North Coast 500 road trip 2015 part 3 – Inverness to John o’ Groats

Cromarty Firth

In September 2015 I drove the North Coast 500, this is the first part of day 2 of my adventure from Inverness to John o’ Groats.

IN the morning breakfast was in a beautiful old dining room with silver cutlery made in Sheffield and blue and white Chinese crockery with jam and marmalade in pots with their own spoons, and then it was time to depart; a long drive ahead awaited me, Inverness to Durness via John o’ Groats, a journey of around 220 miles, which is roughly the distance from my house to London.

I knew that the day’s route across the Northern Highlands was going to bring completely different scenery, views of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean for starters, to that traversing the Cairngorms yesterday and I’d wanted to go to the very top of mainland Britain for years and finally it was going to happen.

I said goodbye to Ardgowan B&B, put my bag in the car boot and dropped the roof; it was another sunny day. The A9 road was to be my friend for the first 90 miles of the day and the early part of the route out of Inverness would take me across the Black Isle, not really an isle but a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water, Cromarty Firth to the north (which is one of those places where it’s almost impossible to not think of the Shipping Forecast), Beauly Firth to the south and Moray Firth to the east.

The first few miles to Tore were on a dual carriageway, making for a speedy getaway from Inverness; not that I was wanting a quick exit. Just beyond Tore the road swooped down to Cromarty Bridge, at the other side of which I finally joined the North Coast 500. Even though it starts in Inverness the route doesn’t go the way I did; it takes the southern side of Beauly Firth, but if I’d gone the “official” way I wouldn’t have the thrill of driving across Cromarty Firth.

Cromarty Bridge was opened in 1979 as part of a wider scheme to upgrade the A9 road, although it didn’t become part of it until 1982. Prior to its launch motorists would pass through to Muir of Ord where co-incidentally the firm that built the parapets, Hi-Fab Ltd, was based there.

After the bridge the A9 skirted virtually the whole of 19-mile length of Cromarty Firth before turning sharp left just before Tain to head over Dornoch Firth, which opened in 1991 replacing the Meikle Ferry and doing away with a 26-mile round trip via Bonar Bridge. The bridge was also the final link in a series of links across the various firths between Inverness and Dornoch.

Not long after passing over Loch Fleet, Golspie came into view. It was the first sizeable place I’d seen since leaving Inverness, and had a long linear main street with low two-storey sandstone shops and houses on either side, and the Moray Firth peeping out in between the side streets.

The main attraction in the area is the fairy tale Dunrobin Castle which was built by Sir Charles Barry in the Baronial-style between 1835 and 1850, at least the current version was because its origins lie in the Middle Ages.

Pic via Visit Scotland

Pic via Visit Scotland

Barry took instruction from the 2nd Duke of Sutherland and transformed it into a 189 room palace and, it would seem, he was so impressed with his work that he also had him completely remodel his Staffordshire seat of Trentham Hall, Cliveden House, in Buckinghamshire, and the family’s London townhouse, Stafford House.

Barry was very much the Norman Foster of his day, being the man behind the Palace of Westminster, home to the House of Commons; Manchester’s Art Gallery and Athenaeum; Trafalgar Square; Halifax Town Hall; Gawthorpe Hall, near Burnley; Royal Sussex County Hospital, in Brighton; as well as All Saints’ Church, in Whitefield, where I grew up.

Dunrobin even has its railway station, not any old railway station but a private one built in the Arts and Crafts style in 1902, and now a category B listed building.

In the November 1903 edition of Railway Magazine, George A Wade said: “As a rule the platforms of private stations are very small, but this one at Dunrobin is an exception. It is very long, for often the family at the Castle will entertain three or four hundred guests at a time, when important fêtes or events are taking place there.”

Beyond Dunborin the road began to almost hug the coastline giving magnificent views of the North Sea, and it remained mostly that way until Wick.

At Brora I passed the beautiful castellated Clock Tower War Memorial that sits between the road and the River Brora. It was unveiled on Christmas Day 1922 to honour the fallen of the First World War, and it now includes names of those from the Second World War as well that of Sgt Donald Bruce Kinnear who died in the Gulf War.

