Caithness and Sutherland
The remarkable landscapes of Caithness and Sutherland make up the northernmost part of the Scottish mainland. Whilst Highland areas like Loch Lomond, Glencoe and the Cairngorms are familiar to thousands, far fewer make the effort to travel so much further north. Those who do receive their reward: there is no other place that looks anything like this. Apart from the eastern coastal fringe, the defining character of the region is its lack of people. The interior holds vast, empty tracts of moorland and bog with countless lochans. The mountains may be lower than those further south, but they rise abruptly and often in spectacular isolation.
The coastline, deeply indented to the west and north, is decorated with an array of deserted beaches – undoubtedly the finest in mainland Britain. Whilst at first glance, this landscape may seem suited only to the most hardy adventurers, it is packed with hidden nooks, crannies and undiscovered oases – this is a wonderland for the more moderate walker too.
Using this guide
This guide contains 40 short to moderate walks, most of which can be undertaken in half a day, which explore all parts of this vast area. Whilst some are on prepared paths, many others are not and a number cross boggy, rocky or occasionally steep ground. The weather, whilst not as wet as the West Highlands, is extremely changeable, with strong winds a particular feature. Always remember that this is a wild landscape and help is sometimes far away. Most of the walks require waterproof footwear and clothing. Whilst a sketch map accompanies each route, walkers should also carry an OS map to aid navigation and find the shortest route to safety. More challenging walks, such as Dunnet Head or the Eas a’Chual Aluinn, are best tackled by experienced hillwalkers. Due to the varied landscape, very few walks are suitable for all-terrain baby buggies; if a route is appropriate, this is highlighted at the start of the description. Many of the routes are suitable for well-clad families, however, with features such as beaches or ruined castles to occupy children. As might be expected, public transport is limited. The only railway line runs from Wick and Thurso, crossing the bogs of the Flow Country before continuing down the east coast to eventually link to Inverness. Bus services are good along the A9 and as far across as Thurso, but those further west are very infrequent, though there is a daily service from Inverness to Durness.
Access and dogs
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave walkers the right of access over most Scottish land away from residential buildings. With this right comes responsibilities, as set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. These essentially require respect for other land users and responsible access, especially on farmed and grazing land. In particular, dogs should be kept on tight leads during the spring and early summer to stop them disturbing groundnesting birds and farm livestock. They should also be kept well away from sheep with lambs at all times. Deer stalking takes place on the hills between 1 July and 20 October, but this should not usually conflict with the walks described in this guide as long as you stick to the recommended routes. Ticks and midges can sometimes be a hazard during the summer months. Take precautions such as covering up, wearing light-coloured clothing, using insect repellent and checking for and removing ticks daily.
Though so far from the main centres of population today, Caithness and Sutherland both have a very long history. In particular, Caithness (together with neighbouring Orkney) is unmatched for its range of well-preserved prehistoric remains. The massive Grey Cairns of Camster are the finest bronze age chambered cairns in this area, with other examples visited on these walks. Much later, but still impressive, are the iron age brochs, defensive round towers with double curtain walls into which the settlers could retreat with their animals when under attack. There are more than one hundred scattered across the region, from Clachtoll Beach in the west to Carn Liath in the east. The name Sutherland, meaning ‘South Land’, is a reminder that for many centuries this region fell under Norwegian rule, with the headquarters in Orkney. The Norse influence reached its peak in the 11th century; after their eventual defeat, the area was ruled by the Earls of Caithness, chiefs of Clan Sinclair. Evidence of this period can be seen in the string of ruined castles along the Caithness coastline, including Sinclair Girnigoe and Old Wick, as well as the Castle of Mey, in more recent times restored as a residence by the Queen Mother. It was the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion far to the south at Culloden in 1746 which began the separation of the clan chiefs from their people that was to eventually prove so disastrous for the area. By the 19th century, the chiefs were looking jealously on the lavish lifestyles of the great landowners further south, and the demand for wool sparked by the Industrial Revolution gave them the opportunity to begin extracting great wealth from their own landholdings. They began to evict the people from their lands to make way for sheep. The crofters were forced to make new homes along the barren, windswept coastline – or to flee Scotland in search of a better life overseas. Evidence of this cruel episode can be seen throughout the region today, and not just in the emptiness of the straths. Walks such as that at Rosal in Strathnaver explore the remains of the old settlements and productive lands which the crofters were forced to abandon, whilst others such as Badbea visit the ruins of the desperate villages that they built once they reached the coast. These stand in stark contrast to the magnificent fairytale opulence of Dunrobin Castle, much of it dating to the same period – built as a home for the Dukes of Sutherland themselves.
In 2004, the western part of Sutherland was designated Scotland’s first European Geopark in recognition of its fascinating geology. The older layers of rock (the Lewisian gneiss that covers much of the surface is amongst the oldest in the world) were driven over the top of younger rocks by a great movement of the earth known as the Moine Thrust. Understanding of the thrust became key in the development of modern tectonic theory – that the crust of the earth is made up of a series of moving plates. It is this part of Sutherland which has become famed for its isolated peaks or inselbergs – island mountains – rising steeply above otherwise flat moors. Further east, the sandstone and thin siltstone that make up the geology of Caithness drove a key part of its economy, splitting easily into regular sheets or flagstones which make an ideal roofing and building material. Many of the field boundaries here are constructed from lines of upright flagstones, seldom seen elsewhere. This area also has a rich flora and fauna, with important seabird colonies scattered all around the coastline, among them puffins, great skuas, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes. Several walks offer excellent bird-spotting opportunities, especially Handa Island, Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head which all have large and important colonies. Inland, the great peat bogs of the Flow Country, covering almost half of the area, are a vital habitat, constituting 13 percent of the world’s blanket bogs. They are renowned for their plant and birdlife; species to watch for include hen harrier, merlin, greenshank (66 percent of the European population live here), dunlin and golden plover. The Dubh Lochan trail on the bogs is managed by the RSPB who own the Forsinard reserve here.
Caithness and Sutherland today
Traditional sporting estates still own vast parts of Sutherland, and deer stalking, shooting and forestry remain important parts of the economy. With its legendary salmon rivers, fishing, too, is a major draw, whilst in the southeastern corner golf is a key money-spinner. The controversial Dounreay nuclear power plant closed in 1994, but its significance to the economy of Caithness endures, as more than 2000 people are employed in decommissioning, due to be completed in 2025. In recent years, the drive towards renewable energy has seen the construction of large-scale windfarms, though the most sensitive and scenic areas in the west have been unaffected. Many more turbines are planned, and the issue has caused a painful split in the usual alliance between environmental campaigners and landscape and wildlife conservationists. Tourism continues to grow, particularly along the western and northern coastlines. Scotland has positioned itself as Europe’s wildlife capital, and this area has so much to offer in natural history and culture as well as its superlative landscape.