Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the Nigg to Golspie stage of the North Coast 500, discovering its ancient stones and modern history.
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.
The road north from Inverness along the NC500 is called the A9 and it is easy just to stay on this road as you drive towards the town of Tain, maybe taking a little diversion to one of distilleries in the area like Dalmore or Glenmorangie. However, you should set aside at least half a day to discover the area east of Tain, from Nigg on the Cromarty Firth, up through to the tip of the Tarbat Peninsula. Like the Black Isle, which we covered in a previous post, this area between the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths is off the main NC500 route, but the beauty of the route is discovering those special little places off the beaten track.
Nigg Old Church
Nigg Old Church is a fine example of a Scottish parish church and likely stands on what has been a place of Christian worship for at least 1200 years. It houses a magnificent Pictish monument of the late eighth century, carved with Pictish symbols and Christian imagery. Unfortunately, the church was closed when we visited (despite being within the opening times advertised on its website). This was a timely reminder that many sites along the NC500 are often operated by local volunteers and despite best efforts (especially during the pandemic) they are not always open as advertised. Guess it is always best to phone ahead if possible!
Just four miles north from the Church, before you descend down to the village of Shandwick, is the next attraction of this area - The Shandwick Stone or Clach a' Charridh. This ancient Pictish stone measures some 2.7m high by fractionally under a metre wide by 21cm thick. It is thought to date back to around 780. It entered the written record a thousand years later, in 1776, at which point it stood intact on a terrace overlooking the sea, possibly on its original site. In 1846 it blew down and broke into three pieces, subsequently being repaired. In 1988 the stone was properly conserved and re-erected in the glazed shelter in which you see it today.
Mermaid of the North
The next village up the coast, Balintore, boasts the alluring Mermaid of the North. Sitting upon a rock- named ‘Clach Dubh’ (black rock in Gaelic), a 10ft bronzed wood statue was sculpted by Steve Hayward in 2007, during the Highland Year of Culture. In 2012 the mermaid was damaged by a severe storm, having originally been made from wood and resin, she was not strong enough to withstand the stormy weather. In 2014 the mermaid was replaced with a bronze cast model. The Mermaid’s origins are deep rooted in Easter Ross folklore; legend tells that once a fisherman stole a beautiful mermaid away to be his wife and hid her tail. Years later, after bearing his children, she found her tail and escaped back to sea, returning regularly to the shore to bring fish to her hungry children. On the day of the visit, the only hungry child in sight was our little Ythan, but there is no way he would have been interested in fish to eat!
Hilton Of Cadbol Stone
Balintore almost merges into the next village, that of Hilton, taking us to our next ancient site. In a field at the end of Lady Street, there are actual a couple of points of interest. Easiest to spot is the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, a copy of an imposing Pictish stone that now resides in the Museum of Scotland. It is one of the most magnificent of all Pictish cross-slabs. On the seaward-facing side is a Christian cross, and on the landward facing side are secular depictions. The latter are carved below the Pictish symbols of crescent and v-rod and double disc and Z-rod: a hunting scene including a woman wearing a large penannular brooch riding side-saddle. Like other similar stones, it can be dated to about 800 AD.
The second site is immediately next to the stone – the grassy mounds in front of the stone hide the remains of an ancient chapel that may have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The Picts of Easter Ross adopted Christianity with enthusiasm, and this was an important religious site. We don't know when the chapel was built, or if it was here when the cross-slab was carved in about AD 800.
Had we the time, we would have spent longer in this area, with attractions such as the Tarbat Discovery Centre and the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse yet to be visited and still on the bucket list! As it was, we headed back onto the A9 and up to the quaint little town of Dornoch.
Our first stop in Dornoch was the Historylinks Museum, to get an overview of the story of this town and area. Displays include a golf professional’s workshop where Donald Ross honed his skills, Andrew Carnegie at home at Skibo, the shameful burning of Scotland’s last condemned witch and the impact of the Picts and the Vikings. Films include Sutherland in 1950 and the Dornoch Light Railway. All in all, a very interesting and informative museum.
Dornoch Cathedral dominates the centre of the town and is a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) church. It is not the seat of a bishop but retains the name due to being, historically, the seat of the Bishop of Caithness. Dornoch Cathedral was built in the 13th century, but by 1570, the Cathedral was burnt down by the Mackays of Strathnaver during local feuding. The building was not repaired until 1835-37, by the architect William Burn. An interesting modern fact was that in 2010, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and actress Talulah Riley married here at Dornoch Cathedral.
Milk & Honey
If you are looking for a place to eat in the centre of Dornoch, we would definitely recommend Milk & Honey – a small, but very popular locally run café, which serves wonderful meals and soups, as well as cakes that are to die for!
