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Issue 27 - Highlands – true contrast in remote Scotland

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006


This article is 12 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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Highlands – true contrast in remote Scotland

The top third of Scotland is often grouped together but as Ian Buxton reports, the region is diverse and impressive

Comprising very roughly the top third of Scotland’s mainland land mass, the counties of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty present many faces to the visitor. From ancient rocks to one of Britain’s first nuclear power stations and the Castle of Mey (beloved of the late Queen Mother) to the wild Flow Country, this is a land of contrasts.

The east coast from Cromarty to Dingwall, and Tain to Dornoch, through Brora and Golspie to John o’Groats, is famous for its golf, its history, its coastal scenery and award-winning beaches.

Meanwhile, the west coast is one of the world’s truly dramatic landscapes – from the memorable mountains of Torridon, Wester Ross and Assynt to the precipitous sea cliffs at Cape Wrath.

Caithness has the most northerly point on mainland Britain at Dunnet Head (a title that’s often given mistakenly to John O’Groats), whilst Durness is home to the John Lennon Memorial Garden, commemorating the many family holidays spent there by the former Beatle.

Though a substantial area on the map (with a population of only 50,000 Ross and Cromarty alone is similar in size to Cyprus or Puerto Rico), this is a sparsely inhabited part of Scotland. Not for nothing is it known as “Europe's Last Wilderness” and, fittingly, it is home to Britain’s first European Geopark, centred on the busy fishing port of Lochinver.

The spectacular scenery and wide range of leisure activities bring visitors from all round the world to enjoy this very special part of Scotland.

Some of the most popular activities include golf at Royal Dornoch; whale and dolphin spotting, especially around the Cromarty Firth where bottle-nose dolphins can frequently be observed from the shore; visiting one of the region’s famous distilleries; or getting a sense of the area’s rich history at a number of fascinating visitor centres.

Or you could follow in Madonna’s footsteps and get married in the luxurious Skibo Castle near Dornoch. If you are already married, never mind. It makes a fabulous getaway spot to celebrate a really special anniversary.

Not that all marriages were as smoothly stage managed as the material girl’s nuptials. In 1567, the Earl and Countess of Sutherland were poisoned at the instigation of the Earl of Caithness. Caithness then invaded the county of Sutherland, set fire to the town of Dornoch and carried off the 15-year-old son and heir of the poisoned couple. This unhappy youth was then forcibly married to the 32-year-old Caithness daughter to seal her father’s hold on the county.

Relations are happier now, but many differences remain. Caithness has a Viking heritage, with Norse place names like Wick and Thurso for its two largest towns, and it is much less mountainous than its neighbour. Although Sutherland gets its name from the fact that it was the south part of the Viking kingdom, its background is much more Gaelic.

It is said that Dornoch, the county town, takes its name from the Gaelic for a horse’s hoof, after William, Thane of Sutherland, lost his sword but killed an opponent in battle with the leg of a horse. Dornoch is also the location of the last official witch burning in Scotland, which occurred in 1727, although for no known reason the date shown on her stone is 1722. The unfortunate woman, Janet Horne, was accused of turning her daughter into a pony and having her shod by the Devil.

Nearby Royal Dornoch Golf Club is considered to be one of Scotland's finest, although because of the unpredictable local weather it has never hosted the Open.

Ross and Cromarty has a surprisingly long documented history considering its rural character and remoteness. The Romans mentioned the natural harbour of the Cromarty Firth in their surveys, and Macbeth, King of Scotland in the 11th century, and much maligned by the English playwright Shakespeare, held the title ‘Thane of Cromarty.’ Ancient religious buildings and ruins can be found across the county, from the early Christian settlement of St Maelrubha in Applecross on the west coast, to the cathedral of Fortrose on the east.

Pictish stones, like the one in Nigg Old Church, can be found throughout the county. The chapel of St Duthus in Tain is where, in 1306, Robert the Bruce's queen and daughter took sanctuary, only to be seized by the Earl of Ross and delivered to the English.

Tain is, of course, home to the world-famous Glenmorangie distillery, where the visitor centre combines tours of the distillery with the chance to purchase exclusive bottlings of one of Scotland’s favourite single malt whiskies. However, if Glenmorangie is not your favourite, it is also possible to visit distilleries in Wick (Old Pulteney) and Brora (Clynelish).

The old Brora distillery, now closed, still stands next to its newer brother, and limited quantities of the original Brora, one of the most highly rated whiskies in Scotland, are still available, at a price!

Close to Brora, another stop not to be missed is Dunrobin Castle, one mile north of Golspie. Seat of the earls and dukes of Sutherland, this beautiful and dramatic castle sits looking out across the North Sea. With 189 rooms and a strong French architectural influence, it is one of the largest houses in the Northern Highlands. Parts of it date back to the 1300s.

There are many varied collections on display.

Visitors can also see a 19th century horse-drawn fire engine and look at the museum which is housed in the old summer house, though animal lovers may wish to avoid the collection of stuffed hunting trophies.

