Caithness and Sutherland are the northern part of the Scottish Highlands, sparsely inhabited, with a population of 38,267 in 2018. Caithness at the northeast tip of this region and Sutherland across the rest of it have always been separate counties. In 1975 they were absorbed into Highland Region, but many local government functions were devolved back to them. From the traveller's perspective it makes sense to consider them as a single entity.
Towns and villages edit
Along the east coast:
- 1 Dornoch has a 13th century cathedral, the "Bishop's Palace" which is now a hotel, and a notable golf course.
- 2 Golspie is just south of grand Victorian Dunrobin Castle.
- 3 Helmsdale is a small fishing village with a Highland Games festival.
- 4 Wick: clamber down the Whaligoe Steps or take one step on the world's shortest street.
- 5 John o'Groats is by the northeast tip of Great Britain, with nearby Dunnet Head the most northerly point.
- 6 Thurso is a small town and transport hub, with ferries to Orkney from nearby Scrabster.
Along the north and west coast:
- 7 Durness is near the impressive Smoo Cave, and Cape Wrath the northwest tip of the mainland.
- 8 Kinlochbervie is a small harbour village.
- 9 Kylesku: Caolas or "Kyles" means straits, crossed until 1984 by a ferry but now spanned by an elegant bridge.
- 10 Lochinver is a fishing village - including inland where the terrain is dotted by small lochans.
Other destinations edit
- 1 North West Highlands Geopark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The oldest rocks are gneiss, over 3 billion years old, juxtaposed with sandstone a mere one billion years old - their different weathering has created the distinctive northwest landscape. Durness, Kinlochbervie and Kylesku are all within the geopark area.
- 2 North Rona is probably Britain's most remote island, if Rockall is discounted. It's 71 km northwest of Cape Wrath and the same distance north of the Butt of Lewis, further out than St Kilda. There's an 8th century Christian oratory of St Ronan and other medieval ruins. Its population was wiped out on at least two occasions, and the last permanent resident left in 1844. It's now a wildlife reserve, seldom visited.
This region is bleak and very thinly populated, but it wasn't always so. The central Scottish Highlands became anglicised during the 18th century, with the adoption of new farming methods and land tenure, and English replacing Gaelic. This led to depopulation, but it was gradual and more driven by the "pull" of growing economies like Glasgow and America than the "push" of uncaring landowners. The northern Highlands and Hebrides shared those trends but lagged behind. They caught up suddenly and painfully in the 19th century, when landowners brusquely evicted their farm tenants to convert the land to sheep-grazing and deer-stalking. And this happened in an era that was developing concepts of civil rights and resistance (emboldened by Irish examples), photography and pesky reporters. So these people's experiences were recorded and reached a sympathetic audience, as earlier hardships had not; and when we speak of the infamous "Highland Clearances", it's the stories of these regions that we remember.
Get in edit
By plane: Inverness has flights across UK and from Amsterdam. Wick has flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
By road: A9 follows the east coast from Inverness north via Dornoch and Helmsdale to Thurso and Scrabster, with A99 forking off to Wick and John O'Groats. Stagecoach Highlands Bus X98 / X99 runs four times daily from Inverness via Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick to Thurso and Scrabster, 4 hours; two buses on Sunday.
A835 runs to Ullapool, then snakes up the west coast, joining A837 then A894.
By boat: Three ferry routes ply between the north coast and the Orkney Islands: Scrabster to Stromness (90 min) is the most convenient if you're using public transport. The others are Gills Land to St Margaret's Hope and John o'Groats to Burwick.
Get around edit
By public transport you can get between the towns along the east coast as far as Thurso; trying to do so along the north and west coast is slow and tedious. You need a vehicle for many of the out-of-town sights.
A couple of strides will carry you the length of the world's shortest street, Ebenezer Place in Wick.
- Castles: the highlight is Dunrobin Castle, an opulent Victorian pile (see Helmsdale for details). Castle of Mey near John o'Groats was renovated by Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Most castles are crumbling medieval turrets clinging to breezy headlands, so you don't come to admire their furniture and art collections.
- Prehistoric sites are found in many places but especially around Thurso and Wick, probably because they've not been ploughed over. The commonest structure is the broch, an Iron Age fortified dwelling, typically occupied from 500 BC to 500 AD.
- Cliffs and skerries with seabirds wheeling: Duncansby Head, Dunnet Head and Cape Wrath are the wildest.
- Smoo Cave in Durness is a curious hybrid of karstic and sea-cave.
- The Clearances are evident in the deserted moorland of this region, and here and there lie ruins of farmsteads whose tenants were evicted. But the northeast coast had the opposite experience: it was a gathering place for the dispossessed, who built villages before despairing of the Highlands and migrating south. Badbea near Helmsdale is a good example. And in Wick visit the caves where others dwelt in abject conditions, until they were ousted in 1915 lest their fires attract enemy submarines.
- Hill-walking: four mountains are over 3000 ft / 914 m and qualify as "Munros". They're all in the west: Conival 987 m, Ben More Assynt 998 m, Ben Klibreck 962 m and Ben Hope 927 m.
- Golf courses are mostly along the east coast.
- Highland Gatherings and Games: many villages host a summer event. Pipe bands, caber-tossing, field and track events and so on, often combined with Agricultural Shows. For instance the Sutherland County Show is held in late July in Dornoch, followed by Dornoch Highland Gathering early August. See also events in Thurso and Durness.
Most of the villages have a hotel with a public restaurant and bar. Limited serving hours especially in winter.
- Thurso and Wick are big enough to have pubs. The smaller places don't, so it's either the hotel bar, or buy your own from the nearest shop.
- Whisky distilleries are in Thurso, Wick and Helmsdale, and they may offer tours.
- Fortunately there are no plans to restore the mineral spring in Wick - its flavour was described as "sucking pennies".
Fill up on petrol before you venture north of Inverness.
Go next edit
- You traverse Ross and Cromarty on the way to and from Inverness. The east (Black Isle) is green and fertile, the west is more sparse.
- It's a short ferry crossing from the north coast to the Orkney Islands.
- Ferries sail from Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis, and transport runs down the chain of Western Isles through Harris and the Uists to Barra.
- North Coast 500 is a motoring itinerary looping from Inverness through this region and Ross and Cromarty.