Ullapool To Thurso
ROUTE LENGTH: 177 MILES
This is a stunning route, about six hours without stopping, along the top of the Scottish mainland. Be prepared!
Follow A835 north of Ullapool. If you can turn west onto unnumbered road marked Archiltibure, and follow to Badnagyle. Here you can follow the road ahead to Polbain, if you have time; otherwise turn right and follow road to Lochinver, eventually coming onto A837. Follow to junction to A894, turn left here. Eventually you will come to Scourie, Laxford Bridge, where you join the A838. Pass Kinlochbervie, before reaching Durness and Balnakeil.
To visit Cape Wrath, see here.
Continue to follow A838, crossing a bridge to Tongue. Follow road, which becomes A836, and pass Strathnavar with its museum on the left. Follow the A836, you will pass Dounreay Nuclear Power Station. Shortly after, turn left at crossroads to Crosskirk for the medieval church. Then return to A836 – eventually you will come to Thurso.
This will be about 18 hours in total, however accommodation is scarce along the coast, so you will have to plan strategically where you stay. Follow the route above.
By Public Transport
As with the prior stage, the simplest route is by going from Ullapool to Thurso – all these routes go via Inverness, and will take about 6 hours. The 961 or 61 go back to Inverness. From there you can take a train or the Stagecoach highlands X99 to Thurso.
In contrast, the 809 takes you from Ullapool to Lochinver. However to reach Durness from here is not possible without going back via Ullapool.
To check times go to Traveline Scotland and click on Plan your Journey on left side of page.
Ullapool is a planned fishing village that has grown into a bustling visitor and cultural centre as well. It is also a main port for travel to the Western Isles. The local museums are good as is the famous Ceilidh Place. The modern churches exhibit a square set plainness lacking much visible connection with the older spiritual roots. But for our purposes Ullapool is most important as a gateway to Sutherland. At this point in the journey the landscape begins its turn towards austere wilderness that makes the far northwest so distinctive and unforgettable an experience. For Maelrubha this territory presented new challenges and hardships for the intrepid missionary and traveller.
There is something surreal and unearthly about the next long stretch to Laxford Bridge. Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp and finally Quinag stand out as if in lonely isolation on a moonscape. In truth they are individual survivors of a once massive mountain range. If time allows it is worth turning west to Polbain, Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, so approaching Lochinver on the coast road. You can then stay with the coast on the south side of lovely Eddrachillis Bay, or rejoin the main road directly by Loch Assynt proceeding on the north side of the Bay to Scourie. Another short diversion is possible to Tarbert and the Handa Island bird reserve. This coast is increasingly open towards the North Atlantic, with only the Ness of Lewis visible now directly to the west. It is hard to resist the mystical underlay of this landscape. As the area’s most famous modern poet, Norman McCaig puts it, ‘Who is it that owns this landscape? The man who possesses it, or I who am possessed by it?’
The direction from Laxford is northeast with possible diversions west to Kinlochbervie, and then further on by special ferry and minibus to Cape Wrath, the nothwesternmost point in the Scottish mainland. It is barren and wild country, but at the Head you may be able to see the Butt of Lewis and the Orkney Islands at the same time. Due north however is only the invisible Arctic. The ferry crossing is just short of Durness, and less hardy travellers might head on to there without pause. A little north of Durness is Balnakeil Church and Burial Ground. Founded by Maelrubha in this beachside, yet often windswept location, there has been a succession of historic churches. The eighteenth century Sutherland poet, Rob Donn Mackay, a Burns of Gaeldom, is buried here. There is also a craft village at Balnakeil, and a little east of Durness are the cavernous echoing Smoo Caves.
We are now travelling along the top of Scotland by sea lochs and headlands to Tongue, where there is a handsome eighteenth century parish kirk, traditional burial place of the Mackay Lords of Reay. From Kyle of Tongue look inland to majestic Ben Loyal, while leaving from Tongue itself you can experience the emptiness of the great Sutherland straths by driving south into Strathnaver, and then by Badanloch and Achentoul Forests back to the coast down Strath Halladale. According to one tradition Maelrubha was killed at Skail in Strathnaver by Vikings, rather than dying more peacefully on the Black Isle.
But where did all the people who once lived here go in the Clearance times, and could climate change yet bring people back to these open lands? Back at the coast, Bettyhill is an important clearance township as people were forced to make a living from the sea. But it is also in an area of intense prehistoric settlement. There is a Strathnaver Folk Museum in Farr Old Church, just north of Bettyhill, where the Farr stone is also to be seen with its intricate combination of Pictish and Christian designs. Like Durness, Farr was an important parish centre with little linked chapels scattered out in the sparsely populated area- a very practical way of bringing religion to the people.
Continuing west by lovely Melvich and Portskerra we reach Reay with its historic kirk, and on the east side even older burial ground and chapel site dedicated to St Colm. Colm is a common dedication to a follower or associate of Columba. Next we pass the monumental and ever controversial Dounreay Nuclear Power Station. No electricity is generated here now but de-commissioning , waste management and the effects of past pollution leave a legacy of many centuries for future generations. Between Dounreay and Thurso, before Bridge of Forss, turn left to reach Crosskirk by the sea. There is a medieval Chapel and Well of St Mary here, which shows Norse influence, and an old parish kirk. We are firmly arrived in Caithness, a quite different country that looks and feels more like Orkney than Sutherland. The Scrabster Ferry to Orkney is adjacent on this coast.
We bind unto ourselves today
The virtues of the starlit heaven
The glorious sun’s life-giving rays
The whiteness of the moon at even
The flashing of the lightning free
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shock
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.
We bind unto ourselves today
The strong name of the Trinity.
By invocation of the same,
The Three-in-one , the One-in-three,
Of whom all nature hath creation
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
( Breastplate of St Patrick )