CONTINUED.........

Loch Maree to Cape Wrath / Balnakeil to Noss Head / Wick to North Kessock



Balnakeil

Faraid Head from BalnakeilBalnakeil has the most glorious sandy bay imaginable. We first came upon it on a warm summer evening, when the sea was turquoise and we had walked over the dunes from Durness. It was deserted and almost paradise. These dunes stretch for 3 miles to the narrow headland of Faraid Head, home of nesting puffins. The views from here, from Cape Wrath to Loch Eriboll are fabulous.

Balnakeil HouseNear the road is Balnakeil House, which was built around 1720 on the remains of the earlier summer palace of the Bishops of Caithness. It was later a home of the Lords of Reay, with a water mill and a walled garden.

17th century churchNearby, the ruin of a 17th century church is on the site of a much older one recorded as having supported the Crusades in the 12th century. There is a tombstone decorated with a skull and crossbones that commemorates a highwayman, Donald MacMurchow, whose exploits included murdering 18 people. He is said to have paid £1000 to be buried there, as protection against enemies who might desecrate a more exposed grave. Another monument is dedicated to the Gaelic poet Rob Donn Calder.

Balnakeil Craft VillageBalnakeil Craft Village is an old Ministry of Defence early warning station that was transformed into an alternative artists' community in the 1960s. We spent a morning here, watching workers creating works of art in the little prefab huts.

Ceramics My favourite is Lotte Glob's studio, where we spent an obscene amount of money on gorgeous ceramics. She takes some of her works into the mountains and photographs them before leaving them there. Lotte Glob's studio






Durness


DurnessDurness was very isolated until relatively recently and the ‘A’ road in both directions is still single track. You used to have to use 3 ferries to reach the village from Tongue, across the Kyle of Tongue, the River Hope, and Loch Eriboll.

On the cliffsWe stayed two nights here, on the cliffs looking down on the sands of Sango Bay. It was lovely on the beach in the early morning and we spent one evening walking over the sand dunes to Balnakiel. The Cape Wrath Challenge was taking place, a series of long distance runs.

Durness trafficDurness used to be a crofting village and in 1841, it was the first area in which residents did not accept being cleared off their land to make way for sheep. The landowner only managed partial clearance but it was not as widespread as originally intended.

Durness visitor centreThere is a nice visitor centre, which houses the tourist information office, with geological displays explaining the region's rock formations and information on the history of the area.



Smoo Cave


Smoo Cave from aboveSmoo CaveEverytime I visit Smoo Cave I am impressed. A flight of steps, followed by stepping stones, leads down the cliff to the vast cave, whose name derives from the Norse word smjuga, meaning 'narrow cleft'. On one occasion there was a piper and the echoing sound was bone tingling.

You can walk into its main chamber, which is over 200ft deep and 110ft wide and a covered wooden walkway has been built to reach the second chamber. In here the Allt Smoo Burn falls 80ft from an opening in the roof into a deep pool and the noise is quite deafening. There is also a third floodlit chamber that can be visited by boat trips in summer.

Smoo roof holesSmoo waterfallThe cave is formed in a band of limestone and the entrance has been much enlarged by the action of the sea. The second chamber has been formed by the action of fresh water creating roof holes that can also be seen from a bridge above ground.

Evidence has been found of human occupation here dating back 5000 years. Elsewhere in the area archaeology suggests pictish farming settlements going back over 2000 years.



Loch Eriboll


SangobegWe passed a couple of excellent beaches at Sangobeg and Rispond and then the road turns to begin its ten mile detour south along the west shore of the stunning Loch Eriboll. This is my favourite place in Britain! The name comes from the Norse "Eyrr-bol" meaning "Farm on a beach".

It is Britain's deepest sea loch, sheltered by steep hills and during World War II it was an assembly point for North Atlantic convoys, whose crews dubbed it Loch 'Orrible’. At the end of the war, crews of German U-boats surrendered to the British Navy here.

Loch Eriboll - Ard NeackieThe small island in the middle was used as target practice by bombers assigned to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fiord.

At Laid on the loch's western shore is the Choraidh Croft Farm Park, where rare and unusual farm animals include Soay sheep from the Outer Hebrides. The loch's other settlement is Eriboll, on the main road above the east side of the loch. This side is much higher and there are some wonderful views of the mountainous landscape.

