Inverness, John O’Groats and Skye, June 2023

5 June – Glasgow to Inverness – Our path north to Inverness was by coach, the first we have used in the UK. We travelled with a group called Stagecoach, through Megabus, and it proved to be just as comfortable as the Flixbus we had used on the continent. One downside is that that don’t have a seat booking system, so there is a bit of a bun fight on boarding, but we fought well and bagged the upstairs seats at the front to command a good view.

I was looking forward to the trip for the scenery, and it didn’t disappoint. The road lead back to Stirling then north to Perth, where we changed drivers, before heading on to pass the beautiful mountain of Blair Athol and skirted the Cairngorms. The National Park that covers the area is a popular hiking and mountain bike destination, with snow sports during the Winter, so the small towns we passed through were very sports oriented and quite crowded with tourists.

When we arrived at Inverness, our first impressions were not positive. The entry was via the industrial area, not extensive, with the only real industry being barley malting, but lacking visual appeal. We got off the bus, gathered our luggage and headed off through the middle of the town, which is far from big. It didn’t take long for our first impressions to be turned around, the quaint streetscapes and charming restaurants and pubs soon winning us over.

Overall, Inverness has around 40,000 people in the centre with another 40,000 outlying. Unlike Manchester and Glasgow, our accommodation was very central, just over the River Ness via the “Bouncy Bridge” one of three pedestrian suspension bridges built in the 1880s. They are called bouncy because it only really takes a regular heavy pace to get the whole bridge moving, which must be quite something after a night on the town. The river is fast flowing and shallow, and can be a productive salmon river at times. Our apartment is a single floor of an old stone building and is one of the better ones we have had so far, given the location, comfort and general ambiance.

The ‘Bouncy Bridge’ and our cute little house.

We had time to settle in and head down to the local Tesco for supplies for dinner. Coming home and realising that the beer was warm, we made the decision to try out the local pub, the Waterfront Pub. It is a very popular place for dinner, and a glance at the menu told us why. We promised ourselves another visit.

6 June – Inverness – We spent a good part of the day exploring Inverness, completing a walk of the town using the GPSmyCity App. There is a mix of the old and new, although nothing in the way of actual high-rise buildings. We did come across the oldest building in the town, Abertaff House, built in 1593. The Victoria Market is a beautiful 19th Century arcade filled with interesting shops and old world charm. The walk was relaxed and easy, after the crowds of Glasgow and Manchester. The whole town has a wonderful feel to it, the kind of place people might retire to, a thing which appears to be a thing, at least in some of the outlying towns. Even the traffic was more relaxed and some streets had empty parking spaces, a rare sight in other cities.

After lunch, we headed out again to walk along the banks of the River Ness. We passed the Inverness Cathedral and the Arts Centre, enjoying the relative warmth of the fine weather. I say relative because one minute it can be warm enough to convince you that the jacket needs to come off and the next minute a couple of gusts of icy wind tells you otherwise. It is not the place to go out unprepared. A brewery and distillery drew our attention and the presence of an outdoor area sufficiently sheltered from the breeze coerced us into a lager. Unfortunately, it was the first beer we had tried in the UK that was not to our liking, being a bit on the bitter side. All that meant was it took longer to drink it.

7 June – Dunrobin Castle and John O’Groats – Today was the first of two consecutive days of 12 hour tours. What possessed us to do that? We actually booked them way back in January, sources suggested that such tours book out very early. This was probably true because both tours were fully subscribed. If memory serves, back at the time, we did not have the option of booking with a day in between. Unfortunately, my advice to anyone booking tours of the Highlands is to leave it until there is a weather forecast available, even though the locals say forecasts are always rubbish anyway. There are stories of tours driving through heavy mist all day, with the passengers seeing nothing.

Our first tour was north out of Inverness along the north-east coastline to John O’Groats, often said to be the most northerly point on the British mainland, although that claim can actually be taken by the nearby Dunnet Head. Inverness sits on the Moray Firth, and we crossed that via the beautiful Kessock Bridge. The bus skirted Cromarty Firth through Invergordon, once the site of a large naval base, then the base for the construction of huge north-sea gas and oil platforms. As the fossil fuel industry declines, the base has turned more to the manufacture and servicing of wind turbines, hundreds of which dot the northern Scottish coastline. It’s good to see how a town can keep reinventing itself and a sign that closing down fossil fuel based industries may not mean the end of industry.

