I would recommend that you purchase Charles Tait’s informative guide before you set out on the coastal touring route that has come to prominence in the last two years and is known as Scotland’s Route 66. The North Coast 500, as its name implies, is just over 500 miles in length, starts and finishes in Inverness, and takes in what must be the most stunning scenery in the UK. Your journey will take you through picturesque villages, passed mountains, Lochs, glens, beautiful beaches and cliffs and give you an opportunity to discover castles, historical sites and other places of interest, which in turn will give you an intriguing look back into Scottish history.
1st Stage: Inverness.
Our first stop over was at the Torvean Caravan Park, a very nice independent site run by a very friendly young man. It’s ideally located at the side of the Caledonian Canal and a short walking distance from Inverness Town Centre via a very pleasant and picturesque stroll along side the River Ness.
The Capital of the Highlands is a great place to start your 500-mile trip. The first thing that strikes you about Inverness is the amount of religious buildings, but as well as buildings that cater for various denominations there are plenty of other interesting places to visit.
On a good day its worth the five pound it costs you to ascend the 94 stairs to the Castle viewpoint to get a breath taking 360-degree view right across Inverness and the surrounding countryside. You also get a couple of floors of local legend including how St Columba was responsible for Loch Ness having its own monster. The castle was blown up by the Jacobite’s in 1746 so the medieval castle had to be rebuilt and is used today as the local Sheriff’s Court and therefore the main building is not open to the public.
Flora MacDonald Statue.
Again we meet the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald in the form of a large statue by the Inverness sculptor Andrew Davidson erected in 1899.
The Victorian Market.
This closed in walk through market dates back to around 1890 and has a grand collection of shops and cafes and is somewhere to go when it’s raining!
Old High St Stephen’s Church.
The original Parish Church of Inverness is where the Government housed the Jacobite prisoners after the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746. Those condemned to death were taken out and then executed in the churchyard. Two stones can be seen, one with two curved hollows and the other with a v-shaped grove - nine paces apart. The blindfolded prisoner sat on one while the musket of the executioner rested in the grove of the other. Their bodies were removed by the ‘poor folk of Inverness’ and unceremoniously thrown into a pit outside the church boundary.
The graveyard also contains the burial monument of the Robertson's of Inshes, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of 17th century Scottish decorative masonry.
Eden Court Theatre.
Originally opened in 1976 reopened in 2007 following a major revamp, as the biggest art centre in Scotland containing two theatres, two cinemas, two dance and drama studios and three floors of purpose built dressing rooms. It has an unbelievably large programme of advents.
With a stock of books said to be over 100000, this independent bookshop is a real delight, and somewhere you can easily loose a couple of hours browsing. Housed in what was St Mary’s Gaelic Church this second hand bookshop is reputed to be the largest in Scotland.
Inverness Botanic Gardens.
Opened by a Royal in 1993 the gardens are described as ‘a oasis of calm and beauty’, which it certainly is. One of the nicest botanical gardens I have visited and highly recommended. You will also find a wee cafe that sells great coffee and cakes.
Camping next to northern section of the Thomas Telford built Caledonian Canal, this one opened in 1822; it gives you a chance to see the sea lock and railway swing bridge at Clachnaharry. Walking out to the far end offers some great views of the Kessock Bridge that carry the main A9 northwards.
2nd Stage: Inverness to Loch Carron.
On the west side of Inverness across the A9 there is a Tesco Superstore that has ample parking for large vehicles and a reasonably priced petrol station so it was an ideal place to stock up for the next stage of the trip. Although you can cross the Kessock Bridge the recommended route for the Tour of the North Highlands takes you east out of Inverness via Beauly, Garve and Achnasheen. Which on a good clear day offers some startling scenery but our journey was beset by rain and heavy mist so this curtailed our appreciation of the surroundings.
The picturesque wee village of Beauly lies just 10 miles from Inverness and boasts some interesting shops along side the remains of a Priory. John Byset founded the Priory in 1230 for the French order of Valliscaulian monks who were credited with naming the village. Although it has no roof, the building is in remarkable condition and remains a popular visitor attraction with coach party's breaking their tour journeys to view the ancient site.
