DUNROBIN Castle has reported another record-breaking season with visitor figures breaking through the 100,000 ceiling for the first time.
A delighted castle manager Scott Morrison has again credited the NC500 tourism route and cruise liners docking at Invergordon for boosting numbers year on year.
But the picture is not so rosy at the diagonally opposite end of the county with Cape Wrath minibus operator James Mather experiencing his worst season yet – and blaming NC500 for his declining trade.
He criticised the route as a "500- mile trolley dash" and said while Dunrobin Castle was gaining, he was losing out.
However, the majority of Suther-land tourism operators contacted by the Northern Times say they are very pleased with the 2017 season.
More than 102,000 people of all nationalities crossed Dunrobin Castle’s handsome portal since it opened at Easter, a 20 per cent rise on last year when 85,000 visitors were recorded.
The busiest month was August when the castle’s 50-strong seasonal team – there are 15 all-year -round employees – dealt with an average of 1000 visitors a day.
Mr Morrison said: "NC500 is amazing for the area, although not everyone likes it because it has brought more traffic. There is always a flaw, but from our point of view it is fantastic.
"The other factor is the cruise industry. It was way up this year with around 90 liners docking at Invergordon and even more are expected next year."
Dunrobin extended its season this year by two weeks. The castle has now closed but its tearoom and gardens are to remain open on a trial basis to gauge demand. It is hoped to extend the car park in time for the 2018 season.
Records have also been broken this summer at Clynelish Distillery’s visitor centre with visitor figures soaring by 125 per cent from 2246 in 2016 to 5063 this year.
Jacqueline James-Bow, distillery visitor centre manager, said: "We’ve had a record-breaking summer season at Clynelish with visitor numbers from July to October up 125 per cent.
"Last summer did see a bit of a dip because of the refurbishment work at the distillery, but even taking that into account, this summer’s numbers have been the best we’ve every seen.
"The increase is partly down to the ongoing growth in Scotch whisky tourism coming into Scotland as a whole and also the impact of NC500.
"The investment we plan to make to bring back the famous Brora Distillery alongside Clynelish will only add further to the interest and hopefully will help us attract even more visitors to the area."
Further north in Helmsdale, managers of Timespan Museum and Arts Centre are also very pleased with the numbers coming through the doors.
A spokesman said: "I can’t give a figure as we are still ongoing but our percentage increase from 2015 is around 16.5 per cent. Our total figures for last year was 16,092. Our figures have been greatly helped this last couple of years by the North Coast 500."
With its world-famous championship golf course and plans lodged for another one, Dornoch is regarded as Sutherland’s premier destination and the town was certainly buzzing this summer.
Sandra Macrae, who has run Dornoch Caravan Camping Site for the last 27 years, reported an "excellent" season with a large number of European visitors. Dornoch museum Historylinks, suffered a setback when it lost 20 per cent of its core income due to Highland Council’s budgetary constraints, but this disappointment has been offset by its rising visitor figures.
Historylinks chairman Gerry Bishop said: "We have had a brilliant season and our footfall is up 40 per cent. Last year we had around 3600 visitors and this year we broke through the 5000 barrier. That goes a long way to offset the Highland Council cut back."
Sutherland’s newest tourism operator is Latvian-born Aro Kaljuste who set up Golden Eagle Zip Wire at Ceannabeinne beach, Durness. The zip wire is the only one of its kind in the north Highlands.
Mr Kaljuste said: "We have had more than 2000 visitors this season despite starting late without any proper advertising. It has gone pretty well and probably better than we expected, but zip wires are weather dependant and we were not able to operate as much as we would have liked in August because it rained so much."
Another Durness businessman, James Findlay, co-owner of Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop and café, is satisfied with the season.
He said: "We are on a par with last year which was 20 per cent up and mainly caused by the NC500. So to maintain that rise on the base level is very good.
"The route is still busy out of the main season with plenty of overseas visitors. I do accept, however, there have been issues over traffic on the route, which can be frustrating for locals.
"It is almost inevitable there will continue to be traffic management problems without proper infrastructure funding."