From the Highland capital, Inverness, the A9 Trunk Road continues north through the Black Isle, and over the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths making towards a ridge of blue mountains in the distance; for the land beyond is the great county of Sutherland.
Sutherland is a an odd name for a district in the far north of Scotland; but from the point of view of the Vikings in Orkney this was the Suðrland, or ‘southern land’, and was indeed the farthest south they would extend their empire in the middle ages. In the Gaelic, Sutherland is Cataibh, ‘land of the Cat people’ who seem to have been a Celtic tribe living in the far north of Scotland, and on the Shetland Islands. With the demise of Norse influence and the rise of the power of the Scottish kings far to the south, Sutherland along with the province of Assynt and the lands of the MacKay Lords of Reay was absorbed into Scotland by the 13th century.
William of Moray was granted the title Earl of Sutherland around 1230, and over the course of the next 600 years the earls would glue vast territories to their ever widening estates; as the Morays gave way to the Gordon family. In 1785 Elizabeth Gordon, Countess Sutherland, married George Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford and one of the richest men in Britain. The king raised the pair to the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sutherland; and they would rule their huge estate from the traditional seat of Dunrobin Castle, near the village of Golspie. By the early 1800s the estate extended for over a million acres from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean; the largest in the United Kingdom.
The bulk of the county’s population lived along the coast, but there were sizeable communities living in the interior, especially in Strath Kildonan and Strath Naver: two green and fertile valleys. Most of the people were subsistence farmers, cultivating their crofts and raising cattle much as their forefathers had done since time-immemorial. They were descendants of the fierce Highland warriors of old, and in keeping with that tradition they gave undying loyalty to their chief the countess, who they called - Ban Cataibh mór – ‘The Great Lady of Sutherland’. But sadly, times had changed, and the consequences would be catastrophic.
In the 60 years that followed the defeat of the Jacobite clans at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Highlands underwent a social and economic revolution. Traditional bonds and ties that had held the clans together were torn apart as the chiefs abandoned old responsibilities and morphed into landlords; and these ‘lairds’ from the 1780s onwards became increasingly ruthless in their pursuit of wealth and power. Looking to generate more income from their unproductive estates the landlords began a programme of ‘improvement’; which was a euphemism for systematically evicting tenants and replacing them with the more lucritive trade of sheep farming.
Some landowners did think they were genuinely improving the lives of people who they saw as living a near-medieval existence of hand to mouth farming, by shifting them to new coastal villages; or to encourage them to emigrate, or move to the industrial cities of the south. Not that the tenants were asked what they wanted. Most were not so benign, and Sutherland stands out as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Highland Clearances; where thousands were evicted, often forcibly, to make way for sheep and the large tracts of land they required. Names like James Loch and Patrick Sellar jump out from the history books and still evoke anger at what these men did as they raped the north of its people. Soldiers coming back from fighting Napoleon returned to their native glens to find burnt ruins where once entire families and communities existed. They had imagined they were fighting a tyrant in Europe, few realised until far too late that the tyranny was much closer to home in Dunrobin Castle.
To a certain extent Sutherland has never recovered: Straths Naver and Kildonan, Assynt, Glen Loss and many other areas are almost devoid of habitation save a farmhouse here and a shooting lodge there; but, it has come to terms with the past and looks now to what its wild places, breathtaking scenery and colourful history offers visitors and locals alike.
The east and west coasts of this large county are very different. The North Sea coast is gentle, fertile and has relatively benign weather. Here the majority of people live in coastal towns such as Brora, Helmsdale and beautiful Dornoch, famed for its sands and 13th century (although drastically re-altered) cathedral. The area is noted for barley, and it comes as no surprise that there is a distillery here: Clynelish, in Brora. Originally built by the Duke of Sutherland to provide work, a profitable product and a market for the locally grown grain, the old distillery was closed in 1983 and a new one built. There is a visitor centre and good, regular tours. Heading inland by way of BonarBridge, and via the Falls of Shin (a great spot to see salmon leaping) or Strath Oykel the scenery changes dramatically as green fields and birch woods give way to open moorland and craggy hills. Eventually, an almost lunar landscape of sharp mountains rising out of the heather and loch-filled plains engulfs you as far as your eyes will let you; this is the world of big horizons.
There is a geological fault running along the back of Northwest Scotland known as the Moine Thrust and it is this ancient fissure that creates the bizarre landscape. To the west some of the rocks are over thee billion years old and they’ve been weathered and twisted into some stunning monuments – Suilven, Canisp, Quinaig and Arkle. If you seek wilderness, this is about the last in Western Europe and I would recommend sparing time to come here. There are a smattering of villages along the coast, intermixed with broad sandy beaches, such as Sandwood Bay near Cape Wrath at the very extremity of Britain. There is a good road running right through the area, and at Durness it turns eastwards following the line of the high cliffs that dominate the seascape from Cape Wrath to the Kyle of Tongue. Near Durness is the Smoo Cave, a great hollow in the cliffs where a stream on the surface plunges into a cavern before meandering to the sea. There’s a path down, and at certain times guided tours and explanations on the formation are available.
Central Sutherland is dominated by a great morass known as the Flow Country; a vast area of blanket-bog, perhaps the largest in Europe, stretching from Loch Shin to the flat lowlands of Caithness. At Forsinard in Strath Halladale there is a bird reserve; and the small single-track roads that cross the Flow give you a sense of true isolation as you make your way alone through the bog and heather. The road from Forsinard to Helmsdale runs down through Strath Kildonan, and the vanished Baile an Òr (literally village of gold) tells of a Scottish gold-rush. In the 19th century gold was found in the Kildonan and Suisgill burns, and people flocked to the area to make their fortunes. It wasn’t California in 1849, but hundreds did try their luck. Today, you can pitch your tent and try for yourself.
This is a very brief overview of one of my favourite parts of Scotland, where genuinely jaw-dropping scenery collides with a complicated history to create a truly magical experience. If you are interested in finding out more about Sutherland and the far north of Scotland, then please comment here, or send an e-mail to email@example.com