Darkness comes slowly to the north.
Even in Scotland’s winter months a light lingers low in the sky after the early sundown, leaving a slight trace of twilight until, finally, darkness descends.
It was this glow in the late afternoon sky that welcomed me to Caithness, the northernmost region of mainland Britain. My train from Inverness to Wick skirted the North Sea and sliced through the depths of the Flow Country, where flat peat bog stretched as far as the horizon on either side of the train tracks.
Bogs and lochs reflected the last of the light, watery beacons in the encroaching dusk. I’d read about the Flow Country, heard that it was one of Europe’s last true areas of wilderness, but it wasn’t until I found myself in the middle of it that the true meaning of the description became clear.
Alighting from the two-coach train in the old fishing town, I caught a glimpse of the Milky Way – or was it the Northern Lights? – above me. Moorland and stars in the darkness were all I would see until daylight returned the following morning.
Unfortunately, clear skies like these would prove elusive during the rest of my stay in Caithness.
Instead, brief flashes of blue sky and sunlight were followed by walls of rain, dark clouds, and the occasional, brief rainbow. Wild, but beautiful.
I knew little of the far north of Scotland until my arrival in Wick. When my brother’s move to the area coincided with the explosion in popularity of the North Coast 500, the coastal drive around Scotland’s northern reaches, it seemed as good a time as any to get acquainted with another part of my home country.
Based in Caithness, we would cover the north and east stretches of the coastal road over the following few days, dipping in and out of neighbouring Sutherland and pausing at various sites of interest along the way. For as it turns out, there’s a lot to see here – far more than a long weekend can accommodate.
I was still in Scotland, but it felt different, somehow. Caithness has its own character, a unique personality shaped by history and geography, and one I enjoyed getting to know with my brother by my side.
We tend to think of the area as the northernmost reach of mainland Britain, but in centuries past, the map was turned upside down: Caithness was one of the southernmost parts of the Viking lands, ruled over by the Earls of Orkney for the King of Norway in the 12th century.
This northern European past can still be glimpsed, whether in the Caithness flag, fluttering proudly outside homes like the stars and stripes does in the USA, or in the brightly painted Scandi-style wooden buildings at John O’ Groats.
Before the Vikings raided the land from the north, this was the land of the Celtic tribes, the Picts. Even before then, Caithness was important; the region has the largest concentration of Iron Age brochs in the country. And as Viking and Pict traditions melded over time here, the Clans as they’re known today were formed, their castles now crumbling on cliff edges along the coast.
From the first day, the coastal landscape of Caithness fascinated me.
The rolling farmland around stone-built towns and villages – the fluffy white sheep, bales of hay, and flagstone walls – sits in stark contrast to the nearby coastline, where the distinctive Caithness stone drops sheer into the foam of the North Sea below.
It’s a working landscape too. You’re just as likely to see a tractor on the road as you are one of the sports cars or camper vans tourists drive along the route, and Caithness flagstone is still hewed skillfully by hand from the bedrock, used in walls, homes, and buildings here and throughout the world.
The beginning of my stay was spent at the very north of the country, at John O’Groats and Dunnet Head. I bought sturdy green wellingtons on Wick High Street that morning, and barely took them off for the entire weekend (I had to be persuaded out of them when we stopped for lunch in between our coastal drives; my brother, on the other hand, had to be persuaded into his pair!).
As the most northerly settlement on the British mainland, John O’Groats is as touristy as you might expect, but loveable all the same. It felt almost surreal to be standing there, looking out across to the Orkney Isles a mere eight miles away, and thinking of my adopted home, New York City, which the sign proclaimed was 3230 miles to the west.
John O’Groats is a small village with a working harbour – I spied a few small boats tied up at the pier – and opens onto one of the most dangerous stretches of water on earth. The tides here are some of the strongest and fastest in the world; the tempestuous meeting of the Pentland Firth and the North Sea is even visible from land, a dark mark smudged in the blue of the water.
After ice cream for lunch, courtesy of Flavours at John O’ Groats, we went further north – yes, really! – to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain. As the single track road wound higher and higher, the farmland gave way to heather. By the time we reached the top, rain clouds had obscured Orkney, but the view across the expanse of Caithness below was beautiful, even under cloudy skies.
We drove to Thurso next, passing the sandy stretch of Dunnet Bay; the Queen Mother’s private residence, the Castle of Mey; and the harbour at Castletown, where the Caithness flagstone industry once thrived. We spent a while pottering in and out of shops (I wanted to buy all the local food and produce at J A Mackay’s), and getting educated on local history at Caithness Horzions.
That education was to come in useful on our drive south the next day.
With some local knowledge packed away, we had context for the sites we saw along the north east coast, skirting not only the edge of Caithness, but nearby Sutherland, too.
