The NC500 - A review

We’ve probably all seen

the Grand Tour episode in which the gang completes the Piloting Extremely Nicely In Scotland 287 (PENIS 287 for short), where they drive 3 Italian cars around a short part of the NC 500, a coastal route around Scotland’s northern coast filled with castles, distilleries, and single-track roads filled with caravans and sheep.

This episode is what inspired my girlfriend and I to take a 2 week trip to Scotland, to complete the NC 500 as well as spend some time in Edinburgh. I mean; if these images don’t compel you to take on the NC 500, then I don’t know what will.

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(Full Disclosure: I flew us in economy from LAX to Glasgow via London on American Airlines’ 777, then took some trains at my expense to Edinburgh and Inverness, put us up in some Airbnb’s, and rented a BMW from Sixt. Be jealous auto journalists.). 

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And that is what it looked like,

for the most part; albeit our trip had a bit more overcast days and we were not driving in classic Italian cars. We were using a behemoth of torque and economy, the BMW 116d M sport; which has an MSRP of £24,355.00. We opted for the automatic as well, since my girlfriend doesn’t know how to manual.

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First off, driving RHD for the first time was quite the learning experience. I really had to focus about driving, lane positioning, how to merge safely, and remember to look up to the left to see my rearview mirror. Technicalities aside, the BMW is easy to drive, has a great cockpit, good tech, and when you plan ahead for it, can overtake quite nicely despite having a turbo diesel 3 cylinder motor cranking out 116 hp and 199 lb-ft. Many canal boat noises were had.

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On to the route

This was our journey, round trip from Inverness. Which encompassed 629 miles (I know, not 500) and 7 driving days.

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The first day we stopped at Dunrobin castle, the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland, finished in 1845. Quite a neat place with a falconry exhibition, complete with a peregrine falcon and hawk.

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We also stopped at Clynelish distillery to taste some nice beverages. They are owned by DIAGEO, which also owns Jonny Walker and distills that at Clynelish as well.

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We finished the day at the Bay Owl, where the BMW made an Italian friend.

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Our second day...

was a nice easy drive up to John o’ Groats, a touristy part of northern Scotland that claims to be the Northerly most point of mainland UK.

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Along the way to John o’ Groats, we stopped by the fishing port of Lybster, where Netflix was setting up a set for The Crown.

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We also stopped by Grey Cairns of Camster, which were pretty interesting. Essentially, a large mound of stones to symbolize a burial site, but you can crawl into the center of the mound and then be in a sort of altar room. Really cool place, even if it’s claustrophobic at first.

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We went down the famous Whaligoe Steps which are laid into the side of a cliff and lead into a nice cove area. After climbing back up, we ate at a nice cafe at the top, even their neighbor had a peculiar choice of flag to display in their yard..

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That’s an interesting Scottish flag on the right there...

We later drove a pothole ridden dirt road to the Castle of Old Wick, built in 1100s (the road seemed like it was built then too) where I took some pics of the BMW, which somehow survived the journey.

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Finally we made it to John o’ Groats, took the typical tourist photos and learned that it’s not the northerly most part of Scotland, Dunnet head would claim that fame, and has a nice lighthouse and stellar views. Luckily for us it was a 30 minute drive away.

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The next few days

took us from Thurso to Gairloch. We also got our first taste of the infamous single-track roads, which weren’t actually too crowded since we were doing the NC500 in late September. Along the way we’d stay at quaint BNBs, see the beautiful Scottish countryside with its lochs and coastline, as well as some interesting animals.

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This is also where the BMW shined. Despite it being a diesel hatch, it had really good suspension for carving some of these roads. The M suspension gave me confidence in the corners, but the acceleration coming out of turns was less than desirable. But, with great sacrifice comes economy, we put a total of around 600 miles on the BMW, and it got around 46 UK mpg. Not bad for stopping and going a lot.

View from our BNB
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I fed a deer.

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The last day

we were reunited with dual carriage ways, bigger towns, and more whiskey. It was nice to have a chill day of only 1 hour of driving at the end from Muir of Ord to Inverness. What people don’t tell you is that driving on the opposite side of the road is mentally tiring, at least for me it was. So we stopped for tea twice, before heading to the Glen Ord distillery.

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I didn’t buy anything to take home since we did carry on luggage only. But they did send us back with some tiny samples which was nice.

Overall, this trip was totally worth it. We got to see Edinburgh for 5 days prior to driving the NC500, and driving the rural roads was both scary and rewarding. If I ever did it again, I would either rent a small car or complete it on a motorcycle.

(Flight home review: The in-flight entertainment screens didn’t work at all on our AA 777; I was bored....)

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