Blog / The North Coast 500: Thurso to Ullapool

The North Coast 500: Thurso to Ullapool

For day two of our NC500 trip, we had quite a bit planned and even further to go than on the previous day. With the time crunch, we wanted to be sure to make it all the way to Ullapool that night. We would be heading straight back to Aberdeen from there with little to no real plans laid out. So far the trip had been a complete success, and we had seen the entire east side of the NC500. We now had the rest of the top portion and then the west side to see. It didn’t take much motivation for us to be up and out early. We were ready for more beautiful Scotland.

Starting the Day at Holborn Head

We started out day two of our NC500 road trip in Thurso by waking up early and heading to Holborn Head while it was still dark out. Putting the location in our GPS we found ourselves parking at the Scrabster harbor on the western shore of Thurso Bay. From there we walked up to the Principal Keeper’s Lighthouse and found the footpath that leads up to the cliffs. There were plenty of sheep grazing nearby and they watched us curiously as we made our way through the still dark fields.

The sky was quite cloudy so as the sun steadily rose, we didnt get the best of sunrises, but it was still a very worthwhile excursion. On the cliffs of Holborn Head, there were a few blowholes you have to maneuver around. Within them, you can see and hear the ocean waters frothing and splashing deep below. The path we followed was very narrow and had us climbing up and over a few fences before we reached a part of the cliffs that was easy to climb down onto and explore. If you do this, please be very careful, the rocks are covered in moss and very slippery.

We had purchased ourselves a few hot sausage rolls and baked treats for breakfast and nestled down together to eat our breakfast while looking out across the water and watched the sun slowly rise and light up the sky. Despite the cold, it was quiet and peaceful. Not a bad way to start the day at all.

The lighthouse there was quaint and very serene looking with a rock wall that fenced in a small herd of sheep. It was very homey and you could tell a family lived there. As always, I wondered at the life of those that lived in this area and what it must be like for the locals. I couldn’t help but be a wee bit jealous.

From Scrabster, we headed west. As the sun rose higher, the skies cleared and turned bright and clear. It was an incredibly beautiful morning and it seemed that with each turn we made, we had to make another stop for gawking and pictures. It was just too beautiful to pass by quickly. Each stop we made was quick though, and we made our way steadily along the A836.

A Quick Stop at Kyle of Tongue

One of our quick stops included the Kyle of Tongue Viewpoint. The Kyle of Tongue is a loch on the western side of Sutherland and from the viewpoint, you can see several peaks in the distance including Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. We stopped along the bridge and causeway and walked around for a moment taking in the views. The sun’s ascent had slowed and shone brightly atop the distant highlands. The village of Tongue sits above the Kyle of Tongue to the side and looked like an absolutely adorable place to live. We headed out again, but it didn’t take long before we once again had to come to a halt.

A Stop at Ard Neakie and Loch Eriboll

The north coast of Scotland is incredibly beautiful with the highland hills and mountains, lochs, and rivers to one side and the coastline to the other. Just as we came around another bend we were struck by the breathtaking scenery of Ard Neackie and Loch Eriboll.

Attached to the shore of Loch Eriboll is a could-be island known as Ard Neackie. We decided to pull over and take a walk around the area to enjoy the view just a little bit longer. The sun cast a silver sheen across the water creating waving steal blue and platinum streaks. The land all around us was a mixture of amber, gold, and auburn. Gorgeous.

Smoo Cave Exploration

One of the places that I kept being told to go see was Smoo Cave. It is a popular tourist attraction along the NC500, and I am happy we took their advice and made a stop to see it. Located in Durness, Scotland, what makes the Smoo Cave so unique is that it is both a freshwater cave and sea cave all in one. The first chamber of the cave has been carved out by the sea while there are also inner passages that have been formed from rainwater.

We parked up at a car park along the roadside where we found public restrooms and a stairway that leads down to a path and across a large bridge to the entrance of the cave. As we walked up to the entrance of the cave, I was taken aback by its massive opening which is about 50 feet high and 130 feet wide! Looking out towards the sea, the tide was pretty far out so there was plenty of beaches to walk along but going around and inside the mouth of the cave, you find floodlights glowing against the walls and a neat wooden walkway and bridge that leads you further back to the freshwater falls and pool.

