Highland Adventure - Day 1 - Taking the North Coast 500 to John o' Groats

Not long after we moved to Edinburgh I stumbled upon information about the North Coast 500 (NC500) and made up my mind that it would be something that would be great to do (even if only in part) whilst we were living here. Likewise as I hadn't been that far north into Scotland for around twenty years and, with the exception of a few things, could remember very little of that last visit I wanted to try and see some of the stunning scenery there once again given we are now living reasonably close to it all.

Maybe you aren't familiar with the North Coast 500, if not it has been described as Scotland's equivalent of Route 66. Launched in 2015 it was designed to bring together the best of the north Highlands in one 516 mile scenic route around the north coast beginning and ending at Inverness castle. I will add now that we didn't do the route in its entirety, our schedule just didn't allow for that but we did the greater part of it (missing just the final part on the west coast side running back towards Inverness) and if nothing else that just gives us the excuse to head back again to the part we didn't do this time. I don't think it matters really whether you decide to do the whole route religiously in one trip, dip in to parts of it or do it in sections at different times. Likewise whether you do the route clockwise or anti-clockwise, whatever you decide it's well worth it as it is such a beautiful part of the country.

The road to Inverness

Although I called this post 'day one' technically this part was the day before day one but deserves a mention given the weather we encountered on the journey to Inverness where we were staying on our first night. After a weekend of family birthday celebrations and then a couple of days in London we flew back to Edinburgh and picked up our hire car at the airport for the Highland adventure to begin. As we drove further north the amount of snow in the fields and on the hills around significantly increased. It looked absolutely beautiful and I don't feel I can describe myself as snow deprived anymore after this winter. 

Looking at the fields etc. was lovely as we continued our journey but then from out of nowhere we got caught in a bit of a blizzard. It was fun (sort of) but I think both me and my husband were starting to think our plans (in terms of nightly stopovers) may have to alter if this continued. Luckily it stopped just as suddenly as it started and by the time we got to Inverness there was absolutely no snow around. After that, apart from seeing laying snow on the hills and mountains we luckily didn't get caught in any more snow storms.

No snow here

After checking into our hotel, and enjoying a drink in the hotel bar we ventured out to have a little wander around and find somewhere for dinner. Inverness is regarded as the capital of the Highlands with its name meaning 'mouth of the river Ness' which flows right through the heart of it. Not surprisingly, given it's Scotland, it also has a castle which, whilst we weren't in a position to visit, did look lovely under the glow of that night's supermoon.

A short walk later and we stumbled upon an enticing looking restaurant called Rocpool, the welcome we received as soon as we entered was lovely and we were looked after exceptionally well for our whole meal. It was reasonably busy but if the welcome and food is always this good I'm really not surprised. We opted just for starters and main courses in the end and I had the very tasty Sicilian blood orange salad with buffalo mozzarella followed up with the oriental salad with chicken. If you're in Inverness I recommend you hunt this place down too.

Inverness to John o' Groats 

The following morning, after the first of several full Scottish breakfasts over the course of our break, we headed northwards towards John o' Groats. Staying in hotels and being able to indulge in a full Scottish each morning was handy though as having decided to do our road trip during low season not everywhere had opened up again after winter so these kept us going until we were able to make a stop for lunch. 

After the snow of the day before our journey was instead peppered with sunshine, showers, which turned increasingly more persistent and to hail too at times and lots of wind. It was, as it turned out nearly everyday was, a good day for spotting rainbows and for appreciating just how powerful a strong sea wind on an exposed coast line can be.

After a brief stop in the little town of Dornoch (where Madonna and Guy Ritchie were married) our next stop was at Dunrobin castle near Golspie. As mentioned above not all lunch spots had reopened after winter and this also applied to lots of the tourist attractions on the route as well. However what you may not see in terms of being able to visit these places if you do the NC500 in the winter months is more than made up for by the glorious Scottish scenery you'll get to enjoy and just the sheer peacefulness of the route at this time of year. The further north we travelled the fewer and fewer cars etc. we saw and to be honest it was lovely. You truly felt like you were the only person on the planet at times, not something you can feel in many tourist spots. So basically don't let that put you off doing the route in winter just plan for this accordingly.

