I was asked to write a blog for Venture North, the group that promotes tourism in Caithness and Sutherland. This was published on their website in May as part of a collection of blogs from people who are passionate about the area. There is a focus on the undiscovered, the hidden gems of the area, so I decided to write my piece about the joy of railway request stops.
There are eight request stops in Caithness and Sutherland. These tiny stations are in remote areas and provide access to superb cycling. It is also somewhat of an adventure using railway request stops- you have to hold out your hand to stop the train. I find them fascinating and I love the solitude and spectacular scenery that they guarantee. Read my piece to find out more.
The other blog posts are excellent reads, revealing a great love of Caithness and Sutherland. If you have not yet been to this part of Scotland they are sure to inspire and if you have been before they will give you new ideas of places to visit.
One of the pieces was written by Edwyn Collins, the musician, and one by Lisa Weller, an artist who works from a cottage on the cliffs of Wick. See them all by heading over to Venture North.
The Far North Line that links Inverness to Wick and Thurso is a scenic wonder that tends to get overlooked on those greatest train journeys of the world lists. It is my number one scenic railway in Scotland. Let me tell you about the section between Wick and Thurso.
For this blog I am going to focus on one particular section of the line, between Wick and Thurso. It is an area of great beauty that I had not noticed until recently, despite travelling on the railway many times.
For anyone who has taken the train north they will likely say that the best section is where the line hugs the coast between Golspie and Helmsdale. Or perhaps when it travels along the Cromarty Firth. You will not expect me to be saying the section between Wick and Thurso. "What? That flat bit?" I am not saying it is the best part of the line, but it is stunning in its own right.
Probably like most passengers heading north from Inverness I was getting tired by the time we reached the last stretch to Wick. I had enjoyed the coastal section, watching seals from my window. And now we were inland and it was flat and uninteresting. After 4 hours on this train I just wanted to arrive.
But one bright and sunny spring day I departed from Wick. I was rested and excited about the trip south. I was not at journey's end, but at the beginning and I was going to see this with fresh eyes.
It was a revelation that it was this beautiful. Last night someone had mentioned the clever marketing of the state of Montana as "Big Sky Country." It is a phrase that perfectly captures those endless fields stretching to the horizon, topped with blue sky and cloud puffs. A panorama of wide open spaces. This is exactly what I was looking at from my train carriage trundling across Caithness.
I could see that the lack of hills was an advantage. It meant an unobstructed field of vision of never ending sky. There is something really special about being able to see for miles. It makes you feel free, that you have endless space to lose yourself in. You can easily find solitude not in just one small corner, but have a multitude of space for your soul to escape in. You feel that you have endless time, travelling through it makes time longer because the land does not change much for mile after mile.
There used to be five stations between Thurso and Wick. Only one of these, Georgemas Junction, remains open, as the others were closed in the 1960s. I have always felt that there is a poetic quality to the list of stops on the Far North Line, rather like the Shipping Forecast, and these five would produce a beautiful verse if they were to reopen. They were called Hoy, Bower, Watten and Bilbster. Some of the former station buildings, now private homes, can be spotted as the train speeds by.
A part of the journey is alongside Loch Watten, the second largest loch in Caithness. It is almost three miles long and looks inviting on a sunny day. The closed Watten station was located at the eastern end of the loch and I wonder if it had been well patronised by fishermen looking to catch some trout.
Scotland's mountains are stunning. They are Scotland. They bring visitors to Scotland. But endless sky is also beautiful. The people who visit Montana appreciate it. Scotland should shout about its own "Big Sky Country." So, if you ever take the Far North Line take a closer look between Wick and Thurso and let me know if you agree.
If you do take the train to Wick read my blog 10 things to see and do in Wick.
Read my blog about Dunrobin Castle station, which is on this line.
Try taking this line to Altnabreac station, one of the most isolated stations in Scotland.
