Britain's most scenic journeys: North Highlands and islands
Amid the untamed beauty of the mountains beyond the Great Glen, unexpectedly fertile coastal lowlands support tender plants. Deserted crofts scatter the uplands while eagles soar above the lofty peaks.
This journey is 90 miles long
Dornoch – Invershin
Image via Flickr
1. Extensive sands and a renowned golf course flank the compact town of Dornoch, which in the 13th century became an important place of worship after a cathedral was built here by Gilbert de Moravia, bishop of Caithness.
To start the drive, take the A949 signposted to Inverness. Turn left onto the A9 and continue for about a mile, then turn right onto the A949 towards Bonar Bridge and Lairg.
2. The road winds downhill through woods and fields close to the Dornoch Firth. Just before Ospisdale, on the left, is a standing stone some 3m (10ft) high.
Carbisdale Castle image via Tumblr
At Spinningdale, nestling in a narrow river valley below wooded hills, castle-like ruins are all that remain of an early industrial venture, a cotton mill built in the 1790s. Apparently, it burnt down in 1806.
3. Continue to Bonar Bridge, where a distinctive bow-shaped bridge crosses the southern tip of the Kyle of Sutherland, then turn right onto the A836 signposted to Lairg.
4. Continue to Invershin, passing under a railway viaduct. A footbridge over the river leads to 19th-century Carbisdale Castle, which has 365 windows.
Nearby Culrain was the scene, in 1650, of the Battle of Carbisdale, in which the Covenanters defeated the royalist General Montrose.
Invershin – Littleferry
Image via Photographer's Resource
5. About ½ mile through Invershin, turn left at the junction signposted to Lochinver, the A837, then turn right onto the B864 to Lairg. The road follows the course of the River Shin, which flows through a wooded ravine below.
From the Falls of Shin visitor centre paths lead down to the river, where every summer salmon struggle against the torrent to reach their spawning grounds.
6. Carry on following the signs to Lairg, a large village at the centre of a vast crofting and farming hinterland. From Lairg turn right onto the A839 towards Rogart, climbing to the scattered crofts at Rhaoine then descending to the sprawling crofting community of Rogart.
Loch Fleet, image via Charlie Davidson
Across the valley to the right of the road, a cairn marks the birthplace in 1815 of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister.
7. Continue along wooded and heather-clad foothills to the head of Loch Fleet, dominated by Mound Rock. Turn left onto the A9 to Golspie and Dunrobin Castle, turreted seat of the dukes of Sutherland.
Far-reaching views can be had from the castle's luxuriant formal gardens, laid out in the style of Versailles, and also from the nearby hilltop statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland.
8. Go back through Golspie and, before crossing the railway, bear left on a minor road to Littleferry. A steam ferry once used to cross the mouth of Loch Fleet from the old pier, despite the tide racing through at great speed.
Littleferry – Tain
Image via Explore
9. Return to Golspie and turn left onto the A9. Go over the causeway crossing the head of Loch Fleet, then fork left towards Embo, following the shore to a car park by the ruins of Skelbo Castle.
Loch Fleet is a nature reserve, where common seals, kittiwakes, terns and cormorants can often be seen. When the rising tide shuts the sluice gates in the causeway, salmon moving in from the sea to spawn gather in a pool until the way upriver is open.
10. Return to the A9 and follow the signs to Dornoch and Inverness. Stay on the A9 and carry on over the Dornoch Firth Bridge, which was opened in 1991. At the roundabout follow the signs into Tain.
The town was established by St Duthus as a place of pilgrimage in the 11th century. The Heritage Centre and District Museum explain the area's history.
Tain – Dornoch
Image via Mapio
11. From Tain, follow an unclassified road signposted to Portmahomack, on the Tarbat peninsula. In this picturesque village, neat rows of whitewashed houses line the harbour, and at low tide, rock pools appear, scattered across the broad sandy bay.
A Discovery Centre, housed in the Old Tarbat Parish Church, tells visitors about the area's Pictish past. Since the village faces west, unusually for this coast, sunsets witnessed from here may be spectacular.
12. To complete the drive, return to Tain and retrace the route across the Dornoch Firth Bridge, turning right, off the A9 onto the A949, for Dornoch.
Strathpeffer – Cromarty
1. The Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer lies at the foot of Ben Wyvis. Visitors can still take the waters or travel back in time at the old railway station, which houses the Highland Museum of Childhood (open in the summer).
Start the drive from the tourist information centre in the square, taking the A834 towards Dingwall, a market town on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. The town's heritage trail includes the Town House Museum of local history and the Hector MacDonald Memorial tower, which commemorates a general who was aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.
2. From Dingwall follow the A862 towards Inverness, and turn left at the roundabout onto the A835 towards Cromarty. Take the first left after the bridge over the Firth, the B9163, towards Findon. From the road there are lovely views towards Ben Wyvis.
Keep following the signs to Findon and Cromarty. From the coast road around Urquhart, wildfowl and waders can be seen feeding on the mudflats below.
