The North Highland Line

Inverness

The railway line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick in Caithness is the northernmost railway in the British Isles, and it is my preferred route in and out of home in Wick to the big city of Inverness some one hundred and twenty-five kilometres (somewhat less than eighty miles) away as the crow flies.

The timetable allows the train more than four hours to cover this distance because it does not travel in anything like a straight line; it only nods acknowledgement to the region’s main thoroughfare and transport route, the final stretch of the A9. Instead of hugging the coast, the line meanders inland at several points for historical and logistical reasons.

I shall tell you all about them as we take an imaginary ride from Inverness to Wick one sunny morning. First, we shall find some seats with clear views both right and left and place four hours worth of snacks and beverages on the table! [Covid-19 regulations allow for the removal of masks while eating and drinking.]

Inverness station does not have much about it worthy of comment. The original Victorian station was rebuilt in the 1960s in typical sixties corporation style. There is an old shunting shed remaining in Falcon Square that is now a restaurant and retail unit, and the railway works used to extend across the area where the Eastgate centre now stands and Morrisons behind it.

As the train pulls out, we turn to the north and travel through the industrial outskirts of the city till we are almost at the Beauly Firth where we turn west to cross the River Ness and almost immediately afterwards cross the swing bridge at the very start of the Caledonian Canal by the lock that separates it from the saltwater of the Firth.

The Suburbs

The sand flats and water to our right are the Beauly Firth, and as we travel along, we can glance back to the Kessock Bridge, specifically interesting because of its earthquake-proof construction. We shall look for shore and sea birds on the firth until we reach the end and cross the river feeding it at Beauly. Now we turn north to pass through the Muir of Ord (“muir” being Scots for moor and “òrd” being Gaelic for a rounded hill) the moorland of the rounded hill. Just a short way off is Castle Hill, an Iron age henge, the top of which is used as the thirteenth green for Muir of Ord golf course.

When we reach Conan Bridge, we will see the first hints of the Cromarty Firth on our right, and soon we shall stop at Dingwall. Dingwall station is interesting in itself with its huge wide platforms and impressive buildings. These came about when the station was redesigned in 1886 after the consolidation of several railway companies meaning just two platforms were necessary. The wide platforms were of particular use during the first world war when the station played its part as a rest and refreshment stop on the Jellicoe Express, a daily service running directly between London and Thurso to service the troops at Scapa Flow in Orkney. Today, it allows the influx and outflow of football fans coming to watch Ross County, the northernmost Scottish Premier club and easily seen to the station’s right.

The town of Dingwall was an important Viking settlement, and the name comes from the Norse word “thing”, which denotes a place of meeting where laws are made and judgments pronounced. Since Viking times, it has continually served as a central trading place and market town for the far north region.

The Oil Hub of the North

Next, we shall pass through Alness before reaching Invergordon. Dominating the waters of the firth are several oil rigs. Some of these are brought here for repairs and services, while others are in the process of decommissioning as the oil industry runs down. There may also be a cruise ship in. The harbour can handle some huge ships with as many as 8,000 passengers and crew on board. While the seascape may seem industrial, there are actually two nature reserves on the shores of the firth, Udale Bay across to the south and Nigg Bay downstream on this side of the water, and it is worth looking out on the mudflats for godwits and curlews with their distinctive long beaks.

If the train started crowded, it would be emptying now as we progress further north the Fearn and Tain, and it is on this stretch that I recommend taking our first snack break as we pass through farmland looking out for buzzards and pheasants, and perhaps a few highland cattle. Beyond Tain, we return to the shore now on the south side of the Dornoch firth, where the views are spectacular whatever the time of year.

Harry Potter Country

The trees close in to obscure the view as we pull in to Ardgay and, if you have seen the Harry Potter movies, you may experience a sense of déjà vue. The rural station design is the same model as the films for Hogsmead station with the waiting hut and the ironwork bridge at the end of the platform. Its location looking out on the firth makes it even more reminiscent of the films.

Next, we pass through Culrain and, looking out to the left, see Carbisdale Castle dominating the Kyle of Sutherland. For Harry Potter fans, this will be the Hogwarts of their imagination made real, though, in fact, it is a relatively new castle built in 1907 for the Duchess of Sutherland as part of her divorce settlement with the Duke.

Known as the “Castle of Spite”, it was located to look over a large part of the Sutherland estates and, in particular, the railway line and road. The tower has no clock on the road, and railway facing side as the Duchess of Sutherland would not even give the time of day to her relatives! It is known as a calendar building because it has 365 windows, giving it the Hogwarts look. However, it was not well built and has spent much of its life empty, though it is now owned by a hotel group with intentions of turning it into a resort hotel.

Once we cross the bridge, we pass through Invershin station less than half a mile (seven hundred metres) from Culrain by train but eight and a half miles (fourteen kilometres) by car.

Continue looking out to the left as we progress along the Achlany Glen and pass close by the Falls of Shin. It is a dramatic landscape of a close deep, steep-sided valley with dark woods and many hidden mysteries before we emerge into a tamer landscape and arrive at Lairg.

