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It’s 8am on a bright July morning. I’m standing on the near platform at Tain, gazing out into the Dornoch Firth. Swathed in mist, I can just make out the town of Dornoch, with its cathedral and castle, on the far side of the firth. Behind Dornoch is Loch Fleet, a sea loch home to seals and ospreys, and behind that lies the rest of Sutherland, rugged and barren, stretching away into Coigach and Assynt in the far north-west. Beyond Assynt are the Outer Hebrides; the twin regions of Lewis and Harris, together one island, and a string of smaller isles; Eriskay, Vatersay, Benbecula, Barra. Away behind Loch Fleet, and further north, the traveller will find Caithness and, eventually, Orkney, my eventual objective.
The day before my I had come up on the Highland Chieftain train from London. Once the train's past Stirling, the magic of the Highlands begins to work its wonders on those inside. But those who travel no further northwards than Aviemore or Inverness are missing out. For there is more to the Highlands than meets the eye.
I'd boarded one of the late trains northwards to Easter Ross. The train chugs out of Inverness station, and crosses the River Ness, then the Caledonian Canal at the bizarrely-named village of Clachnaharry. Here, the Kessock Bridge looms into view, and the Moray Firth narrows into the Beauly Firth, where the views are magical. The melting orange disc on the horizon steadily sinks behind the Black Isle, with the houses of North Kessock and Charlestown spread out in front along the firthside. You have to watch out for seals and bottlenose dolphins as you clack through Bunchrew and Lentran.
The town of Beauly owes its name to Mary Queen of Scots' description of the place. She called it a beau lieu - a beautiful place. Muir of Ord and the looming Ben Wyvis (meaning hill of terror!) fly by, as do Conon Bridge and Maryburgh. Dingwall is the traditional county town of Ross-shire, home to a ruined medieval castle that is connected by a passageway to Tulloch Castle, an apparently-haunted 15th-century stately home-turned-conference centre. A more recent claim to fame is that Ross County FC play here. Dingwall also has what is apparently the world's shortest canal!
The train follows the Cromarty Firth up the coast past the historic Foulis Castle (now a mansion), through Evanton to the neighbouring towns of Alness and Invergordon. Alness is home to the Teaninich and Dalmore distilleries if you fancy a dram, while Invergordon has just one - owned by Whyte & Mackay. Invergordon is known for the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931. You should be able to see oil rigs from the train in Invergordon - they repair them here. Nowadays, cruise ships harbour here too. The murals at Invergordon station are worthy of note - they depict soldiers from the Seaforth Highlanders battalion. Invergordon is the mural town of the Highlands.
Through Fearn you go to the pretty town of Tain, a thriving community with a history of its own as Scotland’s oldest royal burgh. The town’s Gaelic name (Baile Dhubhthaich, pronounced Bella-hooey in case you were wondering) refers to St Duthac (or Duthus), whose shrine was located here. It is also the site the Royal Hotel, and after a stroll around the town and an evening cuppa, it was time to get some rest.
Back to the present - the next morning, and I am standing on Tain’s rail platform awaiting my next train. I’m particularly looking forward to today’s part of the journey. First, we pass the Glenmorangie and Balblair distilleries and skirt the scenic Dornoch Firth inland to Ardgay (which serves both itself and Bonar Bridge, across the Firth). Can you see Skibo Castle, across the firth, once we're out of Tain? We reach Culrain, near Carbisdale Castle ('Spite Castle' - Duchess Blair, ex-wife of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland, had it built there between 1905-1917 to spite her husband and his family, and the clock tower only has clocks on three of its four faces as she didn't want to give Sutherland the 'time of day'), and cross the Kyle of Sutherland - which creates the Firth - by way of the lovely green Shin Viaduct. Almost immediately we’re at Invershin (for the Falls of Shin), and our train soon arrives at Lairg, ‘Sutherland’s Crossroads’ and its main inland hub of activity, famed for its sheep market.
Soon enough we’re on the move again, passing through increasingly rugged scenery, with the hills painted a ruddy purple by the streaks of heather that adorn their edges. The tiny village Rogart is next - this is the stop of Balblair Woods and Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve - and you can also stay for the night and sleep in an old railway carriage here. Then, we nimbly skirt Loch Fleet to reach the coast again at Golspie. Once here, we plunder the well-stocked trolley (though the coffee tastes like ashes, not that I’ve tasted ashes anyway), and swing slightly inland to serve the summer-only stop at Dunrobin Castle. The castle looks enchanting, like a French Château in the Highlands, with wonderful gardens but dodgy Georgian owners (it was the historic seat of the Earldom of Sutherland). Then it’s north to Brora. Brora is the start of my favourite part of the line, where the train hugs the shore so close that we’re almost on the sand. It feels like you could reach out and touch the sea. And there are often seals, herons and seabirds to be seen. This continues for fifteen minutes until Helmsdale, when the line swings inland to avoid the Ord of Caithness (a wedge of high ground which blocks the logical route down the coast through Dunbeath). The remains of Helmsdale Castle were demolished to make way for the A9 road in 1970 - the castle was the site of the murder, through poisoning, of the 11th Duke of Sutherland and his Countess Marie Seton in 1537 by Isobel Sinclair.
We follow the River Helmsdale through Strath Ullie to Kildonan (where people used to pan for gold in the nearby burns) and Kinbrace. Here, the landscape changes as we pass through the Flow Country. Between Kildonan and Altnabreac, you have to watch for deer outside the windows! The pretty blue-painted station at Forsinard plays host to an RSPB visitor centre, because the Forsinard Flows are part of one of the world’s largest tracts of peat blanket bog.
We enter Caithness and pass through the famously isolated station at Altnabreac, before heading to Scotscalder. We return to civilisation again at the village of Halkirk (which once had its own cathedral), before reaching Georgemas Junction, where the route divides. First, the train heads backwards to the town of Thurso, the largest town since Inverness and the gateway to Orkney (through the ferry link at Scrabster). Then, it calls in at Georgemas again before continuing through to Wick, a royal burgh with its own airport.
We get off at Thurso and head for Scrabster. Thurso was a burgh itself, and the name of the River Thurso, from which Thurso itself is derived, means ‘Thor’s River’. Peep into the distance, and you can make out Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s northernmost point, and even, through the mist, the Orcadian island of Hoy. Off to Scrabster we go, and we remember that, though our rail excursion may be over, a new journey is just beginning.
ScotRail produce a timetable for the Far North Line. The stations at Culrain, Invershin, Rogart, Dunrobin Castle, Kildonan, Kinbrace, Altnabreac and Scotscalder are request stops, and some trains don't stop at the latter five. Dunrobin Castle station is only open when the castle itself is - between March and October.