North Coast 500 - Day 7 & Coming Home.

I've had a bit of a break from my Scottish blog to share a couple of family shoots, and so as not to bombard you with too many travel photos. Remember the old slideshows certain family members used to make you sit through?! Although I have had a couple of requests to do just this with my North Coast 500 series - maybe if there are refreshments this would make it more tempting?

So, to day 7, my last official day of the North Coast 500 route and day 8, my journey from Loch Ness down to the Bridge of Allan and then home. On day 7 I woke up early to a sunny Dornoch day and a wonderful breakfast at No 9 Guest House.

I hadn't actually planned too much for the day, and I have to say I set off with a heavy heart, knowing that this was the last day of the adventure. I drove slowly around Dornoch Firth and stopped for a few minutes at Bonar Bridge.

The traffic was busy, and I felt I'd hit a popular route, there were signs to various destinations of interest and roadside shopping stop offs. This A road felt a lifetime away from all the single tracks driving through mountains from just a few days ago. I hit the Cromarty Firth, peppered with oil rigs and signs of industry.

I wanted to get away from the main road and prolong my journey which was hurtling towards the end point of Inverness. I'd seen a few photos of Rogie Falls before I set off and decided to take a trip. It was the perfect spot to visit after a morning of not feeling quite myself. Tall trees and the crashing waterfalls carved deep into the rock.

There is a peninsula just above Inverness called The Black Isle. This is where I headed for next. I had circled Munlochy on my map as somewhere I wanted to visit. Here is The Clootie Well - a strange left over from an ancient pagan tradition. Folk would bring belongings to the well as an offering, sometimes in the shape of clothes or rags, in the hope that a family member's illness would be cured. The tradition has been updated as I spotted a Santa hat and a hi viz jacket. It was a strange, eerie place. The twigs cracked underfoot and echoed round the trees. 

I drove a little further onto The Black Isle. At this point I was feeling just a little jaded, and knowing I hadn't booked anywhere to stay for the night, I was keen to try and find somewhere a little further south than Inverness. I drove to Avoch Bay and Chanonry Point first to see if I could spot any dolphins.

And then I turned to head south. I hit Inverness at 5pm on a Sunday eve. In the traffic, I turned to see drivers left and right, many coming back from weekend's away with family. Sleeping kids in the back with heads pressed to the window and streamline roof racks perched on top like tortoise shells. 'You are entering Inverness' the sign proclaimed. That was it, I'd finished. I wanted to feel something. For the first few moments I sat tapping my fingers on the steering wheel to the radio, the traffic flow edging slowly towards a roundabout ahead. And then it hit me as I drove out of the town along the banks of Loch Ness. For this journey, I had pushed through my travel anxiety and although panic attacks had grumbled once or twice, I'd silenced them. Through the darkness of the beginning of the year, I'd pulled myself up and done something that for a long time had not seemed achievable. I felt something I hadn't felt for a while, I felt proud. I pulled over and just sat in the car for a few moments and took this photo. In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing special, but it'll always mean something to me.

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I drove down to Fort Augustus on the southern tip of the loch and found a great place to stay. I had a beer and face-timed Suze, it was good to celebrate albeit over screens!

The next morning I had a quick walk to the tip of the loch before setting off.

As I still had a number of miles to travel before reaching home, I decided to break my journey up by staying with my cousins again in the Bridge of Allan. The journey there on a blue sky day was quite spectacular.

Travelling through The Cairngorms was beautiful.

After coming through the mountains, I stopped off for a lovely lunch with our friend Carol and her beautiful pooch Carter. They showed me some of the local sights.

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And then onto a peaceful eve with my cousin and family. We sat round the dinner table over a glass of fizz, and chatted about the last few days. After a great night's sleep, I climbed into the car, packing my overnight bags up for the last time, for now, and tapped in the directions home into the Sat Nav. I felt excited to be returning home to Suzi.

A few hours later, I pulled up onto the cobbles on our street, shiny from a recent shower. When I walked into the lounge, Suze had left a treat for me on the table, a pecan pie, still warm. And propped up, one of our favourite pieces of art (by the wonderful Angela Smyth). It reads 'a suitcase built for adventure...' and written underneath 'the Thrills of the Unknown are Waiting for You.'

