Dead sheep on the NC500

One recent Monday, I threw a picnic blanket and a goodly supply of pine nuts and marmalade in the car, and headed up the A9. On the way I picked up copies of the Telegraph and Guardian. The Guardian carried news of Man City’s fourth successive Premier League title, clinched the day before. 

‘We are the greatest’ proclaims Pep Guardiola.

Both papers also carried the news that the Iranian president is feared dead after a helicopter crash in the mountains.

I only ever buy newspapers for the crosswords, though.

Arriving at Embo at tea-time, I went for a stroll along the beach, mostly deserted in the early evening sunshine. A dog-walker was making her way along the top of the sand dunes. Her charge was rather more interested in a dead sheep on the beach, a few metres from the incoming tide. Given its position so close to the sea, I wondered if it had perhaps been attempting a sea swim, and the cold water shock had proved too much.

Apart from the expired sheep, the beach was stunning; a long stretch of golden sand set against the backdrop of the hills around Golspie, including Ben Bhraggie, with its giant statue of the first – and so far most unpopular – Duke of Sutherland. 

Tuesday, I woke early to a flawless blue sky. I knew from the forecast this could be my best chance of the week for a sea swim, having a strong aversion to swimming when the sun isn’t out. So I sashayed down to the beach, and waded in carefully, keen to avoid the fate of the poor sheep. Last night’s stiff easterly breeze had subsided, and it was pleasantly warm in the sunshine. I even managed a bit of post-swim sunbathing.

After a quick lunch in Dornoch, I went on the hunt for a new t-shirt, as my existing collection is wearing a little thin, in more ways than one. I was hoping to find something touristy, but not tacky. I stumbled upon Dornoch Stores, an old-fashioned hardware store kind of place, that seemed to sell everything. However, clothes-wise they only seemed to have fleeces, rain jackets, wellies and ponchos. Just the Scottish summer essentials. Not a t-shirt to be seen. Moving on, I did find a few clothes shops, but they were high end, with lots of Barbour. They didn’t have t-shirts either, only polo shirts (darling), and I couldn’t afford any of those.

I had smoked salmon for dinner, and watched Highlander, for the umpteenth time.

Wednesday, I ran barefoot along Dornoch beach. The tide was in, which left only soft sand to run on. I passed an enormous seagull, resting on the beach, leaning slightly forward as if it was very interested in the sand immediately in front of its beak. 

It was dead.

I ran on, fording the Dornoch Burn where it flows into the sea, but the soft sand and the running rustiness were taking their toll. On my return to the car park I contemplated a splash in the sea, but opted instead for the recuperative powers of a cajun cod roll from a nearby kiosk (which was outstanding), and a weak attempt at the Guardian crossword, sitting at a picnic table overlooking the beach.

Later, I finished the Telegraph crossword at the Inver Inn, on the way back from Tarbat Ness lighthouse, after an excellent fish and chips, and drove back through the steady rain to the caravan, where I watched Shell, a moving 2012 film set in the Highlands.

Thursday morning dawned grey but dry, after consistent rainfall through the night.

I picked up a Times to replace the Telegraph, and attempted the crossword in a coffee shop in Tain, with limited success.

It’s twenty-five years since I was properly up in this part of the world, and I am enamoured by the small towns and villages I’ve been in. The homogenous UK High Street, with its endless repetition of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Greggs and mobile phone shops…is not here. I haven’t seen it for days. Instead I’ve seen independent coffee shops, antiques emporia and old fashioned hardware stores. It’s refreshing. Even if they don’t sell t-shirts.

After a visit to Dunrobin Castle, once home to the aforementioned Duke of Sutherland, I made my back to the caravan for a tuna dinner and a deep dive into the Highland Clearances. I had, prior to this, only the vaguest of notions what the Clearances were all about, and my notions were all wrong, having got the Highland Clearances mixed up in my head with the government’s reaction to the Jacobite Rebellion, with the outlawing of Highland dress etc. My education – if not complete, at least partially coloured-in – I became aware of the reason for the near-complete absence in the central parts of Caithness and Sutherland of significant towns and villages.

I also finished the Guardian crossword, and opened a nice beer to celebrate both this and my first day without finding a dead creature on a beach.

Friday morning, I bumped into some of my mum’s friends in a Dornoch coffee shop. They brought news of a submerged Edinburgh, where it had rained solidly for forty-eight hours. I began to feel better about my holiday weather, which had been grey and drizzly since its sunny beginnings.

Deciding to explore further up the coast, I headed up the A9, as it dramatically zig-zags its way up and down cliffs beyond Golspie, with gravel pit run-offs on a couple of the steeper downhill bends, I guess for trucks whose brakes are experiencing a spot of vertigo. I remember noticing these in 1999. I still haven’t seen anything similar anywhere else in the world.

On through Brora, Helmsdale, climbing into the clouds thick enough to warrant a rear fog light at times, and down again, into Wick, where I parked at the harbour and walked along the High Street for a quite terrible cup of coffee.

Having never made it as far north as Wick before, I decided that this would be the day to go even further north, and so I pushed on along the east coast of Caithness, the weather brightening, past what looked like a stunning beach at Keiss, and on to John O’Groats, and Duncansby Head. It’s a place that feels like it should be one of the windiest on earth, but it was a still day, and I was surprised by how close Orkney is, or at least how close it appeared to be.

Missing out on the famous John O’Groats signpost due to resurfacing roadworks, I drove along the north coast, stumbling upon a fabulous bay at Dunnet Head, and an enterprising ‘cafe’ called Scone with the Wind, which looked like a bus shelter in someone’s front garden, kitted out with tables and chairs, a view of the North Atlantic, some help-yourself scones and an honesty box. 

The road surfaces in this part of Scotland, it must be said, were bad enough to inspire misty-eyed reminiscences of Edinburgh. 

I rejoined the A9 south at Thurso, cutting left at Georgemas so as to take in the Whaligoe Steps on my way back to my Airbnb at Golspie.

In the evening, I went out for a posh dinner at Royal Dornoch. Expensive as these meals are, the food is always exquisite, and – speaking as a solo-travelling man of a certain age – perhaps worth it just for the non-suspicious human interaction, which is always more than one gets at a normal restaurant. Even if the conversation consists mainly of a description of which ocean bed the scallops were retrieved from, or what kind of oven the bread is baked in.

I was initially served the world’s tiniest pancake with some sort of mousse on the top, four minuscule drops of ginger gel and some herbs from the garden. Perched on top of some pebbles, as you might expect. 

Then came the bread, two different types, I lost track of all the details but did hear the words “Marmite”, “sourdough” and “honey butter”.

The starter was the aforementioned scallops, hand dived in Orkney, presented on an actual shell. Which was perched on top of some pebbles, as you might expect. 

Thereafter there was steak, and chocolate mousse, and petits fours. And coffee. It was all very delicious.

Saturday morning was getaway day, and the sun came out in force, as it always seems to do on the day of departure, so I managed a sea swim at Dornoch on my way South, without encountering any more dead animals.

The long circuitous route from Inverness, westwards cross-country to Lochcarron, Applecross, and then all the way up the north west coast, round to John O’Groats and then south down the A9 back to the Black Isle, has – in recent years – been branded and marketed as the North Coast 500, it being a fraction over 500 miles long. I was sceptical of this, being largely resistant towards marketing and branding in general, and seeing it as something of a gimmick. But a few days in Caithness and Sutherland have reminded me of the hidden gems that are tucked away in that part of the world, and if the NC500 branding brings more visitors, and helps businesses to thrive in a remote part of the UK, then I’m all for it.

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