Friday, 17 November 2017

Rosslyn Chapel Roslin.

In 1446 Sir William St Clair founded Rosslyn Chapel to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge, and, like others of his station, to ensure his place in heaven. The building you see today is only part of what was intended to be a larger cruciform building with a tower, but as this took 40 years to build and Sir William died, it was never completed. What we are left with is a building that must be one of the most distinctive religious buildings in Britain.

I first learnt about this Chapel in one of the Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, Set in Darkness published in 2000. It involves a murder of a MSP and Rosslyn Chapel and the eight feet high Apprentice Pillar form an interesting part of the plot. This pillar is one of the best known of all the wonderful stone carvings inside the chapel. In an Account of the Chapel of Rosslyn written in 1774 by the Bishop of Caithness he describes this fascinating legend as follows:
The Apprentice Pillar.
The Master Mason, having received from the Founder the model of a pillar of exquisite workmanship and design, hesitated to carry it out until he had been to Rome or some other foreign part and seen the original. He went abroad and in his absence an apprentice, having dreamt that he had finished the pillar, at once set to work and carried out the design as it now stands, a perfect marvel of workmanship. The Master Mason on his return, seeing the pillar completed, instead of being delighted at the success of his pupil, was so stung with envy that he asked who had dared to do it in his absence. On being told that it was his apprentice he was so in flamed with rage and passion that he stuck him with his mallet, killed him on the spot and paid the penalty for his rash and cruel act
Some of the many carvings.

Most people where introduced to the chapel because of its inclusion in the film The DaVinci Code that was based on the Dan Brown novel. Apparently the visitors have increased so much because of the movie that the Trust was able to build the modern visitors centre.

As well as an abundance of uniquely magnificent carvings the chapel is shrouded in legend and mystery involving, amongst other things, the Knights Templar and Masonic associations.  Rosslyn Chapels Guides do a grand job of explaining the history of the building and the carvings as well as the St Clair dynasty.

Various elevations and views of the castle.

Once you have visited the chapel and before you leave the area, I would suggest a stroll into the Roslin Glen and on to the site of the ruined Roslin Castle. Access to the ruin is down a rather steep narrow pathway and can only be accessed by foot. There’s not much left of the 15th century building where Mary Queen of Scots stayed on her tour of the south west of Scotland in 1563. Although not open to the public there is still a habitual building that has been a holiday let since 1980, if you have the nerve to stay there? The castle is reputed to be haunted by a black knight on horseback and a phantom hound. But to be fair there aren’t many old castles’ in Scotland that is not haunted by something or other!

Autumn in the lovely Roslin Glen 

There’s no information on site so to find out more about the castle one must rely on the Internet and you will find out that there has been a castle on the site since the early 14th century when the St Clair family, Earls of Caithness and Barons of Roslin fortified the site. It was after the destruction of the castle, during the many wars between England and Scotland, in 1544, that it was rebuilt into the cliffs of Roslin Glen.
The famous Rosslyn black cat William.
A worth while visit next time your in Edinburgh, a number 37 bus goes right into Roslin village followed by a very short walk to the visitors centre. It is likely that the village initially grew up to house the large amount of craftsmen who were employed to build the chapel over the 40-year period.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

East Riding of Yorkshire.

After reading a very good review of Blue Rose Holiday Park just south of the wee village of Brandesburton and north of Leven it was decided to give the area the once over. The adult only campsite was excellent, well organised, and well laid out and has good clean warm facilities and is highly recommended.

Blue Rose Camp Site.

Brandesburton has a post office, a small supermarket some restaurants and most importantly a fish and chip restaurant/take-away. The name of the village is an old English word meaning the fortified farmstead of Brandr that is reputed to be a Scandinavian name.

St Mary's Church.

The Church of St Mary’s had a major restoration in the later part of the 19th century and this is probably the building we see today although from its appearance the church has been kept in good repair ever since. There may have been an earlier religious building on the site according to the Doomsday survey in 1086. As this looks to be a moneyed area I would imagine that the plate on a Sunday would be quite heavy and help towards the upkeep.
Medieval Cross.
On the village green you will find a medieval cross, which a wee information board informs the inquisitive visitor that this marked the site of a weekly Thursday market and a annual fair held on the 3rd May each year. This 14th century cross is alleged to be the best preserved medieval village cross in the East Riding of Yorkshire. In the 19th century the village stocks stood against the cross and it was also a regular meeting place for the local hunt that in my opinion was the ideal people to put in the stocks, but that another story. Restoration work we see on the base of the cross took place on November 2011 by the Parish Council.

