Beyond the highlands

By | Category: Travel destinations

from Thurso the journey starts; but on a modern train

Way north of Inverness, the landscape changes. In Caithness, its flatter and much of it is farming land. In the outer parts of Thurso you’ll see giant tractors going about the daily chores. It doesn’t seem to be walking land or places you might want to stay so does it have any attraction for he visitor?
I took the train from Thurso to Golspie to see for myself.

A few minutes before we pulled into Georgemas Junction on the way to Inverness, I spotted the first unusual sight. What looked like the concrete entrances to two WWII shelters rose from an otherwise flattish ground. Are they two minute iron-age hill forts? Can’t be; they’re made of concrete. Sheep were the only things showing any interest as the few passengers that morning just read or dozed. Why have shelters here. Scapa Flow – the bay at the Orkneys which saw the scuttling of the German fleet at the end of WW1 and which guarded the north Atlantic seaways to the then Soviet Union in the second – was nearby. But why have them miles from anywhere? And in a field?
Just before we reached a level crossing on our way to Scotscalder which today is just a request stop we passed what might have been a small station in years gone by. Now small chicken runs were littered on the overgrown, grassy platform. One hen even bothered to watch as we sped by suggesting that trains were sufficiently unusual around here that even chickens watch!

like stakes to fend off marauders

As we crossed the landscape, hills or mountains gradually came into view. Old wooden fences had been twisted by the wind into mediaeval stakes. There they stood, plunged diagonally into the ground and, seemingly, acting as a warning to an advancing foe not to enter the very northernmost part of these lands. Some years ago on the platform at Wakefield Station there used to be a series of wooden planks in a meandering piece of public architecture. Somebody paid for that. Here, these jagged fences are more artistic, more stark and more intriguing. Can just nature turn them like that? Conifers became thick on the ground before we made Forsinard probably reminding me of what this land was like before the hated Duke of Sutherland instructed his staff to commence the clearances nearly 200 years ago. Farmland had given way to scrub and scrub to heather and bogland. Was it pretty? No, not in winter and even in summer I’m not sure it would distract you from a good novel. But then when the heather flowers it might change. At least in the morning sunlight the frost sparkled off the grasses. An abandoned stone farmhouse – Caithness stone no doubt – by the side of our single track line was the only slight and that whizzed by. The line from Thurso to Inverness may be only 140 miles as the crow flies but it winds inland twice and then follows the coast down which might explain why this journey takes over 200 minutes.
Forsinard has a hotel, some geese and a few houses. A low, wooden platformed station has plastic steps for passengers who may forget the step down is further than usual. There seems nothing else here until you spot, at the end of the platform, a small open door which proclaims that this is the stop for RSPB Forsinard Flows nature reserve. This is one of the RSPB’s large reserves with free entry into the miles and miles of walks. Bogs and small lochs nestle between the small mountains. In the distance, snow-capped mountains loom but it will be a while before we get closer to the true highlands. Meanwhile, burns (streams to southerners and creeks to Australians) criss-cross the scrub, some iced completely over from the heavy recent frosts. Strange lumps perk up from the ground. Man-made or just scrub-covered rocky outcrops? I don’t know but odd looking they certainly are.

towards Kildonan

As we near Kildonan, streams rippling over rocks in shallow pools conjure up a more usual and storybook view of what Scotland should look like. After leaving, the mountains loom larger and for the first time I can see wind farms standing proud of the snow but coloured the same. Attractive or an eyesore? The debate will outlive me. A solitary green rowing boat is moored by the side of one of the streams. There are lots of narrow bridges, so why the boat? For fishing? But the streams aren’t wide and any good fly fisherman would have no need of a boat.
Helmsdale (what a strange name in comparison to the others; sounds more like Yorkshire) and the coast beckon but before that mountain passes with lichen covered trees loom at the trackside. These trees are just covered they are festooned. I was always told that lichen only grows where the air quality is good. But the, what is there to pollute the land and skies around here?

River Helmsdale

The town almost bustles compared to the other villages we have travelled through. There is even an overtaking stretch where the northern based train to Wick awaits us before usurping the line we had just travelled down. Dry stone walls are becoming commonplace.

looking back at the sea at Helmsdale

And there’s the sea. Barely twenty feet from the trackside and we are sandwiched between it and the road south until the road disappears inland and we are left with staring sheep on one side and cormorant covered rocks on the other. It ends after a few miles and, fleetingly, we pull inland and flat valley, sheep covered farmland returns. As the sea returns to escort us south, the rocky areas at the seashore become sandy, a sign that Brora cannot be far away. But without crossing the line, there seems no way to the sand. Beaches seem to be too strong a word for this narrow path of sand yet, here and there, there are small fields of sheep so there must be a way. Look carefully and quickly and you may lucky enough to see a seal lumbering into the sea as the train spooks it. Apart from that maybe only sheep and farmers use these areas. Or maybe no-one ventures there at all.
Brora is a positive city compared even to Helmsdale. For the first time since leaving Thurso I can see many different roads rather than just the one or two. There are shops, cars and people. So something other than sheep lives here! But one side of the old Victorian station is boarded up and probably no longer used. Down below the sandy beach widens but even in summer how warm must that water be? Swimmers must be hardy around here.
There is a station for Dunrobin Castle, the home of the dukes of Sutherland, but it is only a request stop. Still alight here and the entrance to the castle is almost from the platform. The castle can be seen at the end of a short walk. And I do mean short. It couldn’t make it much easier for you to use public transport to get there. I bet in the time of the first duke, said to be the richest man in the UK, the trains stopped whenever he wanted them to. Today I have the same power if not the cash. I could request a stop as well. For the rest of the year the train hurtles south and the 600 year old castle hides itself away from rail travellers.

Dunrobin Castle

Pulling into Golspie whilst the train is scratched by bushes on the left, to the right looms one of those statues so beloved of our ancestors. A man on a plinth looms on Ben Bhraggie, his back turned to the train. As we leave it beomes apparent that this statue is huge. It’s a statue of the Duke of Sutherland – he of the highland clearances – and controversy still is rife about whether the 280 year old monument shouldn’t be torn down. Today, cyclists make it a popular run from the mountain to the town. Ever since we cut across to Helmsdale the landscape has changed from that in Caithness. It us hillier, starker, sharper and more what I was used to in the drive up to Inverness from Perth.
If nothing else, I have proven to myself that there is a different landscape north of what most people think of the highlands. Is it pretty? Is it worth visiting? Or is it just different. I’m not sure but I have decided to do the journey again in late spring to see how the landscape changes. But it does have one great appeal to me; few people. If you like to get away from it all the countryside of Caithness is ideal for you.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , , , ,