Muschamp Rd

Scotland Trip 2024: Thurso & Bettyhill

April 5th, 2024
Arriving in Thurso

In 2023, I came up with my plan to finally visit the ancestral homeland of the Clan Mackay. And to get there, I knew I needed to take the Far North Line and get off at Thurso. Once on the North Coast, covering the last 41 km to make it to a museum in Bettyhill would take some good fortune.

First of all, in March, the offseason as far as tourism is concerned in Scotland. The Strathnaver Museum was going to be closed but I had committed to going in March and the museum administrator, June MacKay had offered to open it for one afternoon if I could make it. So with the help of more than a few people I did. Below are pictures and observations from this portion of my trip to Scotland in 2024.

Prior to my early morning train ride, I was in Inverness and prior to that I took part in the Highland Whisky Academy. So if you want to read about those portions of my journey or you just like whisky or music about drinking I’m including a video below that was filmed in part in Inverness and Thurso.


Thurso is not a major tourist destination. It is however the most Northernly town in Great Britain but perversely John o’ Groats is more famous. However, even after renting a car I couldn’t bother driving there. Perhaps I should have driven around more, but I didn’t want to be forced to rent a car and shift with my left hand for the first time ever. The last time I drove standard may have been in Germany, luckily my grandfather taught me well.

I got up very early to take the first train North to Thurso. Then not seeing a car rental place or a cab at the train station I decided to walk to the post office. I made extensive use of Apple Maps while traveling alone in the Scotland. The reason for my trip to the post office was to ship over 3 kg of books I’d acquired in Inverness and Culloden home to Calgary Alberta Canada.

For the record Dunnet Head is the true Northern tip of Great Britain and I saw it, but did not drive to the edge and piss off. But I thank the Old Gods and the New I was able to pull off my entire itinerary even driving part of the North Coast of Scotland by myself. A lot of people visit Thurso to travel the North Coast or onward to Orkney, so of course I did both, but I actually spent two nights there.

Pennyland House B&B

After reading the Lonely Planet I decided to stay at my first bed and breakfast of my journey. These are very common in the North of Scotland and are often the only option you have. It took a while to fill out all the forms to mail my books, however I did get a granola bar the co-op because I had skipped breakfast thinking I could get something on my four plus hours on the train, only to learn their would be no cart on the entire trip to Thurso.

Pennyland B&B
The Pennyland B&B in Thruso Caithness Scotland

After arriving at the Pennyland House B&B and stopping to take pictures I asked for advice on getting to Bettyhill and seeing the Strathnaver Museum, MacKay Country and part of the North Coast of Scotland. The owner knew a guy who hired cars and called him. There was considerable reluctance and difficulty securing a rental car in the offseason in Northern Scotland. I had of course booked a tour of the local whisky distillery which according to Apple Maps was only a few kilometres a way so of course I walked on

Wolfburn Distillery Thurso Caithness
Wolfburn Distillery, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland

Wolfburn Distillery

It was quite a long walk and there was probably wind and rain and of course uphill. I actually walked by MacKay’s Quality Used Cars & Vans. I’ve already written extensively about touring whisky distilleries, but I enjoyed the tour and I arrived early and the lady at the desk was very enthusiastic about trying to help me get further along the North Coast to MacKay Country. There is a bus and I was willing to take it, the problem is there is very limited bus service so getting to Bettyhill and back in day would be a challenge.

Eventually we went on the actual tour, the distillery wasn’t that busy, there was one couple on the tour with me. I had bought some miniature bottles prior to the tour but this was their first whisky distillery tour ever. Wolfburn distillery is a small business so the tour guide got a called away at least once, even the other tour members got a phone call from a son. Eventually I even got a phone call, it was Raymond saying Richard had decided to rent me a car for a single day if I’d pay however many pounds, I immediately said yes. I was of course concerned driving the winding roads along the North Coast of Scotland by myself, but that was a problem to solve after the distillery tour.

I had paid extra pounds for the extended tasting. The owner or the manager had some guests so they borrowed some of the bottles form our official five dram tasting. I think I was pretty much left alone with several bottles of whisky, but I was a good boy. There was always another bottle to try in a back room, so I think I ended up drinking nine drams on an empty stomach. Then walking home in the wind and rain didn’t seem to take as long.

Panoramic photo inside Wolfburn distillery
Inside Wolfburn Distillery

My first night out in Thurso

After walking back to my B&B, I think I waited around to meet Raymond or Richard from Richard’s Garage which also rents cars. I know I eventually got some instruction on how the car worked and practiced first in the parking lot and then in the neighbourhood, either that day or again the next day, for the record I never stalled. I’d actually driven standard on the autobahn and through the whiney and hilly streets of Luxembourg but the North Coast highway is definitely different and tiny villages in Northern Scotland are just that tiny, but this was more of a tomorrow problem.

