Understand our ancient history too. Learn how geology shaped our land millions of years ago. Get an insight into beautifully-preserved Pictish carvings, and intriguing Iron Age brochs.
There are castles galore, some in ruins, others still luxurious, opulent homes. Who lived here? What were their lives like? What did they dream of or aspire to be? You’ll leave with more questions than answers, but your imagination will be set alight.
And with such a sparse human population, our wildlife is spectacular; from orca and dolphins who use the Pentland Firth as their playground, through to tiny sea-anemones that stud seaside rock-pools with jewel-like colour. Head to the hills where the golden eagles soar and listen to the roar of stags rutting in the autumn. Or watch as wee sanderlings dodge the waves at the edge of a golden sandy beach.
Once you’ve travelled through our landscape, you’ll be drawn to understand more about it.
The shameful Highland Clearances and their legacy can’t be ignored; the remains of deserted croft houses are scattered along peaceful inland glens. Visit Croick Church to see the messages inscribed into the windows by some of the 80 families forced to seek sanctuary in the church yard in 1845. We don’t know their fate; we just know their traditional way of life was less profitable to landlords than their land being grazed by sheep.
The history of the Clearances is told at Timespan in Helmsdale and poignantly captured by the Emigrants Memorial which shows fleeing crofters gazing back at their homeland. If you fancy a climb, take in the view of the empty glens from the summit of Ben Bhraggie in Golspie, where a statue remains of the 1st Duke of Sutherland, one of the key figures in this brutal chapter of Highland history.
Our history pre-dates the Clearances, though. Travel back to the start of time with the North West Highlands Geopark. Follow the Rock Route and stop at 14 discovery points, from Achiltibuie in the south, to Durness in the north. The story of the earth’s evolution can be seen through different rock strata and explained by audio files and interpretation boards. The Moine Thrust is beautifully exposed at Knockan Crag; the rocks here changed our understanding of some fundamental aspects of geology.
In the heart of Sutherland, discover Achness Falls on the River Cassley. Don’t just marvel as the river tumbles over the boulders; try and imagine the lives of the people who lived here 9000 years ago. They built the Pictish Broch just downstream. What were their lives like? A little research, with a peek at the Caithness Broch Project website, may answer your questions.
The North Coast Visitor Centre at Thurso is a treasure trove for historians; with mysteriously carved Pictish stones, interpretation of a heritage based on industry, Caithness slate, herring, even nuclear power, and a gallery which houses contemporary exhibitions.
On the subject of contemporary, you’ll discover artists, musicians, artisans, and crafters working across northern Scotland, using materials old and new, and skills both ancient and modern. Seek them out. Talk to them, learn from them, enjoy the fruits of their talents, and take a little of Caithness and Sutherland home with you. Whether it’s jewellery or a painting, a finely distilled bottle of whisky or a hand-made box of chocolates, you’ll know it’s been made with love, from the land, and infused with Highland passion.
Rest and Recharge
Comfortable and welcoming, Culgower House near Helmsdale is available as a holiday rental sleeping up to eight adults and an infant. Helmsdale is home to Timespan, which is an invaluable resource for discovering more about Sutherland’s rich history of herring, Highland Clearances, and the shameful burning of the last witch in Britain. Janet Horne was killed in Dornoch in 1727.
While you’re exploring the heart of Sutherland, Invercassley Cottage Annexe is perfectly located for easy access to the Cassley Falls and wonderful walks at Rosehall. But its central location gives day-trip access to east coast beaches and castles, the north coast wonders of Dunnet Head and Castle of Mey, and the North West Highlands Geopark too.
Check in to Mackays Hotel in Wick for easy access to everything that Wick Heritage Centre has to offer. Stay a few nights to explore the Pultneytown area, to walk to The Castle of Old Wick, and to nip down the coast and experience the Whaligoe Steps. Oh, and the dinners in No 1 Bistro, and the whisky bar, and the breakfasts…
If you are here to unearth the geology of the region, you must find The Rock Stop, the visitor centre, exhibition and coffee shop for the North West Highlands Geopark. It’s at Unapool, just north of Kylesku, and serves tea, coffee, cakes and, we hope, rock buns!
On the subject of cafés, you’ll find excellent examples at Timespan and at the North Coast Visitor Centre too.
Of course, you could just buy a box of hand-made chocolates from Wick’s Coco Chocolatier, but where’s the fun in that? Sign up for a course to learn how to make them yourself or book in for a special high tea at their café. Owner Mandy has cooked for Royalty as former head chef at the Castle of Mey, don’t you know! If they’re good enough for the Queen…
Every good day out deserves to be rounded off with a good beer, and we believe beer always tastes better when it has a story to tell. Chat to the team at John o’Groats Brewery and they’ll tell you the story of their premises. The “Last House” is the oldest surviving building in John O’Groats and is known to have housed descendants of Jan de Groot, who the village is named after. Oh, and the beers are mighty fine too.
We’d love to tell you what’s on the menu at the Ulbster Arms in Halkirk but it changes with the seasons, and depending on what the boats have brought in that day. Guests are encouraged to make requests for what they’d like to eat, and if the chefs can source it, they’ll cook it for you. Think local, think flavour, and you’re halfway there. Bliss.