We are just home from an absolutely incredible week exploring Assynt in the Scottish Highlands. We were meant to travel in April, but had to postpone due to Coronavirus – however, we were still able to have our holiday (just a few months later than planned!) so we are very grateful! This was our second trip to the North West Highlands and there is so much to see and do that we still haven’t managed to tick everything off the list – I think a third trip is on the cards…
Driving through Assynt is an experience quite unlike any other. One of our walking books states that the Norse Gods created the landscape of Assynt as a practice before moving onto other, bigger ranges, and I can definitely see why you would think that! Assynt is part of the North West Highlands Geopark and the whole area is absolutely breath taking. Mountains rise up all around you in a vast array of shapes, sizes and colours, including Stac Pollaidh, Quinag (pictured) and Suilven. Lochs and castles dot the landscape and it is pretty much impossible to drive anywhere without pulling over to stop and enjoy the view! Visitors to Assynt can also enjoy exploring the region’s many sandy beaches and tumbling waterfalls – you don’t have to be a mountain climber to enjoy visiting this area!
Assynt is home to a range of flora and fauna, including a vast array of birds, marine life and not least, deer. Deer stalking takes place every year and it is worth checking if any of your walks will cross into stalking areas – the Scottish Outdoor Access code states that you must minimise your chances of disturbing deer stalking – there is lots of useful information on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website. We did do some walks where stalking was active and it didn’t impact on us at all – there were just a few signs up requesting that walkers stuck to the paths, which we did, so we didn’t have any problems.
Like most areas of countryside in the British Isles, much of the landscape in Assynt is crofting or farmland. It might not look like the rolling fields you have previously experienced with miles of crops gently nodding in the breeze: this part of the world is as rugged as they come. Many farmers earn their living with livestock, and on any walk you should expect to come across sheep, cows, horses, or even birds and deer! If your dog is likely to chase them or has poor recall, you need to put them on a lead. Farmers can and do shoot dogs caught worrying livestock – all your dog has to do is give chase to be in danger of this. In my opinion it’s always safest not to risk it so ours are always on the lead if there are livestock about. Beaches are not exempt from this: many beaches along the North Coast 500 are home to hardly highland cows (other breeds are available) and for both the animal’s safety and your own, dogs should be on a lead.
The Bone Caves
Assynt is also home to a number of caves, some of which can be explored. One such cave system is the Bone Caves, a series of caves formed about 200,000 years ago, when melting glaciers in the last Ice Age started to dissolve the limestone rock on the sides of the valley. The remains of lynx, reindeer and even possibly a polar bear have been found in the caves! The antechambers of the caves can be explored on foot and are a perfect place to sit down and enjoy the views! The walk we followed was a linear route from our Caithness and Sutherland Pocket Mountains book (which we used loads!), but if you don’t have this book a similar walk can be found on Walkhighlands. The walk is around 3 miles and takes a few hours – the path is generally pretty flat but can but quite rocky in places, with a steeper section on the approach to the caves. Watch out for the slippery surface outside the caves – Merry wanted to say hello to another dog and nearly sent me flying!
The colours on this walk were amazing – the last of the heather was still clinging on while the bracken had started to die back and turn orange. The greens, purples and oranges were stunning and none of the photos I took really did it justice!
This was probably one of the busier walks we did but ‘busy’ is a relative term – there were generally one or two other walkers in sight at any given time, and a few people having lunch up at the caves, but that was it! I think the car park does tend to fill up on sunny days as this is a stop off on the NC500 but we had no trouble getting a space at around 2pm.
Parking is free in a roadside car park sign posted with a small wooden fingerpost from the road. There are some interesting information boards at the start which are definitely worth a read to find out more about the caves!
Dog friendly rating – 4/5. We had the dogs off the lead for most of this walk and they had a great time exploring the area. We did put them back on the lead as we approached the caves – just in case! There are sections of this walk where you pass along the river so there are also opportunities for your dog to have a paddle and a drink. Don’t forget to check your dog for ticks when you get home as deer are plentiful in this area!
The Inchnadamph Caves
About a five minute drive from the Bone Caves car park is the starting point for the walk to the Inchnadamph Caves (properly named the Traligill Caves). Again, we used the Pocket Mountains book for this walk, with a similar walk available on Walkhighlands. The Traligill Caves can be visited on a walk of about 2-2.5 hours which follows a linear route up the glen and which gives great views of the surrounding area. This is probably a slightly easier route than that to the Bone Caves, but in my opinion the caves aren’t quite as impressive, so it’s all swings and roundabouts!
The caves here mark the entrance of one of the largest cave systems in Scotland. There are two cave entrances visible, the first of which cannot be accessed by passers by, and the second which can be. The name of the first cave, Uamh An Tartair, translates to the Cave of the Roaring, which is very apt as if you stand by the entrance you can hear the water rushing through the cave below!
