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Issue 79 - Caithness and Sutherland

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015


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Caithness and Sutherland

Local history, where to go, what to do...

Sutherland and Caithness occupy the top section of Scotland and essentially the region has four coasts extending from Lochinver to Cape Wrath on the Atlantic, from Golspie to Wick on the North Sea, from Durness to John O'Groats on the Pentland Firth and from Lybster to Bonnar Bridge on the Dornoch Firth.

Travelling up the east coast over the Cromarty Bridge from the Black Isle, the A9 leads into Easter Ross following the coastal route. On the north side of the Kyle of Sutherland is Bonnar Bridge, named after the bridge built by Thomas Telfer in 1812. In 1746, this was the site of a battle between the soldiers of the Earl of Cromarie and Clan Sutherland which prevented the majority of Clan Mackenzie's Jacobite soldiers joining the army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden.

Although the interior land to the north and west is wild, mountainous and largely uninhabited, this is a mild and gentle coastline with wonderful sandy beaches to be enjoyed by all. The imposing Dornoch cathedral was built in 1239 and at nearby Skibo Castle, the Scottish -born industrialist and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie created his ‘earthly paradise,’ complete with a passenger lift and electricity, which is today run as a prestigious country club. The town is also home to the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and an exhibition
on Dornoch's past and present is to be found at Historylinks at the Meadows (open May until September).

Nearby stands the magnificent pink-harled Balnagown Castle, ancient stronghold of the Pictish kings and today the Scottish home of the Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al Fayed. A neighbouring property is Carbisdale Castle which dominated the surrounding landscape. Built between 1905 and 1917 by the estranged Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, it has 365 windows.

Her positioning of her Scottish home which became known as the ‘Castle of Spite’ was a deliberate snub to her stepson, the Fourth Duke of Sutherland, who as a result of a family feud had banned her from the Sutherland estates. It is said that whenever he travelled north or south on his private train, he would instruct for the curtains to be drawn on whichever side faced Carbisdale so that he would not have to see it. The castle's square clock tower features only three clocks, the side facing Sutherland being blank.

Purchased in 1933 by the Norwegian businessman Colonel Theodore Salvesen, Carbisdale Castle provided sanctuary to King Haakon VII of Norway during World War II, and was afterwards gifted by the Colonel's son to the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.

The Sutherland family rose to wealth and political prominence in the middle ages but the fairytale Dunrobin Castle with its 189 rooms at Golspie was largely the creation of the Victorian architect Sir Charles Burry who was also involved in the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. Much controversy continues to surround the memory of George Granville Leveson Gower, First Duke of Sutherland, Marquess of Stafford, who was, in fact, an English Whig politician who had married the Countess of Sutherland in her own right. Six months before his death in 1833 he was elevated to a dukedom and took his wife's Sutherland name for his title.

But it was this same Lord Stafford, the Whig Reformer who, unimpressed by the far flung and primitive living conditions of his wife's crofting tenants, and no doubt with the best of intentions, imposed what came to be known as the Sutherland Clearances. Thus ended the old ways of life in the Highlands. Large numbers of his wife's dependants were forced to relocate to purpose built coastal townships and, in many cases, obliged to emigrate overseas to Nova Scotia, Canada, the USA and New Zealand. Although for many it created immense opportunities, the brutal methods employed to achieve this created a sense of resentment that lingers to this day.

The name of Golspie originates from the Norse word meaning ‘gully village’ and the settlement that the Vikings created sits under Ben Bhraggie upon which is situated a 100 feet high statue of the First Duke of Sutherland known locally as the ‘Mannie,’ sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey. A rather more poignant reminder of the Sutherland Clearances, however, is to be found at the mouth of the Strath of Kildonan at Helmsdale, where a ten foot high statue entitled The Exiles, created by the late Black Isle-based sculptor Gerald Ogilvie Laing, was unveiled in 2007.

Inland, the A839 crosses to the south-eastern end of Loch Shin, and the village of Lairg which, with its railway station connecting Inverness with Thurso, serves as a cross roads, north, south, east and west.

