Explore The Highland region
Though a constant stream of sponsored walkers, caravans and tour groups makes it to the dull town of John O’Groats, surprisingly few visitors travel the whole length of the Highlands’ wild north coast. Those that do, however, rarely return disappointed. Pounded by one of the world’s most ferocious seaways, Scotland’s rugged northern shore is backed by barren mountains in the west, and in the east by lochs and open rolling grasslands. Between its far ends, miles of crumbling cliffs and sheer rocky headlands shelter bays whose perfect white beaches are nearly always deserted, even in the height of summer – though, somewhat incongruously, they’re also home to Scotland’s best surfing waves.
Durness is a good jumping-off point for nearby Balnakiel beach, one of the area’s most beautiful sandy strands, and for rugged Cape Wrath, the windswept promontory at Scotland’s northwest tip. Thurso, the largest town on the north coast, is really only visited by those en route to Orkney. More enticing are the huge seabird colonies clustered in clefts and on remote stacks at Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head, to the east of Thurso.Read More
Durness and around
Durness and around
Scattered around a string of sheltered sandy coves and grassy cliff-tops, DURNESS is the most northwesterly village on the British mainland. It straddles the turning point on the main A838 road as it swings east from the inland peat bogs of the interior to the north coast’s fertile strip of limestone machair. Durness village sits above its own sandy bay, Sango Sands, while half a mile to the east is SMOO, formerly a RAF station. In between Durness and Smoo is the village hall, whose windblown and rather forlorn community garden harbours a memorial commemorating the Beatle John Lennon, who used to come to Durness on family holidays as a child (and revisited the place in the 1960s with Yoko). It’s worth pausing at Smoo to see the 200ft-long Smoo Cave, a gaping hole in a sheer limestone cliff formed partly by the action of the sea and partly by the small burn that flows through it.
An excellent day-trip begins two miles southwest of Durness at KEOLDALE, where (tides and MOD permitting) a foot-passenger ferry crosses the spectacular Kyle of Durness estuary to link with a minibus that runs the eleven miles out to Cape Wrath, mainland Britain’s most northwesterly point. Note that Garvie Island (An Garbh-eilean) is an air bombing range, and the military regularly close the road to Cape Wrath. The headland takes its name not from the stormy seas that crash against it for most of the year, but from the Norse word hvarf, meaning “turning place” – a throwback to the days when Viking warships used it as a navigation point during raids on the Scottish coast.
Approached from the isolation of the west, THURSO feels like a metropolis. In reality, it’s a relatively small service centre visited mostly by people passing through to the adjoining port of Scrabster to catch the ferry to Orkney, or by increasing numbers of surfers attracted to the waves on the north coast. There’s little to see, but the grid-plan streets have some rather handsome Victorian architecture in the local, greyish sandstone. If you’re coming to surf, want a lesson, need to hire a board or simply fancy a coffee and home-made cake before hitting the waves, head for Tempest Surf on Riverside Road by Thurso harbour.
John O’Groats and around
John O’Groats and around
Romantics expecting to find a magical meeting of land and water at JOHN O’GROATS are invariably disenchanted – sadly it remains an uninspiring tourist trap. The views north to Orkney are fine enough, but the village offers little more than a string of souvenir shops and cafés thronged with coach parties. A number of boat trips set off from here, with some operators offering whitewater rafting and others heading out to Duncansby head and local seal colonies. The village gets its name from the Dutchman Jan de Groot, who obtained the ferry contract for the hazardous crossing to Orkney in 1496. The eight-sided house he built for his eight quarrelling sons (so that each one could enter by his own door) is echoed in the octagonal tower of the much-photographed but now vacant John O’Groats Hotel.