North Coast 500 Adventure Begins

Today (Tuesday September 18th) is the day that we will really begin to experience the North Coast 500, the “tourism route” I wrote about yesterday.  We’re hoping that the grey skies, steady rain and low cloud ceiling will not detract from our journey, and we are prepared for just about anything as the storm alerts are upon us.


Our morning at the Albatross B&B in Dornoch began with laughter on two fronts.  It began with a droopy shower head that simply refused to stay upright, forcing us try and scoop water on ourselves with one hand, while washing with the other. Then when Mary could not find the key to unlock the bedroom door, I let her look for about two minutes before pointing to the skeleton key that was in the lock.  Travel fatigue? Old Age? Pre-coffee challenges?  Probably all of the above and more. We snorted with laughter and headed downstairs for breakfast.

Our hosts Matthew and his Brazilian-born wife Queila greeted us with fresh-baked croissants (heavenly), and insisted we try “Brazilian scrambled eggs” – regular scrambled eggs cooked with garlic.  I opted to pass as garlic and I are not the best of friends – I ooze it for two days after eating it.  Mary on the other hand loves garlic and opted to try it.  The verdict? Absolutely delicious but too much garlic for first thing in the morning. The coffee on the other hand was the best we’ve had since leaving home.  It was made with beans from a plantation near Queila’s hometown in Brazil.  Awesome, and just what we needed.

Before leaving, the couple suggested we go and check out Dornoch Cathedral which for reasons that I have been unable to ascertain, was the church where Madonna’s son Rocco was christened in December 2000, and a year later, where she married Director Guy Ritchie.

Dornoch has a population of around 1200, so one can only imagine the atmosphere when celebrities converged on this small town, not once but twice.  Apparently it got so crazy that a man hid behind the organ pipes for days in advance and actually managed to tape the christening.  He had hoped to sell it for a huge payday, but was caught trying to hide the tape under a pew cushion where it was discovered and destroyed.

It was spitting with rain the entire time we wandered around the outside of the church, IMG_2759so we didn’t linger long.  However, this rather innocent looking column caught my eye just as we were heading back to the car.  It is called the Mercat Stone, and it marks the spot where the surrounding county’s wealth was made and spent.  A weekly mercat or market was held at this cross and right up until the early 1800’s, several county fairs took place on this spot every year.

The signboard beside the stone stated that “on fair days, merchants and farmers poured into town, pitching their sales booths across the graveyard'”(seen behind the stone). They were said to have “traded, danced and drank for three days to the delight and profit of Dornoch’s nine alehouses”.  The weekly markets and seasonal fairs came to an end when roaming pigs were found to be digging up graves in the churchyard, and the town’s council built a wall around the cemetery.  The new wall cut the marketplace in half and the fairs never recovered.

Our plan for the day was to stay close to the coastline and follow the NC500 through a number of small towns including Brora.  It is well-known throughout Scotland for a particular brand of jumper (sweater) that originates from wool produced in that town.

A few minutes outside of Dornoch, Sid (our GPS) directed us to turn left onto a long sloping road that would take us to the edge of the Moray Firth.


Yes, this really is a road, not a country lane or a long driveway, and it is one of the many single track roads that we will be navigating in the days ahead as we traverse the NC500. The notion of spending days to travel 500 miles may seem difficult to contemplate when thinking about driving in Canada.  However, when you look at roads like the one in the picture above and realize they are often the only way to get from point A to point B in the Highlands, you begin to understand why we’re not going to get anywhere with great speed.  With scenery like we encountered at the bottom of this road, we were in no hurry either.


Here are three more pictures looking out at the Moray Firth, and in the bottom one, you might notice what looks like a rock or a piece of wood in the water, just offshore.

It is in fact a Harbor Seal, one of three who had managed to find similar resting spots.


While Mary checked out the shorebirds through her binoculars, I just stood there taking in the scenery around me. It was exactly as I had imagined the Scottish Highlands to look like, and there was no-one else around.  It was magnificent.  As I got back in the car, Mary said “what did you think of the ruins?”.  I replied “what ruins?”.  She told me to look behind me on the other side of the road.


I had been so focused on looking out at the Firth, I’d failed to notice these wonderful old castle-home remains.  I can assure you its not because I’m becoming numb to the sight of them since the little boy in me wants to explore every one of them.  I had just been caught up on the beauty of what I had in front of me.

Back on the road, we plugged in the coordinates for Dunrobin Castle, 25 minutes north, even thought it only involved 9 miles of driving on single-track roads like the one below. Mary continues to handle all the driving (bless her), while my job is to look for vehicles coming toward us, and/or animals on the road.  I’m also on the lookout for “passing place” signs, scattered sporadically on either side of the road.