Sutherland Heartlands

From Lairg, we turn back east to head back to the north side of the Dornoch Firth, passing through Rogart and looking out at the Sutherland Hills as we go. We need to keep our eyes peeled here to catch The Mound as we take a left turn at the top of Loch Fleet. There are the remains of an old bridge and station here. Thomas Telford designed the bridge to have an unusual mechanism involving wooden flaps to allow fish to pass through what is essentially a weir construction to prevent flooding.

We now turn north and have the sea away to our right and a hill with a huge monument at the top ahead to the left. There is a lot of controversy about that monument, a statue of the Duke of Sutherland that looks down on the town of Golspie like some sort of Emperor.

Shortly after Golspie station, we pass by the strange little halt at Dunrobin Castle, a privately maintained station serving the home of the Sutherland clan. Dunrobin Castle itself is quite hard to see due to the mature woodland that shelters it on the landward side, but looking backwards to our right when the train comes close to the shore will reveal the remarkable French Renaissance style architecture of the nineteenth-century castle.

The beach on our right is the most likely place for spotting seals on this trip, and there are often a wide variety of seabirds, particularly cormorants going about their business. When we see the town of Brora approaching, we will be passing over the northernmost coal mine in the British Isles. There is little to see now, but the town of Brora owes its very existence to the plentiful reserves of coal deep underground in the valley of the Brora river.

The Brora River emerges into the sea through a deep, steep-sided gulley that we cross before pulling into the town station. The train continues running along the beach not far above the high tide line. At the same time, the road to our left takes a more cautious route, and beyond them, plenty of livestock fields mainly hosting the sheep brought to the region in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Wide Open Spaces

As we reach Helmsdale, the train takes a turn to the left to head west along the Strath of Kildonan, an incredibly picturesque river valley with a wide flood plain of rich fertile sedimentary soil.

Now is the time to start looking out for deer, which are plentiful hereabouts. Depending on the time of year, we may see isolated stags, family groups or bachelor groups, perhaps even stags rutting if we are fortunate. They are always an impressive site, graceful despite the oversize adornment of oversized antlers in the mature males. We often see their white posteriors as they run from the sound of the train driver’s whistle.

The landscape is becoming flatter now, with barren heather moorland extending through a region of scattered low hills, lochs and streams. We are likely to see buzzards and possibly other raptors hunting for small mammals in the scrub as we pass through the two halts at the hunting lodges of Kildonan and Kinbrace before heading north briefly to pass by the large Loch an Ruathair and into the Forsinard nature reserve.

Forsinard station has been mainly handed over to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who have converted the ticket office and waiting rooms into a visitors’ centre and reception area for those keen to discover the wide variety of birdlife found in the region. Sadly, the likelihood of seeing plovers and dunlins from the train is low, but hen harriers are worth looking for. We shall be looking for pale grey raptors with black tips to their wings.

The train swings back east now to enter Caithness with halts at Altnabreac and Scotscalder. Altnabraec is Gaelic for “speckled stream”, which describes the many waterways that criss-cross the area feeding hundreds of little ponds and lochs.

This area is called the Flow Country and is a massive area of peat bogs known as a blanket bog. A wide variety of rare plants grow in this rare landscape. However, it is of little use to farmers, except in the early twentieth century, when landowners heavily planted large areas with conifers, over-planted due to perverse incentives in the tax system. The RSPB and Rewilding Scotland are slowly reversing this and restoring the land to its natural form.

Looking south now, we can see the only hill of any significance in Caithness called Morvern and its slightly lower companion Maiden’s Pap, so named because of the shape in the landscape. These hills are the ones featured in my logo.

The Top Corner

As we leave the Flow Country, the land reverts to fertile arable land and fields for livestock, and we are reaching the home stretch as we roll into Georgemas Junction. This station has a large secure area with high cement platforms and a massive crane that seems incongruous in the countryside. This station serves the Dounreay nuclear power station up on the north coast west of Thurso. The crane lifts the massive secure steel spent fuel containers transported down to Sellafield for further processing. The nuclear station is slowly dismantled after its brief life as an experimental power station in the 1950s.

And here, the driver leaves his cab, wanders down the train and takes the controls at the back, which is now the front of the train, as we pull out and turn north to Thurso, the most northerly railway station in Britain. In this area, we will see remnants of World War Two buildings, particularly pillboxes and other defences at bridges and level crossings. This place may seem to be very far away from the rest of Britain. However, the location played a key role in the defence of Britain and still does today as sea passage between Russia and America travels in the waters between the Northern Isles and Iceland.

At Thurso, the driver returns to his proper seat and takes us back to Georgemas Junction while we look out for salmon fishers in the River Thurso, including grey heron standing statue-like in the shallows. Before we turn into Georgemas Junction, look out to the left for the pretty springs at Sibster, a peaceful little spot with a small cascading waterfall.

We pass by two lochs on our way into Wick, one away to our left and the other larger loch on the south side. Loch Watten is a popular fishing location and spot for bird watching with whooper swans, pink-footed geese, a wide variety of ducks and other birds visiting and resident mute swans and mallards.

Finally, the train begins to slow, and we look north to our left to greet the fairies in the Fairy Hill just after the point where the River Wick passes under the line from our right to our left side. We collect our bags together, tidy away any litter and pull into Wick Station.

Of course, there is much more to tell you, but that will have to wait until your visit. Start planning it today.

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