Brora may only have a population of around 1,100 but in its time it has supplied stone used in the construction of London Bridge, Liverpool Cathedral and Dunrobin Castle; while its coalmine was the most northerly in the UK, and it was the first place in the north of Scotland to have electricity thanks to its wool industry earning it the local nickname Electric City.

Seventeen miles up the road lay Helmsdale; which is one of those place names that sound like a bygone Britain of long hot summers, picnics and leaving your door unlocked. The village now has a bypass which carries the A9 over the River Helmsdale giving a bird’s eye view of the harbour, which was once the home to one of the largest herring fleets in Europe.

The road since Golspie had been continually twisting and turning and swooping up and down with the contours of the land. A little beyond Helmsdale lay another lovely small village, Berriedale, where the road dropped dramatically down to a bridge over the Langwell and Berriedale waters before climbing sharply up again. The section is known as the Berriedale Braes which are two steep sided valleys created by the rivers forging their way to the sea.

As I climbed the road I overtook a delivery lorry that was struggling up the hill, and I as approached the summit I saw a sign for Berriedale Braes Viewpoint and decided to pull over and have a look across the sea; after all I was in no rush, so what if the truck ended up in front of me again?

I got the road map out to give me an idea of how far it was to John o’ Groats and if I need to turn off anywhere, and in the meantime a coach pulled up; there went my peaceful view across the sea so I decided to drive on. The only problem was that the people on the coach had now got off it and were all milling around my car, seemingly unaware that I was there and even when I fired up the engine they didn’t seemed to see me. I drove away very slowly.

After Berriedale the road began to get closer to the coastline and was high up above the shore. Even inland the earth was beginning to flatten out; it felt like I was on top of the world!

Just beyond Dunbeath was Latheron, where the A9 headed left to Thurso and I joined the A99 and another change of scenery; the land became much flatter with few trees but lots of remote farmhouses where even the neighbours weren’t really neighbours. I drove through a succession of hamlets and villages several with walled cemeteries, often on hillsides.

This was big sky country but it looked like a bleak place to live and I imagined that making a living would be hard work, but on the plus side you’d be insulated from all the troubles of the world.

Wick is the largest town for miles with a population of almost 7,500. It looks like Edinburgh or Glasgow in miniature with its three and four-storey buildings, majestic wide river and retail park; it even has an airport and the ubiquitous distillery, Old Pulteney, which was founded in 1826 and to this day uses an mill lade constructed by Thomas Telford.

It’s the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland and when established it was only accessible by sea; the barley was brought in by boats and the whisky was shipped out the same way by men who also made their living catching herrings.

The distillery closed in 1930 due to declining trade after the local parish enforced prohibition laws but it re-opened in 1951 when the ruling was rescinded.

Its single malt has earned a reputation as one of the finest available and its characteristics are said to be down to the exposure to sea air during maturation.

Wick also has the distinction of having the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place, measuring only 2.06 metres and containing just one door.

The big sky country continued after Wick and all the way to John o’ Groats, my halfway point of the day, and it was how I expected it to be; a car park with plenty of spaces for coaches, a small harbour, a couple of gift shops, cafés, a tourist information centre and a pointer sign; or rather signs, the official one next to the harbour and another a few metres away that was mothballed and for sale.

John o' Groats

There was also the former late Victorian baronial-style John O’ Groats Hotel which had been left empty for 15 years before being remodelled as holiday apartments in 2013 by Natural Retreats and re-opened as the Inn at John O’ Groats.

Natural Retreats John o' Groats

Orkney was a mere eight miles away, according to the official pointer sign, with Shetland 152 miles off and Edinburgh 273 and Land’s End 874.

At the unofficial pointer sign there was a plaque attached in memory of Derek Harwkins, a 64-year-old cyclist from near Stockport who died after being hit by a van near Truro, in Cornwall, in 2004 as he attempted to complete the end-to-end in six days. Derek used to be a customer at a cycle shop I worked at in Manchester.

I visited one of the cafés and bought a coffee and an Eccles Cake and sat on some rocks to the right of the harbour looking over towards Orkney.

Suitably refreshed it was time to head to Durness along the Atlantic coast.

John o' Groats

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *