JOHN O’GROATS TO DURNESS (90 miles)
After two nights in John O’Groats ( staying in the tidy and quiet little campsite) I headed over to Orkney for a couple of days, a side trip well worth considering if time allows.
For more on those two days see 5 Days in Caithness and Orkney: Orkney mainland and Hoy
If not, the North Coast awaits and – around Bettyhill – a first introduction to the splendour of the west.This section is just under 3 hours non stop driving.Single track roads kick in, a feature of several parts of the west coast.
Previous Day – NORTH COAST 500 DAY 1 PLANNER and NORTH COAST 500 DAY 1
Castle of Mey
First stop and not far from JO’G, the beautiful Castle of Mey, holiday home of the Queen Mother and a gem of a place. It feels so lived in, so homely, despite the grandeur.Her little blue coat hangs in the front hallway, a reminder of the walks she loved around here. In May, I was disappointed to find the celebrated castle gardens looking quite dull with little colour but in mid-summer, presumably when Charles or other Royals visit, they bloom at their best. It’s not a large garden or castle but it’s a fascinating, lovely stop. A guided tour is also offered which needs booked up quickly to secure a suitable time so it’s worth checking the website as ordinary access is curtailed while the tours are on. The views to mountainous Hoy, part of Orkney and across the wild Pentland Firth, are very fine. Below the castle, well tended farmland, etched with drystane dyke walls, sweeps down to the rocky shore. There’s a good, very busy café on site too with excellent scones!
The bright if cold sunshine let me see this area at its sparkling best , especially Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland.
After driving the winding road up to the viewpoint carpark and the Lighthouse, I arrived at a stunning spot of wild cliff scenery and pounding ocean.And Hoy lying across the ocean.It’s not quite as spectacular as Duncansby Head – I’d always prioritise that stop if time was tight.
Kyle of Tongue
I wasn’t expecting much for the next hour or so’s driving beyond Thurso and my expectations were right. The landscape became flattish, some farmland, some moorland with the white dome of Dounreay Nuclear Power Station in view.
But approaching Bettyhill, everything changed, becoming rockier and grander. To my right, I had flashes of inviting pink sandy coves and crashing surf. This was more like it.
And then the Kyle of Tongue came into view, the first time I’d ever seen it, a place I had always been drawn to. My God, it was stunning. If anything, it was more impressive again than any photographs.
The road had turned to single track some way back but it was still pretty empty. The village of Tongue itself was a pretty, tiny place of old stone houses and a couple of nice looking hotels.Its backdrop , Ben Loyal, is one of Scotland’s most shapely mountains. Scotland is a land of incredibly beautiful mountains, despite their relatively lowly height compared to the bigger ranges of the world.Their special quality is how honed they are to a sort of rugged perfection.They have an ancient look, because this is an old, old land. Also, they rise straight up out of the ocean (or loch or moor) no foothills, adding to their wow factor.That combo of ocean, loch and hill is out of this world and stops me in my tracks no matter how often I see it – and of course it is everywhere throughout the West Highlands.
I’ve written separately , with photos, about my time in this area as on my first visit I stayed overnight. See Day 5: The Kyle of Tongue and home
Don’t leave booking somewhere around here too late; I turned up one evening in May without a booking and was lucky to finally find somewhere, after much scooting about, a few miles away in Talmine (Cloisters B&B) as the few options that existed, including the hotels, were full. There isn’t a whole lot of accommodation in these northern areas.
The road round to Talmine also has a few parking areas , giving access to the stunning white sand beach which dominates the Kyle itself. I wandered down through a grassy field onto the huge sands, the sea sparkling in the May sunshine. It was outstandingly beautiful and I was bowled over by it. What a spot. With the exception of two Italian girls that I met at one point, there wasn’t another soul around.
Make time for this place if you love a good beach walk in a wild lonely place with just oystercatchers and curlews for company and an occasional seal out in the water. Ben Loyal is now on my list of ‘hills to climb’ – it looks a beauty, by all accounts a straightforward hike and the views must be incredible as it is so oceanic.Beyond the mountain, heading inland and the road to Lairg is vast, empty mountain and moorland country with its own special charm.
Beaches around Durness
From Tongue, the road winds round lonely, deserted Loch Eriboll (Loch Terrible as it was known to troops stationed here in the War). Then the Durness coast begins to impose, revealing a series of stunning, pink sand coves, all a draw for those who love a wild, lonely coastline.
There was one beach in particular which stopped me in my tracks, at a bend of the road, with a good parking area above it and an obvious path leading down to the pink sands. It has a beautiful Gaelic name which translates as the Beach of the River of Loss. My husband and I wild camped on it once and it is a stunning spot with a very tragic story.For more on our time here:-
North West Highlands and Skye : Sandwood Bay and the Beach of the River of Loss
I’m not a huge fan of caves so this stop has never appealed but it’s well known and just outside Durness itself.
There’s nothing particularly pretty about this northerly village, tiny and quite workaday, quite a scattered little place, but the location is superb.
For me, the big draw is Balnakiel Beach and a walk out to wild Faraid Head for cliffs, seabirds and possibly puffins. The beach itself is a huge sweeping expanse of empty shellsand backed by dunes and on the opposite side of the Bay, the mountains of the far North West.We spotted a peregrine falcon hunting here on one visit, a thrilling sight.
Many years ago, on a family holiday when my two boys were young, they played the little golf course at Durness, a beauty.On the wall of the clubhouse there was a glass fronted cabinet and the now -framed £5 note Nick Faldo had popped into the honesty box before his round.
Best chocolates in the world
I am a chocoholic so Cocoa Mountain is a must visit place for me in Durness.They make the finest handmade chocolates I’ve ever tasted (better than any I’ve tried from Paris and South of France chocolatiers.) They really do taste strongly of their added ingredients, which I’ve found isn’t always the case no matter the price of the chocs.Orange and Geranium (who would have thought that combo would work?), Ginger and Cinnamon, Chilli and Lemongrass……delicious.
Their café and shop is in a nondescript building in Durness’s small craft village, utilising converted Nissan huts on the road to the beach.
£5 will get you a cup of good coffee – a latte or tea and 4 exquisite chocolates, from a very big choice. Their Hot Chocolate is legendary too.We went in one really wet day having driven up from Oldshoremore, barely a soul on the road or in the village and expected the place to be deserted.But it seemed like everyone in the area had made a beeline for Cocoa Mountain, it was mobbed! We were lucky to get the last 2 seats.Good to see it doing so well as this is remote country up here.
The small café is nothing special inside as such – I’m never a fan of plastic seating – but I could never drive through Durness without a stop here. For a chocaholic, it’s a life affirming place.
It makes sense to stay overnight in Durness, despite the mileage this day not being particularly high (nor high next day either but there is so much to see and do). At most , I wouldn’t go further south than Oldshoremore/Rhiconich. Getting accommodation can be a challenge, there isn’t a whole lot of it about and settlements up here are tiny, so book ahead especially from May to October.
This is the start of the North West Highlands and I am always just so thrilled to be here.It’s an area that long ago seared itself into my soul, an ancient land of grandeur and sublime beauty and often tragic history. It is unforgettable.
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