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  • North Coast Explorer

'Our Story': Becoming a tour guide on the NC500

18 years ago we discovered the north coast of Scotland.....

Our story starts with a discussion on where to go on a family holiday in 2004 – somewhere different, interesting, but not too far away. Neither of us had been any further north than Edinburgh or Glasgow, and the far north of Scotland just ‘called’ for some reason.

On our first visit to the North Highlands in 2004 - Berriedale, Caithness

We toured the north coast, in effect what was to become the North Coast 500, and it turned into a fantastic trip - we were blown away by the space, the big skies, the beautiful, idyllic beaches, and the fresh air. And so, our story began.

We lived in the south of England, were immersed in corporate jobs at the time and used weekends and holidays to escape from the crazy weekday life.

Over the following years we returned to the north of Scotland each year, sometimes twice a year. Our favourite area back then was Durness and Balnakiel – it was the antithesis of the south east of England where we were based…. And even then, the scenery, the people, the local folklore, the way of life were fascinating and inspiring.

6 people standing in front of a stone wall with a sweeping sandy bay behind.
With our parents at Balnakiel in 2006

We loved the area and our trips so much, we brought our parents up to share what we had discovered with them - and then celebrated Robert’s 40th birthday a couple of years later by coming up with his closest friends.

The north just kept calling and every time our holiday / long weekend was drawing to an end, there was an increasing magnetic feel that we should be staying, not heading ‘back home south’.

By 2012, for differing reasons, our job situations were both becoming unsatisfactory and we thought Robert was going to be made redundant. It was a catalyst. During a family holiday that summer, on Newquay beach, we discussed what we should do and decided that if he was made redundant, we would use the situation to ‘do something different’. At that point, Scotland was not the immediate answer but as the next few weeks passed and we talked more about what might be possible, Scotland kept raising her beautiful head!

A lady stadning on a moorland with the sun setting directly behind her so she forms a silhouette
Sally-Ann at Duncansby Stacks, Winter 2012

Then we had 2 weeks holiday to take later that year with no plans made – and Robert said to me, 'what would you like to do?' In truth the only thing I wanted to do was go and experience once more the peace, tranquility, and fresh air of the Highlands - and in a moment of madness (it was mad for someone like me who needed security and certainty) I suggested that we not only go back to Scotland but actually ‘go and see what our money might buy’!

Robert didn’t need to be asked twice – and so in October 2012 we headed north to view a whole array of properties and opportunities. We knew we wouldn’t take our existing jobs or careers with us and assumed we would have to create our own way – with the decision to set up a luxury B&B.

After heading down a couple of false paths we decided on the north east corner, near John O’ Groats, believing that this would provide a solid base of tourists for our B&B, with the close proximity to Orkney, John O’ Groats itself and the Castle of Mey. We weren’t wrong but what we hadn’t bargained on was the launch of the North Coast 500 in just our second season, 2015.

After a solid start during our first year of running ‘Mey House Luxury Rooms and Breakfast’ in 2014, things began to take off even more as 2015/6 progressed and we couldn’t have been in a better position.

Robert and Sally-Ann standing just outside their property with their garden, house and he view out to sea in the background.
The stunning location of 'Mey House Luxury Rooms & Breakfast', looking out to Orkney

Running the B&B was an education (not least working together every day!) but we brought the skills from our previous lives to bear – focussing on excellent customer service, creating a high-end brand and feel, and recognising that a smooth operation ‘is all in the detail’!

HEadshots of Robert & Sally-Ann in front of the Visit Scotland 5 star plague for Mey House Luxury Rooms & Breakfast
Mey House 5 star recognition

We achieved a Visit Scotland top 5-star rating in our first season and over the 5 years we ran the business we were thrilled to receive 165 top rated TripAdvisor reviews. One guest arrived in our last season and said “before we start, I find it hard to believe that you’ve only got 5-star reviews, how can that be? I’m not sure I believe it”. As he left 2 days later, he agreed that it was justified! A definite win!

Throughout our time at the B&B, we always provided information to our guests on places to visit and things to see, even producing our own self-guided tours of the area. We always wanted our guests to enjoy their visit as much ‘outside of our four walls as inside’ – and so our love of the area and further afield continued to grow and grow to the point where we began to think about diversifying to providing private tours ourselves.

We dipped our toe in the water a few times with our own B&B guests and they seemed to like what we provided. Thus in 2019 we decided that the time was right to make the move – and closed the B&B to start 'North Coast Explorer Tours', with Robert gaining his official Scottish Tour Guide accreditation.

Our aim was to provide top rated, bespoke private tours of the North Coast 500 and the North Highlands interior - sharing our love of this stunning area and providing an insight into the scenery, history, and local culture which tourists often miss as they journey through the landscape.

Once again, we received a Visit Scotland 5-star rating in our first season running the tours – and the rest is history as they say….COVID and all!

Robert & Sally-Ann holding their Visit Scotland plague and certificate
North Coast Explorer Tours gains 5 star status

We love our jobs, we are passionate about our area and our desire is only ever to ensure that our guests have a special time and enjoy their visit, making positive memories which stay with them – just as we did back in 2004.

And so, that is our story… we hope it inspires you and if you have a desire for a change of direction or a dream to be fulfilled, we encourage you to go for it!

In Visit Scotland's 'Year of Stories', what will your story be?

Robert & Sally-Ann at The Castle of Mey

Written by Sally-Ann James January 2022


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