Far to the north of Scotland lies Caithness, often known as the lowlands beyond the Highlands. Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland, lies at 58° 40′ 21″ N latitude and 3° 22′ 31″ W longitude and is further north than Moscow, parts of Alaska, and the most northerly point of the Danish mainland, Skagen.
120 miles north of Inverness, this far flung corner often gets overlooked by visitors, which is a great pity, as there is a wealth of archaeology, history, wildlife, visitor attractions, accommodation, restaurants, and above all great walking and facilities for the great outdoors in general. The night-time auroras, sunsets and sunrises fill the wide-open skies.
The population is about 30,000, mainly based around Thurso and Wick, but there are many outlying villages such as Halkirk (one of Scotland´s first planned villages), Dunnet (a great centre for recreation) and of course John o´Groats, the destination for many walkers and cyclists in their quest for the end to end journey from Land´s End.
Thurso’s wealth has, for the last 50 years, been derived from the presence of the nuclear power station at Dounreay, currently being decommissioned. Ferries from Scandanavia, Orkney and Shetland call at Scrabster, the port beside Thurso, and an increasing number of cruise liners also call in during the summer months.
Wick is a more typical northern town, with its history stretching back to Viking and medieval times. The town’s herring industry in the 1800s and the influence of Thomas Telford put Wick on the map, but it has been somewhat neglected since the demise of the former. The town is now being regenerated with investment in a new harbour and the Pulteneytown area, which is home to the local distillery by the same name.
The walking terrain and type of walking
Caithness caters for all kind of walker. From the highest peak of Morven (2315ft), to three miles of golden beach at Dunnet, and forest walks in Rumster Forest, there is something for everyone.
For easy walks, visit Achvarasdal Woods at Reay or Dunnet Forest at Dunnet. The Forestry Commission forests at Rumster (Caithness) and Borgie (Sutherland) also offer easy terrain and have a wealth of wildlife, birdlife and archaeology. Loch More in the hinterland offers 20 miles of forest-grade tracks. You can also alight from the train at Altnabreach and walk down to Halkirk, time trains permitting.
For moderate walks, try Dunnet Head and some of the coastal routes. There are no marked footpaths on Dunnet Head, but there are a number of walks on Walkingworld. The North Sea Trail, which offers a route around the periphery of the North Sea, has a section on the Moray Firth and has some great circular walks.
For more challenging terrain, try Morven, Scaraben, or Maiden´s Pap.
Where to stay
The area offers a wide range of accommodation from hotels and guest houses, to good quality bed & breakfasts and hostels.
Where and what to eat
Recommended is Le Bistro, Thurso, which specialises in local produce and has a wide range of dishes (closed Mondays) and Captain´s Galley, Thurso which specialises in fish (open all year).
Other outdoor activities
Wildlife watching, horse riding, surfing, cycling, fishing, paintballing,
Other points of interest
Castle of Mey; Mary Ann´s Cottage; Dunnet Head; John o Groats; RSPB Forsinard (just over the border in Sutherland); Flow Country; Wick Heritage Centre; Sinclair and Girnigoe castles – which are currently being renovated in a multi-million pound project.
By air, there are flights into Wick from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Kirkwall (Orkney Islands). There are connections to Wick from Aberdeen originating in Norwich, Teeside, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, Bristol, Southampton, Stornaway, Cardiff and Humberside. Alternatively, fly from Gatwick or Luton to Inverness, and drive from there.
By road, the main trunk road, the A9, from Inverness leads north along the coast, one of the most spectacular journeys you will ever drive, passing through picturesque villages such as Helmsdale and Berridale. Enjoy the Berridale Braes – a driving experience in themselves!
By train – Three trains a day leave Inverness to travel the 4 hours to Thurso or Wick. Again the scenery is stupendous as you travel along the coast to Helmsdale, and then across the famous Flow Country, now a National Nature Reserve.
By bus – Enjoy a relaxing 3 hour bus journey around the little villages of the Moray Firth and along the coast.
Contacts for tourist and travel information
Thurso Tourist Information is based at Caithness Horizons, Old Town Hall, High Street, Thurso KW14 8AJ. Tel. 01847 893155
John o’Groats Tourist Information – privately run. Tel: 01845 22 55 121
Wick Tourist Information Office, based in MacAllan’s men’s shop, High Street, Wick – privately run. Tel: 01845 22 55 121
Dunnet Head, in the cafe at Windhaven, Brough KW18 8YE. Easter to September. http://www.dunnethead.co.uk
Ordnance Survey Land Ranger maps LR12 and LR10
Ordnance Survey Explorer maps 451 and 450
Visit the the far north with LetsGoNorth – http://www.letsgonorth.com