North West Sutherland in Scotland – the most breathtaking and northerly of ‘southern lands’
Chances are, those of us living on Tyneside all have at least one London-based friend who perceives Newcastle or Gateshead to be so far away it might as well be on the Moon.
So, imagine explaining to them a place that is seven hours’ drive north of the Tyne, where you point your car towards the far north-west corner of Scotland and keep driving until the Atlantic Ocean prevents you going any further. That place – a unique, rugged and wonderful place – is North West Sutherland.
Of course, not everyone sees Sutherland in such ‘northern’ terms – indeed, the historic county’s name means ‘southern land’, because if you were a Viking, settling the region from a base in Orkney, that’s exactly what it was.
Today, many tourists make a beeline for Sutherland’s comparatively developed east coast, where the resort of Dornoch offers much to enjoy with its Championship golf course, quaint independent shops and country house hotels. If you want remoteness, however, it’s to the county’s north-west portion – designated as Scotland’s first Geopark due to its extraordinary geology and landscape – that you must head, where you’ll be rewarded with the experience of one of Europe’s wildest and most otherworldly places.
Certainly, in a region where the only shops are usually Spars and little village stores, and the nearest Tesco is at least an hour’s drive away, don’t expect to find much retail therapy. The weather may not always be kind – though when it is, the skies and quality of light are incredible – but a visit to North West Sutherland is all about being outdoors; hiking, exploring and savouring.
So where to start? On the north coast, Faraid Head at Durness is a good place to acclimatise, with easy walking, and sweeping views across sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs. Nearby, you can descend the steep steps to Smoo Cave – the largest coastal cave in Britain – and its dramatic waterfall.
A little south of Cape Wrath – the most north-westerly point of the British mainland – Sandwood Bay is an astonishingly beautiful mile-long sandy beach, accessible only on foot. Starting from the car park at Blairmore, it’s a nine-mile round walk, following a good track across dunes and around lochans, to the bay. Be prepared to have your breath taken away when the bay finally and suddenly reveals itself as you round a corner.
Unsurprisingly, for the most panoramic views, there’s little option but to head uphill. The Ben Strome Stalker’s Track, starting from Kylestrome, offers breathtaking landscapes at every turn – across Loch Glendhu, of the graceful Kylesku Bridge, and over Eddrachillis Bay, with its sprinkling of shimmering islands. Even better, you can reward yourself afterwards with a hearty meal and a pint at one of the area’s few hostelries – the Kylesku Hotel, named as Scottish Hotel of the Year 2014 by the Good Hotel Guide.
So, find yourself a small but cosy lochside cottage (or a room in the Kylesku), turn off your mobile (it won’t work anyway), and enjoy the chance to get away from it all in this most northerly of southern lands.
This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of Engage Magazine, Newcastle and Gateshead’s premier lifestyle magazine. For the latest issue, visit engagemagazine.co.uk.