Visit the magical Flow Country in the far north of Scotland to learn about the wonders of Europe’s largest blanket bog and the tragic history and consequences of the Highland Clearances. Follow meandering rivers through the straths, visit treasured local history museums and go birdwatching in the peatlands just a stone’s throw from the famous North Coast 500. Plan your trip to the Flow Country with this detailed travel guide.
This post contains affiliate links from which I may make a commission. Find out more here. All opinions are my own.
The Flow Country is a beautiful region in the far north of Scotland, best known for its vast stretches of peatlands. It spans the regions of Caithness and Sutherland, two areas that were harshly affected by the Highland Clearances.
As such, the Flow Country is a fascinating place to visit to learn about the history of the clearances and how they affect Scotland until today, but also about the unique landscape and nature of the far north, and how people have engaged with it for centuries.
I visited the Flow Country on my way home from Orkney and spent four days exploring the area on foot, by bike, by train and by car. I visited museums and historic sites in the landscape, followed hiking trails through the blanket bog and immersed myself in the nature all around me.
The Flow Country is just a stone’s throw from the famous North Coast 500, and yet the calm roads across the peatlands couldn’t be further from the busy route along the coast. If you’re looking for a scenic detour and. adeep-dive into Scottish nature and history, look no further!
This guide contains:
- An introduction to the Flow Country and its blanket bog,
- Suggestions for things to experience here, and
- Practical travel information to get the most out of your trip to the Flow Country.
The Flow Country
The Flow Country is home to Europe’s largest blanket bog. A blanket bog is a rare type of peatland, an upland moorland that forms in areas of high rainfall and cooler climate. With its interlinked pool systems, it is a vast and complex landscape to navigate.
All peatlands in Scotland have formed over millenia, some have started growing as much as 10,000 years ago. Peat is formed by decomposing plants, especially sphagnum moss, that store water in their cells and don’t decompose after the plant has died. This process stores carbon in the soil with new layers of plants growing on top.
Some bogs in Scotland can be up to 10 metres deep – not bad when you consider that they only grow 1 mm per year!
People have always used peatlands like the blanket bog of the Flow Country. They grazed their cattle on the moorlands, cut peat to use as fuel and lived off the fresh water filtered through the nutrient-rich soil.
The vast peatland expanse of the Flow Country is the largest blanket bog in Europe and home to an amazing variety of plants and wildlife. It is an area of global significance and there has been a long-standing campaign to make the Flow Country a Unesco World Heritage Site.
One of the largest protected areas within the Flow Country is the RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. The reserve covers over 21,000 hectares and includes sites where damaged blanket bog is being painstakingly restored.
To learn more about the Flow Country and the RSPB’s work at Forsinard Flows, listen to my podcast episode ‘Vastness of Space’.
Things to do in the Flow Country
Visit the Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve
The Forsinard Flows Visitor Centre is located at the former station building at the Forsinard train station. There is a large room with an exhibition about the blanket blog of the Flow Country and a small screening room with films about the area.
The information provided includes displays about the formation of peat, wildlife found in the blanket bog and how humans have and still do use the blanket bog.
The visitor centre is run by the RSPB and sometimes a ranger is at hand to answer questions. There are also public toilets at the visitor centre. For up to date opening times, see here.
Lochan Dubh Trail
The Lochan Dubh Trail is a fantastic introduction to the blanket bog of Forsinard Flows. The trail starts just across the road from the Forsinard train station. If you arrive by car, this is also where you can park during your visit.
The 1-mile loop trail leads from the road to a section of blanket bog that is littered by peat pools. Lochan Dubh is Gaelic for “small black loch” and refers to the dark waters of these peat pools.
The first section of the Lochan Dubh trail leads along a wooden boardwalk toward a modern lookout tower. The tower provides a birds eye view of the surrounding peat pools. The second half of the trail follows an old path of flagstones right along the edges of the pools.
It takes about 45 minutes to walk the trail, although you can easily spend more time observing wildlife along the path. I would allow 1-1.5 hours and pay close attention to the animals and plants beneath your feet.
