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The Vikings knew the Northern Highlands and settled there, leaving place names as just one clue to their culture. This route round the northern rim of Scotland should help you decide if you want to experience the particular ambience of the north. There is an Orkney option as well.
Right, as you’re heading north into the old lands of the Vikings, you probably have to make it to Inverness first. Should you stay there? Well, there’s plenty of accommodation choice, that’s for sure. But remember this is no quaint Highland township. It isn’t a huge place but it’s servicing quite a large hinterland, so it’s an important and busy centre. Long ago, a variety of Highland clans used to burn the place down regularly, so there are few historic buildings. In short, Inverness does shops and pubs, theatre and culture, but it doesn’t do quaint. But there’s a lot of quaint to come on this route.
Kessock Bridge,north of Inverness. This view is looking south, (perversely, as I am describing a north-bound route). The small city of Inverness mostly on the right.
Whatever you decide, you have to get yourself via the Kessock Bridge (above) across the Beauly Firth and away up the east side of Scotland by way of the coastal margin of Sutherland (which was the ‘south-land’ from the Vikings' viewpoint). ‘Firth’ is also linguistically linked to ‘fjord’, as a kind of sea-inlet. There are a lot of place-name clues on this trip.
There’s quite a cluster of old Scottish towns on the way – Dingwall (‘thing-vollr’ place of assembly or Vikings parliament), as well as Tain, Dornoch and even Cromarty, should you take in the Black Isle, which isn't an island. Cromarty is picturesque, and Tain has the earnest and solemn ‘Tain through Time’ museum display telling the story of this former place of pilgrimage.
However, personally, I’d check out Dornoch – photogenic cathedral (left), nice beach, then re-join the main road at The Mound. On the topic of what to see or not, personally, unless your name is Sutherland and you are doing genealogical research in Scotland, north of Golspie (great fish and chips on the main street!), I’d give Dunrobin Castle a miss to save time. The largest house in the north of Scotland it’s a bit of a hotch-potch of furniture and it has been a hospital and a school in its time. There are more authentic castle experiences elsewhere in Scotland. (Golspie is possibly Norse meaning ‘Kol’s settlement or place’, by the way.)
Brora and estuary of River Brora
North again, on through Brora (another Viking name) and Helmsdale (Timespan centre quite interesting) – then a real far northern ambience begins to develop. There is a Highland clearance village site at Badbea, between the main road (signposted) and the steep cliffs, where local folk were forced to settle after the Straths of Langwell, Ousdale and Berriedale were cleared. They later all emigrated. (Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that some Norseman called Hjalmund lived in the valley, so Hjalmund’s dal became Helmsdale.)
The locals that stayed on in this rugged countryside inhabited dwellings of a type you can see at the Laidhay Croft Museum, signposted by the road north of Dunbeath (likewise an interesting wee place).
Next take the road across the ‘Flow Country’ – the interlaced lochan and moorland to reach Thurso (Probably Norse, ‘Thor’s river’). This is an overnight stop (if you haven’t stopped sooner!) Alternatively, continue on the coast road through Wick where you’ll find another interesting heritage museum, all about the herring fishery. By now you’ll have cracked the place name code and worked out that Wick is ‘vik’ or Norse for bay, hence Vikings, obviously. I’ll stop this now, unless I spot an interesting place name. I’ve never even mentioned all the ‘-gills’ and the ‘-goes’ and the ‘-sters’ that populate the signposts in the far north.
More to the point, this triangle bounded by Wick-Thurso-Duncansby Head is full of character, big skies, sweeping horizons and romantic views north to Orkney, on the horizon, above. It’s a pity that John o’ Groats is an anti-climax. (And please don’t ever call John o’ Groats the most northerly village in print because there’s more northerly one nearby, whose non-native settlers are positively grumpy on this topic.) But do park at the Duncansby Head lighthouse carpark and walk across the rolling heath to see the Stacks of Duncansby. On your way, there are puffins on the grassy cliffs on your left, facing south. I mean that you are facing south, not the puffins……
Stacks of Duncansby, an easy walk from the Duncansby Head Lighthouse car park. More easily (and hence more commonly) photographed from the clifftop than from sea level.
