The NC500 – Inverness to Ullapool (via John O’Groats)

A tired Carol & Nigel had arrived in Inverness; somewhere we started our original Scottish tour back in 2020 prior to lockdown being announced. We liked Inverness but this was only a stopping point as we had seen it before. We were roughly planning to following the NC500 route from here on. For those of you who don’t know the North Coast 500 it is a driving route of over 500 miles which offers stunning scenery, rugged mountains, fishing villages and beaches. It was unlikely given the time we had we would manage the whole route so we needed to be a little more selective about where we were feasibly able to visit.

Waking up in a rather murky Inverness, the weather soon started to clear and again.. and Nigel wanted to see yet another football stadium…this time it was the Inverness Caledonian Stadium, where Caledonian Thistle play. As a child I remember Dickie Davies announcing the Saturday afternoon football results on TV and mentioning these great names; now I was actually seeing where they were! I asked Nigel their claim to fame and he informed me that there was a famous newspaper headline in 2000 when Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic 3-1 in the Scottish cup. The headline read ” Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious”..okay!

Quick visit completed and it was time to hit the road; heading out of Inverness over the Kessock Bridge heading north towards John O’Groats. There were a few stops to be had on the way however! The first place we had a brief stop at was the Struie Hill Viewpoint. The viewpoint was a little detour however the views were spectacular.

Our next stop was Dunrobin Castle, the most Northerly of the Scottish great Houses in french chateau style. Located 50 miles north of Inverness it has been the home of the Sutherland Clan since the 1400’s. An impressive building and grounds that’s for sure!

Onwards for another hour and 20 minutes we reached Brora, a cute little village surrounded by lochs and beaches and with the Brora river running through it. This was a lovely little stop; it was really pretty and worth the time to have a riverside walk and take in the stunning scenery.

The next stop was Whaligoe Steps which lead down to Whaligoe Haven. The Haven is surrounded by 3 cliffs and can only been reached by the steps. Once you descend the 365 steps you can reach the harbour. Given the time of day we decided to just observe from the top; although Nigel did consider the walk and did descend a short way.

On to the last part of our trip for the day – John O’Groats! the weather was really turning and it was cloudy and a bit stormy looking but we got there with the rain holding out and made it to the famous sign, managed to take a few pictures before the heavens opened! you can see from the pictures how windy and dark it was.

We took shelter in the cafe and had a mooch around the gift shop trying on the tam o’shanters (lol!) and waiting for the bad weather to pass which luckily didn’t take long. We bought a mascot for our car nicknamed McHaggis at the giftshop (yes we really are nuts). It was also an opportunity to connect to some wifi so we could plan our stop for the night. Unfortunately, there was nothing reasonably affordable nearby and very little available so we realised we would have to travel on a bit further to Thurso where we managed to find a b&b named Manor House.

We arrived in Thurso in pitch black at 5.30pm and had a lovely meal and a couple of drinks in the bar before resting our heads for the night. It was a nice place to stay and the hosts really did make us feel welcome.

Now as we had gone on slightly further along the coast than we wanted to we headed back towards John O’Groats the next day after checking out to Duncansby Head Lighthouse. It was so windy when we got there I refused to get out! Nigel the nutter did however with hysterical consequences. He claims he was sober at this point, but from the way he was walking, I’m not convinced. 😉 From the video you can see the car shaking and hear how strong the wind was.

We had a brief photo stop at the Castle of Mey which was an impressive structure built between 1566 and 1572. Interestingly the property was purchased in 1952 by The Queen Mother, widow of King George VI, to be restored as a holiday home for her. It was signed over the Mey Trust by the Queen Mother in 1996 but she continued to visit the property until 2001.

Another attraction in the area is Dunnet Head, aka Seabird city. Dunnet Head is is the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Great Britain. Of course we had to go there; it is a common misconception and one I had that John O’Groats was the most northerly point but this isn’t the case at all. Dunnet Head is 11 miles west of John O’Groats and 2.35 farther north. We had now been at the most northern part of Scotland yay!

Heading along the North Coast we went a bit off piste at Bettyhill down the B871 to look for a couple of attractions Nigel had read about. What became apparent was that we were now in snowsville. We hadn’t really seen any up until this point and so to have slushy roads was a bit of an adventure. The attractions Nigel was looking for were not open and so we decided to go on anyway; the sat nav said we could continue this way and it would only take about half an hour or so to get back on the main road to Ullapool; maybe if it wasn’t quite so treacherous on the roads that may have been the case.

Not really knowing which way to go and the fact it was snowing a little we headed on down the road and joined the B873. The B873 is a narrow road that runs alongside Loch Naver and especially in the winter is classed as a ‘dangerous road‘. The highlights for us though besides the beautiful snowy scenery were the added additions of 100’s of deer. They don’t unfortunately have much road sense and were running all over the place so we stopped and got some photos. We discovered a little trick…if you stop and take a picture they wont look at you, but move the car just slightly and they turn round and stare!

It was starting to get a little dark and we finally managed to join the main road; find a Costcutter to grab a coffee and a snack and made our way onto Ullapool. We booked a B&B on the way, Ardair Guest House, who were very happy to welcome us even at such short notice! After 6 and a half hours driving and an unexpected magical mystery tour around a beautiful Loch we had never heard of, we finally arrived.

Ullapool at night

We headed into town to find a bite to eat at the Royal Hotel before heading back to our guest house for a well earned sleep!

Carol & Nigel xx

January 2022

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