Scotland's Lonely North

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Kyle of Durness, Lamb crossing lane beside bay; fog rolling in. [Ask for #178.101.]
A lamb crosses the busiest (and only) highway on Scotland's North Coast, along the Kyle of Durness. Highland Region, Sutherland District. [Ask for #178.101.]

"Maybe the roads will be better than you remember them," my wife suggested. We were driving northward to the most remote corner of the British mainland —the mountainous north coast of Scotland. I, too, was hopeful; our road only became better as we passed through farmlands north of Inverness. Then, at the edge of the open moors that mark the start of Scotland's far north, our wide modern highway simply quit. A single-track lane—clearly marked "A836", a main highway—entered the moors over a cattle grate, through a gap in the fence. Houses, barns, even fences disappeared from the roadside. We drove through mile after mile of rolling hills covered in brown grass, heather, and sphagnum, framed by bristly gorse bushes covered in yellow flowers. The driving fell into a rhythm of maundering slowly along, pulling over for a rare on-coming car, then proceeding with a leisurely caution. As our first hour passed, a sense of strangeness, or foreign-ness, settled over us. Could any corner of Britain have survived at this slow pace, so isolated from the busy newness of the modern world? With people swarming everywhere else, how could this place be so empty, so unchanged? As we traveled north on land we traveled back in time, to an era more modest than our own.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Central Moors, Altnaharra, Passing place on the single-lane A836, the main highway crossing the central moorlands of Sutherland; storm in bkgd [Ask for #246.886.]
A 'Passing Place' sign designates a pullout for oncoming traffic on the single lane A836, crossing Scotland's northern moors. This is near Altnaharra in the Highlands Region, Sutherland District. [Ask for #246.886.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Central Moors, Altnaharra, Storm crossing the boggy moorlands of central Sutherland; gorse in spring bloom [Ask for #246.887.]
A storm crosses the the boggy moorlands near Altnaharra in central Sutherland, along the A836. [Ask for #246.887.]

Twenty miles into the moors we reached the first and only intersection along this entire stretch of “highway”, at the hamlet of Altnaharra—three or four houses around a stone bridge and a small hotel, shielded by a small hardwood glade. Both cross-roads were single-tracks heading north in long, lonely curves—the right fork following the infamous valley, Strathnaver.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Ben Loyal (Ben Laoghal), 2509' peak, View over well-kept stone-built farm at base of Ben Loyal, as late afternoon sun breaks through storm clouds [Ask for #246.777.]
A well-kept stone-built farm at base of Ben Loyal (Ben Laoghal), as late afternoon sun breaks through storm clouds. [Ask for #246.777.]
SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, John o' Groats, Duncansby Head, View past sea cliffs to freighter in the Pentland Firth [Ask for #246.802.]
View past the sea cliffs of Dunscanby Head, to a freighter in the Pentland Firth. [Ask for #246.802.]

These lands were not always so lonely. In the 18th century, small settlements packed Strathnaver and every other nearby river valley. Gaelic-speaking Highlanders farmed the rich bottomland, grazed the village animals on the grassy outfields, and turned their cattle and sheep onto the empty moors above. They lived in long, low “cruck” houses, where the rafters were supported with two tree trunks that curved naturally (“crucks”, from “crooked”) to form an arch; when a family moved they took their crucks with them as the core of their new cottage. These houses had thick stone walls, one tiny window and no chimney, instead burning a peat fire in the middle of the floor, with the smoke finding its way through the thatch. They shared their house with their farm animals for mutual protection from the harsh winter, and would shovel the floor out every spring for fertilizer. It sounds like a brutal way of life to us, but the Highlanders thrived on it—surrounded by family, with plenty of warmth and food and fellowship, helped through the long winter nights by a rich tradition in music and poetry and a wee dram of uisge-beatha, “water of life”, whisky.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Talmine (crofters village), Late afternoon view towards Talmine, from sea cliffs along the Kyle of Tongue [Ask for #246.821.]
Late afternoon view towards Talmine, from sea cliffs along the Kyle of Tongue. [Ask for #246.821.]
SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, Thurso, Small wooden boats, brightly colored, in a grassy field in town [Ask for #246.818.]
Small wooden boats, brightly colored, in a grassy field in Thurso. [Ask for #246.818.]