Parking is free in a small car park close to the Inchnadamph Hotel, however, there is a donations box for Assynt mountain rescue so please contribute! You walk along the verge for a very short section at the start (less than 100m) and then the rest of this walk is all off road.
Dog friendly rating – 4/5. This walk was very similar to the Bone Caves – we were able to let the dogs off the lead away from the entrance to the caves and there was water along the way for them to splash in. Merry especially loved the river here as it was full of rocks for him to fish out! This walk was also much quieter than the Bone Caves and we only saw a handful of other people – I’m not sure why as this is also a stop on the NC500 – maybe we were just there before the crowds arrived!
As you drive along the road from Inchnadamph to Lochinver you will pass an exceptionally eye catching ruin on a small promontory jutting into Loch Assynt. This ruin is Ardvreck Castle, once the seat of the Macleod Clan, and abandoned at the end of the 17th Century. You can clearly see the castle from several parking areas along the road, and if you want to see it up close, the castle can easily be reached on foot.
Like many ruined castles, Ardvreck is said to be haunted. Legend has it that a daughter of the Macleod clan was fooled into marrying the Devil and threw herself into the loch rather than live with her new husband. She remained hiding in the caves under the loch until she transformed into a mermaid, and it is said that when the waters of the loch rise, it is her tears which have caused the flood.
The Leitir Easaidh walk follows an accessible path to provide a lovely short walk of around 1.5 miles. You pass three pretty lochs and get wonderful views of Quinag, and if you make the small and easy climb to the viewing point, views of Suilven and Canisp.
Parking is free and signed by a finger post saying ‘accessible path’. There are two eco-friendly composting toilets which are powered by both wind and sun – unfortunately they were closed on our visit so I can’t vouch for their cleanliness, but their thatched roofs were very charming!
This walk would be the perfect place to stop for a picnic, as there are a few benches with spectacular views (please make sure you take all litter home!).
Dog friendly rating – 5/5. The whole area is enclosed by a deer fence so you can let your dog off the lead with no fear of them escaping onto the road. There is an abundance of water on this walk for water loving dogs, and no steep drops or caves to worry about! Please pick up poos and take them away with you for disposal on all walks.
On the third day of our visit the heavens opened (maybe it was that mermaid at Ardvreck castle) and it seemed like it was pouring down everywhere in Assynt. We therefore headed inland to do a lovely woodland walk around Carbisdale Castle. The walk itself was much better than I expected (I’m more of a beach than woodland fan) and had great views over the Kyle of Sutherland, as well as passing Carbisdale Castle itself.
Carbisdale Castle is privately owned and is not open to the public, but you do pass the front gates on this walk. The castle was built at the start of the 20th Century following a dispute between the widow of the Duke of Sutherland and the rest of his family – to cut a long story short, the family took the Sutherland estate and in return agreed to build the widowed Duchess a castle, on the condition that the castle was located outside of Sutherland. Carbisdale castle is therefore right on the edge of the county boundary and is actually located in Ross-shire (just!)
Dog friendly rating – 4/5. I was so close to giving this walk a 100% dog friendly rating – the dogs were off the lead for nearly all of this walk and absolutely loved it! There is even a small waterfall with a pool in front of it which is perfect for swimming. We saw absolutely no other people on this walk which is always a bonus! The only reason that I have knocked off a point is because you are required to traverse a metal footbridge to cross the Kyle of Sutherland at the start/end of this walk. This would have been fine, except that it was one of those bridges with lots of gaps, and the dogs’ paws couldn’t walk over the bridge. We therefore had to carry them across the bridge – it felt a lot further than it actually was, especially for Sam, with Coal weighing well over 25kg now!
After we’d finished the walk at Carbisdale we decided to head over to the East Sutherland coast as it was only half an hour away. We stopped at Dornoch, a fairly large town (for the area!), which has a hotel, a cathedral and quite a few shops and cafes. Most importantly, it also has a beach, and we headed straight here with the dogs to let them have a run around while we enjoyed a gentle stroll!
There is free parking in the centre of Dornoch if you want to visit the local amenities, or alternatively, you can park for free by the beach if you want to save yourself the 15 minute walk to get to the shore (I wish we’d known it was there!). The beach is a blue flag beach and you can see a variety of sea birds here, and possibly even seals and dolphins, although sadly we didn’t see any on our visit.
Dornoch was also the location of the final witch burning in the UK in 1727 – you can visit the Witches Stone which commemorates the occasion (although the date on the stone is 1722, which is wrong). For more things to do in Dornoch I would recommend the Visit Dornoch website’s 10 things to do in Dornoch.
Dog friendly rating – 5/5. The beach at Dornoch is dog friendly year round and ours absolutely loved charging around here! There are poo bins in Dornoch so make sure you dispose of any poos to keep the beach nice for the next walker.
