Scotland travel guide: Road tripping around Highlands
The Highlands part of Scotland has interested me since the day I clapped eyes on a road atlas back when I was a child. ‘The top of the Mainland’ I used to call to it and in some ways I still do. What was it like up here? The weather? Must always be stormy? The people? Do they have a thick Scottish accent than the city folk a few hours drive away? What were the roads like? How many cows roam around the fields? I had so many questions which I needed answering (well, not the cows or the weather, I know it’s bloody cold up here in the Highlands during the winter months) so when I had the chance to go, I took it. Departing Stevenage near London, England, I drove up the A1 then straight to the Highlands.
My route around North-East Scotland. Map: Google (C)I took the main road from Inverness (the A9 road – well, it’s the only main road to get up to this area) and is single carriageway all the way. The road follows the railway line and goes along beautiful rugged coastline with fantastic views of the North Sea. Stunning villages were passed but my first stop was a historical site called Badbea which was a clearance village located on the steep slopes above the cliff tops of Berriedale. The village had folk living here back in the 18th and 19th centuries who lost their homes in nearby villages which were knocked down for sheep farming (can you believe it?). The last resident to say ‘bugger this I ain’t living in Badbea anymore’ and buggered off elsewhere was back in 1911. After that a former inhabitant came back (why?) to erect a monument which is a memorial to those who lost their homes to sheep farming. For anyone wanting to visit the site, then park in the layby on the main road near Ousdale and then follow the footpath which is about a fifteen minute walk (it’s not paved and not accessible for wheelchair people).
Now driving north to Thurso which was my next stop, the landscape gets more sparse. There are no trees, I could feel the wind blowing from all directions across the land and it is just fields. I even nearly missed the turn off for Thurso which is the only main junction for over 100 miles before I was blinded up looking at the landscape. Turning left and heading more and more north, the landscape didn’t change. I didn’t even see a car for miles and this was in the middle of the day. I eventually arrived in Thurso, the northernmost town on the UK mainland and used this a base. This is a little shopping town with a nice church but also famous for being the main ferry port to sail over to Orkney Islands to which I explored over the next couple of days.
Just east of Thurso is Dunnet Head (about a twenty minute drive from the centre with tractors on the road) and is the northernmost point of the UK’s mainland. To get here there is a road from Brough to the village of Dunnet nearby. At Dunnet Head there is only a lighthouse to check out and there is a bird nature reserve here (but don’t try and see the birds by looking over the cliffs, it is a sheer drop).
Driving eastwards I came across the northernmost settlement/village in the Highlands and the UK mainland known as John o’Groats. This place is famous for tourists and crazy cyclists who travel between here and the westernmost point of the mainland called Land’s End in Cornwall, England which is 876 miles (1,410km) away. I felt really far away from home here. Arriving here at sunrise there was not a soul to be seen. I was nearer to Norway than London (which the British capital is 690m/1110km south). The Scottish capital of Edinburgh lies 280 miles (450km) south and for crazy people who want to know, 2,200 miles (3,500km) from the North Pole. However the nearest towns are Wick and Thurso (about twenty minute drive away) and on a clear day the Orkney Islands can be seen (only 5 miles away). Here tourists can visit the gift shop, check out a few buildings, take tourist photos at the famous signpost and in the summer months take a passenger ferry to Burwick port which is on South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands (but I hope there is public transport there, I drove to that port and this bugger all there!).
Not far south-east of the settlement is Duncansby Head and I didn’t just come here for the lighthouse which looks out to the North Sea. Here there is a beautiful nature reserve to check out (where I saw a sheep nearly fall to its death because eating grass on the side of the cliffs is an awesome thing to do around here!) but there is a rock formation which looks like two huge woman’s breasts coming out of the sea known as the Duncansby Stacks.
On my way south I was in the town of Wick. Located on the River Wick, over 7,000 people live here and they look so bored. I didn’t see one person smile. Do people in the Highlands even smile? Not even the member of railway staff who worked at the nearby station which only has two trains a day heading towards Inverness (what a job he must have). I had to check out Wick Station (and I also checked out Thurso) because as I work in the railway industry which is my ‘real’ job which pays for the travels, I just wanted to see what it was like to ‘catch’ a train up here and briefly look at the timetables on the walls (to which it could take 18 hours to get to London with a stopover in Perth or Edinburgh…whoooaaa).
I didn’t spend long in the town as I was just passing through (but if anyone wants the local tourist information centre here it can be found in a local grocery store!) Wick does however host a Guinness World Record. Back in 2006 it was confirmed the town had the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place which is 2.06 meters in length and contains one day. It could have held the record for much longer but it didn’t qualified as it didn’t have a full postal code, dam us British for making life awkward.
It was time to head back into the heart of the Highlands leaving Wick and the North. Back on the A9 heading south and the last stop was a small coastal village called Helmsdale. All I can say is there is a pretty dam good Fish and Chips restaurant here and one of the best in the country. ‘La Mirage’ has a really weird bizarre interior but don’t let that put you off, it didn’t me, but the food portions here are huge and the fish is fresh from the sea. Definitely the best Fish and Chips I have had in a very long time.
It was time to hit the A9 and head south out of the Highlands and towards Inverness. I enjoyed my curious time visiting this part of my home country, a barren landscape with so much history as well as fields. I love driving around this part of the world, no cars on the road, not many tractors and enjoying speaking to the locals who want to hear of news from down south as the internet doesn’t work up here. News travels very slowly up here…..