A Staycation Tour Part 2. 30th September 2020.
Day 5 – 14th September 2020
Leaving our Torridon accommodation, we make our way to the very north of the Scottish mainland, as we join the North Coast 500 route. We have been touring the wild and remote areas of the far north of Scotland for many years and love the unique and striking landscapes of Wester Ross and Sutherland. These regions now make up part of the popular NC500 route – a relatively new marketing campaign to encourage tourists to this part of Scotland, and it’s working! Businesses have seen an increase in trade of over 30% in recent years. Today we are travelling west to east, meaning we are moving from some of the most stunning mountain and seascapes to the flat lands of the flow country of the region of Caithness. www.northcoast500.com
Our first stop of the day is the extremely attractive highland port village of Ullapool. We often stay in this town on our tours and I once had to include an overnight here, just because our clients loved the name of the place! I always enjoy a walk around Ullapool, I love the local shops and there are excellent cafes and restaurants. The views down Loch Broom with the surrounding mountains from Shore Street are stunning. There are lively pubs in Ullapool and a particular favourite of ours, The Ceilidh Place, is well worth a visit. Here you can enjoy local ales, whisky and good food, they also have an art gallery, a book shop and have traditional folk music sessions in the evening. www.theceilidhplace.com
Travelling north out of Ullapool is a special experience where the landscape of Assynt displays mountains like epic natural sculptures, one after another. It starts with Stac Pollaidh (Polly), a most beautiful mountain set in a spectacular place. We stop at Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve for wonderful views of this amazing landscape. At Knockan Crag, you can also see the wonders of geology at work. This is where you can see the exposed rock of two continents which crashed together many millions of years ago. Soon after this viewing area we see the beautiful mountains of Cul Mor, Canisp and the much loved (and photographed) Suilven. As we approach Loch Assynt, we see the ruined but ever romantic, Ardvreck Castle, which site on the shores of the loch. The castle dates to around 1490, when the lands were owned by the Macleod's of Assynt. It has earned its place in the history books when in April 1650, the Marquis of Montrose, fighting for the Royalist cause, lost at the battle of Carbisdale to a small Covenanter army. He arrived at the castle two days after the battle where he sought sanctuary. The wife of Macleod of Assynt tricked Montrose into the castle dungeon and sent for Government troops. Montrose was taken to Edinburgh, where he was executed on 21 May 1650. Ardvreck Castle was attacked and taken by the Mackenzie's of Assynt in 1672, however they replaced this old and ageing structure with a new house further back from the loch in 1726.
We continue north and stop at Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu for stunning north west highland views. One of our favourite bridges in Scotland is here too, the Kylesku Bridge. This distinctly curved bridge, which opened in 1984, sits beautifully in the highland landscape and is a category A listed structure. As we approach the Kyle of Durness we enjoy views of Arkle and Foinaven, two much loved Sutherland mountains. We stand at the Kyle of Durness watching the tide coming in over shallow sand banks, while sheep graze on the lush green grass on a perfectly serene afternoon.
After this journey, coffee and snacks are needed and we are pleased to reach a favourite place of ours, Cocoa Mountain www.cocoamountain.co.uk in Durness.
Our late afternoon walk is around the beautiful Balnakeil beach and old church. The beach is a stunning sweeping bay of golden sand and clear north Atlantic waters. The old church dates to the early 1600s and was built by Donald Mackay of Farr. There is evidence of an older church dating to around the 1200s and there is a story that St Maelrubha founded a chapel here in the years around 700. Within the churchyard is the grave of Elizabeth Parkes, the aunt of John Lennon. If you are of Mackay heritage, a visit to this area is a must! Our journey continues above beautiful sandy bays and around Loch Eriboll, where we enjoy views of Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro, to the village of Tongue for our overnight stay. We have fantastic guest house accommodation in Tongue and after a hearty meal at the Ben Loyal Hotel we turn in for the night…
Day 6 – 15th September 2020.
We travel east into the region of Caithness while enjoying views of the striking Ben Loyal, a most beautiful mountain in this northern landscape. Our journey continues along the NC500 to the town of Thurso for a little shopping. After a wander around this delightful town we begin our journey south via the dramatic east coastal route on the North Sea. This drive from the town of Wick to Dornoch is one of the best coastal routes in Scotland. Today we are stopping by the rarely visited Yarrows Broch. This Iron Age structure is over 2000 years old and it is amazing to walk around the ruins on such a tranquil day on the Loch of Yarrows. Iron Age chiefs built these huge round towers known as Brochs - they provided a safe place to live, socialise, discuss community matters, work, and rest. We spend a good half hour here soaking up the atmosphere and tranquillity of the place. We continue our coastal route through the lovely villages of Helmsdale and Brora and make a stop at Dunrobin Castle. This is one of Scotland’s oldest continuous inhabited houses, dating back to the 1300s, and is home to the Duke of Sutherland. www.dunrobincastle.co.uk
After our stop here and a brief stop in beautiful Golspie, we arrive at our next destination and overnight stop – Dornoch. We arrive with enough time to explore the town’s quality shopping and enjoy an afternoon al fresco drink at the Eagle Hotel. The weather has hit a nice temperature and it is always a pleasure to visit Dornoch on an early autumn day. We check in to the historic Dornoch Castle Hotel. We do like this hotel - it has so much character, the rooms are nice, it has an atmospheric bar, great food, and all at reasonable prices. We have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant for one of our party's birthdays. As ever the locally sourced food doesn't disappoint. Our food arrives without delay and with a nice glass of red and much conversation, another day comes to an end.
Dornoch and area has been settled by humans for over 4000 years. The north east of Scotland was home to the Picts from earliest times and they would have come into conflict with invading Vikings from around the year 850. The name Dornoch comes from the Gaelic for ‘pebbly place’. The Cathedral which is situated in the centre of town dates to 1239 and continues today as a parish church. It is built in beautiful local sandstone and has many interesting features such as the gargoyles on the exterior. Dornoch Castle Hotel is built on the original site of the Bishops Palace of St Gilbert who founded the cathedral in the 13th Century. It is not known when the oldest surviving part of the present building was erected. The palace was given to the Earl of Sutherland by his brother in law, Bishop Robert Stewart in 1557 and it is clear the building was erected before that date. It is certainly safe to say that the building is of late 15th Century at least. Dornoch is also where the last execution for witchcraft in Scotland took place! In 1727, Janet Horne was accused of using witchcraft to turn her daughter into the Devil’s pony. However, the reason she was accused of such a crime may have been the fact that Janet’s daughter had a deformed hand.
Dornoch offers a fantastic base for touring the north Highlands and Sutherland. You can climb a hill in the morning, have a nice lunch in the town then spend the afternoon on the beach!
Our journey to Culloden and the Cairngorms National Park continues in our next blog…
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