The wild, otherworldly landscape of the Scottish Highlands with its whispering of magic and folklore has beguiled countless generations of writers, musicians, and artists.
In this pocket travel guide, writer Millie Walton journeys to the remote northernmost coast, venturing along the North Coast 500 route.
THE PACKING EDIT
Day One/Two: Tongue
WHERE TO STAY
For travellers on the North Coast 500 route, Tongue makes for a convenient stopover – there’s a popular café, which serves hearty soups and sandwiches, on the outskirts of the village with breathtaking views along the cliff edge and across the beach – but it hasn’t generally been regarded as a destination in its own right; that is, until Lundies House opened its doors in the Autumn of 2019. Situated in a former manse, the guesthouse is the latest venture by Danish Anne and Anders Holch-Povlsen, who now own 220,000 acres of the Highlands (making them Scotland’s biggest landowners) through their company Wildland, which aims to combine hospitality with conservation and restoration efforts.
Perched on a grassy slope that leads up from the sea opposite the ruins of a castle, Lundies feels wild and romantic. The rooms in both the main house and steadings are dark and moody, with heavy fabrics and stone floors elevated by large windows, warm lighting, and open fireplaces, which are lit each evening. The walls of the dining room (and the bathroom in one of the bedrooms) have been hand-painted by French artist Claire Basler with tangles of long-stalked flowers while the other spaces are filled with design objects, antique furnishings, and contemporary artworks.
All of the rooms in the main house are uniquely decorated in ‘Scandi-Scot’ style with natural, raw materials, unvarnished wooden floors, thick woollen blankets, and deep bathtubs. ‘Flora’ is the largest, a kind of mini apartment that occupies the entire top floor with a cosy, wood-panelled bedroom and elegant living room, but ‘Isla’ has a special kind of charm, with the bathtub (and Claire Besler’s mural) hidden behind double doors and views down to the beach. The studios in the converted steadings are slightly more contemporary and minimalist in style with glass fronts, exposed brick walls, and concrete terrazzo floors, while the ‘Bothan’ offers self-catering accommodation for families or groups of friends with its own kitchen and larger drawing room. Each bedroom is equipped with Aesop bath products, pairs of woollen slippers from Toast, and stylish backpacks, which you can take with you on the day’s adventure before returning for tea and home-baked cake in front of the fire.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK
While the pine forests of the Highlands are rich for foraging – chanterelles grow prolifically – the coast is, inevitably, the best place for fresh fish. On the way up to Tongue, stop by Ullapool for lunch at The Seafood Shack for simple, but delicious takeaway boxes. The menu changes depending on the catch, but mainstays include: hot langoustines in a pool of herby butter, smoked trout and salad, and mussels in a creamy, garlic sauce. Further up in the heart of the Northwest Scotland UNSECO Geopark is Kylesku Hotel with an excellent restaurant that serves hearty Scottish cuisine made from sustainably sourced local ingredients. Try the ‘fish supper’ (i.e. fish and chips) or vegetarian haggis with pickled vegetables and crispy shoestring fries. If you’re driving along the coastline or taking a day trip from Tongue, Cocoa Mountain Balnakeil has gained a reputation for its rich and creamy hot chocolate, which you can also buy along with an assortment of exotic-flavoured truffles. Then, end the day with a Scandi-inspired set dinner menu at Lundies. Dishes come artfully presented on mixed ceramics with delicate sprigs of herbs and side plates of steamed vegetables. The freshly baked, squidgy sourdough with deep-yellow salty butter is not to be missed.
WHAT TO DO
The North West Highlands are extremely remote with large stretches of uninhabited land which makes it perfect for hiking and wild swimming. Loch na Gainmhich is a two-hour drive from Tongue where you can walk to Britain’s highest waterfalls, Eas a’ Chual Aluinn that comes crashing down into the glen below. It’s also worth driving around the north coast, with its dramatic cliffs, hidden coves, and pebble beaches, up to Cape Wrath where there’s a lighthouse café, which is, remarkably, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Just South of Cape Wrath is Sandwood, a beautiful and extremely isolated mile-long sandy beach flanked at one end by the towering sea stack, Am Buachaille. Seals are often spotted lounging on shores, and if you’re especially, lucky you might catch a glimpse of orca or bottlenose dolphins.