It was still raining when we arrived at The Wee Camp Site, which is a great description of this site! It has a minimal amount of pitches with an adjoining facilities block that is quaint to say the least.
When the weather finally improved a walk through the village of Lochcarron, a former crofting and fishing community on the northwest side of the Loch, was in order. Previously linked to the oil industry it is now a tourist resort with a range of accommodation, a general shop and a couple of places to eat. Maybe it was the weather but Lochcarron is certainly not the most captivating village on route.
|View across Loch Carron.|
3rd Stage: Lochcarron to Poolewe.
When you leave Lochcarron the route to Inverewe Gardens Camp Site, just north of Poolewe, takes you through what must be one of the most uninhabited areas in Scotland. Even with the low-lying cloud, the en-route scenery is spectacular. From Tolrnapress you can appreciate the hills that surround the road that lead’s up to the village of Applecross via Bealach na Ba (pass of the cattle) and then you follow the single track road to Shieldarg, a planned fishing village, then onto Torridon, through the wonderful Glen of Torridon and then along Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and pick up the A832 to Gairloch Harbour and on to the Camping and Caravan Site on the shore of Loch Ewe.
The site is well organised and has all the good clean facilities that you would expect from a CCC site including a laundry that’s a wee bit over priced at £3:50 a wash.
Poolewe is a tiny village at the head of the Loch Ewe that attracts a great deal of tourists because of the close vicinity of Inverewe Gardens. The gardens and house are known as the ‘Oasis of the North’ and have been administered by the National Trust for Scotland since 1952. Built by Osgood Mackenzie who purchased the barren hillside in 1862, from then until his death in 1922 transformed it into magnificent gardens and woodlands. His daughter who also had the house rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1914 continued his work; the present house was finished in 1937, and open to visitors from 2016. The house and garden are a must visit and on a good clear day offer spectacular views and the chance to see plants and trees from all over the world. The estate also offers a large car park, a restaurant and a Bothy near the house where you can purchase coffee and home baking
Situated between the village of Poolewe and Inverewe Gardens is a ruined chapel which has in it's burial ground a Pictish Stone one of the few found so far to the west. Also there are many other interesting old gravestones and also four military war graves. The Kirkyard is still in use today.
The main wartime use of Loch Ewe was as a rendezvous for ships taking part in the Artic Convoys to Russia and if you journey up the Cove Road you will eventually come to what is left of the coastal defences for the ships anchored in the Loch and a memorial erected by ‘The Russian Convoy Club’ in memory of those that sailed from the Loch during World War 2 and lost their lives in the artic sea battles on their way to North Russia. Winston Churchill described this journey as the “worst journey in the world” over 3000 men lost their lives in the Artic waters between Scotland and USSR.
4th Stage: Poolewe to Ardmair Point.
Ullapool is the main settlement in the northwest of Scotland and where you catch the CalMac ferry to Stornaway and the Outer Hebrides. The village itself, planned by Thomas Telford for the Herring industry, is a popular tourist attraction with a variety of shops and restaurants including the Seaforth Hotel and its adjoining fish and chip takeaway. It also has a car park designed for larger vehicles right next to a Tesco’s Store.
|On the road to Ardmair Point.|
Ardmair Point Camp Site is just over three miles north of Ullapool and right on the edge of Loch Kanaird opposite Isle Martin. The campsite is adequate, but quite expensive.
The two nights spent here have been lashed with heavy rain but it did stop long enough for a walk to Rubha Cadail lighthouse that is near the small village of Rhue and sits on a peninsular that separates Loch Kanaird and Loch Broom, the main approach to the port at Ullapool. The lighthouse came into operation in 1952 and was originally built for the Northern Lighthouse Board but has since become the responsibility of Ullapool Harbour Trustees. It is unclear who designed the structure and its light, but does owe some of its design characteristics to the Stevenson family?
|Views on the walk to the Lighthouse.|
5th Stage: Ardmair Point to Durness.
