This first part of the NC500 is filled with travel impressions and whisky news from Kennecraig (Kintyre) up to the high north coast of Scotland (Thurso)
Stunning. I take the marked coastal route from Kennacraig to Oban. The Crinan Canal is one if my favourite spots. Since the water level of the canal is a few meters higher than the road it is a miraculous sight to watch luxurious yachts pass by. The winding road from there to Oban is of extreme sceneric beauty. It’s a mixed bag of mountainess Switzerland, rough Appalachean woods and Canadian panoramic sights. (Mind you, I realize this is going to look very much like a tourist manual.) Due to the warmer tropical Gulf Stream that hits the southern and western coastlines of the region some species of palm trees survive and grow in abundance. Several exotic gardens like Arduaine Garden , Inverewe Garden and Logan Botanic Garden are the living proof of this. In summers like these one of the most attractive harbour towns to visit is undoubtedly Oban. Having shaken off the sleepy character from years ago Oban’s boulevard is full of holidaymakers visiting either the town distillery or the bay.
NC500. I feel I am pressed for time when arriving at Fort William. But I find my favourite Ben Nevis Distillery closed. Not to worry, I precede to the locks of Fort Augustus and the route alongside Loch Ness to Inverness. Roads of holidaymakers flock the locks. The River Oich and the Caledonian Canal team up to end in huge Loch Ness. It’s a straight line on the map through a film set scenery all the way from the Kennacraig ferry to Inverness. My first destination on my North500 trail in the Northern Highlands for the coming 5 days.
Sunday 11/9 Day 1
Glen Ord Distillery in Muir of Ord has been revamped by Diageo. The Singleton visitor centre was reopened in July 8 and is the largest distillery on the Black Isle (12 million liters). The home of the Singleton of Glen Ord has been given a multi-million pound transformation by drinks giant Diageo. It is part of the company’s £185 million investment in its Scottish visitor attractions, including a number in the Highlands and Islands.
Winding roads. There’s no comparison to the detour we did going north from Lochcarron to Appelcross and Sheildaig. Driving this 2.8TD 6 berth Ford Zefiro 690 Motorhome Automatic really gives you the feeling to be in charge. Even with all the kitchenware clattering, cattle grids rattling and branches occasionally hitting the sloped front roof. Applecross Pass is a deviation from the A896 . A coastal route up the Pass of the Cattle ( Bealach na Ba) many people and road signs advise us not to take. But its beauty is too tempting to refuse. Overall the NC500 with its narrow and winding roads make you forget to drive on the left because there is no. You can often feel the wheels scratch both tarmac edges at the same time so driving cautiously is key. The road sometimes lacks infrastructural quality. Neither the Italian Stelvio nor the many tracks in the Mille Miglia can compete with the climbing single track road that leads you to the hamlet of Appelcross. The village is tucked away in a beachy and tranquil setting opposite the Hebridean Isle of Raasay and north of the Inner Sound. After 30 miles we arrive in Sheildaig on our caravan and cabin site.
Monday 12/9 Day 2
Forage before you go. We say goodbye to Ruairidh MacLennan who does a great job at this mid-sized Shieldaig Camping and Cabins site overlooking Loch Torrindon. I store my bottle of lightly peated Raasay single malt whisky carefully because the route ahead of us might be as bumpy as yesterday’s. By the way, the family owned SPAR shop in Lochcarron (Mind you, it was awarded ‘The Best Family Run Local Supermarket of 2019’) does a fine collection of various regional whiskies and gins and is the perfect place to forage before going up further north to Wester Ross and Assynt-Coigach.
Speechless. We watch the boat to Stornoway (Lewis) leave Loch Broom. Caledonian MacBrayne operates a ferry here to the Outer Hebrides. A memorable journey we did 10 years ago. When you start off using superlatives to describe the amazing landscape at the start of our NC500 trail on the road to Appelcross what other words are there to use in the English language to surpass these first impressions. Let me say only this: the landscape around Loch Assynt is incomparable to any other.
