T H U R S O # 24 - 2 5 S E P T E M B E R # 2 0 0 5

Our beloved/not so beloved train operator in Scotland; ScotRail was celebrating themselves for some reason (I cannot remember why) and they were offering their customers £ 15 return tickets to anywhere in Scotland. I had always wanted to visit Thurso so I very gratefully ordered the tickets and collected them some days later.

The train used on the tour, both to Inverness and to Thurso. More like a tram, but very comfortable and highly enjoyable.

The tour was six hours one way with a night over at Thurso and return the day after. I therefore rang the local tourist information centre in Thurso and got a cheap and cheerful B & B for one night. As usual; the B & B was staffed by an thoroughly nice person and I thoroughly enjoyed my too short stay there. More about that later.

I arrived at the Queen’s Street Railway station in Glasgow that Saturday morning and boarded the train to Inverness.

I have no photos from the Glasgow to Inverness journey due to taking plenty of photos on a previous journey. Photos I have now lost….. So I have to describe this trip in words.

The train went out of the station early morning on it’s first leg along the Campsie Fells to Stirling. The scenery was typical british farmland, but not spectacular pretty before it entered the old city of Stirling.
After passing Stirling Castle , the train went up the hill to Dunblane, past some more farms, past Gleneagles and through some excellent british rolling farmlands with grazing sheep, cows and ducks before it went through a tunnel down to the ancient city of Perth.
From Perth, the train went up a long valley past Dunkeld, the lovely village of Pitlochry (THE finest inland Scottish village) and Blair Athol before it entered a big moor (Drumochter Pass, 452 meters above sea level). This is the geographic centre of Scotland and a very hostile place for us humans. It is comparable with Siberia.
The train went down a small valley to Dalwhinnie. The train then went down the Spey valley to the holiday resorts of Kingussie and Aviemore. The latter being the main ski resort in Scotland. A short climb over a new mountain over to Inverness followed and we arrived in this city at midday.

I highly recommend the Glasgow to Inverness journey. It has some very good scenery and the journey itself is very comfortable. An excellent day out. Make sure you stop over for some hours in Inverness. This, the capitol of the Highlands, does have some good shopping and sights. You can also visit Loch Ness from Inverness.

A twenty minutes long wait for the Thurso train followed. Unfortunate for Scotrail, I was one out of only a handful passengers on the train up to Thurso.
The train followed a quite scenic loch for the first part of the tour to the small village of Beauly before the line turned inland, past Muir Of Ord and over to the ancient norse town of Dingwall. The route then followed another loch, past Alness, some oil platforms and Invergordon before it went inland again and over to Tain, most known for the Glenmorangie distillery.
So far, the landscape had been rather bland and it dawned on my why this line is not as popular as the Mallaig, Kyle Of Lochalsh and the Aberdeen line among train aficionados. Frankly, the tour so far had been boring, only helped by the very comfortable train and a conversation with a member of the railway staff who wondered what I was doing on this train. I only wish I knew…
The train now went into a sea-loch, past Edderton and Ardgay to Bonar Bridge where the railway line leaves the sea and goes up a valley to Lairg. This is a crossroad between the east and the west of Caithness/Sutherland. In short; everything north of Inverness. To the left, a small, but very important road goes 60 km to the north-west coast of Scotland. To the right, the railway line crosses a small moor and goes down again to the sea. The landscape was very wild and gave a forewarning of things to come. The railway line now went down a rather narrow valley past Rogart with some farms on the other side of the river. This was almost like the valleys on the west coast of Norway.

Muie near Rogart

The railway line entered the wild North Sea coast near Golspie. The blistering hot sun and the rolling sea made this quite a stunning experience from the comfort and safety of the train and worthy the whole trip alone.

The North Sea in brilliant sunny weather
The train now followed the sea for many miles. The local seals acknowledged the train by some flapping with their flippers. On the other side of the railway line, there was some steep mountainsides. I was mighty impressed with this landscape ! We passed the ruins of Carn Liath on our way up to the village, distillery and golf paradise Brora.

Brora and the golf course from the train. Nice weather for golf !
The Brora Golf Course is without doubt one of the best & most scenic golf courses in Scotland. I was very impressed with what I saw from the train. The Brora whisky distillery has sadly closed down, but the Clynelish distillery and visitor centre is worthy a visit.

The railway line followed the wild, rugged coastline again up to Helmsdale. This place is known for the very tragic The Highland Clearances. These tragic event is rightly regarded as crime against humanity here in Scotland. Something which accounted for the almost ghostly empty valley (Strath Kildonan) the railway line now entered from the sea at Helmsdale towards a big moor. A desolate valley with a sprinkling of small farms, a lot of heather and one of the best salmon rivers best salmon rivers in the UK. Strath Kildonan is very similar to Norway above the Arctic Circle.

