North Coast 500 – Sutherland
Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe ploughed through the morning sea fog, finally breaking free as the north coast of Scotland’s mainland grew near. I was sad to leave the Orkney Islands behind, but excited for the next part of my road trip. It was another brilliantly sunny day away from the fog, and as with each day before, there was so much to see. Docking at Scrabster, near Thurso on the Caithness coast, it was just a short drive to rejoin the main road which has been branded the North Coast 500. A week had passed since I was last on this route, and heading west from here, I was covering new territory for me, having never been further west of Thurso or further north than Ullapool before.
I took a wee nosy at Dounreay, Scotland’s only nuclear power plant. Having been decomissioned in 1994, it is undergoing the long clean-up process necessitated of a nuclear reactor, and I paused to look at it before heading on. I was keen to enjoy the coastline that I would be following, and it is littered with coves, beaches and cliffs to ogle over. Crossing into the region of Sutherland, I stopped first at the stunning Melvich beach. The sand had a slight red tinge to it, and I had the place to myself, listening to the surf as I walked its length and back whilst sipping on an iced coffee. It was an utter pleasure.
West of there was a turnoff to Strathy Point, a promontory of coastline jutting north, and a recognised spot for watching sea life. It is a long and windy road that terminates at a farm, from where the farm track allows foot access across grazing land to the lighthouse. I reached the lighthouse, and after walking around it, saw with dismay a thick wall of fog moving towards the shore: the sea fog from Orkney had caught up with me. It wasn’t long before the temperature dropped and the coastline was completely shrouded, my visibility dropping dramatically. I wandered around the site, trying to kill time in the hopes that it would lift again, but after sitting for 20 mins listening to the silence and getting cold, I decided to cut my losses and move on. There would be no dolphin spotting there that day. I was dismayed by the change in weather given that the rest of my drive for that day was following the coastline. Thankfully, by the time I’d driven back to the North Coast 500, I was back in the sunshine again, and most of my drive remained so, with the fog hugging the coastline just to my right as I worked my way west.
Like my drive north to John O’Groats the week prior, large sections of the road were dominated with the bright yellow flowers of gorse bushes before the terrain became wilder and the hills of the west began to come into view. The road (the A836 in this section) climbed up over wild rolling hills before dropping back down to near sea level at Bettyhill, a small settlement with another beautiful beach. Sections of the road around here are single track, and following the North Coast 500 from here in an anti-clockwise direction, the road regularly switches from dual direction to single track. On such a sunny summer’s day, there was a steady stream of traffic in both directions, as well as plenty of distracting scenery so concentration is definitely required when following this route. There were a few more people at Bettyhill’s beach than there had been at Melvich, but it was still easy to get peace and quiet and soak up the rural vibe despite this.
As the beach was within a deep cove, it was easy to forget the fog, and especially as the road cut inland for the next section, winding its way through the countryside. By the time I reached the village of Tongue, I was eager for lunch, and up on a hillside as it was, I could see large fingers of fog nearby, trying to creep its way inland. I stopped for refreshments at one of the two hotels in Tongue before following the road down the hillside to where a causeway crossed a large estuary. Looking out to sea, the fog threatened to come closer, hiding the entrance to the estuary, and inland some mountains were visible in the distance, whilst Tongue itself was hidden amongst the trees and a finger of fog.
After driving across some stunningly barren landscapes, I was taken aback on coming around a headland to be presented with the beauty of Loch Eriboll. A sea loch, the road joins its banks near a small peninsula that juts into the loch where a handy pull-in allows a safe place to stop and take photographs. There was a regular flow of traffic but yet it was still easy to feel a million miles away from anywhere, and I couldn’t believe that I was seeing these places for the first time despite spending most of my life in this country. Further round the loch, the scenery continued to distract, although there wasn’t always the opportunity to stop, especially on the far bank where, after looping around the head of the loch, the road became a single track road as it wound its way along the far side. There were plenty of cyclists to negotiate, but as I was in no hurry, they were a good excuse to slow down and enjoy the scenery.