Clashnessie Beach and Falls
We actually found Clashnessie beach completely by accident. We had been looking on the Visit Scotland website (which is a really good way of finding places to stay and things to do) for local waterfalls and just drove to the village expecting to do a short walk to the falls. We were not expecting the amazing beach which we had entirely to ourselves! It was also the only beach we visited which had no jellyfish but I think this was just a coincidence.
Dog friendly rating – 5/5. This was my favourite beach stop of the entire trip! The dogs agreed and spent a fab half an hour zooming across the sand and splashing in the sea (Coal was very brave until he tried to jump through a big wave, less brave after that).
Clashnessie is a very small community and I think that the majority of visitors come to see the magnificent Clashnessie Falls. Sadly I think lots of people leave litter and worse after their visit, and there are signs up in the village requesting that visitors take all rubbish away with them.
The falls are easily reached by a short walk from the main road (park in the large lay-by parking area just outside the village). Follow the path indicated by a fingerpost for 10-15 minutes to arrive at the falls. The path can be wet and boggy, and you will need to cross some stepping stones which can be slippery, so sensible footwear is recommended! The short walk is definitely worth it though, with the falls being very impressive whatever the weather.
Dog friendly rating – 3/5. I’ve given this quite a low score compared to other walks purely due to the length of the walk – it’s very short and probably won’t tire your dog out. The path was also starting to get a bit busier by the time we left, and it was a bit tricky getting the dogs to climb up the side of the path to move out of people’s way. As always though Merry absolutely loved the stepping stone crossing and the opportunity to have a swim around!
The Point of Stoer
This was my favourite walk of the whole trip. It was another one that we found in the Pocket Mountains book, but again, a similar route is available on Walkhighlands. The walk is just over 4 miles and took us about 3 hours to complete, including plenty of stops to enjoy the magnificent views of Stoer Lighthouse and the Old Man of Stoer (pictured). It’s probably worth noting that we had absolutely amazing weather for this walk – I’m not sure I would have enjoyed such an exposed walk if it was raining or windy!
There is free parking at the start of the walk by Stoer Lighthouse and a public toilet which is 50p to use. I put in my 50p and then had a panic because I couldn’t get the door to open – persevere, the handle is stiff but it does open eventually! The inside of the toilet won’t be featuring in my ‘top ten cleanest public toilets’, but it was better than nothing. Slightly more scary was the cow that was waiting outside the door when I opened it on my way out, but I think the cow was more scared of me than the other way around!
Thanks to the fact that the sun was fully shining, the sea was tropical blue rather than grey, although the sea up here always seems blue to me whatever the weather! The views were outstanding and it was so clear that we could even sea across to the Isle of Lewis!
The walk out to the Old Man of Stoer was much busier than the sections we did to the Point of Stoer and the return inland. This is a shame because the views from the Point and from the summit of Sithean Mor are fantastic – you get a panoramic vista which includes pretty much every distinctive mountain in Assynt!
The path out to the Point of Stoer along the coast is pretty wet and boggy, although this could be due to the amount of rain we’d had the day before. The return inland after the summit of Sithean Mor was much drier, but I would still recommend sturdy footwear (and watch out for cow pats!). There were some cows hanging around at the start of the walk but they were all very chilled out and took no notice of us whatsoever.
Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This wasn’t the most dog friendly walk we did – there was no fresh water really, and the steep drops off the cliffs meant they needed to be kept on leads all the way around. There was however no road walking and after an afternoon of bracing sea air they both spent the whole evening fast asleep!
Clachtoll is a tiny hamlet with a sizeable campsite and pretty beach. The sea here is turquoise whatever the weather and by climbing the small rise away from the beach you get great views of the mountains rising up from the beach.
There is also an Iron Age broch located a short walk from the beach, thought to be the remains of a tower around 2,000 years old. It is one of the most complete Iron Age buildings I’ve ever visited and you can actually climb into the broch itself, but please be careful not to damage the site. The broch can be reached via a short walk from the beach car park which is sign posted along the way – you can return either in land along the road or back the way you came along the coast.
The coastal path you follow to get to the broch is very faint, but keep the sea on your left and you will get there eventually! We chose to return the way we had come and the views coming back are even better than on the way out. Parking at the beach car park is free but there is a donation box for the Highland Ranger service if you wish to contribute,
Dog friendly rating – 4/5. The beach is slightly smaller than Clashnessie (which we visited on the same day) and had quite a few more people (but I think the total number of people on the beach was still less than 20). As with a lot of the beaches we visited, there were jellyfish on the shore, so keep an eye on your dog and what they might be eating!