Beverley Minster

Poppy Display inside Minster.

Thankfully there are cycle paths that allowed us to travel the eight miles from the campsite to Beverley. The roads leading to the town are very busy; full of non-stop traffic and the town itself is also very hectic.  As well as the normal market town shops there some very nice Georgian and Victorian buildings most of which surround the Beverley Minster. A minster is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a large or important church, typically one of Cathedral status in the north of England that was built as part of a monastery’. Our visit to this grand building was cut short as the afternoon we visited a funeral was to take place, the poor departed must of had a lots of friends and family as the body of the Kirk was very busy. Apparently this is the third religious building to be built on the site. The latest reincarnation was started in 1220 and is reputed to a grand example of English church architecture, although an imposing building both internally and externally I have visited much grander church property.
Dominican Friary.
Just across from the minster is the beautifully restored 14th century Dominican friary that houses the local YHA.

St Mary's Parish Church Beverley.

Equally as nice looking as the minster, but on a much smaller scale, is the Parish Church of St Mary’s the opposite end of town. Continuous building took place over a 400-year period between 1120 and 1530. The building contains many interesting features including a carvings of a rabbit dressed as a pilgrim, which is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit.

Cafe Velo.

Opposite St Mary’s is the Cafe Velo a specialist cyclist coffee shop and restaurant where you can hang your bike on the wall while having your coffee and cake.

St Michaels Church Catwick.

Another recommended bike ride that can be enjoyed on mainly back roads is in the opposite direction via Bewholme, a wee village with rather unusual looking church built in 1900, to Atwick, an area said to be haunted by a headless horseman who better stay away from the cliffs at the shore line because of some very dangerous looking erosion. After Atwick turn south on the B1242 for 2 miles to the sea side resort of Hornsea which like many other seaside towns came to prominence due to the introduction of the railway which lasted 100 years until closure in 1964. The town has a very nice sea front promenade, which seemed very busy even for November.

The wee village of Atwick.

The dangerous cliffs - not a place i would want to park our Motorhome!

The very nice sea front at Hornsea.

The East Riding of Yorkshire has some very flat and uninteresting countryside, nearly all is arable farmland and beasts are rarely seen, mind you the aroma of pigs is quite strong so there must be a specialist farms in the area - but we have been spoilt by our wonderful countryside north of the border.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

North Coast 500. The Lonely Lands.

I would recommend that you purchase Charles Tait’s informative guide before you set out on the coastal touring route that has come to prominence in the last two years and is known as Scotland’s Route 66. The North Coast 500, as its name implies, is just over 500 miles in length, starts and finishes in Inverness, and takes in what must be the most stunning scenery in the UK. Your journey will take you through picturesque villages, passed mountains, Lochs, glens, beautiful beaches and cliffs and give you an opportunity to discover castles, historical sites and other places of interest, which in turn will give you an intriguing look back into Scottish history.

1st Stage: Inverness.

Our first stop over was at the Torvean Caravan Park, a very nice independent site run by a very friendly young man. It’s ideally located at the side of the Caledonian Canal and a short walking distance from Inverness Town Centre via a very pleasant and picturesque stroll along side the River Ness.

Walk along the River Ness.

The Capital of the Highlands is a great place to start your 500-mile trip. The first thing that strikes you about Inverness is the amount of religious buildings, but as well as buildings that cater for various denominations there are plenty of other interesting places to visit.

Inverness caters for all donominations.

Inverness Castle.

On a good day its worth the five pound it costs you to ascend the 94 stairs to the Castle viewpoint to get a breath taking 360-degree view right across Inverness and the surrounding countryside. You also get a couple of floors of local legend including how St Columba was responsible for Loch Ness having its own monster. The castle was blown up by the Jacobite’s in 1746 so the medieval castle had to be rebuilt and is used today as the local Sheriff’s Court and therefore the main building is not open to the public. 

Flora MacDonald Statue.

Again we meet the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald in the form of a large statue by the Inverness sculptor Andrew Davidson erected in 1899.

The Victorian Market.

This closed in walk through market dates back to around 1890 and has a grand collection of shops and cafes and is somewhere to go when it’s raining!

