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Issue 37 - Caithness, Sutherland & Ross-Shire

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


This article is 10 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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Caithness, Sutherland & Ross-Shire

Exploring the Northern Highlands
The region of Caithness and Sutherland and over to Ross & Cromarty is stunningly and exhilarating. Dominic Roskrow reports.

There is no feeling quite like it. It’s a mixture of trepidation laced with fear, of excitement and euphoria, and of uncontrollable, overwhelming pleasure. The adrenalin rush makes you feel like you’re hyperventilating but you’re too scared, too in awe, to move. It’s the greatest feeling on earth and it’s as natural as the chill air sweeping over your face.

This is what it is to stand on one of the many ridges of the Five Sisters of Kintail when spring sunshine is washing over the snow capped peaks of the North Highlands, the air is chilled and fresh and the sky is opal blue. It’s at moments like these, when you’re fully aware of your own mortality, humbled to the core of your modesty, and totally submerged in nature, that you feel most alive.

Kintail is just one of a number of truly spectacular destinations in the northern Highlands that make the effort of getting to the very extremes of Scotland so worthwhile.

It is a region in the north west of the country, overlooking the Kyle of Lochalsh and over to Skye, above a point where three brooding sea lochs meet.

The region provides excellent angling and sea fishing opportunities, but the unique selling point are its range of slopes and bens.

Here mountaineering and climbing, both in summer and winter, are rarely surpassed anywhere. For those of a steely constitution the Five Sisters and the South Cluanie Ridge are everything a natural playground should be.

Climbing and walking offer excitement and exhilaration in abundance. The ridges of the Five Sisters offer spectacular walking while experienced explorers can scramble up the Forcan Ridge. Or enjoy the stunning views across to Eilean Donan Castle, which stands guard over Kintail, a symbol of Scotland’s turbulent history having been first built to defend Scotland against Viking attacks and rebuilt after it was burned down during the Battle of Glenshiel in 1745.

The Northern Highlands, stretching from east to west through Caithness, Sutherland over to Ross and Cromarty, offer many such experiences and they in themselves make the effort of reaching this wonderful, awesome and embracing region worth the effort.

The geological importance of this natural wonderland was recently acknowledged internationally when a part of it earned the status of European Geopark, one of just 35 worldwide and the first in Scotland.

The region stretching from The Summer Isles in Wester Ross and north through west Sutherland and up to the north coast was granted the title in recognition of its unique geological heritage and stunning natural landscape.

The area is dominated by imposing mountains, deep valleys studded with waterways and lochs and eerie rock formations and ridges that offer the avid hill walker, the ardent climber and the committed thrill seeker endless stimulation and challenge.

The beauty is matched only by the exhilaration of reaching the vantage points to experience it. But if you’re of the view that there’s only so much sight-seeing you can do, and once you’ve seen 10 mountains you’ve seen them all, don’t turn away from this region. In recent years this area has been developed to offer the visitor much more.

The Northern Highlands are now nature’s theme park, with thrills and spills aplenty to keep even the most frenzied adrenalin-junkie well and truly satisfied.

Take mountain biking, for instance. The sport has grown massively in popularity over recent years and you’d be hard-pushed to find a region more challenging for it than here. The Forestry Commission of Scotland has provided enthusiasts and beginners alike with an extensive network of trails throughout the area.

These include the recently-opened Wildcat Mountain Bike Track at Golspie, which is set to become the longest trail in Scotland.

For the advanced rider, too, is Ballnain Bike Park, which requires skill and energy in abundance.

Gentler and more scenic trails are also well served by the region, and the Borgie Forest offers gentle riding and fine views over to Ben Stumanah and Ben Loyal.

Watersports, too, can be enjoyed to the full.

Thurso is Scotland’s most northerly mainland town and the country’s prime surfing venue, where powerful Atlantic waves crash menacingly towards the shore and offer surfers some of Europe’s best rides.

If you want an altogether more relaxed and laid back experience from your holiday, then Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-Shire can fit the bill here, too.

After the exertions of Kintail, for instance, a visit to Balmacara Estate and the Lochalsh Woodland Garden might be in order. The estate offers wonderful views and excellent walking, and there is an abundance of flora and fauna to enjoy. The estate is open to visit throughout the year, however the visitor centre opens only from March until the end of September.

Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve is also a delight, and is described as one of the natural wonders of the Highlands.

Stand on the suspension bridge as it gently sways and peer down on the tumbling waters in the Falls of Measach, a wonderful experience especially after it has rained heavily. Once again, it’s open throughout the year.

For lovers of wildlife the Alladale Wilderness Reserve is worth a visit. Just an hour north of Inverness, the reserve was set up to help re-establish traditional wildlife in Britain. Among the animals you may encounter there are red foxes, red deer, wild boar and pine martens, and there have been ambitious plans to introduce European elk, or moose, to the region.

And for the more traditional Scottish holiday makers there is, of course, an abundance of fishing and golf.

Salmon fishing is at its best in the River Thurso or further south in the Spey, but the diversity of waterways from rivers to lochs, harbours and open sea mean that all fishing experiences are catered for, with trout, grayling, haddock and whiting all within reach.

Golf players are well served by the world famous Royal Dornach, one of the best courses in the world but only 45 miles from Inverness. And there are excellent links courses at Brora, Golspie, Tain, Wick, Thurso and Reay as well as many other inland courses.

Finally it would be remiss to visit the Northern Highlands and not experience some of its whiskies and the distilleries that produce them. Although the region isn’t as famous as some areas for whisky it boasts some of the very best – Glen Ord near Inverness, Clynelish at Brora, Glenmorangie at Tain, Old Pulteney at Wick and The Dalmore and Balblair on the north eastern road from Inverness to Wick are all excellent.

Indeed, expose yourself to the body rush of Kintail in the morning, relax with a scenic tour or a round of golf in the afternoon and then unwind with a hearty Highland meal and a glass of a local malt and you’ve all the ingredients for the perfect day out. And all the effort of travelling so far will have repaid itself a thousand times over.