Exploring Scotland’s North East Coast

The landscape of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty is vastly under-rated. However, by travelling south along the North Coast 500, from Dunnet Head to Inverness, the wild beauty of Scotland’s Northeast comes to the fore.

Dunnet Head is the perfect spot to start our journey as it is the northernmost point of the Scottish mainland, where wonderful views extend across the Pentland Firth to Mainland Orkney. Coastal heath and moorland combine with precipitous sea cliffs to provide a home to a spectacular display of wildlife. As well as puffins, razorbills, guillemots and rock pipit, plants such as squill, thrift and roseroot thrive in this exposed landscape. The impressive Dunnet Head Lighthouse was built in 1831 and a radar station played an important role here during World War II.

Heading east and the North Coast 500 soon reaches John o’ Groats. The village is named after a Dutchman called John de Groot, who lived in Caithness during the 15th century due to his allegiance with King James IV.

A visit to mainland Scotland’s most northeasterly point of Duncansby Head is highly recommended after which the route turns south to cross a vast expanse of moorland where the views extend for miles. Beyond the major fishing port of Wick, the North Coast 500 proceeds along a sensational stretch of coastline, where the sky meets the sea. The light can be dramatic and breathtaking in equal measure, all of which captures the spirit of this quieter portion of Scotland.

Views toward the conical profile of Morven - the highest point of Caithness – open out as the road tackles the steep, winding slopes of Berriedale Braes before crossing into Sutherland. As the route hugs the A9, and the outlook stretches along the Dornoch Firth, the conspicuous sight of the Duke of Sutherland statue, atop the 397m high Ben Bhraggie, above the village of Golspie, comes in to view.

This controversial landmark, which is 100-feet in height, is of George Leveson-Gower (1758 – 1833) who was the 1st Duke of Sutherland. He became notorious because of his role in the Highland Clearances, where thousands were forced from their homes, primarily to allow sheep to graze the land.

Just off the North Coast 500 is Dornoch, where a stunning arc of golden sand, backed with a wildlife-rich dune system, forms one of Scotland’s finest beaches. The village is also home to Royal Dornoch Golf Course, hailed by many as one of the finest in the world. Dornoch was also the birthplace, in 1872, of Donald Ross who became one of the outstanding golf course designers in the world, and his ideas and skill were sought after in Scotland, America, Canada and even Cuba.

The final stage of the North Coast 500 travels through Ross & Cromarty and into Highland region. Tain is one of Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh’s as well as the location of Glenmorangie Distillery. Founded in 1843 the distillery produces several of the world’s most popular malt whiskies.

The A9 now journeys southwest along the northern shore of the Cromarty Firth, where bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey seals and migrating minke whales reside. The attractive market town of Dingwall, which was a centre for law making and administration when the Vikings controlled the landscape, is a fascinating place to explore, before the final few miles of the route culminate at the gorgeous city of Inverness, the Capital of the Highlands. Inverness is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and after the wide open spaces of Caithness and Sutherland, even the hustle and bustle of this relatively small city can jar a little. However Inverness is the perfect place to relax and reflect on the North Coast 500, rightly hailed as one of the world’s finest journeys. TC
Published: July 2018