Tuesday 13/9 Day 3
The further we get up north the more Motorhomes travel our way doing the NC500 anti-clockwise. I pass Sandwood estate ( 4,703 hectares of wild and crofted land just a few miles from Cape Wrath on the north-west tip of Scotland) to continue my journey to Durness. It’s getting more and more crowded on the mostly single track roads. The few campsites we pass are cramped with camper vans. The more tourists the more bizarre the attractions: ‘Get yourself a Smoo Cave pastry before doing the Eagle Zip Line’.
North Point Distillery. My Google Maps is set on Wolfburn Distillery in Thurso. But Google Maps conjures up two more: North Point Distillery and Dunnet Bay Distillery. Both neatly displayed with brown traffic signs. Being the most northern we pick the first. A bit nervous but ever so friendly Suzie greets us ‘I am just one week on the job’. NPD started up in 2020 with ‘Alex and Struan as co-founders and Greg as our distiller’. Looking at the shelves of the tiny visitor’s centre the young team (all in their early thirties) have been quite productive. First a melasse based North Point Pilot Rum which was aged in a whisky cask. Then a Crosskirk Bay Gin and a North Point Spiced Rum both now in NPD’s core range. On top of that the Bay gin is melasse based instead of wheat based. Both have been aged in Highland whisky barrels. ‘We’re so committed to sustainability and using recycled materials wherever we can. Our Bottles are sourced from bottle maker Estal, where 100% of the bottle is made from recycled bottles’. (Check out their North Point Newsletter October 2022 by subscribing ). Interestingly enough I spot a Commander Spirit on the top shelf. ‘Yes, indeed, a blended single malt Scotch whisky at 41% abv, but only blended at North Point Distillery for mainly charity reasons to support the Royal Marines’, her friend Heather explains. Sounds like sourced whisky.
What a surprising and unexpected stop. There’s some interesting info on the bottle about Arbroath military base in connection to whisky. Will be continued. I bag the whisky and leave for Wolfburn Distillery only 20 minutes down the road.
Aurora Borealis. Four bottles are neatly displayed on a table with Caithness tartan. ‘We four core expressions. Aurora (from Northern Lights): 50% bourbon cask 50 % sherry cask. Northland (that what the Vikings called this northern part) matured in a quarter cask that formerly had Laphroaig whisky. So it has picked up traces of peat. Our first whisky that was sold. Landskip ( á Viking long ship) cask strength 58 % abv from a bourbon cask. And Morven (name of mountain in Caithness) lightly peated 10 ppm / combination of the (peated) quarter cask and a bourbon cask. Up there you see our latest 538, a whisky of bourbon and PX Sherry casks (5100 bottles). Having spent two weeks on Islay lately my palate is in for something smooth: I settle for the Aurora (46% abv).
Also in the faint hope of seeing the Northern Light from my Little Croft Campsite in Scarfskerry. We are welcomed by Vicky and Christian Edwards. ‘It’s our busiest night tonight. We’re only open for five weeks’. They did a great job in a years time by creating 15 Motorhome pitches plus hook-ups.
Wolfburn whisky. Tucked away on a industrial site at the outskirts of Thurso I pop in just before 16:30 closing time. Nora is able to give us a ‘sur place’ tour because the whole whisky making process is realized in the mid size hall I have just entered. ‘We make, mature, bottle and export everything on site’. She gives us a historical overview in a nutshell. Having opened their first barrel on Burns Day in 2013 Wolfburn will soon celebrate their tenth anniversary. The name comes from a stream behind the distillery called Wolfburn. The actual Wolfburn farm distillery was founded by William Smith in Thurso 201 years ago, hence the year 1821 on the bottles. Having got his license in 1823, William produced 28,000 liters in 1826 and around 1860 Wolfburn farm distillery was one of the largest whisky producers in the Highlands. ‘The present owner is from Wick where Old Pulteney is. He came here to bring the history back to life and started Wolfburn here’.