Northern exposure - Wick

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No Licence is The Bairns protection" trumpets a bill from 1922, along with a list of dire warnings of the dangers of the demon drink. It certainly did the trick, as from May 1922 through to 1947, Wick was a dry town . . . even if it still had a whacking great whisky distillery in it.

The town that gives us Old Pulteney single malt embraced Scotland's prohibition as the once-booming fishing port saw so much of its men's hard-earned money go "up the wall" – often even before it was paid – leading to poverty, child neglect and other ills.

At the centre of the town was the Temperance Hotel, sitting over the confluence of all the town's main thoroughfares and river. These days it's known as Mackay's Hotel, run by Murray and Ellie Lamont, and yes, there is now a very well-stocked bar, with a huge range of malts. It also has a claim to fame as being on the shortest street in the world, the 206cm long Ebenezer Place. Just long enough, in fact, for the bistro's front door. It's a door you really should go through, even if you're not staying at the hotel, as the food is excellent and the service friendly. When the main course arrived, a formidable and delicious local 10oz steak with red-hot chips and much veg, I regretted my haggis starter (tasty and spicy though it was) and the sweet homemade bread, and was defeated in minutes. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, on being shown my room (big, with a good, firm mattress), I emitted a geeky squeal at the fact there was free wi-fi throughout the hotel.

As a base for exploring the history of Caithness and Orkney it was clearly the place to stay. But as a brisk, hour-long evening walk took me around pretty much every street in town, it has to be said that aside from a few curiosities such as a small original Stevenson lighthouse, a restored herring market on the harbour, a well-preserved Carnegie library and some fine public art displays (intricate metalwork gates; carved paving stones), there didn't appear to be much for tourists in the town itself.

However, next morning I uncovered probably the best-kept secret in Scotland: Wick Heritage Museum. Looking from the outside like any other provincial museum (usually two dusty rooms full of flint arrowheads and a couple of agricultural trophies), it's a treasure trove of history, and it's huge. A whole terrace of houses attached to a smokehouse, cooperage, blacksmith and more, it's been crammed with just about anything you could imagine finding in the town's attics over the last two centuries. And a lighthouse – the movement, lenses and lamps of Stevenson's Noss Head just sitting unassumingly in a corner.

Doris Lyall, a volunteer curator, says that, with its original Fresnel lenses, it's thought to be one of only three in the world surviving. She also showed me room after room of everyday treasures, such as the knitting cushions Victorian women attached to their belts and how, with three or four needles impaled in the cushion and one in hand, they would knit while doing other jobs. "They wasted no time at all," she says, and the museum's most remarkable collection of all helps explain why.

Alexander Johnston was a pioneer of photography, and the heritage museum holds more than 50,000 of his plates documenting life in Caithness, particularly the herring trade for which Thomas Telford built Pulteneytown, south of the harbour. Pictures show hundreds of people filling the harbour, working to unload the fish and pack them into crans (a barrel, the official measure used in the trade). Others would be gutting, making barrels, or overseeing the smelly, noisy, tough work. As illustrations of how hard life would have been just over 100 years ago, these are sobering and fascinating.

Combined with the other exhibits – including letters from German prisoners of war, boat engines and reconstructed crofter rooms – the museum is an utterly unmissable way of spending the best part of a day. Forget the distinctly dull John O'Groats, this is what you must see if you're in the area.

The thing to remember is that it's a long way to get there, no matter where you're coming from. Even Inverness takes a few hours of solid driving, so it's probably best to combine a visit with a trip to Orkney – the Gill's Bay ferry is just a few miles away, so you can sail direct to St Margaret's Hope, South Ronaldsay (linked to Orkney Mainland by the impressive Churchill barriers) in an hour or so, and visit all its attractions such as Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Italian Chapel and the distinctly odd Tomb of the Eagles. If you're looking for a long weekend, I recommend it – just bring waterproofs and sunscreen. You think the weather is changeable in mainland Scotland? You've seen nothing until you've seen the sudden switches on Orkney. sm

Factfile: Wick


• Wick is off the main A9 route to Thurso. From Glasgow take the A82 to Fort William/Inverness. From Edinburgh take the M90 north to Perth, joining the A9 at Perth.

Where to stay

• Mackays Hotel, Wick (01955 602323, Rooms from 70 single to 135, B&B.

And there's more

• Wick Heritage Museum (

• Pentland Ferries (01856 831 226, St Margaret's Hope to Gill's Bay from 10.

• Scotsman Reader Holidays offer four-day Scenic Scottish Railway trips from 325. Call Brightwater Holidays, tel: 01334 657155 (quote The Scotsman).