The journey across remote Sutherland from Ardmair to Durness, the most northern village on mainland Britain, must be one of the most magnificent scenic routes anywhere in Scotland. My advice would be to take advantage of the many ‘scenic view points’ signposted on the route. Its difficult to say which of the many stops I enjoyed most, but what ever you do make sure time is allowed for a stop at the edge of Loch Assynt to view the grandeur of what was Ardvreck Castle.
|The Lonely Lands.|
|Some views are worth waiting for.|
According to the information provided, Ardvreck Castle is the 15th century seat of the MacLeod’s of Assynt and was built by Angus Mor the 3rd in the later half of that century. Some time later the castle was enlarged but by all accounts was still a small structure, needing adjoining buildings to house kitchens, staff quarters and the stables. The castle bore witness to the usual amount of violence, murders, executions and sieges. One particular 14-day siege of the castle was by the Mackenzie’s of Wester Ross and marked the end of MacLeod ownership of Assynt. The information board also tells us hat the weeping daughter of a MacLeod chief has been seen on the beach, she drowned in the Loch after she married the Devil in a pact to save her fathers castle. Also the ghost of a tall man in grey is often seen in the ruins. Neither appeared while we were there, maybe it’s was the large coach party that put them off?
Sutherland is remote and to this day still bears witness to the great clearances of the early 19th century when landowners put sheep before people and forcibly removed families from there homes. Durness is the most northwesterly inhabited area of Britain with its 320 residents.
Sango Sands Camping Site is situated along the cliffs above 1500m of beautiful yellow sandy beach, and with rock stacks protruding from both the sand and the near shore adds greatly to the character of the area. The site has its facilities spread far and wide and hopefully the new facilities block being built will improve on this. One fresh water tap for this sprawling site is certainly not enough and the pitches are two close together. But views from the site make up for any failings and it was worth an extra night to explore the area on foot.
Highly recommended is Smoo Cave that has the largest entrance of any sea cave in the British Isles. Its 15m high while the main chamber is 60m by 40m. On our visit the boat trip into the caves interior was cancelled due to the weather but the very powerful waterfall inside the cave can be observed from a purpose made viewing platform.
I had no idea that John Lennon had a cousin in Sangomore in Durness and that he spent many happy holidays between the ages of nine and sixteen. In August 2002 the area around the community hall was landscaped in conjunction with BBC’s Beechgrove Garden. Part of the garden was dedicated as a memorial to the Beatle and is the only permanent memorial dedicated to John Lennon.
A mile or so in the opposite direction is Coco Mountain, a chocolate cafe and factory that attract visitors from all over the world. While we were there a mini bus full of American ladies descended on the place. Its located in Balnakeil Craft Village that was originally built by the military as an early warning station at the beginning of the 1950’s but was abandoned in 1954. These typical concrete military buildings were left to rot that was until they were taken over by some enterprising hippies in the late 1960’s and turned into a Craft Village with a wide range of creative outlets.
Further on towards the vast sandy beach that forms Balnakeil Bay you will find a derelict Chapel surrounded by a number of interesting tombstones. An original Chapel was thought to have been established here in the 7th century, but the existing ruins date back to 1619. Balnakeil House opposite the Chapel was rebuilt in 1744 and is still used as prominent sheep farm today. Also there is the ruin of a 19th century mill that was last used for grinding oats in 1912.
The car park at Balnakeil Bay is the start of a 2.5-mile walk to Faraid Head. Walk along the beach to the far end where a road heads up into the dunes. Continue along this road until you reach the restricted MOD area; from here follow the boundary fence to the right that will take you up to a viewpoint marked with a cairn. Your return can be either the way you come or as an alternative head down across the grass area and across the dunes to pick up the roadway and then you can walk back across the beach. A stimulating and bracing walk with some great views.
6th Stage: Durness to Thurso.
Leaving Sutherland and driving across Caithness there is a change of scenery, not quite so rugged and a bit more pastoral with a small amount of conventional farm land. The route again involves driving on single-track roadways for a lot of the way including an interesting drive around Loch Eriboll. Our only stop off was at the Dounreay Nuclear Power Station which unfortunately does not now have a visitors centre. The Power Station is being dismantled and the three nuclear reactors are being decommissioned so until this work is finished, late in the 2030’s, it is still the major employer in this area.
