Caledonia Dreaming Part 3 – London to Thurso & Beyond
Updated: Jul 5
Let me introduce John. He’s a likeable chap from a garage in Brora, a small town on the Sutherland coast north of Inverness and the only place locally from where you can hire a car. In this scene he is trying to reassure me. I’m arranging to hire a Ford Ka from him by phone. It’s the only car available for hire in Brora. Concerned that I would possibly be arriving back late in Brora to drop off the car at the end of the day’s hire and after his garage closure time, unable to hand deliver the keys to him, his nonchalant response?
“Just leave the car unlocked in the station car park with the keys under the visor. I’ll pick it up the next day.”
“Ohhhh Kayyyy! So I leave the car unlocked with the keys inside overnight in a public car park! Erm, right, so can I pay you by credit card now over the phone?”
“Sorry, we don’t have that facility. Nae problem though. Just leave the £50 with the keys in the car in the station car park,” replied laidback John.
“Are you sure? So I leave the car unlocked in a public place, with the keys and £50 under the visor?!”
“Dinnae worry, son. There is no crime in Sutherland!”
It is another world.
This trip started London with the Caledonian Sleeper, one of only two sleeper services still in existence in Britain. The new owner of the franchise has recently upgraded with brand new and very impressive looking units, which I’ll describe once I’ve ridden them. But this journey was on the old-style sleeper and, as it was my first journey on a UK sleeper train, I detoured down to London to get the whole experience (you can also catch it in the north, more of which in another chapter).
Departing London Euston just after 9pm, you are shown to your cabin. There is a lower berth and a pull-down upper berth, storage space and a sink cum table by the picture window. Showers and toilets are along the carriage and the bar car is a great way to meet fellow travellers and share stories. In those days sleeper compartments were all the same, with Standard Class accommodating two people and First Class just one person. The train stops at Crewe and Preston, before splitting in the wee small hours in the Central Belt, one section heading along the West Highland Line at breakfast-time to Fort William, another section along the North Sea coast to Aberdeen, and mine would allow me views of the Cairngorms in the early morn en route to Inverness.
I won’t deny it. The uncoupling and coupling in the middle of the night did disturb my Caledonian dreams, but I soon rolled back off, waking again in the brilliant sunshine and dewdrop dawn of the Grampians. Leisurely enjoying breakfast by my window, I admired old friends, Dalwhinnie and Aviemore before we rolled into Inverness.
After a morning revisiting Inverness hotels I boarded the ScotRail “Far North Line” service. The train would terminate in Thurso in distant Caithness, but my own journey would halt for the night in Brora. Leaving Inverness the Far North Line follows the Beauly Firth to Beauly itself, a station so tiny that the diddy platform cannot accommodate groups. At Dingwall, a junction town, the Kyle Line heads west across the mountains to the sea at Kyle of Lochalsh, but that’s another story. From Dingwall the Far North Line veers back to the coast, skirting the Cromarty Firth, where the natural beauty of its watery landscape is sometimes obscured by the incongruous industrial sight of redundant oil rigs moored temporarily off-shore. For the next part of the journey you are never far from water, from the Dornoch Firth to the Kyle of Sutherland to the North Sea itself. The railway takes a different route to the A9 on many parts of this journey and is definitely more scenic.
Dunrobin is worth a stop if you have time. It’s a halt rather than a scheduled stop and it’s only possible to alight there in the summer tourist season. Dunrobin is the seat of the Duke of Sutherland. The station was originally built as the Duke’s private station and from here it’s a short walk across the road, through the grand entrance to the remarkable French-style château. The station itself is a listed building, whose Arts & Crafts style waiting room dates from 1902. My day ended at Brora though, a sleepy coastal town, where I’d meet chilled-out John the following morning, pick up the only car available for hire in Sutherland, then leave it unlocked, with the keys and £50 cash inside at the end of the day.
The following day was simple but hectic. Pick up the Ford Ka, drive up to visit hotels in Wick and Thurso, pop into the Castle of Mey, then back to Brora in time for the last train south. I’ll admit that I detoured for a sneaky peek at John O’Groats too, but I’ve been back since to spend a bit more quality time in Caithness, such is its remote allure.
Whilst the road to the far north follows the coast into Caithness the Far North Line takes an altogether different route through a region known as the Highland Flow, a vast area of peat boglands virtually uninhabited by humans but a remarkable and important habitat for birdlife. From Georgemas Junction the train heads either to Wick or Thurso, the UK mainland’s northernmost station and gateway to the Northern Isles from the nearby port of Scrabster. The Far North Line could definitely be described as a journey, from the city of the Highlands past Sutherland’s coastal treats, then across bleak boglands to the edge of this island. But why stop there?
Northlink operates ferry services that are a lifeline to locals living in the Orkneys and Shetlands, but which provide us grateful tourists with a chance to sample an even more remote corner of the British Isles. Leaving Scrabster, make sure you are on the starboard side of the ship for close-up views of the Old Man of Hoy, one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain at 450 feet. The Orkneys themselves offer miles and miles of untouched beauty, with a stunning drive along the Churchill Barriers, constructed during the WWII to protect the port at Scapa Flow, the incredible Italian Chapel, built in the same period by homesick Italian prisoners of war, and the mystery of neolothic sites and stone circles scattered around the peaceful green islands.
But Orkney was a subsequent trip. This one ended back in Brora in the early evening. The only mystery to me is whether the car, the keys and the £50 cash were still in the station car park the following day.