Naturally it was pouring with rain when I left Elgin on the train to Inverness. I picked up my hire car from Inverness station and immediately went food shopping. I also popped into the Tiso outdoor store but they hadn’t got any gaiters that fitted me or a t-shirt I liked. By now the rain has eased slightly and was coming in waves. I set off for the North and it felt strange to be driving. Back over the Moray Firth bridge, across the Black Isle and then I headed inland for a different view. It also seemed sensible as there were wind warnings on the Dornoch Bridge. Instead I headed over the older Bonar Bridge and up to Lairg. From Lairg the A roads heading North become single track with passing places. It wasn’t long before I hit a traffic jam caused by Highland coos on the road. No one seemed to mind as the cows are quite magnificent to look at.
I was in the Highlands proper, surrounded by big landscapes and lots of salmon rivers. I saw lots of fishermen and many cars had rods attached. At Altnaharra I turned right and followed the length of Loch Naver and into Strathnaver. There were a couple of memorials to Highland Clearance villages and I stopped to look at Rosal.
I reached the coast at Bettyhill and what a wonderful sight. I didn’t stop at the campsite as it was raining again but I did stop at the small museum. More information on the Highland Clearances, what life was like many years ago and another Pictish Stone.
It was gone 5 pm and I needed somewhere to stay. I carried on East to Melvich, which is the next settlement on from Reay (where I got to on Tuesday). The rain was clearing up, although it was still grey, and I stopped at the Halladale Inn as it has a small field with a toilet block next to it. The only other camper arrived while I was pitching and we got chatting. Elaine was on a spur-of-the-moment holiday driving and camping in her Berlingo car. It was nice to have company for the evening in the pub, and with someone who likes ale. The pub stocked a Tennents beer, which wasn’t too bad. We got chatting to a couple of well-oiled local old men. They were very nice to us although it was hard to understand them at times (partly because they were inebriated but mainly because of their accent).
Not a bad day all told. It rained again during the night.
I didn’t have to travel too far Sooth for the sun to come out. Lossiemouth has its own micro climate; I definitely should have got myself a posting here when I was in the RAF.
For the second time Dave and Cally were excellent hosts and I was able to relax for a couple of days. On Wednesday in particular the sun shone brightly and I began to feel like I was on holiday again.
As well as doing a bit of planning and booking a hire car (cheaper than a camper van and anyway I’ve got a tent) I went on a couple of dog walks with Cally.
Lossiemouth beach was stunning.
Visibility was so good we could clearly see across the Moray Firth, even as far as Caithness. I was able to test out my newly acquired geographical knowledge to try and identify places. The triangular shaped hill called Morven (the highest point in Caithness) sticks out.
My trip to Scotland wouldn’t be complete without trying a few local dishes; macaroni cheese pies are the way ahead!
After a couple of days of relaxing and sunshine I feel ready to head back up into the rainy North Highlands (the weather forecast is bad).
It rained during the night but had dried up when I packed away and headed for the bus to Reay where I was going to look around and walk to Melvich. I had a late start as I needed to pop to the post office to collect a parcel. Thurso is apparently the largest town in Caithness and yet it has a rundown air about it. These days Dounreay Nuclear Power Station is the biggest employer and it is set to close so I wonder what will happen to Thurso when it does?
No sooner had I got on the bus than the rain came. We drove along the roads, past Dounreay Nuclear Power Station, and it was getting greyer and more miserable. The bus arrived at Reay and there was nothing in this small town, nowhere to shelter from the weather, and the beach looked distinctly uninviting. I couldn’t face getting off the bus, so I didn’t, and headed back to Thurso on a round trip. I think the driver thought I was a bit strange.
I headed into a cafe that served something other than Nescafé instant coffee to reevaluate. I wasn’t having the best time, nor was I getting the most out of my trip and here I was in Thurso, at the end of the UK train line. That was my answer: to catch a train back ‘Sooth’ while I still had the opportunity (next train station is Kyle of Lochalsh near Skye). If I went to Inverness I could probably hire a car for a couple of weeks and take my own advice to do a driving tour of North Scotland. This way I could pick and choose where I go and hopefully walk the best bits and leave out the really difficult bits.
Buoyed with the ideas for a modified plan I decided to be cheeky and contacted Cally to see if their ‘hotel’ was open for business. Lucky for me Dave and Cally are wonderful, and accommodating, people.
As it turned out I really enjoyed the train ride. We went through the barren middle of Caithness, stopping at Forsinard, which looked like the logging capital of Scotland. The scenery was moorland, patches of fir trees, a few lochs and lots of deer fences.
