At the planning stage, we never even considered going to the North of Scotland. We were supposed to visit Loch Lomond areas, see the neighbouring castles, look for Loch Ness monster and the famous Glenfinnan bridge that Harry Potter travelled through. Inverness, located in the central-western part of highlands was supposed to be our furthest stop North. We thought about sidetracking towards Perth and visiting some Whiskey distilleries before spending the weekend in Glasgow. But the further we drove North, the more we wanted to spend the rest of the week there. To get to know with the distant, undiscovered, completely tourismless side of the country. Places, where there’s more sheep and hairy cows than people and cars on the roads. We gave up on the initial plan and went up North after leaving Inverness! Once again, we found out that spontaneous decisions are the best!
The first few kilometres on Inverness – Dornoch route and then north from John O’Groats to Thurso were a bit disappointing. It wasn’t as beautiful as we expected. The views were not as spectacular as before. We had no choice though, so we went along… which was a great idea since the North of Scotland turned out to be one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen 🙂
Places you absolutely have to see:
1) Beach in Dornoch
Dornoch was our first stop on the road from Inverness. A tiny town with a equally tiny castle on the main street, a former jail and a few restaurants. We felt the urge to take a walk which we did after spotting “To The Beach” sign. We walk among some ever-charming stone houses, then pass a huge golf court and finally reach the beach. It’s almost deserted, very picturesque, perfect to chill out. There’s a playground on the beach as well, so the kids won’t get bored while their parents lie down on the sand and watch fluffy white clouds.
After chilling out on the beach, we recommend eating lunch in Dornoch since you might have problems with finding a restaurant or even simple fish’n’chips spot later on if you’re heading north. There’s a few restaurants in Dornoch, just remember that most of them close at 14.30-15.00. We recommend Luigi on the main street, a nice combinations of British and Italian cuisine – delicious linguine with shrimps, chorizo and rucola and pizza fro kids.
2) Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle is just a few steps from Dornoch. The castle was built in XIV century and is one of the oldest still inhabited Scottish residences. The view is a bit spoiled when you arrive from the front and see the cars parked by the castle – a painful reminder that it’s 2014, not 1560. But when you look at the castle from the garden side it looks absolutely magical. We recommend walking around the garden where you can find “dinosaur” rhubarb with huge leaves (it’s really called this way, which Maks found absolutely cool!), find some chestnuts (guess there were no other kids visiting.. or the Scots don’t like chestnuts), and dream a bit…
3) John O’Groats and Duncansby head
End of the world, end of Scotland. Such places always look amazing! Here, it’s the pointy rocks sticking out of the sea that are the most impressive. Remember about some warm clothes – it’s very windy!
If you have Inverness-John O’Groats route behind you, you might want to find some accommodation here. There’s not much of it in John O’Groats, we recommend driving a bit further, towards Thurso. The town (8 thousand inhabitants) is not particularly special apart from some decent surfing spots around and ferries cruising to Orkney islands. But when you arrive there, you instantly feel the amazing vibe of the place in the air. A place that’s literally miles from nowhere. A real world’s end! There are 3-4 hotels there, a few restaurants, an obligatory fish’n’chips spot which also sells another Scottish “delicacy” – fried chocolate candy bars!!! (we haven’t tried that wonder yet!). At 9 pm you will hardly see anybody in the street! But Thurso is a great place for staying over. Once again, it makes your imagination go wild!
4) Bettyhill – Durness route
The road from Thurso to Bettyhill is quite ordinary… some cottages, empty spaces, quiet – countryside style. After Bettyhill, the landscape changes and it’s beautiful again! Magical, amazing, astonishing. Most of the time, we drive through infinity and desolation with occasional flocks of sheep passing by. “Passing Place” signs remind us that we’re in the sheep country. Almost no cars or people. In Bettyhill, there’s a nice cemetery and Museum Strathnaver with exhibitions about expulsions from Highlands in 18th and 19th century.
5) Beaches in Durness and Smoo Cave
If you go further west, we recommend stopping in Durness. It’s one of the few places in the North where you can eat something. In Durness, we first go to Smoo Cave, a cave in which you can sail a boat in the summer and see the chambers. In the autumn it’s closed but a walk around is well worth it anyway. Even though the single restaurant in Durness serves fish’n’chips (obviously), we suggest having a potato with haggis and cheese. Oh, Durness is also one of the few places with a petrol station in the far North. It kind of saved our lives! 😉
6) Durness – Ullapool route
We leave Durness and continue to recommended Ullapool. The rod is still beautiful and magical. We’re still in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation. If you ever happen to be nearby, go there!
Near Ullapool, we stop once again. This time in Kylesku. A tiny village, fishermen’s boats. Reportedly, you can see sunbathing seals here! Not today, though. We continue our trip to Ullapool. If you’re feeling more determined, you can go and look for the seals on cruise from Kylesku.
Ullapool is a small and very picturesque harbour where you can stay for one night in one of its hotels or bed&breakfasts located just by the water. You can eat some delicious seafood including scallops with blood sausage, mussels or a lobster. You can walk around the harbour at night and check out the fishermen’s boats. And most of all, you can rest from the big city life – both at 9 pm and 11 am the town looks a bit sleepy and there’s nothing that can spoil the calmness.
Plockton by Loch Corron is yet another calm and charming place. More colourful boats, white houses and walks by the water. Amazing food in Plockton Shores restaurant! Be sure to try the mussels from here and a vanilla-cinnamon bread&butter pudding for dessert! Wow! After quick recharge, you can go for a cruise looking for the seals! Cruises are conducted by a guy called Calum and you can buy tickets on the boat or in the city. The ships leave at 10.30, 12.00, 14.00 and 16.00 and the cruise last an hour. They have a nice advert which says ‘FREE IF NO SEALS’. But don’t expect a free cruise – Calum has been sailing to watch the seals for 32 years and he rarely comes back with nothing. There was no bummer in our case. There were seals instead! 🙂 A lot of seals!
10) Eilean Donan Castle
When you’re around Plockton, be sure to visit Eilean Donan Castle. Drive in Dornie direction in order to get there. The castle is located on a tiny island on Loch Duich. It was built in 13th century and then completely demolished in 18th. They rebuilt it in 20th century. The tickets cost 6 pounds. Inside, you will find old chambers and utilitarian rooms – we fell in love with the kitchen made with a lot of attention to every detail, where the fruits and vegetables looked like real.
Our trip through the North of Scotland. We stayed in Inverness, Thurso, Ullapool and then on the Isle of Skye which we will write more about in the next entry.
*We’re visiting North of Scotland thanks to VISIT BRITAIN.