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: 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: 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: 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.

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.

Exploring Eyemouth

Eyemouth is Scotland’s most south-eastern port, only five miles from the English Border. James had a vestry away-day meeting at St Ebba’s church there last week, so I used the time to explore the town. It lies where the Eye Water runs down from the Lammermuir Hills and meets the sea. The current population is around 5,000. In the 17th century it was one of the major Scottish centres of witchcraft. At least two dozen women and one man were found guilty. There was no jail in town, so they were kept in the ‘common pit’ until they were burnt at the stake. I began by walking down to the harbour

and then on to the beach. It was quiet with a few dog walkers and one birdwatcher. The tide was out leaving patterns on the wet sand.

I followed a section of the Coastal Path which runs from Berwick to St Abbs up to the headland where Eyemouth Fort was situated.

The first Trace Italienne Fortification in Britain was constructed by the English in 1547 as part of the Rough Wooing campaign which tried to force a marriage between Prince Edward and the infant Mary Queen of Scots. After the Treaty of Boulogne in 1550 the English troops withdrew from Scotland and the fort was demolished. In 1557 the Scots and their French allies began to rebuild it. However, a treaty in 1559 led to it being demolished. Today all that remains are some earthworks and these cannons.

There were views over Killiedraught Bay towards St Abbs Head.

After a coffee, I wandered over to the other side of town. The harbour was busy with boats bringing in their catches and repair works going on.

There is a regeneration project underway on the waterfront which should be complete by 2023. There was also a seal-feeding stall where children can buy fish to throw to them.

I crossed the swing bridge and walked along the other side of the harbour and up the slope to Gunsgreen House.

The house was designed by Robert Adam for a local merchant, John Nisbet who was also a smuggler. It contains the Smugglers’ House of Secrets Museum but this was closed on my visit. Nearby is Nisbet’s Tower which was a dove cote for Gunsgreen House that was restored in 2005 and is now a holiday cottage.

There is also the memorial to the 189 fishermen who died in the fishing disaster of 1881 when boats went out despite weather warnings. They encountered hurricane force winds which destroyed 26 of the town’s 46 fishing boats. Incoming tides washed wreckage, bodies and personal effects ashore for days afterwards. It took around 80 years for the population to return to the levels of 1881.

The town museum has a moving exhibition about the disaster and lots of other information about the town. It is in the Auld Kirk – the bell still rang on the hours while I was in it. Afterwards, I re-joined James and the others for lunch.

A wander around Dunbar

Having to leave the campervan to be cleaned meant that we had three hours to kill in Dunbar. Following Spott Road in towards the town centre we first had a short walk on the East Beach although the tide was in. There were a few dog walkers out but otherwise it was very quiet.

Cromwell harbour had a few people working on boats. The first harbour was constructed in 1100 at what is now known as Belhaven. The next was stone-built nearer to the castle in the 16th century. After storm damage in the 1650s, Cromwell repaired it to enable English ships to supply his army. Herring fishing was important; In 1819, 280 boats with 2000 men and in bumper years some 700-800 boats would arrive. In the 18th century merchants traded with Europe and in 1828, 203,276 gallons of whisky were exported from Dunbar. The heyday for oyster fishing was from 1770 to 1790 and whaling was undertaken from 1751 to 1802.

The Castle ruins stand beside the harbour. It was built on the site of a Pictish fortress, the first stone castle being constructed in 1071. There were numerous attacks and rebuilding over the centuries and Mary Queen of Scots visited on several occasions. The ruins now provide a cliff-like place for gulls to nest on.

In 1844 a new harbour entrance was blasted through the remaining castle ruins and Victoria Harbour was built by the engineer David Stevenson. We walked around the walls watched by a pair of gulls.

In the 19th century potatoes were taken to London by sea. This continued until 1914 when Lincolnshire began to grow large crops of potatoes. In the 20th century lobster and crab catching increased to supply the demand from local, Edinburgh and London hotels. More recent work on the harbour in 1988 revealed the Harbour Vaults. From the items found in the underground passages, it is assumed they were related to the whaling industry.

In the High Street we found a coffee shop with comfortable sofas and had our first coffee in a cafe for several months. Opposite was the town house museum – the first home of John Muir.

The west end and Belhaven Bay will need to be explored on another day as our three hours had gone and it was time to collect the van.

Discovering North Berwick

Having moved last autumn before the last lockdown and only recently been able to go beyond our local council area meant that in addition to settling into our new home, we have at least had time to explore the area. East Lothian is relatively flat, mostly arable land with the Lammermuir Hills and Traprain Law to the south and the Pentlands to the west. Like Edinburgh, there are volcanic mounds including the Law

the Bass Rock.

