Round Britain: Scourie

There was a brief lull in the rain yesterday morning and a cuckoo was persistently calling as we left Kinlochbervie. The cloud was hanging over the mountain behind the harbour.

Back at Rhiconich we picked up the A838 again and headed south through pouring rain in a moorland landscape with many lochans on either side of the road.

We saw one guy with an incredibly long fishing rod near one. At Laxford Bridge during the continuing rain, we took the A894 past a working quarry and downhill into Scourie. We were a little early to check in to the campsite so had a walk on the beach.

I found some relatively small pieces of sea glass including a tiny rare blue piece. The community bird hide was closed but oystercatchers were feeding further down the beach. The beach had less waste on it than Kinlochbervie.

Scourie comes from a Norse word Skógarærgi which means shieling of the woods. There are quite a few trees round the end of the bay with some non-native species obviously planted within the last hundred years. It was the birthplace of General Hugh Mackay who was Commander in Chief of William and Mary’s Scottish Army in 1689-1690 during the conflict with James II. In the 2011 census, the population was 132. Most of the crofts around the village we established in the early 19th century. The island of Handa is just visible beyond the headland.

It was evacuated and the population emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada after the famine of 1847. It is now owned by the Scourie Estate and is a nature reserve. Sitting in the van we have a great view through the back window; and have seen the fin of a porpoise or dolphin in the bay and the occasional seal head popping up. There are pied wagtails, house sparrows and a wheatear on the grass. The first half of the morning was dry, so we had a wander around the bay.

Scourie Lodge, built by the Duke of Sutherland in 1835 is now a hotel. We plan to eat there this evening.

The harbour end of the bay had only one boat moored there

and a net lying on the beach.

There is a small lochan on the other side of the road.

A signpost points the footpath to Tarbert: it continues the other way around the back of the beach. Where I had a wander among the rocks.

Oystercatchers and eider ducks were on one of the rocks.

Tomorrow morning, we will be up very early to drive back home. With various work to get done on the house over the next few months I am not sure when we will return to our coastal journey.

Round Britain: Kinlochbervie

Leaving Durness on a very wet grey day, we took the A838 southwards. Ordnance Survey maps show a lot of hut circles, cairns and old field systems on the land on each side of the road. There are also abandoned quarries and some patches of last years burnt moor for grouse shooting. The road passes Loch Caladail and then runs down to the shores of the Kyle. At the end of the Kyle, it follows the River Dionard for a while before passing Gualin House and Loch Tarbhajh. The A838 goes by the end of Loch Inchard at Riconcich where the junction of the B80 to Kinlochbervie, the most northwesterly port in Scotland is. The road winds along the lochside and through several small communities: Achriesgill, Inshegra and Badcall before heading down a 15% descent into Kinlochbervie. The roadside is littered with dead and decaying cars, lorries and tractors. Just as we passed the end of Loch Sheigra, the rain ceased for a while so I could take a photo.

Prior to the early 1960s Kinlochbervie was a crofting village. Some abandoned houses are still in the middle of the town

close to the Free Presbyterian Church, the only church in the community. There is a community fire station, coastguard, a medical practice, a filling station, a couple of stores, café, a hotel and several B&Bs. The old harbour at Loch Clash is now a motorhome stop-over which is where we are spending one night. If you arrive early, you can use one of the five electric hook-ups and there are ten off-grid places. Payment is made to the Spar shop just up the road.

The pebble beach at the head of Loch Clash is littered with plastic waste from the fishing industry.

In 1964, work began to convert the village into a major European fishing harbour. This took around twenty years and although the local fishing fleet is small; other ships bring in their catch and it is processed here. The new harbour is certainly busy with large buildings for processing the fish, housing the harbour master and others behind where many nets were laid out to dry. HGVs were getting ready to load up late afternoon.

While I was wandering around, the sun finally came out very briefly.

There are interesting rocks just past the end of the pier;

and a lot of native plants: gorse, speedwells, rowan and elder trees coming into leaf and buds on the heather. However, along one road someone must have planted bamboo and an arum-like large lily which I could not identify. They have now become very invasive over a large area. Elsewhere I saw Spanish bluebells escaping out of a garden.

If you have more time and good weather, you can go to Oldshoremore along the minor road from Kinlochbervie and from there; do an eight-mile return walk to Sandwood Bay which is part of the Sandwood Estate run by the John Muir Trust. Unfortunately, heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow so that and the possibility of a boat trip from Tarbert to Handa Island are probably not going to happen.

Round Britain: Sango Sands and Balnakiel

Our campsite in Durness sits above Sango Sands beach with great views from the back of the van.

There is a viewpoint giving wider views over the bay.

Much of the rock around Durness is limestone but down on the beach is some Lewisian gneiss.

Durness parish was cleared by Lord Reay over a 30 year period preceding his sale to the Sutherland estate in 1829. More clearances to enable sheep farming continued afterwards, some involving disputes and resistance from the locals. You can still see the remains of croft buildings among the 19th century and more recent buildings. This morning we walked the mile down to Balnakiel.

Most of the land is sheep and some cattle farming. The road passes Loch Croispol

and then the Craft Village. The buildings here were constructed in the mid 1950s as a Ministry of Defence Early Warning Station during the Cold War. It was never commissioned and in 1964 the County Council acquired it and the Craft Village was born. It is now owned by the residents and there is also the Cocoa Mountain Coffee Shop. A little further on are the ruins of an old church.

