We hired a car in Edinburgh and drove to Inverness, then roughly followed the North Coast 500. In 2015, this 516 mile circuit around north Scotland was named in Now Travel magazine’s ‘Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World’. It’s got the lot – landscape, seascape, weather, history.
Edinburgh to Inverness – We left Edinburgh and headed north to Inverness, planning to stop at Culloden on the way. It takes a few hours. Just enough time for Julie to explain to John the entire history of the Stuart kings, the Jacobite uprisings and how this culminated in the slaughter of her ancestral clansmen at the Battle of Culloden.
At the Culloden Visitors Centre there is a fantastic walk-through exhibit dealing the events from both the English perspective and the Jacobite perspective.
The Culloden Moor has cairns marking the positions of the various clans as they assembled for the battle. We found the one for Julie’s clan. A walk on the Moor is very moving. If you have a family history here. Otherwise it’s just a field. Apparently.
And then on to Inverness, a lovely town on, you guessed it, the River Ness.
Inverness – Loch Ness loop – Beauly – The next day we did a loop drive around Loch Ness, back to the outskirts of Inverness and on to Beauly.
First stop was outside Tomich where we did a hike through the nature reserve to Plodda Falls.
We had noticed quite a few golden retrievers and got talking to a lady who was walking her beautiful one. Turns out the golden retriever was first bred on one of the local estates and every year there is a get together of owners. Mystery solved. And coming through the local village we saw this.
We stopped also at the Corrimony Chambered Cairn.
What is a chambered cairn, you ask? It’s a burial monument from the Neolithic Age consisting of a large chamber around and over which a cairn of stones was constructed. It might look like a pile of rocks, but remember, its hollow underneath and yet these stones have remained in place without collapsing for 4,000 years. Amazing.
John’s assessment: It’s a pile of rocks.
We drove by the ruins of Urquart Castle and stopped for a brief stroll on Loch Ness. No monsters in evidence.
And driving back up to Inverness, the loch and surrounds looked beautiful in the late afternoon light.
Beauly to Latherton – Stopped in Evanton and did a walk through the community owned wood in which lies Black Rock Gorge. There is a local Gaelic myth that a noblewoman, the Lady of Balconie, was lured into the gorge by a man thought to be the devil, and her cries can still be heard from the top. In more recent times, it was used as a film location for some scenes in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Highlight of the day, though, was Dunrobin Castle, ancestral home of the Duke of Sutherland and his forebears. It dates to about 1275 and is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Britain, as well as being the Highlands’ largest house.
The drive up the east coast north of Dunrobin Castle was stunning, and we also loved the little fishing village of Lybster, near our destination for the night.
Latherton to Thurso – Look John, more chambered cairns. This time the Grey Cairns of Camster.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Ebenezer Street in Wick is the shortest street in the world. Just one building.
Then north to John O’Groats. JOG is commonly believed to be the northern most point of mainland Britain. As such, it has become popular – amongst some of questionable sanity – to cycle the 1,410km by road from Lands End to JOG on the basis that this is a traverse of mainland Britain from southernmost to northernmost extremity.
But actually the northernmost point of the mainland is a few miles further north-west at Dunnet Head. So all you Lycra clad lunatics high-fiving each other at JOG, get your skinny backsides back on your bikes and continue on to Dunnet Head. THEN, you will have cycled from one end of the mainland to the other.
Two miles east of JOG is Duncansby Lighthouse. It’s a stunning location in itself, and about 15 minutes walk along the cliff top brings you to the Duncansby Stacks.
And an added bonus. In the cliffs along the way, there’s puffins!!
Further along the coast, we did a tour of the Castle of May, the Scottish home of the now deceased Queen Mother.
And then to Dunnet Head where, if there was any doubt…
Thurso to Lairg – Did you know there were good beaches in Scotland? Well, the far north coast, heading toward Durness, has some crackers. We wouldn’t vouch for the water temperature, but some were hardy enough to give it a go.
At Durness, the Smoo Cave is a combined sea cave and freshwater cave, with a waterfall within. Actually, we thought the little cairns which visitors have left at the entrance were more interesting.
Lairg to Lochinver – We had been forced to deviate from the North Coast 500 route due to lack of accommodation options in the far north, where lodgings are few and far between.
This gave an opportunity to visit the Falls of Shin near Lairg, one of the most dependable spots for seeing salmon leaping up rapids on their way to their breeding grounds. Our expectations were low as, sadly, wild salmon are in serious jeopardy in Scotland. But we did see quite a few. We half expected to see a grizzly bear wade into the river and start scooping them out. Oh, wait – that’s North America. Ok, got it.
Then on to Lochinver, a delightful, imaginatively named town on, you guessed it, Loch Inver.
That afternoon we drove around more stunning coastline up to the Stoer Lighthouse and walked along the cliffs to see the Old Man of Stoer.
It’s a magnificent, wild, windswept coast. The walk along the cliffs was fantastic. But if you needed a comparison between a Scottish summer and an Australian one, this picture of a Scottish beach cafe just about says it all.
Day trip to Handa Island – We spent a second night at Lochinver so we could visit Handa Island. We had expected to see wildflowers, but there were very few. However the island is stunning.
And, an unexpected pleasure, more puffins!!
