After dinner at the Seaview Hotel which has an extensive menu and was very busy, I wandered around the now quiet seafront. There was no-one standing next to the milepost (there had been several coaches earlier).
Many people think that it is the northernmost point of the mainland. It is the furthest from Lands End on the road network but Dunnet Head is the most northerly point. There is a sculpture nearby entitled ‘The Nomadic Boulders’. Two Scottish environmental artists Dalziel & Scullion created it when it was discovered that huge boulders are moved long distances along the seabed when it was being surveyed for use by turbines. This is a small part of the sculpture which was made with three boulders that appeared on a local beach:
I then watched the sun go down.
In the morning I had a quick walk along the shingle beach looking for the cowries called Groatie buckies and are said to be found here. I did not find any. We left, heading west past the vehicle ferry harbour at Gills Bay which crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. On a day with high winds we passed a house called Windy Ha. After the Castle of Mey we took the coastal route via Scarfskerry. The old telephone box here is now a book exchange. At Ham there is a disused mill
a rocky beach and old harbour constructed from slabs of the striated rocks.
At Brough, where the most northerly café on the British mainland was closed, we turned on the road to Dunnet Head. There are several lochs on the headland.
There is a lighthouse with foghorn.
A viewpoint on the summit and overlooks to the cliffs. It is an RSPB reserve but the high winds made it difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes looking at the cliffs.
In World War Two a large encampment and wireless station was built on the head and a few concrete buildings remain.
We carried on to Dunnet Bay and had a good walk on the beach before settling in at the campsite before rain arrived. The bay had a Viking settlement and farm which had been buried by the blown sand dunes. When the current road was built, sheep on the slope rubbed themselves against it and exposed traces of a wall and a rubbish heap. In 1995 archaeologists found more evidence of the Viking farm.
Some of the objects I saw on the beach might be turned into an abstract painting. I had hoped on this west-facing beach to see the sunset and the full moon rise in the east but clouds came in and destroyed my hopes. Tomorrow we have 500 miles to drive home. On this leg of the journey we have travelled 237 miles; taking our journey at a much slower pace than some of the people doing the North Coast 500. Our total so far, from the start in South Queensferry; is 3072 miles. This is more than Route 66 but not quite as far as the Lincoln Highway.
Before leaving Wick we drove down the coast on the Trinkie Road. Trinkie means trunk and the road passes the Trinkie outdoor swimming pool. In the first third of the 20th century many local authorities around the Scottish coast created outdoor pools filled by the tides. They were used for swimming lessons, parties, barbecues and other festivities. Trinkie was restored several years ago and re-opened in 2003.
Just in case you cannot remember the name, it is painted on the rocks.
A little further along the road is the car park and the path to Old Wick Castle. It is a simple tower form and is one of the oldest castles in Scotland, thought to have been built by the Earl of Caithness, Harald Maddadson in the 1160s. In the 14th century wars of independence it was held by Sir Reginald Cheyne, a supporter of English King Edward I.
Driving back around the harbour, across the bridge and round the other side, we passed through the communities of Papigoe and Staxigoe. Before the road system was fully established this far north, Staxigoe was an important port in Caithness. At the end of Noss Head is a Stevenson lighthouse built in 1849 and automated in 1987. Noss comes from the Norse for nose: snos.
There was a statue outside it with no mention of who it was/represented. On the north side of the headland stands Castle Sinclair Giringoe. The Sinclair family who became Earls of Caithness have occupied the site since the 14th century when building began. It was remodelled in the 16th century by the 5th Earl but seized by Cromwell’s troops in 1651. They used it for nine years as their major north stronghold. The Sixth Earl sold the land title to a cousin and after the Earl’s death there was a dispute leading to a land battle and the castle became ruined and has remained so ever since.
The headland was a radio and secret listening post in World War Two. There are views across Sinclair Bay towards Castle Keiss and Duncansby Head. It is about 58.28◦ North. Back in town we picked up the A99 which runs around Sinclair Bay and through a number of small communities. Keiss has a castle; The Caithness Broch Centre is at Auckengill and there is another Castle at Feswick in a small bay. We ran into rain and low cloud before the road climbed Warth Hill and then descended towards John O’ Groats. We turned off to Duncansby Head, the most north easterly part of the British mainland. In between showers we looked at the lighthouse.
