Adventures Along the NC500 and Beyond – Brora to Wick

Updated: Jul 16


Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the Brora to Wick stage of the North Coast 500, discovering whisky, fairies, and pre-historic sites as we go.


Over the years, we have explored the sections of the NC500 route several times, although not necessarily the complete route in one single journey. Indeed, our travels in this area began even before it had been called the North Coast 500. Our travels have opened our eyes to the beauty of the route and has given us the opportunity to also find hidden gems off the beaten track.


Commonly known as “Scotland’s Route 66”, the North Coast 500 has quickly become an iconic, must-do tourist route, having only been formally marketed as such back in 2015. The NC500 is actually 516-miles long, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, running along a mainly coastal route through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness.


At Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if travelling the NC500 appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the sites along the NC500, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland. We also have 5 and 10 day set itineraries that you can purchase from our online store (see below).


Clynelish Distillery


What better way to start a trip, than visiting a distillery? Although we visited during the Clynelish distillery’s ‘Silent Season’ (a time for shut down and maintenance), when tours may not be offered, the visitors center were very welcoming and we had a lovely tasting just the same. Please note that since I was driving, I was able to take my samples away with me! All distilleries in Scotland are very aware of the needs of drivers and there is always an option to take the samples away with you for a later tasting.


The Clynelish Distillery has beautiful views of the North Sea as well as the hills to the north. It is from these hills where the Clynemilton burn runs over seams of gold in the rock. With this water, Clynelish distillery produces a fruity, waxy, slightly smoky, sea-spicy single malt and there are a range of tours available to see the production process and taste the results. The original Clynelish was established in 1819 by the Marquess of Stafford to create a market for the barley produced on his lands. A new, bigger, and more modern distillery was then built opposite this in 1968. The new distillery took the name Clynelish, while the old distillery carried on under the name of Brora. The Brora Distillery eventually closed in the early 80s, but due to popular demand, this distillery will soon be reopening.



Brora Beach


While in Brora, it is worth heading to Brora Beach for some lovely views. There is also the Brora Heritage Centre to visit, although we did not have the time to pop in.


Brora Beach

Helmsdale & Timespan Museum and Arts Centre


Just eleven miles north of Brora is the quaint village of Helmsdale. A modern village, planned in 1814 to resettle communities that had been removed from the surrounding straths as part of the Highland Clearances, it has a beautiful little harbour and some lovely old houses.



The main tourist attraction of the village is Timespan, a cultural institution, comprised of a local history museum, contemporary art programme, geology and herb gardens, shop, bakery, and cafe. The museum display tells the local and social history of the parish and people, covering the boom and bust of the herring fishing industry; the Highland Clearances; the brief but feverish 1869 gold rush; the shameful burning of the last witch in Sutherland; Pictish mythology and the Borrobol Stone; the last Wolf in Sutherland shot in 1700; the poisoning at Helmsdale Castle and the history of domestic making and craft essential for the parish’s agriculture and fishing industries. There is also a reconstructed typical mid to late nineteenth century street which includes The Smiddy; Village Shop and Gartymore Croft House. We found the exhibition remarkably interesting and well worth setting aside at least half an hour for and the café was excellent as well and had a very appetising mid-morning snack there.



Latheronwheel Harbour


It was really on a whim that decided our next stop, Latheronwheel Harbour. Although not really pushed as a tourist attraction, the images of this little port on Google Maps had caught our attention and we decided to check it out. The road north to Latheronwheel from Helmsdale is particularly beautiful, with coastal views, sweeping curves and hills and a great precursor for our first views of the harbour. The harbour was built about 1840, which was at the height of the herring boom, and was even used as a filming location for the 1947 film “The Silver Darlings” (which is the nickname for herring).



Just a little inland, you will not miss the stunning arched bridge over the Burn of Latheronwheel, that feeds into the harbour. Known as ‘The Old Bridge’, it was built about 1726 and was used as part of the Post Pony route that wound its way up this coast.


‘The Old Bridge’ Latheronwheel

Latheronwheel Fairy Walk


Another enticing find on Google Maps was a reference to a Fairy Walk and it proved to be the highlight of our day. On the road down to the harbour from the village, there is a tight bend in the road, where you will see a sign for the Latheronwheel Strath Path. The entrance to the path is only a 5-minute walk up from the harbour, and the country path snakes along the banks of the burn, back towards the A9. Just a few minutes into the walk, you will find an absolutely adorable fairy village, seamlessly integrated into the trees and stumps along the path!


Latheronwheel Fairy Walk


Latheronwheel Fairy Walk

The Grey Cairns of Camster


After our magical little journey in Latheronwheel, we continued north up to Occumster, before heading inland and driving 10-minutes along a narrow, country road to The Grey Cairns of Camster. This area of Caithness is famous for the cairns that dot its landscape. These are man-made stone piles, made as burial monuments and for ceremonial purposes and can sometimes be of considerable size. The Grey Cairns of Camster consists of a long cairn and a round cairn. The long cairn has two internal chambers and the round cairn a single chamber with three compartments. The cairns are hauntingly sited on a windswept moor, in the middle of the famous Caithness ‘Flow Country’. This lonely location has likely aided the cairns’ preservation, protecting them from the ravages of modern farming.



Whaligoe Steps


Our last stop on this stage of the NC500 was the Whaligoe Steps. Now, you will notice, or not as the case may be, that there is no sign on the main A99 road for the steps and you can easily drive past them, but you should be ok if using a Sat Nav. The daunting Whaligoe Steps descend to the harbour of Whaligoe Haven, which is surrounded on three sides by 250ft cliffs and forms one of the most remarkable harbours you will find anywhere in Scotland. The 365 Whaligoe Steps are made of flagstone and descend the cliff face in a series of zigzags. The current configuration of Whaligoe, and the full run of steps, probably date back to 1792. By the mid-1800s there could be over 20 fishing boats using Whaligoe during the summer herring season, but by 1946 this had declined to two boats, and the last one ceased to fish from Whaligoe in the 1960s. The steps have since been maintained by enthusiastic local volunteers, with a special mention to Davy Nicolson and his tremendous efforts. What a character! If you get the chance when visiting the steps, always stop and have a chat with Davy.


Whaligoe Steps, near Wick


Accommodation


When visiting Wick, we can highly recommend both Thrumster House and Mackays Hotel to stay at. For a more in-depth review of these accommodations, please check out our previous blog posts.



At Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if travelling the NC500 appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the sites along the NC500, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland. We also have 5 and 10 day set itineraries that you can purchase from our online store (see below).

Remember, take the challenge, discover what is in your backyard, whether you live in Scotland, in the other parts of the British Isles or even Europe, venture into the fairy tale land of Bonnie Scotland.

Join us next time when our family adventures continue in Aberdeenshire. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.


Barry

Contact Us: tailoritineraries@gmail.com

Tailor-Made Itineraries creates one-of-a-kind bespoke self-guided travel itineraries for adventurous and curious travelers.


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