TRAVEL / Over the hills and far away: Caithness - the Lowlands beyond the Highlands - is a wild, haunting region with few visitors. Graham Coster lingers for a while in the place on the road to elsewhere

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AS LAY-BYS go, it is particularly easy to miss: not so much a parking place for a picnic, more one of those odd oxbow lakes of asphalt left where the main road has been straightened out. Little reason, then, to break your journey on this stretch of the A9: easier to breast the summit of the pass at the Ord of Caithness and coast on southwards towards Inverness. But stop the car at this wind-ravelled spot, follow the sodden path over the brow of the moor and sharply down to the cliff edge, and you come upon one of the most numinous places. Ahead, there are two oil rigs far out at sea; the tugging wind has already whipped away the sound of the cars back on the road; a few gulls and wagtails wheel and dart, otherwise silence. This is the village of Badbea - and for the past 80 years there hasn't been a soul living here.

In 1840, 12 families, 80 people in all, were evicted during the Highland Clearances from their homes inland in Sutherland, and came here. They had no plough to till the land, but scratched a few potatoes and some oats among the heather. The hillside is so steep, and the wind habitually so wild, that the cattle, the hens - even, legend has it, the children - had usually to be tethered to save them from being blown over the cliff. How could anyone survive here? Badbea clung on until 1911, but by then everyone had had enough, and the community emigrated to New Zealand. Nowadays sheep graze among the ruins of the scattered cottages, and a monument built by the last man to leave commemorates this astonishing feat of subsistence.

The district of Caithness is too often visited only as the way to elsewhere: travel to its far northern port of Scrabster in order to catch the ferry on to the Orkneys; trek up to John o'Groats and about-heel as soon as you arrive to set out on the 876 miles of yet another charity walk back to Land's End. And otherwise, we've probably heard of Caithness glass, those finely engraved rose bowls clutched awkwardly by the winners of Mastermind; and the family tragedy and resignation of government minister Lord Caithness recently made unfortunate news - but he lives in Oxfordshire. Britain's most northerly county is sometimes dubbed 'The Lowlands beyond the Highlands', which not only tells you not to expect towering peaks and good skiing or a clannish preoccupation with tartans and genealogy, but also puts its finger on the surprise that there should be anything at all further north than the mountains.

It is no good for stately homes or daytripper honeypots. Caithness has only two castles, a 19th-century gothic pile in ruins at Thurso, and the Queen Mother's retreat at Mey, neither of which are open to the public. Its only two towns, Thurso and Wick, have a stocky grey solidity; the climate is fairly mild, given how far north we are, but in the defensive huddle of Wick's streets you sense the brunt of that buffeting wind. And to complete the reasons to stay away, this is even one of the few places in Scotland that's not much good for golf: Sutherland, with its famous southern courses such as Dornoch and Brora, is a much better bet.

Here, instead, is a naturalist's paradise, and a fascinating archaeology of embattled human endeavour, for it has generally been a struggle for humankind to subsist in Caithness in any numbers and with much security. The patchwork of its landscape is demarcated in remarkable slate-grey lines, its unique flagstone fences. Flagstone quarrying was one of the major industries here until early this century - the Strand in London was paved with Caithness flagstones. But competition from cheaper concrete paving slabs killed the trade off, and these days Castletown, formerly its centre, makes its living building freezers for shops to store canned drinks in, and the remaining flagstone fences gradually tilt snaggle-toothed this way and that. Fishing was the other main occupation, and Scrabster, indeed, up on the north coast, has seen a recent resurgence in fortunes elevate it to the fourth busiest port in Scotland. But all the way down the east coast, at Wick, Dunbeath, Lybster, is testament to the disappearance of the 'Silver Darlings', the local term for the herring shoals that provided the fishing fleets' mainstay. Over-fishing of the North Sea has driven the stocks too far out for the small local boats to reach. At Lybster, the last vessel was sold a couple of years ago. But what remains, therefore, is the beautiful and precipitous bowl of Lybster harbour, almost entirely deserted, and the wide, sheltered cove of Dunbeath as serenely empty.