The train line heads right down the Strath of Kildonan, a huge valley containing the River Helmsdale, and hits the coast at Helmsdale town. This is salmon fishing country.
We followed the coast for a while and passed through towns and places I now recognise.
The sun came out once we were as far South as the Cromarty Firth and I was enjoying the different views of the places I had visited.
Invergordon station was covered in murals, just like those I had seen in the town last week.
We passed all the bridges I have crossed and I was able to admire them from different angles.
I arrived at Elgin and popped into the supermarket to get a couple of bottles of wine so that at least I didn’t arrive empty handed for a second ‘vacation’ with Dave and Cally. It was nice to catch up. I can now take a couple of days to formulate my new plan.
It was a cold night but I was nice and warm when I stuffed my coat inside my sleeping bag. I woke to more rain but fortunately it stopped pretty quickly and the tent dried out. Michael’s family had arrived to spend a few days celebrating his completion of LEJOG. He made me a cup of tea while packed away and gave me a packet of biscuits (someone had given him one on his trip so he passed on the favour).
I caught the 9.30 bus about 5 miles to East Mey and from there I walked on the minor roads through small hamlets and around the cliffs. First though I passed Castle of Mey, the late Queen Mother’s Caithness home from 1952 to 1996. Unfortunately it didn’t look as fine as usual wrapped in scaffolding.
I stopped in the tea room to charge my phone over a coffee and then pressed on. I passed a red phone box that someone called Mark has turned into a book exchange.
I occasionally had some good views along the coast and of Orkney but it was a grey day so the visibility was not the best. I could just about see the Old Man of Hoy through the grey-ness.
After a couple of hours I arrived at Brough and stopped in the cafe for a spot of lunch. I got chatting to Dan the lawnmower man (he’s 74 years old and retired from truck driving so mows lawns to keep busy). These Northern Scots are a hardy bunch in their old age!
I wanted to walk to Dunnet Head, Britain’s most Northerly Point, so endured the boredom of one road there and back. There was no way I was going to try and walk around the headland keeping to the coast – way too boggy and no footpath. I was disappointed that not one car stopped and offered me a lift. Still, it was a pleasant walk as it wasn’t raining and Dunnet Head was worth the effort. The cliffs by the lighthouse had lots of birds, including puffins, and the views were 360 degrees from the viewpoint. Sadly the grey day didn’t make for good photographs.
During WW2 Dunnet Head was an important radar station and before that it had been a lookout for submarines trying to sneak into Scapa Flow only 6 miles away. I walked back to Brough along the same road and admired the scars made by peat digging.
From Brough I took the road to Dunnet Village and then onto Dunnet Beach for 2 miles. The sand was a sort of grey colour and there was a ‘slick’ of seaweed that covered the shore. Other than that it was a nice beach and there was a lone surfer in the water trying to catch the 6 inch waves.
I picked up the pace in order to make the last bus at Castletown. I was just approaching the bus stop when the bus went past. Gutted. Fortunately I’d bumped into a couple of guys on the beach that I’d seen earlier in the Brough cafe (always good to stop at cafes) and they were driving to Thurso. They drove past me just after the bus as stopped to give me a lift. I was very grateful. It had started raining again.
I got dropped off at the campsite which overlooks Thurso Bay. The rain stopped and I put my tent up.
Caithness Stone was quarried here in Thurso and Castletown, and exported to the British Empire. Lots of the fences around here are stone fences. I think they look quite good.
The bad weather and lack of coastal paths made this more of a bus tour than a walk this week. I seem to have followed the A9 all week.
A constant theme has been locals telling me this is the worst summer weather in living memory; there’s never been this much rain before, the harvest is ruined, farmers are being forced to sell their cattle as they’ve got no feed for the winter and Orkney has had 95% of its annual rainfall after 6 months. All quite depressing to hear day after day when you’re getting soaked.
The terrain has changed lots over the week as I’ve moved from the sea shores of Easter Ross, through Sutherland with its big hills and straths cut into them, and finally into Caithness, the land of the flows. There seems to be a natural divide (the Kildonan Strath) between Sutherland and Caithness as suddenly the land flattens out and becomes wet and boggy.
I have indulged in sightseeing and history this week and it’s been fascinating to learn about the Picts, the Highland Clearances and then a bit about Orkney’s Neolithic history. Many of the towns here have museums or heritage centres; I only went in a couple. The locals seem very proud of their history.