The ghostly Strath Kildonan valley

The valley ended 30 km up the valley and entered the moor at the old gold mining village Baile A Nor. From there, this desolate moor almost lasted an hour before entering some farms just before the sea at Thurso. I hope the two following pictures gives justice to this, one of the strangest places I have ever seen.

The wildernes between Strath Kildonan and Thurso

I always thought Rannoch Moor between Loch Lomond and Fort Williams was the biggest and most remote moor crossed by train in Scotland. I was wrong. The moor between Helmsdale and Thurso is even wilder and more remote. I could not see any signs of trekking paths or any human activity whatsoever, besides of the railway line and it’s fencing. It is as wild as it gets in the UK. Welcome to Caithness and Sutherland !

The train reached some farmlands just before the crossroad between Wick and Thurso. The train went down the River Thurso to end at Thurso Railway station.

The end of the line; Thurso Railway Station

I did not know what to expect from Thurso, having not done my “homework” on the internet. Something I am now glad I did not do. What I found after a three quarter of a kilometre long walk down a street from the railway station, was a very nice city. Nice streets, nice pubs and cafes, nice shops and some nice houses. Due to the harsh climate, Thurso is different from the rest of Scotland. The housing seems more sturdy and more solid. The monumental buildings like the library and the churches was impressive. The parks was likewise. In particular, the park on the riverside. My first impression of Thurso was very positive. I soon found the B & B I had ordered. It was a couple of minutes away from the sea front and I hurried down to the beach and the ocean. A cold breeze was blowing in from the north and the smells and sights made me go apes in pure joy. Oh boy, was I both impressed and happy ! No doubts one of the highlights of my many tours around Scotland.

Thurso at evening from the seafront

The views was spectacular, 360 degrees. My eyes was popping out, eager to take everything in. In the east, the views across to the most northerly point on the mainland Britain, Dunnet Head was outstanding.

Towards Dunnet Head (right) and the Orkney Islands (left)

The views towards the island of Hoy, one of the main Orkney Islands was the one I was dying to see on my way from Glasgow to Thurso. What I got surpassed even my wildest dreams. I could clearly make out the famous obelisk Old Man Of Hoy. (unfortunate; my camera could not pick it out). The stretch of water between Thurso at mainland Britain and the Orkney Islands is one of the most used shipping lanes in Europe. It links the North Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

Towards the island of Hoy, one of the main Orkney islands

I left this seafront and went down to the beach where some surfers enjoyed themselves on one of the finest surfing beaches in Great Britain. That’s what they told me. After witnessing them and getting a nasty shock when testing out the water with my fingers, surfing is definite one of the things I will never do. But the ladies and gentlemen of Thurso jumped straight into the ocean, ignoring my whimpering attempts of getting heat into my fingers again. I noticed with glee that a dog who tried to follow the attempts of it’s surfing owner made a hasty retreat onto dry land again.
To the right on the picture is the Scrabster ferry port, which serves the 90 minutes long Scrabster to Stromnes ferry service.

The mad surfers and Scrabster

Very happy with myself and the day; I left the sea behind and went for a stroll and a meal in the city and then back to the B & B. The meal was wonderful and I slept like a log during the night.

I woke up early the next day to a wonderful sunrise, got my breakfast and went back again to the ocean and a path along the cliffs between Thurso and Scrabster the B & B host recommended to me. Which was a excellent recommendation ! The sunrise was fantastic and I took some time out to admire it from the beach before I started on the path along the cliffs.

Sunrise over Thurso

The path followed the beach over to some cliffs and then over and under them. The path was a bit slippery and exposed, but well worth the effort. The fresh seaweed on the path was evidence of a stormy night. Extreme caution was the order of the day

I turned around again at the end of the path and went up to the main road between Thurso and Scrabster. Then a small path took me down past some sheep towards Thurso again. I stopped to take some photos over the surrounding area.

Scrabster Harbour and ferry port

Some sheep near Scrabster, with the island of Hoy and Dunnet Head in the background

I walked back the kilometre to Thurso again and really enjoyed the smell, the sights and the sounds of this marvellous place. I have never seen or experienced anything like it in Scotland or Ireland. Thurso is most definite a unique place and only comparable with the northern part of Norway. Places like Hammerfest. But Thurso is far prettier than any city in Norway. The streets, the buildings, the seafront and the parks are superb. Thurso should be a town on the tourist map. But due to it’s very remote location; it will never ever be a major tourist destination.

I picked up my bags at the B & B, promised to return again sometimes in the future, got myself something to eat in a shop and followed the path along the park at the riverside to the railway station again.

The end of my great adventure in Thurso

The journey back to Glasgow was without drama and I was home well before midnight. It was well spent £ 15 in train-fare and £ 20 on the B & B. Would I do it again ? YES THANKS !! …and when is the next Scotrail promotion again ?

I would like to endorse and thank Undiscovered Scotland for their brilliant webpage. Most of the links on this website is taken from them.