The stopover for the night was to be at the Brora Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) campsite which gave us the biggest surprise so far. After arriving and pitching up (in uncharacteristically glorious sunshine I might add) it was time for Jack to go for a walk and park his tea and for us to stretch our legs. Just across from our pitch was a golf course leading onto sand dunes and then a fabulously vast, sandy and totally unoccupied beach! Having successfully dodged the hailstone of golfballs the beach was a great place to unwind and for Jack to enjoy rekindling his absolute fascination with the sea where his pleasure in fetching any kind of driftwood we could toss into it was seemingly endless. Eventually, as ever we had to almost literally drag him away from the beach and back to the van after which he spent the rest of the evening in a mood with his back turned to us.
We spent the rest of our evening planning the next part of the itinerary which was to finish the east coast section of the route heading north to John O’Groats…
Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland being occupied since the early 1300s. As is the case with many of these old piles, the cost of upkeep necessitates the current owners opening their doors to the good old General Public allowing them to flock through in their coachloads admiring the centuries-old decor and furnishings. All this for a very reasonable £11.50 which included a free falconry display if you arrived at the right time (we didn’t)
One of the most notable things we’ve found with Scotland so far, apart from the unfailingly friendly and welcoming people, is that most places allow you to park for free – including Dunrobin Castle even if you weren’t actually visiting the building itself. And if you were planning to actually set foot inside the attractions, the entrance fee is very reasonable too. Compare that to anywhere in England run by the National Trust, English Heritage or the ghastly Tussauds Group that seems to exist purely to solicit as much money out of visitors as possible to boost their profits, rather than protecting our heritage for future generations to enjoy. I’m looking at you Warwick Castle!
The knock-on effect of not being ripped-off wherever you go is that you actually feel more obliged to spend money on other things – like purchasing local goods or visiting local attractions. Again, compare that to England; height barriers on many carparks, those that are accessible charging ridiculously exorbitant prices and an overall feeling of not being welcome. Ok then, let’s go and spend our money elsewhere…
Dingwall, home of Ross County football club, managed to captivate us for 2 nights despite arriving to the cacophony of a full stadium situated next door to the site, trains running right past our pitch well into the night and an estuary that has seen better days and makes the sea at Weston-Super-Mare seem positively on the doorstep. The town itself was nice enough though, and the campsite wardens, Helen and Brian, were charming and very helpful giving us a valuable insight into life running a campsite. VERY hard work apparently!
From Dingwall the east coast route took us up to the next stop at Brora via a planned stop at Dunrobin Castle
Inverness is the start and finish of what is becoming one of the fastest growing attractions of Scotland: The North Coast 500. This epic driving route is a 500-mile round trip around the very north of the country and is widely considered to be the Scottish answer to the famous Route 66 across America.
You can sign up to be members of the “NC500 Club” with 3 different levels of annual membership, each giving varying levels of goodies and discounts at some of the major attractions and accommodations along the route. Prices start at £15 for the basic Traveller membership, £45 the more advanced Explorer membership but for a mere £300 you could opt for the very top level Gold Package, giving you a whole range of “exclusive gifts and benefits”
Or you can just pick up a map at the local Tourist Information Centre and do it for free like we did.
As the route is circular, you can elect to motor off in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction – the end result will be the same. Wisdom has it that anti-clockwise is the favoured method of travel as the east coast doesn’t hold quite as many jaw-dropping, eye-popping views and rectum-clenching descents as the west coast. Or indeed, any. So anti-clockwise it was to be, and as time was getting on, the Great Adventure began as we drove the 22 miles to the first stop for the night at Dingwall.
After enjoying another night on our new favourite campsite, the time came to move on to Inverness and make a start on the main reason for coming to Scotland in the first place: to drive the famous North Coast 500 route around the northern coastline, but more of that later.
Just up the road from the site was Eilean Donan castle which has appeared in and on numerous publications and websites as another “must see” attraction when visiting the area. For me it was more a “must photograph” experience as many years ago I saw a stunning image made by one of my favourite landscape photographers, Charlie Waite, which I was keen to emulate. Sadly, as has been the case with much of the trip so far, the weather was against us once more, so rather than recreate the vibrant, iconic snap I had in mind, the end result rendered the cloudy scene better in moody black and white.
From here it was onwards and upwards joining the infamous Loch Ness at about a quarter of the way up its western shore. By now the weather had cleared completely and we were treated to fabulous views across the Loch as we continued along its edge.
Despite the chances of “The Loch Ness Monster” actually existing – zoological, geographical, geological and historical evidence have largely and almost categorically dismissed the possibility of the aquatic legend surviving past the last ice-age, local business are still keen to cash in on the name. You can have Nessie-spotting cruises, Nessie themed accommodation, all manner of Nessie-based eateries, and of course a variety of Nessie-styled attire to suit almost all tastes and pockets. Not bad for something that doesn’t actually exist but, then again, Santa Claus seems to do pretty well out of a similar lack of actual being.