Day Two/Three: Dornoch
WHERE TO STAY
Located in a secluded corner of the eastern highlands close to the historic town of Dornoch, Skibo Castle is an extraordinarily beautiful (and expansive) estate that was bought by famed industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1898. He spent years transforming the castle and 8,000-acres of grounds into a grand summer residence with the intention of leaving it to his daughter, but the estate was later sold in 1982 to hotelier Peter de Savary. Today, his legacy continues (under the leadership of a new owner) through the private member’s club Carnegie, which counts some of the world’s wealthiest families amongst its ranks. As such, the estate is generally closed to the public (the entrance is almost impossible to find), but on application, prospective members are granted a single stay to trial out the facilities, and see how they like the Skibo lifestyle.
There are a number of lodges dotted around the estate, some are so remote they come with the keys to a Jaguar I-Pace (all guests get a golf buggy to nip around on and there’s a fleet of Land Rover Discoveries on call), but the grandest rooms are in the castle itself, many of which have been carefully preserved with original Edwardian fabrics and antique furniture – one even has its own private library tucked away in a tower. Amongst the most special are those with dark wood panelled walls and four-poster beds, and downstairs, the drawing room is just as spectacular.
However, despite the grandeur of the settings, the atmosphere is homely and unpretentious. Days begin with bagpipes on the lawn, played by Martin the musician in-residence who leads a singalong around the grand piano on Saturday evenings after a formal dinner, with guests seated at a communal table, and an old-fashioned, rather raucous ceilidh. Due to the pandemic restrictions, there has been less dancing and singing in recent times but Martin’s piano accompaniment to pre-dinner cocktails maintains the jovial atmosphere.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK
Plan your route to stop off in the pretty Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer for a light lunch (or dinner) at the Deli in the Square. Run by a local family, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and whilst the menu is limited, the salad boxes, homemade soups, and baked goods are all delicious. Sitting in the square on a sunny day overlooking the bandstand and white-painted spa pavilion feels like being transported back in time.
Closer to the castle, Dornoch has much to offer in terms of cafés and restaurants. Mara at Links House, an elegant boutique hotel, next to the first tee at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, is the best spot for fine dining with the option of an indulgent seven-course tasting menu that showcases local produce, culminating with a board of Highland cheeses. The hotel’s café is open from lunchtime daily and for brunch at the weekends – the Sunday roast comes highly recommended – or else, the town’s Italian restaurant Luigi’s is great for seafood.
Back at Skibo Castle, you can order pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want. A sumptuous breakfast of pastries, breads, and various hot dishes is held in Mrs. Carnegie’s dining room (bag a table by the window and you can watch the morning falconry display on the front lawn) followed by a casual lunch at the Clubhouse on the edge of golf course and dinner back up in the castle. The catering staff check-in during the day to see what you fancy, so that when you arrive, post cocktails, your personal menu is printed out and waiting on the table with wines paired by the excellent in-house sommelier. Private dining experiences can also be arranged pretty much anywhere around the estate ≠ Mr. Carnegie’s study makes for a particularly special location.
WHAT TO DO
Loch Fleet Nature Reserve is an idyllic place for walking with its pine woods and stunning mountain views, or take the steep hike up to the top of Ben Bhraggie from where you can see both coasts of Scotland on a clear day. Golspie waterfalls, which come cascading down the rocks through the woods, are also nearby, as are Torboll Falls where you can see an 19th-century fish ladder which allows salmon to bypass the falls and ascend to Loch Buidhe.
Dunrobin Castle, once the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland, is well worth a visit to admire the fairytale-like architecture and magnificent landscaped gardens (some of Stanley Kubrick’s epic Barry Lyndon was filmed here). Pack a picnic and choose one of the pretty walking trails that weave through the surrounding woods and down to the sea.
Guests staying at Skibo Castle itself will find that the list of things to do is endless. There’s archery, tennis, golf, clay pigeon shooting, guided walks, and cycling as well as art classes, fishing, quad biking, yoga, and boat trips. The estate has its own stables with horses for all different riding abilities – you can book lessons or go for a scenic ride around the grounds. The swimming pool is located on the banks of the lake in a beautiful glass pavilion with a steam room and sauna while the neighbouring spa offers an extensive range of soothing treatments using Aromatherapy Associates oils.