If it’s wide open spaces, wilderness, and true isolation you’re after, then Sutherland is one of the best places to find it in Europe. With a population density of barely two people per kilometre, those who visit its jaw-droppingly beautiful and rugged landscape will truly get away from it all. However, while there is an undeniable – and indeed enviable – charm in its remoteness, there is so much more to Sutherland than isolation. Whether it be the marauding Vikings and subsequent Norse settlers who once prowled this land and are thought to have given it its name – the extreme north of Scotland being the Southern Land, or Sutherland, from their perspective – or the rich and ancient geology of its bedrock, this is an area that is rich in history, beauty, and culture. These are just some of the stunning locations and attractions that await during a visit to Europe’s northwestern frontier.
This picturesque small village sits on the route of the famous North Coast 500 road trip in the far northwest. Its beautiful surroundings include a classic azure blue bay which just sparkles when the tide and sun are right. Those looking to linger will find a small free car park and bird-watching hide, perfect for stopping to enjoy some of the wildlife. Visitors intending to stay longer will also find a hotel, campsite, and bed-and-breakfasts. Many of these close in the winter months, although some remain open all year round.
Website: Scourie village website
2. Cape Wrath, Durness, and Sango Bay
The true far northwest. Cape Wrath’s wonderfully evocative name is famous around the world, and its isolated nature just adds to the allure. The road to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is not connected to the rest of the mainland network and is only reachable via a seasonal ferry. Nearby Durness boasts the beautiful sands and cliffs of Sango Bay and the impressive Smoo Cave and its internal waterfall. Both of these natural wonders are just off the main road and have their own free car parking facilities, making it easy to take in both on your travels. Tours of the cave are also possible at certain times of the year.
Smoo Cave Tours
Price: Adults 5 GBP (6.60 USD); Children 2 GBP (2.64 USD). Advance booking is not possible.
Opening Hours: Vary. Check website.
Contact: + 44 1971 511704 or email [email protected]
Website: Smoo Cave Tours
3. Stoer Head
Stoer Head, located a few miles north of the picturesque village of Lochinver, boasts beautiful views across to islands and inland coves as well as the white edifice of Stoer Lighthouse and a striking sea stack. To reach the latter, park in the small, free car park close to the lighthouse – space is limited – and follow the occasionally indistinct and wet path north towards the sea stack at Stoer Point. If you lose the track, simply keep the cliffs on your left (as you head north) and reverse that instruction when heading in the opposite direction – just make sure to stay well away from the edge. You may also wish to make the short climb to the trig point that marks the high-point of this small peninsula, as it offers beautiful 360 degree panoramas that include Handa Island and some of the northwest’s iconic peaks such as Suilven.
Stoer Head Lighthouse
Website: Stoer Head Lighthouse
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This architecturally stunning historic burgh town is located in the southeasternmost corner of Sutherland and overlooks the firth to which it gives its name. Those who venture to the beaches overlooking the Dornoch Firth will find mile after mile of beautiful sands. The town itself is also well worth a wee wander around. As well as its 13th century cathedral, there is also the old jail – which is today open as a shop – and Dornoch Castle, which is the former bishop’s palace. Golf lovers will also be thrilled to play a round at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club – a famous links course.
Contact: +44 1862 810555 or +44 1862 810500 or email [email protected]
Website: Jail Dornoch
5. Falls of Shin and Achness
Sutherland is chock full of bonny waterfalls. Two of the lower level falls that are worth checking out are both located close to the town of Lairg. The Falls of Shin, which is located on the River Shin, a short distance south of the town, has charmed people for centuries both because of its picturesque majesty and also for the natural spectacle that takes place every year when salmon start to ‘run’ the river to spawn. Viewpoints give onlookers a bird’s-eye view of their herculean feats. A visitor centre with large free car park is also located at the site, and is home to a cafe and small shop.
Head west of Lairg for a few miles and you’ll find the much less well known Achness Falls. A very short walk from a small parking area will bring you to these low levels falls with their unusual rock formations. It’s a tranquil place in which to while away some time.
Falls of Shin visitor centre
Opening Hours: Visitor Centre, 10 am to 8 pm daily. Viewpoint open all day.