Dunrobin Castle is the historic home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland, for whom the surrounding county is named after. The earliest part of the building dates from around 1275 and has a number of later extensions.  It is one of the most significant castles in northeast Scotland, and we were looking forward to a leisurely visit, as based on some pre-reading I had done, it seemed like there was going to be a quite a lot to see.

The first great piece of news we received on our arrival was that we were on our own to explore the castle – no forcing of a guided tour and we could set our own pace. It also wasn’t that busy as we had arrived shortly after opening (11 AM), and once again found ourselves ahead of the main thrust of tourists.

We entered Dunrobin through the main front door just as the Dukes and Duchesses have been doing for centuries before us.  To our right (above the fireplace in the pictures below) is a huge coat-of-arms.  It apparently relates to 2nd Duke of Sutherland (1786-1861) who more than tripled the size of the castle in the mid-1800’s.

The main staircase that Mary is standing on (below) epitomizes the impression that the Sutherlands wanted to create, that of an enormous palace dedicated to the entertainment of their friends and relations.  Although Mary and I abhor the idea of hunting for sport, it was visually remarkable to see a collection of trophies and stag’s heads which highlight Dunrobins use as one of the largest hunting lodges in Scotland.


At the top of the stairs, a left turn took us into the Gallery where we came upon a huge billiard table and an unusual instrument; an Aeolian Orchestrelle, built in Connecticut in 1904. It is an automatic organ and uses a roll of punched paper to control the notes it plays, similar to a player-piano. There was a guide in this room and she saw me looking at the pool table.  She told us that before and during WWl the castle had served as a naval hospital. She then pointed to numerous cigarette burns that ringed the edges of the table, as evidence of that period.

The other thing of note in this room is the wall-mounted tapestry on either side of the middle window.  You can see from the picture below that the tapestry was actually cut in half to fit in the space on either side of the window.


Next was the Dining Room, the first of the major Victorian-era rooms that had been added in the mid-1800’s, and it is set for dinner exactly the same way as it would have been around 1850.


IMG_2793In addition to the wonderful collection of family portraits that adorned the room, there was a beautiful collection of (16) oak chairs that are covered in needlework by Duchess Ellen, wife of the 5th Duke of Sutherland.  Each chair has a unique pattern.

In most of the castle homes we visit the music room is usually my favorite, given my piano and guitar-playing background.  I was raised on all types of music by my mother who shared her love of everything from John Phillip Souza marches to the intricate piano concertos of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, who became a particular favorite of mine. The music room at Dunrobin did not disappoint me, and apparently the acoustics are so good in here, it continues to be used for small concerts to this day.  I just loved the look of the grand piano and wish I could have slipped under the ropes to play it.


Throughout our travels we’ve seen that the Victorians in particular were very keen on breakfastroomhaving separate rooms for separate functions, hence a special room just for breakfast.  It seems that only the gentlemen were served breakfast in this room while the ladies were served breakfast in their rooms upstairs.  As you can see, this room like all the other rooms is heavily adorned with family portraits spanning multiple generations.  They are lovely to look at, but we were grateful to not have a guide who wanted to tell us about all these paintings.

Next to the breakfast room was the magnificent drawing room which was designed and built after a fire in 1915  nearly destroyed the entire building. The fire was only put out by the lucky arrival of hundreds of those same navy sailors that had left burn marks on the pool table.  They were on board Royal Navy ships that were lying just off the coast.  During the re-build, two rooms were combined to create a spacious French salon which was in direct contrast to the Victorian nature of the other main rooms in the castle.

I am much more of a fan of landscape paintings than portraits, and I particularly liked the 18th century painting of the Doge’s palace in Venice. There was also a beautiful 18th century wall tapestry depicting the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes.

As I reflect on what I’ve written so far, it feels like I’m giving you your own personal tour of the castle.  I took a lot of notes and pictures at Dunrobin as it was one of our favorites to date.  I’m not really certain why, but Mary and I both felt the same about it and perhaps it was because we were able to visit it in an unhurried manner, and largely on our own.

The tour through our eyes continues……

The next room we encountered  was the library but prior to the rebuild in 1915-16, it had been the principal bedroom and later a dressing room.  I’ve been fascinated by libraries on this trip especially given the proliferation of french literature and french-language editions I’ve seen.


The library at Dunrobin Castle has over 10,000 books in it, many of them fine and rare editions. You can also see further evidence (on the floor) of the castle’s history as a hunting lodge.