Great to have some company again this week, and to get a new tent and rucksack. Both seem pretty good so far and my pack feels much more manageable, although it might be the lack of walking mileage! I don’t see myself walking consistently around here as it’s too wet and the ground too boggy to do much off-piste so I think I’ll be sticking to the roads, which means more buses for me. Being in the North Highlands makes me think that either a campervan or a road cycling trip would be the best way to see the place and get around…maybe next time!
Hopefully the weather will improve sometime soon as it would make the views around even more stunning (and would take a better photograph).
It rained heavily and was very windy during the night but my tent survived. Putting on wet boots was not pleasant this morning but they dried out a bit during the day and at least I didn’t have to walk far.
A cup of tea and a bacon and egg roll from the burger van opposite the ferry made a fine breakfast and then we were off to Orkney, the land of farming and extreme wind. It took 40 minutes by foot ferry across the Pentland Firth to Burwick on South Ronaldsay.
There was a lot packed into a long day but it was a good way to see the islands quickly and we had a very knowledgeable, and entertaining, guide. We drove over the 4 Churchill Barriers, erected to stop U-boats entering Scapa Flow, which is a huge natural harbour that was used by the Royal Navy.
We visited Skara Brae Neolithic village at the Bay of Skaill. It is 5000 years old and yet the ‘houses’ look strangely modern with beds, shelves, even a type of larder and a mantelpiece.
There is plenty of archaeology on Orkney and we saw the Rings of Brodgar and Stenness, two stone circles that pre-date Stonehenge.
I learned a bit about Orkney’s history, such as the scuttling in Scapa Flow of 74 ships belonging to the German Navy after WW1. Also the close links between Orkney and Norway; the Viking heritage.
The last stop was at the Italian Chapel. A remarkable church that was built by Italian POWs from 2 Nissan huts and a load of concrete. It is an incredible building that shows off some wonderful imagination, skill and artistry. Apparently it is one of the most visited sites in Scotland.
Having been to Shetland I was glad to get the chance to see a bit of Orkney, only 3 of the 70 islands (of which 22 are inhabited) but a few of the sights.
[Note: according to Orcadians a rock in the sea is classed as an island if it has enough grass to sustain one sheep for a week]
It rained heavily through the night but had stopped by the time I got up at 6.30 am. I wanted to be away early so I didn’t have time to wait for my tent to dry and packed it away damp. Much easier with this tent and I wasn’t too worried about having to put it up sleep in it again tonight.
A quick stop at Co-op for some breakfast to eat on-the-go and I was away. Wick is a grey and run down town. It looks rather sad.
I did walk past the street that claims to be the shortest in the world.
Walking out to the headland I passed an old swimming pool cut into the rocks. Like all the others I have passed, this one seems to have been abandoned to dereliction.
I made my way around Noss Head, following the cliffs. The sea looked blacker here, not dirty, just dark. I smelt the now familiar smell of seabirds and it was nice to re-acquaint myself with fulmars nesting on the cliffs. Even though it wasn’t rough the sea was crashing against the rocks and the cliffs, more so than usual. I walked through a couple of villages and they have Norse names around here. Staxigoe (translation: the inlet of the stack) claims to have been the first port in Europe to salt the herring. It was obviously overtaken by Wick at some point. It has a mid 19th Century barometer above the harbour that the fishermen used to determine the sea conditions.
I rounded Noss Head by the lighthouse and got a view across Sinclair’s Bay up to Duncansby Head. In the absence of any easy paths I climbed over the gate into Prince Henry St Clair’s Garden of Remembrance next to the lighthouse. It was an unspectacular green space that had plaques on the wall for various Sinclairs, including some quite recent.
Within sight of the lighthouse, just into Sinclair’s Bay, was the remains of the 14th Century Castle of Sinclair Girnigoe. It was once the main residence of the Sinclairs and it has important historical significance. It is perched on a stack and would once have been very impressive.
I was pushed back onto the roads here as there was no way through to Sinclair’s beach. I was joined by an 80 year old man out for his daily cycle ride and learned quite a lot about the area. Yet again I was informed this was the worst summer weather ever and apparently many of the farmers are being forced to sell their cattle because the grain harvest has been so poor that they won’t be able to feed the cattle in the winter. I also learned about the significance of Wick airfield during WW2 and how Hitler was expected to invade here from Norway. He was a very fit octogenarian.