Despite the castle being closed for winter we were still able to drive into the grounds to at least see it from the outside, one to return to in the summer I reckon. It is the Highlands largest house and dates back to 1275, though most of what is now seen was built in French style between 1845 and 1850. Just prior to reaching the castle I'd noticed a large monument which looked like it had a statue of a man on top on the summit of a mountain which I later learnt was Ben Bhraggie. A little bit of reading later and I discovered that this was a massive monument to the first Duke of Sutherland. Dunrobin castle was home to this Duke who was infamous for his leading role in some of the cruellest parts of the Highland Clearances. The clearances (the eviction of tenants from the land) were as a result of the enclosures of common land and a change from farming to sheep rearing, he evicted around 15,000 people from their homes. The clearances are very much a part of the history of the Highlands, the cumulative effect of them which went on for more than a hundred years and the mass emigration of Scots as a result had a huge impact on the cultural landscape. It was to be a period from history we would find ourselves returning to several times over the course of our visit to this part of Scotland. 

Dunrobin castle

On leaving the castle the coastline really started to show its true beauty. The landscape becoming dominated with gorse and grass covered cliffs hiding numerous tiny fishing harbours. As we continued we entered into Caithness, an area which was once Viking territory and historically was more connected to Orkney and Shetland than the rest of the mainland. By the time we got here the wind was really strong, so strong that it buffeted our car several times and when we stopped to get out we really needed to hold on tight to the car doors to stop them blowing wide open but this just made the coast line all the more breath-taking, quite literally in places! It was here too that we pretty much became the only car on the road, it was brilliant just to be able to enjoy all the beautiful scenery more or less on our own. Definitely a plus point for doing the NC500 during the winter months.

As we continued to hug the coast on our journey we came across the fishing village of Lybster. Luckily our guide book highlighted the place and that the harbour area was well worth a look as we would have totally missed it just from passing the village on the main road where all you can see are a few houses. Follow the signs though which actually initially seem to be taking you away from the coast rather than closer to it and prepare to be wowed.

The stunning approach to the harbour at Lybster

Lybster was a planned village begun by a local landowner, General Patrick Sinclair with the development of it then continued by one of his sons. It was once a big herring fishing port, actually Scotland's third busiest fishing port, but with the collapse of this industry in more recent times the port has declined. There is a museum at the harbour but this wasn't open when we visited, nonetheless though I'm glad we took the little detour down to take a closer look.

One of many rainbows we spotted on our road trip

We were staying in a hotel close to Wick for the night, a town that was once the world's largest fishing port but suffered a similar fate to Lybster with the collapse of the herring industry. Before we went there to check in etc. we decided we would continue a little further north and visit the famous John o' Groats. 

I mentioned earlier my previous visit to the Highlands and how little I actually remembered, one thing I did though was my visit here. I have never visited Lands End in Cornwall but John o' Groats, as you'll no doubt know, is the other end of the famous 874 mile trek that many people aim to travel the length of, typically raising money for various charities. What I didn't realise though until this trip is that it isn't actually the most northerly point of mainland Britain, that honour goes to Dunnet Head just a bit further along on the coast. In terms of what there is at John o' Groats as you'd expect there are a number of tourist shops, cafes, souvenir stores, tourist information places etc. surrounding the famous sign. Not surprisingly most of them were closed for winter but luckily for us one of the cafes was open and we had a really nice late lunch after an incredibly bracing and windy stroll around this famous part of coast.

The Stacks Coffee House and Bistro was our lunchtime saviour and we were one of several in there, I actually think many of them lived locally rather than all being tourists like us which was nice. The d├ęcor was fun and quirky, the light shades were colanders and the walls were full of local artwork for sale etc. Also the toilets were possibly the most fun ones I've been too with little touches like a painted message on the mirror telling you 'you look wonderful', guaranteed to put a smile on your face as you rearrange your windswept hair. They promote the use of local produce on their menu and customers also have the option to pay a small extra contribution when settling the bill that goes towards supporting charities helping those who don't have enough to eat. The food was fabulous, we both just had sandwiches (they do larger main courses as well) and coffee but all the cakes looked amazing too! If you're visiting John o' Groats I recommend you go here for a refreshment stop.

After our late lunch stop it was time to head south (slightly) again and back to check into our hotel for the night, the beautiful Ackergill Tower. A hotel so perfect for me that I almost didn't want to leave. But more on that very soon ... 

You can just see Ackergill Tower (the taller building to the right in the cove)


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