Day 1 – Driving the NC500 in winter – Inverness to Thurso

How good are Scottish B&Bs?!

Silky smooth porridge for entrée, a full cooked breakfast for mains and a yoghurt for dessert. This is only Day 1 and we are already seriously concerned about our waistlines!


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


Our B&B was located only a 2 minute drive from the famous Cullodden Battlefield, and so this was our first destination for the day. Call us what you will but history is not our strong suit. If it wasn’t for the TV series ‘Outlander’ we would have had no idea of its significance in Scotland’s history…so there you go, television IS good for you!

Culloden Battlefield - NC500 - Inverness to Thurso

Culloden Battlefield – NC500

It was a sober start to the day, but a short time later (including more than one wrong turn) we found ourselves on the A9 heading north at a rate of knots in our Vauxhall Astra that we picked up from the fantastic Arnold Clarke in Glasgow (how many places would give you a free upgrade to a larger model when they saw how many bags you had?!).

In doing our prep for the NC500 there was one very common theme that kept popping up…apparently the east coast section is boring. High speed motorways, lots of traffic, nothing to do, no mountains, yada yada yada…

Were these people snoozing the whole way? It was fantastic!

OK, yes, the first section out of Inverness is a motorway at high speed, but if you’re NOT driving the NC500 in winter then chances are you should find a whisky distillery or three to keep you occupied.

Yet from the pretty little sea side village of Dornoch onward we found ourselves cruising through a tapestry of coastal villages, rolling hills, precipitous cliffs and pastures dotted with woolly sheep. Again, we had a very reasonable day weather-wise, with the winter sun occasionally lancing its way through the clouds to light up swathes of auburn and purple foliage on the mountainsides. Jaw dropping at times.

NC500 - Inverness to Thurso

Forest explorations! – NC500

Being the post-Xmas/NY hiatus we also found the roads to be very quiet, with only the odd maniac desperate to overtake.

Lunch was in the tiny town of Helmsdale (no, not Helm’s Deep…that’s Lord of the Rings). Thyme and Plaice served up some very tasty sandwiches after which we explored the riverside and discovered St John’s well.

Helmsdale for lunch - NC500 - Inverness to Thurso

Helmsdale for lunch – NC500

Plan 1 after lunch was to find the Whaligoe Steps.

Fail. More to come on this tomorrow though 🙂

Plan 2 was to push on to John o’Groats in Scotland’s far north east corner.

Fail. The light from the setting sun was doing some funky stuff to the coastal cliffs and meadows and Andrew couldn’t resist stopping far too often to take photos, meaning we ran out of time to visit JoG today.

No big deal though, we decided we’d come back tomorrow to do it justice. Such are your luxuries when you decide to travel slow.

With dusk upon us and streetlights reflecting off the wet bitumen, we arrived in Thurso on Scotland’s far north-eastern coast.

For Day 2 of our adventures driving the NC500 in winter, click here!

And in case you missed it, here’s our story from the previous day, driving from Glasgow to Inverness: Day 0 – Glasgow to Inverness

NC500 - Inverness to Thurso

NC500 – Inverness to Thurso

Driving the NC500 - Inverness to Thurso

Driving the NC500 – Inverness to Thurso

28 Comments

  1. Are these speeches so great? I found lots of sites recommending their wedding toasts package. I guess I’ll give them a try, it’s not like $20 it’s a big deal. But if I see one speech that works for me, I made a deal thenVA:F [1.9.22_1171]please wait…VA:F [1.9.22_1171](from 2 votes)

  2. Just north of the Storehouse of Foulis [which is well worth a visit for the shop let alone the food] shortly after heading north, there is a turning left which takes you up over Struie Hill which has an amazing viewpoint over the Dornoch Firth, east & west before descending to join the A 836.
    For those travelling from John o’ Groats to Thurso in the summer months, the Castle of Mey & its grounds are well worth a few hours [the award winning Visitor Centre has the most amazing cakes too!].

    1. Some great tips there Josephine, thanks! Unfortunately the castle is closed at the moment otherwise we probably would have stopped by. It sounds lovely!

  3. You don’t have to leave Inverness on the A9. It is a pleasant drive out of Inverness through Beauly (nice abbey ruins) and Dingwall. This was the main route north prior to the building of the Kessock bridge and Cromarty bridge. There is a back country road leading from Dingwall to Evanton which affords lovely views of the Cromarty firth before turning right at Skiach junction and back onto the A9. If you stop over in Alness why not find the lane a mile or two outside the town and walk up to the Fyrish monument, a copy of an Indian gateway which was built as a kind of job creation scheme in the 1800s, which towers over the countryside. Views from the top are well worth the walk. Allow a couple of hours to get up there and one to get down. Or find Kiltearn church ruins off the Evanton road, park and walk alongside the firth for a mile or so and back again. Tain is the place to get fuel for the car as there is an Asda and a Tesco with petrol stations. Royal Hotel is good for coffee in a traditional setting or Sunflowers cafe is good value. Dornoch, five miles north of Tain has several good eateries – Luigi’s, Carnegie Courthouse, The Castle hotel or the Eagle pub. Dornoch is a pretty little town with a cathedral, a famous golf course and a lovely beach.

    1. We have to admit, we mucked up the route leaving Inverness. We realise now we shouldn’t have taken the A9, but hey…that’s all part of travelling a new country right ? 🙂 Still, a shame we missed so many good aspects of that section of the route.