There were the Whaligoe Steps – 365 of them – set into the edge of the cliff, leading down a natural harbour and sparklingly clear water. During the fishing boom of the 19th century, women would gut the fish landed at the bottom, then carry them in baskets back to the summit to be sold. Even thinking about it impressed me, as I wasn’t even brave enough to make it to the bottom to begin with!
Nearby, the Hill O’ Many Stanes was eerie. A collection of 200 small, barely knee-high stones huddled in the heather, no-one really knows why the stones are here, although historians think it may have been a site for religious gatherings.
Equally atmospheric were the Grey Cairns of Camster, low mounds of stone in the moorland, miles from the main road and nearby villages. These two Neolithic cairns house burial chambers (human remains were actually discovered here in the 1800s), and while they are open for tourists to explore, I decided to stay outside (and not just because I could barely fit through the entryway!).
On the drive south, though, the journey itself is as much of an attraction as the historic sights.
The east coast drive covers a winding, convoluted route along the cliff edge, offering far-reaching views along the coast and out across the North Sea. Sometimes, mighty oil rigs could be spotted on the horizon, while on the other side of the road we saw churches, farmhouses, and old crumbling homes, the latter being reclaimed by nature. Further south, the gorse bushes were already in full bloom, adding a splash of colour to the hills of brown and green.
Certain stretches of the road – like the hairpin, cliff-top turn at the Braes of Berridale – are an adventure in themselves, and impassable in bad weather. The snow gates are shut, and the northerly reaches of Scotland are cut off from their southerly neighbours until conditions improve.
The drive is also enjoyable for the charming towns and villages it passes through. Stone buildings are clustered together along main streets and harbours, where cobbled streets add character to already cheerful locations. We stopped the car again and again: a breath of fresh air in Brora; a quick stroll through Helmsdale; a delicious lunch in a renovated court house in Dornoch.
The number of miles we covered driving back and forth could have probably taken us around the whole North Coast 500 route.
Instead, they took us to specific destinations, and then back again, given us a second chance to experience the roads we were travelling.
One journey took us “out west”, along the northern stretch of the costal drive to the small village of Durness in Sutherland. It wasn’t exactly the weather to be tackling a 90 mile drive on single track roads that skirt barrier-less cliff edges, but it certainly added to the sense of adventure!
We drove for miles without seeing a building or another person. And as the mountains of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal approached, I was acutely aware of how alone we were in the rain, with no phone signal and no-one nearby. The majestic views were a reminder that while nature is beautiful, it can hold the edge of a threat, too.
A drive we expected to take one-and-a-half hours took over three, and while we slowed to a crawl during a particularly fierce downpour, my brother and I looked at each other and both admitted we thought we might have to stay in a local B&B for the night.
Luck was on our side though, and no emergency B&B was needed (we may have been overreacting!). The rain eased slightly as we arrived in Durness, where we attempted to see the famous Smoo Cave (the overflowing river that feeds into the waterfall there meant we couldn’t get past the entrance), and taste-tested some of the Highlands’ best hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain.
Back in Caithness, there was more to explore.
Of the castles that cling to the coast, Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe is one of the most impressive. Built from Caithness flagstone, the now-crumbling fortress looks as if it grew out of the cliff face itself. As we picked our way over stones and wandered through what would have been a grand entryway, we marvelled how a castle built in the 1400s could still be battling the elements on the cliff edge today.
Travelling from the 15th century to the 21st, we paid a visit to Dunnet Bay Distillery, where we received a warm welcome – a common occurrence in Caithness – from husband-and-wife team Martin and Claire. I had seen the distinctive ceramic bottles of Rock Rose Gin on bar shelves elsewhere in Scotland, but I hadn’t realised how truly local their spirits are, or how fascinating the stories behind them.
That’s the thing that struck me about Caithness, I think: the stories around every corner.
(And as the name of this blog suggests, I can never resist a good story!)
From the castles and clifftops, to the real sense of community, the place got under my skin, and there’s still so much I missed out on, thanks to both the weather and my limited time. There’s only one solution to that, of course, and that’s to return to the north of Scotland. With the long summer days of seemingly never-ending daylight edging closer, my return might just be sooner than I planned…
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get to Caithness? Using public transport, you can travel by train on the Far North Line (4 hours on the Scotrail service) or by bus (3.5 hours with Stagecoach) to any of the stops between Inverness and Thurso. Of course, with the increasing popularity of the North Coast 500, you could just hire a car in Inverness and make it into a proper road trip and drive along the coast!
How can I get around when I arrive? If you’ve taken public transport to Thurso or Wick, for example, you would definitely need to hire a car (or like me, know someone who can show you around – my trip wouldn’t have happened without my brother!). There are multiple national and local car hire options in both Wick and Thurso.
Where should I stay? As I stayed with family, I can’t give you any first-hand recommendations, but the area does have a mix of B&Bs, local hotels, and self-catering cottages. I personally love the look of the Natural Retreats self-catering options at John O’Groats, and the luxurious-looking Ackergill Tower (because who wouldn’t want to stay in a castle?).