Thurso Bay Caravan and Camping Park has a commanding position to the west of the town and gives a panoramic view of the coastline from Scrabster and Holborn Head to Dunnet Head via the Orkney Island of Hoy. But the site itself leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the pitches were on very soft ground and if you got stuck the camp bore no responsibility to get you out! The only hard standings had no electric hook ups but fortunately we managed to park up on a small section of the site's roadway next to the busy main road. The facilities were more like ‘public conveniences’, walls and floors were tiled which in turn made it always feel cold and damp. So it was one of these rare times on this trip that we had to use our own facilities.
Thurso itself is an interesting wee town with a large population due originally to the flagstone industry and latterly to nearby Dounreay. It’s the largest town in Caithness with some nice shops, coffee bars, a large Tesco Superstore and a Lidl opposite the Camping Park. It also has some visitor attractions that can easily be seen in a day and on foot. A walk along The Esplanade built in 1882 is a nice way to start your sightseeing tour. Before you head over the pedestrian bridge stop at Wilson Street for a look around Old St Peters Kirk. Situated in the old part of Thurso, it dates back to at least 1125 but has been disused since 1832. Its graveyard has abundance of old tombstones and graves. The replacement Parish church St Peters and St Andrews can be seen in all its Gothic slender across Sir John’s Square.
A very weird landmark is the sad looking remains of Thurso Castle a Victorian Gothic ruin built in 1872 of which a large part was demolished in 1952 following a fire. The remaining structure can only be viewed from the outside. If you walk around to what was the main entrance you will find the gatehouse and associated lodge both in fair condition. From here you can easily walk back into town and up to the campsite.
Side Trip to Orkney: https://oldage-travellers.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/north-coast-500-side-trip-orkney.html
7th Stage: Thurso to John O’ Groats.
John O’ Groats was a disappointment! Its a commercial tourist trap that's rather unkempt and sad which people only tend to visit for a selfie in front of the world famous fingerpost that signifies the furthest distance apart of any two places on the UK mainland. The 876-mile distance from Lands End in Cornwall has been used for all manner of record-breaking feats and to raise money for all kinds of charities. The first person to walk the distance was Elihu Buritt, an American, in 1865 so it's nothing new.
The settlement was named after a Dutch settler Jan de Groot who operated a ferry to Orkney in the 15th century after the Orkney Island’s were annexed to Scotland in 1472. There is still a passenger ferry running from John O’ Groats to South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Venture carries up to 250 passengers in the summer months and is very popular with tourist.
The Dutchman was buried in Canisbay Kirk where in the vestibule you can still see a memorial stone to him. It used to be under the floor of the church but John Nicholson removed it in 1898 and embedded in the south wall, under the vestibule window. Recently it has been cleaned and moved to where it’s positioned now. The present church dates from the 17th century but there is evidence of a religious site well before that time.
From the John O’ Groat Caravan and Camping Site you can walk right along the shore line up to Duncansby Head via the Ness of Duncansby and passed the shell beaches where we saw a herd of perhaps 30 to 40 seals frolicking in the shallows and, at times on the shore. At the Head is one of Scotland’s 200 coastal lighthouses maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board. David A Stevenson built this Lighthouse in 1924 on the most north-easterly point of the British mainland.
Walking south from the Lighthouse you can get the best views of the Duncansby Stacks, the Long Geo of Sclaites a collapsed cave, and the Knee, where at the right time of year you get to see Puffins, but unfortunately not in September.
I'm not sure I could recommend the camp site, its a transit site where nearly all pitches are vacated each morning no one seems to want to stay too long, two nights was even long enough for us. The nippy sweetie that ran the site closed down most of the cold and uninviting facilities even before we left.
8th Stage: John O’ Groats to Dunbeath.
We really struck lucky with the Inver Camping and Caravanning Site at Dunbeath, some of the best facilities during our main trip were found on this site. It is licensed for 15 pitches including 8 hard standings and 14 electric hook-ups, warm and clean private shower rooms with both sinks and toilets, laundry and drying room were also provided and the site, although by the side of the A9, it was very quiet. Mrs Gwillim was both friendly and helpful and does not over charge with a special offer for a 7 night stay.
