REVIEW: Venture North this autumn and winter

Morag Bootland discovers that it is very far from grim up north on a trip to Sutherland.

I DON’T know the far north of Scotland well, but I really want to. So, when Venture North asked if I’d like to take a trip to Sutherland to explore what the area has to offer I jumped at the chance.

Packing up the car for a road trip I’m looking forward to enjoying wild landscapes, some fine Highland hospitality, great food and drink, bucket-loads of history and a wee bit of adventure thrown in for good measure.

My first port of call is Dunrobin Castle, but there’s no time to tour the glorious home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland today, because I’m here to learn all about the Battle of Littleferry Trail from Patrick Marriot, the Lord Lieutenant of Sutherland. Patrick knows a thing or two about battles, a retired Major General, he was Commandant of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was posted in Sinai, Northern Ireland, West Germany and Iraq.

Patrick became fascinated by the little-known Battle of Littleferry and did much of the research required for his book on the subject during lockdown. The battle took place on 15 April 1746, the day before the Battle of Culloden, and is now commemorated by a trail of standing stones marking the key moments of this bloody skirmish. Patrick and a team of local people unveiled The Battle of Littleferry memorial, which is dedicated to the men who died on both sides, in April this year. The ceremony was attended by descendants of men who fought for both the Scottish forces loyal to the British-Hanoverian Government and the Jacobite forces.

The Battle of Littleferry Memorial

Following the trail, we learn about the major players in the battle and how it unfolded. Standing by the memorial, which is surrounded by wild flowers and flanked by a red rose on one side and a white rose on the other, there’s a real sense of the loss that was felt by the local community here as friends and family fought against one other.

After we bid farewell to Patrick we’re headed to the Golspie Inn for dinner and an overnight stay. This historic coaching inn has plenty of parking and our room is huge with a lovely big bed and dual aspect windows letting in the early autumn sunshine. Dinner at the inn is a hearty affair and we enjoy a fishy feast of crisp calamari, Thai-style fishcakes, and breaded haddock from the specials board. There’s no room for puds and we decide on an early night ahead of an action packed day.

Up early, a generous breakfast awaits and we leave feeling fuelled up and ready for action. The weather is stunning and we’ve decided to take the short drive up to Loch Brora to have a morning swim. The loch is a favourite with photographers and we can see why. Overlooked by Carrol Rock, there’s not a soul around as we slip into the peat-stained water. It gets deep fairly quickly here, and we swim out to take in the views of the hills that surround the loch. It’s about as peaceful as it can be and the lapping of the water over my shoulders is the only sound as we glide through the calm water.

Loch Brora

Chatting to some friendly fishermen we dry off before the short drive back to Dunrobin Castle for a tour of this castle that’s fit for a Disney Princess which dates back to the 13th century. We start with a falconry display in the gardens. We absolutely loved this, learning so much about the Harris Hawk and the Peregrine Falcon as we watch demonstrations of their very different styles of hunting. Falconry displays run in the glorious castle gardens until the end of October twice a day, at 11.30am and 2.30pm. Resident falconer Andy Bunting is so passionate about hunting with birds that I leave feeling inspired to give it a try myself.

Dunrobin Castle

Tearing ourselves away from the gardens that were laid out in 1850 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament and Dunrobin’s Victorian extension, we make a start on some of the castle’s 189 rooms. Dunrobin is open until the end of October and the magnificent state rooms and library are packed with family history. We loved the nursery too and the seamstress’s room with it’s period clothing, giving a real snapshot of historical family life. The views out across the Moray Firth from both the castle and the gardens are incredible and we’d recommend a trip to the cafe, if not for lunch, then at least for cake. Our passion fruit frangipane and rich chocolate brownie were a real treat. We leave Dunrobin feeling full of new knowledge and of course, cake.

