|From:||John o' Groats (ND380727)|
|To:||Tarlogie (Dornoch Bridge) (NH750843)|
|Length:||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). Driving the whole length of the road will take most drivers well over three hours, since nearly half of it is S1, meaning that it still contains a substantial portion of single track with passing places. It also goes though very few towns, and quite a bit of very barren, very scenic and very empty countryside. This account will be starting from John o' Groats.
Section 1: John o' Groats – Thurso
This 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. On the OS Landranger maps, the A99 is the first 'First 99' road to appear, while the A836 is the first British Mainland Axxx road in that series. John o' Groats is not as commercialised as Land's End, since so few people live there, but there is still a newsagent to serve the community. It's just over 16 miles to the nearest railway stations, and we'll be heading towards one of them, Thurso, as we begin our trip to Tarlogie, the long way round. Though it is under the Highland Council area, this area is still widely known by its former county name of Caithness, and unlike much of northern Scotland, it is as flat as a pancake.
As we start, we're a deceptively far 170 miles from Ullapool - it really doesn't look that distant on a map. The good thing for us is that the Caithness section is S2. We've now left the A99 and we're past the last houses of John o' Groats to head towards Thurso. The road is relatively straight as we head through the small settlements of Huna and Kirkstyle. As we go past Gills Bay, we see the Island of Stroma and on a clear day the Orkney Isles. It is also from here that the Pentland Ferry crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret's Hope on Orkney.
Just before we enter Mey we pass the entrance of the Castle of Mey, the former home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, which is occasionally open to the public. As we continue on the way to Thurso, we pass St John's Loch on the right, and then the B855, our first classified road, at Dunnet. This is the northernmost classified road on the British mainland and it heads to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point on the British mainland. At Castletown, we pass the B876, which at its other end makes a First 99 road TOTSO. The road is now dead-straight almost until Thurso, passing through the scattered community of Murkle along the way.
Just after entering Thurso, the road swings to the right and meets the A9. The two routes then multiplex across Thurso Bridge and through the town, where several right turns link to the B874. This route leads to the northernmost railway station in Britain, and ultimately back to Wick. The multiplex is the northernmost one on mainland Britain. Thurso is your last chance to grab some cheap food and a cheapish restaurant. After Thurso it is 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, we pass 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 some open moorland, before finding more fields as it drops to the Bridge of Forss. A couple of long straights linked by sweeping bends take us past Dounreay and into the small village of Reay, huddled round Sandside Bay.
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 we sweep 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 S2, albeit an older improvement, as it passes through Lednagullin, and onto Armadale. Here the quality of the road changes abruptly, and while remaining S2 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.
At the turning for Crask, the road does drop down to single track, and from here into Bettyhill seems to alternate between S1 and S2, albeit generally wider through the village. Beyond Bettyhill, a long S1 section winds down the hill to Invernaver Bridge, which carries us across the River Naver and into Leckfurin. At the southern end of this scattered settlement, the B871 continues south through Strathnaver, while we swing westwards once more, climbing steeply on a short S2 section. At the top of the hill, the road reverts to single track and, while occasional S2 sections lead round bends and over crests, the road remains S1 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 A836. At the further junction, we once again enjoy a short section of S2. The next wider section is then on the western side of Coldbackie, where the road sweeps round a steep slope. The road then widens again as we enter Tongue, where we TOTSO 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 we head 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. The road runs the full length of Loch Loyal, 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 we cross Altnaharra Bridge, we find the first junction since we 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. We continue southwards, however, crossing the bridge and quickly passing through the village before starting the climb through Strath Vagastie. Climbing to an eventual summit of 264 m, the route's highest point at The Crask, the road remains single-track and empty of traffic.
This long sweeping ascent offers good views behind us, looking down to Altnharra and Loch Naver, whilst ahead the strath narrows steadily as we climb, with small forestry plantations higher up. 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.
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, we pass 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 S2 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, we enter Lairg, a remote outpost and hub to the roads that fan out across Sutherland. Our road has also been slightly realigned as we drop past the dam to enter the town. Curving round the wide pool in front of the dam, we meet the A839 from The Mound, and briefly multiplex with it southwards to The Black Bridge. Here the A839 forks right, to head west to the A837 in Strath Oykell, while we continue south.
Section 4: Lairg – Tarlogie
Beyond Lairg, the A836 heads south down 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 our own route, but offers a slower and more scenic drive past the Shin Falls. After a rather uneventful 6 miles, we cross the railway line and meet the A837 at a re-profiled junction which was once a tight fork. This is Invershin, where we pass under the Oykel Railway Viaduct, which crosses the Kyle of Sutherland and also carries the NCN1 cycle route.
Beyond the viaduct, the Invershin Hotel forecourt occupies the old road alignment, and then our road follows a fast sweeping route alongside the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge. In the past, we would have met the A9 here, and roadsigns suggest we still do, 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.
We cross Bonar Bridge, and the valley floor into Ardgay, where the road swings eastwards 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 we continue 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.