It is a neat walkway, partially roofed, that takes you back inside an internal cavern and tunnel. A raging torrent of water crashes down loudly inside through a hole in the ceiling and flows into a dark pool of water. All along the rock walls, there is rich green moss and small plants growing against the rock giving the place a special kind of charm.

We explored the interior of the cave as much as we could but missed out on what a boat tour might have been like (Covid had halted their normal availability). Afterward, we wandered around the inlet as far as we could go and climbed along the heather-lined cliffs. We couldn’t stay long though, we still had a long way to go.

Lunch at Sango Bay

All along the coast of Sutherland, you can find several beautiful beaches. We could have picked almost any number of them but found ourselves stopping at Sango Bay. We had packed ourselves everything to make sandwiches, some fruit, and some crips for our road trip. With several small turn-offs along the roadway, we pulled over and got out our goodies for lunch. It was time for a quick picnic on the beach! We made our way down to a dry area and found a place to sit and eat.

The Sango Bay has gorgeous golden and white sands and large rock formations that almost look tropical. With a fantastic view that look across the North Minch, we sat and ate our lunches while listening to the water lapping along the beach. It was a cold day but sunny and we were soaking up as much vitamin D as we could get.

Getting Lost

Unfortunately, a large chunk of what we had planned for the day didn’t work out. We had planned to visit the Clo Mor Cliffs which are some of the tallest cliffs in all of Scotland rising up almost 300 meters from the sea. However, we had not researched it well enough beforehand and found that there was no possible way to drive there. The journey requires you to take a boat from near Durness, but with Covid, the trips weren’t active and we didn’t have nearly enough time to hike our way there.

Rearranging our plans, we simply lounged back in the rental car and enjoyed the views as we started traveling south on A838 and then A894. We crossed the awesome Kylesku Bridge before taking the B869 further west and around some of the most beautiful Scottish landscape that is riddled with lochs, rivers, streams, waterfalls, and rolling hills. Everything around us was an absolute beauty.

Where we finally came to a halt was outside of a small village called Raffin. We were hoping to hunt down the Old Man of Stoer… not to be confused with the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye. Once again, I had done little research beforehand and when we found that the road leading back to the Stoer Lighthouse was blocked, we simply parked our car and decided to hoof it. We wanted to make it out before the sunset.

Following the path, I headed towards the lighthouse, and with the sun going down so quickly, I thought it might be a good idea to cut across the hills. It wasn’t the best idea ever. Soon enough, my feet were soaking wet and squishing loudly with each step. The terrain was rough, wet, and not easy to traverse. My partner and I got separated going in different directions, but soon caught back up with one another and were lucky enough to catch the sunset sitting atop a concrete section near the lighthouse. It was a stunning sunset.

We thought we would still try to make it to the Old Man of Stoer, but quickly found out that wasn’t going to happen. It was a whole extra four miles away! We were marching through the soggy heather and coastal grasses and wishing for better waterproof boots! It didn’t take us long until we were wet all the way up to the knees and wishing for a bottle of good Whisky! Despite the struggle, I was laughing and enjoying the deep purples and blues of the night sky. The moon was round and bright and thankfully lighting our way back towards our rental car.

Staying and Eating in Ullapool

By the time we got to Ullapool, we were beyond ready for a shower, some food, and some warmth. We found a nice place to stay at the Ferry Boat Inn just across from the harbor. Downstairs they had a small pub/restaurant where we ordered some delicious meat pies and ciders. The day hadn’t gone exactly as planned but we were warm, safe, and grateful for every moment of our journey. The next day, I woke up to a slightly warmer day and the chance to watch the sunrise up over the hills that wrapped around the harbor. We had a fantastic breakfast right there at the Fairy Boat Inn. Our teacups said FBI, which we found quite funny.

On on to the next adventure! Thanks for reading!


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