North and West Highlands Route
|North & West Highlands Route|
|To:||John o' Groats (ND379727)|
|Distance:||160 miles (257.5 km)|
|Meets:||A835, A893, A837, A838, A836, A897, A9, A99|
|Old route now:||A835, A837, A894, A838, A836, A9, A836|
The North & West Highlands Route is the longest of the Scottish tourist routes, running along the north coast of Scotland from Ullapool to John o Groats. It is not, however, a route for those seeking museums and theme parks, instead it takes the visitor through some of the most scenic and remote parts of Scotland where the emphasis is on the peace and tranquility found in the vast landscape rather than the constant clamour of modern life.
Coigach and Assynt
Beginning at Ullapool, the tourist route takes the A835 north out of the town. Ullapool is the largest settlement for some distance in either direction, and as such is a good place to stock up before setting off. The town is a planned settlement dating from the end of the 18th century and created as a fishing village. The harbour is stil busy, particularly when the Lewis Ferry is in port, and there are also a good selection of places to eat and stay nearby. The A835 then climbs steeply out of town, with some fine views and over the hill to Ardmair, where there is a beach and campsite.
From Ardmair, the route turns inland, climbing a steep gully to Strathcanaird. We are now in Coigach, a huge rough and desolate area with some stunning scenery, rugged coastlines and dramatic mountains to explore. Unfortunately, perhaps, there are few roads so anyone wanting to make more than a cursory visit will need to get out of the car and walk or cycle down the paths and tracks that meander out into this wilderness. One of the roads that does exist turns off the A835 a couple of miles north of Strathcanaird, and takes a roundabout route to Achiltibuie, passing the shapely hill of Stac Pollaidh along the way.
Achiltibuie is a small village, or perhaps more accurately group of villages, strung along the coastline facing south across the Summer Isles. This scattering of islands makes for some dramatic seascapes, particularly when the sun is shining through a glowering sky. There are also beaches, including the vast Achnahaird Bay on the north of the peninsula, hills and lochs to explore. It is a long drive out and back, or alternatively you could take the tortuous road north to Lochinver along a rugged coast, and with some fantastic views inland to the mountains, but that would miss out on the main tourist route. However, the magical area of Achiltibuie is worth the detour if you have come this far!
Back on the tourist route, the A835 continues north under the Knockan Crags Nature Reserve to the small village of Elphin, and then on to Ledmore, where the tourist route turns left onto the A837. Suilven and Canisp, like Stac Pollaidh to the south, are massive and strangely shaped mountains rising individually from the boggy landscape, and lie out to the west. Often shrouded in cloud, they are nevertheless dramatic features in this wilderness. The tiny settlement of Inchnadamph then appears, and a few miles to the north is Ardvreck Castle, dramatically sited on the edge of Loch Assynt. This then is now Assynt, another of those evocative names which draws an image of a wild and inhospitable landscape, but for those passing through by car it is somewhat tamer, with the security of the tarmac to follow.
The tourist route then turns north onto the A894 at Skiag Bridge, but this would miss out on Lochinver, and in truth the first few miles of the A894 offer little for the tourist to wonder at. So, unless you are in a hurry perhaps stick with the A837 and head west to Lochinver, a fishing community effectively at the end of the road, which is now also a base for tourists. There are some good walks in the woodland around the village, leading to remote beaches and hidden lochs, whilst the shores of Loch Assynt below Quinag on the road in offer some magnificent views.
From Lochinver, the B869 offers some very scenic driving, even if the road is somewhat tortuous as it winds between and over rocks seemingly at random. The Stoer Lighthouse is definitely worth the drive, and there are plenty of other places to stop and explore as the road winds slowly along the coast. It may only be 24 miles back to the A894, but even the quickest drivers should allow about an hour, and those keen on seeing the full glory of this part of Assynt could take most of a day!
Kylesku to Durness
The B869 rejoins the A894 tourist route just a few miles north of Skiag Bridge, and apart from the dramatic view from the top of a hairpin bend you will have missed little. As the A894 continues north it approaches one of the most iconic points on the route, a scene which is used almost everytime either this route or the NC500 which also passes this way is mentioned - the Kylesku Bridge. Built in the early 1980s, the bridge replaced an ancient ferry route across the narrow kyle and has come to be a tourist destination in its own right as it dramatically carries the road across the water. The old ferry slip and inn on the south side are still accessible, although the road to the north slip is now private, with a car park before the gate.
