In travelers’ imaginations, visits to Scotland often include the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, castles, perhaps at Stirling or in Edinburgh, golfing, maybe at The Old Course in Saint Andrews, distillery tours, Loch Ness…but the very far north, up past Inverness, places with names such as Dornoch, Thurso, Ullapool, Wick, Ben Wyvis, Cape Wrath? Not so much. The North Coast 500, a route that’s meant to be a gateway Scotland’s North Highlands, is one way folk in the area are working to let people know what they will discover in the north.
As you might suppose from its name, the North Coast 500 is a five hundred mile route. It begins and ends in Inverness. You could do it in a long weekend, but there is much to see and experience, both along the coast itself and through travels inland, which will invite you to stay longer.
If you choose to travel the western part of the route to begin, you will soon find yourself in a country that holds high peaks — at Glen Torrdon Liathach rises more than 3400 feet — and quiet towns by the shore. Gairloch began as a fishing village and became a summer resort in Victorian times. There is a golf course there, one of several in the far north, and a lighthouse which was designed by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ullapool is a place which had its height as the home of those fishing for herring, and as that declined, has worked to draw people to its beaches while maintaining its fishing industry as well.
Beaches are one of the main attractions of this far northern area, in fact. It’s not exactly warm seas you’ll find, even in summer, but white sands and uncrowded and beautiful places to experience the sea are part of the landscape all round the north coast. Hillwalkers will find much to explore in the area as well, from Glen Torridon in the west to Ben More in the north to Ben Wyvis which rises north of Inverness.
That may be part of the reason people have been living in this area for thousands of years. The Grey Cairns of Camster, near Wick at the northeastern part of the area, are more than five thousand years old. There are carved stones from the time of the Picts, too, and marks of the Viking presence in the area as well, not least in place names such as Wick and Cape Wrath, both of which derive from Norse words. Thurso, which you will find far up on the north coast, was in Viking times a thriving crossroads port of trade, and through the centuries a longtime fishing port. These days it is a major site for ferries to Orkney and Shetland, and a draw for surfers who would test themselves on these far northern waters as well.
You will feel the sense of many layers of history as you follow the road along the north coast of the Highlands. One of those layers has to do with the Highland Clearances, and emigration, for there was a time when this part of the world was far more populated, filled with small crofts, than it is today. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, though, as clan ties began to be replaced by absentee land ownership, these landlords came to feel they could make more money from raising sheep than by collecting rents from farmers. Many families were forcibly evicted all across the Highlands. At the north they were often sent to the seaside to earn their living how they could. The town of Bettyhill on the north coast was founded by those evicted from the nearby Strathnaver valley during the clearances. You can learn more of this history, the Fuadach nan Gàidheal or expulsion of the Gael, at the Strathnaver Museum. As you travel the eastern coast, you will come to Helmsdale, another town where evicted crofters were welcomed. As was the case elsewhere in the north coast and across Scotland, many of these people decided to emigrate, to Canada, the United States, and elsewhere in the world. In Helmsdale, you may wish to consider the monument to these emigrants, which was unveiled in 2007 and has a counterpart in Canada. In Dunbeath, also in the east, you can see a croft museum.
There are cathedrals in the north coast area — the one in Fortrose, in the east, was consecrated in 1485 and later demolished by Cromwell, though its runs still stand — and castles and great houses, too, some of which had origins in medieval times and others of Victorian vintage. There are standing stones, too, near Blackness, and pilgrim chapels in Tain. Dornoch is widely known for its golf links, and Strathpeffer has been a mineral spa for several hundred years.
With all this, through all this, though, it is nature, of mountain, sea, and land, that makes this north coast a unique place to visit and to spend time. True, there is not a shopping center in every town and the weather can be challenging, especially in winter, but the hand of nature and the hand of history are readily present to enjoy. On clear nights, too, you will be able to see the Milky Way, and, if you are there at a season when they are out dancing, you’ll have the chance to see the northern lights, as well.
It would not be Scotland if there were not music. The far north of Scotland’s Highlands have been and continue to be a seedbed for great music. As a soundtrack for your journey along the North Coast 500 through imagination or geography, take a listen to
Sarah-Jane Summers & Juhani Silvola’s self titled album She’s a fiddler from the HIghlands near Inverness, he’s a guitar player from Finland. Together they create music which evokes both the spirit of Scotland’s Highlands and the Nordic connections of the north of Scotland.
No More Wings from The Rachel Hair Trio. Rachel Hair is an innovative and creative harpist from Ullapool.
Doubling from Mairearad Green and Anna Massie. Both women are accomplished players and composers, as well as interpreters of music from the tradition. Green, who is from Achiltibuie plays accordion and pipes, Massie, who is from Fortrose, plays guitar and mandolin.
Stòras from James Graham, Fiona Mackenzie, Brian Ó hEadhra and Rachel Walker, the four singers who make up the group Cruinn, for a taste of Gaelic song.
The best way to see this region is at a leisurely pace in your own vehicle. Get 10% off your rental car though this link.
Landscape photographs courtesy of the Geograph Project UK and the photographers, who are
Photograph of musician Sarah-Jane Summers by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright
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