Thanks to everyone who followed my journey.  It was great to get your messages when I was away, it felt like you came along too. If you'd like to read the series of blogs, here are the links to each day:

Day 1 - Dornie to Big Sand

Day 2 - Big Sand to Inchnadamph

Day 3 - Inchnadamph to Talmine

Day 4 - Talmine to Armadale

Day 5 - Armadale to Thrumster

Day 6 - Thrumster to Dornoch

Me and Suzi are talking about the possibility of doing a longer trip together next year, we've just started doing some research. We'd love to hear where you've been, if you have any recommendations, or where you'd like to have an adventure!

North Coast 500 - Day 4 - Talmine to Armadale

When I was planning my North Coast 500 trip, I decided to have one day where I didn't travel too far, just in case I needed a rest day and a bit of time out from driving. So on Day 4, I travelled just around the headland to Armadale.

But just going back a little to the end of day 3. My super lovely hosts at The Woodlifeway Guest Room, Steve and Lea, chatted to me about their journey up to Talmine from down south, and the crofting way of life. They love the nature they have on their doorstep, the deer, golden and white tailed eagles, the seals on the sand bank just across from the croft, and otters. But they were most excited when telling me about their regular sightings of the northern lights! They showed me photos they had taken from the bedroom window just a few nights before. I have been lucky enough to see the northern lights, it was a few years ago now when we took a trip to Finnish Lapland for my Mum's 60th. That and the starling murmuration are certainly up there as the most spectacular things I've ever seen. But there was an added excitement to think I might see this colourful dance in the sky here in the UK. I set my tripod up and we stood still, me holding my breath, it felt like a stake out. Although there was a bank of thick cloud in a crucial area, I saw the unmistakable green tinges. Luminous streaks in the sky, a painter's first brush stroke on a blank canvas.

After this excitement, I took myself to bed and slept so soundly. I woke up quite early, at 5.30am. I pulled back the curtains and was greeted with that beautiful early morning hue. With the sun yet to rise, the snow on the mountains was a dark cobalt blue studded with sharp black rocks, the small crescent moon hung in the pale blue sky.

Even though I had gone to bed quite late, I wanted to get out to watch the sunrise. I pulled on my boots and walked to the edge of the croft. A few birds had started their chorus.

I stood and watched the ever developing light. From behind a little stone building to my left, a bright orange glow grew in intensity.

And then the very tops of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal were crowned in a pale pink which inched its way down the mountainside.

They looked like a child's perfect drawing of a mountain, with the definitive snow line. And then, from the grass, a skylark flew vertically into that big sky, its song swirled around the croft.

I came back inside, just as Steve was lighting the fire, the room filled with the smell of wood smoke. I ate my breakfast with Steve and Lea, and we chatted over homemade bread, flapjacks and bread pudding. As the fire crackled, we talked about music, and croft life.

I was fascinated to hear that every croft has rights to their own particular patch of peat. Peat rights! Lea makes beautiful household goods out of wood. She told me all about the provenance of the wood she uses. I bought Dad a new coaster for his cocoa mug made out of sea buckthorn. They like to have music on in the house. All About Eve came on, and Steve told me about his goth loving past, we realised we share a penchant for The Sisters Of Mercy. Guitars are strung up on the white walls. Maybe when I go back, I'll have a sing with them, I know there will be a next time. 

I left the croft and drove away with their smiling faces in my wing mirror. I stopped a little bit further along the road, at the side of the Kyle of Tongue to see if I could spot an otter, but not this time. I had seen the seals basking on the sand bank opposite the croft before I left, a new world discovered by the retreating tide.

I just pootled slowly along the coastline. I stopped at Farr Beach, Bettyhill and sat on the warm sand for a while. I just listened to the healing sound of the waves and watched the rush of sea water as it edged along the beach, leaving ripples carved into the sand and little piles of seaweed dotted on the shore.

The afternoon was a little disjointed as I tried to find something to eat (not such an easy feat at the top of Scotland). I also noticed (with a heavy heart), that I was leaving the mountains behind. Being in the mountains and driving in that terrain had been exciting and exhilarating. Now the roads were relatively flat, the landscape transformed right in front of me. 

I passed the wildlife carefully.

My next Airbnb was Armadale House. I parked on the gravel drive and was met by my smiling host Detta, rosy cheeks and silver hair. We drank tea and ate biscuits in the kitchen and then she took me on a tour of the house that is undergoing renovation work. The beautiful shutters on the window, the grand staircase, a stag's head adorning one of the walls, and that big green front door.

I walked around the garden, a big pile of peat was drying in the fading sun.

Even though I hadn't done too much, I was tired and went to bed, my morning of waking up at the croft in Talmine still with me. 

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