The Forsinain Trail is the second waymarked hiking trail at the RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. It is located about 4 miles north of the train station in Forsinard. There is a small car park opposite the barns of Forsinain Farm.
The 4-mile loop trail leads through a varierty of habitat that can be found in the nature reserve. This includes farm trails and fields, forestry tracks and of course peat bogs. The trail showcases these peatlands in various states – natural bog, ongoing restoration areas and restored bog.
Once you have passed through the farmland, the trail meanders through a beautiful bog landscape. Follow the flagstones as they loop around peat pools and offer plenty of opportunities to observe wildlife, such as lapwings, dragonflies and if you’re lucky, even hen harriers.
It takes about 2 hours to walk the trail, although you might want to spend more time watching wildlife. There is a bird hide on the farmland, just a short detour from the main trail. Don’t forget your binoculars.
Learn more about restoring peatlands in Scotland in the Wild for Scotland podcast episode ‘The Big Picture‘.
Train ride through the Flow Country
The Far North Railway Line runs from Inverness to Wick and Thurso on the north coast of Scotland. It crosses through the Flow Country and offers stunning views of the blanket bog along the way.
The journey from Kinbrace to Forsinard closely follows the small road, A897. But from Forsinard to Altnabreac and Scotscalder, the railway line is far away from roads.
I took the train from Forsinard to Altnabreac, got off and spent a few hours in the area before catching the returning train back. I brought my bike and explored around the forestry tracks near the station. I cycled past Loch Dubh and Lochdhu Lodge and spent some time watching dragonflies on a pond near the river Thurso.
Note that Altnabreac is a request stop. You have to let the train conductor know that you want to get off there, so he can tell the driver to stop. To return, you have to wave down the train, which will approach the station carefully – but it won’t stop unless you signal it.
Visit the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale
Timespan Museum is a heritage and art centre in Helmsdale. The exhibition tells the local and social history of the village and its people. It is a fantastic place to learn about the Highland Clearances and their consequences, but also the way people lived in the peatlands of the Flow Country for centuries.
The displays showcase the dark histoory of the Highland Clearances in the Strath of Kildonan, the subsequent boom of the fishing and kelp industries, stories from the goldrush period, the Picts and more. The museum also features reconstructions of typical late 19th-century buildings, including The Smiddy, the village shop and Gartymore Croft House.
There is a lovely cafe at the museum with a sunny terrace overlooking the River Helmsdale.
You might also like: Must-see stops along the North Coast 500
Visit the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill
The Strathnaver Museum is a heritage museum in Bettyhill. The exhibition tells the history of the local area, from Bronze Age artefacts to a reconstructed croft house from the 19th century.
The museum has a special focus on the history of peat cutting and how peat was used traditionally by local people. There is also a room covering the history of the Clan Mackay, many memorabilia and family histories.
Please note that parking by the main road (at the Bettyhill Tourist Information) is very limited, but there is more parking available at the Farr Bay Inn.
The sandy beach of Farr Bay is just a short walk away and a great place to visit after a tour of the museum.
Road trip through the Flow Country
In addition to walking, cycling and taking the train, it’s great to see the Flow Country from the road. There are several scenic single-track roads through the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland:
- The A897 runs from Melvich to Helmsdale. Points of interest include Baile An Or near Kildonan – known for its role in the goldrush – and Forsinard with its trails and viewpoints.
- The A836 runs from Tongue to Lairg. Points of interest include the Crask Inn (see below for more), Altnaharra and Loch Naver, Loch Loyal and Loch Craggie.
- A third road, the B873, runs from Bettyhill to Syre. There, it splits – the B873 continues along the shores of Loch Naver and meets the A836 in Altnaharra. In the other direction, the B871, passes the remote Garvault House Hotel and meets the A897 in Kinbrace.
Driving along these single-track roads is absolutely stunning. You follow the rivers and straths through the peatlands, stay close to the shores of deep-blue lochs and come by the remains of old settlements in this region.
Follow the Strathnaver Trail
The Strathnaver Trail runs alongside the B873 from Altnaharra to Bettyhill. It highlights sixteen historic sites throughout the strath (strath means “broad valley”) including old settlements, burial grounds, chambered cairns, memorials and stone circles.
