North Coast 500 road trip part 4 – John o’ Groats to Durness

Kyle of Tongue

Last September I drove the North Coast 500; this is the second part of day 2 of my adventure, from Inverness to Durness.

THE road from John o’ Groats, the A836, was just as dramatic as that which had brought me there; long straight sections with the feeling of being on top of the world, and endless sky.

Dunnet was the first of many villages and hamlets I’d drive through over the next few hours, and little did I realise that soon after my return home I’d come across the gin made by Dunnet Bay Distillers.

I think I discovered it either through a tweet about my road trip, or from a Visit Scotland blog post, either way their Rock Rose Gin “gets its wonderful flavour from a carefully selected and put together creation of local and traditional botanicals. Each one meticulously chosen for their flavour properties to create the perfect taste”, and this perfect taste is derived from juniper berries, rhodiola rosea, sea buckthorn, blaeberries, cardamom, coriander seeds and verbena, among others.

If I’d know of their existence I could have stopped off and popped a box of gin in the boot of the car, just like Ian Banks in Raw Spirit (except his tipple of choice was whisky).

Dunnet Bay Distillers also makes vodka.

At the crossroads in the centre of the village, Dunnet Bay itself comes into view with the road swooping down almost to the shoreline before heading slightly inland where the sea disappears from view due to an expanse of sand dunes that create a natural barrier.

If I’d turned right at the crossroads I could have driven to Easter Head on Dunnet Head, the official northern most point of mainland Britain. The lighthouse there is still active, although unmanned since 1989. It was built in 1831 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson.

At the far end of the bay lies the derelict Castletown Mill, which was built in 1818 to process corn. It looks a sorry sight with its roof missing but otherwise it seems like it’s in a decent enough condition and there is talk of if it being converted to housing.

After another long straight section of road of about 10-miles I arrived in Thurso where, next to the town’s St George’s Park, the road I was on became the A9. I’d left it earlier in the day at Latheron and now I was back on it as I drove through town, with the A836 eventually returning when the A9 took a left at the Weight Inn to Scrabster, which is where the ferries to the Orkney Islands depart from.

Thurso is the most northerly town in the UK, and it also has the most northerly railway station in the UK, and I was now closer to the Arctic Circle than London by about 125 miles.

Beyond Thurso lay Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment, to give it its original name. It was built in 1955 and was chosen because of its remote location in case of an explosion; although you only assume that it was thought that Thurso, a mere 17 miles away, would come out unscathed if such an event ever occurred.

The final reactor to be built was taken offline in 1994 and since then all of them have been shut down, although the care and maintenance of the old plant and decommissioning activities have meant that it still retains a large work-force.

Soon after Dounreay, the scenery began to change; it now became a bit Yorkshire Dales with its stone cottages and drystone walls before gorse bushes started to emerge and the feeling of being back in the Highlands was once again with me.The mountains of Sutherland

The land was no longer being farmed; it was open moorland with the mountains of Sutherland in the distance. The long straight stretches of road were still there, but so to were a series of twists and turns and ups and downs around numerous stunning little bays. There was just so much to see that I had to limit the number of times I pulled over to take photographs.

Bettyhill was the largest place I’d seen since Thurso with a population of 576, according to the 2011 census. It lies at the brow of a hill with the bays of Farr and Torrisdale on either side before the road swoops down towards the River Naver where it then runs parallel with it before a narrow steel bridge takes it over the water for it to then climb up the other side of the valley and onto Kyle of Tongue.

The original village in the area was Farr, a mile east of Bettyhill, which formed part of the 1.5 million acre estate of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland before it was abandoned during the Highlands Clearance.

The Duchess, or Countess Elizabeth Sutherland Leveson-Gower as she was before the Clearance, was the driving force behind them in the Sutherland area, although for some reason she had a replacement village built for Farr and named it after herself; Bettyhill.

It was the second time that day I’d had “dealings” with the Sutherland’s, having driven past the family seat of Dunrobin Castle.

Just after Bettyhill a couple of old MGs came towards me, and then a few more several minutes later; and so it continued for many miles. I later found out that it was around 50 members of the MG owners’ club on a rally from Ullapool to Inverness. Their cars were MGs from the 1930s and 40s, and I spent an hour or so exchanging hand waves with the drivers and their passengers now that I was part of the “open top club”.

Beyond Bettyhill lay the Kyle of Tongue, a shallow sea loch with a causeway across.Kyle of Tongue

There was a ferry until 1956 but the rise of the motor vehicle made it uneconomic and it wasn’t until 1971 that the causeway was opened; until then motorists had to go on a 10-mile journey inland to get around it. But what a journey, a singletrack road across open moorland with the 764-metre high Corbett of Ben Loyal looming in the distance on one side and, better still, the magnificent Munro of Ben Hope on the other towering at 927-metres.

There’s a large lay-by to the eastern end of the causeway so I pulled over and took a few photographs before pressing on for a further 10 miles to Hope, where a sharp twisting descent took me down to where Loch Hope becomes the River Hope. I was now around 20 miles to my overnight stop of Durness.

A sharp rise on the other side of the river and over a hill and I was looking down on another sea loch, Eriboll, which is almost 10 miles in length; and just beyond the headland where the long-gone Heilam Ferry ran from the road became singletrack and remained that way almost to Durness. It also rarely strayed far from the side of the loch or the Atlantic coast as I made the final few miles to Durness.Loch Eriboll

The largest island in the loch, Eilean Choraidh, was used as a representation of the German battleship Tirpitz for aerial bombing practice by the Fleet Air Arm before the successful Operation Tungsten, in April 1944. The surviving 33 German U-boats formally surrendered there in 1945, ending the Battle of the Atlantic.

The western side of the loch is also the studio, and home, of the renowned Danish ceramic artist Lotte Glob.

As I approached Durness I quickly left the open moorland behind, the landscape changed and I was back to that of John o’ Groats; remote farms and pastureland.

My B&B for the night, Aiden House, was the last building at the far end of the village towards Balnakeil Craft Village, which was converted in the early-1970s from a disused military camp and turned into what has now become a thriving community of artists and crafts people.

Aiden House was a great location even though I hadn’t realised it when I made the booking over the phone in Inverness the evening before. It was built in 2010 and is a dormer bungalow that looks like a log cabin. My room was on the ground floor and was the polar opposite to the chintz of the previous evening; and tonight I’d even have my own bathroom!

I’d driven around 220 miles and had only eaten an Eccles Cake (but a large one at that) all day so I immediately headed out to refuel.

The only place I was aware of was the bar attached to the Sango Sands Oasis Campsite which was just along the road that had brought me into Durness.

There I ordered a pint of Tennent’s Lager and a macaroni cheese and sat at a table overlooking Sango Bay. My food arrived quickly and it was identical in every way to the one I’d eaten the evening before.

Afterwards I followed a path from Durness Visitor Information Centre (now known as Durness iCentre) down to the beach and climbed on a large rock until the tide threatened to block me off.Sango Beach

It was now dusk so I decided to pop back to my room and grab my head torch and walk to the beach at Balnakeil Bay, which was just under a mile away.

Even with a head torch, though, it was too dark to see properly so I sat on one of the sand dunes for a while in the pitch black, before retiring for the night.

I had decided, though, that in the morning I’d drive to Smoo Cave, which I passed on the way into Durness, as well as making a return visit to Balnakeil to see what I’d missed. And then it would be time to drive to Lochinver.

To be continued…

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