THERE’S a lot of history to discover in Sutherland – 3,000 million years of it, in fact.
That’s how old the rocks are in the North West Highlands Geopark, a craggy, mountainous landscape that has been described as one of the last truly wild places in Europe.
You can investigate the remarkable geology of the far north-west in a family-friendly way at the Knockan Crag earth science site.
Nearby, south of Inchnadamph, a short walk up a limestone valley will lead you to the Bone Caves – an ancient series of caverns where the bones of polar bears, reindeer, wolves and arctic foxes have been discovered, relics of the Ice Age.
Up on the north coast there’s another famous cave, one that has helped establish Durness as an enduringly popular holiday destination. Smoo Cave has an entrance 100ft wide and a wooden walkway allows you to view an inner chamber where the Allt Smoo burn falls from a gap in the roof. There are boat tours of Smoo Cave throughout the summer.
Durness boasts a beautiful stretch of golden sands, while the delightful diversity of Balnakeil Craft Village adds to the area’s appeal. There’s also a John Lennon memorial garden commemorating the former Beatle’s connection with Durness; Lennon spent many childhood holidays there and it is thought to have been the inspiration for his song “In My Life”, lyrics from which are featured in a set of three standing stones within the garden.
Along the coast at Strathnaver Museum you can learn about the infamous Sutherland Clearances of the early 19th century when families were forced from the land to make way for sheep-farming. The museum is also the starting point for the Strathnaver Trail, linking 29 archaeological sites ranging from Neolithic cairns to pre-Clearance townships.
All along the north coast there are wonderful beaches, including those at Bettyhill, Coldbackie, Melvich and Strathy.
Lochinver and Kinlochbervie are attractive fishing villages on the west coast but the principal communities of this vast, sparsely-populated county are located over in the east.
The Royal Burgh of Dornoch – Sutherland’s only town – is famed for its championship golf course, which has been rated among the top ten in the world. Dornoch’s other attractions include its 13th-century cathedral, its courthouse and old town jail (now a gallery and craft shop) and its award-winning sandy beach.
Dominating the landscape around Golspie is a huge statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland – known locally as “the Mannie” – on the summit of the 1300ft Ben Bhraggie.
Past meets present here as Highland Wildcat mountain-bike trails have been developed in the surrounding landscape, giving a major boost to activity-based tourism in the process. Indeed, Highland Wildcat has been voted the best destination in Britain by a leading mountain-bike magazine.
Just outside Golspie, the fairytale Dunrobin Castle – resembling a French chateau with its conical spires – stands above a magnificent garden (pictured top) that took its inspiration from the Palace of Versailles near Paris. Dunrobin has 189 rooms and is one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses, dating back to the early 1300s. It was home to the earls and, later, the dukes of Sutherland.
Falconry displays are held regularly in the Dunrobin gardens (left), while inside the castle you can tour the beautifully preserved rooms and get a real sense of the history of the grand families who made this their home.
At Brora, the village heritage centre has exhibits on the local whisky, coal and wool industries as well as a display by Clyne Heritage Society.
Continuing north, the Timespan heritage museum and arts centre in Helmsdale has historical exhibits, a storytelling room, a gallery, a riverside café and a garden of herbs and flowers.
A statue in the village entitled The Emigrants stands as an enduring tribute to the thousands of Scots who were forced to leave the Highlands in the 19th century when the land was cleared to make way for sheep.
You can find out more about the Clearances and discover the exciting story of the 1868 gold rush in the nearby Strath of Kildonan.
Inland, at Forsinard, a visitor centre run by the RSPB provides information on the peatlands and bog pools of Caithness and Sutherland and the rare species found in this internationally important habitat. Visitors can venture into the Flow Country on the Dubh Lochan Trail, a one-mile circular route made out of flagstones, and during the summer there are twice-weekly guided walks suitable for families.
Other aspects of the Sutherland environment can be explored at Lairg, where the Ord Archaeological Trail covers Bronze Age house sites, Neolithic cairns and evidence of medieval cultivation. The Ferrycroft Visitor Centre further examines man’s influence on the land, from the distant past to the present day.