The Pentland Skerries are a group of islands offshore. The smallest, Little Skerry has a lighthouse.
Stroma lies to the north and a little further north are the Orkney Islands. After lunch I walked over the hill to the Duncansby Stacks which are impressive structures along the cliffs.
After we had settled into the campsite at John O’Groats, a transient rainbow raised our hopes of better weather tomorrow.
Our campsite was on the banks of the River Wick. Gulls and ducks were nesting on islands in the middle and there are riverside walks
with some flowers still in bloom.
We walked with into town: passing some street art done by a local youth group
Emerging by the bridge you are opposite the smallest street in the world: the 2.06 metres and one door of Ebenezer Place. Pulteney lies to the south of the river and was not united with the Burgh of Wick until 1901. It is the home of Pulteney Distillery which dates from 1825.
Before this, there was a meal mill and brewery on the same site powered by water from Loch Hemphrigg which lies to the south; piped by the Telford water scheme. The town did not get piped water until 1845 after the cholera epidemic of 1836. Down at the harbour we walked past the South Pier
Herring fishing was a big industry in the 19th and early 20th century. The biggest recorded catch in one day was on 23rd August 1864 when 926 boats landed 24,000 crans of herring. The gutters and processors dealt with over 24 million herring in a single day. At its peak, Wick was the biggest herring port in the world. In the 1930s the industry began to decline and ceased in the Second World War. After a brief revival in the 1950s, it declined again and now there are only occasional white fish landings and some crabs, lobsters and clams mostly for the European market. Aside from leisure boats, there were several support vessels and company offices for the extensive wind farms we saw offshore yesterday.
A cannon sits by the harbour near the old herring market. It had been presented to the harbour trust in 1881 to act as a fog signal after the death of many fishermen at sea. The gun was moved to its current position in 2012.
Telford planned the Pulteney harbour, town and bridge; building beginning in 1807, much of the new housing was for people displaced by the clearances. The layout of new roads was planned. The Wick-Thurso road opened in 1813. In Albert Square we spotted something not seen in any other town we have visited: streetlights being washed.
Back across the river, we had coffee in the High Street where like many other towns in the UK, there were empty shops. I had intended to spend some time in the afternoon walking along the riverside but heavy showers of rain arrived so that was shelved, as was a coastal walk to the Trinkie Swimming Pool and Old Wick Castle which we will visit on the way out tomorrow.
On Monday we awoke to a wet and dull day. It was too wet for the forest walks in the hills above Tain, so we decided to explore the Tarbat Peninsula. A minor road from Tain passes a disused airfield and a moor which is still designated a military bombing site. During World War Two, many of the villagers of Portmahomack were evacuated so that landing exercises in preparation for D Day could be carried out. The village was quiet when we reached it. Its name means the Port of St Colman, an early Christian saint.
The Discovery Centre is based in the old church and covers the area history from the Picts to more recent events. Many of the local archaeological finds are displayed. The church is dedicated to 7th century St Colman and has had many incarnations from the earliest monastery and Pictish church to the Church of Scotland. In 1948 it ceased to operate as a church.
In the old churchyard is a baptismal well. It is said to have been sanctified by St Rule on his way to St Andrews and is still used to baptise the eldest son of the Earls of Cromartie to this day.
A statue entitled ‘The Pictish Queen’ sculpted by Leonie Gibbs sits near the church.
Quite a few of the local towns have a cast iron fountain dating from the second half of the 19th century when piped water reached the community. Portmahomack also has an old streetlamp dating from 1900. It is one of the first erected which used paraffin. They were extinguished during the First World War but electric light did not arrive until 1949.
Before we left the village I noticed a house on the shore. I have seen gardens with gnomes in before but these were all ensconced inside.
Three miles beyond Portmahomack is Tarbat Ness with its lighthouse. There is a walk from the village I had found on the Walkhighlands website and might have done it in better weather. The area on the Ness is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is visited by birds migrating from Scandinavia. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1840 and at 40 metres, is the third tallest in Scotland.
