WEEK 15 – John O’Groats to Durness

  

22 miles walked, 250+ miles driven

(total 1,119 miles walked)

This week my walking trip almost became a full on bus trip and then did become a driving tour. This was not in the original plan but is an adaptation based on the persistent poor weather. With no coastal path I have all but given up on off-road walking as it is quite difficult without being constantly soaked. The trip definitely became a chore this week and so I decided to take my own advice on the best way to see North Scotland and hire a car. 

The only sun I have seen this week was on the Lossiemouth coastline and I am very grateful to Dave and Cally for putting me up for a second time. 

I have found my enthusiasm for this trip being depressed by the knowledge that back home there is an above average summer, while up here it is the worst on record. I have thought about going home a lot this week. The last few days I have been quite cold (today’s temperature barely reached 12 degrees, not including wind chill) and am wearing 4 layers of clothes. 

I am sticking it out for the moment as I really want to see this part of the country. I am a little sad that I’m not seeing it at its best. Fingers crossed for better weather even though it’s not forecast. 

On the plus side, I have seen the most amazing beaches on the North coast. I don’t believe the beaches can get any better than this, if only the weather was good (or I had the means to dry things properly) I’d be straight in the sea.  

Strathy beach

Day 105 A Driving Tour in the Rain

Sunday 19 July 2015

Durness to Lairg and back

100+ miles driving and 4 mile walk

Sango Sands Campsite, Durness

It rained through the night and was raining when I woke up. I had planned to take a trip to Cape Wrath today but there was no point as the visibility was dreadful. Some cycle tourists were packing up in the rain and were soaked. I was glad I had a car. I sat in the car for an hour and a half, reading and listening to music, hoping the weather might clear a bit. It didn’t. I decided to leave my tent where it was and wait until tomorrow – I do want to get to Cape Wrath.  

Sango Sands in the rain and mist
 I started driving with no particular purpose and ended up going back to Tongue and then heading South, almost to Lairg, and back North via the road to Kinlochbervie. I felt like I was immersing myself in the Highlands even if I couldn’t see much of the scenery.   

moorland, water and distant mountains
 Occasionally I got a decent view and the landscape is amazing, and it changes. Sometimes it’s hilly, sometimes flat and boggy with pine forests being cultivated, and in the far North West the hills become more rocky. 

Looking along Strath
 I stopped at another empty, soulless and distinctly rubbish cafe on the way South. With so many tourists up here, many of them foreign, I’m slightly surprised the cafes are so poor. 
On the way back North I was fortunate to see some red deer in an area that had been de-forested. I also saw a few anglers, although not as many as yesterday, and a few hardy cyclists (who looked drenched). I didn’t see Ben Hope; the most Northerly Munro has not been visible for the past 2 days.  

Can you see the red deer?
 It finally stopped raining at 3.30 pm and as soon as I got back to the campsite I went out for a short walk over Faraid Head. I could see across to Cape Wrath, although it was still dark. I walked back along Balnakeil Beach and then into Durness.  

Faraid Head and Balnakeil Bay
 I am hoping for better views tomorrow.  

Looking across Durness golf course towards Cape Wrath

Day 104 The Stunning North Coastline

Saturday 18 July 2015

Melvich to Durness

Driving tour

Sango Sands campsite

I woke up reasonably early and, despite telling myself I could have a lie in, I decided to get up. It was a fortuitous decision as the sky was grey and no sooner had I packed the tent away than it started raining. I got in the car and started driving West. I stopped at Port Skerra so that I could get a better look at Melvich Bay, and I popped into the shop thinking I might get a newspaper. The only decent newspapers were all reserved but it was worth stopping as there was an old man in there talking through some very old photos with some of the locals. Most of them were of 2 very harsh winters in the 1950s and 1970s. The snow was at least 2m deep and a special snow clearing vehicle was brought in to dig the locals out. Interestingly the general consensus was that the last proper winter snow was 15 years ago, when they used to have 4 distinct seasons up here. Now they seem to only have one continuous season; cool and wet. 

I carried on along the N & W Highlands Tourist Route to Bettyhill. The coastline here is absolutely stunning. The beaches are like nothing I’ve ever seen with perfect sand, rocks and then a turquoise sea (even in the rain).  

Armadale Bay
 Sadly, as the weather was so poor it was not inviting to get out and walk (although I did walk down to Strathy beach), and certainly not to go for a swim.  

Strathy Beach (wonderful sand)
 Due to the rain and reduced visibility I didn’t bother going out to Strathy Point. Both Strathy and Armadale Beaches looked amazing.   