As you head back to the carpark, I hope you’ll have decided to hop over to Orkney. You can go Scrabster to Stromness with (Serco) NorthLink or Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope with Pentland Ferries or take the summer only passenger ferry from John o Groats. This would certainly be following the Vikings to their old homelands just across the Firth.
Strathy beach. A fine September day. The sands were deserted.
The top of Scotland, towards the north-west especially, feels like the empty quarter. There are small villages, there is accommodation, but it feels further away than it actually is in terms of real miles. Coves, beaches, Smoo Cave, the Cape Wrath minibus ride, Handa Island - yes, there are things to see and it’s rugged and beautiful. Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill with its Highland Clearance theme adds to this impression of somewhere marginal, and a place of struggle – in short, a sense of the elemental rock and rain, wind and weather and all that other alliterative and poetic stuff. You see? This is what happens if you let the bare, spare old landscape into your soul. You get poetic, introspective and potentially unsociable, I reckon.
By way of an antidote, you can be entertained by fireworks in the north-west. Yes, if large amounts of exploding ordnance on the horizon are of interest, then Balnakeil beach, near Durness, is the place to be. (The link takes you to a guest blog on Meg Pier's viewfromthepier.com travel website that explains something of my feelings for the place, at least.) There are good views to Garvie Island offshore, which is a NATO bombing range, the largest in Europe. It’s the only place in Europe where, according to some sources, they can drop live 1000lb bombs. But only after four years training, so that’s OK.
Nearby are Britain’s highest mainland cliffs, west of Durness, across the Kyle of Durness. They bombard those as well. Don’t be put off. The danger zone is well away from the road. It’s not in use all the time and can be quite diverting. And, rather charmingly, they stop for the lambing season. And on Sundays.
Further on, turning south near Cape Wrath – from the Vikings’ ‘hvarth’ or turning point - strange hills begin to rear up and it still feels a little, uhmm, other-worldly. In this wet desert – and a desert can be beautiful – the geological foundations are a plinth of Lewisian gneiss – one of the oldest rocks in the world – scoured and hollowed by glaciers, filled with lochs of all sizes.
View from the main road, north of Ullapool, includes Stac Pollaidh (or Polly), left.
On top of this ancient gneiss, weird sandstone and quartzite monsters crouch. The Vikings knew them as landmarks. Actually, with these old hills, it’s terribly geological round here. On that lonely road south of Durness, you’ll either love every moment of the wildness – or greet the Lochinver pie shop as an oasis. Scrabster to Lochinver is a reasonable day’s journey.
Reiff, (above) the end of the road, also near Achiltibuie. The faint wavy marks in the foreground are traces of 'lazybeds', the cultivation strips worked by the local folk in olden days.
Study your map to see the two road loops above and below Lochinver. You don’t have to drive either of these. In fact, please don’t - unless you are patient and good-natured, in case I’m travelling the other way. Both are a picturesque adventure but need care as they are very narrow, with passing places.
If you hurry on southwards by the main road – and there’s still plenty of rugged scenery on the way - you’ll find yourself in Ullapool, quite a well-resourced little town. From there, you’re just over an hour from Inverness, across the bare backbone of Scotland. Ullapool is back amongst the Vikings again: ulfr and boeli, meaning wolf’s farm. Or it’s Ulli’s pool, meaning, well….sometimes I wonder if these guidebook writers don’t just make up the etymologies as they go along….
Ullapool promenade. Ferry port for the Outer Hebrides, plenty of shops and accommodation, this little town bustles in the main season.
Is all of this northern section worth seeing in a week? Definitely. Personally, if time was tight, I would still try to make Orkney and just hurtle round the north-west mainland. Sorry about the bombing range though at the very top. Presumably it’s the same logic that chose the north coast of Scotland for Britain’s first nuclear reactor in the 1950s. Best to keep such things tucked out of sight, eh?
Anyway, I feel I hurried you along the last bit, when, assuming decent weather, it’s the sort of area you ought to walk out into, touch the rock, smell the bog myrtle, hear the wailing call of the black-throated diver and curse those damned midges again.
More on Orkney, the old island homeland of the Vikings, here. Or, there may be some stuff you need to know about midges in Scotland if you are thinking about a trip to the north and west of Highland Scotland.
Go back to the main seven day tour Scotland page here.
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Scotland in Three Days