We had a wonderful dawn walk through the nature reserve, but left Little Ferry sharpish after our conversation with the local lady and continued on our way up the East Coast. Ali had recommended we call in at a community arts shop in Brora called The Otter’s Couch – and how would we resist? What a treat. Beautiful artwork of all kinds. I bought some camping and otter-themed cards and a sheepy coaster then got into a conversation with the lady in the shop who it turned out also had a dog named Otter. We shared photos and I went to get Otter to introduce her! She had a lovely time and a small photo shoot inside and outside the shop – so she is now featured on their Facebook page as well as mine!
This stretch was the first real section of the North Coast 500 that we did and it was tiring. Most people were driving the other way thankfully, including quite a few boy racers in hired sports cars and a rather fun vintage car rally all marked up with numbers and badges. But those going my way were also in a hurry and I found myself being harried by many, including a local bus. It is not as if I was driving that slowly: 50mph on average, a little slower on the bends. But they all seemed to be in a rush. Such a shame as the landscape is so beautiful. There is a limit to what you can take in speeding through at 70! So I stopped frequently just to take a break from the road.
The harbour at Helmsdale was pretty and gave Otter the opportunity for a short sniffari around the lobster pots. I loved their signs: Face the Hills on a flag waving from the harbour wall and Face the Sea on a building opposite.
I took a walk without the dogs to Badbea clearance village. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so far from the carpark or I might have taken them with me but it was a lovely walk and the ruined village is very atmospheric.
Our third “respite” stop was at the Cairn of Get. This again involved a much longer walk across the fields than expected but this time I had the dogs with me and it was great fun. The Cairn itself is an ancient burial chamber – all very interesting.
Finally we reached Wick and then John O’Groats – horribly touristy but a required stop for the obligatory photo at the signpost. After a hasty Orkney icecream we continued on our way and turn the corner onto the north coast.
Our destination was a CL called Crofter’s Snug, at East Mey, which had been highly recommended by our neighbours in Gardenstown. It did not disappoint. Right on the coast road the site had fabulous views across to Orkney and was just a short walk from the shore line and the Castle of Mey. We had a lovely walk, found a family of classic minis, and watched the sunset over Dunnet Head.
Day 10 started with our early walk down to the shore. This time we went down onto the rocks and we were all merrily jumping from rock to rock heading out to the water’s edge when I noticed one of the “rocks” just ahead moving! Seals! Dogs were hastily put on leads and we made our way quietly forward, getting quite close to what turned out to be a group of five or six seals on the rocks by the water. Just beautiful. Once Otter spotted them she started to puff and grumble so we turned away to avoid stress to all and retraced our steps up to the campsite.
It was a glorious sunny day and our first stop was the aforementioned Castle of Mey, renovated in the 50s by the Queen Mother just after the death of George VI. We stopped to have a look and I ended up on a tour of the house, which proved to be very informative and very long! But it is a lovely house – very much a lived in and loved home.
From there we drove up to the lighthouse at Dunnet Head for some lunch. Fabulous views on the way up and down and spectacular cliffs where many seabird colonies nest.
I was getting tired by this point so we continued on to Thurso (nice enough town), Scrabster (nothing but the ferry) past the massive Dounreay Power Station to Melvich, Strathy and Bettyhill. We were heading for Borgie to see friends from our Golcar days, Sue and Tony, who moved up to Borgie 17 years ago.
It must be around 12 years since I last saw them so we all had new dogs, theirs still Dobermanns, mine of course very different from the Maremmas I had when we last met. After a cup of tea and a catch up (doesn’t seem like 12 years!) we went back down to Bettyhill for a walk on the fabulous beach – Martha and Otter having a great time playing with Sue and their young rescue Dobie Zara. We finished off the evening with a fish and chip supper, from the opening night of a new dining spot in the village – and excellent it was too.
Back at their cottage, I was treated to hook up, a chance to do the laundry without any hassle this time, and showers – as well as access to a 2 acre field for the dogs. Luxury!
I stayed the next day with Sue and Tony. It was a very sunny if windy day and we were meeting friends of Sue and Tony for a dog walk at Talmine. In the end there were five of us and five dogs – and everyone got on famously. Having tried to provide a cuppa for everyone from the van and being defeated by an issue with the gas, we all went up to the local post office to get hot drinks!
In the course of conversation it transpired that one of the ladies, Lesley, had met me many years before in Meanwood Park with the Maremmas! What a small world. Lesley had moved up from Yorkshire a couple of years before and had adopted a handful of sheep, including Champ, a rigg with a bad chest. She had been given a syringe of medication by another farmer but wasn’t sure how to administer it so I leapt at the chance to do a bit of shepherding and went with her to drench the sheep!
Champ was a Cheviot so bigger than the Shetlands I am used to but he was very obliging and much less flighty. After one false start, he trotted up the hill following Lesley and the sheep nuts, straight into the small shelter where I was hiding to close the gate. Once penned he was easy to handle and I was able to show Lesley how to give the drench. What fun to play with sheep again – and to be able to help out one of Sue’s friends.
It was now 2pm but we managed to catch the end of the local “Soup and Sweet” lunch in Tongue village, and I had delicious Courgette and Basil soup followed by the most amazing meringue – all for £3.50. Plus the chance to meet some more of Sue and Tony’s neighbours and experience something of village life.
Our final stop was Novar, a croft that Sue and Tony have acquired since we last met, and which they have developed to provide two holiday lets (a luxury static caravan and a cottage – check them out at … if you are in the neighbourhood. It has the most stunning views over the Kyle of Tongue. The croft also houses a large vegetable plot, complete with polytunnel, small wind turbine and ducks, where they are successfully growing a vast range of fruit and vegetables. Tony has done most of the work renovating the croft and creating the polytunnel and vegetable area himself by hand – an incredible achievement. I left with a large bag of fine veggies and a bunch of delicious tiny grapes – which will see me good for the next few days.
We ended the day with a delicious stew of local beef and home grown veggies – wonderful – and I retired to the van to make soup with all my left over veg.
I could have stayed longer and it would have been lovely but I am conscious that I have a deadline for reaching Cumbria so I decided to press on the next day and after a morning walk with Sue and Tony and the dogs in Borgie Forest, we said our goodbyes and set off again.
We started with a brief diversion to Skerray Harbour just along from Borgie then we retraced our steps to Sue and Tony’s and continued on past Novar to the Kyle of Tongue, a dramatic and windy causeway across the water. As we’d been the Mhoine to Talmine the day before, we continued straight on towards Durness.
What a road! Mostly single track, it wends its way through craggy hills, up and down some steep inclines. Round almost every corner was another “wow” moment. Just stunning.
Durness was less interesting and very busy, especially around Smoo Caves, so since I had visited them on a previous occasion and it was way too hot to leave the dogs for any length of time in the van, we continued past and instead went up to Balnakeil Bay and its fantastic beach.
We had been here before with Sue and Tony and on that occasion the tide was out and the beach huge. Today it was in and the beach was much smaller but still just lovely for a walk – though very hot. So after splashing around in the surf we returned to the van and continued on up to Kinlochbervie where there is a large commercial port. Our final stop was another free camp in the car park at Oldshoremore.
What a treat. A flat car park with toilet and bins, Highland cows grazing and a burn running alongside, and a couple of minute walk to the most beautiful white, sandy beach. I am running out of superlatives for the beaches along this coast! We are sharing the car park with a couple of other vans so it feels very safe. We are all fed, dogs are sleeping off their glut of beaches and I am catching up on blog and photos, though there is still no signal so will have to wait to upload!