If you don’t have time for the full North Coast 500 tour then we suggest picking a smaller section and taking the time to do it well! There is so much to see and do along the route that we never advise rushing, take your time and enjoy everything the Highlands has to offer.
In this blog Highland Overland’s founder Andy tells us all about the North East area of the North Coast 500.
Heading North from Inverness just before crossing the Cromarty Bridge into Easter Ross you’ll see the sign for the Black Isle, just 12 or so miles out of the city. The name of which is misleading as its not infact an island but a Peninsula providing a lovely circular detour off the main A9. The Black Isle is surrounded by snowy topped hills but it itself stays snow-free which is one theory as to how it gained its name.
If beers and brewing are your thing then this detour is definitely one you don’t want to miss. Firstly, The Cromarty Brewing Company, situated in the village of Cromarty at the tip of the Peninsula, is an innovative, young, family-run multi award winning craft brewery. It produces innovative, handcrafted, small batch beers, such as Happy Chappy New Wave Pale Ale, Artic Swell Vienna Lager and White Out Session White IPA.
While in Cromarty why not make a stop at the old Police Station where you’ll find The Cheese House, a real Dutch cheese shop here in the Highlands, which continues Cromarty’s long history of trading with the Netherlands.
Secondly, in the small village of Munlochy, The Black Isle Brewery is Scotland’s only organic brewing company, making world class beers from the finest organic malt and hops and pioneering craft beer since 1998. You’ll find a variety of beers including Yellowhammer, Red Kite Ale, Goldfinch Porter and Scotch Ale.
Whether you want to pick up a drink for your evening camp or some gifts to take home; you’ll be spoilt for choice from these incredible local brewers.
Chanonry Point in Fortrose is well known for Dolphin watching as they are a familiar sight in the Moray Firth. Be sure to visit the Fairy Glen in Rosemarkie before you leave the Black Isle and enjoy a walk to the twin waterfalls. See if you are able to spot the Fairies famous money trees!
Time for refreshments, and just over the Cromarty Bridge is The Storehouse at Foulis Ferry. They have fabulous, fresh, local produce, whether you’re in for coffee and cake or stopping for a full meal, you can sit and enjoy views back over to the Black Isle.
If you’re in need of a walk after enjoying the delights of The Storehouse head North and as you look up to the hills on the left you might catch a glimpse of the Fyrish Monument on Fyrish Hill. Built in 1783 by Sir Hector Munro the local Laird who had been Commander of British Forces in India, and defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Negapatam, the Fyrish Monument is a replica of the gate of Negapatam.
Continuing up the A9 you’ll reach Tain, a royal Burgh and parish in the County of Ross. Perhaps best known for The Glenmorangie Distillery Company, creators of delicious whisky since 1843! Take a tour and sample a wee dram or simply browse the visitor centre, shop and take a tipple home.
Mentioned in ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson, the village of Golspie is 58 miles North of Inverness and is watched over from the summit of 1,300ft Ben Bhraggie by the controversial statue of the First Duke of Sutherland which stands at 100ft tall and is notorious for the part the Duke played in the Highland Clearances. Walkers and hikers will enjoy the footpaths and tracks up the hill to see ‘The Mannie’ and can take in views of both coasts of Scotland (on a clear day). Mountain bikers are catered for with the well established and maintained Highland Wildcat trails, providing red, blue and black runs. For an extended route as a hiker or mountain biker add in the dramatic Big Burn Gorge, a real hidden gem.
A good meal can be found in the heart of Golspie from the The Trawler, an award winning restaurant and take away providing quality fish and chips and other specialities. For afters Capaldi’s Ice Cream can be found in ‘The Wee Pink Shop’ on Golspie High Street , true to name it’s literally a little pink shop, or you can find one in it’s original home in the next village of Brora. The ice cream was brought to the Highlands by Bernardo Capalidi when he emigrated to Scotland in 1922 – and there’s a reason it’s still enjoyed almost a century later!
As you leave Golspie heading for Brora an important stop is Dunrobin Castle, the jewel in the crown of the Highlands. Treasure found in the attics and cellars recently fetched £730,000 at auction! Which goes to show the value of items on display. Used by the Sutherland family for entertaining during the Scottish Season the castle was visited by Queen Victoria. A tour of the castle is followed by a walk of the gardens and even a falconry display where visitors have the chance to watch owls, hawks and falcons in an incredible aerobatic display.