Contact: +44 1549 402888
6. Achmelvich Beach and Lochinver
One of the region’s famous stunning beaches, it is known as being a magnet for water-based activities such as windsurfing and water-skiing. What’s more, dogs are barred from the beautiful sands during the height of summer, ensuring you’ll find it clean for your visit. The beach is just three-miles (4.8 km) northwest of Lochinver, a small village that is one of the few population centres in the area and is well-worth checking out. It offers a range of hotels, art galleries, and gift shops and is often a popular base for hikers looking to take on the arduous trek up the iconic peak of Suilven.
Website: Visit Scotland
7. Strathnaver Museum
One thing that will strike most visitors to the region is just how empty of people it is. Sutherland is one of the least populated parts of Europe – but it wasn’t always so. Back in the 1700s and 1800s there were many more people who called it home. But a combination of lingering poverty, brutal crop failures, and the notorious ‘Clearances’ saw many a Highlander set sail for new lives overseas. The Clearances were the result of lairds looking to make more money from their extensive lands by farming profitable sheep instead of taking in limited rental money from their small tenant farms. The shift saw many a family evicted from their homes to make way for farm animals to graze. Entire villages were wiped off the map as a result. This achingly tragic past still lingers large in the collective memory, and there are many monuments to this sad chapter in Highland history – from ruined remains of so-called 'Clearance villages’ to physical monuments to the dispossessed. One such reminder is the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill on the far north coast, which remembers the lives of some of the people who once made this stunning landscape their home. Indeed, this former church was the scene of one particularly infamous chapter in the Clearances, when eviction notices for the congregation were read out from the pulpit.
Address: Strathnaver Museum, Clachan, Bettyhill, KW14 7SS
Price: Adult 3 GBP (3.96 USD); Concessions 2 GBP (2.64 USD); Children (age five to 16) 1 GBP (1.32 USD); Under fives go free.
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm (April 1 to October 31). Closed on Sundays.
Contact: +44 1641 521418 or email [email protected]
Website: Strathnaver Museum
Speaking of the Clearances, Golspie on the east coast is home to a monument of those dark days. The main hill overlooking this bonny coastal town – Ben Bhraggie – is home to a statue to one of the Dukes of Sutherland who were one of the architects of this mass exodus. The statue, known locally as The Manny, can be seen for many a mile and serves as a sombre reminder of the lives which were forever changed by the Clearances. The village is also well worth a visit for its beautiful beaches and small shops. And, just a couple of miles north of it sits the impressive remains of the Carn Liath iron age broch – an ancient ‘fortified’ residence. The broch (pictured) is located right next to the busy A9 road, and is easily accessed from a small car park on the opposite side of the carriageway.
Carn Liath Broch
Opening Hours: Open all year round
Access: Located next to the A9 about two miles (3.2 km) north of Golspie.
Website: Carn Liath Broch
9. Loch Fleet
A beautiful tidal sea loch just to the south of Golspie, Loch Fleet is a wildlife lover’s paradise. The loch all but completely empties at low tide to expose extensive sands which are a magnet for a rich array of bird life. Otters also call these waters home, as too do a large number of seals. The loch is a popular haunt for these charming aquatic mammals, who are regularly seen basking on exposed sand bars before the tide drains the water away. Time your trip just right and you may be lucky enough to see them.
10. Dunrobin Castle
This spectacular castle boasts a long and fascinating history – including close ties to the family whose ancestors were indelibly linked to the Clearances. Parts of the building date back to early medieval times, although much of what can be seen today are late 19th century extensions that have transformed the building into a truly stunning fairy tale castle. It’s a popular haunt for tourists, who enjoy the ornamental gardens and beautiful interior – which is chock full of fantastic artworks, furniture, and libraries. The castle also holds regular falconry displays during the peak season which are well worth checking out.
Address: Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, KW10 6SF
Price: Adults 11 GBP (14.51 USD); Seniors 9 GBP (11.87 USD); Children 6.50 GBP (8.57 USD); Students 9 GBP (11.87 USD). Discounts available for groups of 10 or more.
Opening Hours: Open daily April to October (hours vary - check website). Closed November to March.
Contact: +44 1408633177 or email [email protected]
Website: Dunrobin Castle
Rich history and stunning landscapes await
The wild and remote Sutherland landscape is chock full of fascinating history, picturesque Highland villages, and spectacular vistas. You could spend months exploring it… so where do you want to begin?
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