Brora on the coast is the home of the Clynelish Distillery which is open to the public from Easter until October (otherwise by appointment only), and the next stop is Helmsdale, once a busy herring port. The Timespan Heritage Centre (open Easter to October) is well worth a visit with its overview of life in the far north east. This is a mecca for anglers with some of the best salmon fishing in Scotland to be found on the River Helmsdale. A short distance to the west is Kildonan Burn, and Baile an Or, the site of a gold rush in 1859,

The coastal village of Dunbeath, with its pretty harbour, was the birthplace of the writer Neil M. Gunn and there is a Heritage Centre housed in the school that he once attended. The spectacular Dunbeath Castle, a Sinclair stronghold from the 15th Century, is privately owned. The Laidhay Croft Museum is housed in a 200 year old thatched Caithness long house. Visitors can gain an insight into what long ago life was like in this harsh climate. Nearby are the ruins of the dramatic cliff top village of Badbea, the inhabitants of which emigrated to North America and New Zealand. A monument cairn was erected by the son of Alexander Robert Sutherland who had emigrated in 1839.

At Latheron, the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre and Museum, honouring Scotland's most northerly clan, is housed in a old church. Travelling onwards, the road keeps close to the sea passing through several picturesque villages. Diversions to see the Cairn o' Get, the Hill o' Many Stanes and the Grey Cairns of Camster all forming part of the South Yarrows Archaeological Trail can be easily made.

Like so many locations on this coastline, Wick began its existence as a Viking settlement, its name taken from the Norse name for ‘Bay’ and south of the town can be seen the ruins of the Castle of Old Wick, with the ruins of other Clan Sinclair strongholds such as Sinclair Castle and Girnigoe Castles.

During the 1800s, Wick developed as a major herring port. It is also the home of the Pulteney Distillery, the most northerly distillery on mainland Scotland, and a visit to the nearby Wick Heritage Centre is to be recommended. Further north, at Aukengill, is the Caithness Broch Centre, and the abandoned settlement of Keiss with its two ruined castles.

With great excitement, the traveller finally arrives at John O'Groats, the tip of mainland Britain, where a seasonal passenger ferry sails to Orkney. John O'Groats took its name from a Dutchman Jan de Groot who held the original ferry franchise and built the first houses here. Two miles to the east is Duncansby Head and the celebrated lighthouse.

Castleton, a planned village on Dunnet Bay, is situated east of Thurso, and features the Castlehill Heritage Centre and the Flagstone Trail close to the Seadrift Visitor Centre and Mary Anne's Cottage.

Thurso takes its name from the Old Norse ‘Thorsa,’ meaning ‘Bull's River,’ and has served for centuries as a gateway sea port. Occupying the former Thurso Town Hall is Caithness Horizons, a splendid depiction of the story of Caithness. West of the town is Scrabster, the main ferry port for Orkney operated by Northlink Ferries. At a distance of eight miles is the Dounreay Nuclear
Power Station.

From Thurso, the A836 continuing as the A838 from Tongue to Durness and Scourie form the attic of mainland Scotland. I once observed that sheep stumbling onto the roads here looked astonished at the approach of motor vehicles which prompted an indignant response from a Wick resident who wrote to inform me that the local sheep were well accustomed to the sight of motor cars!

Overlooking the Pentland Firth is the Castle of Mey, saved from dereliction in 1952 by widowed Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Formerly known as Barrogill Castle, this was yet another Clan Sinclair stronghold which had been abandoned and once restored, it provided a treasured summer retreat for its Royal owner who created a beautiful sheltered garden in a windswept landscape.

East towards Durness, the road leads to the village of Betthill, created by the Countess of Sutherland in 1815 to house her tenants cleared from Strathnaver. Close by is the crofting township of Strathy and the fishing hamlet of Altnaharra.

A path leads to the voluminous Smoo Cave, an astonishing chamber formed by the action of the sea, while the road sweeps around magnificent Loch Eriboll, meaning ‘the Farm on the Beach’ in Norse, before heading towards the bridge over the Kyle of Tongue to the village of Tongue, overlooked from the south by Ben Loyal.

At Durness is Balnakeil House, built as the summer palace of the Bishops of Caithness. Here there is also a craft village and an unexpected golf course. For the adventurous, some of Scotland's least publicised and most spectacular scenery is to be found in this breathtakingly empty and astonishing coastal and hinterland landscape. From Keodale, a small seasonal ferry crosses the Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath. Where the most westerly tip of northern mainland Scotland meets the full force of the Atlantic Ocean.

Turning to the south, the A838 reaches the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, Scourie and Edrachillis Bay, with the remote and lovely Sandwood Bay requiring a four mile walk.

From Tarbet there is a ferry to the nature reserve of Handa Island. Close by are the hamlets Foincle, Fanagmore, Laxford Bridge and Achfary. At Kylescu, a curving road
bridge crosses the estuaries of two lochs and during the summer months, visitors can
enjoy boat trips to Eas-Coul-Aulin, Britain's highest waterfall.

