NC500 East v’s West Part 1
(There really are too many advantages to put in a single post).
I recently started a group on Facebook for the NC500 to allow those of us living up here to give tourers tips on accommodation and events as well as promote our own little independent businesses. Once you’ve done the NC500 it’s pretty obvious how difficult it is to make a living up here, and how dependent on agriculture and tourism we are. There are no big companies to work for with the exception of supermarket chains, and there aren’t even many of those on the West. Traveling to work can involve hundreds of miles a week if you don’t work from home. Of course this scarcity of people (Sutherland is the largest county in Scotland and has the smallest population of any county in Britain at just 12,000 people) is why you want to come visit, it’s part of the attraction, but it was important that those of us living here had a platform to inform visitors that we exist without looking like we’re just trying to ‘milk it’. The group is really popular, with around 4000 people joining in the first six months, and it was through moderating this group I saw that the general advice handed out to people planning their first trip was do it anticlockwise and save the best to last because ‘West is Best’.
Undeniable – the West has got some amazing scenery. There’s no two ways about it, no one can deny it, or challenge it; it’s breath taking.
BUT to say ‘West is Best’ is only true if you are doing the NC500 purely for mountainous scenery. If you get a day of thick set, low cloud or mist then oftentimes those mountains aren’t viewable, or safe. All coasts can boast the same opportunities to eat great food, stay in wonderful accommodation, go to gala’s, music festivals, Highland Games and rub shoulders with interesting locals, and wildlife. Yet each has it’s own very distinctive culture, accent, and quirks – you can only “go up E road” if “E road” heads to or along the North Coast for instance, and even I have only just found out what a “Tina Bowlie” is!
The diversity of microculture is one of the things that makes the NC500 such an interesting route. If your plan is to just go get miles under your belt by doing it like a race, you’re actually missing the point of it. It would be like going to the Tower of London and saving time by cutting out the room with the crown jewels. People always come back for another go, no matter how much time they take on the NC500, and one of the parts that they NEVER planned well for was exploration.
I love all of the Highlands. I was the first “Stacie” born in Dingwall, raised in Lochaber and Inverness Shire. I did what most Northern Highlanders do and tried out a couple of places south and some city dwelling, but it wasn’t for me so I decided to settle in the Kyle of Sutherland. I chose my croft here because I have all the very many benefits of easier East Coast living with more amenities and faster roads for ferrying my kids about, but I am only 45 minutes from Assynt (North West ). My favourite hill, Suilven, is over in Assynt which I can see from the top of the hill above my house – in fact I can see seven counties, two coasts and the Cairngorms from the hill above my house.
When I came here I worked as a self catering property inspector for Scotland’s largest independent agency and covered an area including the NC500. There were always far less properties for rent on the North East as it was less popular, but as I have explored it further over the past 13 years I have come to realise that it caters for a different type of tourist – one that’s getting more and more interested in the NC500. If you are into agriculture, adventure activities, gin, beer, whisky, golf, archaeology, or are taking a young family with you then the North and East is where you will spend most of your time. If you have hired a motorhome then going Anti Clockwise and taking it up the A9 before trying out the twistier single track West might be a better way to acclimatise to your new abode. It’s not a characterless drive though as Berriedale Braes have steep drops and hairpins to rival Bealach na Ba.
So before you go away believing that the route is really all about the West, and the rest are just miles making up the numbers, lets have a look at some of the delights the East and North Coasts have to offer.
“Go oan, take a drink…..”
If you are a fan of the alcoholic beverage then these are the coasts for you. Starting with the Black Isle Brewery just North of Inverness, and then Cromarty Brewery also on the Black Isle (try their coffee infused stout making good use of the grounds from a local artisan coffee shop – best kind of recycling you can get in my book!), you can progress onto whisky at Teanninich and Dalmore at Alness, then onto the very famous Glenmorangie at Tain complete with its seafood restaurant, if you take a detour over the Struie you can come out at Edderton and Balblair distillery which was made famous by the film “The Angels Share”. Continue on to Clynelish at beautiful Brora, and make sure you go to Old Pultney and Wolfburn ( a new distillery offering a 3yr old Malt) as the most northerly distilleries. Then finish the whole thing off with a botanical Gin at Rock Rose in Dunnet Bay. All the while you drive between these distilleries you’ll be watching the barley that makes the Whisky ripen in the fields that line the A9. There is no better ground, and no better sight, than the patchwork of crops planted on the Black Isle viewed from the other side of the Cromarty Firth.
