Round Britain: Melvich to the Kyle of Tongue

Our campsite in Melvich was among hills and fields of sheep.

I could not see the sunset because of the hills but there was some colour in the sky afterwards.

We woke to a rain forecast but managed to get organised and leave before it started. Melvich and Portskerra the next community, are almost continuous. We did a diversion to Portskerra Pier which has views over Melvich Bay.

There is a memorial to some fishing disasters with the names of those lost.

From the headland there are views out to sea.

The next village we entered was Strathy. Like much of this part of Scotland it was still owned by traditional chiefs in the 19th century and the land was divided into estates. However, landowners wanted a more reliable income than their poor tenants and cleared the communities to coastal towns or gave them passage to Canada and the United States to create space to enable sheep farming. In 1790 Captain John Mackay of Strathy sold his estate to an Edinburgh lawyer William Honeyman; who leased the land to sheep farmers from Northumberland. In 1813 he sold it to the husband of the Countess of Sutherland. By 1815 more people were cleared to the coast and the mains farm was divided into crofts. We continued down to the parking space on Strathy Point and walked down the road down to the lighthouse.

There are views to cliffs and a natural arch.

Further along the A836 we passed a sign to a place called Brawl! Entering Bettyhill, we stopped for a coffee at the Farr Bay Inn and were the only people in the café. Bettyhill was a clearance village. It was named after Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland who was responsible for many of the clearances. Hundreds of families were moved from Strathnaver townships to 3-acre crofts, too small to meet their nutritional needs on uncultivated Strathy Point. The rocky coast here has no harbour but they were told to develop a fishing industry despite knowing nothing about it and having no funds to purchase boats and equipment. The town has the Strathnaver museum in a disused church which is currently being renovated and is closed. Behind the museum is an ancient Pictish Cross – the Farr stone. Up the river Naver valley is Achanlochy Clearance village which the seven families were forced to leave in 1819. We could not really wander around as it was raining heavily so I have no current photos of Torrisdale Bay.

Near Borgie Forest we turned off to Skerry where we spent a week in a cottage in 2015. We parked down by the harbour and had our lunch.  Skerry harbour was constructed in the 19th century by cutting access through the rocks.

The island in the distance is Eilean nan Ròn, an island populated for many years. 73 people lived there in 1881 and 30 in 1931 but it was evacuated in 1938. The final evacuation list contained nine people from the Mackay family. The island now has a lot of grey seals with many coming to pup every summer.

The geology is different here from the Caithness flagstones we have seen for the last few days. There are red rocks visible in the cliffs here.

We continued on to the Kyle of Tongue campsite to wait until the rain stops and permits some exploration.

Round Britain: Dunnet Bay to Melvich

We had some overnight rain in Dunnet Bay but the sun was breaking out as we left and entered Thurso. A sign on the road said that it was the birthplace of William Smith, founder of the Boys Brigade. Thurso was a town before the Vikings arrived. It is the northernmost town on the Scottish mainland. Sitting astride the mouth of the River Thurso it grew up as an important trading and fishing port. Most sea traffic now goes to nearby Scrabster which is where we took the ferry to Stromness when we visited Orkney a few years ago. My 1927-28 Ward lock guide describes Thurso as having considerable tourist traffic in season, including people heading to the Orkney Islands. There was also some quarrying of Caithness sandstone. We stopped to replenish supplies and then continued through the town. We passed Old St Peter’s Church and on the edge of town stopped by Wolfburn Distillery. It is the most northerly distillery in mainland Scotland and was established in 1821 but more recently resurrected.

Further along the A836 is a road down to the ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, Crosskirk which sits on the cliffs. It was probably built in the 12th century and became a dependant chapel of the church in nearby Reay which was built in 1739. From the car park there is a path down to a bridge across the water, near another ruined building

and then uphill to the chapel. Only part of it is left, a more recent graveyard with graves up to the 19th century surround it.

There are views from the cliff edge towards Dunnet Head.

We then passed by Dounreay Nuclear Power Station housed the world’s first Fast Breeder Nuclear Reactor. I remember the waste from it coming down the A9 and through Dunblane in the middle of the night. It is currently being decommissioned and this seems to provide a fair amount of work judging by the number of cars parked outside. A little further on just past Reay, a road runs down to Fresgoe and Sandside Bay.

