Sutherland and Caithness

You have to have a car to tour around the Northern areas of Scotland. There is a train to Wick and Thurso, but it is slow and scenic and much recommended as part of a Scotland Rover train tour, but otherwise it is easier to think about hiring a car at Glasgow or Edinburgh airports, or in Fort William (which has a direct sleeper service to London) or Inverness. The great thing about this tour is that you are essentially taking a circular road that starts up the East coast on the A9, goes along the Northern seaboard on the A836 and then returns across the classic highland moorland, diagonally back to the Dornoch Firth on the A837. These are the main roads in these areas, so you really cannot get lost! This is a tour that includes some fascinating ancient archeological remains and some breathtaking scenery, but since it takes some committment to get this far North, it also has the advantage of being away from the main tourist attractions and you get a chance to apreciate the wide open spaces and drive as slowly as you like with little traffic to worry about.
  • Gardeners cottage

Day 1 - Exploring the Tarbet Ness peninsular

Although strictly speaking Sutherland does not start until you are North of the Dornoch Firth, we recommend you spend your first day making the short journey North from Inverness past the Black Isle and then turning right off the A9 before Tain. If you are inclined then a visit or even just a drive to have a look at the Nigg Oil rig manufacturing yards is worthwhile. This is not everybody's idea of beauty but we are talking about enormous structures being manufactured here and the view down the Cromarty Firth from Nigg Bay and further along, the view of the Moray Firth from the North side, across to Nairn not only helps to give one a sense of orientation, but is worthwhile for the area teaming with wildlife and seabirds. The alternative is to turn right off the A9 at the large Tore roundabout and follow the signs to Fortrose and Cromarty and then you can take the small Cromarty - Nigg car ferry across to the Southern corner of the Tarbet Ness Penninsular. However you approach, the recommendation is to drive to Fearn, near the North-east corner, turn right on to the B9166, perhaps visit the Anta shop, for some lovely crockery, then drive past Balintore and perhaps have some lunch at The restaurant at Glenmorangie House and then abandon your car and walk for an hour an a half along the coast of Geanies cliffs to Tarbet Ness lighthouse and then back inland to Portmahomack. Here you should be able to find a taxi or beg a local to drop you back to your car. Other interesting attractions in the area include the Tarbet Ness Discovery centre in Portmahomack and the Shandwick Stone which is located above Balintore. Once back in your car, you will be heading back to the A9 and you can visit the Glenmorangie Distillery on the A9 just South of Tain. Although there are many distilleries worth visiting, Glenmorangie is one of the smoother of the mass produced brands and is well worth the introduction if you have never tried it.

Attractions

  • Shandwick Stone
  • Cromarty Courthouse
  • Glenmorangie Distillery
  • Tarbet Ness
  • Nigg Oil rig yard

Day 2 - Exploring Dornoch

The first thing to do in the morning is to ring Luigi's restaurant to book a table for your evening meal. This is a fabulous restaurant and is the last really quality restaurant recommendation for the next few days. Also Dornoch is home to Grants, a delicatessen and general grocer, which will sell you black pudding that is considered to be as good as you can find in Scotland. It is also recommended that you stock up on goodies here for picnics for the rest of he week. Dornoch is essentially the regional capital of Sutherland and here is where you should visit the tourist information centre to research guided (or not) walking trails, and shooting or fishing facilities available. The Royal Dornoch Golf course is also a must for golfers although Tain and Brora further up the coast are also worthwhile. Dornoch is rich in history and a very good introduction is to follow the Historylinks Trail, available from Historylinks Museum, a walking tour starting and ending at the museum and taking in many interesting sites.

Places to stay

Attractions

  • Historylinks Museum
  • Luigi's Restaurant
  • Dornoch Cathedral
  • Seaforth Croft

Day 3 - Dornoch to Brora

In the morning of Day 3, it is recommended to either walk north from Dornoch along the shoreline or drive a few miles North on the A9 and explore the area round Loch Fleet. The area hosts a Nature reserve, the ruined Skelbo castle, the witches stone and the Embo beach anchor but is very much in the heart of the Pictish Trail that has many sites in the foreshore areas between Dornoch and Brora. Your afternoon hightlight is to drive on North on the A9 to Golspie and spend several hours at Dunrobin Castle. This is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and dates back to the 1300s. The interiors, the aspect of the house and the gardens are all on a magnificent scale and it is much recommended that you take your time here. The last significant recommendation around here is to take the The Big Burn Walk just outside Golspie. This is a beautifully maintained woodland walk with bridges crossing the burn and access to a waterfall. In spring there is a profusion of interesting woodland wildflowers and birds throughout the site.