A good walk spoiled
The East Coast has long had an affiliation with Golf. Last year Royal Dornoch celebrated 400years of world class golfing – it is ranked Number 1 in Scotland and Number 6 in the world. Dinner from the conservatory restaurant of the Royal Golf Hotel looks over the First Tee, Dornoch Beach and the Firth right out to the Light House at Tarbat Ness. At night the towns of Portmahomack, Inver and Tain’s lights blinking over the waters at you are beautiful.
Across the Dornoch Firth at Tain, is another wonderful links course. Across two Firths is Castle Stuart near Inverness where the Scottish Open was held last year. In Bonar Bridge is a wonderful little 9 hole course looking down over the ancient woodland of Loch Migdale, that would have been saplings at the time it’s sister course was being created. Further North are Golspie and Brora with well regarded courses and incredible views from every Tee.
Piles of old rubbish.
If you get your rocks off looking at heaps of rocks you’re going to love the Viking long houses, forts, cairn, brochs and crannog found on the East and North East coasts. About 5000 years ago the area surrounding the Dornoch Firth was the most populated part of Britain making it the equivalent of London today. Hut circles and chambered cairns litter the common grazing above Loch Migdale. At the closest end of the Loch is a Crannog ( a man made island that would have had a round house on it accessed by a hidden trail of stepping stones) and in a field nearby is an Amphitheatre. It was also here that ancient jewellery was discovered in a crack in one of the rock faces, known as “The Migdale Hoard” and can now be viewed in the National Museum Scotland. They include an axe head, bangles and anklets, carved buttons, hair ornaments and fragments of an elaborate head dress. On the top of the hill above where this was found was the very recent discovery of a Viking long house when a survey was done before building the second largest sub station in Europe next to Loch Buie.
There are many Brochs, some of the best are at Hope, but the ruins of one sits right next to the A9 between Dunrobin and Brora.
The ancient people of the North East were the Picts, meaning “painted” because they were thought to be fairly fond of getting inked. The Pictish Trail takes you from monument to monument up the coasts to see the incredible intricate designs they carved honouring life, wildlife, and Vikings who eventually conquered them, who were then conquered by the Gaels, who were then conquered by sheep and all of this has left its mark on the land.
There are five that immediately spring to mind, the first is not really associated with death, but it certainly is an example of a long gone era. There are many examples of Victorian “Over the Top” in Scotland, but none are as in your face as the Folly on top of Fyrish above the Cromarty Firth. If you want to go see it, its a couple of hours of steep walking, and surprisingly bad midgies at the top. However it is SO impressive. You can not find a better way to frame the view out to Nigg and the Oil Rigs parked up waiting for refurbishment in the Cromarty Firth, than through those arches. Until you have stood next to them you can never realise how mammoth they are. I always thought they were about the height of a tall man until I walked up there. Nope. MUCH bigger. They are almost as big as the issue of getting parked up there, so week days are best. And if there’s no space don’t be tempted to park in the passing places and on the verge like the other numpties who keep blocking the locals every weekend.
If you come down from Fyrish and take the B9176 over the Struie Hill you can start to see the next monument on top of Ben Bhraggie above Golspie much further up the coast. The Duke of Sutherland Monument on the top of the hill is a shorter walk than Fyrish. Many believe that monument should be removed because it is a giant statue of the man responsible for clearing the surrounding areas during the Highland Clearances. The great forest covering Caledonia – the Rainforest of the UK – was cut down almost completely, save a few acres, to make way for sheep. The crofters were as much a hindrance as the trees were to the progress sought by the upper classes so they were ruthlessly turfed out. Their homes burnt, taken down, and made uninhabitable there were tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children suffering throughout winter without proper accommodation before walking west to the boats that took them to Canada.