Lime kilnsThere is a rugged outcrop protruding into the east side of the loch called Ard Neackie. It’s crumbling pier once served a nearby quarry and was used as the terminus of the Heilam Ferry which crossed to the west bank. This ceased operation in the 1890s when the road was built. There are also four large lime kilns built in 1870, when the Reay estate produced large amounts of lime and loaded it into ships.



Talmine


A couple of miles north of the A838 are the small hamlets of Midtown, Skinnet and Talmine, now mainly holiday cottages and a small campsite. Another road leads north to Achinahuagh, Port Vasgo and Lubinvullin.

Rabbit IslandsA few crofting families managed to scrape a livelihood here by fishing and quarrying flagstones for more than a century, but they finally gave up the struggle against this inhospitable land.

TalmineTalmine looks out towards the uninhabited Rabbit Islands with their lovely white beaches. These take their name from the rabbits that were introduced there by the laird in 1790, as a source of meat. Sgeir an Oir lies to their north with its natural rock arch. Of the small islands in Tongue Bay, the largest is Eilean nan Ron, populated until 1931 but now home to large numbers of seabirds and grey seals who mass here every autumn to pup.



Kyle Of Tongue

Causeway

There was a ferry across the Kyle of Tongue until 1971 when a long low bridge replaced the road that went around the southern end of the Kyle. The bridge is 201 yards long and linked to the eastern side by a heavily-engineered causeway.

Kyle of TongueWe parked near the bridge and walked down on the sand, where there are often flocks of waders such as redshank and herons. The scene with Ben Hope and Ben Loyal looming over the water was stunning.

Kyle of TongueIn 1746, a ship carrying £13,000 in gold coins to fund Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, fled into the Kyle of Tongue to evade a Royal Navy frigate. The crew took the gold ashore in an effort to carry it overland to its destination, but the Mackays, who were government supporters, caught them. They threw the gold into a loch but most of it was later recovered by the government.



Tongue


Castle VarrichThe name comes from the Norse word "tunga" or tongue of land projecting into the loch. From the village a footpath leads to Castle Varrich, a roofless tower reputed to have been a Viking lookout but more likely to be of 14th century origin.

TongueTongue is an attractive village with some imposing stone buildings. In the village is a roughcast, gabled church built in 1680 and dedicated to St Andrew. The church has a 'laird's loft, or boxed wooden gallery where the laird and his family worshipped, once used by chiefs of the Clan MacKay, who dominated the area.

About 8 miles east of Tongue is the Forestry Commission's Borgie Forest, a conifer plantation with some of the tallest trees in Sutherland. There is a unique raised beach and uncommon mountain plants grow almost down to sea level.



Bettyhill


Torrisdale BayFarr BayIn the middle of rocky moorland, Bettyhill overlooks the impressive expanse of sand dunes in Torrisdale Bay on one side, and the rock framed sandy beach of Farr Bay on the other.

The village may have developed as a result of the Clearances. The Strathnaver Valley runs south to Altnaharra and was once heavily populated. The Duke of Sutherland evicted his tenants from the valley in the early 19th century, and Elizabeth, the Countess, had a replacement village built near the coast which she named after herself as Bettyhill.

BettyhillFarr stoneAbout 3 miles south of Bettyhill, are chambered cairns, a ruined broch and remains of a pre-Clearance village. Farr Church was built in 1774 and now houses the Strathnaver Museum, with displays on the Clearances and archaelogical treasures from the area. The museum retains the church's pulpit and reader's desk, and has a room with mementos of the Clan MacKay. Outside is a 9th century Celtic cross called the Farr Stone.

ViewpointAt the top of the hill to the east of the village we reached an amazing viewpoint where the surrounding moorland looked much like a moonscape. To improve it even more, the council have built a stone picnic table which we had the delight of using.



Strathy Point


Old road bridgeTravelling east, the hills of Sutherland begin to give way to the fields of Caithness and we were back on roads with white lines. We crossed two burns, Allt Beag and Armadale, both with old and new stone bridges, passed the small bay at Armadale and drove on to Strathy.

