2023 : A Highland Odyssey

Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 12:03 AM
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2023 : A Highland Odyssey

Over breakfast at our B&B in Glencoe in October of 2017 as our holiday was drawing to a close, my wife and I were recounting our many memorable experiences with our friendly host. I lamented that this trip had set a very high bar for future holidays : how could anything possibly rival the raw, unspoilt beauty of Skye and Mull? Or the adrenaline rush from trekking in Glencoe? Or the sophisticated elegance of cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow? Our host smiled and replied reassuringly “Don’t worry. You haven’t seen anything yet.” Intrigued by this response, I promised we would return.

I spent several months distilling travel forums, websites and guidebooks about the North Coast 500 (“NC500”) – a driving route traversing through the far reaches of the Northern Highlands covering the remotest regions of Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness and Wester Ross (Game of Thrones fans, give a cheer!).



Following extensive research, I put together a detailed 3 week driving itinerary taking a counter-clockwise loop along the NC500 with two additional detours – Orkney in the North and the Outer Hebrides in the West. Logistically, this entailed flying into Inverness and out of Glasgow, and renting a vehicle for the entire journey including the islands (serviced by car ferries to and from the mainland). After the heartbreak of cancelling a fully booked holiday in May 2020 courtesy the pandemic, we decided to pull the trigger in May 2023, come Brexit or high water.

I hope to post this trip report in installments over the course of this month, but please bear with me as I'm dealing with an overwhelming backlog of stuff having returned form a 3 week trip (and a potentially problematic tooth, that requires surgery!).
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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 05:20 AM
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Day 1 : Inverness

After a long overnight flight to London (with a tight transit at Heathrow T5 for our Inverness connection (thank God that went OK), we finally arrived in Inverness. Inverness is a pleasant city, which serves a good base for a number of activities and attractions (e.g. Culloden) nearby – and in our case the logical starting point for our NC500 route. We just needed a good night’s rest before picking up our rental car from Arnold Clark to embark on our adventure the next day.


The Inverness town centre

The Market Brae Steps

The Victorian Market

Having visited before, we kept things light and easy - a short stroll around the compact city centre, followed by walking the Ness Islands circuit along the river banks.


Along the River Ness banks

.. we found Nessie !!

Views of Friar's Bridge

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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 06:27 AM
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Day 2 : Dornoch

After breakfast, we were picked up from our accommodation in Church Street by Arnold Clark and taken to their rental office in Harbour Road. After some quick paperwork, we received a near brand new Suzuki Grand Vitara – a two category upgrade over the midsize sedan we had booked. I consciously selected a mid-size car expecting to navigate narrow single track and mountainous roads and squeeze into available parking spaces. However, the car proved a blessing in retrospect with some of the rough terrain and dirt tracks we encountered.

We detoured through the Black Isle (which is neither black nor an isle, but a pretty peninsula!) – enjoying views of the Moray Firth from Chanonry Point (this is a famous spot for dolphin spotting, sadly we didn’t see any!). A quick visit to the nearby Fairy Glen was also fun (barring my full-on tumble in the slippery and boggy path).


Chanonry Point : No dolphins sighted, but a canoe passed by!

Chanonry Point : Lighthouse

Chanonry Point : Beach, Rosemarkie in the distance

Fairy Glen : The path

Fairy Glen : Waterfalls


We then visited the Singleton distillery in the Muir of Ord for an interesting tour and tasting. As members of The Friends of Classic Malts, we try to include any distilleries en route wherever possible, and add to our collection of stamps in our whisky journals!


The Singleton : Shop displays

The Singleton : Cellar

The Singleton : The bar/tasting area


We reached Dornoch by evening, and settled in to our luxury pod – a unique, first-time experience for us. As I logged into the wifi network to check emails, an ominous message awaited me in my inbox. Pentland Ferries (operate the Gills Bay-St Margarets Hope route) had just cancelled our sailings to and from Orkney (2 days away) indefinitely due to an accident. I swung into action and thankfully secured last-minute bookings on the Northlink Ferry (ply the Scrabster-Stromnes route). While this impacted my logistics (and very nearly gave me a heart attack), at least we salvaged our Orkney itinerary (later in the trip we met impacted travellers who were forced to drop their Orkney plans altogether).


Outside the pod

Inside the pod

Our little garden


With this episode behind us, we set off to see the town – which wore a deserted look, given everything is closed on Sundays. We dropped by the beach but headed back soon after an unexpected bout of rain which didn’t seem to deter the golfers nearby.

