A big part of my planned Scotland itinerary was driving the NC500 – the North Coast 500, a five hundred mile route that circles the far north of Scotland. My original plan was to drive clockwise, visiting the spectacular western coastline first, but today heavy rain had been forecast so I changed my hotel bookings to travel anti-clockwise instead.
My new route involved a very long drive from Skye all the way across Scotland, up the east coast to the far north eastern tip at John O’Groats, and then back west to Bettyhill, a small town on the north coast. My new plan would involve driving a short stretch of the route twice, but would allow me to see the west coast in the sunshine and would save the best scenery for last.
I set off in the rain, crossing the bridge from Skye back to the mainland and then stopping briefly at Plockton, a pretty little village by the sea, where the film The Wicker Man was shot. It even stopped raining briefly for my visit.
Form there I drove along the banks of Loch Carron, a very pretty road even in the rain.
Then I reached the start of the NC500 at new Kelso. The route is well-marked by little brown signs:
The road across to Scotland’s east coast first wound through pretty forests, with groves of rhododendron trees that were just starting to flower
The road then crossed wild, desolate country before reaching the more densely populated east coast, with rolling green countryside and pretty villages. I stopped briefly for coffee and a scone in Strathpeffer, a pretty spa town built in Victorian times. From there the NC500 route joined the main A9 road following the east coast of Scotland and I soon reached Dunrobin Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Sutherland.
I was very lucky – as soon as I left the car, it stopped raining, and I could enjoy a display of falconry in the castle’s grounds. I learnt the difference between a falcon and hawk, watching the birds swoop for pieces of fresh meat offered by the falconer. The falcons prey on other birds, swooping down at over 200mph to knock their victims out of the sky, whilst the hawks attack ground targets like rabbits or pheasants.
After the display, there was an opportunity to have your photo taken with the birds, but since I am roughly the size of a small rabbit I didn’t want to take the risk and instead ducked into the castle’s interesting museum, which was stuffed with small items relating the history of the Sutherlands…….and hundreds of trophies from the dynasty’s hunting exhibitions around the world. If something moved, a Duke of Sutherland would shoot it. Amongst other victims, there were elephants, crocodiles, antelopes and a leopard. I was glad that bears seemed to have escaped the attention of the trigger-happy family.
Next I visited the castle itself. It was huge, with lots of reception and living rooms, and very interesting. I particularly liked the nursery, where I met a friend.
After my visit of the inside, the sun was finally started to emerge, and I visited the gardens to take more photos.
Very happy with my exploration of Dunrobin, I continued north along the A9, though Wick (an interesting but poor-looking town built out of dark grey granite), then branching off to John O’Groats – the extreme north east tip of mainland Britain. It was finally sunny again, and over the sea I could see the coast of Orkney Islands, which made me dream of future voyages.
The NC500 then headed west, along Scotland’s north coast. After the town of Thurso, the countryside became increasingly wild – flat and almost uninhabited. It contrasted starkly to the towering mountains of Skye and the west coast. I drove on, enjoying the evening light and stretches of fast road, too hypnotised by the barren beauty to stop to take many photos.
I finally arrived at Bettyhill at around eight in the evening. I had been on the road for nearly twelve hours and had covered a big chunk of Scotland. Despite the rain, I had enjoyed the day and was now perfectly positioned to tackle the narrow, winding roads of the west coast over two days of promised sunshine – if for once the weather forecast could be trusted.