StrathyWilliam Honeyman, who was later to become Lord Armadale of Strathy was the first landowner in north Sutherland to forcibly evict his tenant farmers, many of who emigrated to the colonies. Today, Strathy is a tiny community but it still has four churches. The Strathy Stone, a grave marker dating from about 600AD, can be found on a hillside nearby.

Strathy Point LighthouseA turn off from the main road runs north for two miles and ends at the Strathy Point Lighthouse. This was built in 1958, it was the first in Scotland to be run on electricity and was automated in 1996. From the cliffs it is possible to see Cape Wrath to the west, Dunnet Head to the east, and the Orkney islands to the northeast. Straight ahead is the North Pole!

Melvich and PortskerraThe villages of Melvich and Portskerra run together above the dunes of a sandy bay and the Halladale River. On the cliffs a profusion of tiny wild orchids grow in early summer.



CAITHNESS

CaithnessBleak and beautiful Caithness is unhospitable and windy but has been inhabited since the Ice Age. The east is full of prehistoric sites, indicating that a population must have survived on subsistence agriculture and abundant fish. The name was first recorded in 970 as Cait.

The Vikings kept a foothold here from the 9th to the 13th centuries, naming settlements that end in ‘ick’ and ‘ster’. The Normans granted the lands to families from the south, who subsequently formed clans, but the lairds made the biggest impact when they cleared the clansmen to make way for sheep.



Reay


In the 17th century, MacKay of Farr, chief of the clan, took the name of the village and became Lord Reay. The village church was buried by sand dunes for over 100 years and was rebuilt in the 18th century. In the wall in the old burial ground, the Reay Stone probably dates from the10th century.

Sandside BaySandside Bay lies to the north where Pictish and Viking settlements are buried deep beneath the shifting dunes. There is a small harbour on the western side of the bay whose boats fish mainly for cod, coley and lobster.

DounreayDominating the skyline is the 135ft steel sphere of Dounreay nuclear power station, the world's first fast reactor to provide power for public use. The Prototype Fast Reactor at Dounreay was the only one ever built in the UK. In 1994 the PFR was the last of Dounreay's three reactors to cease operation. During its lifetime as an electricity-producing station Dounreay supplied 600 million units of power to the national grid.

DounreayIt was established in 1955 at a disused wartime airfield and at its peak 3500 people were employed. It is now being decommissioned and it is expected to be 2060 before the site is cleaned of all nuclear material and the restoration is expected to cost £4 billion.

Historic Scotland has agreed to make the famous Dounreay dome a Listed Building. In the meantime, there is a visitor centre that runs public tours.



Scrabster


Chapel of St Mary A minor road leads to Crosskirk, a tiny hamlet with a pebbly bay and the remains of the 12th century Chapel of St Mary. Dotted around are the remains of cairns and brochs and an ancient well.

Scrabster ferryScrabster was developed for the export of Caithness flagstones when the arrival of the railway to Thurso in 1874 led to boom times for the industry.

Holborn Head lighthouseToday it is virtually a westward extension of Thurso and the port operates vehicle ferries to Stromness on Orkney and there is a new fish market and a nice lighthouse on the cliffs at Holborn Head.



Thurso


Thurso riverThis is mainland Britain's most northerly town and end of the line for the railway network. It’s origins are revealed in its Viking name, meaning Thor's River. The Vikings used the river as a port and fishing base until the 13th century, when it became Scotland's chief port for trade with Scandinavia. Oats and barley were shipped out from here and later, beef, hides, fish and timber as well. In the 1950s the population trebled with the opening of Dounreay nuclear power station.

Thurso CastleSt.PetersThe remains of the 13th century Church of St Peter stand near the restored fishing quarter of Fisherbiggins and the ruin of Thurso Castle lies on the shore, a mile north of the town. It was never a stronghold, but the residence of the Ulbster branch of the Sinclairs.

Thurso beachDuring the Second World War a sea-mine exploded nearby making the castle unsafe. Beyond the castle stands Harold's Tower, built over the grave of Earl Harold, once owner of half of Caithness, who fell in battle in 1196.

