This was a short backpacking trip by Brian to the north coast of Scotland during a summer of Covid-19 travel restrictions. I have seen a lot of Scotland over the years from bagging the Munro’s (almost twice now) , Corbetts and Graham hills to rock climbing, sea kayaking, cycling and general meandering. This area in the far north is somewhere where I haven’t been to too much though and I thought a coastal backpack would be a good way to explore. The downside was that August is not my favourite time to visit, mostly due to the midge, a particularly gruesome insect!
Summary This was a scenic hike with stunning coastal cliffs and expanses of sand but was tough going due to a few factors. There were very few trails on the coast in between the town and road sections and the terrain above the cliffs was heather and peat, mostly not too bad for walking but at times very wet and tussocky. The midges were pretty awful at camp as feared, even when pitched on a sandy beach at high tide level. Very little sitting outside the tent with a cup of tea gazing at the scenery here! There was a bit too much road walking in places, such as the 6 miles of busy road to get round the nuclear power station at Dounreay. Having recently been backpacking in Cornwall, the towns of the north lack the ‘cuteness’ and interesting old buildings found down there. However this was balanced by the lack of crowds- hiking on the coast away from towns, I saw virtually no-one else hiking- maybe for the reasons above!
So if I was to try another section of coast in the north I would go in March/April/May/early June- with maybe May being optimum depending on the weather.
Monday 17th August 2020 The weather was set fair for the next few days as I left my car near Tongue, ready to hike east following the coast as much as I could. Tongue is on the side of the ‘Kyle of Tongue’ sea inlet– which surely must rank as one of the most beautiful places in Scotland with huge expanses of white sand exposed at low tide, a jagged mountain backdrop inland and a number of islands dotting the horizon out to sea.
I headed up the east side of the inlet at first on a pebbly shore before I was forced up a steep slope above the sea by a cliff. I had to bushwack through head high bracken for a bit before popping out at some houses and taking a gravel access road back out to the main A836 road at Rhitongue.
An overgrown trail past a river valley took me to some cottages at Skullomie and then I had a really cool stretch north on sheep trails to ruins at Sletell. The views over to Rabbit Islands and Eilean nan Ron were grand. Some more bracken bashing followed before I picked up a sequence of short trails and minor roads to Skerray and on to Torrisdale Bay. I was finding that the vegetation was really high and difficult to hike through near to houses, but away from there and on the coast it tended to much better short cropped heather.
Crossing the River Borgie via a footbridge I then hiked round the sandy dunes of Torrisdale Bay to Invernaver- another lovely stretch. I road walked into Bettyhill town, arriving about 7pm to find the grocery store was closed, but I picked up water at the public toilets. So I headed on and dropped down to the smaller beach of Farr Bay. There was one surfer riding to waves at twilight as I stopped to pitch the tent on the beach at high tide level.
The wind died down and midges descended as I pitched, and I ended up eating whilst walking along the edge of the water to keep them at bay. Lovely spot though!
Tuesday 18th August 2020 Midges chased me off in the morning as I headed north to Farr Point. Wild cliff scenery around the point and past the ruined Borve Castle made for dramatic hiking. I struggled a bit zig zagging through the cluster of houses at Swordly, with some head high bushwacking to get through an overgrown path.
A better jeep track over the hill eastwards down to the road at Kirtomy provided some easier walking and then I had another good jeep track up the hill north of a big antenna with lovely views back west across Swordly Bay. At this point I headed cross country north east a bit inland to the ruins and trail at Poulouriscaig over quite remote feeling ground. A stop a bit further on on top of an old concrete building allowed me to dry off and carry out some minor repairs to the tent guy lines. My feet were also suffering a bit from the continuously wet underfoot conditions and sand in everything.
Easy tracks down to Armadale road and I picked up a signposted route down to Armadale Bay- an expanse of sand with no one else on it strangely. Lunch was had above the cliffs on the east side as the sun came out and a breeze kept the midges away. I was able to relax with the stove out for a couple of cups of tea with the Bay as a beautiful backdrop.
