|Location Map ( geo)|
|From:||John o' Groats (ND380727)|
|To:||Tarlogie (Dornoch Firth Bridge) (NH750843)|
|Distance:||122 miles (196.3 km)|
|Meets:||A99, B855, B876, A9, A897, B871, A838, B873, A839, A837, A949, B9176|
|Former Number(s):||B876, A882, B870, A9, A88, B864|
|Old route now:||B9176|
|Route outline (key)|
The A836 is just under 125 miles long, which is longer than the entire M25 (117 miles). However, unlike driving the M25, completing the whole length of the A836 will take most drivers well over three hours, since nearly half of it is single track, meaning that it still contains a substantial portion of single track with passing places to negotiate. It also goes though very few towns, and quite a bit of very barren, very empty but very scenic countryside. This account will start from the northern end at John o' Groats.
Section 1: John o' Groats – Thurso
The A836 road starts/ends at John o' Groats. This means only one thing to most people; this is the end of the famed Land's End to John o' Groats run, completed by thousands of people every year, many of whom will choose a more scenic return route, perhaps including the A836. It is not, however, the A836 that reaches the famed tourist destination, but rather the A99 (former A9) that completes the final few hundred metres. John o' Groats is not as commercialised as Land's End, since so few people live there, but there are still a few businesses to serve the community. It's just over 16 miles to the nearest railway stations, and the road heads towards one of them, Thurso, as it begins its trip south, the long way round. Caithness, unlike much of northern Scotland, is often considered to be as flat as a pancake, although a journey across the county will soon counter that belief!
The A836 therefore turns off the A99 opposite the Seaview Hotel and heads west. Just after the start there is an NC500 sign telling drivers that they're a deceptively far 170 miles from Ullapool - it really doesn't look that distant on a map. The good thing, however, is that the Caithness section is now mostly two lane single carriageway. For the first few miles, the road is relatively straight, punctuated by some sweeping bends as it heads through the small settlements of Huna and Kirkstyle. The road then skirts round Gills Bay, with the Island of Stroma and on a clear day the Orkney Isles lying away to the north. It is also from here that the Pentland Ferry crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margarets Hope on Orkney.
After Gills, the road climbs over the first of many hills it will encounter, and then between East Mey and Mey it passes the entrance to the Castle of Mey, the former home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, which is occasionally open to the public. Longer straights take the road across the undulating moors, past St John's Loch on the right and into the little village of Dunnet. Here the B855, the northernmost classified road on the British mainland, heads to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point on the British mainland. Turning south now, the road curves around Dunnet Bay into Castletown, where it meets the B876, which at its other end makes the A99 TOTSO. Castletown is little more than a single street of grey stone houses, many of them harled and painted to bring a bit of colour. Large open greens and plenty of trees help turn what could be a drab village into a pleasant place to pause before continuing west. Beyond the village, the road is dead-straight almost until Thurso, passing through the scattered community of Murkle along the way.
Just after entering Thurso, the road swings round to the south before it turns west again and meets the A9. The two routes then multiplex across Thurso Bridge and through the town, where several left turns link to the B874. This route leads to the northernmost railway station in Britain, and ultimately back to Wick, while the multiplex is the northernmost one on mainland Britain. Thurso is also the last chance to grab some cheap food and a cheapish restaurant as it is now about 80 miles to Lairg and 150 miles to Ullapool, the next settlements of any size!
Section 2: Thurso – Tongue
On the western side of Thurso, the road passes Pennyland House, where Sir William Alexander Smith, founder of the Boys' Brigade was born. Soon after, the A9 TOTSOs off to the right, headed for Scrabster Harbour, from where the Scrabster Ferry sails to Stromness on Orkney. Our route, meanwhile, continues westwards climbing through open fields, then across a short stretch of open moorland, before finding more fields as it drops to the Bridge of Forss. After a couple of long straights, linked by sweeping bends, the road reaches Dounreay and the small village of Reay, huddled round Sandside Bay. Dounreay of course is the former Nuclear research site which is now being decomissioned.