On the way to Dunbeath it’s worth stopping at Wick. Its an interesting wee town which has links to the great engineer Thomas Telford who was employed c.1805 by the British Fisheries to build a harbour and a new town which was called Pultneytown and is located on the south side of the Wick River. Wick became the largest herring fishing port in Europe during the 19th century. Pultneytown was eventually incorporated into Wick in 1902. There are lots to see including the Wick Heritage Centre, unfortunately we did not have time to explore further. For anyone who needs to stock up on supplies there is a very large Tesco’s on the way into town and a Lidl on the way out, both had adequate parking.
The village of Dunbeath has been by-passed by the world due to the modern road bridge that was erected in 1989 and carries the fast moving A9. The original bridge was built by Thomas Telford c.1815 and is still used to allow access to both Dunbeath village and Portamin Harbour. The village has a fine terrace of mid 19th century cottages, in one of which author and Scottish nationalist Neil Gunn was born in 1891. Gunn was a prolific writer of novels and is best known for Highland River (1937) and the Silver Darlings (1941). Also in the terrace are a Spar Shop and a Hotel that is now closed and looks in desperate need of renovation. Above the village you will find the Dunbeath Heritage Centre situated in the old village school where Neil Gunn started his education, but be aware its not always open when it says it is!
|Neil Gunn was born in this 1st terrace house.|
|The original Telford bridge.|
|The one and only shop.|
|Ex School and now the Heritage Centre.|
At the mouth of the Dunbeath Water is the Portamin Harbour originally built in the early 1880’s to cash in on the herring boom. It is now a very tranquil place where you can still see an old fishing store, an icehouse and a salmon fisherman’s bothy, all in remarkable condition. Also there a wee museum that gives a brief history of the local fishing boats. On the harbour side is an attractive statue depicting Kenn and the Salmon, celebrating the life of Neil Gunn, you also get a great view of Dunbeath Castle perched precariously on the edge of the cliffs. There is a picnic area at the end of the harbour road with benches to sit and soak up the wonderful relaxing atmosphere and offers views of seals swimming in the sea.
|Kenn and the Salmon.|
|The view from Portamin Harbour.|
|A place to watch seals while relaxing and having a picnic.|
Dunbeath Castle is in private ownership but I believe you can see the gardens in August and it can be hired for weddings. A descendant of Charles Edward Stuart’s personal physician, Mr Stuart Wyndham Murray Threipland, bought the 30000-acre estate in 1997. The Murray Threipland’s were one of the Stuart royal family's strongest sympathisers with the Old Pretender staying at Fingask Castle, there ancestral home, during his 1715 uprising. The Scots Baronial style castle dates back to 1428 but has been remodelled many times since by its many different owners.
To sample the vast remoteness of Caithness I would suggest a walk up the Dunbeath Strath Heritage Trail. (A Strath is a large river valley that’s wide and shallow.) Along this route there was a thriving community until the Highland Clearances emptied the land. You will see plenty of evidence of this with the ruined crofts littered about the countryside after the forced land clearances. The first point of interest is the Meal Mill, built between 1850and 1860 and was in operation until 1950, it now houses a publishing company therefore the building is in very good condition. Just before a rather scary footbridge took us across the Houstry Burn, which was in full flow, there are some prominent stonewalls on the left that are believed to have been part of a monastery. This is mentioned in Neil Gunn’s ‘The Silver Darlings’. Next you get a chance to visit a well-preserved Iron Age broch dating back some 2500 years. It has been alleged that this was the broch besieged by Brude the Pictish king in 680 AD. An informative notice says that the windowless tower may have stood as high as 9m. In the summer of 1990 the local Preservation Trust under took some reservation work which makes it the best preserved of several broch’s in the Strath.
Next you come to a fine gorge known as the Prisoners Leap. To reach this you have to come off the path and follow the deer fence towards the burn. Its here that Ian McMormack Gunn jumped the gorge to earn his freedom after being imprisoned in Forse Castle by his enemies the Keith's. They agreed that they would release Gunn if he successfully leaped over the gorge. With a tremendous show of courage and strength he succeeded in securing his freedom. It is alleged that because Gunn was an orphan and raised on ‘hindmilk’ (the breast milk at the end of a feed) he was able to complete the feat.
