This was a two day trip in May 2017, from Inverness to Wick and back – travelling out by train and back by bus.
The Far North Line train takes four hours twenty minutes to trundle from Inverness to Wick. It is usually a two-coach diesel, sometimes four coaches in the summer season, and runs four times daily. While the scenery may not be as dramatic as the Kyle or West Highland lines, it provides a good introduction to this remote area of Scotland. The first stretch follows the East Coast through Beauly, Dingwall, Invergordon and Tain and is a pleasant mix of farmland and small towns. There are good views to the west of Ben Wyvis and the surrounding mountains, and to the east of the Cromarty Firth, and the unemployed oil rigs moored offshore. It was a sunny day and the gorse was in full bloom throughout the journey. After Tain the line heads inland via Bonar Bridge and Lairg rather than bridge the Dornoch Firth – the route contributes to the fact that today the train is slower than driving (or indeed the bus).
Lairg is at the centre of a network of roads leading to all corners of Sutherland. The post was (possibly still is) distributed from there and a network of postbus routes met the train to carry passengers and mail to Tongue, Kinlochbervie, Durness and Lochinver. In 1991 we took the train to Lairg and the postbus to Lochinver. The bus drivers had been told the trains were thirty minutes late and they were not at the station – the delay was actually thirteen minutes and we met them half way to the village. On board was the mail, which was delivered en route as the driver had a good look to see who was getting what – he seemed particularly interested in magazines in plain brown envelopes. There were also goods ordered by catalogue, popular in the Highlands in pre-internet days, including a bicycle which took up most of the aisle of the minibus. Two days later the same bicycle was on the bus back to Lairg, presumably because it was the wrong size or colour. Two Italian tourists in expensive clothes with designer luggage were totally bemused by the goings on. It was in Lochinver that we rediscovered how bad Scottish midges could be and met two local girls who were staying put because they didn’t like life in the big town – the big town in question turned out to be Golspie, where they boarded Monday-Friday during secondary school terms – it must have been scary behind the bike sheds.
The train returns to the coast near Golspie, passes the Duke of Sutherland’s station at Dunrobin Castle, then continues via Brora and Helmsdale. The coastal villages were constructed following the Highland Clearances in the early nineteenth century, when the population of the inland areas was forcibly cleared by the Duke and other landowners to make may for sheep. Those crofters who did not emigrate to Canada had to turn to fishing.Two thirds of the former county of Sutherland was the property of the Duke of Sutherland, and the estate dictated everything in the area, including the building of the railway.
After Helmsdale the railway heads inland once more to avoid the steep cliffs on the coast. route. Between Helmsdale and Georgemas Junction is the most dramatic scenery – first Strath Kildonan, emptied of population during the Clearances then across the uninhabited flow country, where the wind sweeps across all year plus rain in summer and snow in winter. We pass the request stop of Altnabreac – although it is in the middle of nowhere it is the scene of an adventure in Dixe Wills’ book visiting the request stops of Britain (1).
From Georgemas Junction we head for Thurso on the north coast where the train reverses (there is not much of the town visible from the line), returns to Georgemas Junction (it is really not worth seeing twice), and across the farmland into Wick.
I’m staying in the comfortable Mackays Hotel. The door to the bistro takes up the whole length of Ebenezer Place, according to the Guinness Book of Records the world’s shortest street, 2.06metres long. After a short break I wander out to find out what Wick has to offer on a Tuesday evening in May. The answer is not much. The hotel itself seems to be the place where the middle classes and establishment of Wick gathers…and the beer is good. Otherwise, the Wetherspoons seems to have knocked out any other pub in Wick. It is much the same as any other ‘Spoons but a couple of the other pubs are empty and even the chip shop is shut. I walk around the town and harbour and there are plenty of signs of the past dominance of fishing. My impression is that the arrival of Tesco and Wetherspoons has knocked the stuffing out of the town centre.
I have been in Wick once before – in 1980 when I was hitchhiking from John O’Groats after a visit to the Orkneys and was given a lift by a couple. I was catching the train south in the morning and very kindly they put me up for the night – no need to find somewhere to pitch the tent. In the evening we went for a few pints to the Dounreay workers social club in Wick – the nuclear establishment was the major employer in Caithness. The main decoration in the bar was a large frieze consisting of the outline of nuclear reactors. I decided to keep schtum about my views on nuclear power and had a pleasant evening.
In the morning I returned to Inverness by bus – the Stagecoach X99 coach takes three hours for the journey. This was new to me as I have never travelled by road between Wick and Inverness. On the first stretch there was a few of us on board as we passed through the coastal fishing villages of Ulbster and Lybster to Dunbeath. The next section is the most dramatic as we follow the cliffs via Berriedale (pictured) and the Ord of Caithness and cross back into Sutherland. This is the area which prevented the railway following the coast and was a major barrier to overland transport until the twentieth century. The A9 has been improved but there are still significant bends and hills on this stretch (2).
More passengers joined at Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie and the final seats were taken when we called at Dornoch. Dornoch is a very attractive small town, not served by the railway line, though there was a branch line until 1960. After crossing the modern Dornoch Firth bridge and passing the Glenmorangie distillery we reached Tain, another attractive small town (3). I may explore Tain and Dornoch at some point in the future. From Tain the bus is an express, crossing the Cromarty Firth and the Black Isle, reaching inverness by the Kessock bridge over the Beauly firth.
(1) Tiny Stations, Dixe Wills, AA publishing, 2014. A must read for connoisseurs of obscure places on the railway network.
(2) See: The Finest Road in the World – the story of travel and transport in the Scottish Highlands, James Miller, Birlinn, 2017. The book covers the whole of the Highlands, but the author is a Caithnessian and covers the difficulty of travel in this area in some detail.
(3) When the bridge was planned in the 1980s it was hoped that the railway would cross the bridge alongside the A9, reaching the north by Dornoch rather than Lairg. This would have cut the journey time by 45 minutes. However, Government funding was only made available for a road bridge.
Inverness to Wick
Trains: dep 0700, 1041, 1400, 1828 Mon-Sat; 1754 Sun. 4hrs20mins. Scotrail. Coach: 3 journeys, afternoon only Mon-Sat; 2 journeys Sun. 3hrs. Stagecoach X99.
Wick to Inverness
Trains: dep 0618, 0802, 1234, 1600 Mon-Sat; 1158 Sun. 4hrs20mins. Scotrail. Coach: 3 journeys, morning only Mon-Sat; 2 journeys Sun. 3hrs. Stagecoach X99.
In past years an additional coach has left Inverness in the morning and Wick in the late afternoon, from June to September. This makes day trips out by train back by coach or vice versa much more feasible. These routes can also be travelled as part of journeys to and from the Orkneys.
Copyright: Photoraphs (except for the above) and text Copyright © Steve Gillon, 2018.