Touring guide - what to see, where to stay - Part 1, Inverness to John O'Groats
What to see and what to do on the way
This spectacular drive was first conceived in 2015 as a tourism project, and was designed to let drivers and other travellers go through one of the most scenic parts of Scotland on a designated route. It is used both by car drivers and by cyclists, and is about 500 miles / 800 km long. It starts and ends at Inverness, the main town of the Highlands.
The map of the North Coast 500 above shows its route, and possible detours (dotted lines) – these are all described below and in part 2.
While having brought many economic benefits to the towns, villages and settlements along the way, the North Coast 500 has also brought increased traffic and so slowed travel for locals: you can help here by always pulling over on narrow single track roads to let following traffic pass, never parking in passing places on single track roads, and being considerate of pedestrians and other road users.
It is believed that doing the NC500 route anti-clockwise, in other words heading north from Inverness, is the superior direction, as the scenery becomes more dramatic day by day, and that is the way the route and the itinerary will be described below.
Driving the route will be more enjoyable if you take your time; treating it as a race is really pointless. Taking about 5-7 days will increase your chances of getting some better weather too!
We have chosen to note below the main attractions of each area or town along the North Coast 500 – this includes natural features like beaches, mountains and waterfalls as well as wildlife spots and historical sites. These attractions are not all shown on Google maps, and we recommend getting the Ordnance Survey maps for your device. The detail those maps have is unmatched, and often the unexpected beach, ancient site or walking trail you find using them becomes a memorable experience. Some OS grid references are included below for particular sites.
North Coast 500 accommodation options and places to stay are also included for each area. This can be limited in the summer season – the route goes through some of the least populated parts of Scotland – so book your accommodation early.
Traditionally you would start your drive or cycle from Inverness castle, in the middle of town.
You can then either head west on the A862 to Beauly and Muir of Ord, and so to Dingwall; or, you can go north on a detour over the Kessock bridge to do a tour of the Black Isle, also going on then to Dingwall. The Black Isle (really a peninsula) is bounded by the Cromarty Firth to the north and the Beauly Firth to the south, and has many interesting features which make this option worthwhile.
BLACK ISLE OPTION
Across the Kessock Bridge going north on the A9 look out for the Allangrange turnoff on the right and you can visit the Black Isle Brewing Co, an organic microbrewery which grows its own barley and offers tours and a shop. From there carry on northeast to reach the B9161 and the A832 to reach Fortrose village.
This town has the remains of a 14th century cathedral in the middle of town, including the chapter house and part of the nave. It is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, with information on site. You can also drive to the end of the spit at Chanonry point for a view of the Moray Firth and a chance to spot dolphins and seals (car park summer charge).
Just east of Fortrose, the village of Rosemarkie has the Groam House museum, which has many of the beautiful Pictish carved stones collected from this area. There is a good walk from the carpark at the north end of the village up the Fairy Glen, with waterfalls. Rosemarkie has a claim to fame: it has the highest sunshine hours and lowest rainfall in Scotland, with the high mountains to the west including the Ben Wyvis range collecting most of the rain which would otherwise fall here. Walking north from the beach along the shore or on the coastal path for 1.5km will let you discover some caves to explore when the tide is low. For a more isolated beach, go along the minor road north of Rosemarkie and past the radio masts to park beside the track at NH 76892 63505. You can then descend to the beach. This is part of the Hugh Miller Trail.
Continue on to the end of the peninsula to visit Cromarty. This attractive village has Hugh Miller’s cottage, with information on the life and work of the famous stonemason turned geologist and writer, who was the author of ‘The Old Red Sandstone’. (His book, ‘First Impressions of England’ is also worth a read.) The Miller monument stands on the high ground behind the village, and was erected in 1859. Boat trips from the village can take you out to see seals and dolphins.
There is a path from the village to the South Sutor (463 feet/ 141 metres), the headland overlooking the entrance to the Cromarty Firth.
From Cromarty you can travel along the north side of the Black Isle (B9136) to the Cromarty bridge, and so on to the A9 heading north.
Avoiding the Black Isle, the first village you reach on the A862 will be Beauly.
This small village has a ruined but attractive 13th century priory in a grassy space the middle of town, which belonged to the French Valliscaulian order. There is information on site.
This small town has full supermarket facilities and you may want to stock up if you are heading for self-catering accommodation that night.
Alness – Fyrish monument
Passing Evanton you will notice this strange monument of arches and towers which looks a bit like a castle on the hilltop on the left. This is the Fyrish monument, built in 1782, as a work project for people thrown off the land in the Clearances. You can walk up through the woodland to visit the monument on the Jubilee path – it takes about 2 hours return. Dedicated car park at NH627715, off the B9176.
Continuing north on the A9, you will reach Tain on the Dornoch firth.
This is an attractive small royal burgh, with the ruins of the 12th century St Duthac’s chapel. It also has the Genmorangie distillery, which offers paid tours. Glenmorangie is a light and mellow dram, and often acceptable to those who are not ‘whisky drinkers’.