This ended at the close of the 18th century when their clan chiefs stopped speaking Gaelic and started thinking of themselves as English-style aristocrats. These would-be Anglo-aristocrats had a problem; the Gaelic settlements they owned simply did not produce the cash needed they needed to support the aristocratic lifestyle to which they wanted to become accustomed. A precious few Highland landlords practiced humane modernization in the Black Isle and Islay, districts which remain prosperous and populous to this day. However, such methods were painfully slow, and the clan chiefs needed lots of money, now. They preferred an "improvement" method honed to perfection by the Duke of Sutherland's factor for Strathnaver—Patrick Sellar.

The method was simple. The scrawny Highland cattle were replaced by a sheep bred for size, meat, and ability to withstand the cruelest of winters. These "Great Sheep" would graze the moors in the summer, then huddle in the grassy straths in the winter. Unfortunately, those straths were already filled with people—thousands of them, not the handful needed on the sheep walk. Those people had to be cleared to make room for the sheep.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Central Moors, Strathnaver, View over the River Naver, the site of infamous 19th c. Clearances, as late afternoon sun breaks through storm clouds [Ask for #246.837.]
The road through Strathnaver follows the River Naver, the site of infamous Clearances in the 19th century. [Ask for #246.837.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Central Moors, Strathnaver, Earthworks mark the slight remains of a village on the River Naver, destroyed by Patrick Sellars during the Strathnaver Clearances; the River Naver in bkgd. [Ask for #246.842.]
In Strathnaver, earthworks mark the slight remains of a village on the River Naver, destroyed by Patrick Sellars during the Strathnaver Clearances. [Ask for #246.842.]

In Strathnaver, Patrick Sellar reached an astonishing level of notoriety; his clearances were so brutal that he was tried for murder. A well-spoken Lowland lawyer and indefatigable propagandist for “improvement”, Sellar was friendly towards his equals and obsequious towards his betters. When clearing a valley of Highlanders, however, he showed another face. In Strathnaver in 1814, he and his men fired the pastures and destroyed the potato crops, exposing the villagers to starvation. He ordered families out of their homes without packing, wrecked their contents, and burnt them down. In doing so, he left a sick old tinker woman to die of exposure, and may have fired her house with her in it. An incompetent prosecution failed to make criminal charges stick, but furnished ample proof of violent, vicious conduct.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Fog rolling towards mtn farms. on Beinn Ceannabeinne, [Ask for #178.010.]
Fog rolling towards mountain farms on Beinn Ceannabeinne. [Ask for #178.010.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Bettyhill, Torrisdale Bay Nat. Nature Reserve, View across Torrisdale Bay towards the nature reserve, from the minor road to Skerray. [Ask for #246.884.]
View across Torrisdale Bay towards the Torrisdale Bay Nature Reserve, from the minor road to Skerray and Bettyhill. [Ask for #246.884.]

Two centuries have passed, yet this rich valley remains largely depopulated. Driving the 25 mile long lane, we saw only scattered, isolated houses, frequently miles apart; yet we found it surprisingly easy to picture this empty valley full of people. From our lane Strathnaver looked like a sinuous green oasis verdant with wildflowers, slashing through the brown, boggy moors looming above it. We saw meadows dotted with humps and hillocks, ditches and banks, all covered with spring buttercups and punctuated with clumps of yellow gorse. I climbed up onto one of the hillocks to get a better view of the river, only to find myself on an old stone foundation. The humps around me were other buildings torn down by Sellar nearly two centuries ago, and the linear banks were the remains of stone walls that once protected crops.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Central Moors, Altnaharra, Sign on country lane, in German, warning of lambs on road [Ask for #246.893.]
A sign on country lane near Altnaharra, in German, warns of lambs on road. I have no idea why it's in German. [Ask for #246.893.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Bettyhill, The Farr Stone, an early Christian carved slab, on the grounds of the Strathnaver Museum, the village's former church. [Ask for #246.877.]
The Farr Stone, on the grounds of the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill, dates from c. 825 AD and commemorates a Pictish tribal chieftain. [Ask for #246.877.]

At the end of the lane, we visited the Strathnaver Museum, in the village church at the coastal village of Bettyhill. During the Clearances, eviction notices were read from its pulpit, still standing in a crowd of exhibits; seventy years later, parliamentary hearings in this church led directly to legislation protecting Highlands tenants from their landlords. Its exhibits include models of pre-Clearance houses and a room reconstructed from actual timbers. Outside in the graveyard stands a large 9th century Pictish Cross, carved in deep relief onto a slab, the gravestone of some long-forgotten local worthy. The settlements destroyed by Sellar were ancient indeed.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Kyle of Durness, Keoldale Pier, the location of the passenger ferry to Cape Wrath; wood boat leaning against sign. [Ask for #246.864.]
A wood boat leans against a sign that says "Keoldale Pier", on the Kyle of Durness. [Ask for #246.864.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Kyle of Durness, Small wooden rowboat tied to cliffs on the Kyle of Durness, a tidal bay. [Ask for #246.867.]
Small wooden rowboat tied to cliffs on the Kyle of Durness.. [Ask for #246.867.]