My bed for the next couple of nights was at the basic YHA hostel in Durness next to Smoo Cave. The village of Durness is quite spread out along the road in sections, and I reached here mid-afternoon to discover it was blanketed in the fog that had been chasing me all day. It felt so much colder in the fog, but this didn’t stop me from exploring the cave which is one of the region’s most famous attractions. Its largest main chamber has been eroded by the actions of the sea, making it the largest sea cave entrance in Britain, however the smaller chambers to the rear have been created by freshwater running through. It is a steep descent via a lot of stairs to reach the sea level where a river trickles out of the cavernous mouth. The fog enveloped everything giving an eerie feel to the scene. It was a busy place though with people wandering around inside the cave and the paths around it.
I stood in the large cavern for a while looking around before following the wooden constructed pathway into a second chamber where a pool of water sits at the base of a waterfall. From here, a local man named Colin runs a short trip on a dinghy across this pool and out the other side where a walk up a small stream leads to a limestone waterfall, a feature of caves that is always impressive to see, no matter how big or small. On the way back across the pool on the dinghy, we pulled up near the base of the waterfall where it was possible to look upwards to the hole in the roof where the river entered. Colin told us about his theories regarding hidden chambers and passages behind the wall of rock, and he has now been given permission to do some digging where he is hopeful to find another chamber. Afterwards, I climbed up the other side of the gully, and wandered around the clifftop paths before returning to the hostel for the evening.
I had an early rise next morning to make the short drive to Keoldale to the west of Durness to catch the first boat trip of the day. With booking not an option, it was first come, first served, and with only one chance to do it, I was determined to make sure I made it in time. In the end, I was the first one there, with the boat being later than I’d thought due to the tide times. But there was quite a queue when it came time to climb aboard, and with a bit of disorganised chaos, there was a few disgruntled people who got turned away. Whilst the fog was gone, it was a cloudy day, and the little tin boat took us across the Kyle of Durness whilst a drizzle started. We loaded onto the minibuses at the other side, and after a bit more disorganised chaos, we set off on the hour-long 11 mile (18km) trundle to Cape Wrath, the most north-western tip of mainland Britain.
107 square miles of barren moorland straddles the cape, most of which is owned by the Ministry of Defense and regularly used for bombing target practice. The only road here was built in 1828 and has seen little maintenance since, so the bus rarely made it out of 2nd gear. It is a wild place, boggy off the track and pockmarked with holes from target practice. During its use, the skies of nearby Sutherland ring out with the sound of high speed fighter jets. The sole inhabitants of the region are the couple that run the cafe at the lighthouse, which marks the end of a hiking trail, the Cape Wrath Trail, a 200 mile walk from Fort William to the south.
Eventually we trundled into the parking zone next to the lighthouse and were given an hour to have a look around and be back on board for the return journey. The wild weather meant there wasn’t a lot of bird activity, but the cliffs were still steep and dramatic none-the-less. The lighthouse itself is of a similar style to others on this coastline, and like many was built by Robert Stevenson of the famous Stevenson family (which includes the author Robert Louis Stevenson). There was enough to look at to fill the hour, and then it was time to make the slow trundle back to the pier and the waiting boat back to Keoldale.
Whilst still cloudy, it was only early afternoon. I took respite from the wind at Cocoa Mountain, a chocolatier in the unlikely location of Balnakeil. Their hot chocolate was made from pure liquid chocolate, and it was just what I needed to warm me up and fuel me for the afternoon’s walk. Near here, by the ruins of a small church, a car park denotes the pedestrian entrance onto Faraid Head, a peninsula with some stunning beaches and dunes. It is fantastic territory for walking with a path leading up the western beach and cutting through the dunes and eventually reaching cliffs to the north and east. In the north-eastern corner, another Ministry of Defence area is fenced off out of bounds, but near here, the landscape rises into dramatic cliffs which turned out to be prime puffin watching territory.
