We took a trip around the north coast recently. Although we know the mountainous north-west corner of Scotland well, the Flow Country of the north-east was unknown to us.
Our trip effectively began in Dornoch, where I had the single worst meal I’ve had in Europe this century—and I include meals that have actually poisoned me in that league table.
So we’ll move right along and head up the coast to Wick, our next port of call. Along the way we turned in for a look at the madness which is Dunrobin Castle, a bonkers chateau-styled stately home with its own railway station. We wandered round the gardens and took in a truly excellent falconry demonstration. Andy Hughes knows a great deal about birds of prey, and he communicates it clearly and entertainingly. And if you’re lucky, a gyrfalcon will fly so low over your head that you can feel the downdraught from its wings. That can’t be bad. Unless you’re a lemming, I suppose.
Not far north of Dunrobin, we entered the old county of Caithness, and suddenly there was an outbreak of road-signs pointing the way to places with names ending in -ster. We were in Viking country—the suffix -ster is a remnant of Old Norse bolstadr, meaning “farm”, and -ster place names stretch all the way to Orkney and Shetland. At Lybster (first syllable sounded as in libel, not liberty), we dropped down to the pretty harbour, had a lunch that wiped away the trauma of the previous evening’s dinner, and encountered a surprisingly tame Common Shrew darting around in the rocks next to the car park.
More interesting names cropped up north of Lybster—a geo (ɡjoː) or goe (ɡəʊ) is a steep sided coastal inlet—Norse again, from gja, meaning “cleft”. Back in the day, along this cliff-bound coast each little slot of a geo contained its own tiny fishing harbour—perhaps most famously the one at Whaligoe (“whale geo”), reached by a switchback stone staircase built into the cliff side.
Whaligoe is a sort of stealth visitors’ attraction, unsignposted from the road, presumably because those responsible for herding tourists around Caithness worry that someone will take a header into the sea off Whaligoe’s marvellous staircase. I wouldn’t fancy running down it in wet weather, but it’s actually a fairly easy descent down 330 steps to an artificial platform on which the boats were hauled out and the fish salted, before the womenfolk carried the baskets of fish back up the stairs. (They were generously provided with one shelf, halfway up the stairs, on which they could set their baskets and take a rest.)
From a base near Wick, we made the obligatory trip to John O’ Groats. I don’t really get John O’ Groats. Historically, it’s a little ferry port for Orkney (the ferry once operated by the eponymous Dutchman, Jan de Groot), with a fairly pretty hotel. Now it also has a big bus park, a skimpy distance indicator, and a collection of assorted souvenir shops that sell exactly the sort of stuff you might expect.
But despite its pretensions, it has no geographical significance—it’s neither the most northerly point on the British mainland (that’s at Dunnet Head), nor is it the farthest point on the mainland from Land’s End in Cornwall (that’s at Duncansby Head). I wonder how many of the good folk who pitch up next to the now-iconic signpost at John O’ Groats, having cycled from Land’s End, make the extra detour to Duncansby Head, which would take them a good half-kilometre farther from their starting point, as the crow flies. But then again, if they’d cycled from Lizard Point in Cornwall to Duncansby Head, their start and finish points would be six kilometres farther apart than the conventional Land’s End – John O’ Groats run. And then again, if they started from the Lizard, a trip to Dunnet Head would take them a half-kilometre farther still from their starting point.
So, like a said, I don’t really get John O’ Groats. I do like Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head, though—both set in wild country, and each of them featuring the windswept remains of wartime Royal Observer Corps posts. (The station at Duncansby head has decayed away until it’s just a couple of ventilation shafts and a welded hatch, surrounded by a fence-off patch of overgrown vegetation, but its decline has been well documented by the people at Subterranea Britannica.)
From Wick, we then motored round by Thurso and along the north coast to Durness. This is all part of the much-hyped North Coast 500 tourist route (which now seems to have the wince-generating alternative name “Route 500”). We’d worried that the roads might by busy, but we drove for long stretches without ever seeing another car. Once or twice a posse of motorcyclists would roar past, and occasionally we’d run into a little convoy of classic sports cars.
That’s another thing I don’t get. What makes someone sit down and say to themselves: “Right, I own a powerful convertible car with poor fuel economy. What shall I do? I know, I’ll drive it slowly through a rainy place in a queue behind some other vehicles! Perfect!” But there they were, and they never looked particularly cheerful, I have to say. I couldn’t help but wonder what happens when two of these convoys meet up on a winding single-track road with widely-spaced passing places. Carnage, I imagine.
From the cliffs and geos of the east coast, we were suddenly among long sandy beaches. And from the flat boggy land of the east, we drove steadily into the mountain scenery of the west.
From Durness, the road weaves south around the impressive summits of Foinaven and Quinag, and we found our way to our next stop, Lochinver. Lochinver’s an odd place—tucked away on a remote part of the west coast, not on the way to anywhere else, and yet mysteriously equipped with both a Michelin-starred restaurant and an outpost of Chez Roux. The Boon Companion and I have dined in both, and would recommend neither—instead, we respectfully direct your attention to the bohemian joys of the Lochinver Larder (and Pie Shop). On our first walk into town, we encountered a surprisingly tame otter, fishing close to shore near the harbour and apparently unconcerned about our gawping presence on the shore. An otter and a pie shop in one day!
From Lochinver we wound or way down the narrow coast road south of Inverkirkaig, in the hope of nipping up Stac Pollaidh for a bit of a view. But we arrived in the small car-park at the foot of the hill to discover the Scottish Perfect Storm—it was raining fairly heavily, but the midgies were still out—so Stac Pollaidh was abandoned in favour of an early lunch in Ullapool.
From Ullapool there was more coastal driving along the scenic route via Poolewe, Gairloch and Loch Maree before our final stop in Torridon.
Torridon is not exactly a teeming metropolis on a Sunday, but then again, you don’t go there for the night-life, do you?