I previously wrote Ten things to see and do in and around Wick. I was lucky enough to be able to return to the town recently and discovered ten more things to add to my list. Here they are:
1. Discover fine architectural details
There are many towns and cities where you are encouraged to look up. This rings true for Wick. Look at the highly detailed stone carving on the columns of the bank on Bridge Street. Glance up at the first floor windows on the Sheriff Court- exotic don't you think? They are a copy of windows from a palace in Venice.
2. Find the lions
Four lion heads with perfect white teeth, red tongues and fierce eyes adorn a fountain on a peaceful riverside location. The fountain sits in a small park with benches, pretty flowers and a view of the Thomas Telford designed bridge.
3. Dinner at Mackay's hotel
What you are looking at is local crab rillette with a caper and pickled cucumber salad. It is creamy, lemony and succulent and will leave you wanting more. Dinner at No 1 Bistro at Mackay's Hotel is exceptional. The food is seasonal and locally sourced, so you will get a true taste of Caithness here.
4. Wick River walks
Wick River runs through the town and you can walk along its banks into the countryside. You might just hear a sedge warbler, a bird that has 50 musical elements in its song. It pours them out randomly, so that it is unlikely that you will hear the same tune repeated twice. The river is also home to a very rare plant, estuarine sedge, which can only be found in America and two other places in Scotland.
5. Wick train station
The very last stop on Britain's railways is Wick, when you travel north. The station is an attractive stone building with arched Georgian-style windows and exposed roof beams. Go before departure time when the sound of the idling engine seems amplified because trains are almost enclosed inside the building. It brings a bit of noisy drama and a sense of occasion to the start of an epic journey on the Far North Line, perhaps hinting at the bygone era of steam locomotives.
6. Cliff Bakery
A Scottish town with a good bakery is a town worth visiting. The Cliff Bakery is proper old school. The cakes are displayed in the trays that they are baked on, instead of being displayed in neat individual slices. It gives a more authentic and homemade feeling to the place. Try the toffee mallow cake for a bit of fluffy, sweet deliciousness.
7. Walk up famous steps
A few years ago a painting of these steps sold for £890,500. It was by L.S. Lowry the renowned painter of English industrial landscapes, characterised by their matchstick figures. Lowry took holidays in Scotland and painted Black Steps, Wick, in 1936. The painting captures the stairs at a busy moment with lots of people, including a child being pushed in a wheel barrel, thankfully in front of the steps and not down them.
8. Feel like you are in a Lowry painting at Old Pulteney Distillery
The scenes in Lowry paintings are from a bygone era, but if you walk up the Black Steps and continue to Old Pulteney Distillery some of that Lowry atmosphere is recreated. The collection of buildings, warehouses and tenements, still black from pollution, the smell of malt and the smoke coming out of the distillery is reminiscent of an industrial scene. It captures something of Wick's past as a very busy working town of fishermen, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, boat builders and shoe makers.
8. Lunch at Morag's
This a friendly place where you will hear banter between Morag and the locals. It is also superb value and quality. I had the best cheese and pickle sandwich of my life here. The filling was thick with a generous quantity of grated cheese. The bread chunky and soft. It also came with crisps, potato salad, tomato, lettuce and cucumber. All this for £2.75. "Everything here is made fresh," Morag told me whilst chatting away and making me feel very welcome. There is also a quality coffee machine churning out very good cappuccinos. Why not treat yourself to something from the lengthy and exciting milkshake menu? Flavours include pavlova banoffee, creme egg and chocolate orange jaffa cake.
10. Statue of the historian
Jame Calder wrote a history of Caithness in 1861. His statue is by the river, near the train station. It has a young face with curly hair, clutching a scroll, with a top hat resting on a folded up coat. A quote on the plinth explains why Calder felt "a strong attachment" to Caithness. I presumed he would be saying something about the heritage and landscapes, but no it was people that made this place special to him: "it is the residence of all my best and dearest friends; and it contains within its bosom the ashes of my kindered."
More about Wick:
For some more ideas about what to see and do in Wick read my previous post, Ten things to see and do in and around Wick.