We stopped for morning tea in Dornoch, a beautiful little castle village, with some lovely stone buildings, castle, church and gaol to cover all bases. We stopped at the churchyard, where a sign told of the vibrant monthly markets that used to be held amongst the grave-stones, until a band of feral pigs started digging up the bodies and the yard had to be walled off, making the market impractical. It’s stories like that we need to keep small town tourism alive.


The next stop of the famous Dunrobin Castle. More like a palace than a castle, the amazing Disney-like structure has been the summer residence of the Duke of Sutherland since the late 18th Century. The name is tainted in the eyes of some Scots because the first Duke was responsible for what is called the Highland Clearances, when the clans were forced off the land by raising the rents. The vacated land was stocked by the large land owners with sheep, and the inhabitants forced to settle on the coast to fish, move to the industrial cities further south or emigrate to places such  as America or Australia. The Duke did not hold the same poor opinion of himself, erecting a 100’ statue of himself on the highest hill in the district to overlook everything. Despite the dubious politics of the day, most of the advances in the area that brought a more modern way to the Highland areas seem to have their origins with the Duke of Sutherland.

From the carpark side, the castle looks impressive, although much like many others. It is from the other side, which overlooks a huge formal garden styled like that at Versailles, that the true magnificence of the building can be seen. There are four stages to the structure, dating from the 14th Century keep, now deep within the main building, to the ornate outer structure which was built between 1835 and 1850 by Sir Charles Barry (rebuilt Westminster Houses of Parliament in London). It is now open to the public as a museum of the lives of the Sutherlands in the 19th Century.

All rooms are laid out beautifully, with ornate table settings in the grand dining room, an amazing collection of old books in the library, a most wonderful nursery packed with games and toys that, I am pleased to say, would have been museum pieces when I was a child. As you move throughout the castle, you can’t help but notice that almost every wall carries portrait of members of the Sutherland Clan. Some are done by noted artists and a very large and very beautiful. The other things covering the walls are stag heads, most with plaques bearing the names of the people who killed the creatures and the date. Most carry ten point antlers, with a few having twelve points, true prizes in the stag shooting world. To be fair, the deer do need regular hunting in these parts. If the numbers are allowed to grow unchecked, the damage to the environment is heavy, as they will eat the tree saplings and prevent forest growth.

We moved through the castle, surely one of the best museums of Victorian upper crust life anywhere. Out on the rear balcony, we admired the formal gardens below, spread out between the castle and the waters of Dornoch Firth, before tackling the long walk down, via steps and steep gravel pathways. The ladies of the 19th Century would probably have made do with the view from above, the trip down being so difficult in the heavy full outfits of the day.

Harris’s Hawk

We made our way to an area at the rear of the gardens set up with wooden benches facing an open lawned area. On the other side of the lawn, we could see the aviaries for the hunting birds, some falcons and hawks. A number of perches were set up around the area and two birds were brought out, one at a time. The master falconer explained how hawking had been very popular in times past and a genuine way that the poorer people could access game meat in the form of rabbits, hares and grouse. A man could get permission to trap a hawk and the Duke allowed hawking in the and around the forests. The hawk brought out was a species from New Mexico called a Harris’s Hawk. It flew from perch to perch and back to the keeper’s gloved hand, taking small pieces of meat as a reward. A young boy from the audience was chosen to run across the field, dragging a lure behind to illustrate the hunting method of the bird, which takes game from the ground rather than the air as falcons do.


The second bird was a gyrfalcon from Siberia, the largest of the falcons. Falcons have shorter legs, more streamlined wings and hunt in the air, taking birds as prey. It was a striking bird. The keeper exercised it by swinging a lure around his head, the falcon making continual attacks. The speed and aerial agility of the bird was amazing.

A video of the falconry display can be seen at

With time running out, we had to leave the birds and get back to the bus. Having been quite ho-hum about yet another castle, the visit had turned out to be a highlight.

The bus pushed on north stopping briefly at a spot in Loch Fleet to watch a large group of seals flop around on a sandbank, before taking the A9 towards John O’Groats. The A9 soon lost its dual carriageway status and became a good two lane road with excellent traffic flow, before eventually turning into the A99. At Reis, our driver Alex announced that he would try a new route, heading inland, taking the B876 to the north coast then turn east to John O’Groats. This would let us see some different country rather than seeing the same things as we travelled north then back down the same way. It sounded fine, although he admitted he had not done it before. All went fine, until half way up to the coast, his GPS advised him to turn right. He followed instructions, to find himself in the same situation as us when driving a one lane hedged road in Wales. It was crazy. The road was so narrow and quite rough. There was a surprising amount of traffic to deal with via pull-overs. I imagine some of the traffic was also caught by Google’s ‘shorter is better’ approach to navigation. We followed the route on our own Google Maps and could see no real reason why we were doing what we were doing. There were even chances to get back to the B876 but we stuck to the tiny back road. The scenery was not even worth it; high rolling hills with little more than gorse and heather covering them was our reward.