Old High St Stephen’s Church.

The original Parish Church of Inverness is where the Government housed the Jacobite prisoners after the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746. Those condemned to death were taken out and then executed in the churchyard. Two stones can be seen, one with two curved hollows and the other with a v-shaped grove - nine paces apart. The blindfolded prisoner sat on one while the musket of the executioner rested in the grove of the other. Their bodies were removed by the ‘poor folk of Inverness’ and unceremoniously thrown into a pit outside the church boundary.
The graveyard also contains the burial monument of the Robertson's of Inshes, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of 17th century Scottish decorative masonry.

The Jacobite Stone.

Eden Court Theatre.

Originally opened in 1976 reopened in 2007 following a major revamp, as the biggest art centre in Scotland containing two theatres, two cinemas, two dance and drama studios and three floors of purpose built dressing rooms. It has an unbelievably large programme of advents.

Leakey Bookshop.

With a stock of books said to be over 100000, this independent bookshop is a real delight, and somewhere you can easily loose a couple of hours browsing. Housed in what was St Mary’s Gaelic Church this second hand bookshop is reputed to be the largest in Scotland.

Inverness Botanic Gardens.

Opened by a Royal in 1993 the gardens are described as ‘a oasis of calm and beauty’, which it certainly is. One of the nicest botanical gardens I have visited and highly recommended. You will also find a wee cafe that sells great coffee and cakes.

Camping next to northern section of the Thomas Telford built Caledonian Canal, this one opened in 1822; it gives you a chance to see the sea lock and railway swing bridge at Clachnaharry. Walking out to the far end offers some great views of the Kessock Bridge that carry the main A9 northwards.

Loch gates on the Canal.

The Black Isle.

Kessock Bridge 

Canal Trips on the Jacobite Queen.

2nd Stage: Inverness to Loch Carron.

On the west side of Inverness across the A9 there is a Tesco Superstore that has ample parking for large vehicles and a reasonably priced petrol station so it was an ideal place to stock up for the next stage of the trip. Although you can cross the Kessock Bridge the recommended route for the Tour of the North Highlands takes you east out of Inverness via Beauly, Garve and Achnasheen. Which on a good clear day offers some startling scenery but our journey was beset by rain and heavy mist so this curtailed our appreciation of the surroundings.

Beauly and the Lovat Hotel..
A rather splendid coffee shop in Beauly.

The picturesque wee village of Beauly lies just 10 miles from Inverness and boasts some interesting shops along side the remains of a Priory. John Byset founded the Priory in 1230 for the French order of Valliscaulian monks who were credited with naming the village. Although it has no roof, the building is in remarkable condition and remains a popular visitor attraction with coach party's breaking their tour journeys to view the ancient site.

The Priory.

It was still raining when we arrived at The Wee Camp Site, which is a great description of this site! It has a minimal amount of pitches with an adjoining facilities block that is quaint to say the least.

When the weather finally improved a walk through the village of Lochcarron, a former crofting and fishing community on the northwest side of the Loch, was in order. Previously linked to the oil industry it is now a tourist resort with a range of accommodation, a general shop and a couple of places to eat. Maybe it was the weather but Lochcarron is certainly not the most captivating village on route.

View across Loch Carron.

Lochcarron Main Street.

3rd Stage: Lochcarron to Poolewe.

When you leave Lochcarron the route to Inverewe Gardens Camp Site, just north of Poolewe, takes you through what must be one of the most uninhabited areas in Scotland. Even with the low-lying cloud, the en-route scenery is spectacular. From Tolrnapress you can appreciate the hills that surround the road that lead’s up to the village of Applecross via Bealach na Ba (pass of the cattle) and then you follow the single track road to Shieldarg, a planned fishing village, then onto Torridon, through the wonderful Glen of Torridon and then along Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and pick up the A832 to Gairloch Harbour and on to the Camping and Caravan Site on the shore of Loch Ewe.

The weather was not that good!
Gairloch Harbour a great place for boat trips.

The site is well organised and has all the good clean facilities that you would expect from a CCC site including a laundry that’s a wee bit over priced at £3:50 a wash.

