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Issue 14 - Head out to the hills

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Head out to the hills

Hiring a car but not sure where to go? Tony Troon offers two more routes that should last about half a day and take you through contrasting areas of Scotland's beautiful landscape.

NORTHEAST: Dornoch, Brora, Bonar Bridge.
The only problem about leaving Dornoch is just that: the leaving of it. This is a town of such charm.

But this 70-mile circular route through the firthlands and high moors of Sutherland will end there where it began, giving you two chances to enjoy Dornoch’s beautiful, pint-sized cathedral built from local stone, its famed golf links, its quietly-bustling hotels and cafes, and its sandy beach (misleadingly, Dornoch is from a Gaelic word meaning “pebbly”).

Among other attractions are the 16th century Bishop’s Palace (now the Castle Hotel) and the Victorian town jail which has become an intriguing gallery and craft shop.

From the centre of Dornoch it’s easy to find the minor road north, sign posted Embo. You can turn off right to visit this caravan park holiday village, once the site of a fierce battle against the invading Norsemen in which a powerful Scots noble, Sir Richard de Moravia, was killed. His tomb is in Dornoch Cathedral.

Back on the northerly minor road, your route takes you along the southern shore of Loch Fleet, a nature reserve whose sandbanks are a haven for seals and wading birds.

The ruin of Skelbo Castle stands nearby. Across the loch you can glimpse the huge statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland on the slope of Ben Vraggie, a grandiose memorial to a man whose rule at the time of the Highland Clearances is not recalled with any affection.

Soon after, your single-track road connects with the A9. A causeway designed by the 18th century civil engineer, Thomas Telford (who built the Caledonian Canal) takes you across the head of the loch to the village of Golspie.

There are tempting beach and woodland walks and from here it’s just half a mile to Dunrobin Castle, a grand baronial house, much extended, damaged and rebuilt since the original square keep was erected in the 13th century. The castle is open to visitors from April 1st until mid-October.

Continuing up the coastal road the next village is Brora, home of the Clynelish, one of Scotland’s most distinctive and respected single malt whiskies. The visitor centre at the distillery is open all year, although hours are restricted in the winter months. Call +44 ( 0)1408 623 000 for details.

We are deep in the areas where clanspeople were moved off their traditional lands towards the coast in the 19th century, and Brora Heritage Centre has displays on local history and geology.

The minor road past the heritage centre, sign posted Gordonbush, takes us past the dramatic, steep cliffs overlooking Loch Brora. We are now literally heading for the hills, the high and wild moors of Sutherland, a place of small farms off twisting roads and sporting lodges tucked away in stands of trees.

Here weary anglers and deerstalkers stretch their stockinged feet towards crackling wood fires in the right season. There are secret lochans in these hills where the native brown trout and the arctic char give exciting sport.

Eventually the route descends past Rogart to meet the A839 at Pittentrail where the inn of that name serves excellent lunches.

Continuing westwards you find the village of Lairg at the head of the 17 mile long finger of Loch Shin, a hydroelectric dam.

Following the A836 southwards towards Bonar Bridge, we enter coastal scenery again along the edge of the firth, through Spinningdale, and thence to welcoming Dornoch.

MIDWEST: Corran Ferry, Ardtornish, through Morvern.
If you find beauty in remoteness and wild landscapes, Morvern is for you. This hauntingly lovely peninsula, triangular in shape, lies between the sea lochs Sunart and Linnhe with a western landfall that looks across the Sound of Mull.

Because there is a ferry crossing from Fishnish on Mull to Lochaline in Morvern, many travellers use the A884 up the peninsula as a through route to the Scottish interior. Do they know what they’re missing, I often wonder, as their cars speed towards the Corran Ferry?

There is another route, a slow coast-hugging route, full of bends, twists and sudden unexpected vistas.

This is what you come to Morvern for: and if you’re looking for ready-made tourist attractions and fast-food outlets, please try somewhere else. This 65-mile route starts from the Corran car ferry with space for around 20 saloons (about £5 per car, single) which is a frequent daily service.

As bridges and causeways develop around Scotland’s ragged edges, the experience of the short ferry crossing becomes rarer and is worth seeking out.

A 10 minute blast of sea air is a welcome break from car travel. On the western shore of the narrows across Loch Linnhe, you find yourself on the A861 for Strontian.

We will go there later: but first seek out the B8043, a left turn 10 miles from the ferry.

With the sea loch on your left, a range of mighty bens soon shuts out the rest of the world. This is the haunt of the golden eagle and other predators, the fierce and the shy. As the road edges round narrow corners following the rocky shoreline, there is little sign of human habitation.

Only the tumbled stones of ruined crofts remind us that 200 years ago, around 2,000 people lived in the parish.

They were among some of the first to come out in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the ’45 rebellion: and after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden, English naval raiding parties took terrible revenge on them, burning their homes and woodlands.

After more twists and turns the road turns inland by the sea inlet called Loch a’Choire and, passing the freshwater loch Uisge, comes to the main road A884 (which is still, however, single-track).

A left turn takes you past Clounlaid and Claggan to Ardtornish and Kinlochaline with their gruesome tale of two castles.

In the 14th century a dispute between the MacInnes and MacLean clans led to the murder of the MacInnes chief and five of his sons, a brutal act from which the clan was said never to have recovered.

Now, Ardtornish Castle is a ruin but Kinlochaline has been handsomely restored and, after many years, is a private residence again (not open to visitors).

The Ardtornish Estate grounds, with kitchen gardens and beautiful lawns beside its imposing big house, can be visited in spring and summer however (entry £2).

At Lochaline itself you come to the ferry landing for Mull (which costs about £23 for a car and two passengers).

Mull boasts several lively communities, a theatre in Dervaig and a distillery – with dramatic views of the brooding Morvern hills. But turning round at Lochaline, you can take the A844 north again, go left at the T-junction with the A861 and take a break at the pleasant village of Strontian, where lead was once mined for musket balls during the Napoleonic Wars... and in later, deadlier technological times, gave its name to the radioactive isotope Strontium-90, from a mineral first found here in the 18th century.

But forgetting all that for the moment, the view down Loch Sunart to a western sunset is magnificent, and there are hotels, bistros and craft shops to divert you until you head back to the Corran Ferry and re-enter the real world.