When we arrived, a robot was mowing the lawn: some modernity in the midst of all the history.
The path continues to the end of the peninsula
and we saw one seal briefly. The stone stackers have also been here at some point. Returning to Tain, we joined the A9, crossed the Dornoch Firth
and entered Sutherland. Before reaching Dornoch we also crossed the River Evelix. Dornoch Cathedral is Scotland’s smallest and was built by Gilbert de Moravia who became bishop, beginning in 1224. Two hundred years later, a Bishop’s Palace or Castle was built and is now a hotel. There is a crowd-funded distillery start-up there. We could not see inside the cathedral as a funeral was in progress.
However, we did have a browse in the nearby independent bookshop:
Afterwards we took a minor road north out of town and then along the south shore of Loch Fleet which is a National Nature Reserve. We paused just after the ruins of Skelbo Castle
spotting a grey heron and a curlew in the distance.
Back on the A9 the cloud was low. Near to The Mound, there was a ‘Caution Otters’ sign and hordes of people were down by the bridge looking for them, so we carried on passing through Golspie and Brora. We had previously visited Dunrobin Castle and Clynelish Distillery so pressed on to our destination for the night: Helmsdale. The rain had eased when we arrive there so we had a short walk around up to the Telford Bridge and the old harbour. The town has been a port since 1527 but the first harbour was not constructed until 1818. In 1832 a fishing boat brought cholera to the town but it was rescued from decline when other fleets brought herring in.
Timespan is the heritage and arts centre.
Before dinner we walked down to the modern harbour where sea birds were lined up on a wall as the tide came in.
The following day we were back on the A9, entering Caithness north of Helmsdale. A little further along is the site of the abandoned village of Badbea. People were moved during the clearances in the early 1800s when landowners decided that the glens where most people lived would be better places for sheep farms. Some people were living at Badbea in 1793 but most arrived in 1802 when Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster decided that Ousedale, a fertile glen on his Langdale Estate required clearing for sheep farming. He tried to encourage people to engage in the coastal industries. At least twelve families lived at Badbea. It is said that the winds on the cliffs were so strong that animals and even children had to be roped together to prevent them from being blown over the cliffs. Eventually it became impossible to continue and people left; the last resident departing in 1911. The short walk from the carpark leads to a memorial and the remains of a few homes.
After coffee at the River Bothy in Berriedale (where the mobile library was parked up outside) it was time to head north. The next stop was Dunbeath. Very little remains of the monastery which once sat slightly upriver from the village. It was washed away in the 18th century. There is a heritage trail which goes along the river and up a hill to a broch and some old stones.
The village street was constructed between 1840 and 1850. One of my friends from Aberdeen University told me that her grandfather worked at the mill by the old bridge. Just outside it we met an elderly man who remembered him.
Neil Gunn the author was born in Dunbeath in 1891. I read his books many years ago. There is a memorial sculpture down at the harbour.
Looking across the water there is a cave accessible at low tide and the castle which is not open to the public.
Back on the A9 we took the A99 to Wick at Latheron passing through Lybster, Ulbster and Thrumpster. The coast is littered with ancient remains of brochs, castles, cairns and standing stones. There are also the ruins of abandoned crofts and large wind farms stand offshore. Soon we were settled into our riverside campsite.
On another sunny day we set off from Rosemarkie up the Fairy Glen to join the road to Cromarty. It is a village sited between the Sutors, the two headlands one mile apart at the entrance to the bay. We parked by the shore where dozens of kayakers were arriving and getting ready to enter the water. The Stevenson lighthouse built in 1846 is now a Field Station for Aberdeen University marine biologists.
A small ferry runs across to Nigg on the other side during the summer months.