Poolewe is a tiny village at the head of the Loch Ewe that attracts a great deal of tourists because of the close vicinity of Inverewe Gardens. The gardens and house are known as the ‘Oasis of the North’ and have been administered by the National Trust for Scotland since 1952. Built by Osgood Mackenzie who purchased the barren hillside in 1862, from then until his death in 1922 transformed it into magnificent gardens and woodlands. His daughter who also had the house rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1914 continued his work; the present house was finished in 1937, and open to visitors from 2016. The house and garden are a must visit and on a good clear day offer spectacular views and the chance to see plants and trees from all over the world. The estate also offers a large car park, a restaurant and a Bothy near the house where you can purchase coffee and home baking

The House.

The Study.

The Gardens

Situated between the village of Poolewe and Inverewe Gardens is a ruined chapel which has in it's burial ground a Pictish Stone one of the few found so far to the west. Also there are many other interesting old gravestones and also four military war graves. The Kirkyard is still in use today.
The Ruined Chapel.

The main wartime use of Loch Ewe was as a rendezvous for ships taking part in the Artic Convoys to Russia and if you journey up the Cove Road you will eventually come to what is left of the coastal defences for the ships anchored in the Loch and a memorial erected by ‘The Russian Convoy Club’ in memory of those that sailed from the Loch during World War 2 and lost their lives in the artic sea battles on their way to North Russia. Winston Churchill described this journey as the “worst journey in the world” over 3000 men lost their lives in the Artic waters between Scotland and USSR.

The Memorial.

The Defences.

4th Stage: Poolewe to Ardmair Point.

Ullapool is the main settlement in the northwest of Scotland and where you catch the CalMac ferry to Stornaway and the Outer Hebrides. The village itself, planned by Thomas Telford for the Herring industry, is a popular tourist attraction with a variety of shops and restaurants including the Seaforth Hotel and its adjoining fish and chip takeaway. It also has a car park designed for larger vehicles right next to a Tesco’s Store.

On the road to Ardmair Point. 
Ardmair Point Camp Site is just over three miles north of Ullapool and right on the edge of Loch Kanaird opposite Isle Martin. The campsite is adequate, but quite expensive.

The two nights spent here have been lashed with heavy rain but it did stop long enough for a walk to Rubha Cadail lighthouse that is near the small village of Rhue and sits on a peninsular that separates Loch Kanaird and Loch Broom, the main approach to the port at Ullapool. The lighthouse came into operation in 1952 and was originally built for the Northern Lighthouse Board but has since become the responsibility of Ullapool Harbour Trustees. It is unclear who designed the structure and its light, but does owe some of its design characteristics to the Stevenson family?

Views on the walk to the Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse.

5th Stage: Ardmair Point to Durness.

The journey across remote Sutherland from Ardmair to Durness, the most northern village on mainland Britain, must be one of the most magnificent scenic routes anywhere in Scotland. My advice would be to take advantage of the many ‘scenic view points’ signposted on the route. Its difficult to say which of the many stops I enjoyed most, but what ever you do make sure time is allowed for a stop at the edge of Loch Assynt to view the grandeur of what was Ardvreck Castle.        
The Lonely Lands.

Some views are worth waiting for.
According to the information provided, Ardvreck Castle is the 15th century seat of the MacLeod’s of Assynt and was built by Angus Mor the 3rd in the later half of that century. Some time later the castle was enlarged but by all accounts was still a small structure, needing adjoining buildings to house kitchens, staff quarters and the stables. The castle bore witness to the usual amount of violence, murders, executions and sieges. One particular 14-day siege of the castle was by the Mackenzie’s of Wester Ross and marked the end of MacLeod ownership of Assynt. The information board also tells us hat the weeping daughter of a MacLeod chief has been seen on the beach, she drowned in the Loch after she married the Devil in a pact to save her fathers castle. Also the ghost of a tall man in grey is often seen in the ruins. Neither appeared while we were there, maybe it’s was the large coach party that put them off?

Ardvreck Castle.

Sutherland is remote and to this day still bears witness to the great clearances of the early 19th century when landowners put sheep before people and forcibly removed families from there homes. Durness is the most northwesterly inhabited area of Britain with its 320 residents.

Lock Laxford.

Sango Sands Camping Site is situated along the cliffs above 1500m of beautiful yellow sandy beach, and with rock stacks protruding from both the sand and the near shore adds greatly to the character of the area. The site has its facilities spread far and wide and hopefully the new facilities block being built will improve on this. One fresh water tap for this sprawling site is certainly not enough and the pitches are two close together. But views from the site make up for any failings and it was worth an extra night to explore the area on foot.