The first Duke of Sutherland (the English Lord Stafford who had married the heiress to the ancient Sutherland earldom) was also famous, or perhaps infamous, for his role in the notorious Highland Clearances. As a result, his imposing statue above Golspie has become the subject of national debate. Many believe he should not be honoured in this way and not all visitors to the statue treat it entirely respectfully.

But that lies in history. The Dounreay nuclear reactor is very much of today. Though the site has now been closed and the research reactor is being decommissioned, this has had a beneficial effect on the local economy.

The decommissioning programme has reversed the decline in employment at the end of the site’s research work and today more than 2,000 people work at the site. In fact, one in five jobs in Caithness and north Sutherland is directly linked to Dounreay’s decommissioning – skilled work that contrasts with the area’s rural image.

It is possible to visit the site and learn about its history and planned future, including the regeneration of the local environment. A visit to Dounreay contrasts with the traditional image of the region and with the historical patterns of employment seen in the visitor centres in Dunbeath and Helmsdale (home of the excellent Timespan exhibition).

But do not imagine that Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty are simply for tourists.

Though the local population is small, the area has benefited from North Sea oil and is home to a range of industries.

The Sutherland Sporting Company produces wonderful tweeds, while the Orcadian Stone Company in Golspie specialises in minerals and fossils and also sells locally-produced giftware in Highland stone. Perhaps most significantly, the region is pioneering many environmentally sensitive schemes for energy generation, from wind to wave power.

So, though steeped in history, this fascinating area may well play a part in all our futures.

Another contrast from a region of Scotland where there is a surprise round every corner.

What to see
Balnakeil Craft Village
A charmingly hippy craft village inside a disused radar station where many painters, potters and sculptors live and work. There is also a bookshop and restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1971 511 777

Cape Sea Tours
Boat tours are a great way to fully appreciate the spectacular scenery and wildlife around the Cape – such as rock stacks, seabird colonies, seals and porpoises.
Tel. +44 (0)1971 511 284

Dornoch Cathedral
This 13th century cathedral has been burnt down and built up several times since it was erected in 1224, but its medieval character and understated splendour remains.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 810 296

Dunrobin Castle
Nr. Golspie
Seat of the earls and dukes of Sutherland, this beautiful castle with a French influence sits looking out across the North Sea and is well worth a visit. The largest house in the Northern Highlands.
Tel: +44 (0)1408 633 177

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
This championship 6,500 yard classic links golf course is said to be among the best anywhere in the world.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 810 283

Smoo Cave
Nr. Durness
The largest limestone cave in Britain. There is evidence the cave was in use some 6,000 years ago. Today, the interiors are floodlit so that you can explore the vast inner chambers.
Tel: +44 (0)1971 511 259

Skibo Castle
A vast, indulgent estate with the ambience of an Edwardian gentleman’s club. Visitors may sample this luxury once, but to return you must be a member.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 894 600

Castle of Mey
A former residence of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, now open to public. Beautiful little castle and gardens. Prince
Charles still holidays here for a week in August.

Dunbeath Heritage Centre
Moden museum containing manuscripts, photographs and items of local material culture; an exhibition and interpretation
space; a venue for lectures, storytelling and workshops; a gathering place for local people and visitors.

Dunnet Head
The most northerly point on mainland Britain isn’t John o’Groats – it’s Dunnet Head. On a clear day it commands some of
the most extensive views you are likely to find anywhere in northern Scotland. John of Groats Worth a visit just to say you’ve been. There’s a newish tourist information centre and little community of craft shops.

Mary-Ann’s Cottage
Near Dunnet
Visitors are taken on guided tour of this traditional croft and its buildings, restored to its state when worked by Mary-Ann Calder and her family.
Tel: +44 (0)1847 851 765

Pulteney Distillery
A distillery tour will take you on a journey back in time to discover the history and art of Scotch whisky making.

Reay Golf Club
A very natural classic links course. The Pentland Firth is visible from every hole.

One of the area’s major attractions; an exhibition centre with particular focus on Lybster’s past as a herring port.
Tel: +44 (0)1593 731 244

Anta Ceramics
Quality ceramics and textiles in a range of tartans and other designs.

Cromarty Courthouse
Award winning museum that tells the history of the town using audio visuals and animated figures. Popular with children.

Foulis Castle
Foulis Castle is the home to the chief of the Clan Munro. Incorporates parts of the 16 century castle, which was burnt down during the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising.

A visit to this famous distillery is a must. Discover how malt whisky is made and meet the people who make it.

Highland Museum of Childhood
This museum tells the history of childhood in the Highlands of Scotland with evocative photographs, an award-winning video and displays interpreting life at home, on the land and at school.

Inverewe garden
Loch Ewe
A star attraction. This garden features outstanding plant collections from every corner of the world, nurtured by the warm currents of the North Atlantic Drift.

Tain Through Time
This museum is home to a varied collection of objects, photographs and archives of local, regional and national significance.

