For nine days, and eight nights, in August 2015 I drove, walked, ferried, ate and drank my way around Scotland with an old school friend, Bob Burgoyne. After nearly 18 years of living north of the border it was about time I got to some of the furthest corners of the country. With Bob and I having walked through many miles of Scottish countryside in recent years we set about seeing a bit more of the place at ground level.
Over this and two subsequent blog posts I’ve some notes and photos from our trip:
- Part one (below): Edinburgh to Ullapool, including two distilleries, Dunrobin Castle, John o’ Groats, the north coast, Cape Wrath, and Sandwood Bay. (Rough route on Google Maps.)
- Part two: Ullapool to Lewis by ferry, Uig sands, Callanish standing stones, Hushinish, and Stornoway for the return ferry trip. (Google Maps.)
- Part three: Ullapool, Applecross, Bealach Na Bà (Applecross Pass), Skye, the ferry to Mallaig, the Road to the Isles, Ballachulish, the West Highland Way (Inverarnon to Bridge of Orchy), and home. (Google Maps.)
- Part four: this final post has daily route information – distances covered, the campsites and accommodation we used, and some of the places we ate at.
This all comes at a time when the ‘North Coast 500’ is getting some attention. This is 500+ mile circuit, as described on the official website (www.northcoast500.com). We covered much of the same ground, though without closing the loop from Applecross over to Inverness. As the site says this is ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the new scenic route showcasing the fairy tale castles, beaches and ruins’. Hard to argue with that. Other blogs to cover large parts of the route include those by Miss Smidge and Julie’s This International Life. An online search will provide plenty of mainstream media coverage of the route, including Mark Beaumont’s successful attempt to cycle it all in one go (maybe we passed him en route).
The car hire place had to upgrade us, and despite protestations we were forced to do the journey in a BMW 330d automatic. You’ll see it from time to time in the photos, covering some of our 1,144 miles. The total fuel bill was £138, which could have been lower if we hadn’t been on single track roads for about half the time! The automatic gear box really came good on those roads, with a lot of stopping and starting, tight corners, oncoming traffic and the ups and downs of putting roads through the wilderness.
Our first night was at the Riverside Campsite in Contin. Handy for the Glen Ord Distillery, it was also a short stroll from the Coul House Hotel, where we had our first luxury meal of the trip (with many more of them to come). Such has been the way of things on our trips north from the central belt, that a sparsity of places to eat is broken by somewhere absolutely amazing, serving wonderful local food.
The beach in the early photos is between Golspie and Brora: we drove to the former, took the bus to the latter, then walked back. Yes, there’s a #sealfie amongst the photos, with about 50 seals in that group. There were others around, singing away to each other. Also spotted, an ancient settlement, and the slightly more modern Dunrobin Castle. Despite some misgivings about handing over money to the wealthy for the privilege of seeing their house, we really enjoyed the Castle. Admittedly that had much to do with the gardens, with their croquet (Bob won 3-1) and falconry display (eagles, falcones and owls).
And then onwards, across the north coast. John o’ Groats was seen and a hearty breakfast enjoyed (before nipping back to take in the Old Pulteney Distillery, in Wick). Dunnet Head was visited (in a hurry, it being the most northerly point on the mainland). Orkney was viewed across the water (and its beer enjoyed later that evening). Strathy Point made for an excellent walk, out to one of several light houses that we came into contact with. The pictures really don’t do justice to the power and majesty of the waves around this part of the coast. Very remote, with steep, high cliffs that drop away to natural arches and caves. As you can see plenty of natural flora too, and sunshine. The sun gave way to rain as we reached Durness, our campsite for two nights. Before pitching the tents we gave way to beer and pool in the bar, then made out homes between showers. It all worked rather well.
Cape Wrath: this time the top left corner, having ticked off the top right the day before. Cape Wrath is remote and access is limited, requiring a short drive to the ferry, which turns out to be a small boat with an outboard, that gets you to a waiting minibus. The minibus crawls its way along roads that have suffered in recent really bad weather (where normal ‘bad’ is 140mph gusts), and passes through various military checkpoints. We’re informed that NATO come here twice a year, to practise with their helicopter gunships and whatever else they fancy using. We didn’t get a return trip though, oh no. From the light house we struck out south on foot, making our way across 20 miles of open country, peat bog, heather, sheep hills and the occasional river. Three times we had to search for a way to cross rivers that really couldn’t have cared less if we were there or not, tumbling as they did over rocks and waterfalls. The fourth and final river was down at the beach: a broad sweep of loch water flowing out to sea. But what a beach, for this was Sandwood Bay and an iconic sweep of sand across a mile of Atlantic coast. As you can see from the photo, tiredness and relief were evident on our faces. Getting back to Durness and the pub was no mean feat: we arrived at the nearest village Blairmore (4 miles away) just in time to catch the taxi that we had sort-of arranged. Another few minutes and he would have gone, leaving us to figure out how to make the 20-30 mile journey home along the circuitous road. (Click the images for a better view.)
Tiredness brought a decent night’s sleep, followed by a second excellent breakfast at Mackay’s guest house: we thoroughly recommend this place for food and shelter. Then a cruise down to Ullapool, via another bog-sodden walk, more flora and a light house or two. A near faultless start to the trip, with only my walking boots suffering lasting damage (more of that to come in part three).