In the picture below Mary is reading about the the Ladies’ Sitting Room which we moved into next.  The carpet pattern is the tartan of  Clan Sutherland and this smallish room wasIMG_2825 used as a quiet place of the ladies of the house to pursue IMG_2830such hobbies as embroidery, gros point, and petit point tapestry, as well as engaging in conversation “unencumbered by the presence of men”. The tapestries on the wall (above and to the left) were commissioned for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1872, and her presence is felt throughout the castle.   Adjacent to the Ladies’ Sitting Room was the Green and Gold room which is where Queen Victoria slept during her visit.


The rooms kept getting more and more interesting and just behind where Mary is standing (above) is a small Dressing Room and the first Bathroom that was installed in the castle.  In the picture below you can see a “cutaway” space behind a wall-mounted mirror.  The hidden area houses wedding and christening dresses that belonged to various Duchesses over the years.


The castle contained two nurseries – a day nursery, and a night nursery.  In the day nursery, the children of the family and its visitors amused themselves under the supervision of several nannies and a governess or two. The toys we saw on display included a rocking horse and doll house made for the present Countess of Sutherland’s daughter. and an over-sized model of a fishing boat carved by a local fisherman in 1918.

There were many more rooms we wandered through including the aforementioned night nursery, the Seamtress’s room (said to be haunted), the Military room, and the Duke’s Study.  They were every bit as interesting as the ones I’ve walked you through, but in the interest of time, I’ll leave you with some final images of Queen Victoria from the Queen’s Corridor. She loved the Scottish Highlands and made frequent visits to hunting lodges like Dunrobin throughout her reign.

We spent over two hours at Dunrobin (you could probably tell from the amount of space I devoted to talking about it), but we still had more to see today and needed to move on.

Way back at the beginning of this blog post I mentioned the town of Brora, a small IMG_2780industrial village roughly 90 minutes from the northeastern most tip of the Scottish mainland. It was the first place in the north of Scotland to have electricity in the north of Scotland thanks to its wool industry.  That distinction gave rise to the local nickname of “Electric City”, and nearby Dunrobin Castle took full advantage of electricity installing the first elevator in the north.  Wool that comes from Brora is used in the production of one of Britain’s most successful cashmere brands and the products are available throughout the UK.  They have several self-branded retail shops but none of them in Brora itself.  Needless to say Mary was a bit disappointed as she had expected to find a strong local presence,  (similar to what we found in Donegal, Ireland last year), but there was none.

As we headed north toward the town of Wick, we were on the lookout for The River Bothy Tea Room which had been singled out by our hosts at the Albatross B&B and two ladies in the gift shop at Dunrobin Castle.  With a sly wink, one of the ladies told us she drives 25 miles north to this little Tea Room without her husband, just to get away and enjoy a cup of tea and a “sweat treat”.  It was not well-marked but we were told it was at the base of a long downhill stretch of coastal highway, and in a little glen just before the road began to climb again.  We almost missed it, but it was exactly where they said it was, and the early afternoon timing of our visit couldn’t have been better for us.

The tea and sandwiches we ordered were very nice but they were just obstacles to be gotten out of the way before getting to the main reason for our visit – the”sweet treats”.

Oh my goodness, what an array of desert delights, and the millionaire’s bar were amazing.  A layer of crumbly shortbread, a layer of soft caramel, and a layer of chocolate.  They were like eating gourmet Twix bars.

Back on the road, our journey northward continued through the town of Wick which once bristled with the black sails of herring boats.  At its peak in the 1800’s it was the most important shipping and trade port on the NE coast of Scotland.  It is the last town of note we will encounter until sometime tomorrow when we reach Thurso on the north coast.

Roughly four miles north of Wick are the wind and sea-swept ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the ancestral home of Clan Sinclair.  It comprises the ruins of two castles: the 15th-century Castle Girnigoe; and the early 17th-century Castle Sinclair.  It has been uninhabited since 1681 but still remains property of the Sinclair line.

As we approached the parking lot along another lengthy stretch of single-track road, the IMG_6199rain and wind really began to pick up.  Ahead of us, we could see Noss Head Lighthouse, and way off to our left, we could just make out the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. I am forever curious as to the origins of the names of towns and cities, and much of this part of Scotland has roots tracing back to the Picts and Vikings who ruled the lands until the 12th century. Noss  is derived from the old Norwegian word “snos” – a nose, and we were definitely on a nose-shaped headland that jutted out into the sea.


The rain was pretty intense and the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe lay more than half a mile away, across wet and muddy fields.  My inner 13-year-old was bound and determined to see them and Mary was perfectly content to let me, as long as she could sit in the car and read while I got soaked. So off I went, head down and covering my camera lens as best as I could.  You can probably make out the smudge of a couple of rain-drops on the picture below – right in the middle of the castle.