Highly recommended is Smoo Cave that has the largest entrance of any sea cave in the British Isles. Its 15m high while the main chamber is 60m by 40m. On our visit the boat trip into the caves interior was cancelled due to the weather but the very powerful waterfall inside the cave can be observed from a purpose made viewing platform.

Smoo Cave.

I had no idea that John Lennon had a cousin in Sangomore in Durness and that he spent many happy holidays between the ages of nine and sixteen. In August 2002 the area around the community hall was landscaped in conjunction with BBC’s Beechgrove Garden. Part of the garden was dedicated as a memorial to the Beatle and is the only permanent memorial dedicated to John Lennon.
John Lennon's Memorial. 

A mile or so in the opposite direction is Coco Mountain, a chocolate cafe and factory that attract visitors from all over the world. While we were there a mini bus full of American ladies descended on the place. Its located in Balnakeil Craft Village that was originally built by the military as an early warning station at the beginning of the 1950’s but was abandoned in 1954. These typical concrete military buildings were left to rot that was until they were taken over by some enterprising hippies in the late 1960’s and turned into a Craft Village with a wide range of creative outlets.

Further on towards the vast sandy beach that forms Balnakeil Bay you will find a derelict Chapel surrounded by a number of interesting tombstones. An original Chapel was thought to have been established here in the 7th century, but the existing ruins date back to 1619. Balnakeil House opposite the Chapel was rebuilt in 1744 and is still used as prominent sheep farm today. Also there is the ruin of a 19th century mill that was last used for grinding oats in 1912.
The Chapel.
Balnakeil House.

The Old Mill.

The car park at Balnakeil Bay is the start of a 2.5-mile walk to Faraid Head. Walk along the beach to the far end where a road heads up into the dunes. Continue along this road until you reach the restricted MOD area; from here follow the boundary fence to the right that will take you up to a viewpoint marked with a cairn. Your return can be either the way you come or as an alternative head down across the grass area and across the dunes to pick up the roadway and then you can walk back across the beach. A stimulating and bracing walk with some great views.

The Trig Point.
View from the Trig.

6th Stage: Durness to Thurso.

Leaving Sutherland and driving across Caithness there is a change of scenery, not quite so rugged and a bit more pastoral with a small amount of conventional farm land. The route again involves driving on single-track roadways for a lot of the way including an interesting drive around Loch Eriboll. Our only stop off was at the Dounreay Nuclear Power Station which unfortunately does not now have a visitors centre. The Power Station is being dismantled and the three nuclear reactors are being decommissioned so until this work is finished, late in the 2030’s, it is still the major employer in this area.

Dounreay Nuclear Power station.

Thurso Bay Caravan and Camping Park has a commanding position to the west of the town and gives a panoramic view of the coastline from Scrabster and Holborn Head to Dunnet Head via the Orkney Island of Hoy. But the site itself leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the pitches were on very soft ground and if you got stuck the camp bore no responsibility to get you out! The only hard standings had no electric hook ups but fortunately we managed to park up on a small section of the site's roadway next to the busy main road. The facilities were more like ‘public conveniences’, walls and floors were tiled which in turn made it always feel cold and damp. So it was one of these rare times on this trip that we had to use our own facilities.

View from site
Thurso itself is an interesting wee town with a large population due originally to the flagstone industry and latterly to nearby Dounreay. It’s the largest town in Caithness with some nice shops, coffee bars, a large Tesco Superstore and a Lidl opposite the Camping Park. It also has some visitor attractions that can easily be seen in a day and on foot. A walk along The Esplanade built in 1882 is a nice way to start your sightseeing tour. Before you head over the pedestrian bridge stop at Wilson Street for a look around Old St Peters Kirk. Situated in the old part of Thurso, it dates back to at least 1125 but has been disused since 1832. Its graveyard has abundance of old tombstones and graves. The replacement Parish church St Peters and St Andrews can be seen in all its Gothic slender across Sir John’s Square.

Old St Peters Kirk.

The replacement Church.

A very weird landmark is the sad looking remains of Thurso Castle a Victorian Gothic ruin built in 1872 of which a large part was demolished in 1952 following a fire. The remaining structure can only be viewed from the outside. If you walk around to what was the main entrance you will find the gatehouse and associated lodge both in fair condition. From here you can easily walk back into town and up to the campsite.