I found myself in the grounds of Ackergill Tower, a private hotel. No wonder it looked so smart. I was thinking it was a pity the Smuggler’s Inn wasn’t open, but I wouldn’t have been allowed in anyway.
I had been aiming to catch the 12.49 bus from Keiss but I knew I’d never make it. If I missed the bus I could either wait for the 17.49 to John O’Groats or walk along the main road. I decided to try and flag the bus down in Reiss village and fortunately it worked. Apparently this is acceptable, and it is also possible to get dropped off wherever you want enroute. I got dropped off at Freswick so that I could walk the last bit of coast to Duncansby Head. It started raining (again) and the terrain was boggy. Not a good combination and after 2 hours my boots were soaked through and so was I. The coastline was very dramatic with high cliffs, narrow geos and lots of birds, including a few puffins. The Wife Geo was particularly spectacular. After what seemed like an interminable slog I could see the Duncansby stacks and lighthouse.
It was a bit underwhelming to arrive at the most North Easterly point of mainland Britain, which probably had a lot to do with the weather. The visibility was not good enough for a clear view across the Pentland Firth to Orkney and the Pentlands.
I walked past Ness of Duncansby beach to John O’Groats and was jealous of all the cyclists I saw finishing their trips while I was soaking wet, miserable and faced with pitching a damp tent in the rain. Luckily the rain stopped, the campsite was cheap and had a laundry, and the coffee shop was still open. I cheered up a bit. It helped when I got chatting to the guy camped next to me, Michael,
who had just finished walking LEJOG. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me.
I did some laundry and walked up the road to the Seaview Hotel for dinner. So much for the South East being expensive, it was £4 a pint here!
I awoke to heavy rain pounding the roof of the hostel and wasn’t enthused about starting the day. I had already decided to get the bus up to Wick anyway because of the lack of footpaths, the difficulty of the terrain and the A9 being the best route North. The first bus was at 11.30 am so I had plenty of time to get up and laze around catching up on my blog. I got chatting to Catrina, who was catching the same bus on her way to the Orkney ferry, and didn’t get around to my blog. It was quite cold in the hostel, so cold that my washing hadn’t dried overnight and I spent all day walking around with a pair of damp socks in my pocket to try and dry them out.
The bus was late but it arrived. The views down the hill to the cliff top were occasionally spectacular and occasionally shrouded in mist. The road wound around a few geos and up and down a few steep hills. After a couple of miles I left Sutherland and entered Caithness, the most Northerly county on the mainland.
I caught the bus as far as Dunbeath, where I had decided to get off and look around before getting the next bus (that gave me almost 3 hours). It proved to be a good decision as the Dunbeath Heritage Centre was really interesting and Christine, who worked there, gave me a guided tour and made me tea and biscuits. (She was pitying me on another cold, wet day.) Best museum ever.
I had never heard of author Neil Gunn. He was born in Dunbeath and many of his books relate to the area, the Dunbeath River and the local people in the early 20th Century. Christine expertly described the books and their context, and I will now have to read some of his work. After reading all about the River, and following Christine’s instructions, I walked down to the harbour, complete with salmon bothy and boat shed. From here I had a great view of Dunbeath Castle, that has been restored and now looks like a big house, which is what it is.
I walked up the river for 15 minutes to see Chapel Hill and the 2,500 year old Broch. These are both of historical significance and the locals claim the place has a feeling.
I was admiring the River, which was the same deep red/brown as the Helmsdale River and should be full of salmon at the right time of year. I did see a fisherman on the bank, wearing all the wading gear.
I got back up the hill in time to catch the bus to Wick and once again enjoyed the views. It was just possible to see the Beatrice Oilfield, the only one visible from mainland Britain. Without a car it did mean I missed out on a few landmarks like the Hill O’ Stanes (Hill of Stones), a few stacks in the sea and more brochs. I arrived in Wick and walked to the campsite to pitch my tent before walking back into town to get a new battery for my watch. Being in town I stopped at the Norseman Hotel for an early dinner. It had stopped raining this afternoon but more was forecast this evening and through the night.
I was a little chilly during the night but survived well in the tent, and no condensation! It was so much easier to pack away this damp morning than my other tent.
Another cold, damp day in store with showers. Wonderful Scottish weather. After a lazy morning and breakfast in the campervan we set off for Helmsdale. I was not going to walk this section anyway as there are no coastal paths and the A9 and railway line run close to the shore. It was nice to get a lift and company. Getting a lift also means we can stop in different places to look at the scenery.