Sir John SinclairA statue in the main square commemorates Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who played a major part in agricultural improvements of the 18th and 19th centuries. He built Thurso's Georgian ‘New Town’, with wide streets laid out in a grid pattern and much of the original pattern of both old and new towns remains.

In the evening, we walked down to the promenade and on the small beach with views towards Scrabster and Orkney.



Castletown


Caithness flagstones As we were staying on a campsite at Dunnet, it took about 50 minutes to walk across the sands to Castletown to stock up on provisions. The walls of the fields and gardens in many settlements around here are all made of Caithness flagstones, as the rock is easily split for paving.

The village was laid out as a planned settlement by James Traill, Sheriff of Caithness, in 1825 and was created to provide accommodation for the workers in the flagstone quarries.

Flagstone CentreThe development of cheaper concrete virtually destroyed the trade and the workings in Castletown closed, but an industrial trail from the Flagstone Centre follows the course of the stone from quarry to shipment from the harbour.

HarbourThe harbour was built specifically to allow the processing and shipping of flags. The stump of a windmill remains, which was used to drain water from the nearby quarry and pump it to a dam to produce power to drive the sawmills. The arrival of steam power in the 1860s rendered the windmill redundant. In 1818, Traill also built a mill to grind corn from the surrounding area and the large ruin of this can still be seen.



Dunnet


Dunnet BayDunnet Bay
Dunnet Bay is a glorious beach backed by sand dunes and inhabited by many sea birds, including a great skuar that seemed very interested in us. There is a natural history visitor centre at the northern end and our campsite was almost on the beach.

Mary Ann's CottageDunnet is set between the bay and the the cliffs of Dunnet Head to its north. We paid a visit to Mary-Anne's Cottage, which was the home of Mary-Anne Calder until she was 93 in 1990. It is still as it was when she left, a farming croft, built by her grandfather in the first half of the 19th century.

Dunnet HeadThe road to Dunnet Head winds uphill over tussocky moorland with many lochans. You can see the remains of structures built during the second world war to help defend the naval base at Scapa Flow in Orkney. This is the real most northerly point on the British mainland – not John o’Groats. The head offers superb views, from Cape Wrath to Duncansby and overlooks the Orkney Islands. Dunnet lighthouse

The lighthouse with its familiar black, yellow and white colours, stands more than 300ft above the sea. It was built in 1832 but the ferocity of the Pentland Firth is such that windows have been damaged by stones thrown up by the sea.



Brough


PierThe single track road back from Dunnet Head leads through the little hamlet of Brough before emerging onto the main road at Dunnet.

Little ClettHere, are particularly good views of Little Clett, a grass-covered sea stack, noisy with birds. The pier in the little rocky bay, was built in the early 19th century to serve boats taking supplies to Dunnet Head and other isolated lighthouses, before helicopters and automation.



Mey


Kirk of St DrostanEast of Mey, at Kirkstyle, is the Old Canisbay Kirk of St Drostan, whose oldest parts date from the 15th century. A grave slab in the porch is dedicated to the memory of members of the Groot family and inside is a memorial to Jan de Groot, who started the ferry service to Orkney in 1496. Off St John's Point, the Men of Mey is a fearsome sight when the ebb tide throws water 30 or 40 ft high.

Castle of MeyThe Castle of Mey opened to visitors this week, so we were lucky. It was built by George, 4th Earl of Caithness, and it became the family seat for the next 100 years and then passed through various hands.

Castle of Mey gardenIn 1952, The Queen Mother saw the Castle while staying with friends at their House on Dunnet Head. Despite its poor condition, she purchased it and set about renovating both the Castle and its gardens.

Castle of Mey gardenIn 1996 she handed the castle, its 2000 acre estate and her prize-winning herd of Aberdeen Angus over to a charitable trust to make their future secure.

The gardens were one of her favourite places during her annual August and October visits. I sat on the her favourite garden bench. It is a lovely quaint building, very homely and modest and we had a smashing tour inside. Pentland ferry

The Pentland vehicle ferry for St.Margaret's Bay on Orkney leaves from Gills Bay.



John o' Groats


John o' Groats House HotelJohn o' Groats is named after Jan de Groot, an immigrant Dutchman who was commissioned by James IV in 1496 to set up a ferry service to Orkney. De Groot's original octagonal house is now no more than a grassy mound supporting a flagstaff.