Of course, all those cleared Highlanders had to be put somewhere—and that somewhere was the crofter settlement. Each displaced family received a two to four acre plot of exposed and barren coastal moor, on which they were expected to build a house. Each of these tiny lots was called a "croft", and their inhabitants became known as "crofters". Today, these new-founded crofting villages line Scotland's north coast, replacements for the empty straths.

Following Sellar's methods, landlords intentionally made the crofts too small to support even a poor Highland family. Sellar and other Anglicized gentry repeatedly asserted that the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were lazy and shiftless, and that the undersized crofts would force them to work for a living. By “working”, they mainly meant fishing. Unfortunately, the Highlanders had never fished the oceans, had no boats, no nets, and no docks, and knew neither how to make them nor how to use them. While some landlords built serious fisheries (like Ullapool in Wester Ross and Port Ellen in Islay), most left the Highlanders to acquire the knowledge and equipment by themselves. It didn't work; fisheries remain scarce along the north coast to this day.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Smoo Cave, Fishing boat beneath cliffs at mouth of sea cave [Ask for #178.011.]
Fishing boat beneath cliffs near Durness, beached for the duration of the high tide. [Ask for #178.011.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Smoo Cave, Fishing boat beneath cliffs at mouth of sea cave [Ask for #178.012.]
Fishing boat beneath cliffs at mouth of Smoo Cave. [Ask for #178.012.]

My wife and I stayed a week in such a crofter village—Talmine, down a long, dead-end lane along the tidal bay known as the Kyle of Tongue. Like all crofter communities, Talmine is a coastal strip of whitewashed stone houses scattered about a narrow single-track road. The village has no well-defined center, but its rough halfway-point is marked by a small primary school and a post office store. All of the houses are modern, cozy replacements for the tiny cottages of the past with their peat fires in the middle of the floor and farm animals in winter.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Talmine (crofters village), View across Talmine's harbor to the village beyond [Ask for #246.848.]
View across Talmine's harbor to the village beyond. [Ask for #246.848.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Talmine (crofters village), View across Talmine harbor towards village [Ask for #246.879.]
Talmine, a crofter village, viewed across its beach and harbor. [Ask for #246.879.]

Our bungalow also had magnificent ocean views over cliff-top meadows—another attribute common to crofter communities. Sitting in front of our picture window, we would watch the sea sweep in and out of the Kyle, see the tall red cliffs on the other side and the rugged, gray precipices of the 2500 foot Ben Loyal at its head. When storm clouds blew up along the cliffs we would watch them roll towards us, and we would watch rainbows arc down through the gaps between the storms.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Ben Loyal (Ben Laoghal), 2509' peak, View over Kyle of Tongue towards Ben Loyal, bathed in late afternoon sun breaking through storm clouds [Ask for #246.775.]
Ben Loyal (Ben Laoghal), viewed over the Kyle of Tongue. [Ask for #246.775.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Beach and low cliffs East of village [Ask for #178.008.]
Beach and cliffs near Durness. [Ask for #178.008.]

Like many crofter villages, Talmine is a charming place to stay. Its houses climb up steep hilly meadows above a protected curve of white sand beach. Three of its tiniest and oldest cottages sit by the beach, their rock walls brightly whitewashed. Low rock cliffs protect its little harbor, where a few fishing boats bob. A coastal path runs north from the harbor, through steep meadows and beneath low cliffs. It and the narrow lane converge again at the abandoned fishing “port” of Portvasco, little more than a notch in the cliffs with a hand winch to crank the boats up the rocks.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Bettyhill, Skerray (crofters village), Skerray Free Church, a brightly painted corrugated tin building. [Ask for #246.827.]
Skerray Free Church, a brightly painted corrugated tin building. [Ask for #246.827.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Bettyhill, Skerray (crofters village), Jimsons Croft Community Centre, a traditional thatched building housing the post office store. [Ask for #246.831.]
Jimsons Croft Community Centre, a traditional thatched building housing the post office store, in Bettyhill. [Ask for #246.831.]