Not only is John o'Groats the furthest point on the British mainland from the tip of Cornwall, but it has also so far managed to keep its distance from the sort of ghastly heritage industry paraphernalia that entrepreneur Peter de Savary has inflicted on Land's End. Until recently De Savary also owned John o'Groats, and it was destined for the same treatment of gimcrack exhibitions and comic-book history labyrinths peopled with pirates and smugglers. But the place has since changed hands and for the moment the development is on ice. You'll find the usual scattering of craft shops - though up here Caithness Candles, Crofters Kitchens and Fripperies with its sewing designs are the local economy - and a ferry across to Orkney in the summer, but otherwise, nothing to do. The hulk of a cargo ship sagging against the shore of Stroma Island reminds you of the treacherous currents out in the Pentland Firth. In any case, John o'Groats is worth the journey, if only for the journey when you take the wide-open coast road up from Wick between gleaming golden fields and the white-fringed sea beneath the cliffs. 'There are few places in Scotland,' wrote local author Neil Gunn, whose most famous novels are set in Caithness, 'where level light from the sinking sun can come across such a great area.'

But you can go still further north, for John o'Groats is not the most northerly point of all. That is Dunnet Head, a far more remote and lovely headland. Go via Dunnet Bay and you'll also find a fabulous sweep of glittering sand that has to be one of the finest beaches anywhere. Caithness has more: Thurso's is another superb strand, and the rolling waves out in the bay afford such good surfing that the European Championships came there last year. But follow the road on from Dunnet Sands as it winds up on to the brown peat moor, dotted with tarns, their still waters azure blue under the sky, and shaggy Highland cattle grazing among the heather, and you come to an empty hilltop beside a lighthouse. This is Dunnet Head, whose seabird cliffs are rich with guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, as well as home to one of Caithness's puffin colonies, and from where the views stretch across to the Old Man of Hoy, and all the way westwards to the north-western corner of Scotland at Cape Wrath.

A few years ago, it did seem as if a far easier scheme than crofting had been hit upon to cultivate Caithness for a quick profit - but for well-heeled celebrities rather than local people. More and more of the Flow Country, one of the most undamaged and unique tracts of peat bog in the world, disappeared as forestry syndicates capitalised on tax benefits by blanketing this part of Caithness with conifers. Eventually, after about 15 per cent of the Flow Country had been vandalised with swathes of fir trees, the conservationists' outcry became loud enough for the tax breaks to be withdrawn. No one could say that the largest peat bog in the country is a thing of prettiness, but Altnabreac Moss is truly one of the last wildernesses. The old fishing lodge hotel at Loch Ddu that you can glimpse from the Thurso train as it halts at the astoundingly remote Altnabreac Station would have been a great base from which to explore it, but has sadly closed. Never mind: take the single-track road towards it from the hamlet of Westerdale: stop among the eerie quiet of the moor, its gradations of browns and khakis, magentas and mauves, and realise how emptiness is a thing to scrutinise as closely as hubbub.

TRAVEL NOTES

WHERE TO STAY: Portland Arms Hotel, Lybster, Caithness KW3 6BS (05932 208): pounds 48.50 single, pounds 65 double. Forss House Hotel, Forss, by Thurso, Caithness KW14 7XY (0847 86 201): pounds 45 single, pounds 80 double. Pentland, Princes Street, Thurso, Caithness KW14 7AA (0847 63202): pounds 28 single, pounds 48 double. Bilbster House, Wick, Caithness KW1 5TB (095 582 212): pounds 13 per person, B&B. The Harbour Guest House, 6 Rose Street, Wick KW1 5EX (0955 3276): pounds 15 single, pounds 13 per person double. Northern Sands Hotel, Dunnet, KW14 8XD (0847 85 270): pounds 35.50 for a single, pounds 57.50 for a double.

INFORMATION: Caithness Tourist Board, Whitechapel Rd, Wick KW1 4EA (0955 2596).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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