The popularity of the North Coast 500 has brought a surge in tourism to the most northerly part of the mainland, however moves are afoot to encourage visitors to venture away from the route and experience the wider area and its rapidly expanding range of attractions. 

I’m lying on a paddleboard, drifting in Sutherland’s Loch Brora, looking at upside-down mountain reflections and trees on a tiny island, listening to the lapping of water, birdsong and my own deep exhale. I’ve travelled to the north east to learn about a new ‘Breathing Space’ campaign launched by Venture North, the destination management organisation for Caithness and Sutherland. I also want a bit of this promised headspace for myself.

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Many of us have spent the last few years in somewhat claustrophobic urban environments. In Caithness and Sutherland you can have all the space you need, to relax and unwind in whatever way you choose.

Destination strategy manager Cathy Earnshaw says: “There’s so much space and so much freedom – that’s what we have in abundance.” Andrew Mackay of Caithness Collection hotels agrees, “We have so much to offer – all this space, so many walks, beautiful scenery. The pace of life is so much slower, it’s a great opportunity to reboot.”

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The North Coast 500 driving route (NC500) has brought more visitors to Caithness and Sutherland, a largely welcome development for a region highly dependent on tourism. Venture North hopes to encourage people to visit less obvious stops on that route, and deviate from it, and invite visitors to the region outwith the busy summer months. “There’s so much to do up here, just historically we’ve not been very good at shouting about it,” says Mackay.

Golf and whisky are traditional draws in these parts, and to that you can add gin, rum and beer distillery tours, and a much wider range of sports. My paddleboarding trip is with Sutherland Adventure Co., based in Brora. This young company only launched last year and has seen a huge demand for their services.

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“For people driving the North Coast 500, we’re either the last or the first place that they drive through,” explains co-owner Rhionna Mackay. “We were aware of a lack of activities outside of golf and whisky, so we wanted to give them a reason to stop.”

The company started just hiring paddleboards but demand for wetsuits and lessons skyrocketed. “The whole thing was a whirlwind,” says Mackay. This year she and co-owner Scott Miller are expanding the business and training even more instructors. Bike hire and touring is about to start, and later in the summer guided hikes and coasteering (a combination of scrambling, cliff-jumping and swimming). I loved my paddleboarding lesson and managed to navigate around the wee island, followed by a spin on the mountain bikes to warm up and a walk on gorgeous Brora beach. My instructor Morgan is so passionate about the area and all that you can do here, it’s very infectious and I make immediate plans to return.

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Sutherland Adventure Co. is part of a new generation of young companies in the area, “People are realising that you don’t have to move away, there’s a lot of opportunity,” says Mackay. Locals are learning new skills too, with kids’ lessons proving extremely popular – “Watching them come in being a bit apprehensive, then finishing the session running and jumping off the boards, it’s just fantastic” says Mackay. In Thurso another young business, North Coast Watersports are teaching visitors and locals to surf on the incredible beaches.

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Sutherland and Caithness are steeped in history, another major draw to the area. Frequent brown signs point to brochs, cairns and other fascinating places of historical significance, including the Grey Cairns of Camster built over 5,000 years ago.

At Badbea you can visit a clearance village, a rough cliff-edge settlement where villagers struggled to make a living after being evicted from their homes inland. It’s a wild and windswept place, where animals and children had to sometimes be tethered to posts to stop them blowing off the cliffs.

Further examples of hard lives and endurance are evident at Whaligoe Steps, a natural harbour carved into the cliffs by crashing waves; women used the steep stone steps to heave up baskets of herring. The North Coast Visitor Centre in Thurso explores the area’s history from the Neolithic era to Dounreay, and Wick Heritage Museum focuses on the area’s fascinating fishing heritage. Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill tells the story of the Clearances, the newly refurbished museum opens in 2023.

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I’m discovering a land of light and water. For miles the quiet roads trace the line of the high cliffs allowing views further out to sea than I’ve ever seen from land, to distant wind turbines and oil rigs. The light is luminous and both the sky and the reflected colours in the sea are in constant flux. You can watch storms gather long before they hit the land, it’s mesmerising.

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I visit Forsinard Flows, in The Flow Country, a vast expanse of blanket bog. The landscape is of key ecological importance and stores over three times the carbon found in all Britain’s forests. Photographs can’t adequately convey the stark beauty of this landscape, so a visit to the RSPB viewing platform is a good start.

The rugged coastline is frequently jaw-dropping. The Duncansby Stacks seem so outlandish, almost impossible. At Dunnet Head I look out to Orkney, watch seabirds duck and dive into their cliff-face nests and am sprayed by the sea far below.

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There are vast sandy beaches perfect for head-clearing long walks. From my first stay at Links House I explore Dornoch beach, where the dunes are alive with chattering birds. From Northern Sands Hotel I catch the sunset from the dunes at stunning Dunnet Beach, a popular surfing spot.

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On my last morning I follow the winding coastal road to Talmine and meet Caroline and Rhoda from North Coast Wet n Wild, another new company revitalising outdoor opportunities in the area. Motivated by a desire to get more people enjoying the sea, they now offer coasteering, paddleboarding and open-water swim coaching. It’s too stormy a morning for coasteering when I visit but a coastal walk shows me so far more than possible by road. Caroline says: “Swimming in the sea resets my soul, it never fails to make me smile.”

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 So after days of gazing at the ever-changing sea I can’t resist a quick freezing dip. It starts hailing as I get changed but I don’t care, I feel alive, refreshed and invigorated by the experience of travelling in this region.