Our little sunrise excursion to the cliffs of Duncansby left us a bit chilled; we returned to Bencorragh House for a warm shower and a good breakfast and then headed south along the coast of Caithness. The A99 runs from John O’Groats thirty miles or so south to Latheron where it joins the A9. The twenty minutes or so that it took us to get to The Hill O’ Many Stanes (that I have written about here) and have a good wander around the hillside was just enough time to be ready for a good cuppa, and I knew just where we could find one. The Laidhay Croft Museum is just another ten miles south and across the car park is their wonderful Tea Room with the best scones with cream that I have ever had.
Thusly satiated we continued south on the A9 through the Berriedale Braes, a steep drop in the road near the boundary line between Caithness and Sutherland. Berriedale (Gàidhlig: Bearghdal) is most likely named for the Old Norse berg, “rock” and dalr which means “valley”. Brae is a Scottish word for “hillside” which comes from the Gàidhlig word bràighe. Add it all up and it’s a very rocky hillside along which the road winds down in hairpin curves, across a bridge, and then hairpin turns itself back up the other side. I have driven this particular stretch of road a few times now and it’s always a bit of a challenge. When we had driven north a few days before, it had been nearly dark when we drove through the Braes; I was happy to have the morning light on the return trip.
It took nearly three quarters of an hour to make our way through the next forty miles or so. We reached the village of Dornoch (“the pebbly place”: Dòrnach in Gàidhlig; Dornach in Scots), located off the A9 via the A949, on the northern edge of the Dornoch Firth. It was granted Fair Trade Town status in 2005, and that only serves to make it an even better town in my book. We shopped for a little while, wandering along Castle Street until it was time for lunch at the Dornoch Castle Hotel. I’ve been to the tavern there for lunch on three separate trips and it has become a “must” for me. The food is always amazing. This time it was Squash & Coriander Soup, a Dornoch Cheese and Chutney Sandwich and a small Rocket Salad. The bartenders are always helpful and forthcoming with suggestions for a whisky to try. I got a wee dram of the Glengoyne for Marsha so she could try it, and got the Ardmore 12 Year for me, and loved it. I wish that there had been a fire in the 11-foot fireplace although the room is still full of ambiance even when it isn’t lit.
Located across the street from Dornoch Cathedral, the original building on the site was built for the Caithness bishops sometime in the 13th century. The present building may have been built by 1500; in 1557 it was gifted to the 11th Earl of Sutherland by his brother-in-law, Bishop Robert Stewart. After a few incarnations of use, some private and some public and one forced by fire, the building became a hotel in the late 1940’s. The tavern is located in the original kitchens area from 1500 with the original stone walls and Caithness stone slab floors.
It would have been faster to leave Dornoch and travel along the Dornoch Firth on the A949 to Bonar Bridge and then take the A836 north and west to Rosehall and then further west towards Ullapool, but speed was not our main goal for the day. We backtracked north on the A9 as far as The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet. Running alongside of the causeway of the A9 where it crosses the River Fleet is an older bridge that was built in the early 1800’s. The older bridge was built with a sluice to hold back the sea as it flows into Loch Fleet. If one passes at the right time and stops in the car park near the old bridge, it’s possible to watch salmon as they swim in from the sea and upstream to spawn. The Mound was also the location of the old Dornoch Light Railway which operated from 1902-1960.
From The Mound we took the A839 through Sutherland. Sutherland is named from the Old Norse: Suðrland, “southern land”; the Gàidhlig name for it is Cataibh. We drove northwest to the southern edge of Loch Shin (Loch Sìn) and the town of Lairg (An Luirg,”the shin”). Lairg is the largest village in the Highlands that is not located on the coast. Its location is pretty much in the center of the northern part of Scotland, specifically Sutherland, where four roads met giving it the nickname “The Crossroads of the North”. We connected with the A837 west of Lairg in Rosehall and continued west to Ullapool.
We had allowed ourselves plenty of time to stop and enjoy the scenery. This was my first time in that particular part of Scotland and I was not disappointed. The day was lovely, the hills were deep green, the clouds were objects of art in the sky, and the road was for the most part empty of any other cars than ours. The drive provided us with photo opportunities, one after another. It was all too perfect of a day, and we were looking forward to enjoying a leisurely meal in Ullapool before going out to Loch Broom for the night.
Unfortunately, it was getting late in the day when we reached the Knocken Crag, (Creag a’ Chnocain, ‘crag of the small hill’). Thirteen miles away from Ullapool, on the southern border of Sutherland with Ross-shire, the Knocken Crag is a geological marvel. The first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, tectonic plate shift had moved older rocks over the top of younger ones by some 44 miles. This made for quite a bit of confusion amongst geologists in the 19th century until two of them, Ben Peach and John Horne, figured the whole thing out in 1907. I had wanted to do a bit a hiking around the trails, but with the light fading in the glen, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of it to find my way back to the car safely.
Plans were made to be broken, I guess, even if they weren’t necessarily broken on our account. The account of the Great Flat Tire Adventure is here.