Attractions

  • Dunrobin Castle
  • The Hawthorns Bed and Breakfast
  • Valley Views Guest House
  • Thurso House

Day 4 - Brora to Wick or Thurso

North of Brora you start to see dramatic changes in the landscape as you enter Caithness north of Helmdale on the A9. Certain sections of the coast road are dramatic in their own right. This day is recommended that you drive about 30 miles or a bit more if you want to get to the Castle of Mey stopping at various roadside attractions. The first of these (although not especially recommended) is the Dunbeath Heritage Centre which is an exhibit that illustrates much of the ancient culture and heritage within the Caithness area. The Clan Gunn Heritage centre is also just a few miles further on in Latheron, which is a similar exhibit but more concentrated on clan history. After turning left to Thurso, still on the A9, you come, after about 5 miles, to the Achavanich standing stones. This is a great example of the sort of bronze age or earlier features that are all over the Caithness area. These sort of sites are believed to date back to around 3000bc. Retracing your steps and turning on to the coast road, the A99 to Wick, I recommend that you drive through Lybster to the hamlet of Occumster, where a left turn on to a small single track road will take you after about 5 miles to the Grey Cairns of Campster, which are superb and mostly complete examples of the type of cairn dwellings that cover the area. Retracing your steps and turning left towards Wick, you next come to the Walligoe steps, just after the hamlet of Bruan. Athough you need not spend too long here, I found this feature to be delightful and well worth a visit. Motoring on North, through Wick, past the airport still on the somewhat degraded A99, I next recommend a short visit to the dramatic setting of the ruined Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Thereafter the A99 north will take you somewhat slowly to the Castle of Mey, Scotland's most northerly castle that was rescued from ruin by the late Queen Elizabeth, the present Queen's mother.

Attractions

  • Whaligoe Steps
  • Grey Cairns of Camster
  • The Castle & Gardens of Mey
  • Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
  • The Creel Inn
  • The Lynnfield Hotel

Day 5 - Day trip to Orkney

Although Orkney is sufficiently special to warrant a week trip of its own, it is quite a commitment to get to, and these one day tours on the passenger only ferry from John O'Groats are a good alternative. You get quite an experience leaving the somewhat barren and poor crofting land of North Caithness, taking the 40 minute short sea crossing, and arriving in the startlingly green fertility of South Ronaldsay. The full day tour is available from 1st May to 30th September and leaves at 9am. A shorter "highlights tour" is available from 1st June to 30th September and leaves at 10.30am. Booking is advisable on 01955 611353 or on-line at https://www.jogferry.co.uk/Tours.aspx. The tours meet the ferry by bus, take you across the Churchill barriers that surround the huge second world war naval base at Scapa Flow and then on to visit the best of the neolithic remains that litter the Orkney islands simply everywhere.

Attractions

  • Maes Howe
  • Skara Brae
  • Ring of Brodgar
  • Cruachan Lodge
  • Ruddyglow Park
  • Kylesku Bed and Breakfast

Day 6 - Thurso to Assynt

Your sixth day is spent driving along the Scottish northern seaboard on the A836. The first place you come across is the positively creepy Dounreay nuclear power station. I do not recommend that you stop. The land is wild, open, windswept and slightly barren, however you can stop at Strathy point nature reserve for a short 1.5 mile walk on a tarmaced path to visit the lighthouse and experience pleasant seascapes. A futher 8 miles on, after Bettyhill, you reach Borgie. This area has many fantastic beaches, caves and hills to explore. Nearby you have Borgie Breco, or the Riverside trail or the spiral walk around A'chraobh, or the Strathnaver Trail through an evocative highland glen to Rosal clearance village. Also much recommended is the Borgie Forest walk which is only about a mile long. The walk runs along the edge of the River Borgie, one of Scotland's most famous salmon rivers. There are lovely views up the river towards the centre of the forest - especially so in spring when the gorse is in flower. Your afternoon highlight is a visit to Smoo Cave outside Durness. Set into limestone cliffs, Smoo Cave is quite large - 200 feet long, 130 feet wide, and 50 feet high at the entrance. The cave is a great tourist attraction for people visiting the north-west coast, and is well worth a visit. After Durness, crack on in to Assynt where you will find the most wonderful headland walks and disserted beaches. A nice easy walk can be found from the car park at Inverkirkaig to the The Kirkaig falls or even on to Fionn loch. However the whole area is so beautiful (as long as the sun is shining) that you will have no trouble being delighted wherever you wander.

Attractions

  • Knockan Crag
  • Smoo Cave
  • Borgie Forest
  • Balvaig Cottage Bed and Breakfast

Day 7 - Try to Drag yourself away

After the long day of driving yesterday, you will be in no hurry to leave the Assynt area and there are plenty of sites that the locals will recommend, such as a visit to Knockan Crag. However your basic objective of the day is to return on the A837 through Glen Oykel to the Dornoch Firth. It is recommended to explore two nature sites, the first is found just after the junction with the A839, where you will find a signposted carpark to explore the Raven's Rock Gorge. After an hour at Raven's Rock return back down the A837 and just before you reach the junction with the A836, turn left and follow the signs to the Falls of Shin. This is a well managed attraction and is great fun to spend an hour here watching the salmon leaping and soaking up the atmosphere of the attractive series of waterfalls. After the Falls of Shin you have options. One option is to return back towards Bonar Bridge and before reaching the town, park in the Balblair Forest car park and enjoy the easy forestry walk, taking an hour to and hour and a quarter. Alternatively visit the Carbisdale Castle circuit, which is a 5 mile route exploring the Carbisdale Castle Estate, starting from Invershin, just west of Bonar Bridge.

Attractions

  • Loch a'Mhuilinn
  • Ravens Rock Gorge
  • Falls of Shin

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