Thurso Castle.

View of Thurso from the castle.

Gatehouse and Lodge.

7th Stage: Thurso to John O’ Groats.

John O’ Groats was a disappointment! Its a commercial tourist trap that's rather unkempt and sad which people only tend to visit for a selfie in front of the world famous fingerpost that signifies the furthest distance apart of any two places on the UK mainland. The 876-mile distance from Lands End in Cornwall has been used for all manner of record-breaking feats and to raise money for all kinds of charities. The first person to walk the distance was Elihu Buritt, an American, in 1865 so it's nothing new.

The famous Finger Sign.

The settlement was named after a Dutch settler Jan de Groot who operated a ferry to Orkney in the 15th century after the Orkney Island’s were annexed to Scotland in 1472. There is still a passenger ferry running from John O’ Groats to South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Venture carries up to 250 passengers in the summer months and is very popular with tourist.

The Ferry to Orkney.

The Dutchman was buried in Canisbay Kirk where in the vestibule you can still see a memorial stone to him. It used to be under the floor of the church but John Nicholson removed it in 1898 and embedded in the south wall, under the vestibule window. Recently it has been cleaned and moved to where it’s positioned now. The present church dates from the 17th century but there is evidence of a religious site well before that time.

Canisbay Church.

Jan de Groot's Memorial Stone.

Inside the Kirk.

From the John O’ Groat Caravan and Camping Site you can walk right along the shore line up to Duncansby Head via the Ness of Duncansby and passed the shell beaches where we saw a herd of perhaps 30 to 40 seals frolicking in the shallows and, at times on the shore. At the Head is one of Scotland’s 200 coastal lighthouses maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board. David A Stevenson built this Lighthouse in 1924 on the most north-easterly point of the British mainland.

Another Stevenson Lighthouse.

Walking south from the Lighthouse you can get the best views of the Duncansby Stacks, the Long Geo of Sclaites a collapsed cave, and the Knee, where at the right time of year you get to see Puffins, but unfortunately not in September.
Duncansby Stacks.

Long Geo of Sclaites.

The Knee.

I'm not sure I could recommend the camp site, its a transit site where nearly all pitches are vacated each morning no one seems to want to stay too long, two nights was even long enough for us. The nippy sweetie that ran the site closed down most of the cold and uninviting facilities even before we left.

8th Stage: John O’ Groats to Dunbeath.

We really struck lucky with the Inver Camping and Caravanning Site at Dunbeath, some of the best facilities during our main trip were found on this site. It is licensed for 15 pitches including 8 hard standings and 14 electric hook-ups, warm and clean private shower rooms with both sinks and toilets, laundry and drying room were also provided and the site, although by the side of the A9, it was very quiet. Mrs Gwillim was both friendly and helpful and does not over charge with a special offer for a 7 night stay.

Great facilities.

On the way to Dunbeath it’s worth stopping at Wick. Its an interesting wee town which has links to the great engineer Thomas Telford who was employed c.1805 by the British Fisheries to build a harbour and a new town which was called Pultneytown and is located on the south side of the Wick River. Wick became the largest herring fishing port in Europe during the 19th century. Pultneytown was eventually incorporated into Wick in 1902. There are lots to see including the Wick Heritage Centre, unfortunately we did not have time to explore further. For anyone who needs to stock up on supplies there is a very large Tesco’s on the way into town and a Lidl on the way out, both had adequate parking.

Pultneytown Habour.

A street named after the great man.

The village of Dunbeath has been by-passed by the world due to the modern road bridge that was erected in 1989 and carries the fast moving A9. The original bridge was built by Thomas Telford c.1815 and is still used to allow access to both Dunbeath village and Portamin Harbour. The village has a fine terrace of mid 19th century cottages, in one of which author and Scottish nationalist Neil Gunn was born in 1891. Gunn was a prolific writer of novels and is best known for Highland River (1937) and the Silver Darlings (1941). Also in the terrace are a Spar Shop and a Hotel that is now closed and looks in desperate need of renovation. Above the village you will find the Dunbeath Heritage Centre situated in the old village school where Neil Gunn started his education, but be aware its not always open when it says it is!

Neil Gunn was born in this 1st terrace house.

The original Telford bridge.

The one and only shop.

Ex School and now the Heritage Centre.