Next up was a long hike up northwards on the west coast of the peninsula of Strathy Point. I walked through heather and grass mostly above cliffs, zawns and islands. The rock mostly seemed to be ‘gneiss’ with some cool distorted and striped rock. The final couple of miles to Strathy Point lighthouse was particularly cool – natural arches and white water dashing against the cliffs. The sun also appeared again which helped!
I took the minor road back down the east side of the peninsula to Strathy and through some rare woods to a new trailhead toilet block area above Strathy Bay where I cooked up dinner. This is a good spot for surfing in Strathy Bay and on a warm sunny evening it made sense.
A strange sight on the way was a car driving slowly down the road with the sheep leading ahead of the car – very obediently. Normally sheep would just spread out off the road back into the fields.
The roads here are quite busy with campervans with the coastal road being part of the very popular ‘North Coast 500’ driving (and cycling) route. It would be a very scenic drive but you will be sharing it with a procession of vans, RVs and cars. One benefit I did find when road walking though is that when its cold and a campervan drives past I was getting a refreshing blast of warm air to heat me up!
I took water at the toilet bock – water availability is a slight issue as I have been a bit wary of streams at the coast flowing through the heavily farmed areas with lots of cattle. I am carrying aqua mira water purifier tablets but have opted to take water where I can from towns and public water supplies.
The hike east along the cliff tops from here in the evening with the low sun behind me was one of the highlights of the trip and I found a wild camp spot near Rubha na Cloiche. A good varied day but the feet are blistering a bit!
Wednesday 19th August 2020 A few midges last night but not the apocalyptic swarms of the previous night! I had a soggy hike along the coast a bit then out to the A836 road to walk into Melvich. There is a campsite here so I stopped to dry the tent out and buy coffee and cake at the campsite store- the first open shop I had come across.
There was a bridge marked on the map over the Halladale River at the enigmatically named ‘Big House’. To get there I walked back up the road again then took a track down to the sand dunes to the bridge. But arrrgghh, the bridge had a locked gate with a sign saying no access. I looked at the river but it appeared to be swimming rather than wading depth. So reluctantly I retreated back round to the campsite then along the verge of the A836 to the south over the river and picked up tracks back to Big House. Maybe only a 90 minute detour but it was frustrating that the bridge was closed to the public – not sure why, maybe to preserve the fishing rights?
I headed east again along the cliff tops over tussocky heather past more grand cliffs. The rock type changed to sedimentary here with tilted bands and some massive overhanging rock faces. Later on this section became a bit of trudge though over continuously peat haggy ground then heavily dug up areas as I passed Sandside House and into Reay. I had hoped for a shop here but everything seemed closed – I did at least pick up water from a hose pipe in the local cemetery.
Now I had to face up to a long road walk on the A836 to get round Dounreay nuclear power station. I hiked fast and used the rough verges when cars passed, but walked the road when it was quiet. Not my favourite hiking experience it has to be said, but the views of Dounreay were strangely fascinating, changing slowly as I passed by at hiking speed.
Well, all good things must pass, and I soon picked up a track heading north back to the coast across some pretty wasted cattle farming land. The coast was cool though and I had a stop and brew of tea on slabby rock strata dipping into the sea. I decided to hike on to Thurso today as I couldn’t see much in the way of decent camping up to there and my feet were blistered!
The wind farm at Hill of Lybster was fun to hike past, as was the Chapel and bridge crossing at Crosskirk. Mist and some drizzle came in as I hiked field margins past Brims Castle and then uphill to Ness of Litter. There is a Caithness Flagstone quarry there perched right at the edge of the cliff but the visibility had reduced now and it was just me and lots of sheep dodging around. I took the track down to Scrabster and by now the mist was down at sea level so I put my head down to walk into Thurso to finish. A long day of maybe 26 miles to wrap up the trip!
Charles’ Walk A round Britain coastal hike in 2018 with informative daily blogs.
Walking Scotland’s Coast A great information source on Scotland’s coast by these hikers.
North Highland Way Aiming to organise a signposted trail/route along the north coast.
Walkhighlands Good general walking guide to Scotland