Eventually, we emerged onto the coast, got a brief glimpse of Dunnet Head, the true most northern point on the mainland British Isles, then drove on a short distance to John O’Groats, quite perplexed as to why we had just suffered 40 minutes of being bashed around in the bus. John O’Groats is hardly a town, more a village with little purpose other than hosting tourist buses and ferry access to the Orkneys, visible not far off-shore. We were lucky to actually see the Orkneys. Most people who come here see little other than driving rain or thick fog. We had ideal conditions, including a glassed-out sea, which allowed us to see the tidal races and swirls that the area is famous for, as the big tides of the North Sea hit those of the Atlantic. It looks like a place every bit as dangerous as the waters off the Kimberley coastline in Australia.

John O’Groats

Alex had told us there was a good fish and chip shack overlooking the point. Unfortunately, with our extended drive through the back country, we were quite late and just as we walked up, savouring a bit of cod and a serve of chips, the woman closed up, giving us a look that said “tough luck, I’m out.” We looked around the other café offerings and settled on lentil soup and bread, our bodies thanking us for the sacrifice (actually, it was delicious).

We set off again, Alex seeming to understand that the A99 is not the enemy, and we drove to Duncansby Head, a high and spectacular cliff area known as a seabird roosting area. The hope was that we would see some puffins. Everyone set off along the track that hugged the cliff tops to a deep long crevasse, called the Geo of Sclaites, that ran several hundred meters into the cliff. The scenery itself was worth the visit, and the sight of all the sea birds pouring up and down the crevasse, swimming in the water or roosting along the cliffs made it all the better. We got quite excited thinking we had seen a large number of puffins below us, but some watchers raised doubts when they pointed out that they did not have orange beaks as puffins in breeding season have. A check on our “Birds of Europe” App showed that they were Little Auks, closely related to puffins. No puffins; auks would have to suffice. Christine decided that she had walked enough and stayed at the crevasse while I went on for a bit to look down on the spectacular Duncansby Head Stacks, a couple of offshore chimneys.

The bird watching done, it was the start of the long drive back to Inverness, with a stop at Dunbeath, a small harbour that used to service a herring fleet in bygone days. We got back to town at 7:30pm, making it an 11 hour tour, interesting enough with some marvellous scenery, but tiring all the same. Quite done in, we headed to the Waterfront Pub for dinner, only to find that we needed a booking, the place being packed to the hilt. We made a booking for the next night and trudged home, thankful that we at least had the makings of a meal in the fridge.

8 June – Isle of Skye – It was like waking to an alarm after a night on the town. I really didn’t want to get up, but it was another early start with a 7:45 tour scheduled. We were seriously questioning why we had done this to ourselves. We stood in line at the pickup spot, the same place as yesterday’s start. Christine looked like she wouldn’t cope, until the bus arrived and the driver showed himself in his kilt. She noticeably perked up, along with all the other females in the queue. I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about but there was much fanning of blushing faces going on.

The driver, Luke, proved to be quite the showman, having been a DJ in a past life. Despite the kilt, he was a Londoner, but had come to Inverness about 6 years ago and taken to the tour guiding business. He was one of the best, lots of fun and full of knowledge. He did a roll call and came up one short, so we waited for a bit until a young American girl named Ashley arrived. Luke berated her, in a friendly banter kind of way, and she showed her mettle by giving as good as she got, then it was off. Ashley had to sit in the only seat left, in the front next to Luke, which upset al the other ladies on the bus. He pointed out that his name was Luke, that we were going to Skye and that we would be doing lots of walking so her dubbed himself Luke Skywalker. Ashely was appointed assistant and dubbed Princess Ashleia. It was like a setup, but it was all adlib stuff. Ashely proved to be from Michigan and on a week’s visit to Scotland, having just landed the night before. She was good fun.

