You know the one about what Scotsmen wear under
their kilts? Well, that's not much of a secret. No, the best-kept
secret of the tartan kingdom is the region beyond the Great Glen.
"What do you want to go up there for?" people ask you - and the questioner enquirer may even be a native of Inverness. The implication is that there is nothing to see for all those miles of minor road motoring. Either they have not been there or they're trying to keep the secret for themselves.
For most people in Britain, the top of Scotland is an unknown buffer zone that keeps the arctic from drifting too close. When we speak of "The Midlands" we mean the area around Birmingham, seldom acknowledging that the mid-point in this island lies on a line between Newcastle and Carlisle. Hadrian knew his geography better than most Englishmen and made a fair division of land between England and Scotland. The region between the Great Glen and Dunnet Head probably adds up to 20% of Britain's land; that's a big proportion to overlook. I set out for John O'Groats with the preconception that this would be a once-for-all visit. At least I would be able to say that I'd been there. Experience melted my prejudice and I am making plans for a return visit.
If you ignore the secrecy and head this far north you will meet people who have time to be polite (but not too many people). You may see animals that have become rare in the rest of Britain or even become extinct. Red Squirrels prosper here, Pine Martens and Wildcats roam at night, Golden Eagle and Osprey police the skies and Red Deer are common on the hills. On the coasts you may catch sight of Gannets and Fulmars, Seals and Otters and from a boat you might see Shearwaters, Razorbills and even the occasional Porpoise or Whale. But there is no "might" or "maybe" about the geological features - they are impressive and you can't miss them. Dunnet Head, the true northernmost point on the British mainland, rears its commanding cliffs to challenge all who pass through the Pentland Firth (the strait between Scotland and the Orkneys). Duncansby Head, 2 miles from John O'Groats, boasts three improbable pyramid-shaped stacks that stand guard over the eastern approaches. Hoy, South Ronaldsay and several smaller islands lie tantalisingly close to the viewpoints at Dunnet Head, Duncansby and John O'Groats. Wild surf plunges into the wide sand-bays around Thurso and Dounreay and the gaping entrance to Smoo Cave, a few miles west of Thurso draws you in to one of Europe's most impressive sea caverns.
These regions have not always been as sparsely inhabited. They were artificially depopulated in the eighteenth century "Clearances", when landowners forced people off the land to make way for sheep. The result was large-scale emigration to the USA, wide empty spaces in Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty and a number of tiny Scottish ghost towns. Some of them are well preserved and are signposted from the main routes as "clearance villages".
Centuries before that injustice was inflicted, the Picts, an industrious people, who left their mark in the form of intricately carved stones, peacefully occupied this region. Earlier still, the area supported iron-age people who left simpler standing-stones and enduring, weather-resistant dwellings, now called Brochs. Cairn Lliath, an excellent example of these circular residences, stands beside the A9 a couple of miles north of Dunrobin Castle, with a convenient car park opposite so you can pull aside and take a proper look. You can inspect more examples, plus a variety of cairns, hut circles and standing stones, during a pleasant two-hour walk around the archaeological trail at South Yarrows a few miles further north. In addition to the prehistoric features, I had the luck to see two eagles as I walked the trail.
Northern Scotland is a thinly populated area, unless you count the sheep, but it has much to attract and inspire. A vast area of heather covered moorland stretches for miles and makes Dartmoor and the Peak District look tiny. From Thurso down to Ullapool the roads are predominantly single-track with passing places, but you rarely meet enough traffic for that to be a problem. When you need to stop for another vehicle you have an excuse to glance around at an impressive rock formation, a majestic Stag or an inviting, sandy beach. If your experience of beaches is confined to busy pop-resorts where slivers of sand peer out between the sunbathers you need to see what Caithness and Sutherland can offer. Here the beaches are wide, clean and mostly deserted. The crowds stay away because they forget that the Gulf Stream keeps this region mild. True, you won't sweat in the nineties here but summer comes to Scotland as often as the rest of Europe and the winters aren't nearly as severe as southern prejudice supposes. True, Scotland has ski resorts, but that's because it has mountains. The Gulf Stream has such a moderating effect on this climate that some people manage to grow palm trees in their gardens.
Our holiday plan was to spend most of the time in the better known Hebridean islands, then pay this northern region the briefest of visits. The islands are everything that I hoped for, but northern Scotland captivated us more than we expected and forced us to linger for several extra days. I hope that the area doesn't become crowded now that I've let the secret out. You won't tell anyone, will you?