I wake to the gentle November sun filtering through the skylight. I roll over with a sleepy smile as I feel excited butterflies start to flutter in my stomach. It was my birthday. I was 25 today.
Ever since a I heard about the North Coat 500 (NC500) I was desperate to go explore this in my partner's converted van. Although I have dipped my toe in North Scotland, I'd barely travelled beyond Inverness which is my current home. This would take us all around the top of Scotland, and researching the trip revealed specular photos of idyllic coastlines. This just had to be the way that I spent my 25th birthday.
Living in the highlands, I sometimes worry that I will become numb to its beauty. That I will take it for granted. But this trip surpassed even my ridiculously high expectations. Scotland at its absolute finest. It tends to be the west coast that is the most popular. It was certainly my partners favourite and I watched the ever-growing glee radiating from him as we moved along this coast. It was picture perfect with views of stunning western isles sprawling across the sea. We got some of our favourite photos here. However, it was the east coast that stirred my soul. Unlike the west coast, there was nothing to break up the vast ocean. It seemed never ending and all-encompassing. I felt I was on the edge of something I couldn't begin to understand. The low autumnal clouds seeped into the ocean so I was surrounded by blues, greys and whites. Fluidly mixing together and carrying me with them. I was mesmerised.
We spent my birthday at John o Groats. A 'blink and you'll miss it' type of place, nestled into the most north-easterly corner of Scotland. We started the day by visiting Duncansby Head. I'd seen photos of this place and was bubbling with excitement. Although I took a moment to glance at another wonderfully placed lighthouse, I hurried past, dragging my partner with me. As I rounded a hill, I was suddenly affronted with the view I was seeking. I took in the raw cliff faces and the strikingly beautiful sea stacks that were holding their own against the sea's relentless barrage. I sat where I was, feeling the sea-spray landing on my eyelashes and breathed deeply. It was exactly my kind of beauty.
Before long, I noticed a black shape edging into the corner of my vision. I felt a snap of recognition as I realised it was a raven standing just metres from us. A seasoned birder, I instantly remained as still as possible so as not to scare it away. I needn't have worried. The raven was walking very purposely towards us. So purposely in fact, that my partner felt unnerved enough to rise from his vulnerable seated position and rapidly retreat. This bird looked like it meant business. I remained where I was, shocked at this display of boldness, and watched as the raven begin to inspect our bags. I almost felt the sigh of disappointment as nothing of interest was found. I met this bird's fiercely intelligent gaze. A sense of timelessness came over me. Then the raven opened its wings and was carried away by the wind. Such an encounter could only happen in a place like this. Nature made the rules here.
Before we left John o Groats, I had to visit Puffin Croft. I'd stumbled upon this place years earlier as it featured in a TV programme. I was so impressed by this story of a woman who had decided to leave her life in south England to take up a petting farm/shop in this remote location. I wanted to see this for myself, and of course, spend some time with the animals. We were there a while as I greeted each animal individually. More than once. I may have tested my partner's patience a tad. But I adored this place. The shop was delightful, filled with homemade and fresh produce, hinting at the owner's many skills. More than anything, I could tell the animals were loved. This meant everything.
My rumbling stomach tore me away eventually and we returned to the van. Cooking in the van taught me simplicity. That I didn't always need my assortment of kitchen utensils and complicated ingredients to make a tasty meal. Instead, we made warming stews, filled with hearty vegetables and seated ourselves comfortably in front of the log burner. I was unaware that you could fit a log burner in a van until I met my partner, but it was certainly a luxury. I couldn't imagine a better way to have this adventure. I hadn't spent much time in a van up until this point but I knew I'd love it. It did take some getting used to. I didn't consider that the van would move in the windy coastline spots we often chose to park in. I found this a bit unsettling at first. So much so that my partner had to abandon one idyllic but particularly windy spot to drive us to the local Tesco's car park to sleep. At 2am. In his slippers. I am a lucky girl...
I've always enjoy my birthday, but this is one I will never forget. Almost two years on and I remember every detail. As with all beautiful things, this trip is attracting more and more visitors. Especially right now as travel abroad is so difficult. I'm proud of my home but I worry about it. I encourage my readers that if you do choose to take this trip then treat it, and its residents, with care and respect. We want to preserve these places so that more people can experience the utter freedom and joy that I felt on this adventure. I doubt I will ever have a birthday to top this. What a way to celebrate reaching a quarter of a century.