The final walk we did was part of the linear walk from Kylestrome to Glendhu Bothy. We had originally planned to do the whole walk but ended up having to drive to Ullapool to sort out a car issue in the morning (massive thank you to Loch Broom garage for squeezing us in, I couldn’t recommend them more). Consequently we only had about an hour and a half left to walk, so we just started along the track and turned around after 45 minutes. And I’m so glad we decided not to go for a shorter walk somewhere else!
The views of the mountains were incredible, especially Quinag, but what will make this walk stay with me forever is that we were lucky enough to spot some seals! They were very well camouflaged so you might not be able to spot them in the photo – you will just have to trust me that they were there!
As well as the seals sunbathing on the shore, we also spotted quite a few swimming in the water. This was actually how we first noticed them, as we originally wondered why there was a dog swimming in the loch with no owner in sight! When we saw the ‘dog’ disappear below the surface and reappear somewhere else we realised that it was actually a seal – amazing! Having dogs I have always resigned myself to being very unlikely to spot much wildlife so this was an incredible experience.
In addition to the seals, we saw a huge array of birds and three young stags grazing next to the car park when we finished the walk. The stags were really skittish so I only managed to catch one on camera – and even that is pretty far away!
There is a good path throughout this walk which is well surfaced, even if the terrain does undulate up and down a little! There are sections where you will need to cross water via stepping stones but these are infrequent and the water around the stones isn’t deep. Parking is free in a car park just off the A894 – be warned that it is really difficult to find if you don’t know where it is, as it isn’t visible from the road, nor is it sign posted. Definitely worth looking at a GPX file or similar before you set off!
Once you’ve finished your walk I would definitely recommend heading to the dog friendly Kylesku Hotel for lunch. They do breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, including plenty of fresh sea food options which I would highly recommend! As with all restaurants now it is definitely worth calling ahead to book a table to make sure you don’t get turned away.
Dog friendly rating – 3.5/5. While much of this walk would have been perfect for the dogs, we decided to keep them on leads for the majority of the time, just in case Merry charged down to the water and ended up disturbing the seals. However, they both still enjoyed it, and there are areas where the water crosses the path and is deep enough for a little paddle!
Wailing Widow Falls
Not long after our visit to the Far North West in 2018, photos of Wailing Widow Falls started popping up on my Instagram. The Falls get their name from a local legend which says that a hunter chasing a deer into the night ran over the edge of the cliff and fell to his death in the gorge. The next day his mother, a widow, saw his body in the gorge and lamented his death from the cliff top, before throwing herself into the gorge to join her son in death.
I’m not sure how true the legend is, but the waterfall is an impressive sight regardless. The classic shots from Instagram show both the loch above the waterfall and the falls themselves, however, it would be pretty impossible to get this view without a drone or similar – sorry to disappoint!
The falls are accessed from a small lay-by off the A894 near Newton – again, there is no indication that this is anything other than a lay-by, so look it up before you go! The falls are a popular stop off on the NC500 and the lay-by can get pretty full, so make sure you park considerately (unlike someone who had just abandoned their car at the front of the parking area when we visited, blocking about 5 spaces! Grrr). The track down to the falls is muddy and very uneven so make you wear appropriate footwear. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the parking area to the falls, so it’s not a long stop, and definitely worth it if you’re passing by.
Where we stayed
We stayed in Heather Cottage on the lovely Cathair Dhubh estate on the Lochinver/Kylesku coastal road. All of the cottages overlook the sea and are within walking distance of a number of beaches, including Achmelvich. Achmelvich has seasonal dog restrictions but the rest of the beaches you can access from the cottage are fine for dogs year round – our favourite was the sandy Vestey’s beach about 20 minutes walk from the cottage.
Inside the cottage was very cosy, with stunning views over the sea from the living room, and a view point with a bench perfect for watching the sunset a stone’s throw from the cottage. The location was absolutely perfect for us with the majority of the walks we did being less than an hour away – ideal when you’ve had a long drive to get there in the first place! It’s worth noting that the WiFi here isn’t the most reliable, and there isn’t much in the way of mobile signal, so use this as an opportunity to socially distance yourself from your phone – you might enjoy it!
Dog friendly rating – 4/5. There are five cottages at Cathair Dhubh and all are dog friendly – we came across quite a few other dogs running down to the beach from their cottages with their owners running behind! There was plenty of space inside the cottage we stayed in too, so it was ideal for getting ready to go out without the dog under your feet all the time! I have just knocked off a point as there is no enclosed garden area, so when we took the dogs out for a last bedtime wee we needed to put their leads on and go out with them. In the grand scheme of things though I feel like that is being a bit pedantic when the beach is walking distance!
I think this might be the record for the longest blog post I’ve ever written – I certainly feel like we managed to pack a lot in to our week! If Assynt looks like the kind of place you’d like to explore I honestly couldn’t recommend it any more – we absolutely adore it.
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