Dornoch beach

Golfers at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, by the beach

Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch Castle

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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 06:35 AM
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on for the ride, more likely a St. Ayles Skiff than a canoe
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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 06:39 AM
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You were unlucky to miss the dolphins -- they really are a common sight. That pod does look like a fun place to stay. I

Bringing back such good memories - Stayed in the Dornoch Castle hotel a couple of times. By chance there was a touring Swedish youth choir performing in the Cathedral -- absolutely ethereal. Dornoch Cathedral has terrific acoustics.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 11:13 AM
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We were in Dornoch early last June and had a lovely dinner at the Dornoch Castle. If you're still there on Saturday evening the local Bagpiper Band does a loop around the town square which we enjoyed as well. Great memories.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 07:29 PM
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Thank you bilboburgler and janisj for your encouragement.
ckiskie, we returned from our trip last week. Admittedly, Sunday wasn't the best day for Dornoch, but it's hard to optimise a long itinerary.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2023, 07:56 PM
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Day 3 : John o'groats

The next morning, we ventured up the east coast enjoying some imposing castles (Dunrobin), ruins (Hill O’ Many Stanes), charming fishing villages (Brora) and natural wonders (the Golspie Big Burn, Whaligoe Steps, Duncansby Head) before reaching our B&B in John O Groats.

After an early breakfast, we set off for our first stop - the Big Burn walk in Golspie. As the trailhead parking by the old mill was closed, we parked very close to the bridge across the gorge itself that cut out a lot of the walking !


The path

Overlooking the falls at the bridge

By the bridge


We passed by Dunrobin Castle much earlier than its opening hours, so skipped the tour but walked around the estate to admire the French chateau inspired castle and grounds from outside its walls.


Dunrobin Castle

Gardens and grounds


Our next stop was the charming village of Brora, with its gorgeous beach and harbour.

Brora harbour

Brora beach

Bench with a view

Brora golf course


We really enjoyed our tour at Clynelish Distillery. The “Flavour Journey Tour” began with a very theatrical orientation in the experience room, followed by a walkthrough of the facilities and a tasting. Clyneslish primarily produces Johnny Walker, but also makes very small quantities of its own (very good) eponymous brand which is only sold locally.



Outside the Clyenlish Distilllery

The shop

The experience room

At the tasting table

We then stopped at the Whaligoe Steps, 330 very steep and winding steps cut into the rock and descending into the remotest harbour in Scotland enveloped by steep cliffs – a beautiful spot.

View from top

The descent

At the bottom


Our final stop was the impressive sea stacks at Duncansby Head.

Walking to the stacks from the parking lot

Views

Walking around the cliffs

The lighthouse


We stopped briefly at John o’Groats, taking the mandatory photograph at the iconic signpost, and headed off to our B&B calling it an early night.

John O Groats

At the signpost
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 01:33 PM
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Enjoying your report and photos! We are currently traveling around Scotland and having a fabulous time!
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 01:56 PM
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I can never get enough Scotland. Great report. Looking forward to more.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 08:08 PM
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Thanks Karen and maitaitom, your contributions to this forum have been very helpful to me over the years, so I'm glad you're enjoying this report.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 08:55 PM
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Day 4 : Orkney

Due to the forced rerouting on Northlink, we had to drive from John o'Groats to the port of Scrabster near Thurso to catch the ferry to Orkney. We made quick stops at the Castle of Mey (shut ahead of the impending coronation) and Dunnet Head (the northernmost point on the mainand) en route.


Castle of Mey

At Dunnet Head

Dunnet Head lighthouse

Views of Orkney along the horizon from Dunnet Head


The journey from Scrabster to Stromness was fine – personally I think Northlink is the best ferry services provider in Scotland. The sailing route also passes the Old Man of Hoy, a red sandstone stack popular with hikers.


Hoy, in the distance

Close up

We arrived into Stromness, where we had a quick look around this port town and shopped at the local Co-Op.


Church in Stromness

Store in Stromness

Stromness main street


Our next stop was the Unstan chambered cairn, where you had to get on all fours to enter !


Outside

Crawling in


This was followed by the Standing Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar, both very impressive sites which are free to access.


