Flow Country, Caithness, Highlands

Outdoors

Scotland’s far north frontier has been drawing travellers for generations. Its remote and unspoiled landscape possesses a haunting beauty and serene atmosphere that is quite unlike anywhere else in the modern world.

The journey you take to get there on the Far North Line, however, promises just as many adventures and spellbinding scenery as its destination. With the unlimited Spirit of Scotland Travelpass, accessing this mysterious part of the country has never been easier.

Simply sit back, relax, and watch as the dramatic terrain of the Highlands unfolds before your very eyes, hoping on and off at any stop along the way for a memorable detour.

Why not take your time and make a three-day trip of it? Everything from whisky distilleries and golf courses to tiny towns and romantic castles are waiting for you.

Visit Friends of the Far North Line for maps, timetables and more helpful information.

Transport

Bus Walk

Days

3

Miles

160

Route

Along the Far North train line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick, passing through the northern Highlands and along the Moray Firth coast.

Highlights

Dramatic Highland scenery, whisky distilleries, golf courses, delightful villages and romantic castles.

Areas Covered

North Highlands

see full route

Day 1

overview

Dingwall & Invergordon

No sooner have you stepped aboard the train at Inverness Rail Station, than you find yourself sweeping along the southern bank of the  Beauly Firth - the source of the River Beauly - just one of the great salmon-fishing rivers which rush through the delightful landscape that makes up part of the route from Inverness to Invershin.

The first-stop the train calls at is the charming village of Beauly which offers a pleasant day out. But why not consider breaking up this initial stage of the journey further afield? Hop off at the lovely market town of Dingwall at the the head of the Cromarty Firth before continuing on to Invergordon, the mural town of the Highlands.

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    Bus Walk

River Ness, Inverness

Dingwall

As far back as the arrival of the Vikings in Scotland in 800AD, Dingwall has been an important place in the Highlands. Its fortunate position at the head of the Cromarty Firth has seen it prosper as a result of the North Sea oil boom. In spite of these industrial trappings however, Dingwall retains the feel and look of quaint market borough, thanks in no small part to its attractive High Street lined with red-sandstone buildings harbouring an abundance of excellent cafés and shops. Look out for the town's most striking monument, the tolbooth which boasts a tower dating back to 1730, and enjoy a spot of lunch at The Mallard, the green-painted pub located on the station's main platform.

At this point in the journey, there is the option to take the Kyle Line towards Kyle of Lochalsh, the last stop on the way to Skye.

Invergordon

You are now well on your way into Sutherland country, with Caithness lying beyond, when you disembark at Invergordon, a former naval base which now serves as a port for many of the large cruise liners which bring tourists to the Highlands from the sea.

Here you can admire the artistic outpourings of a local collective called 'Invergordon off the Wall' who have turned the town into an outdoor art gallery. On the side of 17 buildings you'll find large, bright and beautifully realised murals which illustrate the social and industrial heritage of the town.

After taking a wander, why not catch the short bus journey three miles west to Alness (you could also hop back on a train heading in the opposite direction to the preceding stop) and visit Dalmore Distillery which has produced its superlative single-malt whisky here since 1839.

If you feel like skipping a visit to Dalmore don't worry. There is another at Tain, home to the Glenmorangie, and another at Balbair.

Day 2

overview

Tain to Dunrobin Castle

From here the rail line begins to approach the coast, heading along the Dornoch Firth as far as Culrain and across the Kyle of Sutherland, before returning inland again through endless expanses of rolling farmland. At the last moment, the line veers east again to meet the North Sea.

This part of the route is lined with a number of rural stations, all ripe for exploration. The first up is Tain, Scotland's oldest Royal Burgh set on the south shore of the Dornoch Firth, followed Culrain, Rogart, and finally, Dunrobin Castle. Here, in one of the most secluded stretches of of the land, lies a surplus of attractions and activities, from scandalous castles and invigorating games of golf to accessible walks through untouched wilderness.

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    Bus Walk

Dunrobin Castle, Golspie © Paul Tomkins

Tain

As scenic as it is historic, Tain is perhaps most renowned for its 18-hole links golf course designed by Tom Morris, and Glenmorangie Distillery. Aside from these attractions, the town's splendid 19th century architecture including the Tain Tolbooth and Royal Hotel, not to mention St Duthac's Church, make it a joy to explore.

Plenty more lies beyond the Dornoch Firth. Cross it to see Dornoch's 13th century cathedral and tee-off on Royal Dornoch championship course.

Culrain

Next up is Culrain, a tiny settlement where the sense of a slower pace of life is palpable. Just outside the main part of the village is the west entrance to the delightful Carbisdale Woods, from which there are lovely views of the Kyle of Sutherland, as well as the Dornoch Firth.