Our next destination sees us heading west to the village of Lairg and the banks of Loch Shin. Here we’re meeting Rhionna from the Sutherland Adventure Company to have a paddle boarding lesson out on the loch. Conditions are perfect and we listen to the safety briefing before heading out onto the water. I’ve paddle boarded a few times before but am far from confident and it’s a first for my travelling companion Ester. Wobbly as we were, Rhionna gave us loads of tips and encouragement and before long we were both standing on our boards and confidently paddling around the wee hoose that sits in the middle of the loch.

Paddle boarding on Loch Shin

Jock Broon’s hoose is the subject of a tall tale involving a poacher who was said to have built the hoose in 1824 after being gifted land by a laird. In reality, the hoose has only been on the loch for around 25 years and was placed there by the committee of the Lairg Gala, who felt it would be a waste to throw it away at the end of the week’s festivities.

Badly in need of a shower we take the short drive to Invercassley Cottage B&B to meet our hosts Tracey and Ash Smith. The accommodation at Invercassley is in an annex suite with a private entrance. The house sits in lovely gardens with views over the surrounding countryside and lots of resident chickens. The annex is spotless and it’s lovely to have a kitchen where you can make yourself a cuppa, as well as a guests’ lounge to relax in at the end of the day. Keen naturalists, Tracey and Ash tell us about their resident barn owls and encourage us to watch them at sunset as they head off to hunt.

We quickly freshen up before a five minute walk to Invercassley Tearooms, which is also a bar and bistro. Catching a glimpse of the cheesecakes behind the counter as we take our seats we decide to skip the starter and go straight to venison burgers from local Sutherland supplier Ardgay Game. These are delicious and along with the chunky chips and whisky mayo really hit the spot. The cheesecakes don’t disappoint – one adorned with smarties and the other with biscoff, they don’t last long.

Back at Invercassley Cottage we sit at the bottom of the garden as the last of the light fades and although we don’t see the owls, we do feel the encompassing sense of peace that only sitting quietly in nature can bring.

Cassley Falls

The morning brings a feast fit for the journey home courtesy of Tracey. An array of cereals, juices, toast and condiments supplement the eggs benedict and pancakes with bacon and maple syrup that we hoover up with gusto. Thoroughly stuffed the thought of driving far is all too much so we take a wander along to Cassley Falls in the hope of catching a glimpse of some salmon leaping. Water levels are low and although we see the odd splash, the salmon aren’t attempting to make their way up river yet. The falls are impressive despite the lack of water and are perfect for a gentle stroll.

Deciding on a leisurely route home we continue west until we hit the coast, stopping off at the breathtakingly beautiful Achmelvich Bay for a swim in the turquoise water and a cuppa on the white sand. We’re privileged to be joined in the bay by a curious seal who follows us back and forth at a distance as we swim. The road west takes us past some of the county’s most distinctive peaks including Suilven, Canisp and Ben More Assynt and through part of The North West Highlands Geopark, the first in Scotland.

Achmelvich Bay

And so our trip draws to a close. A quick stop in Ullapool for sustenance in the form of a bowl of soup at The Ceilidh Place and then we’re headed for home. We’ve had a busy couple of days but somehow we feel rested. I’m sure its down to time spent in nature, fresh air and good old-fashioned Highland hospitality.

The Venture North website is a great starting point if you’re planning to visit Caithness and Sutherland. You’ll find lots of ideas for accommodation, what’s on and where to go whether you’re into history, food and drink, the great outdoors or a wee bit of everything. There are lots of reasons to visit the far north this autumn and winter and this is a great way to tailor a trip to your needs. Or, there are themed itineraries if you’d prefer a little guidance.

Our road trip in September saw the roads surprisingly quiet and allowed plenty of opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle and revel in all that is great about this beautiful part of Scotland. But I can let you into a secret that you may not find detailed in the guidebooks, something that was a real highlight of our trip, and that’s the people. Without exception, everyone we met was friendly, welcoming and passionate about their home.

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