The road then climbs once more across open hillside, with the narrow width and some tight bends showing how the road was cheaply widened on-line 20 or more years ago. The road improves slightly as it sweeps south to the A897 junction at Halladale Bridge. The junction is set between high banks of gorse bushes, and the bridge is a relatively new structure replacing an old bridge which once stood immediately downstream, but is now only hinted at by the approach embankments of the old road alignment. On the west side of the Halladale River, the road climbs into Melvich, a scattered community of pretty cottages overlooking Melvich Bay. A right turn leads to Portskerra, and then we are on to one of the newest stretches of improvements along this route. The road has been significantly re-aligned, removing the sharper bends and easing the gradients with cuttings into the undulating hills. A viewpoint at the top offers some expansive views, before the road drops down to Strathy. Whilst some of the old road has been retained as access stubs, much of it has been removed in what is presumably an environmentally sensitive area.
Beyond Strathy, the road remains a two lane single carriageway, albeit an older improvement, as it winds over the moors and passes through Lednagullin, and onto Armadale. Here the quality of the road changes abruptly, and while remaining two lanes it is clear that the widening was done 'on the cheap', by simply adding an extra traffic lane on the old alignment. This leads to sharp bends and some steeper hills with much lower design speeds than the other recent improvements. Some of this is down to the difficult landscape that the road threads its way through, and there is evidence of realignment at a couple of points. The road reaches a summit of around 155m, with the distant hills to the south and west relieving the otherwise barren landscape.
Another viewpoint, overlooking Bettyhill, marks the start of the descent as the road finds the narrow valley of the Swordly Burn. Then a mile or so further on, at the turning for Crask, the road does drop down to single track, and from here into Bettyhill seems to alternate between single track and two lanes, albeit generally wider through the village. Beyond Bettyhill, a long single track section winds down the hill to Invernaver Bridge, which carries the A836 across the River Naver and into Invernaver, with its vast beaches and dunes to the north. At the southern end of this scattered settlement, the B871 continues south through the scenic landscapes of Strathnaver, while the A836 swings westwards once more, climbing steeply on a short two lane section. At the top of the hill, the road reverts to single track and, while occasional two lane sections lead round bends and over crests, the road remains single track much of the way to Tongue.
Wider sections include the hill down towards Borgie Bridge, and then the crossing of the bridge itself, where an old bridge sits alongside. On the far side of the bridge, a minor road heads north to the coast, leading through the small villages of Torrisdale, Skerray and Modsary amongst others, before returning to the largely unpopulated A836. Indeed, a speedy drive across the north coast will reveal a largely empty landscape, but there is quite a sizeable population here, hidden down minor roads along the coast and around the endless low hills and ridges of the moorland. At the further junction, there is another short section of two lanes, but The next wider section is on the western side of Coldbackie, where the road sweeps round a steep slope. It then widens again as it enters Tongue, where it TOTSOs with the A838, that route continuing the westward run along Scotland's North Coast.
Section 3: Tongue – Lairg
At Tongue, the A836 turns its back on the north coast, and heads due south, climbing steadily on a single-track road up to Loch Loyal. Passing places are supplied at regular intervals, but many must be seldom used considering the low traffic levels encountered in mid summer, especially since the lauch of the NC500 route, which has focussed many peoples attention when exploring the far north. After skirting round the funny little knoll of Cnoc Craggie, Loch Craggie appear ahead, and beyond lies Loch Loyal. The road runs the full length of Loch Loyal, rarely far from the waters edge and offering stunning views of this wild and empty landscape, before swinging south west across Inchkinloch Bridge. Another long climb follows, past a couple of forestry plantations, before crossing the summit near Loch Staing and finding the tiny village of Altnaharra below. This village, site of a Met Office Weather Station, is regularly the coldest place in Scotland in winter, and can also record record highs in the summer!
Just before the road enters the village it meets the first junction since it left Tongue 15 miles back. It is a crossroads, with the B873 heading east along the shores of Loch Naver to Syre and the B871, while the western, unclassified, arm heads west then north back to the north coast at Hope. The A836 continues southwards, however, crossing the Altnaharra Bridge, and quickly passing through the tiny village before starting the climb through Strath Vagastie below the slopes of Ben Klibreck, one of the most northerly Munros. This long sweeping ascent offers good views behind to the north, looking down to Altnharra and Loch Naver, whilst ahead the strath narrows steadily as we climb, with small forestry plantations higher up. Towards the top of the climb, the road crosses the river at Vagastie Bridge, where a large windfarm is being developed to the west, and then continues climbing to an eventual summit of 264m, the route's highest point at The Crask, the road remains single-track and empty of traffic.
