A Journey along Scotland’s North Coast

On a chilly April morning, I woke up bright and early to explore a small slice of Scotland’s north coast. I must admit that I approached my trip to Easter Ross and Wester Ross with excitement but also some trepidation. Spring was running extremely late in Scotland with the recent snow and heavy rain, and I was hoping I wouldn’t miss any of the dramatic landscape as a result!

Our first stop was the village of Cromarty, just 40 minutes from Inverness, but en route we decided to stop at Chanonry Point between Fortrose and Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, as the weather was in our favour. This is widely regarded as one of the best and most reliable places to see bottlenose dolphins and seals playing in the Moray Firth. Sadly I wasn’t lucky enough to spot them this time but the small secluded beach and picturesque lighthouse made for a lovely stopping point.

Our arrival in Cromarty was captivating; I hadn’t expected the sight of the ‘oil rig graveyard’ across the Cromarty Firth. Rigs that were active in the 70s – when off shore oil drilling was at its most profitable – now lie dormant, waiting patiently for the industry to take a lucrative turn again. The result is a haunting yet beautiful view. Cromarty too was full of surprises – what I originally saw as a sleepy, friendly village in fact has a vibrant underbelly, with dozens of cultural events each year including a film festival.

Cromarty Oil Rigs

We moved on to our next stop on the west coast, enjoying the change in scenery from flat yellow meadows to the renowned dramatic and rugged terrain of Scotland’s western highlands. Coinciding with the first real sunshine of Scotland’s spring, we were blessed with clear blue skies and the sight of glittering granite cliffs and snow-capped mountains on the horizon.

We headed for Ullapool, a cheerful seaside town with a lot of character and activity despite its remote location. Ullapool’s hardworking residents have transformed it into a hub of culture – the town hosts a number of music and book festivals annually alongside frequent art exhibitions. Seeing the snowy isle of Lewis in the distance from the harbour was a highlight of the day for me, and there is good walking to be had nearby for those wishing to stretch their legs. We had a little spare time before dinner and so visited the Corrieshalloch Gorge on the River-Droma – a truly impressive sight, despite my fear of heights!

The last stop on our particular run of the North Coast 500 was Shieldaig and Loch Torridon. A warm bowl of seafood chowder in the Shieldaig’s acclaimed fish restaurant warmed my bones on this chilly afternoon as the sun continued to shine. Our passing Poolewe and the Applecross Peninsula provided a first for me– a sighting of a wild mountain goat! He and his mates considered us carefully before trotting off – a friendly encounter that concluded my trip off very nicely before the drive back to Glasgow. As ever always with touring trips, I was left wanting more – next time I will definitely allow time in Skye or Glen Coe before returning home.

I came away from my trip in awe of the beauty of Scotland’s North Coast. We may only have visited one part of this iconic road trip, but I’m very lucky because at McKinlay Kidd, I have the opportunity to help our customers fall in love with it every day! One thing is for sure; I will be back to experience the rest very soon.

Words and Images from Caoimhe @ McKinlay Kidd 

Why not take a road trip like Caoimhe’s and discover Scotland’s North Coast? We have a number of different holiday options, or we can tailor-make  your perfect Scottish driving holiday. 

Along the North Coast 500 (Part 1)

Drive the North Coast 500, Scotland’s acclaimed 516-mile touring route around some of the country’s remotest parts, and chances are you’ll end up in conversation with a fellow traveller, who’ll tell you ‘Oh, we’re doing it in two days!’.

Now, this is entirely feasible, but, in my opinion, can’t be much fun. That’s why I set out in October to see how much I could eke out of the route across eight days, a much more leisurely pace.

Starting in Glasgow, I made my way to Inverness for the official start point at Inverness Castle, the red sandstone structure standing watch over the Highland Capital. A quick photo opportunity and off I went. It felt good to be having a go at the route without any thought of hurrying or of time pressures.

Out of Inverness, skirting the Beauly Firth with Kessock Bridge in the distance, time to sort out lunch. The pretty town of Beauly seemed as good a place as any and I found a terrific little bistro serving good seafood chowder. I would have had a photo to illustrate this, but I dropped my iPhone in my soup, much to the amusement of my fellow diners.

On the road again and heading north on the A9, I took a detour off to the right to visit Nigg on the north shore of the entrance to the Cromarty Firth, met by a dramatic scene with darkening clouds overhead and looming oil rigs in the background.

Wending my way back towards the A9 through tiny hamlets like Balintore, Cadboll and Portmahomack, then the sizeable town of Tain, famous for whisky production, it was time to head for Dornoch, for my first night’s stop. Good to see a new artisan chocolate producer here since my last visit, so a hot chocolate was a must before a stroll around the cathedral and the steps that take you up to footpaths above this prettiest of Highland towns.

Unable to sit still for long, and with light ’til 8pm at this particular time of year, I took the car out again and followed my nose along the A949 that edges the Dornoch Firth, through Spinningdale and on to Bonar Bridge, turning right here to take the rising road to Loch Migdale – a new loch for me.

Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle

Next morning dawned bright, and after a quick jog on the ‘Royal’ golf course I got back on the road. First stop, Dunrobin Castle and Gardens – you can take a train here on the way to Thurso – for a quick look at the ramparts and the old cannons standing watch over the entrances.

Helmsdale Harbour
Helmsdale Harbour

There are few things I like more than a tiny harbour, and Helmsdale’s fits the bill. I was able to get the car right to the edge, next to bobbing sailboats and tiny fishing vessels. The ‘Emigrants Monument’ is here, too, a moving tribute to those who fled their homes in search of ‘freedom, hope and justice’.

I love this part of the A9, with its long straights, sweeping curves and tight, corkscrewing, rising hairpins all the way to Latheron, where I pick up the A99, the road to the ‘proper north’ of Wick and, eventually John o’ Groats – a ‘must-tick’ on any keen travellers list and the gateway to the majestic north coast.

More of that later…

Words and images by Chris at McKinlay Kidd, November 2017

Also by Chris: On The Road in an Aston Martin