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Issue 96 - Going South

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


This article is 12 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Going South

Keith Fergus completes his tour of the North Coast 500, Scotland’s Route 66

The landscape of Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross & Cromarty is vastly underrated.

However, by travelling south along the North Coast 500, from Dunnet Head to Inverness, the wild beauty of Scotland’s northeast coast comes to the fore. This slice of coastline may not have the same immediate impact as its west-coast cousin, which is home to some pretty spectacular mountains, but the huge sense of space and enormous skies of the east will live long in the memory. This corner of Scotland is simply breathtaking.

As well as visiting the most northerly and northeasterly points of mainland Scotland, there is also the chance to spot an incredible array of wildlife; wander along spectacular cliffs, windswept moorland and stunning sandy beaches; and call in on a number of famous Scotch whisky distilleries.

Dunnet Head is the perfect spot to start our journey as it is the northernmost point of the Scottish mainland, where coastal heath and moorland combine with precipitous sea cliffs to provide a home to a spectacular display of wildlife. Birds such as puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, rock pipit, shags and cormorants all call this exposed and jagged landscape home. Meanwhile, plants such as squill, thrift and roseroot also thrive, in spite of the somewhat harsh conditions.

Wonderful views extend across the Pentland Firth to Mainland Orkney and the Old Man of Hoy, while Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland, is visible to the west. The impressive Dunnet Head Lighthouse was built in 1831 and a radar station played an important role here during World War II.

Heading east and a number of small settlements, such as Gills, punctuate the landscape as the North Coast 500 reaches John o’ Groats. The village is named after a Dutchman called John de Groot, who lived in Caithness during the 15th Century due to his allegiance with King James IV.

A visit to mainland Scotland’s most northeasterly point, Duncansby Head, is highly recommended (See: p.12) and after this the route turns south towards Wick, crossing a vast expanse of moorland where the views extend for miles and the sky is seemingly endless in its scale.

Although Caithness has a population density of only 14 people per square kilometre, it is home to a few major towns including Wick, a name which simply means ‘bay’ and comes from the Old Norse word ‘vik’. It is still a major fishing port as well as being home to Pulteney Distillery, one of the most northerly of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries.

Beyond Wick, the North Coast 500 proceeds along a sensational stretch of coastline where the sky meets the sea; this vast blue vista is only broken by the silhouette of several oil rigs, many miles out in the North Sea. When the wind breaks the clouds and the sun peeks through, the light can be dramatic and breathtaking in equal measure here, a display that truly captures the wild spirit of this quiet corner of Scotland.

Views towards the conical profile of Morven, the highest point of Caithness, open out as the road continues through Lybster and Latheronwheel before it tackles the steep, winding slopes of Berriedale Braes and then heads into Sutherland. Like many of the villages along this stretch of coastline, Helmsdale has a lovely harbour as its focal point and a striking clock tower.

Helmsdale also used to be home to a 15th-Century castle and a gruesome tale. In 1567 the castle was the scene of a failed poisoning of the Earl of Sutherland by his aunt, Isobel Sinclair. She hatched a plan that would allow her own son to become earl, but the outcome was disastrous as her boy mistakenly drank the poison and died. Isobel then committed suicide rather than face the gallows.

Continuing through Sutherland, the North Coast 500 soon reaches Clynelish - a tour of the eponymous distillery is well worth it - and then the village of Brora, which takes its name from an Old Norse word that means ‘river with a bridge’.

As the route hugs the A9, and the outlook stretches along the Dornoch Firth, the conspicuous sight of the Duke of Sutherland statue atop the 397m high Ben Bhraggie, above the village of Golspie, comes in to view. This controversial landmark, which is 100 feet in height, is of George Leveson- Gower (1758-1833), who was the first Duke of Sutherland. He became notorious because of his role in the Highland Clearances, where thousands were forced from their homes, primarily to allow sheep to graze the land.

A few miles south of Golspie is Loch Fleet, a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the local flora and fauna that includes osprey, bar-tailed godwit, greylag goose, curlew and dunlin.

Just off the North Coast 500 is Dornoch, where a stunning arc of golden sand, backed with a wildlife-rich dune system, forms one of Scotland’s finest beaches. It is a wonderful place for a walk.

The village is also home to the Royal Dornoch Golf Course, hailed by many as one of the finest in the world. Golf in Dornoch can be traced back to the early 17th Century and it was also the birthplace, in 1872, of Donald Ross. As a young man Donald was keeper of the greens and then went on to become the first professional at the club. In later life he became one of the finest golf course designers in the world, and his ideas and skill were sought after in Scotland, America, Canada, and even Cuba.

After crossing the Dornoch Firth via the Dornoch Bridge, the final stage of the North Coast 500 travels through Ross & Cromarty and into the Highland region. The town of Tain is one of Scotland’s oldest Royal Burghs and is also the location of the famous Glenmorangie Distillery. Founded in 1843, the distillery produces one of the world’s most popular single malt whiskies.

Away from the North Coast 500, a detour of a few miles east from Tain leads to the gorgeous village of Portmahomack and Tarbat Ness Lighthouse. The lighthouse, conspicuous because of its red and white bands, stands at the northwest tip of the peninsula and was built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of both Robert Louis Stevenson (the celebrated author) and David Alan Stevenson, who was also a lighthouse engineer (See: p.12). Beneath Tarbat Ness Lighthouse sit terraces of old red sandstone that are a stopping-off point for a number of migratory birds, including Manx shearwaters and great arctic skuas. Again, it is a superb spot for a wander.

Back on the North Coast 500 and the A9 now journeys southwest along the northern shore of the Cromarty Firth, where bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey seals and migrating minke whales reside. The natural splendour of the scene is often juxtaposed by enormous oil platforms rising conspicuously from the water as they await repair.

Nearby, the attractive market town of Dingwall, which was a centre for law making and administration when the Vikings controlled the landscape, is a fascinating place to explore before the final few miles of the route culminate at the gorgeous city of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands.

Inverness is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe and, after the wide open spaces of Caithness and Sutherland, even the hustle and bustle of this relatively small city can jar a little. However, its warm welcome, cosy pubs (many have live music), great shops, and wonderful restaurants make Inverness the perfect place to relax and reflect on the North Coast 500. Quite rightly, this ‘Route 66’ of Scotland is hailed as one of the world’s finest journeys.

The Black Isle

Although not part of the North Coast 500, the Black Isle is very much worth exploration. A simple diversion from Dingwall heads east onto the Black Isle, which isn’t actually an island at all but a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Firths of Cromarty, Beauly and Moray.

The Black Isle is a charming portion of Scotland, where towns and villages such as Fortrose, Cromarty, Rosemarkie, Avoch and Beauly offer plenty to do and see.

Fortrose Cathedral, Hugh Miller’s Cottage in Cromarty, Rosemarkie’s gorgeous Fairy Glen, and the fascinating Groam House Museum are all splendid visitor attractions.

A visit to the Black Isle, however, must include Chanonry Point, on its eastern coast, where a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins will almost certainly be spotted.


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