Caithness and Sutherland
The phrase getting away from it all is overused, but in talking about the far north of Scotland is for once apt. The sense of space and emptiness as you head up the A838 to Cape Wrath and Durness is truly breathtaking, punctuated by hills and lochs whose names you will never have heard but whose beauty will fix in the memory. Or take the A9 and hug the East Coast on the way to Wick and Thurso and the sea views are utterly magnificent.
This is the place to come to if you love the great outdoors. Hotels like Inver Lodge in Lochinver provide a base to explore what is still wilderness; or Bettyhill Hotel on Torrisdale Bay, with views to a sea where the next stop is Iceland; or Mackays in Durness, all are set in land that has never been tamed.
Part of the enjoyment of that great outdoors is the fishing: the suitably named Brown Trout Hotel in Watten near Wick is a favourite haunt of the angler; likewise the Tongue Hotel with its view to the Kyle of Tongue; and Kinlochbervie Hotel on the western side of the landmass. Salmon and Trout are what the area is known for, but the sea-fishing can be fantastic too, as your dinner plate will often witness.
You can catch the wildlife here without a rod and reel or course – this is a great place for birding, and walkers will stumble across plenty of interesting species on their rambles. John O’Groats is the destination for some serious walkers, doubtless happy to rest weary feet at comfy places like the Seaview Hotel in that town, and maybe enjoy one of the area’s other delights – the Seaview has 130-plus whiskies.
If you think of the region as just bleak but beautiful a visit to Inverewe Gardens is in order, a place sheltered by the land and warmed by the sea currents that enable it to grow plants you’d expect in far more southerly climes. Pool House, once a fishing lodge, offers luxury accommodation here that Buchan’s Hannay and Leithen would have enjoyed on their fishing trips, complete with books and billiard table.
If you’d prefer to have the best of both worlds, and stay in a town on the edge of the wilderness, both Thurso and Wick have plenty of accommodation available: in the former are The Park Hotel and the lovely Melvich Hotel set atop a cliff; in the latter the Breadalbane Hotel and Sinclair Bay Hotel. If you fancy an inn then Thurso is a good bet for that too: The Castle Arms Hotel and the nearby Royal Hotel are both traditional coaching inns; and the town’s Ferry Inn is renowned for its food. Not everyone wants to stop in an inn or hotel: Scotland Cottages and Easy Cottages both have places where you can shut yourself away from the world in cosy surroundings; B&Bs like Glanaveron House in Brora or the fabulous Sheiling Guest House in Ullapool offer alternatives to hotels, and the Morefield Motel in the same village has a different slant again. And try to find a better location than Unst Chalet 20m from the sea in Inverkirkaig.
If you want latte and guaranteed sunshine then maybe Sutherland and Caithness are not for you. If you fancy great Scottish food and the wildest country in Britain, give it a go. And when you are out and about in the evening or early morning, don’t forget to look up – you just may be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, something like the region itself that will stay in your mind’s eye for ever.
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