Beyond the summit, the two-building settlement of Crask is reached, a single house opposite the remote Crask Inn. The road then crosses the Drochaid a' Chraisg (Crask Bridge) and sweeps into extensive forestry plantations, some of which are being felled. With a lot of the forestry felled, this is another vast moorland landscape of big skies and just a narrow ribbon of tarmac ahead and behind to show any signs of human activity. Tongue to Altnaharra may have been 15 miles without a junction, but Altnharra to the A838 north of Lairg is nearer 20 miles without meeting another road. In one of the forest clearings, lies the lone cottage of Rhian, next to Rhian Bridge, and a couple of miles south the estate road to Dalnessie heads east near another old stone bridge. Another half mile to the south, the lone house of Dalmichy sits between the river and road.
At long last, the junction with the [[A838] is reached, and the road immediately becomes two lanes once more. The junction used to sit half a mile to the south, but was moved when Loch Shin was enlarged by the Hydro Dam. Sweeping round the hillside between the loch and forestry land, Lairg suddenly appears ahead, a remote outpost and hub to the roads that fan out across Sutherland. Our road has also been slightly realigned as it drops past the dam to enter the town. Curving round the wide pool in front of the dam, most of the shops and businesses lie to the east along the A839 which has climbed from the A9 at The Mound. The two routes briefly multiplex southwards to The Black Bridge. Here the A839 forks right, to head west to the A837 in Strath Oykell, while the A836 continues south.
Section 4: Lairg – Tarlogie
Beyond Lairg, the A836 climbs up the valley of the River Shin. Just outside the town, the cattle market sits opposite the station, and on the far side of the river, the B864 parallels the route, but offers a slower and more scenic drive past the Shin Falls. After a rather uneventful 6 miles, the A836 crosses the railway line and meets the A837 at a re-profiled junction which was once a tight fork. This is Invershin, a tiny settlement strung along the roadside in the shadow of the Oykel Railway Viaduct, which crosses the Kyle of Sutherland as well as the A836 and also, surprisingly, carries the NCN1 cycle route. Beyond the viaduct, the Invershin Hotel forecourt occupies the old road alignment, and then the road follows a fast sweeping route alongside the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge. In the past, it would have met the A9 here, and roadsigns suggest it still does, but in fact the A9 now crosses the Dornoch Firth Bridge several miles to the east, and it is the A949 which TOTSOs with the A836 in the village.
Turning right to cross Bonar Bridge, the road crosses the low lying, flat valley floor into Ardgay, where the road swings southwards along the southern shore of the Dornoch Firth. After four miles, at Fearn, the B9176 forks sharply on the right to cross Struie Hill to Alness. This was once the A836 route, following a short multiplex with the A9. However, since the opening of the Dornoch Firth Bridge, the A836 has been re-routed along the old A9 and so it continues east through Edderton to journey's end at the Meikle Ferry Roundabout on the A9 on the southern approach to the Dornoch Firth Bridge.
In the 1922 Road Lists the A836 "only" ran the 50 or so miles from the then - A88 at Bonar Bridge north to Tongue, where it ended on the B870. It was extended both ways in the late 1920s. To the south, it was given a multiplex of about five miles along the A88 to Easter Fearn and then took over the B864, to join up with the A88 again in Skiach. To the north, it was extended east from Tongue along the B870 as far as the A88 in Thurso. The A836 thus met the A88 four times but never crossed it.
With the general renumbering in 1935, the A88 was abolished and the A836 was extended east of Thurso to meet the newly extended A9 at John o' Groats. This section of road was originally B876 but at the time of renumbering was the A882 (which was rerouted).
This setup continued until the major refurbishment of the A9 north of Inverness. In 1991, the Dornoch Firth Bridge allowed A9 traffic to avoid the major detour via Bonar Bridge and so the A836 was diverted east of Easter Fearn, taking over the route of the old A9 along the southern side of the Dornoch Firth. The old road from Easter Fearn to Skiach became the out-of-zone B9176.