The next destination on my travels along Scotland’s North Coast 500 was Durness. This drive was the highlight of the trip for me, I saw some of the most dramatic and jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on.
After a warm and comfortable sleep we skipped the breakfast on offer, deciding to instead stop on the road, so we packed our things and headed off. Not before a quick stop though at a little gem of a place I had found the night before while I was out hunting a nice sunset.
Highland Stoneware was founded in 1974 by David Grant. The aim was to make tableware with the quality of studio pottery. The team soon began decorating the tableware and expanding their range and now, with two stores in Lochinver and Ullapool, it’s a fascinating place. What will draw you in the right direction is the colourful mosaic covered stones and signs on the main road. Driving down the hill you’ll spot the mosiac covered car, wall and full sofa with TV! Inside you can watch the team hand paint the decoration onto the cups, plates and jugs with a steady hand and some extreme skills. Sitting at their workstations with paintbrushes, paints and a large spinning table in front of them they paint free hand into each item and it’s truly impressive. You can buy a huge selection of them too.
We got a wee bonus too, as we left the shop the little family of deer we saw at the B+B were munching away at the grass around the afore-mentioned mosiac covered car. Cute!
The award for most hairy scary road on the North Coast 500 could easily be given to the road we drove along next. Even thinking about it now gives me the shivers. Turning off the B869 the road twists, dips and climbs which would be fun, if it wasn’t single track! It climbs high above the shore and curves around cliff edges, making you gasp and squeeze your eyes shut. If you aren’t driving that is. If you are driving your knuckles will be white and the steering wheel will have nail marks by the time you reach your destination.
It’s the destination that makes this part of the journey worth it though. You are rewarded with the most beautiful beach you’re likely to see on Scottish Mainland – Alchmelvich beach. Wow, it’s amazing. I’ll let the photo do the talking. (Note – the curving roads do have barriers and the road is in excellent condition. Almost everyone who does the NC500 does this section, maybe I’m just a wimp)
We then drove through the Assynt. The first section allows you to settle back down and relax as you take a peaceful meander through beautiful country roads. You know those typical photos of roads you see in magazines with the picturesque mountain range in the distance and greenery by the side of the roads? You will get lots of those photos along this stretch.
The really dramatic scenery happens when the road changes to single track and the large expanse of rocky, sparse land stretches out all around you. Known as one of the last truly wild places in Europe the vast landscape is interspersed with the odd loch and abandoned roofless cottages, this really is straight out the movies.
Make sure to stop off in Unapool at the Rock Stop to find out more about the geology of the surrounding area, while you make use of the free wifi and lovely cakes. The surrounding area is the North West Highland Geopark. Because of the lack of urban development and the sparse vegetation here, more than anywhere else in Britain, you see the formations of the rocks, thrust and valleys.
Rock formations here date back 3000 million years but the rocks you see today were shaped by ice during the ice age. I won’t pretend I’m an expert here and go into detail but there are helpful display boards along the route explaining the landscape. Look out for the famous Moine Thrust and the Torridon sandstone mountains of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Cul Beg, Canisp and Suilven.
We stopped for a breakfast of cornflakes by the roadside after we crossed the small but perfectly formed Kylesku Bridge which crosses over the Loch a Chairn Baihn. It was designed by the designer of the Sydney Opera House, and it’s certainly a looker. I think this was the most picturesque breakfast I’ve eaten!
Next we entered Mackay Country, the traditional homeland of the Mackay Clan. The road continues inland for a bit before finding the coast again as you head into the crafting village of Scourie. Half way between Lochinver and Durness it’s a good place to stop for a bite to eat and some petrol. Beware though that the village almost closes completely between October and March.
A little past the village is a small road (three miles) that takes you to Tarbert and the passenger ferry to Handa Island. Handa Island is home to over 200,000 birds, which perch on the towering cliffs. They include species such a guillemots, puffins and razorbills.
A single track road though the sparse and vast empty landscape feels a million miles away from civilisation and it leads to the remote village of Durness. Scotland’s most north western village has everything you will need including camping (on what could be the prettiest spot to camp anywhere- Sango Sands) , restaurants, a shop and a petrol station.
I must admit I was pretty glad to be back on the land of the living and in the mood for something sweet we visited the famous Cocoa Mountain for one of their signature hot chocolates. I also treated myself to a wee North Coast 500 chocolate bar to give away in my Scotland Box.
Durness is also home to the incredible Smoo Cave, a sea cave carved out of the limestone cliffs by centuries of high tides. The entrance is one of largest in the UK at over 50 feet tall and inside you can board a small dingy which will take you into the two chambers to see the beautiful waterfall which, when the sun is shining, creates an almost magical atmosphere as the rainbow colours illuminate the cave. We took the boat into the caves and we were regaled with tales of the caves’ history by a lovely gentleman who reminded me of a wizard from Harry Potter, enchanting man.
After dinner that night (see below – so good we went back for breakfast!) we retired to our home for the night, the SYHA. We spent the night drinking tea and playing board games in the communal lounge with a family of Americans who were on an Outlander trip. I must admit, an evening talking about Outlander was kinda great.
We ate dinner in the fab Smoo Cave Hotel in Durness. I’m so glad we chose this place, it was so comfortable and cosy but elegant and spotlessly clean. I had a great big bit of fish and Taylor had her staple macaroni which she has anywhere it’s available. It was so nice we went back for breakfast the next day, which was also great, especially after three mornings of cereal. The owners couldn’t be anymore helpful and we were free to indulge in the fruit juices and cereals available to the hotel guests as well. A very nice and welcome treat.
I’d been meaning to try out a Scottish Youth Hostel for a while. A lot of my blogging friends regularly use them so when the opportunity came up for me to stay at one in Durness I jumped at the chance. The hostels always seem to have the best locations. That beauty of a beach I mentioned above? There is a youth hostel literally a two minute walk away, it must have amazing views.
The one we stayed at was the Durness Smoo SYHA. A no frills, simple accommodation it was comfortable, basic and had everything you would need. The only problem I had was that the walls were thin but you are on a strict budget it’s perfect. The nice big lounge and kitchen means you can cook dinner. There is lots of space to relax, read, listen to music or play board games. A communal kitchen and lounge is actually a new experience for me. I’m definitely going to do it more though, as it’s a great opportunity to chat to fellow travellers and hear there stories. We stayed in a private room which slept five. We paid roughly £80 for the night which is actually not that cheap but if your happy to share a dorm you can get beds for around £20.
You can read the other sections of my North Coast trip here If you’d like to find out more about Scotland’s newest and most famous drive you can have a look at the official site North Coast 500