The week we spent in Scotland's North was too short—we ran out of time all too soon. We enjoyed shopping in the nearby village of Tongue, where a two aisle grocery store was the biggest for miles around. Tongue's well-kept cottages face two tree-lined streets that terrace up from the Kyle of Tongue, while Ben Loyal rises straight into the air behind the village, a mass of granite cliffs.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, "Mace Supermarket", the village's post office store, inside an old crofter's cottage [Ask for #246.859.]
"Mace Supermarket", Durness's post office store, inside an old crofter's cottage [Ask for #246.859.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Talmine (crofters village), View across beach at center of village [Ask for #246.901.]
View across Talmine's beach at center of village [Ask for #246.901.]

When we felt like wandering we found plenty to see. We visited the nearby crofter village of Skerray, miles off the main road, with a community center and craft shop in a restored thatched cottage; next to it, the Torrisdale National Nature Reserve furnished exceptional scenery for wildland walks. Further west, we saw a late May storm frost the 3050 foot peak of Ben Hope with snowfall, while waterfalls poured down its flank. We enjoyed stunning scenery along the coastal drive to the village of Durness, large enough to have a “supermarket” in a stone cottage. Here we explored Smoo Cave, a sea cave with a waterfall at its center, and shopped for crafts at the Balnakeil Craft Village in an abandoned World War II base. We meant to take the passenger ferry to the Cape Wrath, the northwestern-most point in Great Britain—but the blowy weather was less than ideal for the tiny, exposed ferry.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Smoo Cave, Waterfall inside Smoo Cave, formed as stream flows into cave through a hole in roof. [Ask for #246.857.]
Waterfall inside Smoo Cave, where a stream flows into the cave through a hole in roof. [Ask for #246.857.]
SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Durness, Balnakeil Craft Village, a crafters' coop in an abandoned WWII base; weaver's studio. [Ask for #246.860.]
Balnakeil Craft Village, a crafters' coop in an abandoned WWII base near Durness. [Ask for #246.860.]
SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, Dunnet Head, Skarfskerry (village), Field wall made of flagstones, locally quarried, stood on end [Ask for #246.811.]
A Caithness field wall made of flagstones, locally quarried, standing on end. This one is near Skarfskerry. [Ask for #246.811.]

An easy day trip eastward took us into the former county of Caithness, the northeastern-most point of Scotland. Wholly unlike the rugged northwest, its flat landscape is covered by farms, and it is so modernized that it actually has two lane highways and a real town, Thurso. At its northeastern corner John o' Groats attracts tourists for reasons dating back two centuries when national stage coach lines terminated here; it is firmly set in the British mind as the opposite of Lands End, the farthest end of Britain, even though it is neither the northernmost point nor the northeastern-most corner. Of course we had to visit the real northeastern corner, nearby Duncansby Head, utterly lonely with a wonderful lighthouse, high sea cliffs, and strange, giant rock formations called the Stacks of Duncansby. On the way back we bagged the real northernmost point as well—Dunnet Head, with another lighthouse and more sea cliffs.

SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, John o' Groats, Booth offering to take your picture beside a fake road sign at this tourist spot. [Ask for #246.783.]
At the tourist town of John o' Groats, this booth offering to take your picture beside a fake road sign. [Ask for #246.783.]
SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, John o' Groats, Duncansby Head, Clifftop view towards the Stacks of Duncansby [Ask for #246.791.]
Clifftop view towards the Stacks of Duncansby, the northeastern-most point in Great Britain. [Ask for #246.791.]
SCO: Highland Region, Caithness District, Northern Coast, John o' Groats, Duncansby Head, 19th c. lighthouse, still in operation, at Great Britain's northeasternmost point; fog horn, rt. [Ask for #246.806.]
19th c. lighthouse, still in operation, at Dunscansby Head, Great Britain's northeasternmost point; fog horn, rt. [Ask for #246.806.]

However, we had little need to stir about too much. We slowed our pace to match that of the single-track roads of the lonely northwest coast. Why rush around when our village had such a nice beach to walk along and its own beautiful cliffs to explore? Time seemed to stand still for us; yet it was rushing by in the outside world. Finally we went back through that moor fence and out into the modern world, filled with noises and signs, rushing traffic and busy people—filled with everything except a certain stillness and an occasional rainbow.

SCO: Highland Region, Sutherland District, Northern Coast, Kyle of Tongue, Talmine (crofters village), Rainbow over the Kyle of Tongue, viewed from sea cliffs near Talmine. [Ask for #246.880.]
Rainbow over the Kyle of Tongue, viewed from the sea cliffs by our cottage in Talmine. [Ask for #246.880.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, January 2003
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
Copyright ©2016, James A Hargan. All rights reserved.
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