Inland and on the coast, before the A894 and A837 roads arrive at the fishing terminal of Lochinver, the scenery is Scotland at its glorious best, with white sands and clear blue water to the west, and Elphin and Inchnadamph. The mountains of Suilven, Quinag and Ben Stack dominate the horizons. The Assynt Visitor Centre with pottery and craft shop is well worth a diversion, and from Inverkirkaig the road runs to the Coigach Peninsula with its sea views of the Summer Isles, and Achiltibuie with its remarkable garden where a wealth of vegetables, herbs and fruit thrive in a hydroponic greenhouse.

Passing Loch Assynt there can be seen the ruins of Calda House and the remains of Ardvreck Castle, notorious for being where the noble Marquis of Montrose was betrayed and captured following his defeat at the Battle of Carbisdale in 1650. Both are striking melancholy reminders of just how dramatic, far reaching and enduring are such moments in the passage of time.

Recommended Itinerary
From the sleekly aligned Dornoch Firth Bridge east of Inverness, built in 1991, travel to John O'Groats on the coastal A9 which north of Helmsdale turns inland to Thurso via Halkirk, but continues as the A99 along the coast route to John O'Groats...

Distance: 89.3 miles
Approximate time by car, without delays:
2 hours and 15 minutes

Three miles north of the Kessock Bridge from Inverness, choose...

A9 Dornoch: A town and seaside resort
situated on the Dornoch Firth as it opens into the Moray Firth. There is a grass strip airfield suitable for small aircraft and helicoptors.
The Royal Dornoch Golf Club has been
named the fith best golf course outside of the United States of America. In 2000, Rocco, son of the pop star Madonna was christened at Dornoch Cathedral.

A9 Golspie: A village under the shadow of Ben Bhraggie. Nearby is Dunrobin Castle, ancestral seat of the earls and dukes of Sutherland if open to the public between April and October. There are four hotels, several guesthouses and B&B premises as well as self-catering cottages.

A9 Brora: A picturesque former industrial
village. Have a look at The Brora Heritage Centre (+44 (0) 1408 622 024) has hands-on displays and a dinosaur play area. The Brora Distillery is the former Clynelish Distillery (tours March to October).

A9 Helmsdale: A modern village and fishing port with railway station designed in 1814 to resettle the population removed from the
surrounding Straths. The Timespan Heritage
and Arts Centre in Dunrobin Street features a range of exhibitions (

A99 Wick: The county town of Caithness
which is situated on the River Wick and has three harbours divided by a breakwater.
The Old Pulteney Distillery is owned by Inver House Distillers. The Wick Carnegie Library houses the North Highland Archive and the
St Fergus Gallery.

A99 John O'Groats: Being the end of an 874 miles road distance (or 605 miles as the crow flies) from Land's End in England
(, is sometimes referred to as the ‘start of Great Britain.’ It is also the gateway to the Orkney Islands, a 40 minute ferry crossing across the Pentland Firth (

Where to Visit

1. Dunbeath Heritage Centre
Dunbeath KW8 6ED
Exhibitions on local folklore and history.
Tel: +44 (0) 1593 731 233

2. Caithness Horizons
Old Town Hall, Thurso, KW14 8AJ
Gallery café serves breakfast, lunch and home baking Monday to Saturday.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 896 508

3. Castlehill Heritage Centre
Harbour Road, Castletown KW14 8TG
Located within old farm buildings with adjoining sculpture trail.

4. Waterlines Visitor Centre
Lybster KW3 8NA
Museum and exhibition space which opened in 2001. Has facilities for visiting yacht fraternity.
Tel: +44 (0) 1593 721

5. Mary-Ann's Cottage
Westside Dunnet, KW14 8YD
c1850 croft preserved and owned by Caithness Heritage Trust.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 892 303

6. Timespan Heritage and Arts Centre
Dunrobin Street, Helmsdale KW8 6JA
A journey through Sutherland history.
Tel: +44 (0) 1431 821 327

7. Dunrobin Castle
Sutherland, Golspie KW10 6SF
The spectacular ancestral seat of the earls and dukes of Sutherland.
Tel: +44 (0) 1408 633 177

8. The Castle of Mey
Thurso KW14 8XH
The former Barrogill Castle saved by H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 851 473