      We got to Dornoch and spent a little bit of time exploring the town. No meals, but it was lovely all the same 🙂

  4. You haven’t mentioned Dunbeath, to appreciate how special the village and harbour are you have to get off the A9. What about Morven, Scaraben and th Pap, you’ve missed loads. You’ll have to go round again.
    Good luck and enjoy your road trip.

    1. Hi Margaret! We did actually leave the A9 when we saw Dunbeath. Such a pretty little harbour! There’s only so much time of an evening to write up these notes so unfortunately we can’t cover everything 🙂

    1. We did that stretch today actually (I’m a day behind on the blog) and did stop there in the carpark but realised we wouldn’t quite have the time to walk in and fully do it justice. Such a shame… Strathy beach was awesome though! Such steep dunes!

  5. So looking forward to the rest of your trip. Please, let everyone if you see the Northern Lights, where and when they were best. I’m desperate to do this trip, but afraid of the driving. Where’s courage when you need it!

    1. I’m sure you’d be fine with the driving Barb! The country roads have been a breeze, and the trick to happy travels in the cities is to give yourself plenty of time to make some wrong turns and to go round the roundabouts a few times if needed 😀

      We’re so disappointed but apparently the northern lights were happening in Thurso last night and we missed it!! I trusted the Met Office cloud forecast and didn’t bother doing a physical check 🙁

  6. We enjoyed the East section but compared to doing it clockwise you do get “bored” of proper roads and civilisation. Timespan at Helmsdale gives a very sobering insight to the clearances and how the people were treated. The harbours at Helmsdale, Lybster and Latheron wheel may not have the publicity of Whaligoe but are just as special. Dornoch museum and cathedral were lovely. The beaches at Dornoch Embo and Golspie were fantastic. The food at Dornoch hotel and The storehouse was fantastic. The east coast for us will be another visit for a holiday in its own right.

    1. I know what you mean Donna, and it’s why I’m glad we decided to do it it anti-clockwise. Each day just keeps building on the one before…so good!

  7. Did you have your eyes closed between Inverness and Dornoch? Yes the A9 out of Inverness is faster as its dual carriageway (not one bit of motorway in the Highlands!) but crossing the Kessock Bridge gives spectacular views across the Moray Firth, of the Black Isle and West to the mountains. Admittedly the next section of dual carriageway to the Tore roundabout is pretty boring but from the end of the dual carriageway on you’ve clearly missed so much. Coming up the Black Isle from the South look to your right and on a clear day see across to the Moray coast. As you crest the top of the hill there’s the bulk of Ben Wyvis in front of you, snow capped in winter, the sharp peaks of the massed mountains of the west to your left and below you the sight of the Cromarty Firth with the thread of its causeway a silver glint in the winter sun. Cross the Firth and there’s a very popular food stop at The Storehouse with great views down the Firth, a small food hall/farm shop and walks along the shore to see the visiting seals. Further north look across to the Firth to see the giant structures of deep sea rigs at berth or a cruise liner or two in summer at Invergordon. The A9 at this point is bypassing several interesting villages with lovely local shops and cafes worth a detour if time allows. North of Invergordon look out for the views of the The Sutors the North and South high headlands forming the entrance to the Firth. The beautiful village of Cromarty sits at the base of the South Sutor. From here to the Dornoch Firth the rolling farmland hides an ancient history; just a short drive from the A9 Pictish stones, a 17th century church with a Pictish cross slab and at Portmahomack the sandy expanse of an East coast beach facing west towards the Sutherland hills. From here the regular sight of dolphins playing out in the Dornoch Firth. Both here and at Tain those with an interest in history will find excellent centres displaying the ancient history of this area.

    There is no part of the NC500 that doesn’t have something to offer and this area of Easter Ross is no exception if you open your eyes!

    1. Well said Tracy! I have to admit we actually got a little confused getting out of Inverness (those roundabouts in town were doing my head in!) and realised afterwards that we had ended up on the A9 rather than the one that takes you out west…ah well, the joys of travel 🙂

      Thank you so much for the awesome information regarding that section to Dornoch (I should have mentioned those deep sea rigs…very impressive!). While it’s too late for us (this time around anyway!) I’m sure others that are also planning their trips and read these comments will get immense value from your knowledge and fantastic descriptions of the various points of interest. Much appreciated!

  8. With a plan to hear that way soon, we are definitely following this journal. Great describing words and references! Ps. How can I share on what’s app….?

    1. This is such a massive coincidence…my nickname when I was younger used to be Stooge with some people 😀

      Thanks for following along, if you’ve got any questions just let us know! And yes, by all means share away on any platforms you think may value the info.

  9. Did you enjoy driving Berridale Braes? We love the East coast, plenty to see and do, we do it all the time coming down from Orkney. BUT if you think your trip so far has been awesome – you are about to have your head expload when you see the West side!!

    1. Hi Tina, that section of the drive was unexpected! We’ve only ever seen a gravel trap for trucks one time previously, and that was years ago.

      We’re guessing the west coast has plenty more twists and turn in store for us 😀 We deliberately planned our drive so that we finished with what we’re hoping will be the most scenic sections of the whole trip (plus a detour to the Isle of Skye!).

      We really wanted to get to Orkney but decided on spending two nights in Thurso instead. Another reason to come back one day 🙂

  10. This is excellent looking forward to reading the upcoming days. It is already a great help for our trip in april

    1. Hi Malcolm and thanks for the kind words! We know how daunting planning these types of trips can be, so we’ll do anything we can to help.

      Tomorrow’s update should be a pretty useful one I think, as we found a heap of things to do in the north east that many seem to skip over due to a lack of time.

      April should be a great time to do the drive. I imagine the countryside will be a lot greener than we’re experiencing 😀

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