I’d by now had ample chance to spot puffins on cliffs at Westray and the Brough of Birsay but this was the first time I’d seen them on the water’s surface, and there were lots of them. I never tire of seeing these birds, to me they are just stunning, and I had all the hours of the day to sit lying on the cliff edge watching their lives unfold below me. I took my time walking back, enjoying the view over to Cape Wrath and the beautiful beaches and dunes which by now were getting quiet. I stopped at the tourist centre in Durness where a path leads down to Sango Sands, another beach, where I had an evening wander before dinner at the nearby pub.
The following morning, I made the short walk back to Smoo Cave which I was able to enjoy both fog free and people free. Without the fog, it was easier to get a sense of perspective which had been slightly misleading with the reduced visibility the day I had arrived. The sheer size of the cave entrance was impressive when compared to the buildings that sat above it. I followed the path to where the river meets the sea, then back up and around to where the river flows across the moorland and down into the cave. Only as I was leaving were other people starting to arrive, and I set off on the long drive south, stopping first at Keoldale where, without the rush of catching the boat, I had the time to take in the stunning view.
Passing lochs and crossing rolling hills and moorland, the North Coast 500 turns south towards Ullapool in Wester Ross. I had a deadline to meet with a boat tour booked at lunchtime, but that still left me plenty of time to take a few side roads off the main road. Firstly, I headed off to Kinlochbervie, a fishing village at the head of Loch Inchard. There’s not much to the village itself other than the large harbour, but it’s a scenic drive there and back. Soon, the road enters the North West Geopark, a region of geological significance. A mountainous region with interesting rock formations and full of lochans, there is constantly something to catch the eye. I took another detour to Tarbet, a cute little village at the end of the road where the boat to Handa island leaves. With a bit better forward planning, I would have had time to go out to the island which is a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve. As it was, I simply sat on the shore in the sunshine and watched the boat leave before returning to the main road.
Stopping briefly at Scourie, the road continued through the geopark before dropping down to the bridge that splits Loch a’Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh at Kylesku. Previously this crossing could only be made by boat, but in 1984 the bridge was opened and it’s quite distinctive. Pulling in at the Kylesku hotel, I was just in time for the 1pm trip that goes up Loch Gleann Dubh to a view point of Britain’s tallest waterfall. Along the way, we got the closest to wild seals that I’ve ever gotten, as there were several hauled up on the banks and dotted amongst the small islands within the loch. Heading back up the loch, the sunlight created the most amazing reflections on the water of the surrounding mountain sides until we reached a large red scar in the cliff which denotes a fault line in the earth’s crust. We sailed under the Kylesku bridge whilst jellyfish floating around us, before heading back to the pier.
I was excited to stumble across the ruins of Ardvreck castle on the bank of Loch Assynt, as I didn’t know of its existence and wasn’t expecting it. Nearby a group of European tourists practiced sword fighting, and along the road a group of geology students were studying some rocks near the road. The whole day had been packed with glorious scenery, and Loch Assynt was no different. Built around 1590, it is in quite a state of disrepair with only the remnants of one tower remaining which belies its originally large size. I hung around for as long as I had peace before an ever increasing crowd of people trickled in.
The North Coast 500 continues south on the A837 before turning onto the A835, signposted for Ullapool. My last stop in Sutherland was Knockan Crag, one of the main stops within the North West Geopark. Here, the Moine Thrust fault line runs through, and it was the first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, initially confusing scientists. An interpretation building gives information on the studies in the late 19th and early 20th century, and from here a walk zig zags up the cliff face past the Moine Thrust and some sculptures, up to the top where you can walk along the clifftop and back down again at the other end. Unfortunately, the bus load of geology students arrived immediately after me and I was given little peace or space to read the information boards or view the sculptures on the way up. They didn’t follow me all the way to the top though, so I was able to admire the view over Lochan An Ais in silence. From here, there was just another section of road to complete before crossing into Wester Ross, and reaching Ullapool where a nice cold cider awaited.