North West Highlands Geopark is a UNESCO Geopark in Caithness and Sutherland in the northwest Scottish Highlands. The 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) Geopark has coastal cliffs, beaches, mountains caves and waterfalls and a variety of unique geological features.
North West Highlands Geopark is one of 81 European Geoparks endorsed by UNESCO. It was awarded this status in 2004 for its geological variety - especially for the clash of strata, with older rocks overlying younger, that forced 19th century geologists to totally rethink their ideas. Its principal components are the 3 billion year old Lewisian Gneiss, the Torridonian Sandstone, the white quartzite capping many mountains and a large limestone area. Moine Thrust is the fault line that built the Caledonian mountains 400 million years ago, and during the Ice Ages these were sculpted by vast glaciers.
The area has little by way of mineral deposits, and poor soil for agriculture, so it's thinly populated and little developed. The vegetation is mostly heath, coarse grass and peat bog, with few trees.
The climate is chilly though seldom freezing. That's probably not what you'll say if you venture into the sea off the beautiful deserted beaches.
There are no gates, fees or permits for the geopark, but check local rules on fishing and game.
- See these pages for where to eat, drink and sleep in the park:
- 1 Ullapool has accommodation, amenities and ferries to Stornoway.
- 2 Achiltibuie is a village west along a lane off the main road. Go that way for boat trips to the Summer Isles.
- 3 Lochinver is a fishing village on a loop of road from Ardvreck Castle beneath the peaks of Suilven.
- 4 Kylesku: Caolas or "Kyles" means straits, crossed until 1984 by a ferry but now spanned by an elegant bridge.
- 5 Scourie further up the coast has a hotel, campsite and other accommodation.
- 6 Kinlochbervie is a small harbour village.
- 7 Durness is where you turn onto the north coast.
Inverness is the primary transport hub for the north of Scotland. It has an airport with domestic and a few international flights, trains and buses from the south, and car hire. Roads from the south and from the northern Highlands all converge here.
Ullapool is a secondary hub, with buses from Inverness connecting with ferries to Stornoway on Lewis. Local buses run from here up the northwest coast but are sparse, typically just one a day.
You need wheels - a car gets you out of the wind, rain and midges. See individual villages for times of the daily bus.
- Gneiss is the bedrock of this region and of the Western Isles. The term applies to many rocks metamorphosed by volcanic heat and pressure, with a characteristic wavy banded appearance, and in these parts it means the Lewisian Gneiss formed from granite 3 billion years ago. In the Western Isles that's pretty much all you get, so you might suppose the island of Lewis is named after the gneiss not vice versa. Where the rock lies flat, as it's impervious it doesn't drain, and peat bogs build up. Where it's contoured there are gnarly heights and crags, even worse grazing than the soggy flatlands.
- Torridonian sandstone was laid down just over a billion years ago, in three waves of deposition "unconformably" on top of a gneiss surface scraped bare of intermediate rocks. There's a small area north around Durness, the main area is from Lochinver down to Ullapool, and a third is south of the geopark through Torridon to Sleat. It forms sharp ridges, such as Suilven towards Lochinver. Some peaks (such as Foinaven and Arkle above Laxford Bridge) are capped with quartzite, so they glisten like snow when sunlit.
- Moine Thrust: about 400 million years ago, Iapetus Ocean closed up, and the continents of Laurentia, Baltica and Avalonia collided, with tumult and upheaval almost as fierce as that between factions of 19th century geologists trying to understand the results. Very old Cambrian rock layers to the southeast were shoved up and over younger layers to the northwest, with an override up to 50 km wide. This overturned the Victorian theory of rock layers simply building up, with the youngest on top. They could accept vertical shifts but to shift so far horizontally - what mighty force could do that? As plate tectonics were unknown, geologists supposed that the earth was cooling, shrinking and wrinkling. The entire thrust zone runs for 120 miles / 190 km from Loch Eribol near Durness on the north coast to Sleat on Skye, and technically "Moine Thrust" means just the earliest and easternmost of a series of fractures and thrusts. What you visit is areas such as Knockan Crag, where the results are readily seen on the surface and in the sharp ridges above. Land further east is also displaced but lies flat above deeply buried layers, is less obviously scenic, and not part of the geopark.
- 1 Knockan Crag, 13 miles north of Ullapool on A835, is the best place to see the Thrust. The visitor centre has interpretive displays and short walking trails.
- 2 Bone Caves are along A837, three miles south of Inchnadamph and the road junction for Lochinver or Kylesku. Reached by a 40 min hike from the car park, they're four karstic caverns in the mountainside where many animal bones were found, mostly 47,000 year-old reindeer but there was also lynx and bear. The caves have been used for human burial but weren't regularly occupied, so that's not the explanation for the bones; they probably washed in. The area is free to access 24 hours. The trail is a loop suitable for older children and dogs but you'll get filthy after rainfall. You can delve into the caves for a few yards only. Deeper within the mountain is the Uamh an Claonaite cave system, 2.868 km / 1.782 miles long, for experienced cavers only.
- Handa Island just north of Scourie is a bird reserve with Torridonian sandstone sea-stacks, reached by a short but bouncy ferry ride.
- Durness is in a small area of limestone. Smoo Cave is a curious hybrid, where a sea cave has become connected to a karstic cave. You need a guide to reach the karstic section (the best of it), and other caves hereabouts are only for experienced cavers.
- Stac Fada Crater is thought to lie somewhere beneath the Minch, but its debris is widely scattered. A very large astro-lump piled into Earth some 1177 ± 5 million years ago, causing a 145,000 megaton blast with destruction over a radius of hundreds of miles.
- Hiking: ascents include Conival, Ben More Assynt, Foinaven and Suilven.
- Rock climbing is generally best on the Torridonian Sandstone, for instance Stac Pollaidh and the sea cliffs of Reiff both around Achiltbuie, the sea-stack of Am Buachaille near Kinlochbervie, and The Old Man of Stoer north of Lochinver. For Lewisian gneiss climb around Kinlochbervie and Sheigra. In Strath Dionard east of Kinlochbervie there are good climbs on quartzite. None of the climbing routes have bolts or pegs, so all protection must be placed by the climber. See Mountaineering Scotland for more.
- Caving: Smoo Cave near Durness is the only show cave. Those for the experienced are the systems behind the Bone Caves of Inchandamph and Elphin.
- And see individual villages for golf, fishing, kayaking and other activities.
The main risk is being caught out in the open in bad weather and not being suitably equipped. The weather can change rapidly.
For walks of any length take the following:
- good footwear: paths are often wet and boggy
- waterproof jacket and trousers
- warm clothing: a spare fleece or jumper, gloves and a hat
- and always tell someone responsible where you're going. Note that in large areas there is no mobile phone reception.
- Thurso near the northeast tip of the mainland is in the "flow" country of Caithness, with crumbling castles and soggy heath.
- North Coast 500 is a motoring itinerary around the far north of Scotland, looping from Inverness through Ullapool, Durness and Thurso.
- The Orkney Islands, a 90 min ferry ride from Thurso, are a complete contrast: bright red sandstone, with cliffs and stacks such as Old Man of Hoy, and the best prehistoric sites in Britain.
- The Shetland Islands north of Orkney are a geopark. They're low-lying and treeless.
- Loch Ness fills the Great Glen, the fault line that can be traced from Shetland to Inverness, Fort William, Islay and Donegal.
- Fort William is near Ben Nevis and a geopark.
- Cairngorms National Park spans several regions but is easiest to explore from Aviemore on its west flank.
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is near the big cities and gets busy on fine weekends.