It looks across to Dounreay.

Signs on the beach stopped me even looking for sea glass.

Sandside Bay has been settled since prehistoric times including Viking settlements but like many parts of the coast, these have been covered by the sand dunes. I wandered around the harbour which had a recently arrived boat.

I then walked up towards the headland for views with spring flowers

and admired the flagstone construction of the harbour wall which was built in 1830. This might turn into an abstract drawing or painting.

After lunch we completed 6.5 more miles, crossing the Halladale River and finding our campsite on the south side of Melvich.

Dunnet Bay

We arrived at Dunnet Bay campsite to restart our coastal tour and got a pitch with views over the dunes and the bay. The Vikings settled in places like Dunnet. They built stone farmhouses with thatched roofs and farmed there until 1196. A few centuries later sand blew in and covered the community. Much later, when a new road was being constructed, part of a dune was cut away; some sheep rubbed themselves on the surface and remains of the Viking community appeared. In 1995, archaeologists found numerous Viking remains. We had a sunny day so had an early evening walk on the beach.

I returned later to watch the sun go down.

The next morning, we walked along the road to Castleton. We passed dunes with wind-blown trees

and the forest which has several walking trails.

The rooks were very busy rebuilding their nests.

Just outside Castleton is a large, ruined building which looked like work might be about to start on it.

After picking up a few supplies, we walked down to the harbour. The remains of a broch sit down there.

The Heritage Centre is only open a few days each week and was closed on our visit. The harbour is built from flagstones which have been produced in Caithness quarries for a long time. They were formed by silts and sands which were crushed by the weight of Lake Orcadie, which once stretched to Greenland. This created beds of sediment, ultimately compacting into the layers of flagstone we find today, 400 million years later. Most of the drystone walls, some roof tiles and many steps are made from them. They are still quarried and sold today. Even the bench was constructed from them.

The harbour was quiet and much of it seemed to be a boat graveyard.

There were numerous ruined buildings. One working boat was moored in the harbour and there were some lobster creels in a pile on the side. We then walked down to the beach and back along it. The whole length is about two miles but the campsite is not quite at the end. There was a lot of kelp decomposing in places.

I also saw several broken sea urchin shells and found a few pieces of sea glass. We had walked 6.7 miles today so it was time for a quiet afternoon before we prepare to move on tomorrow.

Heading north to restart the coastal tour

We began our circumnavigation of the mainland coast in April 2019. In that year we did three trips and covered South Queensferry to Dunnet Bay. The next two years involved the pandemic and moving house so in April 2022 we were at the point when we could recommence our journey. We set off, crossing the Forth, taking the M90 to Perth and then the A9 all the way to our destination. We split the journey into two days, giving us time to explore some of the places we pass enroute.

Our first stop was Newtonmore. We had a coffee in the Transport Café on the south side of the village where we discovered that one of the staff was from the Wirral. Newtonmore dates from 1820 when the English laird granted building leases near the junction of the Highland Road (now the A9) and the new Laggan Road. Three small croft houses were built and later two large ones. The first community consisted of a few small farmers and an innkeeper. New villagers came from people cleared from Glen Banchor and elsewhere.

In 1863 the railway opened and more residents gained an income through the shooting estates. Tourism increases through the 1890s when the golf course was built and by 1912 there were three churches. By the 1960s several shops had opened and two banks (now close), we saw the mobile bank. The Highland Games still continue and we saw the Buckie Fish van arriving as we left. The village hall was built in 1913 and in 2013 mosaics were added for the centenary.

There is also the Wild Cat Sanctuary which has dozens of painted wildcats around town to find.

On the north side of town is Loch Imrich, a kettle hole formed by a melting glacier which was previously used as a curling pond and ice-skating rink. The only birds we saw were Mallard Ducks which came up to us so I assume they were used to people feeding them.

Further up the road is the Highland Folk Museum which has numerous buildings and objects reflecting life since the 1700s. The black house is a reconstruction of one from Lewis and the scaffolding scattered around was there because it is due to be re-thatched.

There numerous old buildings including Lochanhully House with interiors,

Several farm buildings

And some machinery that James remembered his father using.