If you fancy exploring more of Sutherland on foot, Culrain is an ideal starting point. There is a leisurely footpath which crosses into the Kyle of Sutherland via a footbridge to Invershin, where there are bus services available to and from Lairg, Bonar Bridge, Ardgay and Tain.

A little further ahead of Culrain to the west is another hamlet called Hilton. From there you can walk or cycle via forest tracks to Ardgay and into the delightful Strathcarron.

Rogart

At first glance you might be tempted to give the little albeit pretty village of Rogart a miss. But then you would be depriving yourself of a visit to neighbouring Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve and Balblair Wood.

A haven for all kinds of indigenous species from deer to pine martens, take the circular walk hugging the shoreline, inhaling the fragrant Scots pine-scented air while gazing at distant mountain views.

If you're after something something a little different and fancy a true taste of seclusion, why not book a night or two at Sleeperzzz, a first-class train carriage that has been converted into a family-friendly hostel?

Many more shy creatures can also be found in the enchanted Balblair Wood among shady glades, and clearings carpeted with wildflowers and berries. It also offers a playground for  mountain bikers to explore with two waymarked cycle paths which scale lofty heights, make thrilling descents, and are filled with plenty of twists and turns.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle Station takes its name from the grandiose home of the Dukes of Sutherland.

Aside from being the country's wealthiest aristocrat, the 3rd Duke was a confirmed train fanatic, and it was he who personally financed the extension of the Far North Line as far west as Lairg, the heart of what was Sutherland's profitable sheep-farming industry.

The magnificent Dunrobin Castle is the largest house in the Highlands. Crowned with a myriad of fairytale towers and turrets, Dunrobin is unique in that it resembles a vast French château rather than the baronial stronghold typical of the Highlands.

Its lavishly furnnished interior, sprawling formal gardens, and grounds which stretch as far as the sea, are nothing short of breathtaking.

Day 3

overview

Helmsdale to Wick

During the third and final stage of our journey, we zip along to Helmsdale, and into a part of the Highlands known as Flow Country, a vast expanse of peaty bogland.

This landscape - seemingly absent from human habitation - is in fact home to an extremely precious peatland ecoystem unique in the world, and which is fiercely guarded by the RSPB.

Pause at Kildonan, the site of Scotland's 19th century gold rush, the RSPB reserve at Forsinard, and for a true taste of isolation, Altnabreac.

Upon reaching Georgemas Junction there are two choices: head directly north to Thurso, perhaps even continuing onwards to the Orkney Isles via ferry; or to our final destination, Wick.

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    Bus Walk

Flow Country, Caithness, Highlands

Helmsdale

This old herring port with its white-washed housed clustered against the hills has to be one of the most picturesque stops on the rail line. 

But its pretty façade belies its sad history. Dating from the 1800s it was built to accommodate inland settlers forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for sheep farming during the Highland Clearances. The Emigrants Statue looking out to sea is a poigniant memorial to this painful period in Scottish history.

Other attractions include The Timespan Museum and Arts Centre which shines a light on the history of the village and surrounding area and houses exhibitions by local and visiting artists.

And if you've packed your rod and tackle, now is the moment to test waters of the River Helmsdale.

Kildonan

The next stop along from Helmsdale, Kildonan, is where you can experience one of the more unusual pastimes of the Highlands, gold-panning. The owners of the Suisgill Estate kindly invite visitors to try their hand at sifting through the sediment of the Kildoran Burn at Baile-An-O for the chance to claim a gleaming nugget or two.

Gold panning equipment is available to hire or buy from Strath Ullie Crafts & Visitor Information by the Harbour, Helmsdale.

Image (CC)

Forsinard

Stop off at the remote Forsinard to visit RSPB Forsinard Flows in summer when this protected boggy peatland comes alive with breeding golden plovers, hen harriers and greenshank, buzzing insects and flourishing plantlife.

There are even guided bog walks available. Check with the Visitor Centre at the station ahead of time for details.

Thurso

Thurso is the most northerly town in mainland Scotland and home to its most northerly railway station. Perched on the north coast of Caithness, its view extends to the cliffs of Dunnet Head, the Isle of Hoy, and at least one Orcadian isle on a clear day.

Usually thought of as a gateway to other places rather than a destination in its own right, Thurso has plenty to offer inquisitive visitors. Not least Caithness Horizons, a sleek, modern museum and cultural centre housed inside what was originally Thurso Town Hall and the Carnegie Library. The magnificent Pictish stones on display are worth the entrance fee alone.

Wick

Finally we arrive at the bustling harbour town of Wick. In some ways reminiscent of a minature Aberdeen, the main of focus of Wick remains its fishing industry. it even boasts it own airport!

Wandering the characterful streets, Wick's ornate, sturdy buildings recall a medley of influences and time periods, and you can immerse yourself fully in  its history at the Wick Heritage Centre in Pultneytown - its sister town located south across the river. But that's not before calling in at one last distillery, Old Pulteney.

Summary

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