Mini guide to Northern Highlands, Scotland
Some 25 miles north of Ullapool in the North West Highlands stand the remains of Ardvreck Castle on the shores of Loch Assynt. (BBC)
The Highlands have a certain melancholy beauty to them. Mist and peat, heather and whisky, and long sun-blessed summer evenings are the pay-off for so many days of drizzle.
Boat beside some of Britain’s best beaches or stroll amid prehistoric standing stones on windswept coastal paths.
Offering whitewashed harbour cottages and views of Loch Broom, Ullapool is one of the Highlands’ most scenic ports. It’s also the place to catch a boat trip to the Summer Isles. The two-hour journey can be booked with Seascape Expeditions (01854 633708; sea-scape.co.uk; £28.50).
14th-century Dunrobin Castle overlooks the Moray Firth and is home to the Duke of Sutherland. The 189-room castle has seen the architectural influences of Sir Charles Barry, who designed London’s Houses of Parliament. There’s also a great museum in the grounds (01408 633177; dunrobincastle.co.uk; 10.30am-4.30pm daily Apr-mid-October; £9).
On the 69-mile road connecting Durness to Ullapool, a heathered valley gives way to rockier country studded with lochs, and gorse-covered hills preface the ridge of Assynt, punctuated by glacier-scoured mountains.
The curious sandstone peaks around Knockan are produced by older geological layers rising above younger ones. See the phenomenon at the Inverpolly Nature Reserve, where you can take a three-hour walk up Stac Polly from the car park at Loch Lurgainn (inverpolly.com).
Durness has beautiful sandy beaches, including Rispond to the east, Sango Sands below town, and Balnakeil to the west. Beneath the water are scuba-diving sites with wrecks, caves, seals and whales. At Faraid Head, you can see puffins in early summer.
Eat and drink
A mile west of Durness, the Loch Croispol Bookshop is part of a craft village that brought peace and love to a former nuclear early-warning station in the ’60s. They do a decent fry-up, coffees, salads and simple snacks (01971 511777; 2 Balnakeil, Durness; lunch Mon-Sat; mains £4-£8).
Frigate Café is a popular venue for porridge and coffee in the morning, then tea and ice cream in the afternoon. The café becomes a bistro in the evenings, with a menu featuring smoked fish and delicious locally made pies (01854 612969; Shore St, Ullapool; mains £6-£10).
Thurso is the most northern town in Britain, and a popular place to eat is The Red Pepper restaurant at the Holborn Hotel 8 . It serves tasty dishes, such as medallions of Caithness beef on crushed herb potatoes (01847 892771; 16 Princes St, Thurso; lunch and dinner; mains £9-£20).
A 16th-century former bishop’s palace, the Dornoch Castle Hotel 9 is full of character and has a fantastic restaurant. Stand-out dishes include the Dornoch Firth mussels and Loch Duart salmon on a potato, black olive and anchovy salad (01862 810216; dornochcastlehotel.com; Castle St, Dornoch; mains £17-£22).
Albannach is an indulgent country-house hotel set in vast grounds studded with fruit trees. The restaurant, recently awarded a Michelin star, showcases multi-course dinners using local organic produce (thealbannach. co.uk; Baddidarroch, Lochinver; dinner Mar-Oct; five courses £50).
South of the town of Kylesku, a 30-mile detour on the B869 will reward you with fine beaches. On this stretch is the Clachtoll Beach Campsite where you can pitch a tent, park a caravan or rent a chalet with balcony and kitchenette – book early (01571 855377; clachtollbeachcampsite. co.uk; Apr-Sep; from £8 for a site, plus £2 per person).
Point Cottage has a great headland location and it’s one of the shorefront cottages you may have already admired if you arrived in Ullapool by ferry. Rooms, with their quilted bedspreads and sloping eaves, are cosy and welcoming after a day’s walking (01854 612494; pointcottage.co.uk; 22 West Shore St, Ullapool; Mar-Oct; from £50).
Comfortable oversize beds and thick eiderdowns make Mackay’s a romantic spot, but what impresses most is the warm-hearted service. Peatstacks restaurant serves traditional Highland dishes, with a focus on seafood (01971 511202; visitmackays.com; Durness, Sutherland; Easter-Nov; from £100).
The unusual Ceilidh Place is a celebration of Scottish culture. Rooms are traditional rather than modern, and come with hot-water bottles and a selection of books chosen by Scottish literati. Best is the guest lounge, with chaise-longues and an honesty bar (01854 612103; theceilidhplace.com; 14 West Argyle St, Ullapool; from £100).