A Road Trip to the Far North

North Coast 500Nicola here. I’ve always loved a road trip, whether real or fictional. In my time I’ve been lucky enough to circumnavigate Iceland, drive across a fair bit of Southern Africa and enjoy a fabulous journey on the iconic Route 66. Last month, though, we took to the road closer to home and travelled the North Coast 500. This amazing route around the Highlands of Scotland is becoming one of the most popular driving routes in the world and I can totally see why. It has stunning views and even more amazing history to take in on the way and I thought I would share a little of that here today.

Our base for the first week of our holiday was Torridon, on the west coast, near the imposing Kidnapped - UK mountains of Beinn Eighe. We’d stayed there many times before and explored the mountains and beaches of that part of Scotland. In fact I’ve set two books, Kidnapped and Claimed by the Laird, in that area, inspired by the fantastic museum at Gairloch. From Torridon we drove up the west coast and were into new territory.

ArdvreckUnfortunately it was a horrible day as you can tell from the photo! We stopped off at Ardvreck Castle, which probably looks gorgeous on a sunny day and on a driech one (Scottish for wet, miserable and cold!) it was very atmospheric.  Ardvreck was built in 1597 and it was there in 1650 that the Scottish hero of the Royalist cause, Jams Graham, Marquis of Montrose, gave himself up to parliamentarian forces. Ardvreck is now a very picturesque ruin, as is the laird’s house – Calda House, which was built as a more comfortable alternative to the castle. Calda was burned down mysteriously in 1737.

Having got soaked and blown around it was time for lunch and we headed to the most remote bookshop in Britain, Achins,for a bowl of soup to warm us up – and a browse in the shop of course. The bookshop is currently for sale if anyone fancies taking it on… I must say I was tempted!

Forty miles from our destination of Durness on the North coast, the exhaust pipe came loose on Kyle of Durness the car and we broke down. Luckily for us, especially considering that we literally were in the middle of nowhere, there was a friendly and exceptionally helpful breakdown van man who had come to help someone else and took time out to temporarily fix our exhaust, sufficiently that we could get where we were going. So we rolled into the village of Durness only slightly later than we had planned! At least we had a great view to distract us from the noises the car was making!

Balnakeil churchWhat a gift Durness is for the historical author! Our holiday cottage was right on the beach, amongst the sand dunes where twenty years or so ago they found a Viking burial. Not just that, it was situated next to the “big house”, the Castle of Durinas, and across from the ruined church of Balnakeil. The first church on the site was built in the 8th century by Saint Maelrubha who also founded the monastery of Applecross in Torridon which is another of my favourite places.  There is such an air of peace about it. At Balnakeil there is the 17th century tomb of Donald MacLeod, a local robber and enforcer for the laird, who was said to have disposed of the bodies of his enemies down the waterfall at the nearby Smoo cave. The tomb has some fascinating carvings and it’s said that Donald asked to be buried inside the church at great expense to prevent his enemies from defiling his tomb after his death.

Balnakeil House, anciently known as the Castle of Durinas, is also a holiday let – yes, you can Castle of Durinasactually stay there! It was empty when we were there and I couldn’t resist… I don’t usually do the “I’m a historical author and I’d love to see inside your house because I want to put it in a book” routine – I find it embarrassing to do that – but on this occasion I overcame my diffidence because I was so curious to see it. It’s an astonishing place with an atmosphere thick with history and ghosts and a room panelled from the wood of a shipwreck… It’s definitely going to be in a timeslip story of mine in future!

CaveSmoo Cave, scene of Donald MacLeod’s misdeeds, is a spectacular limestone cave with a viewpoint overlooking the waterfall, which falls over 60 feet. It was thundering down the sink hole when we were there as there had been so much rain. Again, this was a place with connections to the Vikings and it was easy to imagine their ships slipping up the river outside to take secret cover in the cave – the name is supposed to derive from the Norse word 'smjugg' or 'smuga' meaning a hole or hiding-place.

This is a whistle-stop tour of the northernmost part of the North Coast 500 – we’re going to have to go back soon to explore the rest. The area is packed with history and stunning scenery of beaches, mountains and lochs. It’s truly spectacular and you meet some interesting fellow travellers along the way!

Have you been on a favourite road trip, or read a book about one? I took an ancient copy of Cockermouth Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail along with me to read!

