North Coast 500

Digging into Smoo Cave

by Keith Savage · 2 comments

Smoo Cave, Durness, Sutherland, Scotland

The north coast of Scotland’s North Coast 500 is the least exciting stretch, but there are a few highlights. Castle Varrich and Dun Dornaigil Broch both warrant visits, and Smoo Cave just outside Durness is another interesting destination.

Northern Scotland has been home to inhabitants as far back as the Mesolithic, but to look at this coastline today you’d be hard-pressed to see any evidence. It’s a largely rocky, pastoral landscape gently sliding to the sea with few historic structures or markings visible to the untrained eye, and yet the name Smoo probably comes from the Old Norse Smuga, meaning “hiding place.” Read more...

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The River Kirkaig, Sutherland, Scotland

One of the great drives to be found along the North Coast 500 runs from Achiltibuie to Lochinver. This span is well off the beaten path on single-track roads twisting and kinking through the hilly terrain of northern Wester Ross and southern Sutherland. Mountains rise up through the mist, sun ricochets off lochs scattered in the glens, and red deer stand upon rocky hillsides looking over the odd car that finds its way to this distant corner of Scotland.

I found myself on this road because it led to a hike Sarah and I wanted to do: The Falls of Kirkaig. I’m a sucker for waterfalls and thankfully Scotland’s loaded with them. Read more...

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Castle Varrich outside Tongue, Sutherland, Scotland

The north coast of the North Coast 500 is the least exciting span on that mammoth road trip of marketing genius. As you move from west to east the landscape steadily shrinks back into the earth, and the span from Tongue to Thurso is especially unremarkable with only a few small settlements and sites of interest. The northwestern horn including Durness, Loch Eriboll, and Tongue, however, has a few incredible stops. Chief among those is Castle Varrich, a small, ruined tower house on a hill opposite Tongue.

I had no expectations once we rounded Durness and began heading east. Read more...

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In the north, where the mountains breathe and the roads are but ancient paths slithering between gorse and heather, time and memory unfold, a brief flowering upon the moor. Between their amber petals remain the great works of long-forgotten kings, sights fit to make stars of your sockets, vistas of such magnetism they will rake you back across the fields of the earth. Here is one such spell. Strathmore keeps warm the Iron Age amidst winds roaring from Ben Hope’s mammoth slopes and red deer tracing the ridges, following the silent river to the sea. There is no anchor when Dun Dornaigil broch looms from the mist, piercing like a spear flung from the past.

What have we stopped looking for?
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Ardvreck Castle & Calda House, Assynt, Sutherland, Scotland

The western side of the North Coast 500 that stretches from Kyle of Lochalsh to Durness through Wester Ross and Sutherland is arguably Scotland’s most beautiful landscape. Endless rugged mountains, windswept beaches, cliffs, and lochs define this vast region where tiny roads straggle where they may. Natural splendor is incredibly abundant, perhaps to the expense of everything else. You won’t find any distilleries out this way, few golf courses, and while the region has a lot of history it doesn’t usually take the form of ruined abbeys, castles, and stately manses. The Highland Clearances hit the northwest highlands hard, so the history here is the absence of people, tales on the wind, and a somber intuition of things unjustly lost. Read more...

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