At the mouth of the Dunbeath Water is the Portamin Harbour originally built in the early 1880’s to cash in on the herring boom. It is now a very tranquil place where you can still see an old fishing store, an icehouse and a salmon fisherman’s bothy, all in remarkable condition. Also there a wee museum that gives a brief history of the local fishing boats. On the harbour side is an attractive statue depicting Kenn and the Salmon, celebrating the life of Neil Gunn, you also get a great view of Dunbeath Castle perched precariously on the edge of the cliffs. There is a picnic area at the end of the harbour road with benches to sit and soak up the wonderful relaxing atmosphere and offers views of seals swimming in the sea.
The Harbour.

Fishing Store.

Kenn and the Salmon. 

The view from Portamin Harbour.

A place to watch seals while relaxing and having a picnic. 

Dunbeath Castle is in private ownership but I believe you can see the gardens in August and it can be hired for weddings. A descendant of Charles Edward Stuart’s personal physician, Mr Stuart Wyndham Murray Threipland, bought the 30000-acre estate in 1997. The Murray Threipland’s were one of the Stuart royal family's strongest sympathisers with the Old Pretender staying at Fingask Castle, there ancestral home, during his 1715 uprising. The Scots Baronial style castle dates back to 1428 but has been remodelled many times since by its many different owners.
The driveway up to the castle.

Dunbeath Castle has links to the Jacobites. 

To sample the vast remoteness of Caithness I would suggest a walk up the Dunbeath Strath Heritage Trail. (A Strath is a large river valley that’s wide and shallow.) Along this route there was a thriving community until the Highland Clearances emptied the land. You will see plenty of evidence of this with the ruined crofts littered about the countryside after the forced land clearances. The first point of interest is the Meal Mill, built between 1850and 1860 and was in operation until 1950, it now houses a publishing company therefore the building is in very good condition. Just before a rather scary footbridge took us across the Houstry Burn, which was in full flow, there are some prominent stonewalls on the left that are believed to have been part of a monastery. This is mentioned in Neil Gunn’s ‘The Silver Darlings’. Next you get a chance to visit a well-preserved Iron Age broch dating back some 2500 years. It has been alleged that this was the broch besieged by Brude the Pictish king in 680 AD. An informative notice says that the windowless tower may have stood as high as 9m. In the summer of 1990 the local Preservation Trust under took some reservation work which makes it the best preserved of several broch’s in the Strath.
Meal Mill.

The Broch.

The bridge across the Houstry Burn.
The Burn.

Next you come to a fine gorge known as the Prisoners Leap. To reach this you have to come off the path and follow the deer fence towards the burn. Its here that Ian McMormack Gunn jumped the gorge to earn his freedom after being imprisoned in Forse Castle by his enemies the Keith's. They agreed that they would release Gunn if he successfully leaped over the gorge. With a tremendous show of courage and strength he succeeded in securing his freedom. It is alleged that because Gunn was an orphan and raised on ‘hindmilk’ (the breast milk at the end of a feed) he was able to complete the feat.

The site of the 'Prisoners Leap
As I mentioned before, the remoteness of the country side is due greatly to the ‘clearances’ and there is plenty of evidence of the old ruined settlements on the walk but just after the site of Gunn’s leap can be found a good example of a old croft, barn and cornkiln that would have formed part of a larger crofting settlement.

The old croft settlement.
Nothing left of the once thriving communities.

The beautiful country side on the Strath Trail.

The white cemetery of Tutnaguail was the culmination of our walk. This strangely placed burial ground is 3 miles from Dunbeath village and located in wide-open heather lands beyond any real civilisation. Although this was featured in Neil Gunn’s novel Highland River I could find no information about the cemetery.

The mysterious white walled cemetery.

8th Stage: Dunbeath to Dornoch.

The coastal route between Dunbeath and Dornoch takes you through some beautiful villages, places like Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie, before you turn off the A9 just after Evelix for Dornoch the former county town of Sutherland. These days its best known for its championship golf course but there's much more to interest an inquisitive traveller than a round of golf.

Back on the A9.
The picturesque houses in Dornoch.

In my opinion the first place to visit is the History Links Museum situated behind the Dornoch Castle Hotel. The museum focuses on local history including displays that cover local geology, the Picts, the Cathedral, Andrew Carnegie The First Sutherland Volunteers and the development of the golf course. Also you can see a films on Sutherland in 1950 and a very interesting one on The Dornoch Light Railway which helped develop the area as a tourist resort, unfortunately the branch line closed in 1960.

