The next section of Scotland’s North Coast 500 begins in Durness. After a full Scottish breakfast at the Smoo Cave Hotel we doubled back a bit and took a little road to the west of Durness which took us to Balnakeil Beach. Another absolutely gorgeous beach which looks over towards Cape Wrath. The bay feels abandoned, wild and remote, and the waves crashing onto the sands from the ferocious North Atlantic give it an eerie empty feeling.
The area, including Fariad Head and Gracie Island, is used by the ministry of defence to train fighter pilots and test weapons. It’s only used at certain times though and will be completely closed off while in use. There are notices up in Durness with dates on if you're in the area. Also beside the beach is the remains of Durness Old Church and graveyard where the Gaelic Poet Rob Dunn is buried, who was well known during the Jacobite years.
Instead of driving to Cape Wrath you can walk! Follow Yvette from The Wayfaring Kiwi as she hikes the Scottish National Trail from the Scottish Borders to Cape Wrath, 864 km! Part one is here
We headed away from Durness along the welcome, big wide road that connects the west with the east and enjoyed lovely views across to Orkney. Sometimes the road wound inland, rewarding us with beautiful countryside, little picturesque crofts and farms and villages. We passed a campsite that came highly recommended – Sango Sands. I’ve never stayed there but it from what I could see it offers fantastic views.
There is some beautifully wild beaches along this stretch such as the difficult to access but so sooo worth it Sandwood Bay and the golden sand and pink cliffs of Ceannabeinne beach. The landscape here, although green and luscious, is vast and bare as it hugs the northern coast. Heading down the west side of the sea loch, Eriboll, you see the studio and the land which inspires re-known Dutch ceramic artist Lotte Glob. Using materials from the wilderness in the area Lotte creating works of art and you can also, in the summer, visit her intriguing sculpture garden.
Further along we passed the little village of Hope, the road descending steeply to where Loch Hope meets River Hope before twisting and rising back up. The jagged Ben Loyal comes into view as the landscape opens up to reveal a vast desolate scene. Ben Hope rises on the opposite side of the road and as you cross the Kyle of Tongue causeway you can stop off at the large parking bay for some stunning photos. There used to be a ferry across the loch until 1956 when the powers to be decided there was no longer a need. I’m sure the ten mile diversion was mind blowing, considering the location, but thankfully the causeway was built in 1971.
Many of the sections of this road are long and straight, which allowed us to loosen the grip on the steering wheel and soak up some of the scenery. You really feel like you’re on top of the world.
Our next stop really felt this way as we walked to Scotland’s most northern point on the mainland, Dunnet Head.
The road climbs up hill and the land becomes more and more exposed until you reach the lighthouse, built by the Stevenson family in the 1830’s. I’m highly recommending this part of the route, if only to see the sheer 300ft cliffs that drop into the Pentland Firth. With a large seabird population and the disused world war buildings that protected Scapa Flow it’s a fascinating stop. You can see right across to the island of Stromma, Hoy and Orkney mainland and if it’s a clear day you can also spot Cape Wrath and Duncansby Head. You’ll likely also see a lot of cyclists and hikers who have completed the whole south to north route. You might spot them later too…
You can visit the lovely little town of Thurso, although we only had a quick stop off for sausage roll! Scotland’s most northern town is full of quirky independant shops, flower baskets and pretty buildings. I’ll need to make a return visit.
Castle Mey was the next stop off and I strolled around the enchanting fruit and veg garden. This supplied what was the holiday home of the Queen Mother, who saved it from ruin after she spotted it and fell for its charm while in mourning for her husband. Having renovated the beautiful castle back to it’s former glory it’s held Visit Scotland’s top accolade of 5 stars ever since. There is an excellent cafe, gift shop and tours of the castle available too.
John ‘O’ Groats is a place I’d been hearing about for as long as I could remember. I must admit I was a little disappointed. It was very touristy, there were stickers everywhere from people feeling the need to “leave their mark” and the gift shops were, dare I say it, a little tacky. I found a gem though, Flavours ice cream shop sold some really delicious ice cream. I stood and waiting my turn for the obligatory selfie at the sign while the cyclists and hikers (!) posed with their champagne and banners, and thought about how it would be possible to keep a place like this special, without the crowds. I don’t suppose it is possible, a casualty of its own fame. I read that there have been improvements made. The new Natural Retreats Hotel looks lovely and adds another photo opportunity. And who can blame those cyclists and hikers, who have just travelled 876 miles from Lands End in Cornwall from doing a little celebrating. Two even got engaged! In the end we joined in and bought some souveniers from the gift shop. At least I can now say I’ve been there! I came away with two rather lovely little heilan coo teddies as well.
Flavours Ice Cream Parlour is in John O Groats beside the famous sign. It serves up amazing Capaldi ice creams in a huge variety of flavours, in a huge variety of cones. It’s colourful and bright and the kids will love it!
We booked a wigwam through Wigwam holidays and stayed near Wick in Bower Wigwams (so many W’s!). Just a small site on farm land belonging to a wonderful couple who have made every effort to make their guests comfortable. There are two wigwams and a lodge and the couple have a large modern extension on their house giving guests a brand new shower, bathroom and kitchen. With fresh eggs from their own chickens waiting in the fridge! Our home for the night had a tv this time as it was a larger one than the wigwams we stayed in in Gairloch. I admit though that I spent most of the evening enjoying the sunset outside and watching the calves in the field
You can read about the other sections of my North Coast diary here.