North of Tain
From Tain you can go directly up the A9 to Dornoch, over the Dornoch Firth bridge, or take a pleasant diversion around the end of the firth to Bonar Bridge. If you go this way there is an easily accessible Pictish carved stone at Edderton (NH 70853 85063).
A short loop eastward from the A9 you can visit the town of Dornoch, which may be your preferred stopping place for the night, if you have set out from Inverness that day. Click here for accommodation in Dornoch. The town has a wonderful long beach, and you can visit the 13th century Dornoch cathedral (free entry). Nearby is Skibo castle, once the home of Andrew Carnegie, and now offering membership and accommodation to present day millionaires and marriage facilities for film and pop stars. If you are in this happy group then elite membership is only £25,000 plus a fee of £8,000 a year.
Travelling north from Dornoch you will come to Loch Fleet, a wide sea loch which is a National Nature reserve. It is a tidal basin, bordered by native Scots pines. Access when coming from the south – turn off right on the minor road when the A9 reaches the loch and drive to the car park and viewing point. You should see waders, waterfowl and sometimes ospreys. You can also access the reserve from Golspie on the north side of the loch. Follow the golf course road to the Balblair woods, or further on to the beach.
Continuing up the coast from the small village of Golspie and signposted off the A9 (look out for the two square gatehouses) you can visit Dunrobin Castle (entry fee), home of the notorious Dukes of Sutherland, and built in the 19th century. Among other collections there is a good set of Pictish carved stones. About 2km east of the castle and on the right by the A9 (parking on the left) you can visit the remains of the Iron age Carn Liath broch (at NC 871013), which has preserved its entrance passage, guard cells and internal well, and some of its mural stairs.
The next small town you will come to on the North Coast 500 is Helmsdale. Located on Dunrobin st the Timespan museum and exhibition centre run by the Highland council has displays covering the local herring fishery, the Clearances, the 19th century gold rush and the Picts. There is also a reconstruction of a 19th century street and a croft house. Open 10-5 in summer – gardens and shop are free, museum has an entrance fee.
Ten minutes north of Helmsdale you will come to the car park for Badbea Historical village. The village was settled by those evicted from local straths in the late 18th century onwards, but abandoned by 1911, and you can see the ruined remains of the houses and the drystone walls on the clifftop. There are information boards onsite.
Travelling on through Caithness you will pass the village of Dunbeath, which as the birthplace of the writer Neil Gunn, and there is a memorial statue by the harbour. Inland there is a short walk up the river to the remains of Dunbeath broch.
Inland from Dunbeath there is good hillwalking in remote country (take the minor road inland to Braemore). Tops include Scaraben (626m/3053ft) and Morven (706m/2316ft), which is the highest mountain in the area.
At Latheron you will leave the A9 and turn onto the A99 towards Wick. At Occumster you can make a short diversion to the 5000 year old Camster cairns, among the best preserved Neolithic monuments in Scotland. There is a sign at the junction, so you can’t miss the turn off. The cairns are at ND260442 and consist of a pair if differently shaped monuments. Camster round is 18m wide and has a passage and chamber you can enter; human bones were found when the cairn was excavated in the 19th century. Camster Long is a horned cairn 60 metres long with two passages with chambers. Modern skylights give light inside.
Continuing on the A99 on the NC500 you will come to Whaligoe. The well-known Whaligoe steps down to the sea can be attempted if you are feeling fit that day (donation). There are over 300 step and at the bottom there is a natural harbour between the cliffs, which was once used by fishing boats to unload their catches, which had to be carried up.
About 600m inland you can walk from Loch Warenan to the Cairn of Get or Garrywhin, a Neolithic horned cairn.
Travelling on northwards you soon reach the town of Wick, which may me an ideal overnight stop on the North Coast 500, if you intend to spend time at John O’Groats the following day.
The Wick Heritage museum (donation) in Union St is much bigger than you might expect, and has fascinating displays covering local history and the herring fishery. There is also a large photographic display. In Huddart Street you will find the Pulteney Distillery, which produces the famous Old Pulteney whisky, and you can have a tour (entry fee) and sample the product. Down at the harbour you can take boat tours to see the coast and its wildlife, nesting birds and sea caves.
South of Wick you can take a stroll to the Castle of Old Wick, a ruined 12th century tower. There is a parking place at the end of the coastal road accessible from Wellington Avenue. The castle is at ND369489.
North of Wick you can take a short diversion on a single track road to find Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. There is a well-marked car park, and a short walk to the castle ruins, set on cliffs at the edge of the sea. Information boards give the castle’s history. Walks around Noss Head lighthouse are also accessible from the same car park.
Back on the A99 the next stop will be John O’Groats, famous with long distance walkers of all kinds who have made the trek as their destination from Land’s End, 874 miles / 1407 km distant. There is a lighthouse at Duncansby head 2 miles to the east (no access to the lighthouse itself) with coastal walks around. There is also a passenger ferry to Orkney from John O’Groats, and sea cruises.
Leaving John O’Groats you will be heading west on the A836. After 15 minutes you will reach Dunnet, where you can take a short diversion on the B855 to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland.
Dunnet Head is also an RSPB reserve with sea cliffs where you may see puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills. See https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/dunnet-head/
Continuing west, you will reach the town of Thurso.