The A894 continues north through yet more spectacular scenery, not least the causeway and bridge at Duartmore. A few miles later it comes down to the coast at Scourie, where a shop and tearoom offer a welcome pause, and a stroll around the bay is recommended. Turning inland again, and heading north east, the tourist route turns left onto the A838 at Laxford Bridge. Apart from the bridge itself, the road remains a good, fast wide road where good progress can be made by those on a flying visit, whilst there are plenty of places to stop for those less pressed for time. Indeed, there are some spectacular views to be captured, with laybys serving many, particularly where the road has been re-routed around loch shores or across them on causeways and bridges.
The B801 to Kinlochbervie is an interesting detour, with some fine beaches and bays to discover on the minor road that continues northwest. One of the finest views in this area is looking back across Loch Inchard at the distant mountains. The B801 marks the end of the two-way road, and whilst there are occasional wide sections, there are many miles of single track ahead of us. Caution and consideration are important, but with little traffic in these far northern reaches, progress is rarely hindered. The road drops down through the vast, empty landscape of Strath Dionard to the Kyle of Durness, where a car park provides a stunning picnic location, and a little way up the side road is the start of the ferry to Cape Wrath, the northwestern tip of the British mainland.
Durness is a small village with a variety of services for locals and tourists alike. It is also roughly the half way point on this tourist route, and for those planning to spend more than a single day exploring, a good overnight stop. There are walks out past Balnakeil to Faraid Head and no visit to Durness is complete without taking the steps down into Smoo Cave, a fabulous sea cave which is sometimes lit up with boat tours deeper in to the complex. There is no more land north of Durness - you will cross the north pole and head south first, but the views out to sea can still be mesmerising.
Durness to Melvich
From Durness, the tourist route follows the A838 south west and then south down the side of Loch Eriboll. Considering the substantial engineering projects undertaken elsewhere in the Highlands in the last half century it may come as a surprise that the loch has not been bridged, forcing motorists into a dozen mile detour around the southern end. However, traffic volumes are tiny and the engineering challenge presented is more substantial than many others, so the cost benefit analysis is yet to show in favour. On the plus side, it leaves us with an enjoyable drive around this fjord like loch which cuts deep into the north of Sutherland. The road is still single track, but in many places oncoming traffic is visible well in advance, allowing traffic to pass with the minimum of delay.
After turning round the end of the loch, the road heads north once more, and the funny little headland of Ard Neackie comes into view. Whilst there is limited parking, it is worth wandering down and taking a look at the old lime kilns and the hidden quarry behind. The history is not told on site, but this was also the point from where ferries crossed Loch Eriboll to the old Inn on the west side until the road was built in the 1890s. From here, the road climbs up and over the hill to the tiny picturesque village of Hope, lying on the short River Hop between Loch Hope and the open sea. To the south, Ben Hope is the most northerly of the Munros, and the road to it also leads to a ruinous Broch, which is perhaps the best preserved in the far north west.
Climbing out of Hope, the road crosses the vast bogland plateau of a'Mhoine, before dropping down to the Kyle of Tongue. Formerly, the road then had to detour round the south of the kyle, just as with Loch Eriboll, however it is now crossed by the Kyle of Tongue Causeway, with a fine picnic site and viewpoint. For a better view, the climb to Caisteal Bharraich from Tongue village is rewarding. For the less adventurous, a drive out to Melness and Talmine from the west end of the causeway gives access to some beaches, and views of the islands lying off the north coast.
Tongue itself is where the tourist route picks up the A836 as it continues its journey east. The village, whilst small, is remote enough to provide a range of basic services for tourists, and is a welcome stop before the next leg to Thurso. While the A836 cuts across the high ground to reach Bettyhill, a minor road makes a loop north to Skerray on the coast, but it is at Invernaver near Bettyhill where the vast beach and dune complex encourages a little exploring. Strathnaver to the south is a wild and desolate place of great beauty served by the B871, which connects back to the A836 south of Tongue, or via the B873 and A897 at Melvich. Any detour, however, should be planned to allow for a certain amount of retracing, as the onward route via Farr and Strathy is not to be missed.