We drove down the length of Loch Ness, hearing some of the stories surrounding the ‘monster’ and the way photos and sightings have been debunked, but the myth is an economic boon for the region. We saw the ruins of Urquart Castle, near where the original 1934 photograph of “Nessie” was taken/fabricated. The road took us through the Great Glen, a wondrous huge valley carved out by glaciers in the last ice age, before leaving and travelling along the shores of Loch Cluanie, a man-made loch resulting from a hydro-dam. Then it was into Glen Shiel, with its towering walls, an even more spectacular drive than the Great Glen. We passed the site of the battle of Glen Shiel, when the Jacobites and some Spanish marines were defeated by the British in 1719.

Driving through LochNess (top) and Glen Shiel (bottom)

Our next stop was another castle, possibly the most photographed in the Highlands, Eileen Donan Castle. Built in the 13th Century to guard against the Vikings, it was a strategic point during the Jacobite uprisings in the 18th Century. The Jacobites holed up there, until the British Navy sent a couple of frigates to bombard it in an attempt to reduce it to rubble. The canons failed to have much of an impact but the castle was stormed and over-run, the 343 barrels of gunpowder in the armoury doing what the cannons couldn’t do. It remained as a ruin until the early 20th Century when it was reconstructed from the ruins. Its island setting makes it a real magnet for photographers and it makes an appearance on calendars and jigsaw puzzles around the World. We elected to admire the castle from the shore, not wanting a tour inside and not wanting to pay to simply cross the bridge.

Eilean Donan Castle

We didn’t think the scenery could get any better, but we hadn’t counted on the sheer beauty of the Isle of Skye. I had always imagined that Bonny Prince Charlie had a lengthy voyage as he was carried away over the seas to Skye on his escape from the British, but it is a rather narrow channel in reality, although the tidal currents make it tricky. These days, there is a bridge and so we were onto the isle with little fuss. The island has it all. At 100kms long, it is Scotland’s second largest island. It has a varied history of settlement, being inhabited by Celts, Picts and Scandinavian Vikings, being under Norwegian ownership up until 1266. Volcanic cores form the dominant mountains called the Cuillins, one formation being made of dark rock and called the Black Cuillin and the other a more reddish colour known as the Red Cuillin. We were lucky to have the perfect weather continue and we could see the mountains in all their glory. We drove through areas of thick deep forest, cleared farmlands and more open, heather covered hills. Due to the influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream, Skye has a milder climate than the mainland, with snow being rare other than on the peaks.

The Cuillins

Our first stop on the island was a picturesque spot called Sligachan Old Bridge, where a beautiful old stone bridge spanned a series of low waterfalls. The falls were unspectacular due to the lack of recent rain. The pools are called the ‘Fairy Pools’ because it is well known that fairies attract more tourists. Rather recent (as in the last decade or so) folklore says that washing your face in the water for 7 seconds will bestow everlasting beauty or holding your head under for 30 seconds will grant immortality. It was a shame the water levels were so low. Probably more relevant is that it was the site of a major battle between the clans MacDonald and MacCleod in 1601. Hopefully, those involved in the battle had held their heads under the water for 30 seconds prior to attacking.

We stopped for lunch in Portree, the major settlement on the island. It is a town that thrives on tourism and hospitality and, as often is the case when tourism pressures a town, the standard of service falls. This was the first example we had found in Scotland of poor service and disinterested workers. Still, we found a soup and bread meal in a pub and satisfied our needs.


The tour pushed on past a mountain with an unusual formation called ‘The Old Man of Storr’, stopping for the obligatory photos and again at the Rigg View Point, offering spectacular views along the high cliffs.

Old man of Storr at bottom

Skye would be a wonderful place to stay for a few days with your own transport, to fully explore and appreciate what the island has to offer. A visit of only a few hours has left a lasting impression.

The drive back was long, but still full of interest, because the spectacular scenery could be viewed from the opposite perspective. Luke and Princess Ashleia kept us entertained with a quiz and music requests, keeping most of us awake and amused, no mean feat after such a long day. We rolled into Inverness around 7:30pm once again, not quite knowing how we would cope with a long bus trip to Dundee the next day. Just as we neared the end of the tour, a check of our itinerary produced the wonderful news that we actually had an extra unallocated day in Inverness, and would not be travelling south the next day. A sleep in and a day off. Bliss!

9 June – Inverness – We slept in, as we had promised ourselves, and spent the morning doing very little. About 11 o’clock, we thought it was time to get active and went for a leisurely wander across the bridge to town and continued to walk, without any real purpose, just soaking up the ambiance of this pretty little city. It is so easy to explore after the hustle and bustle of places like Manchester and Glasgow. We had a few options, and could have caught a few buses to other attractions, but we were done for the moment.  We would regain our energy in Dundee, our next stop.



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