80 thoughts on “A Road Trip to the Far North”

  1. Nicola, So wonderful to read this. We took our children to Culkein, Stoer for a series of summer holidays. We only stopped when some busybody told them that there were places in the world where you didn’t need to wear an anorak on the beach. However, last laugh, they all as adults go back quite often. Assynt is magical and if you do buy Achins bookshop, I’ll visit – a lot. anne

    Reply
  2. Nicola, So wonderful to read this. We took our children to Culkein, Stoer for a series of summer holidays. We only stopped when some busybody told them that there were places in the world where you didn’t need to wear an anorak on the beach. However, last laugh, they all as adults go back quite often. Assynt is magical and if you do buy Achins bookshop, I’ll visit – a lot. anne

    Reply
  3. Nicola, So wonderful to read this. We took our children to Culkein, Stoer for a series of summer holidays. We only stopped when some busybody told them that there were places in the world where you didn’t need to wear an anorak on the beach. However, last laugh, they all as adults go back quite often. Assynt is magical and if you do buy Achins bookshop, I’ll visit – a lot. anne

    Reply
  4. Nicola, So wonderful to read this. We took our children to Culkein, Stoer for a series of summer holidays. We only stopped when some busybody told them that there were places in the world where you didn’t need to wear an anorak on the beach. However, last laugh, they all as adults go back quite often. Assynt is magical and if you do buy Achins bookshop, I’ll visit – a lot. anne

    Reply
  5. Nicola, So wonderful to read this. We took our children to Culkein, Stoer for a series of summer holidays. We only stopped when some busybody told them that there were places in the world where you didn’t need to wear an anorak on the beach. However, last laugh, they all as adults go back quite often. Assynt is magical and if you do buy Achins bookshop, I’ll visit – a lot. anne

    Reply
  6. Anne, thank you so much. I am really pleased you enjoyed the blog post. I did laugh when I read your comment about there being places in the world where you don’t need to wear an anorak on the beach! I haven’t been to many of those in recent years; anoraks seem de rigeur the sort of places we visit!
    It’s very tempting to buy Achins. To own a bookshop/cafe has always been my dream!

    Reply
  7. Anne, thank you so much. I am really pleased you enjoyed the blog post. I did laugh when I read your comment about there being places in the world where you don’t need to wear an anorak on the beach! I haven’t been to many of those in recent years; anoraks seem de rigeur the sort of places we visit!
    It’s very tempting to buy Achins. To own a bookshop/cafe has always been my dream!

    Reply
  8. Anne, thank you so much. I am really pleased you enjoyed the blog post. I did laugh when I read your comment about there being places in the world where you don’t need to wear an anorak on the beach! I haven’t been to many of those in recent years; anoraks seem de rigeur the sort of places we visit!
    It’s very tempting to buy Achins. To own a bookshop/cafe has always been my dream!

    Reply
  9. Anne, thank you so much. I am really pleased you enjoyed the blog post. I did laugh when I read your comment about there being places in the world where you don’t need to wear an anorak on the beach! I haven’t been to many of those in recent years; anoraks seem de rigeur the sort of places we visit!
    It’s very tempting to buy Achins. To own a bookshop/cafe has always been my dream!

    Reply
  10. Anne, thank you so much. I am really pleased you enjoyed the blog post. I did laugh when I read your comment about there being places in the world where you don’t need to wear an anorak on the beach! I haven’t been to many of those in recent years; anoraks seem de rigeur the sort of places we visit!
    It’s very tempting to buy Achins. To own a bookshop/cafe has always been my dream!

    Reply
  11. As part of our two weeks in Scotland we drove the east coast in ‘15. All I wanted to see was Castle Mey and the dear man took me! Such a beautiful landscape with rainbows practically every day on this part of the trip. We stayed in B&Bs the whole time and met many lovely people and cows and sheep.

    Reply
  12. As part of our two weeks in Scotland we drove the east coast in ‘15. All I wanted to see was Castle Mey and the dear man took me! Such a beautiful landscape with rainbows practically every day on this part of the trip. We stayed in B&Bs the whole time and met many lovely people and cows and sheep.

    Reply
  13. As part of our two weeks in Scotland we drove the east coast in ‘15. All I wanted to see was Castle Mey and the dear man took me! Such a beautiful landscape with rainbows practically every day on this part of the trip. We stayed in B&Bs the whole time and met many lovely people and cows and sheep.

    Reply
  14. As part of our two weeks in Scotland we drove the east coast in ‘15. All I wanted to see was Castle Mey and the dear man took me! Such a beautiful landscape with rainbows practically every day on this part of the trip. We stayed in B&Bs the whole time and met many lovely people and cows and sheep.

    Reply
  15. As part of our two weeks in Scotland we drove the east coast in ‘15. All I wanted to see was Castle Mey and the dear man took me! Such a beautiful landscape with rainbows practically every day on this part of the trip. We stayed in B&Bs the whole time and met many lovely people and cows and sheep.