Where to eat
2 Quail Restaurant
Castle Street, Dornoch
The best restaurant north of Inverness; intimate, comfortable, friendly, with great gourmet food. Book early. Also has rooms.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 811 811

The Caberfeidh
This lively ‘local’ has a friendly atmosphere, and serves such delights as haggis with Drambuie cream.
Tel: +44 (0)1571 844 428

Culag Hotel
This 200 year old waterfront building was originally built as a smokehouse, today it is a very fine hotel and restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1571 844 270

La Mirage
Traditional Scottish soups, fresh seafood, salads, t-bone steaks, vegetarian meals, snacks and range of delicous cakes
and desserts.

Sutherland House
Argyle Street, Dornoch
An established restaurant that offers a range of traditional Scottish food such as haggis, seafood, and home made sweets at a reasonable price.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 811 023

Le Bistro
Trail Street, Thruso
A reasonable-value menu of lunchtime snacks and more ambitious evening meals.
Tel: +44 (0)1847 893 737

Bord de l’Eau
Market Street, Wick
A wonderful French restaurant with authentic menus cooked to order.
Tel: +44 (0)1955 604 400

The Captain’s Galley
One of the best places to eat in Caithness. Simple seafood, ethically caught. Great desserts, too.

The Ferry Inn
The scallops, smoked mussels, and locally smoked Salmon make an ideal starter to be followed by your choice of steak, cooked as you like it, and all for under £20.

Schoolhouse Restaurant
John O’Groats
Charming little restaurant. Home cooked food in a warm, welcoming and friendly atmosphere.

The Creel
Charleston House, Gailoch
The daily changing menu offers a choice of dishes and features fresh Scottish produce especially locally landed fish, shellfish, wild game and Highland beef and lamb. Also has rooms.

Frigate Café
A vibrant café catering for the whole family. Food is simple, freshly prepared and tasty.

The Oyster Catcher
Portmahomack, Easter Ross
Excellent seafood restaurant and more than 250 malt whiskies.

The Seaforth
Award winning food and music, and excellent views over the pier and Loch Broom.

Station Tea Room
Strathpeffer, Easter Ross
Traditional tea room serving such home made delights as scones, carrot cake, ginger shortbread and lemon sponge.
Delicious soup and sandwiches made to order.

Tanglewood House
Dinner at this guesthouse is a real treat – though unlicensed so bring your own wine.

Tulloch Castle Hotel
Fine cuisine in an elegant dining room. Good choice from the wine cellar.

Where to Stay
The Albannach
Baddidarroch, Lochinver
Arguably the finest hotel in the village. A unique and comfortable haven with great views, and a superb five course dinner.
Tel: +44 (0)1571 844 407

Carbisdale Castle
Culrain, Nr. Dornoch
This impressive castle/youth hostel also has its own statue gallery, art collection and ghost (apparently).
Tel: +44 (0)8701 553 255

Dornoch Castle Hotel
Everything you would expect from a 16th century castle: a huge stone fireplace; turrets, dungeons; plenty of atmosphere. Except that it’s a hotel!
Tel: +44 (0)1862 810

Puffin Cottage
Durine, Durness
This particularly good bed & breakfast was awarded three stars by VisitScotland.
Tel: +44 (0)1971 511 208

Royal Marine & Links Hotels
Golf Road, Brora
Traditional highland hotels and self catering apartments offering a choice of four restaurants, three bars and a leisure club.
Tel: +44 (0)1408 621252

Sango Sands Oasis
Sangomore, Durness
There are campsites across Sutherland, but this one has the luxury of having a restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1971 511 222

Ackergill Tower
A 15th century castle with accommodation. Ideal for private family parties.

Borgie Lodge Hotel
Secluded four star hotel with shooting/stalking/fishing rights. Good restaurant.

Dunnet Head Cottage
Pretty white-washed croft offering selfcatering accommodation. Fully equipped

The Farm House
Midtown, Freswick
A beautiful farmhouse B&B in a quiet location offering unobstructed views over Freswick Bay. Good food.
Tel: +44 (0)1955 611 254

Forss House Hotel
A family owned country hotel set in 20 acres of woodland. Elegant and comfortable.

John O’ Groats Youth Hostel
This hostel is quiet, warm and homely. It has some small rooms ideal for families.

Portland Arms,
A coaching inn since 1851. Small rooms, but the log fires and a good atmosphere more than make up for it.

The Ceilidh Place
A place for eating, meeting, talking and singing. Nice rooms and bunkhouse style accommodation available. Well worth a visit.

Drumchork Lodge
Comfortable, family run hotel with license to distill Scotch whisky.

Home Farm B&B
Highfield Mains, Muir of Ord
Comfortable B&B located at a good starting point for exploration of the region.

Loch Duich Hotel
Dornie, Wester Ross
Small family run hotel. The lounge bar was one of the locations for the filming of TV series Hamish MacBeth.

Mansfield Castle Hotel
Scotsburn Road, Tain
An imposing Victorian building with award winning cuisine.

Royal Hotel
Garve Road, Ullapool
One of the oldest hotels in the town.

Tigh Na Tilleadh
Achhiltibuie, Wester Ross
Self catering accommodation. Three bedrooms and magnificent views.