There was also an old Post Office and railway station

A sheep fank and shepherd’s hut

And horses

plus items from an old garage with a rusting car outside. There is a large museum at the back with smaller items which books visits for groups etc.

That night we stayed at an aire at Kingussie which backs onto the railway line. Kingussie is more of town than village with more facilities including a very good secondhand bookshop. There were still some patches of snow on the Cairngorms. Most of the trains that pass by including the Caledonian Sleeper are quiet so our sleep was not disturbed.

The following morning, we had a brief stop at the RSPB Insh Marshes reserve but did not see many birds.

The ruins of Ruthven Barracks also lie on the same B road

We continued north, stopping for lunch just north of Brora. All the way along the east coast of Caithness the gorse was in bloom.

The A9 then turns inland and we reached our destination.

A Meander around Melrose

The Melrose Sevens rugby competition has been running since 1883. Our friends in Inverness were coming down for it and had a spare ticket so James joined them for most of the matches on the Saturday running up to the final. I spent the time wandering around the town which lies on the River Tweed at the foot of the Eildon Hills. I had not visited it since 2016.

The Sevens are a big event for the town and a pipe band were playing in the High Street.

I then spent some time in Priorwood Garden. It was originally part of an abbey estate, the kitchen garden for a large house and a market garden in World War II. It has belonged to the National Trust for Scotland since 1974.
It covers 2 acres in total and was the first garden in Scotland devoted to the cultivation of flowers for drying and preservation. It has an orchard with more than twenty varieties of apples.

I had an appointment to visit Melrose Abbey at 2pm. The guy at the entrance said that he had seen a number of ‘rugby widows’ on that day.

It is not possible to go inside the building at present because there is a huge backlog of surveys and repairs to damage underway in many historic buildings. The abbey was founded around 1136 by the Cistercian Order and originally had fairly simple architecture. The original church was destroyed by the English army in 1385 leaving only one wall remaining. The large nave was built around 1400 and is in a grander and more ornate style.

In the grounds is a museum which has many relics from the abbey and a list of all the abbots.

There were also relics some from Newstead which was known as Trimontium in Roman times relating to its position at the foot of three Eildon Hills. There is a museum devoted to this in town but like many businesses was closed for the Sevens. My next stop was Harmony Garden.

The house was built in 1907 and gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1996. It has a kitchen garden and glasshouse

and in summer the fruit and vegetables grown are sold from a trolley at the main gate. I enjoyed the flowers and some of last years seeds still hanging from trees and shrubs.

I then had a river walk along the banks of the Tweed, crossing the chain bridge.

Some of the riverside walks and the bridge are part of the Southern Upland Way.

Eventually it was time to meet up with my friend, have something to eat and to return home in the evening.

Back on the Causeway Coast

The Causeway Coast stretches 30 miles from the mouth of the River Foyle in the West to the Glendun River in the East.  We last visited Magilligan Point in the west in December 2019:

but on this occasion in warm March weather, a shorter journey took us to Portstewart promenade. We began our walk at the harbour.

The shore is very rocky here.

As it was so warm, we sat down and had an Ice cream from Morellis who have been selling it since 1911. The beach here is very small

but further west of the town are the Portstewart Strand and Downhill beaches. Back at the harbour end you can walk down to the Herring Pond which has views over to Portrush.

We arrived in Portrush hoping to have a browse in the secondhand bookshop. The ‘open’ sign was on the door and the lights were on but the door was locked. We had a wander around town and down to the harbour.

Further along the coast is Magheracross viewpoint which looks towards Dunluce Castle and on a clear day the Skerries, a small group of islands.

There were some hang gliders above us.

We had lunch at Shell Beach, Portballintrae which has views over to Runkerry Beach. I found a fair bit of sea glass here.

Whitepark Bay is a SSI and sheep and cattle graze behind the dunes.

There are the remains of a ‘hedge school’ for young gentlemen. The beach has a lot of stones and you can find ammonite and belemite fossils here sometimes.

Our final stop was Ballycastle. It is one of only two places in Northern Ireland that was associated with coal mining and it also had a glassworks which ceased production in 1791. You can take the ferry here to Rathlin Island which we did previously.

The Glenshesk River estuary is in the bay and there are views towards Fairhead.