Caves, Bridges and Sloping Sunsets…

Having left our overnight mooring (after another, inevitable, run along the beach for Jack) we briefly stopped at Smoo Caves to admire the underground waterfall (Scotland has A LOT of waterfalls!) before turning south at Durness to start heading down the scenic west coast bit.

Underground waterfall at Smoo Caves
Underground waterfall at Smoo Caves

Although the trip so far had given us some memorable views, nothing could prepare us for the sheer jaw-dropping beauty that lay ahead, and I can see now why those who have gone before favour completing the trip in an anti-clockwise direction to keep building the scenic magnificence around every turn.

As this part of the adventure was primarily a driving one, stops along the way, and therefore photographs, were few, but one place at which we definitely wanted to pause was the iconic Kylesku Bridge which crosses the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin (Caolas Cumhann) – and no, I’ve no idea how to pronounce it either!

The iconic Kylesku Bridge
The iconic Kylesku Bridge

The bridge is iconic because, unlike other similar structures which use basic engineering, economic and physical principles to cross a gap in the shortest possible distance – i.e. a straight line – the Kylesku Bridge continues the curvature of the road at both ends by beautifully arcing horizontally across the Loch.

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Wilma crossing the bridge

It came as no surprise therefore to find that the civil engineers behind the bridge were none other than the Danish firm of Ove Arup and Partners, they of Sydney Opera House fame who stepped in to make the world famous landmark actually happen.

Fellow Dane Jørn Utzon was the architect who had won the design competition for the new opera house by wowing the judges with what amounted to little more than a sketch showing the amazing sail-like structures which appeared radically different when compared with the more traditional cubist designs. The trouble was that Jørn had given little, if any, thought as to how these structures could actually, physically be constructed – an omission that ultimately had him removed from the project.

Into the breach stepped Ove Arup who, after many years of consultations with both Jørn and the client and no doubt much late-night head-scratching, modified the design slightly to produce something that was actually feasible to construct and thus become the renowned iconic masterpiece it is today.

Designing the Kylesku Bridge therefore was probably done one Friday night as he was heading out of the office, but nevertheless it’s still an amazing structure.

Onwards from here and passing through Drumbeg, Clashnessie and Stoer we arrived at what was to become the stop for the night and another wildcamp overlooking the rhino-hornesque Suilven mountain flanked by Canisp to the east and Cul Mor to the west, the trio making a very impressive backdrop.

Once again Scotland set itself apart by providing a carpark actually inviting people to camp overnight with a small box under the sign for donations if you felt like contributing anything. We did, with pleasure. It’s little things like this that make you feel so welcome here and, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s because you don’t feel that you’re being blatantly ripped-off everywhere that you feel more inclined to spend money locally. Are you listening every single English council in the land?!?

The only slight downside with the carpark was that getting the van level was nigh-on impossible (which probably explains why we were the only ones there) but after 40 minutes of trying every which way we eventually settled on a spot where the wine glasses didn’t fall over and we could actually walk from one end to the other without the aid of ropes and crampons.

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Our wild camp spot for the night – deceptively not very level!

That done, we settled back to watch Suilven and her sisters consumed by the sunset; another fantastically memorable day drawing to a close.

Canisp, Suilven and Cul Mor at sunset
Canisp, Suilven and Cul Mor at sunset

The North Coast bit…

From Brora the next stop on the list was the most northerly. Almost. John O’Groats is widely perceived to be the most northernmost point in mainland Britain; after all, most charity events spanning the country make a route from “Land’s End to John O’Groats” thus covering both ends of the land. Although geographically correct at the Land’s End bit the Scottish element is technically out by a good few miles. But who has ever heard of an event going from “Land’s End to Dunnet Head” which actually IS the most northern point of mainland Britain. (I say “mainland Britain” because of course the title of northernmost point of the British Isles goes to Out Stack in Shetland)

Anyway, John O’Groats arrived first so it was there we stopped first. The day had dawned to cloudless blue skies (presumably, because it was still that way when we surfaced at around 9am) but as we drove towards JOG (I’m going to refer to it as that from now on because it’s a pain to type) the clouds arrived, then thickened, then parted, heralding our arrival at JOG by depositing what felt like half the Atlantic Ocean over us.