Helmsdale is a small town at the end of the Strath of Kildonan. Its situation affords a lovely view up the Strath (wide, shallow valley with the River Helmsdale running through it) and it has a nice little harbour.
We spent a couple of hours looking around the Timespan museum here, mainly to get a better understanding of the story of the Highland Clearances that took place from about 1813. The landowners realised sheep farming was more profitable than crofting so they kicked out most of their tenant crofters. Many emigrated, or else they were given accommodation and fishing boats and had to learn to become fishermen. Extraordinary story. When the First Duke of Sutherland evicted the crofters from this area in 1813 many emigrated (in reality they had no choice as they had no rights) to Churchill and the Red River in Canada, hence there is a strong connection with that area. There is a large memorial to The Emigrants on a hill overlooking the town.
This is also the town to come to if you fancy panning for gold in the Helmsdale River. Or you could just go salmon fishing.
Ali and Morna left me here and headed home. I was booked into the hostel and spent the rest of the afternoon sheltering from the rain in a cafe trying to plan ahead. I went for a short walk up the river as far as St John’s Well, a curious little building containing lots of stones with faces painted on them.
I went for fish and chips in La Mirage, the fish and chip restaurant recommended by Clarissa Dickson-Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame. I ordered a small fish special as the regular sized one came with 2 enormous haddock, as well as bread and butter and enough hips to require a plate of their own. It was a funny meal but very nice. Considering most towns up here don’t even have one pub, Helmsdale is doing well as it has 4 along the main street, as well as a restaurant and a cafe, and this evening I didn’t even need one!
The hostel was nice and there was a French family, an Italian couple and a Scottish lady staying the night. I got a few tips for my trip and Catrina gave me her mum’s number who lives in Drumbeg. It’s raining again!
Not a good start to the morning when I discovered 2 ticks buried in my right leg. They must have been there for over a day but they weren’t full of blood. I had to use my new tick-remover tool. Once that was done it was all about the excitement of new kit. Ali picked me up and we started with coffee and a cake at the patisserie in Dornoch; no sense in rushing things!
From Dornoch Beach Morna and I walked the 2 miles along the coast to Embo, which seemed to be one giant caravan park. It was a chance for me to try out the new rucksack, adjusting the straps etc as we went. After 2 miles I was feeling pleased with my purchase as it seemed comfortable and quite a bit lighter and more manageable than my old pack.
Ali picked us up in Embo and then we drove to Golspie, stopping a couple of times to admire the increasingly hilly scenery. I was happy to be driving around Loch Fleet in the rain; the tide was out and there were a few seals on the shoreline.
The town of Golspie is at the foot of Ben Bhraggie, a classic-looking hill with a 31m high statue of the First Duke of Sutherland, known as the “Mannie”, right on the top.
I thought it was interesting that the information board listed all the criticisms of the First Duke of Sutherland and nothing positive (he was associated with the Highland Clearances). There is a walk inland from Golspie called the Big Burn Walk that is very popular, but I didn’t have time for that as we were heading along the coast.
Just outside the town is the rather stunning Dunrobin Castle, home of the Sutherlands. It has 189 rooms and is still a home, although it is also open to the public. We decided to take a look and were just in time for a falconry display in the magnificent gardens. It was the best display I’ve seen as the falconer was very good. I enjoyed my second sighting of a peregrine this year!
I much preferred touring this castle to Bamburgh; there was so much more to see. TheSutherland history is quite complex as they went from Earls to Dukes and back again. The main thing I noted was that the First Duke of Sutherland started out life as the Marquis of Stafford, so was in fact a Midlander. Some of his seals even said Lilleshall, Shifnal (and I noticed a Lilleshall Street when I got to Helmsdale).
There was a coastal path from the Castle to Brora, 5 miles away. Another trial for my rucksack. Morna and I walked it and Ali drove to find a campsite. We walked past the Carn Liath Broch, which is quite well preserved.
I kept stopping to look back at the views of Dunrobin Castle and the Mannie; this walk would be better heading South, although the visibility wasn’t always great as dark clouds kept rolling in.
As we approached Brora there were lots of seals on the beach and in the sea. The ones in the water seemed to be mums and pups and they kept checking us out. I was rather taken by the stones on the beach here as they looked like lots of pebbles had been cast together to make rocks.
Arriving at the campsite in Brora it began raining again so we sheltered in the campervan and cracked open the wine. Dinner was a lovely pasta with sauce. Eventually it stopped raining long enough for me to put up my new tent and soon it was time for me to try it out. It’s not very dark inside!