Spurred on by a conversation with an American friend eager to trace their Scottish roots, earlier this summer we found ourselves pushing north up the A9 to Alness, then through Bonar Bridge and Lairg. A short stop followed at the Falls of Shin to see the salmon attempt the seemingly impossible – then onwards towards Strathnaver
Quite how the A838 from Lairg mustered an A from the highways department is a mystery yet to be solved.This is a narrow undulating single track following Loch Shin and on through the Assynt foothills, the sturdy Laxford Bridge and Kinlochbervie. 45 miles of ever changing scenery (and plenty of passing places for the few courteous drivers heading south). Our first serious stop was a few miles on at the car park at Blairmore for Sandwood Bay. As the guidebooks say, the walk in is along a rather bleak 4.5 mile moorland path.The beach though is stunning – one of the most beautiful in Britain – with a backdrop of Sandwood Loch framing a mile of golden white sand, its iconic rock stack and the thundering waves racing in from the North Sea. The walk back didn’t seem nearly as long
Over the next couple of days as we moved around the Kyles of Durness and Tongue we enjoyed views of beaches which gave Sandwood a run for the title – notably Sangobeg Bay near Durness and the wider expanse of Torrisdale Bay near to Bettyhill – places mercifully saved from development by their remoteness – but easily accessible when you get there!. Near Durness we ventured into the Smoo cave. This is a limestone cave , which at 50m high, has the largest entrance of any sea cave in the British Isles.
Its interior , which has 2 chambers – one initially created by the sea and another by the Allt Smoo burn cascading down into it, is vast and is floodlit to allow the innermost depths can be explored by inflatable boat. The boat is manned by Colin who regales the tourist with fabulous stories in a myriad of European languages. Long used by local inhabitants, recent excavations show that the cave was in use 6000 years ago by the earliest settlers in the north.
Near Bettyhill where the River Naver meets the sea there is a well preserved salmon fishing station where the ‘king of fish’ were gathered by sweep net, packed in ice hacked from a nearby loch and dispatched by road and rail as far as Bilingsgate market! The town itself was created to house the people driven from their communities in the strath to make way for commercial sheep farming. The clearances were particularly brutal in this area and the subject is simply and poignantly recorded by local people and displayed at the nearby Columbas Church which now houses Srathnaver Museum – which is also partly the Mackay Museum – which includes a celebration of the exploits of those who were compelled to leave the land for more distant shores together with those who stayed and worked hard at creating the community.
Close by archaeological, geological and historical sites abound – all well marked and documented in local guides. At Tongue it is likely that the Mackays built the rather mysterious Castle Varrich which sits prominently on a bluff overlooking the Kyle of Tongue and appears to beguarding the much more recent causeway which connects the village to the road to Durness and beyond. The backdrop behind the castle looking south is the jagged granite peaks of Ben Loyal and these must surely have featured on those postcards all these years ago.
We based ourselves at the Tongue Hotel which is housed in a Victorian Hunting Lodge on the ‘main road’ and where the staff went out of their way to create the total opposite of those apochrophil stories of highland hotels. It was a 6 hour drive to get to this the most northerly part of our country.