What happens once you get to Inverness, gateway to the mysterious far north of Scotland? The options for travellers are straightforward. To the south lies the Cairngorms, the mountain resort of Aviemore and, if you like, a spot of skiing. West is the black water of Loch Ness and the high roads over to the great glens of the better-known side of Scotland. North? For many, a land unknown.
It was for me too, of sorts. Apart from a rapid rush to Orkney and back in 2001 I had never strayed to the far north, so when a search for a self-catering property large enough to fit two families threw up an old manse in Ardgay, Sutherland I agitated to take it on. That was before the longest, coldest winter for 30 years exposed the folly of Easter at northerly latitudes. It could have been worse – the forecast was for cold sunshine while the west coast, where we nearly went for, was shivering under late March blizzards.
The snow made for a dramatic scene on waking aboard the sleeper train, but we needn’t have worried. There was no snow on the ground and that on the hills was inviting but not intimidating. Edging north from Inverness in a hire car we opted to brave the Struie road, a fast, high route to Dornoch Firth. I had read there was a treat at the end of this route and the was: a view over the firth to legendary peaks beyond: Assynt being the standout, but others visible far away, snow-capped and magnificent.
Safely lodged in our chilly, lovely house for the week, we then had the matter of deciding how to spend the time. We’re an active bunch but confronted with unfamiliar names we had to follow our noses slightly. On the whole we did well. A wonderful, full week of activities pretty well perfect or families, with our longest day out being 30 miles away. Here’s a run-down.
1. Falls of Shin
This marvellous waxwork of Mohamed Fayed, whose largesse in relation to unorthodox statuary has graced this site before, greets visitors to the Falls of Shin. Fayed owns the attraction and much of the land in this part of Scotland – however much anyone can be said to own any part of such a splendid, wild place.
That’s the end of the wax wonders, but the falls themselves offer several fine ways to pass the day. The playground a miniature golf (slightly eccentric rather than crazy) keep junior visitors occupied, and there are three walking trails, one of which takes in tunnels and unexpected opportunities to play quoits and noughts and crosses.
One of the walks passes the falls themselves, almost forgotten in their entirety by some of our party due to the excitement elsewhere. They’re a splendid sight, if not in the elite group of waterfalls in Britain. Their big selling point is the leaping salmon that can be spotted here in summer months. Too cold for salmon when we we there, but roaring water is always a delight.
2. Dornoch Beach and city, and Loch Fleet
Yowzers, what a place. We visited on a freezing, sparkling day with a handful of cars sharing the car park. No-one else materialised on this heavenly strip of sand, which became a bowling-green flat football pitch, interrupted only by a few weed-covered rocks. In a pool behind one of these my three-year-old son delighted himself by spotting a crab scuttling for cover. I’d like that moment framed for the mantelpiece of old age, please.
It looked like a nice place for a dip, too, maybe when just a degree or three warmer.
Dornoch itself is small place with a handful of cages and shops. It is dominated by castle and cathedral, both perfectly proportioned for place and, like everything on the day we were there looking great in the sunshine. The cathedral graveyard has a measuring stone for cutting cloth in it dating back to medieval times. The was a sense of timelessness here in this largely car-free place and, like Bamburgh in Northumberland this is a lovely and little-heralded detour.
We drove back around the shores of Loch Fleet, found by mistake on an extended and hilariously misguided quest by one of our party of locate a supermarket north of Tain and south of Wick. I was grateful for his itinerance – this was a scenic route to to be missed. It was also good for encouraging our young crab-spotter to get some sleep rather than spend the entire week charging around in very fresh air.
Here’s a secret waiting to be told: the beautiful fishing village of Portmahomack, hush-hush detour from the road between Tain and Tarbet Ness. I’m not going to say any more.
4. Dunrobin Castle
The area’s show-stopper is a mighty castle located on the coast between Dornoch and Brora. If you arrive by car be sure to inspect the wonderful station, which frankly merits its own blog post on this site.
Once inside, enjoy attempting to prevent small children diving under red velvet ropes before, exasperated and astonished by the opulence indoors, flee into the fresh air for a brilliant Falconry display. The gardens work for hide and seek while you mull over the Duke of Sutherland’s Victorian gothic pile. A few of them liked a hunt, and the museum has all the cliches of trophy-bagging Edwardians: tiger rugs, elephant feet umbrella stands and lots of stags on the wall. More pleasing to modern eyes are the totally random collection of curios hidden in display cases under cloth covers.
The castle offers really very good falconry displays, with lots of near-miss fly pasts by whichever bird of prey is on duty that day. I don’t know where the birds’ keeper finds the food he woos these impressive beasts with, but I was a little surprised to see him pull a cats leg out of his bag at one stage.
If you have a couple of cars it may work to take the Far North Line one way to the castle and drive back. More train action. More fun. Watch out for the plastic stairs on the station’s low platform: when we were there they did not align with the doors of the train, making for the marvellous spectacle of small children attempting to board the Inverness-bound service via a doorless wall.
5. Carbisdale Castle forest walk
Carbisdale Castle dominates the Kyle of Sutherland. Now used as a youth hostel, it is closed for renovations but the curious can peer through the odd windows at astonishing ceilings and fireplaces . Around it are two different trails designed for mountain bikes but good for a short jaunt with children who should get round without too many moans. We missed the loop round to the castle and doubled-back on ourselves but no matter: a jolly nice stroll. Linger on View Rock for the classic shot of a train crossing the Kyle at Invershin in the shadow of the castle.
6. Ferrycroft Heritage Centre and Lairg
A nicely-arranged place with an outside playground and various kid-friendly activities inside. Lairg is a village at a junction at the head of Loch Shin and you can gawp at the hydroelectric dam from various spots. My kids refused to get out of the car in order to be educated.
A few general suggestions:
Packed lunches work, as much because there isn’t that much in the way of eating options as that small people get hungry at interesting times.
Supermarkets, a fancy organic gaff selling good haggis, fish and black pudding and a toy shop can all be found in Tain. There are two fish and chip shops too. The one we tried was adequate but not outstanding but I tend to find children unbothered by the crispness of the batter, flaky texture of the fish or anything else. They’re happy to have chips doused in ketchup and if that makes for a fun lunch in Tain rose garden then that’s a big box ticked.
We were there in good weather. In the wet options are a little more limited. Dunrobin would work well, as would taking the train to Inverness for the day. There’s a pool at Dornoch but we didn’t check it out. Unless it’s especially foul bring waterproofs and get out there (he says slightly dismissively after no wet days whatsoever). It is Scotland, so at least you know the risks upfront.