RIGHT TO THE TOP OF BRITAIN!
Our Scottish Highland road trip continued today as we headed due north from the Black Isle, bound for Thurso. We covered about 300km in a little over 8 hours, stopping every few minutes (or os it seemed!) for photos. We had been warned that the scenery along this eastern coast of Scotland is less dramatic than along the western side; certainly it’s more about expansive plains than high peaks and deep valleys, but to us it was still an impressive landscape. The highlight of the day, however, was without a doubt the majestic Dunrobin Castle.
Our day started with sunshine and some great views over the rolling green hills of the Black Isle (our B&B last night was in the midst of the Scottish countryside). We even got to see some Highland Cows up close. They are so adorable, with their fop of hair!
After a hearty Scottish breakfast (i.e. guaranteed heart attack on a plate) we set off across the Cromarty Bridge and along the northern shore of the Firth* of Cromarty. The oil rigs we saw yesterday were once again visible as we drove along the firth.
*In Scottish a “firth” refers to a narrow sea inlet.
Driving along the east coast we passed a few small fishing villages which we didn’t stop at, though by the time we got to Dornoch we were ready for a stretch and a coffee.
Dornoch is home to about 700 souls, a famous golf course, and a rather magnificent cathedral. It is also notable as the last place a witch was burnt in Scotland. Her name was Janet Horne; she was tried and condemned to death in 1727. Golf isn’t our thing, but the cathedral was interesting. Built of local red granite it glinted and gleamed beautifully in the sun and made for an interesting diversion during our drive.
Our next stop of the day was Dunrobin Castle, the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest castle in the northern Highlands. It’s also one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland. The castle, which resembles a French chateâu with its towering conical spires, is surrounded by ornate formal gardens and overlooks the Firth of Dornoch.
Parts of the castle and the gardens are open to the public for visits, as is a small museum on the grounds which houses the trophy heads of animals shot by family members on safari, ethnographic items from around the world and a collection of Pictish archaeological artefacts. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos inside the castle or the museum, so you’ll have to take our word for it when we say it was great!
What we COULD take photos of whilst we were there were the falcons, hawks, owls and other birds of prey housed in the castle’s mews. They were so awesome to see!
And then we got to watch the falconry display/show, run by the estate’s falconer. He showed us how he trains and hunts with the hawks and falcons, and then brought out a large grey owl to show us how they hunt and fly. It was incredible to watch and gave us both a new appreciation for these birds of prey and their importance in Medieval life.
We ended up spending 2 hours at Dunrobbin Castle, but eventually we got back on the road and headed on to the village of Helmsdale for a late lunch. This cute little village sits at the estuary, where the Helmsdale River meets the ocean. It was once a prosperous fishing town, but as herrings are no longer in high demand, it now relies on tourism to sustain it.
After the Helmsdale the landscape got progressively more desolate, with treeless moors and peat bogs stretching out for miles ahead. We passed a lot of collapsed stone cottages during the drive, most abandoned during the 18th and 19th centuries during the Highland Clearances.
Eventually we arrived in Thurso, Scotland’s most northerly township and the most northerly destination for us during this entire trip. It was an important Norse port, and has a later a major trading port and fishing town. Today it’s a quiet town whose main industry is tourism – Thurso is one of the main places from which ferries out to the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands leave. Set on the coast the town is perched across a series of dramatic cliffs that plunge hundreds of metres down into the Atlantic Ocean.
Not far from Thurso is Dunnett Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland. We couldn’t go this far and not ALL the way to the top, so we went up to Dunnett Head after checking in and dropping our stuff off. It was incredibly windy up there, but stunning. Scotland sure is spectacular!
We’re back in our hotel now and, after 8 hours of driving and exploring, we’re exhausted. We’ve had dinner and a hot shower, so all that’s left to do is crawl into bed and dream of winding roads, expansive vistas and the beauty of Scotland….