We depart from our designated pick-up points and head north, stopping en route for refreshments. We continue north by the scenic coastal road to Thurso and our accommodation at the St Clair Hotel. All rooms have en suite facilities with TV, telephone and tea/coffee making facilities.
Dinner is served in the evening.
This morning, after breakfast, we visit Duncansby Head, the north eastern tip of the Scottish mainland. The single track road from John O’ Groats emerges at the lighthouse which was built in 1924 and became automated in 1997. With views north over Orkney and west to John O’ Groats and Dunnet Head, a well trodden path brings us to the first sight of the Geo of Sclaites, a huge cleft bitten deeply into the cliffs with a natural arch. Further along the cliff top there are stunning views south to Thirle Door and the jagged rocks and arches known as the Stacks of Duncansby.
Our next visit is to John O’ Groats, the landmark at the “end of the road”, the northernmost corner of Britain, 874 miles from Lands End. There are shops, ferry, exhibitions and a museum (of sorts) but the scenery is what it is all about here and it is magnificent with panoramic views over the stormy waters of the Pentland Firth to Orkney. This is a seabird haven with puffins, shags, fulmars, kittiwakes, gulls and gannets and many more species nesting in their thousands on the rock ledges.
We continue to The Castle of Mey the former holiday home of the late Queen Mother. Originally Barrogill Castle it was first seen by the late Queen Mother in 1952, while mourning the death of her husband King George VI. Falling for its ruined, isolated charm she declared she would save the castle from ruin. Having acquired the most northerly castle on the British mainland, she renovated and lovingly restored it and for over half a century she spent her summers here and created the beautiful gardens you see today.
We continue on to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain with some of the most extensive views to be found anywhere in northern Scotland.
We return to the hotel in time for dinner.
This morning after breakfast we leave the hotel and set out on our journey across Scotland’s northern edge, to our first visit - Strathnaver Museum, Bettyhill. Located in the former church of St Columba which was built in 1700, the museum takes you on a journey from the mystical past of prehistory to the emergence of the Clan Mackay, the tragedy of the Highland Clearance and you will discover the vibrant culture of today, inherited from our Norse and Gaelic ancestors.
Strathnaver is one of the principal sites of the Highland Clearances. In 1814, the “year of the burning”, as many as 15,000 people were cleared from the one and a half million acre estate of the Duke of Stafford (later made the Duke of Sutherland) to increase the income from the land by letting it to sheep farmers. Many emigrated to North America and never returned. Driving along this single track road beside the River Naver it is hard not to be moved by the thought of the terrible loss and upheaval that people here suffered.
We travel to Tongue where we will we will stretch our legs and break for a lunchtime stop. The name Tongue has old Norse origins, though fairly obvious: it comes from “tunga”, a tongue of land projecting into the loch. Although the Norse people probably lived here between the 900 and 1200, nothing certain has been found of their settlement. When Thomas Telford completed the road south to Lairg in 1828, Tongue changed from being an island community relying on the sea for its communications. When the road to Thurso followed in 1836 a daily coach service ran and during the rest of the 1800s efforts to complete the road west to Durness continued.
We continue via Loch Eriboll and Durness to Kinlochbervie on the tip of the north west coastline. Our accommodation is at the Kinlochbervie Hotel which overlooks the busy fishing harbour. All rooms have en-suite facilities with TV, telephone and tea/coffee making facilities.
We arrive at the hotel in time for dinner.
This morning after breakfast we will travel back up the single track road to Keoldale, the starting point for our dramatic journey to Cape Wrath. A fifteen-minute ferry trip takes us across the Kyle of Durness and once on the other side we board a minibus which will take us along the 12-mile track to the headland, whose name derives not from the stormy waters of the area but from the Norse word for a turning point, for here the Norsemen turned their ships to head for home. On the way we pass an old tin schoolhouse, last used in the 1930s, and various buildings used by the MoD in connection with the bombing range here (but not during the tourist season!). At the point is Cape Wrath Lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1828 on the most north-westerly tip of the Scottish mainland. Looking east from the lighthouse you can see the spectacular sea cliffs stretching out towards Durness, which provide ideal habitats for many sea birds. Please note this trip is weather dependent.
On our return back to the other side of the Kyle of Durness, we move on to the village of Durness itself, where we will visit the beautiful old church graveyard of Balnakeil, home to the grave of the famous Gaelic poet Rob Don. This is a most interesting cemetery overlooking one of the finest sandy beaches in the UK. We will also visit the wonderful chocolatier at Cocoa Mountain where you have the opportunity to buy the finest hot chocolate drink anywhere in the world (official!). It also sells gorgeous handmade chocolates. Originally these buildings were used as an early warning station in case of nuclear attack, it was turned into a craft centre in 1964 and has housed a number of local craftspeople – sadly there are not many crafts-folks left today. Given the small size of the chocolatier shop we may have to split the group between Balnakeil Church and swop over.
We also visit the nearby Smoo Cave which has the largest entrance of any sea cave in the British Isles. Recent excavations show that the cave was in use 6000 years ago by the earliest settlers in the north. The “blowhole” and waterfall can be observed from an observation point above the cave. There is also a recent memorial to celebrate the life of John Lennon who regularly came to Durness on holiday as a boy.
We then return to the hotel in time for dinner.
This morning after breakfast we leave the hotel and begin our homeward journey, travelling via Laxford Bridge, Loch More, Loch Shin and Lairg. In the 1950s a hydro-electric dam was constructed which raised the level of Loch Shin by over 30 feet and it now forms one of the major attractions of the area, complete with a spectacular salmon leap.
At one time the majority of the inhabitants in Lairg area resided on the high moorlands and straths, with the children of tenanting shepherds walking miles to school over rugged hill paths, but gradually these dwellings have been vacated in favour of a move down to the more accessible present village on the southern shores of the loch, which developed from around 1812.
Continuing via Bonar Bridge and Tain we return back to our original pick-up points, where we expect to arrive in the late evening.