First and Last houseIt is a jumble of houses and hotels with a newish tourist information centre and a community of high quality craft shops. The Last House in Scotland Museum exhibits local memorabilia and photographs of shipwrecks in the Pentland Firth, and has displays relating to life on the nearby island of Stroma.

End to end lineThe white Gothic John o' Groats House Hotel has been closed for several years now and is earmarked for renovation by the business who also own Land’s End. We must have been some of the last visitors when we stayed there in 1996. Fortunately the hotel's bar remains open so we were able to enjoy a pint and a game of pool.

John o’Groats VikingI like John o’Groats, despite it looking a bit miserable on a bad day and we had the pleasure of being one of the few motorhomes parked on the cliffs in the campsite. At least you don’t have to pay to get near it like you do at Land’s End – and I hope the horror of all that razzmatazz never reaches this far.

Had to be done!We decided to have our photo taken by the official photographer to match our Land’s End picture – 567 miles home – and take our own silly photos on the ‘Start/Finish’ line.

John o’Groats ferryThere is still a passenger ferry service to South Ronaldsay and now there is a car ferry from Gills Bay, a few miles to the west. Unfortunately the latter was broken down so we had our booking cancelled and had to take the foot ferry for a day trip instead. (See Northern Isles).



Duncansby Head


Duncansby Head lighthouseGeo of SclaitesDuncansby Head is the north eastern tip of the Scottish mainland and is quite striking. The lighthouse on the headland guards the entrance to the Pentland Firth, built in 1924 and automated in 1997. The keepers' accommodation now serves a range of functions from private homes through guest houses to kennels.

A short walk over the highest part of the surrounding landscape, behind the lighthouse, leads to 200 ft cliffs. The first sight is of the Geo of Sclaites, a huge flower covered cleft bitten deeply into the cliffs. We looked down on thousands of nesting sea birds, gannets, fulmars, skuas, guillemots and puffins. The noise was tremendous.

Duncansby StacksFurther on and we encountered views of Thirle Door and Duncansby Stacks, carved out of the sandstone cliffs, with a path descending to a shingle beach. At low tide it is possible to walk through a natural doorway in these formations that are remnants of an ancient cliff line eroded by the sea.



Aukengill


Viking Centreaukengill harbourThis is a farming area on the coast with great views. The Northlands Viking Centre covers local history from prehistoric times through the Pictish era to the late Norse period.

Sited nearby is a Broch belonging to a period much earlier than the Vikings.



Keiss


Old Keiss CastleA 3 mile beach edging Sinclair's Bay forms the most extensive stretch of sands on the Caithness coast. A quayside warehouse built in 1831 was once a store for salt, barrels, nets and fish and catches were preserved in the nearby ice-house.

Keiss CastleKeiss Castle occupies one of the most dramatic locations on the top of sheer cliffs overlooking the sea at the northern end of Sinclair’s Bay. It looks as though it is about to fall off the cliff and great care should be taken as it is in a dangerous state.

Like so many other properties in the area, it belonged to the Sinclairs and was abandoned in 1755 in favour of a mansion, just behind it.



Noss Head

Ackergill TowerOn the southern shore of Sinclair's Bay stands Ackergill Tower. The earliest part dates back to the 1400's when an oblong house was built by the Keith family. In the early 1600's Ackergill passed to the Sinclairs, Earls of Caithness, but they neglected the building and it became run down.

Castle Girnigoe Noss Head lies at the south-eastern end where two old fortresses balance precariously on cliffs. Built by the Sinclairs, Castle Girnigoe dates from the 15th century and was a crow stepped gabled tower house with a three or four storey keep.

Castle Sinclair was added in 1606 on the site of the earlier courtyard and although it offered a much higher standard of accommodation, it is now in a very ruined state. The two castles were separated by a rock cut ravine spanned by a wooden bridge.

The Campbells of Glenorchy briefly occupied the castle after emerging victorious from a battle with the Sinclairs. In 1690, George Sinclair of Keiss removed the Cambells by force, partially destroying the castle in the process. In recent years the ownership of the castle has been returned to the Earls of Caithness, and it is currently undergoing major preservation work.


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