    Reply
  16. Nicola, this is definitely going into my “Northern Scotland” file! So many interesting things, and having a car breakdown can make one think of carriage breakdowns. So handy to have a helpful repair van turn up! I’m looking forward to reading about that mysterious castle in one of your future books. *G*

    Reply
  17. Nicola, this is definitely going into my “Northern Scotland” file! So many interesting things, and having a car breakdown can make one think of carriage breakdowns. So handy to have a helpful repair van turn up! I’m looking forward to reading about that mysterious castle in one of your future books. *G*

    Reply
  18. Nicola, this is definitely going into my “Northern Scotland” file! So many interesting things, and having a car breakdown can make one think of carriage breakdowns. So handy to have a helpful repair van turn up! I’m looking forward to reading about that mysterious castle in one of your future books. *G*

    Reply
  19. Nicola, this is definitely going into my “Northern Scotland” file! So many interesting things, and having a car breakdown can make one think of carriage breakdowns. So handy to have a helpful repair van turn up! I’m looking forward to reading about that mysterious castle in one of your future books. *G*

    Reply
  20. Nicola, this is definitely going into my “Northern Scotland” file! So many interesting things, and having a car breakdown can make one think of carriage breakdowns. So handy to have a helpful repair van turn up! I’m looking forward to reading about that mysterious castle in one of your future books. *G*

    Reply
  21. That sounds wonderful, Denise! I’m looking forward to seeing the Castle of Mey on my next visit. We can certainly identify with the rainbows every day as well – all weathers in one day!

    Reply
  22. That sounds wonderful, Denise! I’m looking forward to seeing the Castle of Mey on my next visit. We can certainly identify with the rainbows every day as well – all weathers in one day!

    Reply
  23. That sounds wonderful, Denise! I’m looking forward to seeing the Castle of Mey on my next visit. We can certainly identify with the rainbows every day as well – all weathers in one day!

    Reply
  24. That sounds wonderful, Denise! I’m looking forward to seeing the Castle of Mey on my next visit. We can certainly identify with the rainbows every day as well – all weathers in one day!

    Reply
  25. That sounds wonderful, Denise! I’m looking forward to seeing the Castle of Mey on my next visit. We can certainly identify with the rainbows every day as well – all weathers in one day!

    Reply
  26. All my summer holidays as a child were spent on the West coast of Scotland or in Caithness. So anorak holidays all the way. We were rather flabbergasted by 1976 when the sun shone non-stop. We went to Portugal once and it was so boring just lying on a beach! We even had our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides. A really special place, apart from the midges 😉

    Reply
  27. All my summer holidays as a child were spent on the West coast of Scotland or in Caithness. So anorak holidays all the way. We were rather flabbergasted by 1976 when the sun shone non-stop. We went to Portugal once and it was so boring just lying on a beach! We even had our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides. A really special place, apart from the midges 😉

    Reply
  28. All my summer holidays as a child were spent on the West coast of Scotland or in Caithness. So anorak holidays all the way. We were rather flabbergasted by 1976 when the sun shone non-stop. We went to Portugal once and it was so boring just lying on a beach! We even had our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides. A really special place, apart from the midges 😉

    Reply
  29. All my summer holidays as a child were spent on the West coast of Scotland or in Caithness. So anorak holidays all the way. We were rather flabbergasted by 1976 when the sun shone non-stop. We went to Portugal once and it was so boring just lying on a beach! We even had our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides. A really special place, apart from the midges 😉

    Reply
  30. All my summer holidays as a child were spent on the West coast of Scotland or in Caithness. So anorak holidays all the way. We were rather flabbergasted by 1976 when the sun shone non-stop. We went to Portugal once and it was so boring just lying on a beach! We even had our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides. A really special place, apart from the midges 😉

    Reply
  31. Thank you so MUCH for the armchair travel. Keep the tours coming, as that’s the only way I can go these days.
    It sounds like a marvelously evocative set of scenes and historical perspecive.

    Reply
  32. Thank you so MUCH for the armchair travel. Keep the tours coming, as that’s the only way I can go these days.
    It sounds like a marvelously evocative set of scenes and historical perspecive.

    Reply
  33. Thank you so MUCH for the armchair travel. Keep the tours coming, as that’s the only way I can go these days.
    It sounds like a marvelously evocative set of scenes and historical perspecive.

    Reply
  34. Thank you so MUCH for the armchair travel. Keep the tours coming, as that’s the only way I can go these days.
    It sounds like a marvelously evocative set of scenes and historical perspecive.