Cynicism aside, before long Inverness arrived, and after a quick trip to Tesco to stock up on all the stuff we’d either forgotten or eaten since our last shopping trip, we walked over the bridge into the main part of the town (or city, actually) which had an immediate appeal even though it seemed massively crowded after the virtual solitude we’d enjoyed over the previous few days.
The main reason for going into town was to replace my sunglasses which were stolen by a goat lost a couple of days earlier. Since I have lost SO many pairs of sunglasses over the years, I now no longer buy expensive ones, so when I found a pair in Mountain Warehouse for £10 the deal was done. Unfortunately, on leaving the store and heading into the searing afternoon sunlight I noticed that the lenses had a distinct brown tint to them which gave everything the appearance of being viewed through a used teabag. Note to self: next time, try them on in sunlight first! Actually though, having used them for a bit they do make everything look very warm and cheerful even when it isn’t.
From Portree it was back to the mainland and a very welcome return to the site at Morvich. Arriving at about 6pm and having spent the majority of the day sat in the van, a short trip up the lane to give Jack a bit of run (and park his tea) was in order.
Two and a half hours later, and after a six mile hike we returned. The culprit was a sign promising views of the Falls of Glomach which sounded relatively close by in that we could hear the sound of fast flowing water. So we could, but this mere trickle was not the Falls themselves so onwards we marched getting ever higher as we went. Eventually, 3 miles in and having passed several more waterfalls, each becoming slightly bigger and more ferocious then the last, we came across a reasonably more impressive waterfall which would have to do for now as time was against us. Still more thunderous water could be heard just slightly further up, just around that next bend, just beyond that distant ridge…
By now the evening sun was getting lower in the sky strafing the mountains with its near horizontal rays and revealing even more beauty than we’d seen so far. To continue onwards would mean returning home in the dark and as we’d come out totally unprepared for such a trek, with nothing more illuminating than an iPhone, reluctantly we turned back leaving the elusive Falls of Glomach to be discovered another day. Once back at the van the Map of Disappointing Truths was consulted once again which revealed the Falls were actually about 10 miles up the valley and appeared to be vastly more impressive than everything we’d seen so far combined!
The walk back though was jaw-droppingly stunning watching the sun rapidly disappearing behind the mountains and the clouds starting to roll in giving some amazing light for photos. Back at the van the elaborate culinary creation we had planned for tea (ok, chicken on the barbecue) was abandoned in favour of a quick one-pot rice dish but as we ate this, accompanied as ever by a glass of red, watching the final vestiges of light disappear into darkness we remarked on how doing something ridiculously spontaneous could bring such rich rewards.
Jack will never believe us again when we say we’re just popping up the lane…
A planned detour on the trip was to visit the much-lauded Isle of Skye which is the largest and most northernmost of the islands that make up the Inner Hebrides. Incredibly, right up until 1995 the only method of actually setting foot (or tyre) on the island was by ferry, but in October 1995 the Skye Bridge was opened carrying the A87 from the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on the island’s east coast.
Initially, the bridge was operated as a toll bridge but although the span is relatively short – around 500 metres – the tolls charged by the bridge operators made it the most expensive road in Europe and at one point it was fourteen times more expensive than the Forth Road Bridge in Edinburgh which is twice the length! Needless to say this caused some controversy with the islanders, particularly as when the bridge opened, the existing ferry service was stopped. Over time the toll system became open to abuse by both operators and islanders alike and after years of campaigning tolls were scrapped in 2004.
Today, visitors can choose between the (free) bridge or the picturesque Glenelg Ferry (skyeferry.co.uk) to transport themselves over Loch Alsh and onto the Island. Interestingly, in these times of local councils “twinning” with similar towns in foreign lands (no doubt mainly for an all-expenses-paid reconnaissance trip) Glenelg is twinned with the Curiosity Rover’s landing site on Mars! I’d like to have seen the expenses submission for that one!
Anyway, as ever, I digress. Crossing the bridge was as unexciting as expected and 500 metres later the island arrived so we turned north towards the campsite near Dunvegan.
I don’t know what we expected from Skye – we arrived with no preconceptions, little prior research or indeed any particular plan – but somehow it just didn’t “work” for us. The scenery, particularly in the southern part of the island was still spectacular, but no more so than we had just left on the mainland. Maybe the ever-present veil of cloud didn’t help but it was unanimously decided that a one night stay would be more than enough.
During the night and for all the following day we were troubled by incredible wind (of the meteorological rather than gastric variety) which constantly buffeted the van and led to a fairly sleepless night.
The plan for day two was to travel around the northern part of the island taking in Uig and then stopping in Portree for a look around this charming little town. On the way, we were enticed to stop off and marvel at the Kilt Rock waterfall. Possibly due to lack of rain in the area but I’ve seen more impressive outpourings from our overflow at home.
Portree at least was worth the visit and the smell from the local chippy down by the harbour was too much to resist, so that was lunch sorted then.