As we sit in probably the most atmospheric pub in Scotland, the setting sun glancing off the sea loch, seal cubs on the rocks, white eider ducks bobbing in the inky waters, my 10-year-old’s entranced gaze falls upon a map. ‘Mummy, who is John O’Groats? Why is he on the map?”
It’s a classic “ask your father” moment, but it transpires that despite being a Scot, from the crown of his Celtic red head to the stout soles of his black gillie brogues, Daddy has no idea.
“We could Google it,” I suggest. “No, let’s go there!” Lily replies, catching us in a moment of indulgence. Yes, I agree, but not yet; not until we’ve wrung every last moment of joy from Kylesku, on the west coast, a picture-perfect find on the shores of Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul. Not until we’ve watched the changing shadows on the mighty twin peaks of Quinaig and stopped the car in majestically desolate landscapes of psychedelic rocks that have led to the area being designated a UNESCO Geopark. Here, in one of Europe’s most sparsely populated corners, are panoramas without houses or pylons or even sheep. An involuntary shiver seems almost mandatory.
By contrast with the craggy scenery, the Kylesku Hotel, a coaching inn dating from 1680, is the sort of warm, welcoming gem every traveller dreams about. The seafood – langoustines, lobsters, crabs and haddock, fresh off the boats on the jetty – is the best we’ve eaten.
We’ve explored much of Scotland throughout the years, but this is our first foray into its greatest wilderness – and it appears we are ahead of the pack. The latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, shows the Highlands at their dramatic best, and the trailer for the latest Bond adventure, Skyfall, features the magnificently filmic Glen Etive. Scenes from Scarlett Johansson’s new release, Under the Skin, were filmed at Glencoe and Disney Pixar’s new animation, Brave, introduces a new Scottish heroine, Merida, who must negotiate her path in life through the “rugged and mysterious” Highlands.
And I can vouch for the fact that the north Highlands is as rugged and mysterious as it gets. There’s Caithness, home to the intriguing John O’Groats; Ross-shire, with its spectacular mountains; and Sutherland (reputedly the last haunt of wolves in Britain), which has a history scarred by the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were evicted to make room for sheep.
One of our highlights on the west coast is the unromantically titled All Abilities Path, a pedestrian way, accessible by wheelchair, right into the wilds, past Loch Assynt and a dinky solar-powered loo with a view. Children are notoriously impatient travellers, but the scenery is on such a scale as to fascinate them. As we drive on up the north-east, we stop overnight at Melvich House Hotel, a former Victorian hunting lodge with an ambitious menu, roaring log fire and a marvellously clubbable cat called Cocoa, who relished our daughters’ attentions. We spent a happy afternoon on the golden beach, where dolphins are often spotted, but we only saw surfers – Thurso, along the coast, is famous for its world-class waves.
Then it’s on to John O’Groats. I have low expectations, as I had always gathered it was a glorified car park, which it is, but the emphasis is on glorified – and a large-scale regeneration program is under way. So we buy delicious local ice-cream and a tasteful ceramic souvenir and have our photographs taken for posterity.
Most importantly, we discover its history. In the reign of James IV (1488-1513), Jan de Groot, a Dutchman, built a bizarre octagonal house, sadly no longer extant, near the present-day John O’Groats House Hotel (now being refurbished). He ran a ferry to Orkney and charged two pence, or a groat, a trip. Over the years his name was bastardised to John O’Groats. So now we all know.
The final leg takes us to Brora on the east coast, where we stay in the seafront Royal Marine Hotel apartments. Built as a private country house in the early 20th century by architect Sir Robert Lorimer, the hotel is a favourite of golfers. From Brora, we take day trips: to Golspie on the Moray Firth, where we intended to visit Dunrobin Castle, seat of the clan Sutherland – but instead walk over bridges and through a gorge to reach the impressive Big Burn waterfall. We also head to Dornoch and to the village of Tain, a haven for artists. Hollywood’s fascination with a backdrop might prompt a fresh groundswell of tourism, but you can rest easy that, if it’s solitude you’re looking for, the north Highlands has more than enough to go around.
Telegraph, LondonFAST FACTSGetting there
KLM has a fare to Amsterdam for about $1820 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), then to Amsterdam (13hr 10min); see klm苏州美甲学校. Flybe has a fare for about $220 return (incl tax) from Amsterdam to Inverness (2hr 10min); flybe苏州美甲学校.Staying there
Kylesku Hotel has double rooms from £90 ($140) a night; £108 with a loch view. See kyleskuhotel.co.uk.
Melvich House Hotel has rooms from £75. See melvichhotel.co.uk.
Royal Marine Hotel, Brora, is from £550-£890 a week for its two-bedroom Links Apartments. See royalmarinebrora苏州美甲学校.
More information See northhighlandsscotland苏州美甲学校.
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