It is true that the A836 is rarely that close to the coast, and that it crosses a vast barren moorland as it heads east, but for the keen eyed observers, there is still a lot to see. Side roads lead north, to the coast or down into hidden hollows where ancient crofters cottages stand shoulder to shoulder with modern bungalows. Bracken covered hills rise and fall, sometimes with sharp crags, other times almost imperceptibly. Wind Turbines slowly turn above dark roadside lochans and old stone arch bridges sit just above or below the fast modern road. As has been said before, the road is empty enough for licence losing speeds, as displayed by a few, but many are content to dawdle, always allowing faster traffic to pass, and enjoy the wild and untamed landscape.
Melvich finally appears ahead, which along with Portskerra is the last village of any real size before Thurso. Whilst the lure of civilisation lies ahead, the best of this route is now behind. The old Caithness boundary lies just up the hill, and we are entering the flow country - vast peatbog areas, with only the gentlest of hills, now takeover from the far more rugged, craggy, even mountainous landscape of Sutherland. The coast too is smoothed, losing the ragged edge seen so far, although cliffs remain, standing resolute against the sea to the north.
The last leg of our journey, then, heads east from Melvich into Caithness. The landscape along the coast is, as mentioned, somewhat less dramatic than what has come before, with the small village of Reay quickly followed by the nuclear facility of Dounreay. The road is fast and straight now, and all too soon Thurso is ahead. To the north, the A9 runs its final mile or so to the ferry port of Scrabster, from where ferries run to Orkney, but the town is ahead, offering all of the services of any medium sized British town, including a range of common High Street stores, a retail park, hotels, cafes and the only railway station found on this route.
So what makes Thurso special? The fact that it is the most northerly town on the British mainland, and so therefore the last outpost of our civilised island? It can certainly have the air of a frontier town, as if the residents are using their energy to hold back nature and keep this little island of civilisation intact. For all that, some of its attractions are overlooked - how many visitors find the beach or the ruinous castle for instance? And does anyone climb up to the folly-like Masoleum of Harolds Tower, set on the hill to the east of the town?
After briefly using the A9 through Thurso, the tourist route resumes the A836 as it continues east on a long straight route to Castletown. The roadside is now dotted with houses and farms every few hundred metres, unlike the miles that could be driven through Sutherland without passing any signs of habitation. Castletown is a planned village, much of it built on a long grid iron plan strung along the main road. It lies to the south of Dunnet Bay, which the A836 now turns to pass around the back of. There are car parks providing access to the vast sandy beach, and a campsite at the northern end.
At the small village of Dunnet, the B855 turns off to head north to the lighthouse at Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland, further north than John o'Groats even, and on a clear day offering grand views across the Orkney Isles. A drive out, however, is a must whatever the weather, just to say you have been there! The A836, meanwhile, continues east to the village of Mey, home of the late Queen Mothers Castle of Mey which is now open to the public at times.
Gills Bay is the next village, from where the Pentland Ferry crosses to Orkney, passing the now deserted island of Stroma. Until the 1940s, this island was well populated, but government grants to build a pier, the lure of jobs at Dounreay and the better living conditions on the mainland, with mains water and electric are all cited as reasons for people moving off the island to seek a better life elsewhere. Today, the ruins stand stark on the skyline when seen from the passing ferries, and occasional boat trips allow visitors a short time to explore.
The end of the route is now ahead, with John o Groats just over 3 miles away. This famous place is, like Lands End in Cornwall, neither the most northerly nor easterly piece of land in Caithness, let alone Scotland or Britain. It is, however, the place from which ferry boats have long since crossed to Orkney, and a passenger service still plies the route in the summer months, connecting with tourist coaches from the south. The fortunes of the various business ventures that have been set up to take advantage of the influx of visitors have waxed and waned over the years, with yet another new plan in development.
Once you've got your photo of the famous signpost, visited the 'last house' and taken in that bracing sea air, there is one last place to visit before turning south. Just over a mile to the east is Duncansby Head and its lighthouse, the most easterly point in Caithness, and home to some interesting cliff formations around the coast. These are accessed via paths along the clifftops and include a geo which can provide a blowhole in really stormy weather. Perhaps not the best time to be stood on a blustery clifftop though!
From here, however, the only way is south (unless you are heading to Orkney, or you're being pulled back the way you came), and whilst it doesn't form part of a tourist route, the A9 south to Inverness is a spectacular road with some stunning scenery, fascinating places to visit and a rich heritage to explore from prehistoric times to the modern day. There are also the roads that radiate out from Helmsdale and Lairg to criss-cross the vast, desolate north west, not to mention the village of Caithness itself.