Being an infrequent but loyal patron of ScotRail's Caledonian Sleeper between Glasgow and London, I often receive invitations from ScotRail to take advantage of special offers for frequent travellers. In late 2008 one such promotion offered two return tickets anywhere in Scotland for £25. With a weekend to kill and an over-active imagination, I discovered Wick was the furthest possible destination from our home in Glasgow which we could visit.
Not a bad reason for a weekend away, I hope you'll agree? Because two off-peak return tickets would have come to £131.40 :)
Other reviewers here have noted Wick's remoteness. You will certainly notice this if you drive or take the train to Wick, the latter took five hours to make the winding journey from Inverness, where trains meet others to major Scottish destinations. But that journey is scenic beyond belief, with the comfortable little Sprinter train taking the uncertainty out of a mid-winter journey. The remote moorlands of the northern highlands and Caithness are breathtakingly beautiful, and the eagle eyed passenger can often spot stag, deer or eagles near the tracks.
Wick itself is, like so many coastal Scottish towns, a fundamentally functional town that has lost its one proud function. The harbour was built to support a herring fishing industry which has now disappeared. The compact town centre still proudly boasts the fine stone architecture of this era, and our chance weekend trip coincided with the festive celebrations that accompanied the switch-on of the Christmas lights.
Most disappointingly, Wick lacks any real bars or restaurants of appeal to the weekender. Wetherspoons have conquered the largest bar in the old town square with their mediocre beer offering and microwaved meals, and we searched in vain for a cosy pub with a fireplace where we meet sink into a corner and enjoy a dram of the locally produced Old Pulteney.
Obviously summer season visitors may disagree, but my word of caution is that for an off-season visit you may find Wick more useful as a stopping off point on a grand tour of the far north than as a destination. That said, the railway journey there is quite awesome and the town has some beautiful corners. Pulteney Town is the settlement south of the river built to accommodate the burgeoning herring industry, and the tightly packed grid of industrial and residential buildings beside the harbour is architecturally notable. Wick's heritage centre and museum has received rave reviews, but was closed when we visited. Climb the hill on the south side of the harbour for a good view from the hilltop, and if you have time continue walking along the cliffs to the south to the castle (which, regrettably, we did not make it to).
Oh, and be sure to taste that Old Pulteney - the 12 year old is quite sufficient to arouse imaginative thoughts about what Wick was once lick during its industrial heyday :)
When we planned our holiday to the far north of Scotland I really thought that we were going to travel into tiny villages and isolated towns. I now look back and I am really embarrassed at how wrong my pre-conception of what the town of Wick would be like. I had thought there may be a few small shops, that would be very expensive, no bank of course, perhaps newspapers arriving a day late and an old run down petrol station. Oh dear, it makes me cringe to think about it now. When we arrived at Wick one of the first shops we saw was the Safeway supermarket, later we also found a Co-Op supermarket. Of course there were many banks, newsagents, petrol stations and everything else that you would expect in a normal British town. Why had we taken tins of baked beans over 500 miles? Once we accepted the fact that normal life does exist in the far north of Scotland we started to explore the town. Wick is a wonderful town. As a shopping centre there is a great variety of shops and the prices are not expensive. You must explore all the little narrow roads and lanes to find all the really interesting shops. The town does has a relaxed feel about it, but that have been more our state of mind as we were on holiday. We did struggle a bit to find many places for meals and those we did find did seem a little expensive, but very nice. Although I would not say that we were welcomed with open arms, the people of Wick are friendly enough and always very helpful. We were certainly not shunned because we were so obviously not from the area. The tidal River Wick passes through the middle of the town and although it looks a bit messy at low tide, when the tide is in there is a lovely walk along the banks of this river. Wick has an enormous harbour. Around the town there are many pictures of when the fishing industry was at its height and when you walk around the harbour you can imagine what a magnificent sight it must have been with hundreds of fis
hing boats working out of this one town. There still is a fishing fleet at Wick, but now it only small and a lot of the harbour stands empty, but not derelict. You get the feeling that it is all being kept in good order in the hope that one day the big fleets will return. For some really excellent fish and chips find the chip shop at the side of the harbour, they are superb. If you drive up the hill next to the harbour the view overlooking the harbour and town is spectacular. If it is a fine day then take a picnic with you and just watch the boats coming in and out of the harbour and just soak up the beautiful atmosphere. Close to the harbour is a modern swimming pool and leisure complex. Although we didn?t visit this it does look very good and inviting from outside. For fishermen I understand that the river is renown for its Salmon and Trout fishing. From Wick there is just so much to do in the surrounding area of Caithness that makes this town an ideal centre for any holiday in this part of the country. The biggest problem is of course reaching the town. It is a very long drive from almost anywhere, but if you have a few pounds to spare then why not fly there? Wick has a small airdrome and I am sure this must be a great way to travel there. If like most of us it is going to be a drive, then don?t think of it so much as a journey, but more an experience of passing through some of the most beautiful areas of Scotland. Also stop now and then and take in some fresh air and just listen to the peace and quiet. On our return journey we had to leave in the early hours of the morning and on the trip, just as dawn was breaking, we had to suddenly brake hard as a huge dear was stood in the middle of the road. We had to wait until the dear decided to move off (it was much bigger than me, so I was not going to get out of the car) and then we could continue our journey home. Seeing this magnificent animal wandering free was a beautif
ul way to finish our holiday. Wick is a great place to visit and I am sure it must be a great place to live. Next time I go to Wick (and I definitely will be returning) will be in the Winter as I would love to see the difference in the town and the surrounding area when the snow is on the ground.
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 1800’s, 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 practice 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 adrenaline going, when you can fly in to Wick?