The sites cover the entire history of humans in this area, from the Neolithic to medieval battles with the Norse, the Highland Clearances and until today. Most of them are right by the road, but some, like the Truderscaig Settlement (a 19th century Clearance Village) are a little harder to reach.
You can download the Strathnaver Trail leaflet with a map and descriptions here.
Photography workshop with Wild Arena
Wild Arena is a wilderness photography company that is runs by the same people as the Forsinard Lodge (see below for where to stay). They offer photography courses, workshops and multi-day tours to capture the beauty of the Flow Country and surrounding areas throughout the seasons.
Travel Info: Flow Country / Forsinard Flows
Getting to the Flow Country
The Flow Country can be reached by car or by train.
From Inverness, it is about a 2.5 hour drive to Forsinard in the heart of the Flow Country. If you are driving the North Coast 500, the Flow Country ius a simple detour from Tongue, Bettyhill, Melvich or Helmsdale. From Melvich on the north coast it is only about 30 minute drive to Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve.
The Far North Railway Line runs from Inverness to Wick and Thurso and stops in multiple places in the Flow Country, including Helmsdale, Kinbrace and Forsinard. Other areas of the Flow Country are not accessible by public transport as there are no bus routes along the above-mentioned roads through the peatlands.
Navigating the northern part of the North Coast 500, i.e. between Thurso and Tongue, is tricky but not impossible. This allows you to reach locations such as the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill by bus.
You might also like: How to travel Scotland by public transport
By far the easiest way to get around the Flow Country is by car. When driving, you can reach all the remote settlements, points of interest, historic sites and hiking trails in the Flow Country with ease.
That said, you can do a lot in the Flow Country by utilising the Far North Railway Line. You might just need an extra day to do multiple day trips by train, as departure times aren’t too frequent.
Another popular way to travel through the Flow Country is by bike. I saw many cyclists on the remote single-track roads through the region. The 200-mile Far North Way follows the road from Lairg to Tongue on its way from Inverness to John o’Groats. You can also cycle along the road to Forsinard, and/or make your way along forestry tracks from remote Altnabreac towards Wick.
Where to stay
I spent three nights at Forsinard Lodge, a small B&B in Forsinard. The lodge was built as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1870, but today it offers 3 well-appointed en-suite guest rooms.
Owners David, Janet and Adrienne will take good care of you and welcome you with typical Highland hospitality. Breakfast is served in the bright sun room, and during the day, the Forsinard Lodge Tea Room offers home-baked goods and small bites. Evening meals can also be arranged for guests.
The lodge is about a 20 minute walk from the train station, so pack light if you arrive by train.
Other places to stay in the Flow Country include the above-mentioned Garvault House Hotel between Syre and Kinbrace, The Crask Inn between Altnaharra and Lairg, Forsinard Suites or the Altnaharra Hotel.
You can also find glamping pods and self-catering cottages throughout the region.
If you want to stay in or near a village with facilities likle shops or petrol station, look around Helmsdale, Melvich, Bettyhill, Tongue and Lairg.
Places to eat in the Flow Country
Before the Highland Clearances, the straths of the Flow Country were home to thousands of people, but today there are only a handful of small settlements in the area. And not many of them have restaurants…
There are only a few places to eat in the Flow Country:
- The Crask Inn: Day time meals and 3-course dinner (must be booked in advance)
- Altnaharra Hotel: Fine dining or more casual bar menu
- Garvault House Hotel: 3-course dinner or more casual bar menu
- Forsinard Lodge Tea Room: Daytime meals, home-baking and refreshments – evening meals can also be arranged for guests
Supermarkets: There are small shops in Tongue, Melvich, Helmsdale and Lairg. For large supermarkets, head to Wick or Thurso.
The Flow Country is a remote place to visit, but if you make the effort you will be rewarded by its stunning landscapes, fascinating nature and impactful history.
I hope this blog post convinces you to branch off from the main roads of the North Coast 500 and head inland to explore the peatlands of the Flow Country.