And an abundance of other birds including razorbills, guillemots and gulls.
Lochinver to Gairloch – Knockan Crag is the site of the Moine Thrust. We know what you are thinking. Now stop it. It’s a geology thing.
In short, Moine schists at the top of the crag are older than the Limestone layer underneath. Geologists with apparently little else to do, argued for years about how this could happen until eventually two geologists, Ben Peach and John Horne, identified the phenomenon of a ‘thrust fault’ whereby older rock is pushed over the top of younger rock by tectonic action. Earlier rock studies carried out here by Roderick Murchison were seminal to definitively proving the concept.
Peach and Horne’s 1917 paper on the subject remains ‘a classic text’. Riveting reading, for sure.
There’s a walk to the top of the crag with interpretive signs along the way explaining all this.
John: Now that’s an interesting pile of rocks.
Julie: It’s a pile of rocks.
Gairloch to Mallaig – From Gairloch we followed more stunning coastal roads down to Kyle of Lochalsh and across the bridge to the Isle of Skye. Just before the bridge, we took a slight detour to drive by Eilean Donan Castle.
The castle is one of the most photographed in Scotland, although it’s actually a reconstruction completed in the 1930s. The original was destroyed by the British navy in 1719 in retribution for the involvement of the then-resident Clan McKenzie and Clan McCrae in the Jacobite uprising that year.
Skye was cold and very wet.
The weather cleared as the car ferry headed across to Mallaig on the mainland. By evening, the sky was clear and there were seals playing in Mallaig harbour.
Mallaig to Spean Bridge – From Mallaig the road follows the shores of the lochs, and passes the Prince’s Cairn which is said to be the site from which Bonnie Prince Charlie left Scotland following the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, never again to return.
Further along, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland. It is part of the West Highland Line which connects Mallaig to Fort William carrying regular trains and, in the summer months, the Jacobite Steam Train for tourists. Fans of Harry Potter will recognise the viaduct as the one over which the Hogwarts Express passes in the second and third films in the franchise.
Nearby, the Glenfinnan Monument marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard preparatory to his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to retake the throne of England and Scotland. It was erected in 1815 as a tribute to the Jacobites who lost their lives in this, the final Jacobite uprising.
Then along the shores of beautiful Loch Eil – the clan lands after which Julie’s brother is named – and on to Fort William. John was desperate for more Scottish clan history so we visited the West Highland Museum. And then just a short detour to the estate of Julie’s clan, complete with clan museum and ancestral home.
Spean Bridge to Stirling – We stopped at the Glencoe Visitor Centre to revisit the finer points of one of the greatest acts of bastardry committed during the Jacobite years. We speak of course of the Massacre of Glencoe. Not Julie’s clan, but brothers in arms nonetheless.
And then for some light relief, Doune Castle. The castle was used as a set for the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Asked if we wanted an audio guide, John said ‘I’d better have one. I think there’s going to be an exam’. And glad we did, as the audio is narrated by Terry Jones and is interspersed with funny anecdotes about the filming at the castle.
Stirling to Edinburgh – Just three more historic spots to cover. First up, Stirling Castle which is one of the largest and most important castles, historically and architecturally, in Scotland. It passed back and forth between the Scots and the English through the Scottish Wars of Independence in 1200s and 1300s. It was the seat of Scottish royalty through the 1300s and Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here.
By the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie it was a British army garrison. BPC passed through victorious on his way to successfully take Edinburgh, but although the town was his, Stirling Castle was never regained. And of course he was later forced to retreat and ultimately defeated at Culloden, thus Stirling Castle remained in British hands.
It is now managed by the National Trust and the Royal Apartments have been restored and furnished to reflect their original state.
Next up, the Wallace Monument, erected in 1869 to celebrate the achievements of William Wallace.
John: Tell me again, who was WW?
Julie: Led the defeat of the British at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Braveheart. Mel Gibson. Blue face. ‘They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom”. All that.
John: Oh, yeah. You’ve been tormenting me with that stupid phrase ever since we hit Scotland. If you ever say it again, you will meet the same fate as your forebears.
Julie: Actually, the real guy never said it. It’s just in the film. Probably the closest he came to saying it was years later. After he was eventually captured and sentenced to death for treason, he was strangled by hanging but released while still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and had his bowels burned before him, then he was beheaded. Part way through, he was offered a quick end if he would only acknowledge the sovereignty of the English king, Edward II. In response, he bellowed ‘Freedom’ and the slow killing therefore continued. That is true patriotism.
John: That is true stupidity.
Julie: In fact, I think that was just in the movie too. His real ‘last words’ are not known.
And finally, Bannockburn. There’s a Bannockburn in New Zealand where they make sensational pinot noir wines. There’s a Bannockburn in Australia where they make sensational pinot noir wines. And then there’s Bannockburn in Scotland.
No red wines here. Just a battlefield where Robert the Bruce secured victory over the English in the Battle of Bannockburn. This was the turning point in the Scottish Wars of Independence that led eventually to the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in which the English recognised the full independence of Scotland and acknowledged Robert the Bruce and his heirs as its rightful rulers.
Ok. Enough Scottish history. Back to Edinburgh and then on to Glasgow. What a saga. Someone give John a deep fried Mars bar.