Setting off on the NC500

After a far more successful collapse of camp we set off on our first day on the North Coast 500 route. According to the blogosphere, this hasn’t yet become massively popular, but we encountered a fairly hefty number of campervans on our way around so if you haven’t been before, go now. We did the circuit anti-clockwise so left Fortrose and motored along to our first stop in Golspie. We were very fortunate to be travelling in May so all of the gorse was in vibrant yellow flower and all of the sheep had recently lambed, our journey was accompanied by delighted cries of “look at their cute little fluffy tails!” James really loves sheep. As we approached the village a sign informed us that Golspie has an “award winning beach”, so we had to stop and take a walk.

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We’d thought that maybe we would go for a walk to a viewpoint above town, and then we looked at it, or more accurately, we looked up at it, and decided that it perhaps wasn’t a necessary part of our itinerary.  From Golspie we made our north and detoured off the main route to visit the Grey Cairns of Camster which are, well, cairns.

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The scenery is dramatic, empty moorland and we were enormously impressed that the cairns were in such good nick, until we realised that they have been reconstructed. Despite the recent shoring up, James was not willing to crawl in to inspect the inside.

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We stopped for cheese sandwiches in a car park, as is our wont, this time at Whaligoe steps. The beautiful staircase built in to the cliff side drops down to a natural harbour mobbed by sea birds.

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We had been keeping our eyes peeled for seals ever since we set off on the east coast but had no luck here. Caro did manage to attract a cat which was very keen for fuss.

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We continued North, stopping briefly in Wick to visit Old Wick Castle, a lonely ruin on a blustery bit of coastline which doubles as a military test firing range.

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We’d roared through the day’s itinerary and found ourselves reaching John O’Groats far earlier than planned. The wind was still howling so we jumped out of the car, took the necessary photographs and jumped back in again.

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Upon discovering that John O’Groats is not in fact the most northerly point of the UK mainland, James insisted that we visited Dunnet Head, which is. This necessitated another quick leap out of the car for a photograph.

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We got as far as Thurso before setting up camp for the night in an absolutely gorgeous spot overlooking the bay and out north to the Orkneys.

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We’d made excellent time so decided to take a bit of a detour from the main route and head inland to do a loop through the Flow Country. Our first stop was Forsinard and its delightful rural train station complete with white picket fence.

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The train station doubles as an office for the RSPB, which manages the surrnounding 21,000 hectares of peat bog. There are a couple of walks that you can do in the area but we opted for the shorter, drier stroll along boardwalks and stepping stones to a viewing tower.

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We eavesdropped on a tour that a small group were having and learned that enormous efforts have been made to preserve the bog, which had been threatened due to extensive tree planting. It turns out that peat releases more carbon when it’s dug up than would be removed by the trees so it’s better to leave it as it is. The bog is also home to an abundance of birdlife, the odd carnivorous plant and a 4,500 year old tree stump.

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There was plenty of information on offer but perhaps our favourite sign was this one.

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The loop back around to the coast was simply stunning with the flowering gorse, the vast empty moors and the odd loch. We were even lucky enough to see some wild red deer as we drove.

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We made it back to the coast and continued to wind our way along the coast road, stopping to stroll along some of the loveliest white sand beaches that we have seen. Accustomed, as we are, to the slate grey expanse that is the North Sea, we couldn’t believe the beautiful blue and crystal clarity of the water in Scotland. Shame it’s bloody freezing.

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After Bettyhill the road tracked inland again over some more amazing moorland.

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It’s an interesting drive on a single track lane and a lot of concentration is required but it is an absolute picnic compared to the original road, which we got a glimpse of when we pulled over to explore Moine House. The original road is even more narrow and was built on bundles of heather to stop it sinking into the bog. The house itself isn’t anything grand but it has an interesting history; it was a private home but offered lodging to those making the long and challenging journey across the moors. The resident family were not insubstantial in number so it was a snug fit when guests came to call. The house is a ruin now, and we were surprised to find that it is something of an unlikely favourite with graffiti artists.

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Back on the coast, everything suddenly became greener as we entered the Northwest Highlands Geopark with beautiful views as we drove around Loch Eriboll, where a mass German U-Boat surrender took place in 1945.

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We stopped at practically every beach we saw, paddling in the freezing water and marvelling and the beautiful white sand.

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We set up camp at Sango Sands in Durness, which was very busy but had wonderful views over two incredibly beautiful bays. We took a stroll out onto a small headland looking out over the Atlantic.

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Whilst we were enjoying the view we were distracted by a woman carrying her dog in one of those baby carriers that you wear on your front. It took us a few moments to realise that we were staring at her and making no attempt to hide the fact that we thought she was an idiot, we decided it was best that we vacate the area. We checked later, the dog was entirely capable of walking, albeit in a tiny circumference around its overbearing owner.

Sango Sands Campsite has the very welcome benefit of an adjoining pub and we joined a majority of the population of the campsite in giving them our custom that night. The clientele provoked some of the best people watching that we have done for 2 years. There was the Scottish rocker who was outraged that you had to pay to play the jukebox, but was thrilled when someone handed him a pound and he roped a couple of young local lads into helping him out with the machine; the Dubliners soon blared out of the speakers. The woman with the porta-puppy arrived for a vodka and Irn Bru, the dog actually touched the floor for a few brief moments. There was a German couple opposite us who were looking around absorbing this “real pub experience” which was unlike any other in our many, many years of gracing pubs. The staff were very friendly and pleasantly resigned to their fate of repeating themselves multiple times so that their accents could be understood. James stood chatting to a chap at the bar with a handlebar moustache, white ponytail, woven hooded jumper that we suspect originated in South America and a leather waistcoat covered in badges. There were dogs everywhere, despite the sign excluding them during food service hours. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and James continued to add to his world beers list.

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Before pushing on the next morning, we stopped in briefly at Smoo Cave, which is a 5 minute walk from Sango Sands. You can do tours where you actually swim through the cave but the prospect of hypothermia held little appeal so we settled for a quick nose around before continuing along the western coast of the NC500.

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We’r going to finish with a couple of beach jumping photos, just because we can.

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