I actually abandoned my Lonely Planet guidebook in Kirkwall but the place I went to dinner, after walking who knows how many kilometres back into town was actually really tasty but I needed to be reminded of the name. They had a bar next door which was lively, but after two beers with diner the previously mentioned nine drams of whisky, I just walked home and went to bed early before my big day tomorrow. Did I mention I had gotten up at 5 AM to get to Thurso in time to tour another whisky distillery?

The lady at Wolfburn distillery had given me some recommendations and the Pennyland B&B had a whole guide book and I think I walked around seeing what was opened, I know I did the next day but where I ate the first night was the Y Not, which as I said was actually very good. I had a powerful hunger by the time I got dinner in Thurso. It is apparently one of ten inns they own in Northern Scotland.

Welcome to MacKay Country selfie
Welcome to MacKay Country

MacKay Country

Many many years ago, my grandmother visited the old country possibly with her mother-in-law. We’ll have to research this more. I was the family history and genealogy expert for a while, but now it seems others are making newer family trees than mine. One of my ancestors got married in Lanark, but if you are familiar with Clan MacKay history you would realize he likely came from further North indeed his parents may have been from “Achlean of Pitfure” in Rogart Sutherland, which I passed through heading North by train. The Clan MacKay is rumoured to descend from the Mormaers of Moray and to have retreated North through Ross into Strathnaver where more modern records will record as MacKay Country.

There is a lot more historical information online than when I first put up my website. was briefly available, but I had already build and branded this website after another family name. Now either lawyers or a furniture company control the MacKay domain in Canada. this website does not generate any money so domain squatting was never something I engaged in. The Clan MacKay has several websites and perhaps I should get more involved now that my life is more settled. The UK chapter seems more active than the Canadian one these days.

The village of Bettyhill on the North Coast of Scotland

Driving the North Coast

As mentioned previously, I was advised to rent a car and not rely on the limited bus service in Northern Scotland. So after securing a car, I did indeed practice shifting with my left hand and set out to drive to Bettyhill where I had arranged to tour the Strathnaver Museum on Tuesday March 12th. I stopped once to check the map. I opted to pay roaming charges and used Apple Maps all the way. There is basically one opportunity to head South. Pro tip don’t head South.

When I came to the marker it surprised me, I had seen it on the Internet, but I drove past until I could find a place to pull off and then walked back to take the iconic selfie. Then after taking several pictures with my iPhone I resumed driving. I kept repeating “drive on the left” and on the way there I went pretty slow. The weather actually improved as I drove, so by the time I made it to Bettyhill I had blue sky.

Strathnaver Museum
Strathnaver Museum

Strathnaver Museum

I spent a while in the museum, it was recently upgraded and they have even built an annex. I bought the book June recommended and the only postcards they had then I went for lunch in the one restaurant that was open in Bettyhill. There is a post office and a police station. I think there is also an elementary school and there is definitely a hotel, but it was closed as this was the offseason. That is why I was staying in Thurso. I was definitely the first person from my branch of the MacKay family to visit Scotland in a generation. I’ve tasked my sister with digging up some black and white photos of my grandmother’s trip.

Farr Beach
Farr Beach

Farr Beach

After lunch at the Store Cafe, I drove to where you park then walk through farmer’s fields to a very nice beach. There are several gates you need to open and close and I believe it is popular with dog walkers. I took a bunch of photos then got back into my car and drove along the North Coast back to Thurso. Later, I thought about stopping at another beach, I even passed another distillery. However, I just wanted to return my rental car to a the parking lot, even though I didn’t have much trouble driving. I did notice the turnoff for the Big House another place I thought of staying when planning this trip.

It really helps to have a car on the North Coast of Scotland but there are buses and tour vans that operate this far North.

Panoramic Farr Beach
Panoramic Farr Beach

Final Night in Thurso

Having returned earlier than perhaps necessary to my B&B I consulted various sources on where to go for dinner. I walked around for a while as the restaurant I wanted to go to was closed that evening. However, the bar in that particular hotel was open. After dinner I decided to try one more pub and ended up at the Comm Bar where I drank with the locals. Having a big day ahead of me tomorrow, where I had to catch the first ferry to Orkney I walked back up the hill.

Onward to Orkney

In addition to difficulty securing a car to drive to Bettyhill, there was debate where I would return the car, eventually it was decided I could leave it in Scabster to avoid the several kilometre walk to the ferry terminal. I also left so early, it was feared I would miss out breakfast, so the folks at Pennyland prepared a packed lunch for me. Orkney and the ferry ride will be in the next blog post, but if you have any questions about Thurso, the Strathnaver Museum or the part of the North Coast I saw, you can leave a comment below.

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