JOG is a pretty dismal place even in good weather giving the impression that it should try to offer something to compensate for its erroneous title, but that something is fairly tackily presented with the usual mix of run-down cafes, gift shops and even a Christmas Shop! Maybe they feel somehow connected to Lapland being relatively closer than anywhere else, but really? A Christmas Shop?!

There was at least a modicum of cheerfulness present in the form of a fairly recently built hotel which appeared to have been designed by two different architects – one going for the more traditional style with a nod to Scottish heritage and the other heading off in a more Scandi-themed direction with a collection of beach huts fashioned from multi-coloured clapboard. An odd mix but least it brightened the place up a bit!

Hotel at John O'Groats seen from the more traditional aspect
Hotel at John O’Groats seen from the more traditional aspect
Another view showing the Norwegian beach huts
Another view showing the Norwegian beach huts

Having posed for the obligatory pictures under the signpost and had a very quick walk around what little there was to see at JOG (bypassing the Christmas Shop, of course!) we turned west and began the north coast bit of the North Coast 500.

Obligatory photo of Annie & Jack posing at the signpost
Obligatory photo of Annie & Jack posing at the signpost
Obligatory photo of Andy & Jack posing at the signpost
Obligatory photo of Andy & Jack posing at the signpost

First stop, obviously, was to see the actual, geographical northernmost point which is at Dunnet Head, a few miles west of JOG. To get there though necessitated a five and a half mile drive up a narrow, winding, uneven road to be presented with, ultimately, another disappointment. To say that JOG has over-compensated for its misconceived title, Dunnet Head hasn’t even bothered getting out of bed. There’s a fine lighthouse there – more for practical purposes than for any kind of monument – a rather small car park with a very stern sign warning not to take dogs any further in case they suddenly develop suicidal tendencies and attempt to leap off the cliffs (no, really!) and, almost as an afterthought, a carved granite slab telling us, in an almost apologetic way, that yes, this is the ACTUAL northernmost point of mainland Britain.

But at least they didn’t have a Christmas Shop!

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The ACTUAL most northerly point of mainland Britain. (Note: no Christmas Shop present)

The next few days were mainly spent driving on what had now become a quest. Because we didn’t know how far we’d get everyday we didn’t book campsites in advance trusting that we’d always find somewhere to stay when we felt like stopping.

The first night along the north coast was spent at Dunnet Bay, a Caravan & Motorhome Club site right by the beach – which Jack absolutely loved of course!

Jack, in his element preparing to fetch yet another stick thrown by Annie...
Jack, in his element preparing to fetch yet another stick thrown by Annie…
Stormclouds approaching over Dunnet Bay
Stormclouds approaching over Dunnet Bay

From here it was on to experience our first bit of “wild camping” the next night. Wild camping is only legal in Scotland (unfortunately) and for many is what this lifestyle is all about as it allows you to pitch up in any suitable location and stay the the night. There are “rules” of course but these are more commonsense than actual rules: arrive late & leave early; leave no trace of being there; respect your environment and others around you. The main appeal though is the freedom it gives you. In our case we pulled into a large, flat deserted area by the side of road overlooking a bay with yet another unbelievable beach. Within minutes of arriving, 2 more motorhomes and 3 cars pulled in to join us with the occupants of two of the cars unloading myriad bags, holdalls, and hampers before scurrying off to the beach to indulge a spot of swimming (it was 5 degrees Centigrade!) followed by a BBQ on the beach. Tough lot these Scots!

Campsite for the night
Campsite for the night
The beach just down from where we spent the night
The beach just down from where we spent the night

Ultimately, just us and a dutch motorhome actually stayed the night and after another quick post-breakfast stroll on the beach we were off again, continuing the journey along the north coast…

Brora

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.

Deserted beach at Brora
Deserted beach at Brora

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…

Jack, with stick retrieved, yet again, from the sea
Jack, with stick retrieved, yet again, from the sea

Dunrobin Castle

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)

Dunrobin Castle, seen from the rear
Dunrobin Castle, seen from the rear

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!

Wilma parked at the front of Dunrobin Castle
Wilma parked at the front of Dunrobin 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…

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Us, parked in front of Dunrobin Castle

Dingwall

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

The North Coast 500

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.

Inverness

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.

Eilean Donan Castle under cloudy skies
Eilean Donan Castle under cloudy skies

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.

Loch Ness
Loch Ness

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.

Inverness, seen from the bridge
Inverness, seen from the bridge

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.