Which brings me to the next monument – Croik Church. Take the B9176 until it intersects with the road between Tain and Ardgay. Turn left for Ardgay and then head up Strath Carron towards Alladale Estate, famous in recent times for trying to reintroduce Elk, Boar, Wolves, Lynx, and Bear. The Elk and the Boar are now gone, none of the rest ever made an appearance, but they are involved in reintroducing Scottish Wild Cat instead (and last year, for some reason, a Racoon was photographed loose on the Estate!). Take the road to Croik, you can’t miss the church. Here you can walk by trail straight across Scotland to the West Coast and Ullapool which is only 24 miles away. When the Duke kicked families out, many of them took refuge in the grave yard around the church. Believing it was blasphemous to stay inside the church itself they camped for NINE SOLID MONTHS in the graveyard. Some of them carved their names into the window panes of the church and they can still be read today.
Heading back out onto the NC500 and a short trip North you can find the next monument in the garden of a house on Carnaig street in Dornoch. It commemorates the last time in Scotland that a witch was burnt at the stake. As if getting kicked off your croft and sent on a ship to Canada wasn’t bad enough, women had to endure this awful way to die up until 1727 (the date on the stone is apparently incorrect) when Janet Home was the last to be dealt with this way. If you go for tea in the Court House Tea Room in the town, see if you can spot her in the mural on the wall.
Further North again, and just before Helmsdale is a wee place called Loth. There’s a long layby there and in the middle, and easy to miss, is a stone commemorating the last Wolf shot in Sutherland “by the hunter Polson” about 200yds from the layby around 1700. It certainly seems like losing the wolf was the start of dreadful things to come that century….
It is claimed that Berriedale and Helmsdale were the inspiration for Helms Deep in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn wakes the dead army. With so many Viking place names up the East Coast it’s easy to see where Tolkien got the idea for that army from. As soon as you come over the Dornoch Firth and see the sign for the River Evelix you start to feel like you might be in a different country. With towns like Dingwall (meaning Parliament) and Thurso (Thors town), you can tell that this area was popular among the Scandinavians sailing over the North Sea and looking for farmable land. Some of my favourite ones are “Portmahomack” which is a gorgeous fishing village with harbour, beach and excellent restaurant, all looking over towards the hills of Sutherland, “The Mound” an area near Loch Fleet, an RSPB and seal spotting haven, where you can climb approximately 32 sports climbing routes from grade 4-7 on the conglomerate crags that stick out of the rounded humps obvious on the skyline from as far away as the coast of Aberdeenshire. Pretty much anything with “ster” in it, especially “Lybster” where you can eat in a restaurant at the Portland Arms that has an aga in it giving a real homely feel.
Castles that you can stay in.
If you want to Lord it up on your trip then the only Castles you can stay in are on the East Coast and start at just £54 per night. Starting in Dingwall you can stay in Tulloch Castle, well known for it’s great food. Then after that is Kincraig Castle which has a great collection of Wendy Reeves Pastel artwork of the Highlands and does excellent food at very reasonable prices. Mansfield Castle in Tain is next, and then technically it’s Skibo Castle – but that’s out of the budget of the majority of tourers I would guess. It’s a Private Membership club, and includes amongst it’s members many of the richest and most famous people in the world (Madonna and Guy Ritchie got married here which is why Madonna is in the mural in the Court House too). Tom Jones was recently spotted driving around Ross Shire and Sutherland in a Bentley; he was staying at Skibo.
Whilst you can’t stay in it, you’d be mad not to go and see Dunrobin Castle just North of Golspie on the A9. It’s the largest castle in the Northern Highlands, with 189 rooms, and remodelled in the late 1800’s to Scottish Baronial Style it’s very impressive with 135 ft towers, beautiful French formal style gardens and even a 92ft draw well in the courtyard. It’s got a real Fairytale feel to it and can be seen from quite some distance as you drive up the A9 nestled into the hillside right on the shore. I feel it’s best approached from the sea, and then a picnic on the beach below it gives you time to take in the well crafted architecture untypical of the rugged North, but if you aren’t seaworthy then going in by the road to the rear is still quite a sight. Inside is full of quirks, ideal for something to do on a rainy day.
Family friendly Small hill climbs
Struie Hill, Fyrish and Ben Bragghie are easily accessible in short amounts of time and have stunning views. They all have that feel of a big hill without the time or effort so if you are travelling with kids and need a leg stretch and a hill walking experience that doesn’t turn to tears and carrying them home, these are the choices for you. Struie Hill especially is good for this as it has good parking and a road to within very close range of the summit. Then the view right across Scotland from North sea to the West Coast hills will knock your socks off. There’s even a little trad climbing on the crag.