Vacations in the Highlands of Scotland
With the lowest population density in Western Europe, Scotland’s bleak county of Sutherland, frontier home to the Vikings, offers hidden surprises and a deep look into British history. Sutherland still bears the scars of the “clearances” of the 18th century when thousands were evicted from their homes by absentee landlords to make room for the more profitable grazing of sheep. The population remains a fragment of what it was. The wide unpeopled swaths of moorland, deep sea lochs, and raging north and west coasts make this area a truly unspoiled paradise.
Durness, the most northwesterly settlement in Great Britain, is a mere aggregation of homes and farms set away from the turbulent sea but boasts some of Scotland’s best and most overlooked scenery. While this area is well off the tourist circuit, those wishing to avoid crowds altogether should consider visiting off-peak, either before or after the summer months.
Daily buses leave from Ullapool, the main port of the west coast, or Inverness, principal city of the Highlands. Buses also leave Thurso, on the northeast coast, each morning at 11:30 in season. Inquire at the Durness tourist office. Several splendid walks branch out from the village of Durness, most reaching the long promontories and sheltered coves of the stormy coast. Ten miles to the west, the windbattered Cape Wrath juts out into the cold North Atlantic, the most northwesterly point of the U.K. mainland and the last landfall until Greenland. Hikers can explore hidden Sandwood Bay, a marvelously isolated strand. Immediately east of the cape, the Clo Mor Cliffs, at 921 feet the tallest cliffs in Great Britain, rise dramatically from the surf.
Perhaps the most recent claim to fame in Durness history is that a young John Lennon summered here regularly as a child in his aunts’ home outside the village. He and Yoko Ono also returned to the area in the 1970s.
Accommodations in the town itself are fairly limited. The 40-bed Durness Youth Hostel in town is open March-October and is only $6-$7 per night (011-44-1971-511244). Camping is another option. For those wishing to take the relatively inexpensive B and B route, I recommend Glengolly on the main road. The owner, Martin Mackay, offers the guest a room with a gorgeous sea view, semi-private bath, and a sumptous morning breakfast for only £15. If you are not bothered by the inquisitive stares of the curious sheep, the walk to the end of the property—from the house to the headland that parallels the capes of Faraid and Wrath—is an easy morning stroll and the views are suitably breathtaking.
Durness and the surrounding area offer spectacular mountain and ocean scenery and the splendid isolation found only in the latitudes of northwest Scotland.
Practicalities: The Inverness traction link runs from Inverness to Durness via Ullapool and Lochinver. Allow a whole day for travel. The Highland Country link leaves Thurso each morning Monday-Saturday and leaves Durness daily (July-August only).
Postbuses are another alternative. Ask at a local post office or youth hostel for schedules.
Car rentals are available in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, and other entry points. Use an American Express card to book beforehand. Rental car insurance in Europe is included as a cardmember benefit (check with the rental agent first), and this can save you hundreds of dollars.
A very useful website to visit is www.scotland-inverness.co.uk/living.htm.
The Durness Tourist Information Center, the largest building in town, offers excellent information on walks, wildlife and area history.
There is Cape Wrath ferry/bus service. Contact the Durness Tourist Information Center to book the ferry.
For more information on the Scottish Highlands, check out www.visithighlands.com.