Stones of Stenness

Barnhouse Village nearby

Stones of Stenness

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar, from distance


We finally checked into our B&B in Kirkwall, and strolled around the elegant town, celebrating our success in getting to Orkney (despite the ferry ordeals) with generous ice cream cones at Sinclairs.


View from our B&B

Kirkwall main street


St Magnus Cathedral

Earl's Palace Ruins

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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 09:11 PM
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Your trip sounds wonderful, lovely pics, too. Bookmarking!
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 09:14 PM
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Day 5 : Orkney

After a heavy cooked Scottish breakfast, we headed towards Stennes for our 10am tour of Maeshowe (reservations necessary, guided visits only). A short bus ride later, we arrived at what seemed like a mere green mound, but presented a fascinating discovery of a chambered cairn. No pictures are allowed inside. Our guide brought this Neolithic building to life, and also showed us some of the Viking runic inscriptions that survive to this date.


Maeshowe

Maeshowe


We then left for to join our pre-booked 12pm tour of Skara Brae (reservations needed, self guided visits only). Skara Brae are the remains of a stone-built Neolithic settlement, with a cluster of houses complete with stone hearths, beds, and cupboards! We also spent some time at Skaill House, which belonged to the family that discovered Skara Brae on its estate and supported the eventual excavation efforts.



Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Typical house strcture

Gorgeous stretch of sand right by Skara Brae

Outisde Skaill House

Inside Skaill House

Our next stop was the Brough of Birsay, an island reachable by a natural causeway from the mainland only during low tide. We were lucky to have a two hour window to this after our Skara Brae visit. A quick look at the nearby Earl’s palace and geological feature of layered rock called Skiba Geo, and we headed back to Kirkwall.


Crosing over

Along the causeway/seabed

Remains of settlement on Birsay


Pictish stone at site

Birsay lighthouse

Skiba Geo

Earl's Palace ruins

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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 09:28 PM
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Thank you, trophywife007, enjoy the TR!
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 10:06 PM
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Day 6 : 0rkney

We spent our third day in Orkney, exploring the often-overlooked eastern and southern reaches of the Orkney mainland.

We drove through the narrow channel separating St Peters Bay and Dingyshowe to visit the Brough of Deerness and a collapsed sea cave called The Gloup. We walked a fair way upto Mull Head before the rain got heavier, and retraced to our parking.


Driving along St Peter's Pool

Dingyshowe beach

Lots of bird sightings at desolate Newark Bay

The Gloup

Near Brough of Deerness

Views of Mull Head in the distance

Our next stop was the wonderful Deerness Distillery, producing gin and unique liqueurs (we bought some as well), with a whisky in the pipeline.

Inside the craft distillery

At the tasting table


We then headed south where the cluster of islands is connected by a series of causeways (called the Churchill Barriers). A number of points of interest en route included the Italian Chapel (built by Italian POWs during WW2) and remains of sunken warships in the Scapa Flow destroyed in the war.

Sheila Fleet jewellery store en route, a former church !

At the start of the Churchill Barriers

The Italian Chapel

Sunken ship destroyed by the Germans

Returning along the casueways

We drove as far south as St Margaret’s Hope (where we could see our original Pentland Ferry the MV Pentalina docked following the accident, visibly damaged by a fire) before heading back to Kirkwall. That evening, we visited the wonderful Orkney Museum (which brought perspective to a lot of the sights visited over the last few days), and enjoyed our last stroll through the town.


Orkney museum, outside

Orkney museum, inside

Views of charming Kirkwall, from the harbour


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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 10:49 PM
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Birsay Lighthouse used to be wind turbine powered, but they blew away, now on solar

The ship sunk by Germans is correct but... they were there because that was where they were being stored after WW1. There the German crew sank them.

The metal from these ships is the major source of pre-radioactive era steel and used in MRI machines
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Old Jun 3rd, 2023, 11:11 PM
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bilboburgler, I was surprised to see solar panels at the Birsay lighthouse (infact, they appear in the photo too). Like the sunken ships, my WW history is also rusty- thanks for that info..
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Old Jun 4th, 2023, 01:05 AM
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really enjoying your trip report, Orkney is a special place for me. For instance some of your sites you visited are older than the Pyramids of Egypt
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Old Jun 4th, 2023, 05:49 AM
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Enjoying this report! I was in Scotland last May, although mostly different places. It's a country with such beautiful and dramatic landscapes.

If you haven't read it already, I recommend Winter Tales by George Mackay Brown. It's a delightful book of short stories about a community in Orkney.
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