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The Mirage of the North

Wick town centre

Photo: OLU (Licence)

Wick is like a mirage, when you’ve been driving up the A9 for ever and ever. Just as you think maybe you’ll reach the end of the world and drop off the edge before you see civilisation again, the road straightens, and falls away slightly in front of you. And in the distance you see roofs and spires and towers floating on clouds. Blink a few times; wind the window down for fresh air; slap yourself round the head with your OS Touring Map. But you are not hallucinating. Wick begins about fifteen feet off the ground, or maybe just floats.

Although on one of those rare days when the ground is not swathed in mist, it all looks real enough.

Caithness is as far north as you can go before you fall into the sea, or hop on a ferry to the Northern Isles.

Heading north on the A9, you travel through Sutherland, which is as typically Scottish as you can get – all mountains and heather and touristy stuff. Then you hit some hills and hairpins that you might not expect on an “A” road, and it’s over the “Ord” to Caithness.

Such a change! No more mountains. Moorland, rough grazing, a few hard-won arable fields, a legacy of generations of toil to wrest a living from an unforgiving and harsh terrain.

Scattered crofts with wreaths of peat smoke from chimneys poking from slate roofs. This is as close to a Western Isles landscape as you can get, without leaving the mainland.

Then you’re in to Wick, the County Town of Caithness. It’s pronounced “Week”, locally, which may derive from the morning after a good night in MacKay’s Hotel (of which more, perhaps, later).

Wick is steeped in fishing history. Although the boom time came in the late 19th century, Wick was becoming established as a fishing port before the end of the 18th. By the mid-1800s, Wick had become Europe’s busiest herring port. Much of the town’s development at this time was due to the Free British Fisheries Society, which was responsible for much investment in harbour improvements and house building. What is now the main (but sadly much quieter) harbour area of Wick was developed from the village of Pultneytown, on the south side of Wick. Gradually expanded and incorporated into the town, Pultneytown has held on to its identity, and has recently seen much redevelopment. Here you will find the Wick Heritage Centre, which offers a great insight into the town and the county’s past. And if somewhere in the back of your mind, you think you’ve heard the name “Pultneytown” before, it has given its name to one of our nation’s finer malt whiskies!

The main town finds itself a little shaded by Caithness’s other main centre, Thurso, and I have to say in terms of shopping and leisure facilities, Wick lags a little behind its rival. But there are a couple of decent supermarkets, and some good high street shops. The side streets and lanes are worth exploring, for little shops selling crafts and collectables. And unlike many of Scotland’s more commercialised tourist stops, you won’t find too many tartan-clad dollies and souvenirs from Taiwan.

Hostelries and eating places are varied. MacKay’s Hotel is worth a visit. Or have a pint in Camps Bar, or a snack in Carters. And if you’re lucky enough to catch a ceilidh night in the Queens Hotel – well, don’t plan to be up with the lark and off jogging the next morning!

Of course, no visit to Wick is complete without a mention of Caithness Glass. Arguably the County’s most famous export, Caithness Glass have recently opened a new factory and visitor centre on the northern outskirts of the town. There you can take the guided tour and watch the glassmakers practise their art. And maybe even try your own hand at glass blowing. (And it isn’t easy).

Finally, if you want some real excitement, travel to Wick by air. A frighteningly short strip of tarmac with a Portakabin at the end. And a public road which crosses the runway – watch the traffic lights. And cross winds which can be very cross indeed – even pretty seriously angry. Who needs bungee jumping to get the adrenalin going, when you can fly in to Wick?

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