Ben Wyvis, image via Invergordon
3. Turn right onto the busy A9, and then immediately left back onto the B9163. After 2 miles turn left at the junction towards Cullicudden. After Balblair, the road is single track for ½ mile.
Continue on the B9163 to Udale Bay, where seabirds, such as greylag and pink-footed geese, can sometimes be observed from an RSPB hide.
4. Continue along the shore for 5 miles to Cromarty, from where boat trips leave to view the marine life of the Firth.
Follow the shore road through Cromarty, and take a single-track road towards McFarquhar's Bed—a sea stack with two arches, once used as a salmon fishing station. Turn left at the Cromarty Mains junction and park at the end of the road near the old coastguard lookout.
Nearby are the Sutors of Cromarty, headlands on either side of the entrance to Cromarty Firth. 'Sutor' is the Scottish word for shoemaker and the legend is that two giant 'sutors' used the headlands for workbenches.
Cromarty – Beauly
Fairy Glen nature reserve image via Kwatha Beng
5. From Cromarty, take the A832 towards Fortrose. At Rosemarkie, the history of the Picts is recorded at Groam House Museum, and a Pictish cross slab stands outside. Inland is the RSPB's Fairy Glen nature reserve.
6. Continue to Fortrose, where the ruins of a 14th-century cathedral still stand in Cathedral Square. From Chanonry Point, outside the village, bottle-nosed dolphins can sometimes be seen in the Moray Firth.
7. Continue on the A832 through Avoch (pronounced 'Och'), passing St Boniface's Well. The trees around the well are covered in 'clouts'—rags left as an offering for the granting of a wish, a tradition created from a mixture of Celtic and Christian beliefs.
8. At the Tore roundabout, take the second exit, the A832, to Muir of Ord. At the junction in Muir of Ord, turn left to Beauly, which has a craft centre and a 13th-century priory (HS), which once had a fine orchard.
Beauly – Strathpeffer
The Glen Ord Distillery via Doric Scotch Whisky
9. Return to the Muir of Ord junction, turn left onto the A832, cross a railway bridge and take the first left towards Marybank, still on the A832. The Glen Ord Distillery and visitor centre are on the left.
10. Follow the A832, bear right at Marybank and cross the Moy bridge - the road narrows to a single track. At the junction, turn left onto the A835 to Contin and continue ahead to the Rogie Falls in the mainly coniferous Torrachilty Forest.
From the suspension bridge near the car park, salmon can sometimes be seen leaping the high falls between June and October. Wild cats and pine martens live in the forest, and otters inhabit its small lochs. Return to Contin and take the first left on the A834 to return to Strathpeffer.
Gairloch to Kinlochewe
Wester Ross, image via Green Tourism
1. Even by Scottish standards Gairloch has a stunning setting, attracting holidaymakers ever since Victorian families braved the steamer trip up the west coast to the town's little harbour. The waters of a sea loch—warmed by the Gulf Stream—stretch away to a horizon punctuated by the darker blue shapes of Skye and Lewis.
Behind the town, the rock-and-lake country of Wester Ross rolls upwards to the bare, rocky domes of the Torridons - a haunted landscape of desolate beauty, dotted with the ruins of crofts abandoned during the Highland clearances.
To start the first drive, head south on the A832 from Gairloch, with the sea to the right. Beyond Charlestown the road turns inland, along the wooded glen of the Kerry, and continues to the river's source in Loch Bad an Sgalaig.
Slattadale Forest and Loch Maree, image via Forestry Memories
2. A mile beyond the loch the road leaves the rocky open country for the dark and brooding pines of Slattadale Forest, which extends all the way down to the shores of Loch Maree.
Turn right near the bottom of the hill into a car park and picnic place. A short stroll leads to a viewing platform over Victoria Falls, a lovely cascade on the burn flowing into Loch Maree.
3. Rejoin the A832, turn right and continue down to the shore of Loch Maree. Across the water lies a group of more than 50 islands—including Isle Maree, on which stand the remains of a chapel built by a 7th-century Celtic saint.
The road continues through Talladale and over the Bridge of Grudie. The landscape across the water is dominated by the dramatic, buttressed summit of Slioch.
4. One mile before the head of the loch, there is an easily missed car park for Beinn Eighe Trails on the left. Mountain and woodland trails start from here. Continue along the road for the visitor centre at Kinlochewe, 2½ miles farther on.
Gairloch – Poolewe
Inverewe Garden image via Garden Visit
5. For the second drive from Gairloch, take the A832 heading northwards. The road bends inland, crossing a cattle grid on to open moorland scattered with rocks—including a huge roadside stone on the right called Clach nam Brog, or Shoe Stone.
This is where, until well into the 20th century, women would pause to put on their stockings and shoes on their way to church.
6. Less than a mile beyond Loch Tollaidh the road passes a layby on the left, from where there is a view down the Tollie path to Loch Maree. The road meets the banks of the River Ewe opposite the remains of Red Smiddy, where the first ironworks in Scotland was established in the early 17th century.