A monument on the shoreline is a memorial to all those who emigrated to North America after the clearances. It lists the names of the ships. Most of the buildings in Cromarty are 18th or 19th century. 13 sites have connections to slave plantations, mostly in Guyana and many of the merchants are buried in the cemetery here. Slavery is something Scotland has been late to acknowledge. There is no Museum of Slavery in Scotland while several English cities have one. In 2018 the University of Glasgow announced it was paying £20 million in reparation for donations derived from slavery merchants. George Ross, a businessman, bought Cromarty in 1772 investing in a harbour, hemp works, brewery, nail works, a lace-making school, stable and a hog yard for pigs. The hemp was imported from St Petersburg and the factory produced bags and sacks for West Indian goods. He built the Gaelic chapel in 1784 for the influx of Gaelic speakers into the town. Cromarty was one of the towns that made so much money from the slave trade that it petitioned against abolition. Perhaps the most famous son of Cromarty was Hugh Miller, a self-taught geologist, naturalist, writer and florist born in 1802. The house he was born in and the one he lived in are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland but were closed at the time we visited.
He died in Edinburgh in 1856. There is a trail around the important places in the town, including his statue. The oldest building in the town still standing is Townslands Barn built in 1690 for Bernard Mckenzie. In the early 19th century it was converted to a threshing barn and latterly for agricultural storage. It is Grade A listed and was acquired by the community in 2018 who hope to be able to raise funds and restore it for some future use.
We had coffee at the Emporium which in addition to having a small café, sells new and used books, gifts and postcards.
Afterwards we continued along the north shore of the Black Isle, passing through Jemimaville and then stopping at the RSPB Udale Bay Reserve. Many migrating birds stop here to feed. We saw Canada and Pink-footed Geese and other birds in the distance. In the logbook someone in earlier in the day had seen an osprey feeding.
After crossing the Cromarty Firth, we stopped at Tain for supplies and as we were too early to check in to the campsite, had a look at the first item on the Pictish Trail. The Edderton Cross-Slab is a stone dating from the 9th century with a Celtic Cross and three horsemen: it is not certain who they are. Other fragments of stone are inside the old church which is only open at certain times. The Pictish Trail runs from Edderton to Altnaharra and visits 13 sites.
After checking in we needed a walk. The site sits between the A9 near the Dornoch Firth Bridge, the train line (and former station now a house) and just beside it runs a minor road down to Meikle Ferry Point. Cattle were grazing in the fields around the bay and looked at us curiously wondering who we were.
The passenger ferry ceased to run when the bridge opened in 1991. Prior to this vehicles had to drive to Bonar Bridge to cross the Firth. There are now houses at the tip of the point but the old piers on the south and north shore are still visible.
We have to be off the site by 10am tomorrow to continue our journey north.
The Ward Lock & Company guidebook to Northern Scotland published sometime after 1948 begins the chapter on the Black Isle by pointing out that ‘The Black Isle is neither black nor an island’. The peninsula is around 23 miles long and 8.5 miles wide. Re-connecting with our coastal tour we crossed the Beauly Firth by the Kessock Bridge. I have a memory that when the bridge was being constructed (it began in 1976 and opened in 1982), building started from each shore but the two sides did not match up or connect properly initially.
It is around 20 years since we were last here. Across the bridge we took a B road to Munlochy and then continued through Avoch and on to the campsite by the beach which stretches between Rosemarkie and Fortrose. It looks over to Fort George on the other side of the Moray Firth which we visited in June.
Rosemarkie is the older of the two towns: a monastery having been founded there in the seventh century. They were united by royal charter in the 15th century. The following morning we walked into Fortrose, stopping by the cathedral ruins. Work on the cathedral began in the 13th century. In 1572 after the Reformation, William Lord Ruthven was given the lead from the roof and it is said that Oliver Cromwell’s army removed stone and timber in order to build a fortress in Inverness in 1653. The cathedral bell clock still rings.
The nearby chapter house became a court with a prison below.
After coffee we walked down the west side of Chanonry Point to the lighthouse.There is a whole network of foot/cycle paths around the Black Isle.
Fortrose Bay is sheltered by the point and was very still.
The Black Isle is home to the only resident population of bottle-nosed dolphins in the North Sea and the point is said to be the best place to spot them but we did not see any that morning. Walking back along the east side on the beach to the campsite, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon before heading back to the point later in the sunshine. It was very busy as a shuttle bus runs from the town centre. Numerous seabirds were feeding offshore but still no sign of any dolphins. The footpath back towards Rosemarkie was lined with wildflowers gone to seed.
However, this harebell was among the few still flowering.
We walked 7.1 miles today and tomorrow it will be time to move on.