9. Pulteney Distillery Visitor Centre
Huddart Street, Wick KW1 5BA
One of the most northerly distilleries on the Scottish mainland.
Tel: +44 (0) 1955 602

10. Wick Heritage
18-27 Bank Row, Wick, KW1 5EY
The coastline's rich
maritime heritage and social history.
Tel: +44 (0) 1955 605 393

11. Dornoch Cathedral
Dornoch IV25 3HN
This 13th Century parish church sits at the heart of the Royal Burgh.
Tel: +44 (0) 1862 810 296

12. Smoo Cave
Durness IV27 4PN
A large combined sea and freshwater cave one mile east of Durness.
Tel: +44 (0) 1971 511 259

Where to Stay

13. Dornoch Castle Hotel
Castle Street, Dornoch IV25 3SD
Carefully refurbished to combine stylish comfort with character.
Tel: +44 (0) 1862 810 216

14. Tongue Hotel
Tongue IV27 4XO
On the banks of the loch. Great views from the marina restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 611 206

15. Inver Lodge Hotel
Lochinver IV27 4LU
Spectacularly placed on a hillside with a Chez Roux restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0) 1571 844 496

16. Kylescu Hotel
Kylescu, Sutherland IV27 4HW
Situated beside a sea loch. Snug lounge and log fire.
Tel: +44 (0) 1971 502 231

17. The Albannach Hotel
Lochinver IV27 4LP
Britain's most
northerly Michelin starred restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0) 1571 844 407

18. Puffin Cottage
Durness, Lairg
IV27 4PN
Bed and Breakfast open April until September.
Tel: +44 (0) 1971 511 208

19. Borgie Lodge Hotel
Skerray, Tongue, Lairg KW14 7TH
Situated in a quiet,
secluded glen on
the banks of the
River Borgue.
Tel: +44 (0) 1641 521 332

20. Royal Marine Hotel Golf and Leisure
7 Golf Road, Brora KW9 6QS
Family hotel in
proximity to links
course and beaches.
Tel: +44 (0) 1408 621 252

21. Bettyhill Hotel
Bettyhill KW14 7SP
Overlooking Torrisdale Bay with rooms,
restaurant and bar.
Tel: +44 (0) 1641 521 202

22. Ackergill Tower
Ackergill KW1 4RG
Luxurious 5 star former Sinclair stronghold in 3,000 acres overlooking the North Sea.
Tel: +44 (0) 1955 603 556

23. The Farm House
Midtown, Freswick, Wick KW1 4XX
Inexpensive bed
and breakfast
accommodation with a shared bathroom.
Tel: +44 (0) 1955 611 254

24. Forss House Hotel
Bridge of Forss, Thurso KW14 7XY
A small country house catering for short stay adventures in the
Northern Highlands.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 861 201

Where to Eat

25. Caithness Horizons
Old Town Hall, Thurso KW14 8AJ
Gallery café serves breakfast, lunch and home baking Monday
to Saturday.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 896 508

26. The Storehouse
John O'Groats
A fully licensed café and co-operative shop.
Tel: +44 (0) 8443 843 166

27. Royal Dornoch
Golf Club
Golf Road, Dornoch IV25 3LW
Catering by former
chef at award winning Two Quail Restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0) 1862 810 219

28. The Caberfeidh Restaurant
Lochinver, Lairg
IV27 4JZ
Famous for its huge American burgers.
Tel: +44 (0) 1571 844 428

29. Culag Hotel
Lochinver, Lairg
IV27 4LQ
Try the Guinness pie
and locally sourced fish and chips.
Tel: +44 (0) 1571 844 270

30. La Mirage
7-9 Dunrobin Street, Helmsdale KW8 6JA
Created in style of Dame Barbara Cartland who lived nearby.
Tel: +44 (0) 1431 821 615

31. Sutherland House
Argyle Street, Dornoch
Fine Scottish dining
locally sourced.
Tel: +44 (0) 1862 811 023

32. Le Bistro
2 Trail Street, Thurso KW14 8EJ
Friendly small restaurant in the centre of town.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 893 737

33. Bord de l'Eau
Market Street, Wick KW1 4AR
European and French cuisine with fine wines.
Tel: +44 (0) 1955 604 400

34. The Captain's Gallery
The Harbour, Scrabster KW14 7UJ
Locally sourced food beautifully prepared.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 894 999

35. The Upper Deck Restaurant
Scrabster KW14 7UU
Unique situation at foot of Holborn Head Cliffs. Try the steak.
Tel: +44 (0) 1847 892 814