Looking West to the hills (not the best day for views)
 I stopped at the cafe in Bettyhill and travelled back in time to the 1970s. Tea and a cake was below average but I needed a hot drink to warm up. Bettyhill lies just on a corner overlooking Torrisdale Bay. Wow. Two rivers flow out into this bay, one at either end. Beautiful.   

The River Naver flowing into Torrisdale Bay
  The road goes up and down a lot as it snakes its way along the coast. I saw lots of motorbikes, campervans and touring cyclists. Most of the road is single track with constant stopping required at the many passing places. Everyone waves.  
The view of Neave Island from Skerray Bay
 
Next up was Tongue. Wow again. 

Rabbit Islands in Tongue Bay
 The road starts up high and then switches back as you descend to the bridge across the Kyle of Tongue. 

Driving down the road that crosses the Kyle of Tongue
  Castle Varrich was just about visible on its hill through the gloom.  

Castle Varrich in the gloom
 The landscape started to flatten a bit as I crossed the A’Mhoine, which seemed like a moor. Then I came to Loch Eriboll. WOW. This was my favourite of the day. Simply stunning.  

Looking across Loch Eriboll at Eilean Choraidh island illuminated by a shaft of sunlight
 Ard Neakie was the jewel in the crown, an ‘almost Island’ that is connected to the mainland by a small spit of land that looked rather like the tombolos in Shetland. There was an old limestone kiln visible on this almost island.  

Ard Neakie
 The road ran all the way around the loch and up the West side to yet more beautiful beaches. So many in one day. 

Sangobeg beaches, Whiten Head in the background (look at the colour of the sea!)
 Just before Durness is Smoo Cave. This is a set of 3 large caves that were once used as workshops and as home to generations of seafarers. There are a couple of big blowholes above the caves and the cut in the cliffs leading to the caves is also impressive. I was now in the Geopark: 800 square miles of outstanding landscapes and geological interpretation. I have definitely been blown away by the landscape so far.  

Smoo Caves
  
Waterfall inside Smoo Cave
 I arrived in Durness and drove through it for a look. I ended up at the Balnakiel Craft Village and stopped at Cocoa Mountain Cafe for one of their hot chocolates (this place had been recommended to me by a cafe owner in Helmsdale). It was pretty good and very rich.  

Cocoa Mountain hot chocolate
 The rain had stopped, although the clouds were still dark and foreboding. The campsite is right on the cliff top above Durness beach, yet another stunning beach. There were even some surfers in the sea as the waves were decent.  

Sango Bay, Durness

The other side of Sango Bay with Faraid Head behind it
 I pitched my tent, had a shower and a bite to eat and then settled down for an early night with my book. Inspired by my visit to Dunbeath Heritage Centre I have bought Neil Gunn’s Highland River. 

Day 103 The Drive Back up North

Friday 17 July 2015

Elgin to Melvich, Sutherland

Driving tour

Hallandale Inn campsite

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.  

Highland coos on the road
 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.  

The Farr Stone at Bettyhill
 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.  

Melvich

Days 101-102 Lossiemouth Sunshine

Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 July 2015

Planning days

Dave and Cally’s house

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.  

Lossiemouth Lighthouse on a beautiful day
 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.  

Me and Cally on Lossiemouth beach
 Lossiemouth beach was stunning.  

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.  

A goodview across the Moray Firth – this is Sutherland
 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).  

Me and my new friends

Day 100 Back to Inverness

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Thurso back to Elgin

Train trip

Dave and Cally’s house

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.  

Is that a deer hide?
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.  

The wide, shallow River Helmsdale in the Strath of Kildonan
 We followed the coast for a while and passed through towns and places I now recognise. 

The Mannie on Ben Bhraggie above Golspie
 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.   

Oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth
 Invergordon station was covered in murals, just like those I had seen in the town last week.  

Mural at Invergordon train station
 We passed all the bridges I have crossed and I was able to admire them from different angles.  

The Dornoch Firth road bridge
 
The Cromarty Firth road bridge
   
The Moray Firth road bridge and the River Ness
 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. 

Day 99 Most Northerly Point of the British Mainland

Monday 13 July 2015

John O’Groats to Thurso

18 miles

Thurso Campsite

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.  

Castle Mey, not looking its best
 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.  

The book exchange, Harrow
 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. 

Looking across the Pentland Firth at Hoy, Orkney
 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.  

  

Dunnet Head Lighthouse facing Orkney
  
Dunnet Head cliffs looking along to Cape Wrath
 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.  

Dunnet Head scarred from 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.  

A weird seaweed being washed onto the shore at Dunnet Bay
 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.  

Foam on the Dunnet Beach, and sunshine!
 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.