The local Museum.

The defunct branch line.

The Old Jail and Information Centre.

The Castle.

Another hot chocolate!

The centre point of this architecturally pleasing wee town is the Cathedral. It was Gilbert de Moravia Bishop of Caithness who in 13 century, at his own expense, had the cathedral built. Consecrated in 1239 it was destroyed by fire during a clan feud between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland in 1570. Now the parish church, it was restored by Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland between 1835-37. There are some very impressive examples of stained glass windows, three of which commemorate the steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who lived at Skibo Castle nearby who, along with his daughter Margaret, was very generous to the church providing money for both organ repairs and rebuilding as well as the lighting. Also its were Madonna married film director Guy Richie in 2000. It's a church with both beauty and warmth and one that's been very well maintained over the years.

The Cathedral.

The original building burnt down in 1570.

Another point of local history is that Dornoch was the last place in Scotland to have a person to be burnt to death as a witch. Janet Horne was a lady's maid before she married; by 1727 she was old and confused. It was reported that the old lady was using witchcraft to turn her daughter, who had a deformed hand, into ‘the devils pony’. Both mother and daughter were imprisoned in Dornoch where they were tried and found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. The day after Janet was stripped, rolled in tar and placed in a barrel. She was paraded through the streets and then burned alive. A stone has been placed next to the golf links and mark’s the place she died. The location of the stone occupies  a private garden but can still be seen.
The last place a witch was burnt to death in Scotland.

The spirit of Janet Horne.
A worth while day out is at Dunrobin Castle the historic home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland, the first of whom was responsible for the land clearances leading to hardship and the emigration of the Scottish people to the Americas and Canada. The castle itself is a grand building, a show of wealth and privilege that has been altered/added to three times since 1275. The staff are very helpful especially the guide that was in the 10000 book library who spent some time educating us on the history of the castle and of the modern family. Between the castle and the sea are  landscaped gardens and a summerhouse that houses prime examples of the brutality of the upper classes - those of a animal loving disposition should not visit this building! As usual a complete day should be set-aside for your visit and if you arrive early parking of large vehicles is not a problem.

Dunrobin Castle.

The front entrance and car park.

The Gardens.

The brutality of the upper classes.
One very interesting exhibit in the Summer House.

The Dornoch Caravan Park is situated between sand dunes and two golf courses one of which is the world renowned Royal Dornoch, therefore the pitches are very open to the elements and believe me there are some very strong winds at times! The site is very large with a lot of static caravans; the facilities are cleaned twice a day, although they not particularly warm!

Plenty of room on this site.
The Beach and ....

...the shore in front of the camp site.

This stop marked the end of our ‘North Coast’ travels, all we had  left was to drive back to Inverness although we decided not to stay in the city this time but drive on to Stirling for a few days before returning home.

I'm sure the local businesses are happy, economy wise, to have attracted thousands more visitors to the area due to the hype piled upon the NC 500 but the large amount of people en route and pitched on the sites spoils the normally quiet and tranquillity of touring around Scotland. I'm sure that a lot of the tourist that travel on the route don't stop anywhere long enough to spend money and enjoy many of the points of interest that can be visited following an interesting walk or a short bike ride. There does seem an abundance of ‘boy racers’ in sports cars, lots of motorcyclist and of course arm waving idiots in Motorhome’s who never speak to you when pitched on site during their single night stops.

The campsite's varied between the good and not so good and I have dealt with each site in the body of the main blog.

Weather is always a problem when touring Scotland even in the summer months, but after living here for 25 years one tends to get use to it although the abundance of wind, rain and low lying cloud did somewhat spoil our enjoyment of the beautiful scenery that was on offer and at times did make walking and cycling a wee bit uncomfortable.

I have read that people prefer the west coast and find the east coast uninteresting which is a lot of nonsense because each side of the country has its own attractions and if people took the time to explore then I think they would have to agree that the east side has just as much to offer as the west. We very much enjoyed the three and a half weeks spent touring what is now globally known as the North Coast 500 and if like us you make the most of your trip by making plenty of stop overs and get off your backsides and explore each area then I'm sure you would enjoy the trip far more. But be warned this route is going to get even more popular which, like Skye, is obviously going to suffer infrastructure problems if more money is not invested in improving roads and facilities.