The penultimate day of my roadtrip began with the worst weather! For this leg I was striking out for the “top right”, exploring the north east corner around John o’Groats following part of the North Coast 500 route. John o’Groats is typically cited as the most extreme northerly destination on the UK mainland – however this title truly belongs to Dunnet Head, a small tongue of land extending out to sea to the west, and which is now an RSPB nature reserve (and which also includes the by-now-ubiquitous lighthouse).
Heavy rain and fog colluded to make the start of the day a relatively uneventful one, and most of the journey north was fairly grey, wet and uniform, and became a determined pilgrimage to the famous John o’Groats sign. A small detour east to visit the lighthouse at Duncansby Head (yes, another lighthouse) didn’t offer the most inspiring of views.
I was soon on my way west to Dunnet Head, where the weather deteriorated further into lashing wind and rain. Thankfully, there was another lighthouse, and lighthouses always make things better.
Normally a highly-recommended spot to see unusual sea birds, including some rarer wandering species, there were limited views of the surrounding cliffs and sea. All was not lost however, for at the cliff-edge I befriended a small toad who seemed delighted by the “humid” conditions yet very determined to burrow under my shoe . After posing for photographs, I moved it safely away from the downward sloping ledge to the shelter of a dry-stone wall. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you – possibly – the Most Northerly Toad on the UK Mainland.
As my journey continued westwards, the weather improved and the sun appeared for periods. Conditions improved substantially as I neared Tongue, and the causeway across the blue-green waters of the Firth provided great views of the mountains Ben Hope and Ben Loyal.
From here a short detour led west then south toward a small hamlet named Hope. Appropriately named it seems, as it was in this area that I took a detour south along what Google optimistically calls an “Unnamed Road”.
All being well, this should have offered a loch-side drive along the shore of Loch Hope, following the flanks of Ben Hope. That’s a whole lot of hope. The gamble paid off handsomely and, although at times the road surface was somewhat deteriorated, it was worth it. For thirty miles not another car or human being was seen, and for at least an hour it felt like I was cutting my way through a real wild place, roaming far from civilisation.
Passing the ruins of old crofting buildings and the remains of an Iron-age broch reminded me that, at one point, these remote yet dramatic areas of the Highlands once supported thriving communities, and it is hard to imagine them traversing these distances without the aid of cars and machinery. Pausing along the way, I can only begin to consider the hardship, toil and determination that was required to make a living here, and I feel blessed to be able to simply “pass through” and acknowledge the old ways.
After this amazing experience, it was a south-westerly journey to rejoin civilisation for dinner at Helmsdale, and an evening drive along the A9 back towards Dingwall, with lit-up oil rigs like fairground rides out in the Moray Firth. Today added another 311 miles to the roadtrip so far – a total of 830 since the trip began.