7. Continue on the A832 for ½ mile beyond Poolewe to the entrance to Inverewe Garden (NTS), where the area's microclimate allows the cultivation of subtropical plants and flowers.
Gairloch – Redpoint
Badachro, image via Flickr
8. For the third drive from Gairloch, take the A832 southwards and continue for 2 miles to a junction with the B8056. Turn right, following the signpost to Redpoint.
The road immediately crosses a stone bridge over the River Kerry, then winds through deciduous woodland before returning to the sea loch at Shieldaig, a hamlet on a little island-sheltered bay. Shieldaig island is densely forested with Scots pines, thought to have been planted in the 1800s.
9. Continue to Badachro, the model of a remote west coast settlement with its small harbour and peat cuttings. The village is situated on an inlet from Loch Gairloch, and protected by the small rocky island of Eilean Horrisdale. Locally caught cod used to be dried at Badachro, but the boats moored there now are mainly leisure craft.
10. Drive on through Port Henderson, Opinan and South Erradale. The road climbs past a layby that offers magnificent views of the Western Isles, and soon comes to an end at the scattered village of Redpoint.
From the parking area, there is a path to the beach and it is also possible to walk on to Red Point itself—a low promontory to the south with wonderful views of the Isle of Skye.
Portree to Uig
Sound of Raasay, image via Huffington Post
1. Bright, colour-washed houses overlook the harbour of Skye's capital, Portree. It was at McNab's Inn, on the site of the Royal Hotel, that Bonnie Prince Charlie bade farewell to Flora Macdonald in 1746 before he returned to France. To start the drive, follow the A855, signposted to Staffin.
Go past Loch Fada and Loch Leathan on the right, with sea views opening up over the Sound of Raasay. On the far edge of a pine plantation on the left, a footpath leads to the Old Man of Storr rock pinnacle. These weirdly shaped rocks stand at the foot of the Storr, cliffs that rise up to 719m (2,358ft) and dominate the area.
2. Carry on along the A855 and just after a bridge over the River Lealt, turn into a car park. From there a footpath leads to a headland, with views back to the dramatic Lealt Falls, where the river drops into a gorge.
Continue to Loch Mealt. Opposite the loch, take a minor road on the right to a car park with views of Mealt Falls, plunging 52m (171ft) to the sea, and Kilt Rock, where bands of light and dark dolerite in the basalt rock cliff face resemble the pleats of a kilt.
Next to the Kilt Rock viewpoint is the Staffin Museum, which displays a collection of dinosaur fossils, plus local geological samples that tell the history of Skye's northern peninsula, the Trotternish.
Staffin Museum, image via Geograph
3. Drive on to Staffin, a crofting community that backs on to broad Staffin Bay. Follow the A855 out of Staffin. After 3 miles the road reaches Loch Langaig on the left, where a footpath leads to the strange ancient rock towers of the 543m (1,781ft) high Quiraing, which is Gaelic for 'pillared stronghold'.
After less than a mile the road comes to tiny Flodigarry, where Flora Macdonald lived when she returned to Skye in 1751 after her imprisonment in London, and bore five of her seven children. Her former cottage is now part of a hotel.
4. Follow the A855 to Duntulm. On the headland above a sheer cliff are the ruins of Duntulm Castle, once a Pictish fortress and in the 16th and 17th centuries the stronghold of the Clan Donald.
Follow the A855 as it turns south towards Kilmuir. On the left is the Skye Museum of Island Life, recalling crofting over the past 100 years. Nearby is a memorial to Flora Macdonald, who was buried here in 1790, wrapped in a sheet from Bonnie Prince Charlie's bed.
5. Continue on the A855 around a hairpin bend and drop towards Uig Bay. At the next junction, the A855 becomes the A87. Turn right to the fishing port of Uig. Ferries leave from the pier for the Outer Hebrides.
Uig to Sligachan
View from Sligachan Hotel, image via Rural Scotland
6. Leaving Uig, turn right onto the A87. After 5 miles cross over the River Hinnisdal and continue for 1¼ miles to Kingsburgh, on the shores of Loch Snizort Beag. Bonnie Prince Charlie spent a night at Kingsburgh House in 1746, when the price on his head was £30,000.
Flora Macdonald moved to the house in 1756, and here in 1773 she met Dr Johnson and James Boswell on their tour of the Highlands.
7. Follow the A87 to Kensaleyre, the site of two standing stones said to be almost 4,000 years old.
8. Go ahead at a junction with the A850. Return to Portree and turn right on the A87 towards Sligachan. Just beyond Portree on the right is the Aros Heritage Centre, with displays on Skye's history from 1700 onwards. Follow the A87 to the remote Sligachan Hotel, situated by a loch and at the head of Glen Sligachan, which runs south to the sea.
The hotel, standing between the jagged mountains of the Black Cuillin and the slightly more rounded Red Cuillin, has a climbing museum, and a micro brewery. Return to Portree by the same route.
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