Read my review of Mackays Hotel in wick
I was surprised by just how much there is to see and do in Wick. I had assumed that this town in Scotland's far north, the very last stop on the rail network, would be lacking in attractions. How wrong I was! There are two castles, a whisky distillery, standing stones and much more to keep you busy for many days. Here are my ten favourite things to do:
1. Whaligoe Steps
The cliffs are dramatic, the sheer drop to the water below is scary and seabirds squawk and swoop. Wildflowers and sea grass sprout from the rock and cracks in the stairs. The Whaligoe Steps descend steeply to a disused harbour that dates from the 1790s. Do not miss the cafe at the top of the steps- it has a huge picture window looking out to sea and you can sip on gourmet coffees and enjoy the home baking.
Located 8 miles south of Wick on the A-99. Use this guide as the steps are notoriously difficult to find.
2. Wick Heritage Centre
Allow at least two hours to absorb the contents of this treasure trove of a museum. It is crammed full of curious objects from Wick's past, including reminders of the town's vast fishing enterprise. For a time Wick had been the busiest fishing port in Britain. The biggest catch in a single day occurred in 1864 when 24 million herring were landed. Make some time to enjoy the museum's gardens with their colourful flower displays and views over the town.
3. Castle of Old Wick
A dramatic coastal walk brings you to one of the oldest castles in Scotland. It dates from 1100 and only the ruined tower remains. It is located one mile south from the centre of town. On the way you pass the Trinkie, Wick's outdoor pool- try it out, if you are brave enough!
4. Wander the streets of Pulteneytown
Pulteneytown is an area of Wick that was built by Thomas Telford, Scotland's most famous civil engineer, to house the workers and services that supported the fishing boom. It is laid out in a grid pattern with attractive stone buildings that make it a pleasant area for a stroll. Don't miss Argyll Square which has a small tree-lined park in the middle of it.
5. Old Pulteney distillery
It is in Pulteneytown that you will find Old Pulteney Distillery. This is the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland and this location gives the whisky its unique character. If you visit the small visitor centre and shop you are bound to be offered a free dram to see for yourself if you can taste the hint of sea salt. For a more in-depth experience there are guided tours.
6. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
I was surprised to discover that Wick had one, never mind two castles. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is located a bit further away from the town, just over 4 miles north. It is a nice quiet road to get there, so walking is a possibility if you do not have your own transport. The location is impressive with the ruin teetering on a cliff edge. You can cross into the courtyard across a wooden footbridge and look through the gaping windows to the sea far below.
7. Staxigoe Harbour
This is a beautiful little spot on a warm sunny day. The perfect place to come with a picnic lunch. It is a surprise to discover that this peaceful place had once been the largest herring station in Europe. It is now difficult to imagine the army of sail-makers, gutters and coopers who crowded Staxigoe Harbour. The harbour is about 2 miles from Wick High Street.
8. Hill o' Many Stanes
The name of this place does exactly what it says on the tin- a hill with over 200 stones. The deliberate layout of the stones in neat rows makes it easy to picture ancient peoples putting them here for religious ceremonies, to follow lunar cycles, or a place for families to remember ancestors. The truth is that nobody knows for certain why the stones are here which makes it all the more intriguing. The stones are located about 9 miles south of Wick along the A99.
9. Thrumster station
An unexpected site next to the A99 road is this cute wooden station with a piece of train track that goes nowhere. Trains have not run here since 1944 when this was part of the 13 mile Wick and Lybster Light Railway. There is not much to see, although you can peer through the windows and admire the refurbished interior with wood panelling and fire place. Thrumster is located about 4 miles south of Wick
10. The World's shortest street
The road sign into Wick for Mackays Hotel has a curious note in brackets 'on the Shortest Street in the world'. Who would have thought that the shortest street is located in Wick? It is official, according to Guiness Book of Records, that Ebenezer Place in Wick is the shortest street in the world at 2.06m. The door to the restaurant of Mackays Hotel is the only thing on Ebenezer Place. The food is good so why not treat yourself to a meal on the world's shortest street?
More about Wick:
On my second visit to Wick I discovered ten more things to see and do, which you can read on my blog
Read my review of Mackays Hotel, which is on the shortest street in the world
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.