Caithness and Sutherland make up the northernmost part of the Scottish Highlands. This is a very sparsely inhabited area with a lot to offer when it comes to unspoilt landscapes and wildlife.
Towns and villages
Along the east coast, A9 & railway:
- 1 Dornoch has a 13th C cathedral, the "Bishop's Palace" which is now a hotel, and a notable golf course.
- 2 Golspie is just south of grand Victorian Dunrobin Castle.
- 3 Helmsdale is a small fishing village with a Highland games festival.
- 4 Wick: climb the Whaligoe Steps or take a step on the world's shortest street
- 5 John o'Groats is at the northeast tip of Great Britain, with nearby Dunnet Head the most northerly point.
- 6 Thurso is a small town and transport hub, with ferries to Orkney from nearby Scrabster.
Along the north and west coast, A836:
- 7 Durness is near the impressive Smoo Cave, and Cape Wrath the northwest tip of the mainland.
- 8 Kinlochbervie is a small harbour village.
- 9 Kylesku: Caolas or "Kyles" means straits, crossed until 1984 by a ferry but now spanned by an elegant bridge.
- 10 Lochinver is a fishing village - including inland where the terrain is dotted by small lochans.
- 1 North West Highlands Geopark is a UNESCO geopark; some of the local rocks may be over 3 billion years old. Durness, Kinlochbervie and Kylesku are all within the park area.
This region is bleak and very thinly populated, but it wasn't always so. The central Scottish Highlands became anglicised during the 18th C, with the adoption of new farming methods and land tenure, and English replacing Gaelic. This led to depopulation, but it was gradual and more driven by the "pull" of growing economies like Glasgow and America than the "push" of uncaring landowners. The northern Highlands and Hebrides shared those trends but lagged behind. They caught up suddenly and painfully in the 19th C, when landowners brusquely evicted their farm tenants to convert the land to sheep grazing and deer-stalking. And this happened in an era that was developing concepts of civil rights and resistance (emboldened by Irish examples), photography and pesky reporters. So these people's experiences were recorded, as earlier hardships hadn't been; and when we speak of the infamous "Highland Clearances", it's the stories of these regions that we remember.
By plane: Inverness has flights across UK and to Amsterdam. Wick has flights to Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
By road: Two main roads lead into this region. A9 follows the east coast from Inverness north via Dornoch and Helmsdale to Thurso and Scrabster, with A99 forking off to Wick and John O'Groats. For the west coast, A835 runs towards Ullapool. Stagecoach Highlands Bus X98 / X99 runs four times daily from Inverness via Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick to Thurso and Scrabster, 4 hours; two buses on Sunday.
By train: Four trains a day M-Sat run north from Inverness via Dingwall, Tain, Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale to Thurso, taking four hours; from there they double back to Wick. There's only one train on Sunday.
By boat: Ullapool has ferries to Stornoway on Lewis. Three ferry routes ply between the north coast and the Orkney Islands: Scrabster to Stromness (90 mins) is the most convenient if you're using public transport. The others are Gills Land to St Margaret's Hope and John O'Groats to Burwick.
By public transport you can get between the towns along the east coast as far as Thurso; trying to do so along the north and west coast is slow and tedious. You need a car for many of the out-of-town sights.
Highlights are Dunrobin Castle, Smoo Cave, and miles and miles of cliffs and skerries with seabirds wheeling.
- Walk the hills and rugged coastline.
- Highland Gatherings and Games: many villages host an event during summer. Pipe bands, caber-tossing, field & track events and so on; often combined with Agricultural Shows. For instance the Sutherland County Show is held in late July in Dornoch, followed by the Dornoch Highland Gathering early August. See also entries for Thurso and Durness.
Most of the villages have a hotel with a public restaurant and bar. Limited serving hours especially in winter.
Thurso and Wick are big enough to have pubs. The smaller places often don't, so it's either the hotel bar, or buy your own from the nearest store.
There are whisky distilleries in this area that do tours, eg Pulteney in Wick, but nothing like the numbers further south.
Fill up on petrol before you venture north of Inverness.
- You'll probably traverse Ross and Cromarty on the way to & from Inverness. The east (Black Isle) is green and fertile, the west is more sparse.
- It's a short ferry crossing from the north coast to the Orkney Islands.
- Ferries sail from Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis, and transport runs down the chain of Western Isles through Harris and the Uists to Barra. Ferries connect east to the Inner Hebrides; or reach these via Inverness or Oban.