Keep heading north along the East Coast of Sutherland (making sure to stop in Brora for your Capaldis ice cream if you haven’t got it in Golspie) is the village of Helmsdale where you may be lucky enough to find a nugget of gold in the Kildonan Burn, located at Baile an Or – scene of a gold rush in 1869. Permission for recreational panning is provided by the Suisgill Estate and permits can be purchased locally.
In the village is the Timespan Museum a great stop whether you’re interested in the local history of the crofting, blacksmith or fishing industry, with over 2000 accessioned objects of archaeology, art and craft, natural and social history there is something for everyone.
A famous local eatery here in Helmsdale is ‘La Mirage’. As famous for it’s hospitality and décor as it is for it’s food the restaurant was created in the style of Dame Barbara Cartland – it’s a must stop for anyone visiting the area.
As the A9 transitions onto the A99, seven miles south of Wick, near Lybster make sure you stop at the Whaligoe Steps – all 330 of them! The steps descend a cliff face to a naturally occurring and very remarkable harbour where the fisherman’s catch was once winched from the boats below or the fisher wives would carry the fish up in creels. This is some of the North Coast 500 scenery at it’s most dramatic.
If you’re looking for a town North of Inverness, Wick in the county of Caithness will be your next stop. Wick, like all of Caithness, belonged to Norway until the reign of William the Lion in 1165.
Within Wick itself if you want to continue your distillery tour you can head to Old Pulteney. Established in 1826 and home to the Old Pulteney Single Malt Scotch Whiskey – the ‘Maritime Malt’. Learn about the work Old Pulteney do with ‘Sustainable Surf’ and ‘Sea Trees’ – for World Earth Day 2021 Old Pulteney collaborated with ‘SeaTrees’ and made a commitment to plant more than 4,000 mangrove trees globally and restore 2,665 square-feet of kelp forest!
For more history of the area, Wick Heritage Centre provides an amazing look into the past of this Historic town. The Heritage Centre was taken under the wing of the Wick Society in 1971; striving to protect and promote Wick’s history.
Three miles north of Wick, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is considered to be one of the earliest seats of the clan Sinclair, historically one of Northern Scotland’s most powerful families. Built by the 2nd Earl of Caithness it is now a complex of ruined stone structures situated on cliffs overlooking the North Sea – it goes without saying that the incredible and dramatic views enjoyed around the North Coast of Scotland continue to be found at spots like this.
If you have ever tried one of the almost 50 record breaking ways of travelling from Lands End to John O’Groats, you’ll know it’s a journey of some 874 miles (Mavis Paterson in 2019 became the oldest female to cycle the route – she was a sprightly 84!). With one of the most famous sign posts on the British Isles you’ll want a photo to mark your arrival in the north of Scotland. The signpost was installed in 1964 to mark ‘Journey’s End’ at the top of Mainland UK. The village is only 11 miles from Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of Mainland Scotland and the British Isles. It has been said that the peace and quietness here, coupled with the sounds of the ocean, means this place is one of those spots you can feel the world around and just take it all in.
If you’re in the right place at the right time you might even see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, sign up to one of the Aurora alerts apps to get notifications of when there is geomagnetic activity.
Dunnet Head is a great bird watching spot, where you may see Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes. It is also home to one of the famous Stevenson Lighthouse’, an active 19th Century lighthouse it stands on the 300 foot cliff top of Easter Head. 66 feet tall and built in 1831 by renowned engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. Easter Head provides a remote viewing spot for pods of orcas, porpoises and dolphins, which can be observed as they migrate around the North Coast.
Situated between John O’Groats and Dunnet Head, about six miles west of John o’ Groats, is the Castle and Gardens of Mey. Once a Royal residence and the Queen Mother’s home in Caithness, it was built by the 4th Earl of Caithness. Now providing a beautiful visitor’s experience. While you’re here be sure to visit the Animal Centre; home to many types of animals including Alice the Donkey, ducks, geese and piglets; and indoors you’ll find rabbits and chipmunks. Daisy the wooden cow even lets you try your hand at milking! The happy animals enjoy their days in their well cared for environment and love the visits of school children, locals and visitors and love to provide an entertaining and educating experience.
We’d love to hear your experiences of the North East area of the Highlands. If you have any stories, tips or tricks you’d be happy to let us in on please do let us know at [email protected] or on our social media pages, Facebook and Instagram