As I mentioned before, the remoteness of the country side is due greatly to the ‘clearances’ and there is plenty of evidence of the old ruined settlements on the walk but just after the site of Gunn’s leap can be found a good example of a old croft, barn and cornkiln that would have formed part of a larger crofting settlement.
|The old croft settlement.|
|Nothing left of the once thriving communities.|
|The beautiful country side on the Strath Trail.|
The white cemetery of Tutnaguail was the culmination of our walk. This strangely placed burial ground is 3 miles from Dunbeath village and located in wide-open heather lands beyond any real civilisation. Although this was featured in Neil Gunn’s novel Highland River I could find no information about the cemetery.
8th Stage: Dunbeath to Dornoch.
The coastal route between Dunbeath and Dornoch takes you through some beautiful villages, places like Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie, before you turn off the A9 just after Evelix for Dornoch the former county town of Sutherland. These days its best known for its championship golf course but there's much more to interest an inquisitive traveller than a round of golf.
|The picturesque houses in Dornoch.|
In my opinion the first place to visit is the History Links Museum situated behind the Dornoch Castle Hotel. The museum focuses on local history including displays that cover local geology, the Picts, the Cathedral, Andrew Carnegie The First Sutherland Volunteers and the development of the golf course. Also you can see a films on Sutherland in 1950 and a very interesting one on The Dornoch Light Railway which helped develop the area as a tourist resort, unfortunately the branch line closed in 1960.
|The Old Jail and Information Centre.|
|Another hot chocolate!|
The centre point of this architecturally pleasing wee town is the Cathedral. It was Gilbert de Moravia Bishop of Caithness who in 13 century, at his own expense, had the cathedral built. Consecrated in 1239 it was destroyed by fire during a clan feud between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland in 1570. Now the parish church, it was restored by Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland between 1835-37. There are some very impressive examples of stained glass windows, three of which commemorate the steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who lived at Skibo Castle nearby who, along with his daughter Margaret, was very generous to the church providing money for both organ repairs and rebuilding as well as the lighting. Also its were Madonna married film director Guy Richie in 2000. It's a church with both beauty and warmth and one that's been very well maintained over the years.
Another point of local history is that Dornoch was the last place in Scotland to have a person to be burnt to death as a witch. Janet Horne was a lady's maid before she married; by 1727 she was old and confused. It was reported that the old lady was using witchcraft to turn her daughter, who had a deformed hand, into ‘the devils pony’. Both mother and daughter were imprisoned in Dornoch where they were tried and found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. The day after Janet was stripped, rolled in tar and placed in a barrel. She was paraded through the streets and then burned alive. A stone has been placed next to the golf links and mark’s the place she died. The location of the stone occupies a private garden but can still be seen.
|The spirit of Janet Horne.|
|The front entrance and car park.|
|The brutality of the upper classes.|
|One very interesting exhibit in the Summer House.|
The Dornoch Caravan Park is situated between sand dunes and two golf courses one of which is the world renowned Royal Dornoch, therefore the pitches are very open to the elements and believe me there are some very strong winds at times! The site is very large with a lot of static caravans; the facilities are cleaned twice a day, although they not particularly warm!
This stop marked the end of our ‘North Coast’ travels, all we had left was to drive back to Inverness although we decided not to stay in the city this time but drive on to Stirling for a few days before returning home.
Side Trip to the Black Isle. http://oldage-travellers.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/rosemarkie-scotland.html
I'm sure the local businesses are happy, economy wise, to have attracted thousands more visitors to the area due to the hype piled upon the NC 500 but the large amount of people en route and pitched on the sites spoils the normally quiet and tranquillity of touring around Scotland. I'm sure that a lot of the tourist that travel on the route don't stop anywhere long enough to spend money and enjoy many of the points of interest that can be visited following an interesting walk or a short bike ride. There does seem an abundance of ‘boy racers’ in sports cars, lots of motorcyclist and of course arm waving idiots in Motorhome’s who never speak to you when pitched on site during their single night stops.
The campsite's varied between the good and not so good and I have dealt with each site in the body of the main blog.
Weather is always a problem when touring Scotland even in the summer months, but after living here for 25 years one tends to get use to it although the abundance of wind, rain and low lying cloud did somewhat spoil our enjoyment of the beautiful scenery that was on offer and at times did make walking and cycling a wee bit uncomfortable.