Fidra,

Criagleith

And the Lamb.

There is evidence of early settlers in the area to the south of the Law including 18 hut circles, middens and a field system dating back 2,000 years. The first record of the town being referred to as North Berwick (to distinguish it from South Berwick as Berwick on Tweed was known as) was in 1250. The town developed a place on the pilgrim trail much earlier; a ferry to Earlsferry in Fife being established in 950AD for those heading to St Andrews. The pilgrimages continued until the mid-16th century. St Andrew’s Auld Kirk is situated down by the harbour on what was a tidal island. It was reduced to ruins by a storm in 1656.

Our house is situated alongside the southern edge of the Glen. There was originally a Mill Pond at the entrance to the Glen and now a culvert passes under the road. Lochbridge Road got its name from the bridge over the reservoir. The water was controlled by a sluice gate and provided power for the three mills which were situated there. Now only the ruins remain. The first path through the Glen was opened in 1856.

The burn flows into what was known as the Mill Sea which later became Milsey Bay and is our nearest beach.

I have been looking at Canmore maps online. The 19th century ones show an iron foundry established in 1821 in the East Bay. Coo’s Green or the East Links where golf was played before 1798 was where the burgesses could graze their animals for a fee until the popularity of golf increased.

Our house is situated on what was part of Rhodes Farm. It also had limekilns and employed several men. In 1904, Abbot’s Croft House was built along with the lodge. In the 1930s Lime Grove social housing was built on some of the land to the east. In 1993 some of the land surrounding Abbot’s Croft was sold to build two houses on each side. Ours is one of the two on the west side, abutting the Glen. Two further housing estates were built on the farmland: Rhodes Park and Ben Sayers Park.  The Lochridge Toll bar at the foot of Heugh Road was installed in 1805 but townspeople did not have to pay tolls. There is now a small roundabout there at the junction with Tantallon Road.

I have also been looking at some of the older buildings in town. St Andrew’s Kirk sits behind the High Street. It was built between 1665 and 1664 to replace the older church.

By 1873 the congregation had overgrown it and in the 1880s moved to St Andrew Blackadder’s Church in the High Street. The Lodge, a group of whitewashed buildings sit in grounds at the bottom of Quality Street.

They were built in the 17th century and originally owned by the Dalrymple family. The tower behind is said to be where St Andrew’s well was. The buildings are now apartments, and the grounds are a public park and gardens.

In 1889 the first reference to the town being called ‘The Biarritz of the North’ was by Edmund Yates, editor of ‘The World’ a weekly society journal. By this time, large numbers of people were visiting on the trains including golfers. Robert Stevenson’s family, including his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson used to spend summers in North Berwick in the 1860s. During the pandemic the town has been very quiet but no doubt that will change when it is over.

East Lothian Beaches: Seacliff

Only three miles from our house, Seacliff Beach is accessible via a private road. Car drivers must pay £3 to open the barrier. On the path down to the west end of the beach, the ruins of Auldhame Castle, 16th century tower house are visible through the trees.

At low tide it is possible to walk around the cliffs to see Tantallon castle which is a little further along the coast.

The harbour, known as the Gegan was carved from the Ghegan Rock (which means Churchman’s Haven) and constructed in 1890. It is said to be the smallest harbour in Scotland but was empty when we visited on a cold January day. In summer the beach is popular with dog walkers, riders (there are a number of horses on the estate) surfers and picnickers.

The rocky outcrop which projects into the bay is known as St Baldred’s Boat and has a stone beacon with a cross on at the end.

St Baldred’s Cave is at the foot of the cliffs. He is said to have lived there from time to time. In 1831 a stone altar and bones of both humans and animals were discovered. They were thought to date from the Iron Age and to be the remnants of a sect which undertook human sacrifice.

At low tide there is an expanse of sandy beach to walk along. It was completely deserted on our winter visit.

The exit road out climbs up past the ruins of Seacliff House, a mid-19th century building constructed on the site of an earlier 18th century house and was destroyed by a fire in 1907. The owner did not survive. The road passes through an arch in the surrounding wall.

Various outbuildings on the estate were used as a secret naval base in World War II which focussed on navigation training and U-boat defence. They are now private homes. Troops were also stationed here to prevent landings during the Napoleonic War in 1798. Like most of the beaches on this portion of the coast, there are views towards the Bass Rock.

It is said that the rocks and the coastline here were the inspiration for Robert Stevenson’s story ‘The Wreckers’. Our first trip here for many years will not be our last now that we are living close by.