The sign saying John o’Groats – mainland Britain’s north-eastern tip – was 73 miles away brought the first realisation of being far from home.
Our destination was Golspie for the first of two nights in Sutherland with our ten-month-old trainee guide dog, Bear.
The Golspie Inn, a historic coaching inn dating back to 1808 and sited on the famous North Coast 500 route, has been a popular attraction in recent years.
The organisers, Venture North, promised ‘gigantic skies in an ancient land’ and, with a couple of hours left on a bright October afternoon, we were keen to find out what the coast had to offer. We were not to be disappointed.
With Bear in his element enjoying a free run and large flocks of geese flying over a calm sea, we were keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of seals or dolphins.
But what enchanted us was on land rather than in the water – the fairytale castle that is Dunrobin. The most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, it made us stop and say ‘wow’ as it came into view – particularly as its huge formal garden slopes down towards the Dornoch Firth.
Despite its location, Dunrobin actually resembles the grandest of French chateaus with its conical spires. It is also one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses, dating back to the early 1300s. It’s open between April and October. That night, we enjoyed fish and chips and a beer or two at the Golspie Inn and, the following morning at breakfast, Bear was a hit with the staff.
We quickly learned that, in this part of the world, with its wide open spaces and great walking spots, pretty much everyone seems to have a four-legged friend.
Next up was Dornoch, a short distance south – but, before we got there, we made an unscheduled stop by Loch Fleet to watch the seals lazing the day away.
Dornoch is famous for its sandy beach, cathedral and Royal Dornoch golf course. We were staying at Dornoch Castle Hotel, opposite the cathedral, which came to the world’s attention days before Christmas 2000 when Madonna christened her son Rocco there shortly before marrying film director Guy Ritchie.
The hotel – thought to be on the site of the Bishop’s Palace of St Gilbert, who founded the cathedral in the early 13th century – also boasts a gin and whisky distillery. Head chef Grant Macnicol is in charge of dining and the steak was truly delicious.
Taking a birthday paddle in the sea just before leaving, a fellow dog walker – who I assumed was lucky enough to live locally – said proudly: ‘Honestly, what could be better than this?’
It was hard to disagree.