In my previous post, I spoke about the prepraration and planning that is required before you attempt Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, round Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. Today, I will tell you about our first day on the route, which takes us from Inverness to Melvich, via Brora, Wick, John O’Groats and Thurso.
On the North Coast 500
You leave Inverness on the A9, which passes over the Beauly Firth via the North Kessock Bridge into the Black Isle (which is actually a peninsula.) You then cross the Cromarty Firth via the Cromarty Bridge and travel on fast, open roads in the direction of the Dornoch Firth.
There are a huge number of distilleries along this route and one of the best visitor centres is at the Glenmorangie distillery, just outside Tain. A word of warning about distillery tours – the legal limit for alcohol in your bloodstream is 80mg per 100ml of blood in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but it is only 50mg in Scotland.
Further up the coast, we stopped at the village of Brora. We listened to the hiss of the sea as waves crashed onto its shingle beach, while sea birds screamed overhead. The more you travel on this route, the more aware you become of how the Scottish landscape has been shaped by water – Ice Age glaciers, fast-flowing rivers, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The A9 runs close to the coast all the way up to Latheron, where it turns north up to Thurso. If you want to stick on the official NC500, you need to turn onto the A99 which will take you to the town of Wick. Continuing along the A99, you will eventually reach John O’Groats at which point your turn west.
Heading along the North Coast
The NC500 now uses the A836 to go along the top of Scotland, with views of the island of Stroma and, beyond that, the Orkneys.
Worth a small detour is the Castle of Mey, previously owned by the Queen Mother and now owned by Prince Charles. It has a good visitor centre and a nice cafeteria. Rosie is a good traveller but we always plan a few stops en route to allow her to stretch her legs from time to time, or to have a drink of water.
A few miles further on is Dunnet Bay which boasts an excellent micro distillery for gin and vodka called the Dunnet Bay Distillery.
It was opened 3 years ago by a husband and wife team and the owners told me that they used to get 20-30 visitors a week. Since the launch of the NC500, they are now getting 200-300 visitors a week and so are building a visitors’ centre that will be open 7 days a week. This is where the increasingly popular Rock Rose gin is made in a still they call “Elizabeth.” As well as the generic Rock Rose gin, they make a limited edition run of gins for each of the four seasons of the year. If you like gin, this is a “must visit” on this tour.
We carried on through the town of Thurso, which with a population of 8,000, is the most northerly town in Britain. Many of the people who live here arrived to work at Dounreay nuclear power station in the 1950s. It is now being decommissioned but remains a large employer of local people.
For our first night on the North Coast 500, we stopped for the night in a very comfortable hotel in the village of Melvich, called The Melvich Hotel. One of our reasons for picking this (and the next two hotels) is that it is dog friendly. It also has a wood burning pizza oven and some lovely views out to sea. We saw the biggest full moon we have ever seen and we couldn’t believe how quickly it rose in the sky. Sadly, we never saw any Northern Lights on this trip.
The hotel was full – I did warn you to book all your accomodation in advance. The hotel closes for the winter but I would not recommend that anyone tries to do the NC500 in the winter anyway. The weather can be awful and heavy snowfalls are common.
On our first day on the NC500, we had covered 156 miles at an average speed of just over 40 miles an hour. This was the easy part of our journey completed. We knew the road ahead would be more of a challenge.
In my next post, I will tell you about our journed from Melvich to Lochinver.