Day 2 – Driving the NC500 in winter – Caithness

Day 3…wow, things are really getting exciting! It’s taken a lot longer to put this post together, not because it was difficult but because there were so many photos we had to trawl through and edit!

We set out with these diary entries wanting to simply use one or two photos to give you a feel of what we’ve been up to, but as you’ll see, for our day spent exploring Caithness county (ie. the north east corner of Scotland) we have to relax the rules a little!

Click here for… “Your Ultimate Guide to Driving the NC500 in Winter”

The day started out with ANOTHER awesome cooked breakfast courtesy of the lovely Clare from Bed and Breakfast at 4 in Thurso. Well fueled, we drove out intending to first visit mainland Scotland’s most northerly point, Dunnet Head.

As always seems to happen, we got diverted!

First of all, Andrew spied a decrepit old gate-keeper’s building in Castletown that was just begging to be photographed. Such a spooky scene!!

NC500 - Caithness - Castletown Ruin

NC500 – Caithness – Castletown Ruin

Shortly after we also noticed the Flagstone Trail on the outskirts of Castletown where the rising sun was lighting up the flagstones very dramatically. As we knew we were going to be tight for time, we didn’t choose to do the full walk, but it sounded quite interesting.

NC500 - The Flagstone Trail - Caithness

NC500 – Caithness – The Flagstone Trail

Then it was time for Dunnet Head. With only a workman fixing up the path and a local walking their dog along the clifftops to greet us, it again reminded us how lucky we were to be driving the NC500 in winter!

NC500 - Caithness - Dunnet Head Lighthouse

NC500 – Caithness – Dunnet Head Lighthouse

It’s only a short walk to the top of the hill. Well worth it for the views south towards Brough.

NC500 - Caithness - View from Dunnet Head to the south

NC500 – Caithness – The view from Dunnet Head to the south

NC500 - Caithness - Stone wall

NC500 – Caithness – Stone wall

NC500 - Caithness - Dunnet Head countryside

NC500 – Caithness – Dunnet Head countryside

Our next destination was a very popular one with most tourists, and for good reason! John o’Groats is the one of the best town names we’ve come across and for that reason alone deserves a visit. Not only that, it is also the gateway to Duncansby Head and the Duncansby Stacks.

NC500 - Caithness - John o'Groats

NC500 – Caithness – John o’Groats

It was at John o’Groats that we also learned of the effectiveness of the Scottish grapevine! On the recommendation of one of our readers (thank you Sally-Ann!) we stopped by The Stacks cafe at JoG for lunch. The menu isn’t your typical cafe fare, which is just how we like it, and tasted really good. Well worth a visit.

NC500 - Caithness - The Stacks Cafe at John o'Groats

NC500 – Caithness – The Stacks Cafe at John o’Groats

Anyone who drives the NC500 MUST put the walk to the Duncansby Stacks on their itinerary! The ground was a bit sodden in places so in winter you’ll be wanting to take your waterproof hiking boots, but in summer we imagine it should be a lot firmer underfoot.

It’s only a 10-15 minute walk to the fence at the cliff edge where you can view the silhouetted Stacks from the north. Spectacular!

NC500 - Caithness - Duncansby Stacks

NC500 – Caithness – Duncansby Stacks

NC500 - Caithness - Duncansby Stacks panorama

NC500 – Caithness – Duncansby Stacks panorama

NC500 - Caithness - Duncansby Stacks up close

NC500 – Caithness – Duncansby Stacks up close

On your way there is also the chance to view the cliff edges where there are hundreds of roosting marine birds.

NC500 - Caithness - Not happy!

NC500 – Caithness – Not happy!

From there you can either return to your vehicle or, as we did, you can follow the fence line to the south for a closer view of the Stacks and the rocky beach below.

Probably the most memorable thing about this walk for us wasn’t so much the sights, as incredible as they were, but the sounds.

With only the breeze in our ears as we left the car, it transitioned to the harsh squawking of the gulls and then the bleating of sheep with brightly painted buttocks. The wind hit us with a roar as we approached the cliffs and it was at this point that we both noticed a strange moaning noise coming from the water below.

A whale? People playing silly buggers?

Nope, it was seal calves chilling out and telling the world all about it down on the rocks!!

NC500 - Caithness - Seal pups!

NC500 – Caithness – Seal pups!

By this stage we had spent a LOT longer than planned exploring the area, so we high-tailed it back to the car, slipping and sliding up the muddy slope at times!

The day before we had failed in our quest to track down the Whaligoe Steps. Clares’s grandma used to be one of the ladies that carried herrings up the cliff from the boats below, in not only a skirt but heels as well! With her instructions lodged firmly in our minds we were successful at our second attempt.

NC500 - Caithness - Whaligoe Steps

NC500 – Caithness – Whaligoe Steps

Andrew counted 295 steps…but you could argue some were only half-steps so we’re not going to claim that as factual 😀 Regardless, it’s steep. A lot of fun though! The Whaligoe Steps Café is at the top of the stairs and would be the perfect place for a well-earned beverage after all your exertions.

NC500 - Caithness - The view from the bottom of the Whaligoe Steps

NC500 – Caithness – The view from the bottom of the Whaligoe Steps

It was starting to get dark, and so we cut our losses and gave up on doing the Yarrows Archaeology Trail, as interesting as it sounded. Instead, we took the road to Camster and spent 15 minutes exploring the Grey Cairns of Camster.

NC500 - Caithness - Grey Cairns of Camster

NC500 – Caithness – Grey Cairns of Camster

It’s incredible to think that these are more than 5,000 years old!! Considering how dark it was we declined the opportunity to crawl inside, but on a better day we definitely would have given it a try!

With the sun setting dramatically on our left and spinning windfarms on our right, we drove through alternating showers and pea soup fog to our warm beds and a good curry in Thurso.

Our best day so far!

For Day 3 of our adventures driving the NC500 in winter, click here.

If you missed our earlier entries, here’s:

NC500 - Caithness

NC500 – Caithness