THE newly established North Coast 500 (NC500) route is thought to be behind a surge of visitors this summer to one of Sutherland’s main tourist attractions.
Staff at Dunrobin Castle are celebrating a record-breaking season with the largest number of visitors ever.
Other tourism operators, including Royal Dornoch Golf Club, are also reporting a favourable season.
Some 72,500 visitors have gone through the doors of the imposing castle, located just north of Golspie, since it opened at Easter. The facility shuts for the winter tomorrow.
This figure represents an eight per cent increase on 2014 when around 67,000 visitors were registered.
Records were last broken in 1996 when 70,000 visitors enjoyed touring the castle but figures took a nose dive thereafter before slowly climbing back up again.
A delighted castle manager Scott Morrison donned his kilt to personally welcome a Canadian couple who inadvertently became record breakers when they crossed the castle threshold last week.
The couple, who introduced themselves to Mr Morrison as Craig and Kari, were given free entry and a free guidebook.
Mr Morrison told the Northern Times this week: “It has been a phenomenal year and we are all thrilled.
“After waiting 19 years for this, I wanted to make an effort and I put the kilt on to greet Craig and Kari, who asked me whether I wore it all the time!”
Mr Morrison is linking the increased visitor figures to the launch of NC500 – a tourism route which starts and ends at Inverness Castle and follows a coastal route around the north Highlands, with the majority of it through Sutherland.
The route has been backed by Prince Charles and is becoming known as “Scotland’s Route 66”.
The 189-room Dunrobin Castle and its garden has been open to the public since 1973. It previously operated as a naval hospital and private boarding school (see special feature, page 18).
The castle employs a 45-strong staff during the season. Twelve of those are full-time.
Mr Morrison, who began working at Dunrobin in 1997, said: “From a high of 70,000 in 1996, visitor figures went downhill to 54,000 in 2000 and that is when we started holding functions, such as weddings, to try and replace the loss of income.
“Cruise liners began to stop at Invergordon as part of their itinerary in 2000, and coaches were laid on to take passengers on day trips from the port to various destinations – including Dunrobin.
“Since then the numbers have slowly been creeping back up and in 2014 we had more than 67,000 visitors.”
He added: “We had a real mix of nationalities this year. The German market is always strong but there were more American and Italian visitors this season, as well as lots of people from the UK.”
But Mr Morrison said that the noticeable difference in the 2015 season was the number of people who dropped in to see the castle while travelling on NC500. He is a member of the NC500 board.
He said: “NC500 has attracted international publicity. It has been voted number two in National Geographic’s ‘101 Reasons to Travel Now’ list. Another travel magazine voted it as one of the top six coastal drives in the world.
“We have had numerous reporters, bloggers and photographers visiting the castle this year who have been trying out the route with a view to writing features on it.
“We had a photographer here only this morning taking pictures of the castle for an article on NC500 Easyjet’s in-flight magazine.
“A lot of people are talking about NC500 and we are already getting bookings for next year on the back of it. A Harley Davidson club has been in touch to say it will be undertaking the route next year and asking about visiting the castle.”
He continued: “NC500 is already a huge success and I believe it has the potential to have an even greater impact on the area’s tourism industry.”
Royal Dornoch Golf Club has also reported a “very good year” for visitors on both its championship and Struie courses.
A total of 11,187 golfers played the championship course during summer 2015, and 3237 the Struie course. These figures compare to 10,703 and 2790 last year.
Club manager Neil Hampton said: “Despite the very poor start to the summer weather wise, our numbers have held up and people did not cancel even when they knew the weather was not going to be good.
“I do not yet know what this year’s breakdown regarding visitors’ location is, but it will not have changed much from previous years – 50 per cent from north America; 30 per cent from the UK; 18 per cent from Europe and two per cent from elsewhere.”
Colin Thompson, proprietor of Dornoch Castle Hotel described his season as “mixed”. He said April, June and August had been the busiest ever but May and July had been average while September had been “strong”.
Mr Thompson said the visitor figures “tracked the weather”.
Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale has also reported a rise in visitor numbers although figures were not available.
Tanja Lister, of the Kylesku Hotel, said: “It has been a great season for us too. We did a major refurbishment during the winter with three new rooms.
“We were all booked out from May to September. Overall we are 30 per cent up on last year.”
Strathnaver Museum development manager Fiona Mackenzie said: “We’re having a great year too and are also set for a record breaking season as we are on track to break the 5000 visitor mark for the first time.
“Our visitor figures are up 20 per cent on this time last year and we expect another 100 or so visitors before we close on the 31st.”