chairs with footstools (super comfy), a double bed, en suite shower room and kitchen. It was also equipped with Wifi, a Smart TV and heating.
We found lots of thoughtful extras waiting for us too, including Tunnock’s teacakes, a decanter of whisky and fluffy robes.
The perfect ingredients for a great night in.
Day 2 – things to do in Lochinver (and beyond)
We slept soundly in our wee hobbit house and woke early the next morning, raring to get outside.
The weather wasn’t going to be kind, but we wouldn’t let it spoil our fun.
Visit Achmelvich Beach
By 9:00 am we were swimming in Achmelvich Bay as a persistent drizzle fell.
The beach was devoid of human life, but the sea was teeming with moon jellyfish (non-stinging) and schoals of tiny fish.
The boy enjoyed a game of fetch in the water with his favourite beach toy, but soon got bored and decided to tear the toy to shreds instead.
We left Achmelvich feeling completely invigorated.
Walk – Clachtoll Broch
Our next stop was the village of Clachtoll for a short (and very wet) coastal walk to visit Clachtoll Broch.
Parking at Clachtoll Beach, we followed the coastline northwards.
It was wet overhead and underfoot and we were soon as drookit as we had been in Achmelvich Bay. Mr G loves walking and will hike in all weather, but if the sole purpose of the walk is history he morphs into a disagreeable toddler.
The boy and I on the other hand, battle on uncomplaining – we know history is worth getting soaked for.
When we arrived at the broch Mr G’s mood brightened (unlike the weather) and he happily explored the incredible sandstone ruin.
Archaeologists studying the broch, discovered the 2,000-year-old structure was abandoned in the Iron Age, when it appears to have caught fire and collapsed, leaving behind a fascinating time capsule for future generations to discover.
Amongst the artefacts found inside, were stone lamps, pottery, quern stones and a large knocking stone with a bowl shaped hollow in, used for making flour.
After nosing round the broch, we trudged back to the car – all three of us now happy to be outside, discovering Scotland’s past.
Elevenses – The Jammery
We’d definitely earned elevenses and a coorie indoors to dry off.
The Jammery at Culkein could offer us both, and a pop of colour too, so we headed there after leaving Clachtoll.
Besides fab cake and a welcome cup of coffee (or tea if that’s your thing), The Jammery also sell locally made crafts, homemade jams, chutneys and bric a brac.
We left with jam, a jar of pasta seasoning, a bog cotton scented candle and a vintage postcard of Lochinver with a wee white dug on it.
Wildlife Watching – Inchnadamph
After outdoor activity, history, coffee and cake, our attention turned to another of our favourite things to do on our travels – wildlife watching.
Inchnadamph is one of the best places in Scotland to spot red deer. They’re everywhere and it’s common to see herds of majestic stags milling not far from the roadside.
It didn’t take us long to locate some. We watched the magnificent beasties from a safe distance, and despite getting soaked for a third time that morning, we didn’t care.
Walk – The Bone Caves, Inchnadamph
After stopping for lunch at Elphin Tearooms, it was time for a hike.
We decided to walk to the Bone Caves near Inchnadamph.
Parking the car, we set off along a path by the side of a burn known as Allt nan Uamh, or burn of the caves.
It led us into a limestone valley, which we had all to ourselves And the rain had stopped – yippee.
We followed the course of a dry river until we spotted the caves, high on a rocky crag known as Creag nan Uamh (crag of the caves).
Crossing the river, we found a narrow path which traversed the crag towards the caves. We took it and it stopped abruptly below them. Mr G scrambled uphill and I followed, but froze and ended up clinging to the hillside like Spiderman. Sometimes my fear of heights gets the better of me. Above me Mr G was offering a helping hand and words of encouragement. Below, was a rocky slide down to the valley floor.
Visions of rescue by helicopter raced through my head. I gave myself a serious dressing down and decided on a plan of action.
I’d inch my way back to the non path and for a better route up.
Thankfully, I found one and reached the caves without further incident.
They were incredible and totally worth battling my fear of heights for.
The caves are known as the bone caves, because when they were excavated in 1889 by eminent geologists Ben Peach and John Horne, the bones of animals – some no longer native to Scotland were found in them. They included the Arctic fox, Reindeer, wolf and Lynx.
The boy is a mountain goat, so he loved this rocky hike.
My descent from the caves was more enjoyable than my ascent.
Back on the valley floor, we retraced our steps to the start of the walk, stopping briefly en route to observe another amazing natural feature. Fuaran Allt nan Uamh – a spring that appears from nowhere. It seems impossible, but it’s a common feature in a limestone landscape.
Day 3 – things to do in Lochinver (and beyond)
We spent a second evening relaxing in our luxury pod, and when we woke the next morning it was a special little guy’s big day.
Our beloved travelling companion and hairy-faced son was 7-years-old.
He opened his presents and donned a daft hat for a birthday portrait, like the good sport he is.
After breakfast we said goodbye to our fabulous wee pod and lovely Lochinver.
Hike – Knockan Crag
For a birthday boy who loves a hill hikes, Knockan Crag seemed like a good place for our morning walk. It’s one of our favourite short hikes in the area.
No sooner had we set off than we bumped into geologists Peach and Horne. Remember them from the Bone Caves? This pair come with an audio commentary in English and Gaelic.
Next to them is a viewpoint which helps you identify the mountains of Assynt. You can listen to their names in Gaelic and have a go at pronouncing them too.
You don’t have to climb far up the trail at Knockan Crag before the view will knock your socks off. It’s worth completing the circuit though, as the view improves with each step you take.
When we reached the top of the crag, we stopped to watch a rain cloud racing towards us. It soaked us with a short, sharp shower, but it was nice and refreshing. Up there we were tiny insignificant creatures, surrounded by a vast and powerful natural landscape. For me, nothing beats the feeling of being surrounded by such rugged beauty.
The birthday boy enjoyed the view as he filled his lungs with fresh Highland air. If he could speak, I’m sure he’d have told us it was the best birthday EVER (despite the daft hat).
Before heading home to city life, we stopped for lunch at Elphin Tearoom – our new favourite haunt.
We were greeted on arrival by handsome resident hound Merlin. How boopable is that snoot?
Inside, we sat by the window and tucked into delicious homemade soup, toasties, cake and coffee as we watched a sheep chasing chickens outside.
Only in Scotland.
And there ended another wonderful Scottish road trip.
If you’d like to read more about things to do in Lochinver (and beyond) check out this blog too.
Until next time …