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Road rage: What locals think about NC500’s impact on their quiet Highland roads

Supercars driving through Durness.
Supercars driving through Durness along the Nc500 route. Photo by Andrew Cawley.

The roads along the NC500 tourist route were never built with the intention of handling campervan convoys or speeding supercars.

But in recent years, the quiet coastal routes in the northern Highlands have become far busier with these kind of vehicles — and a sense of road rage is building among locals.

In fact, some residents are getting too scared to drive at all because of how busy the region is during tourist season.

Join us on a journey along the NC500 as we find out from locals and business owners just how the influx of traffic has affected their local roads.

The roads are not suitable for racing cars.

Local roads are a ‘not a playground’,  says Bettyhill business owner

The NC500 is marketed as the ultimate road trip.

Supercar hire companies tout it as “518 miles of pure, unspoilt and breathtaking scenery”.

But petrol station owner Peter Malone says the roads are “a nightmare to drive on”.

One would perhaps think someone like Peter, the owner of Bettyhill General Merchants and its petrol pumps, would welcome fast cars and other gas-guzzling vehicles.

Bettyhill General Merchants. Photo: Google Street View.

But even he is frustrated at the volume of inconsiderate tourists who come thinking the road used every day by local residents is a playground.

He said: “The roads around here are not suitable for sports cars to drive at speed.

“It is not a playground, it’s a main artery for people who need to get to their work and go about their business, and visitors need to realise that.

“You get 18 or 19 motorhomes at a time driving in convoy on a single-track, they look like they’re part of a campervanning club.

“But it’s inconsiderate and they cause a lot of frustration for locals needing to get around.”

‘We’re trapped by the NC500’

It’s not just the volume of traffic on the road which is troubling residents.

Speeding is also an issue along the route, which was launched in 2015 to provide a socio-economic boost to the north Highlands.

Earlier this year, a wealthy English estate owner caught doing 130mph on the NC500 in a blue Ferrari dodged jail by “a hair’s breadth”.

Durness bus driver Neil Fuller said he’s aware some of the older residents say they consider themselves trapped during the summer by the speeds and chaos on the road.

He said: “Because it’s always so busy, they don’t go and visit their friends in neighbouring villages.

“That’s terrible, these people have been living here all their lives.”

The Bealach na Ba (Pass of the cattle) which goes through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula, in Wester Ross.
Local people are reporting deterioration on Bealach na Ba. Photo: Shutterstock

Local people are also seeing the deterioration of many of the NC500 roads as a result of heavy use.

These include the Bealach na Ba, thought to be the steepest single-track road in the UK.

There have been reports that the condition is so road that it is now at a “tipping point”.

A local we spoke with said the side of the road is crumbling six inches to a foot deep in some places.

Is this the worst road on the NC500?

Dangerous verges and potholes on the A890 between Loch Carron and Kyle of Lochalsh close to the avalanche shelter, an area prone to landslips and road closures. Pic by Sandy McCook.

The A890 road to Kyle of Lochalsh used by tourists and locals to reach Skye is also in poor condition, with some going as far as labelling it dangerous.

Ewen McLachlan of the Lochinver-based Assynt Development Trust recently drove this route in rainy weather and said it was possibly the most hazardous stretch of road he has ever driven on in the Highlands.

“Tourists in campervans were terrified because the side of the road was crumbling and there was a 2ft drop into the ditch,” he said.

“That road probably gets 1,500 people a day — people’s lives are at risk.”

There have been many landslides and near misses since it opened in 1970.

Highland Council said it is under constant surveillance but the cost of improvements cannot be met right now.

Is it time for NC500 company to put its hand in its pocket?

With over 6,600 kilometres of roads to maintain, Highland Council has to prioritise road maintenance.

But considering the huge number of cars now using the NC500 route, a growing number of residents and local council members have called for the NC500 company to contribute to the cost of maintaining the road.

“The sheer weight of traffic has damaged roads and NC500 Ltd should chip in for the repairs,” said Jamie Stone, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

However, the company has rebuffed these calls and insists its focus is on supporting the growth of businesses, not contributing to infrastructure maintenance.

Craig Mills, operations director of the NC500 company.
Craig Mills, operations director of the NC500 company.

Operations director Craig Mills said he was perplexed to hear some people saying the NC500 should be responsible.

“I can’t understand the perception some people have when they say we should cough up.

“It implies that we are taking something away from the communities – what is the North Coast 500 taking?

“Anyone can go on Companies House and see that we haven’t made a profit in our six years.

“And it’s not as if we are at the Kessock Bridge taking a fiver off people to do the NC500.”

NC500 boss: Supercars made my daughter late for Brownies

Tourists are drawn to the NC500 to see the stunning northwest Highlands.

Craig lives on the NC500 route and from time to time he too can see the frustrations that people feel.

Like the other week when 21 supercars queued up at his local petrol station making his daughter late for Brownies.

But he said the economic benefits the NC500 brings to his community, which has seen businesses open later into the evening and new ones spring up, indicate that the pros outweigh the cons.

Does Highland Council have a separate budget for NC500 road repairs?

The NC500 road
Many stretches of the NC500 are winding and single-track.

The short answer is no.

But it is spending an additional £5.5m on roads across the Highlands this financial year up to April 2023 taking its total road investment to more than £31m over a three-year period.

It has also asked the Scottish Government for £44m to make a range of North Coast 500 infrastructure improvements.

This focused work includes a council-owned motorhome facility being delivered in Ullapool, and some road improvements.

Read more on this series of Nc500 stories here: