North Coast 500 – Reaching Caithness
For many years of my life, every March, for one enjoyable week, my family decamped to Aviemore in the Cairngorm National Park. Always falling within a few weeks of my birthday, and meaning a week out of school, I always looked forward to it, and it signalled the transition from winter into spring. Over the years, we experienced blizzards, unseasonably hot weather, and everything in between. It was a good base for hiking and exploring not just the park itself, but further afield to the Moray coast and occasionally popping further north to Sutherland and Caithness. Throughout the later years of high school and university when exams took precedence, I skipped this holiday, returning back for long weekends when I moved to Aberdeen following graduation. I have so many happy memories from this region, so I was eager to pop back there on my trip home to Scotland.
Aside from those brief forays to the eastern Caithness coastline, I had never visited the most north-western portion of the Scottish mainland. A few years ago, a rebranding for tourism promotion, saw the birth of the North Coast 500, a destination route that circles from Inverness north to John O’Groats, west to Cape Wrath, south to Applecross and back east to Inverness. It seemed the perfect route to make a road trip out of revisiting some old favourites as well as exploring some new places.
I left Glasgow early to make headway north to Aviemore, which was the inevitable first stop on my trip. I could have stayed here for days but there was too much to see and too little time so I had to suffice with just a few glorious hours in the middle of the day. I headed first to Rothiemurchus estate for lunch, then popped down to the shores of Loch Morlich for the view that I have witnessed a hundred times over. It never grows old: the ducks waddling along the shoreline whilst the Cairngorm Mountain Range dominates the skyline across the shore. On this occasion, I couldn’t actually see the summits as the clouds were low, but I lingered here just long enough to feel satisfied, before heading off to another favourite spot: Loch An Eilein.
The name literally means loch with an island, and in this case, the small island contains the ruins of a 15th century castle. There is a circular walk around the loch which I’ve done previously, but again I just didn’t have the time. I had to be satisfied with walking along the south-eastern bank, through the beautiful pine forest until level with the island, where I looked hopefully for red squirrels, listened to the bird life and then headed back to my car for the drive north. I drove slowly through Aviemore centre, noting what had changed in the 5 years since I’d last been there, and then, back on the A9, I pushed on to Inverness and the Kessock bridge.
Inverness was always a regular visit on those Aviemore vacations, but I bypassed it, crossing the expanse of the Moray Firth to Kessock, and continued to count the miles down to my next stop: Dornoch. If I’d been here before, I had no memory of the place. Made famous because of the visit of singer Madonna and Guy Ritchie prior to their wedding, it was quiet and almost deserted when I got there. I was still finding it strange seeing historic buildings again, and the main square was surrounded by them. The cathedral itself is 13th century, and what is now the town’s main hotel was built in 1500. These both pre-date the European settlement of New Zealand where I now live, and boy have I missed old buildings!
After wandering around the town square, I headed down to the beach which was blustery but otherwise peaceful. Then it was time to mosey on, and keeping close to the coast, I stayed off the main road, and travelled down single-track road past Embo and up towards Loch Fleet where I spied a group of seals on a sand bar. Finding my way back to the main road, it wasn’t much further to my first night’s stay in Golspie. Normally a hostel or hotel kind of girl, I had booked a B&B, and what a delightful place it was. Set back from the road in well-maintained grounds, my room was not only delightful but my hosts were lovely. It is a shame that this is to be their last season as a B&B as it was a fantastic place to stay.
On the recommendation of my host, I headed to Big Burn walk on the north end of the village, where the evening sun pierced through the trees, illuminating the carpet of blue bells and white flowers under foot. An easy walk led through the woodland to a small gorge where a waterfall spilled its way down the rock face. Back in the village centre, I located the fish and chip shop, and partook in some good old Scottish cuisine of fried food washed down with the legendary Irn Bru whilst sitting on a bench by the beach. It was a gorgeous evening, and this far north at the height of summer, there was daylight till after 11pm, so I was in no hurry to go back inside, choosing to soak up the rays until the shadow from the nearby hill made me cold.
I had an early start the next morning, heading behind the village to the start of the hike up the notable hill behind Golspie. For miles around, the large statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland can be seen where it stands atop this hill. It is a highly controversial structure, given that this particular Duke and his wife played a pivotal role in the instigation of the Highland Clearances, an event in the 18th and 19th centuries when large numbers of crofters and their families were forced off their land with little notice, to be replaced by sheep which were deemed to be of greater economic use of the land. Brutality was common, and it was an event that saw large emigrations of Scots to other countries across the world, as well as playing a part in the decline of the Gaelic culture. The Duke of Sutherland is a title that is bandied around with distaste when discussing the regional history, and with statues normally being erected for heroes, this one is much disapproved of, and I wondered who came up with the idea in the first place.
Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable hike to see it. Following mountain bike trails in the forest below, my early start meant I had the place to myself and I was startled by a deer jumping out the foliage in front of me and running away, pausing briefly to eyeball me before disappearing out of sight. When out of the forest on the other side, the path climbs up the hillside until eventually reaching the base of the statue. There was a swirling low cloud, so the statue repeatedly disappeared out of view on route, and at the summit, the air felt cold. The view changed as the cloud lifted and fell, and by the time I’d returned back to my B&B, I felt I deserved the cooked breakfast I was presented with.
The best local attraction is Dunrobin Castle, immediately north of Golspie, and I think it is probably one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles. When I reached there after first taking a walk along Golspie beach, the cloud had completely gone and the whole coastline was basking in glorious sunshine, making the pale exterior stand out against the blue sky. The exterior as seen today is from the 19th century and inside are artifacts from the Sutherland Clan who owns it. I walked around it with due awe but it was really out in the gardens, looking back at the castle above that its beauty shone out. An outbuilding in the grounds housed one of the most macabre yet interesting collections of taxidermy that I have ever seen, and after wandering around the grounds for a while, I joined the gathering crowd for a falconry display that was included in the entry price, and well worth seeing.
I couldn’t believe my eyes on the drive north where the gorse was plentiful and in full bloom. The yellow flowered bushes sprawled across the hillsides in every direction and in the sunshine, it was just stunning. This view went on for mile after mile after mile, until eventually, turning off the main road north in favour of the road to Wick, the countryside became sparser and the clouds started to roll in. Here, it seemed more wild and desolate, with the effects of the weather extremes becoming evident the further north-east I went. I had planned on visiting the ruins of Sinclair castle near Wick but missed the turn-off and opted to plough on instead of turning back. Finally reaching John O’Groats in time for a late lunch, it was blustery and cloudy. This didn’t deter the steady stream of people who posed by the directional marker which marks the end of the Lands End to John O’Groats route. It had been a long time since I was last here, and now there are a few more developments in the vicinity with a choice of eateries, accommodation and tourist shops. It is also possible to take a day trip to the Orkney Islands from here, so there is enough to hold tourists here for an hour or two at least.
I had a lovely lunch before posing for my obligatory photo, and then I headed east to Duncansby Head, the north-eastern tip of Caithness. From the car park by the lighthouse, not only can you see the Orkney Islands, but a roughly-defined walk takes you south along the coastline, home of hundreds of breeding seabirds, to the distinctive Duncansby Stacks, Scotlands answer to Australia’s 12 Apostles. You can walk as far south as you want. The Right to Roam Act means that as long as you don’t worry livestock and leave gates as you find them, you are not limited by the pasture fence line when exploring the outdoors in Scotland. The coastline cut in and out in steep gullies where fulmars were the dominant seabird nesting on the cliffs. There was plenty of movement to watch as these birds, related to the albatross, glided on the wind, and squawked noisily at each other as they landed. Once at the Stacks, I could see a few seals hauled up on the rocks near their base, even spotting one swimming in the surf.
Being summertime, the lambs were aplenty and when I returned to my car a sheep was using one of the cars in the car park to scratch an itch on its butt which looked highly amusing. But it was time to head off as I had a ferry to catch. Not far to the west of John O’Groats is the unassuming Gill’s Bay which is little more than a pier and a scattering of buildings. Back in the sunshine, I watched as the Pentalina, the Pentland Ferries owned vessel, backed into its berth and unloaded. Waiting my turn, I boarded, ready for my return to the land of the Vikings, a place that I had such vague memories of from my childhood. It had been a long time coming, but finally I was heading back to the Orkney Islands.