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: 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.

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.

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.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

We have been members of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for several years and visit it frequently. It began in 1670 when two doctors, Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald set up a small 180 square yard plot containing 800-900 plants as a physic garden near Holyrood. This became too small after a few years and in 1682 an area at the end of the Nor Loch where Waverley Station is now situated, was planted with 2,000 plants and shrubs. It was close to Trinity Hospital and was later extended into Trinity College Kirkyard.

In 1763 a new site for the Botanic Garden was found in Leith Walk. It moved to its present home in Inverleith in 1820; a process taking two years to transfer all the plants and trees. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh was instituted in 1836. Over the next century and more, the garden evolved into the one we know today with plants from all over the world and buildings which house the visitors centre, exhibition spaces and places for the staff to work.

Events are organised and in 2017 we visited the Christmas Lights display they have most years in December.

The glasshouses are currently closed for refurbishment. An article in yesterday’s Times Scotland said that they were having to cut down a 220-year-old sabal palm tree which had to be moved in order to do the work and as it was 50 feet high, could not be moved intact. It had been in the Leith Walk garden before being moved to its current place. They have grown some seedlings.

The garden has the largest collection of Chinese plants outside China including many wild ones from mountains. The RGBE botanists are working with the Kuming Institute of Botany to develop a botanical garden and a mountain field station.

I enjoyed looking at some of the interesting trees

and the alpine garden.

As it is early autumn, some leaves were beginning to turn and seed heads were appearing.

Autumn crocuses are in bloom.

After wandering around the grounds we visited the exhibition of botanical photography of Levison Biss which covered fruits and seeds from the Herbarium Collection. I must try and get the book which was sold out in the botanic garden shop. It might inspire me to do some more macro photography.

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.

Blackford Hill

Blackford Hill is 164m high and sits on the south side of Edinburgh. It is comprised of some of the oldest rock in the city in contrast to the volcanic rocks which form most of the other hills in the city. From our flat we can see the summit and most days there is at least one person visible on the top. Together with the Hermitage of Braid it comprises a Nature Reserve. We often walk around there and it is very popular with dog walkers, families and joggers. There was an ancient hill fort on the summit and in the 12th century there was a castle built by Henri de Brad who was Sheriff of Edinburgh at the time. The Hermitage of Braid house was built in 1785 and was the residence of Charles Gordon of Cluny who died in 1814. It was gifted to the council in 1938 and is now a visitors’ centre which is closed at present due to the pandemic. The Braid Burn runs through the reserve and there is also Blackford Pond which has resident swans and is visited by other birds. On our last visit most of the swans were being fed at one end of the pond and this lonely gull was at the quieter end.

There are 30 acres of woodland, many trails and other areas of open pasture. It provides views of the city including Arthur’s Seat

and over towards the Pentland Hills

On one visit I was close enough to see this crow who had found something to eat.

It is a very popular spot to view the fireworks on New Year’s Eve and we have done that on a number of occasions, weather permitting

or to watch the sunset

On one visit in 2017 we found musicians performing on the summit

The hill is also home to the Royal Observatory which used to be located on Calton Hill but relocated here at the end of the 20th century to avoid light pollution. Here is one of the more interesting buildings.

There are gorse bushes on the slopes and it was still in bloom in October. There is an old saying that when the gorse is out of bloom; kissing is out of fashion but at least there is food for the pollinators.

Unfortunately, there is also some Himalayan Balsam

and I did spot an insect on some seed heads.

On our most recent visit the leaves were colourful.

North Berwick Law is higher and once we have settled I must go up there for the views.