The castle is a surrounded by a moat formed by extending a natural inlet that you can see to the right in the picture above. The artist’s rendering (below) is from one of the on-site signs and gives you a sense of the magnitude of the castles as they likely appeared in the mid-1600’s.


To reach the ruins themselves, I had to the head to western-most end of the castle, and cross a bridge that has been erected over the moat.  From the bridge, I approached the original entrance and as I got closer, I could see the iron gate that was raised and lowered to let people in and out.

Entering the remains of the castle I had to really watch my footing.  The rain had created a quagmire of mud and slick grass, and with rain in my eyes, I wasn’t at my best as far as balance was concerned.  I sought out overhangs that would allow me to take a few pictures and that is what you see below. You’ll  note some scaffolding in places and there are attempts underway to try and preserve what remains of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.  It is on the list of the World Monument Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites

Feeling guilty about how long I’d been gone, I started back across the increasingly muddy path back to the parking lot.  I was absolutely soaked, but I paused to take this one last picture of the castle, and silently wished the weather had been better.  That said, I wouldn’t have missed this little personal adventure for anything.


Mary just laughed and shook her head when I got back to the car.  After 40 years she knows me so well, and I was grateful she’d let me go off on my own, even though she thought I was nuts to do it.

We had a few final stops planned for the day, and they were really more checklist items than anything.  First on the list was a half-hour drive to John O’Groats, probably the most famous name on the map along the coast.

It is said to be the very northernly tip of the mainland, although in reality, that honour goes to nearby Duncansby Head. There is a quaint harbour here that serves as the demarcation point for ferries leaving for day trips to the Orkneys.  Apart from that there is not much else to see here.

From John O’Groats we drove two miles further to Duncansby Head which is on a headland that juts out into the North Sea. You can just make out the lighthouse at the top of the hill, and at the end of the road.


The lighthouse was built in 1924 and it is a noteworthy stopping point for its magnificent cliffs where we got to take in the natural ferocity of the Pentland Firth which smashes together with the North Sea on either side of the headland.  Duncansby Head Lighthouse is very similar looking to Noss Head Lighthouse, and that should come as no surprise as they were both designed by one of the Stepehenson sons that I wrote about earlier.


During the time between when we had driven up to the point and started to head back, the sheep on either side of the road had moved right to the edges and Mary pulled over to let me capture what turned out to be some of my favorite images of our vacation to this point.  I hope you like them as much as I do.

I was still soaking wet and we needed to find a place to stay for the night.  As we sat by the side of the road I began looking for accommodations near Castle Mey, the Queen Mother’s private home. There was only one decent-looking place within reasonable driving distance – the Castle Arms Hotel, a short 12-minute drive away, and literally right across the road from the long driveway that leads to Castle Mey.

The weather keeps getting worse, and the forecast for tomorrow is not good.  Storm Ali has been battering Southern Scotland, and the high winds that accompany it are said to be heading our way.  With that in mind, we thought we’d take a quick drive past Castle Mey and take a picture of it from the outside (it was already closed for the day).  We’re not sure what we might be able to see tomorrow.


I’ll talk more about Castle Mey in tomorrow’s blog, and will end off this one by telling you about the Castle Arms Hotel.  At first blush it doesn’t seem like much, and there didn’t seem to be any activity to it as we first approached.

Mary pulled over in front of the hotel and I ventured inside to be met by a delightful couple who run the place. It is a former 19th century coaching inn that served Castle Mey.  It was built as a staging inn for the mail coach that would come along the coastal roads from Wick, which we had driven through earlier today (you can still see the iron rings for hitching horses beside the front door).  It was converted into a hotel in the 1970’s and the current owners are in the process of completing some renovations.    There are four rooms inside the Inn pictured above, and five rooms around the courtyard out back which was the old stable block.  That’s where our very warm, dry, comfortable room turned out to be.

We unpacked our bags and I changed into some dry clothes which was a welcome relief.  route for the dayAll the wet stuff was hung on the heated towel rack to dry out.

Back in the main building, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner in a restaurant which was filled with guests and locals who frequented the hotel.

As you can see from the map, we had covered 83 miles of the North Coast 500, and have made it to the top of mainland Scotland.  We are now almost 400 miles from the borders where we had spent our first week, and from here we will heading west into increasingly isolated and sparsely populated areas of the Highlands.

It feels like we are in a completely different country now, and that is what travel writers say about Scotland.  There are so many different experiences and adventures to be had here, and we are delighted to be having them!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Barbara H Higgs says:

    Interesting journey! I wonder if they EVER have good weather way up there? Forgot to say a couple of posts ago that I like haggis, too. Even had a haggis and neeps (turnip) pie at one venue which was lovely – if you like both those things, which I do!


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