Balnakiel has been a centre of Christianity since the 8th century when St Maelrubha founded a monastery. The current church dates from 1617 and was rebuilt in 1690. In 1843 it was abandoned. Balnakiel House across the road was built in 1744 and has been the home of the chiefs of the Clan Mackay and may incorporate part of a bishop’s summer residence. We then wandered down to the beach.

The dunes are an SSI and in summer rangers offer guided walks to see the wildlife. In 1991, shifting sands revealed the grave and skeleton of a 12-year-old Viking Warrior, with a helmet and shield. You can walk four miles along the old military road to and around Faraid Head but the tip is an inaccessible MOD area. Had it not been raining we might have done the walk but instead had to return to Durness.

Round Britain: Cape Wrath

Cape Wrath has been described as the last true wilderness in the British Isles. The tip is the most north-westerly point of the UK mainland and is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. It is further north than Moscow and Vladivostock. A large part of the Cape is a Ministry of Defence Bombardment Range which is still active and used at times, often at short notice. One way of visiting when the forces are not operating is via the ferry and minibus which does a three-hour tour. We woke early and set off to walk the 2.5 miles down the road to the Keoldale ferry to cross and pick up the Cape Wrath minibus on the other side. The A838 south of Durness was not built until 1832.

Down at the Kyle of Durness is a standing stone erected in 2000 as a memorial to ancient and Celtic peoples.

A little further along we reached the pier where what has been described as the smallest passenger ferry service in Great Britain operates from. While waiting for it, we saw someone take a small tank of diesel over to the other side to top up a minibus.

The ferry arrived just before 9.30am and we embarked for the short journey across the Kyle to the pier on Cape Wrath.

Our minibus was waiting and took us slowly along the single-track unmade road. The only road to cross the peninsula was built to service the lighthouse in 1833 and is 11 miles long.

There are abandoned houses which used to belong to the shepherds who lived and worked here and the peat banks that supplied their fuel. There were views over to Kearvaig where there is a bothy and two stacks which are known as ‘The Cathedral’.

We saw several walkers and cyclists during our time on the Cape, some of whom were wild camping. At one point we spotted a few red deer in the distance. They are numerous on the Cape and are one reason why there are no trees. Just before you reach the lighthouse there are views south towards Sandwood Bay which is only accessible on foot. Apparently there have been reports in the past of mermaids being spotted from there.

 The lighthouse itself was built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson and was automated in 1998. It is now run by solar panels with a generator as reserve. There is a café there so after refuelling and we still had some time to wander around before the return trip. There are views from the surrounding cliffs.

The old foghorn is still there.

You can sometimes see porpoises and dolphins from here but we only saw a few grey seals at a distance on the sandbanks before we reached the pier on our way back.

Round Britain: Kyle of Tongue to Durness

When the rain stopped early evening yesterday, I watched the sun go down behind the hills across the Kyle of Tongue.

We woke to a still quiet morning and after chatting for a while to the couple in the rented van next to us who were from Vancouver, we headed off across the Kyle.

The original bridge and causeway here were built by Sir Alexander Gibb and partners in 1971 to carry the A838 across the loch. Until 1956 there had been a passenger ferry but the route around the head of the loch involved a narrow road some 10 miles long. The causeway is 32.4 miles long and it crosses a natural island, Tongue Island (Eilean Thunga). The 600 ft bridge is at the western end of the causeway, and it has eighteen spans supported by twin piers. The bridge was refurbished in 2011. There are two parking places along it where you can stop and admire the view.

Just over the bridge is the road to Talmine. There are plans to build Space Hub, Sutherland at Melness, which is north of Talmine. Twelve rocket launches are planned for each year and the promotors say it will provide local jobs. We then entered the Flow country.

It is a huge expanse of blanket bog, moorland and mountains covering much of Caithness and Sutherland. The peat layer is big enough to cover a two-storey house and holds more carbon than all the UK’s woodlands put together. Moine House sits on the old road which was the only road across the bog until the A838 was built in 1993. It was occupied by a forester and his family in the late 19th century.

There is now some street art inside.

The old road is now a walking trail in parts. Today some was closed so that ground nesting birds were not disturbed.

The A838 descends and crosses the River Hope before reaching Loch Eriboll. It is Britain’s deepest sea loch and Ard Neackie is a headland which has the remains of old limestone kilns.

Further on we passed a sculpture croft and Choraidh Croft tearoom which were both closed. We stopped at Tràigh Allt Chàilrgeag where zip wires run across the beach between the two hills and several people were enjoying them . I had a coffee in the van and then wandered down to the beach where a lone surfer was struggling to find some decent waves.

One mile east of Durness village is Smoo Cave a natural sea cave with a 50m entrance, the largest to any sea cave in the British Isles. There are steps down to the entrance.

The cave name is thought to originate from the Norse ‘smjugg’ or ‘smuga’, meaning a hole or hiding place. The cave is unique within the in that the first chamber has been formed by the action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers are freshwater passages, formed from rainwater dissolving the carbonate dolomites. Partway through the cave the waters of Allt Smoo also drop in as a 20 metres high waterfall.

After a short distance on the road you enter Durness. The recently built village hall is on the left, school children having contributed some of the art works.

In front is the John Lennon Memorial Garden. He used to visit regularly as a child with his cousins in their croft at Sangomore.

We found our campsite and settled in, over looking Sango Sands.

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.