There is a little historical marker on the way to Dornoch beach that is very easy to miss, being in the back yard of someone’s house, but the story behind this marker is pretty shocking. The stone known locally as The Witch's Stone commemorates the burning of the alleged witch Janet Horne in 1727. Janet gave birth to a daughter who had a deformity of her hands and her superstitious neighbours thought the deformities resembled the hooves of a pony and accused Janet Horne of being a witch and changing her daughter into a pony so that she could ride around the countryside carrying out the devils work more swiftly. The pair were jailed but the daughter escaped. During Janet’s trial, one of the tests she had to undergo was to repeat the Lord's Prayer in Gaelic. She made the mistake of saying "Ar n-Athair a bha air neamh" -"Our Father who wert in Heaven" instead of "Ar n-Athair a ta air neamh" - "Our Father who art in Heaven". This was regarded as proof positive that she was worshipping the Devil. Janet was sentenced to be burned as a witch. Tarred and feathered, she was carted round Dornoch in a barrel before being taken to her bonfire for her burning!
Perhaps Dornoch’s most popular attraction is its beautiful beach, with its sweeping vista of the Dornch Firth.
Big Burn Walk
Just a 15-minute drive north up the A9 is the small village of Golspie, caught in the shadow of Ben Bhraggie. If you drive through the village, you will see a sign for a car park just before crossing the Golspie Burn. This is the start of trail called The Big Burn Walk, a truly hidden gem of the NC500. The walk’s main attraction is the Big Burn waterfall at the rocky entrance to the Big Burn gorge and is only a 20-minute walk from the carpark. A two-mile extension to the walk allows a visit to Dunrobin Castle, which was to be our next stop.
Dunrobin Castle & Gardens
Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands with 189 rooms. Dunrobin Castle is also one of Britain's oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland. The Earldom of Sutherland was created in 1235 and a castle appears to have stood on this site since then, possibly on the site of an early medieval fort. The name Dun Robin means Robin's Hill or Fort in Gaelic and may have come from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427. Sir Charles Barry was retained in 1845 to completely re-model the castle, to change it from a fort to a house in the Scottish Baronial style that had become popular among the aristocracy, who were inspired by Queen Victoria's new residence at Balmoral. Barry had been the architect for the Houses of Parliament in London and was much in demand. There is very much a French influence with conical spires to the whole project, including the gardens, based on Versailles, which he laid out in the 1850s. Much of Barry's interior was destroyed by a fire in 1915 and the interior today is mainly the work of Scottish architect, Sir Robert Lorimer, who altered the top of the main tower and clock tower at the north side of the building to the Scottish Renaissance style.
The Museum in the formal Castle grounds provides a further fascinating distraction. Originally built as a summer house by William, Earl of Sutherland, it was extended by the 3rd Duke. The museum displays the heads of numerous animals shot by the family on safari, ethnographic items collected from around the world (particularly Africa), and an important collection of archaeological relics. Notable among these are the collection of Pictish symbols stones and cross-slabs. These Pictish Stones form a very important collection, giving an opportunity to study the devices carved on stones 1,500 years ago. There is also a section on geology, gold panning at Kildonan, and the coal mine at Brora.
The gardens have changed little in the 150 years since they were planted, although new plants are constantly being introduced. Despite its northerly location, the sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including at the foot of the steps leading to the garden a huge clump of Gunnera manicata, a native rhubarb of South America that has eight foot leaves!
A visit to Dunrobin Castle now includes daily birds of prey flying demonstrations during the months of April, May, June, July, August and September on the Castle lawn. The shows feature golden eagles and peregrine falcons, both resident birds in the Scottish Highlands. Additional attractions include more exotic species such as the European Eagle owl.
Carn Liath Broch
Our final stop on this stage of the NC500 was the broch of Carn Liath, which was only a three minute drive north from Dunrobin Castle. There is a carpark on the left just before you get to the broch, and that leads to a short walk across the A9, then along a path. Brochs are large stone-built towers. These imposing dry-coarse structures, standing from 5m to 13m (16-42ft) high, were erected probably for defence by the Iron Age tribes of northern Britain. They are among the most ingenious and impressive military works of prehistoric man in western Europe and are unique to Scotland. Of particular interest at Carn Liath is that this broch was accompanied by the rare survival of an associated village and earthworks. Even in its ruined state, Carn Liath shows the ingenuity of Scotland’s Iron Age farmers and the sophistication of their architecture in designing an impressive and well-defended settlement.
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 along the NC500, from Brora to Wick. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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