    Reply
  35. Thank you so MUCH for the armchair travel. Keep the tours coming, as that’s the only way I can go these days.
    It sounds like a marvelously evocative set of scenes and historical perspecive.

    Reply
  36. What a wonderful trip, Nicola; thanks so much for sharing your experiences here.
    I put in an inter-library loan request for Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail about six months ago, and I’m still waiting. I always keep a lookout when I go into a thrift store just in case I get lucky. I’ve heard good things about the book ….

    Reply
  37. What a wonderful trip, Nicola; thanks so much for sharing your experiences here.
    I put in an inter-library loan request for Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail about six months ago, and I’m still waiting. I always keep a lookout when I go into a thrift store just in case I get lucky. I’ve heard good things about the book ….

    Reply
  38. What a wonderful trip, Nicola; thanks so much for sharing your experiences here.
    I put in an inter-library loan request for Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail about six months ago, and I’m still waiting. I always keep a lookout when I go into a thrift store just in case I get lucky. I’ve heard good things about the book ….

    Reply
  39. What a wonderful trip, Nicola; thanks so much for sharing your experiences here.
    I put in an inter-library loan request for Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail about six months ago, and I’m still waiting. I always keep a lookout when I go into a thrift store just in case I get lucky. I’ve heard good things about the book ….

    Reply
  40. What a wonderful trip, Nicola; thanks so much for sharing your experiences here.
    I put in an inter-library loan request for Dinah Dean’s Regency The Cockermouth Mail about six months ago, and I’m still waiting. I always keep a lookout when I go into a thrift store just in case I get lucky. I’ve heard good things about the book ….

    Reply
  41. I’m going to have to bump my copy of The Cockermouth Mail up…I got it some time back but it came so long after I’d first heard about it, it went on the TBR mountain because other shiny pennies came in at the same time (smile).
    Some of my favorite holidays have been anorak/rain coat type. Not intentionally, they were supposed to be dry and warm but the weather turned wet and blustery. It caused us to revise where we were going to camp but we still went!
    Visiting the Pacific Coast of the US is definitely raincoat/anorak weather! All three times I’ve ventured out that way.
    Love the discriptions of your travels…..actually love the descriptions and stories of all Wenchly travels.

    Reply
  42. I’m going to have to bump my copy of The Cockermouth Mail up…I got it some time back but it came so long after I’d first heard about it, it went on the TBR mountain because other shiny pennies came in at the same time (smile).
    Some of my favorite holidays have been anorak/rain coat type. Not intentionally, they were supposed to be dry and warm but the weather turned wet and blustery. It caused us to revise where we were going to camp but we still went!
    Visiting the Pacific Coast of the US is definitely raincoat/anorak weather! All three times I’ve ventured out that way.
    Love the discriptions of your travels…..actually love the descriptions and stories of all Wenchly travels.

    Reply
  43. I’m going to have to bump my copy of The Cockermouth Mail up…I got it some time back but it came so long after I’d first heard about it, it went on the TBR mountain because other shiny pennies came in at the same time (smile).
    Some of my favorite holidays have been anorak/rain coat type. Not intentionally, they were supposed to be dry and warm but the weather turned wet and blustery. It caused us to revise where we were going to camp but we still went!
    Visiting the Pacific Coast of the US is definitely raincoat/anorak weather! All three times I’ve ventured out that way.
    Love the discriptions of your travels…..actually love the descriptions and stories of all Wenchly travels.

    Reply
  44. I’m going to have to bump my copy of The Cockermouth Mail up…I got it some time back but it came so long after I’d first heard about it, it went on the TBR mountain because other shiny pennies came in at the same time (smile).
    Some of my favorite holidays have been anorak/rain coat type. Not intentionally, they were supposed to be dry and warm but the weather turned wet and blustery. It caused us to revise where we were going to camp but we still went!
    Visiting the Pacific Coast of the US is definitely raincoat/anorak weather! All three times I’ve ventured out that way.
    Love the discriptions of your travels…..actually love the descriptions and stories of all Wenchly travels.

    Reply
  45. I’m going to have to bump my copy of The Cockermouth Mail up…I got it some time back but it came so long after I’d first heard about it, it went on the TBR mountain because other shiny pennies came in at the same time (smile).
    Some of my favorite holidays have been anorak/rain coat type. Not intentionally, they were supposed to be dry and warm but the weather turned wet and blustery. It caused us to revise where we were going to camp but we still went!
    Visiting the Pacific Coast of the US is definitely raincoat/anorak weather! All three times I’ve ventured out that way.
    Love the discriptions of your travels…..actually love the descriptions and stories of all Wenchly travels.

    Reply

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