Press release from OneKind (1st March 2021)
Protections for mountain hares have come into force from today, in what campaigners are calling National Mountain Hare Day. The new regulations mean that it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares without a licence.
The following is worth a read, I’m just spreading the word. We can only cross our fingers and hope the powers that be will enact this regulation on Scottish grouse moors. I always worry when it starts mentioning “a licence”National mountain hare day! — Raptor Persecution UK
I hope this will be my last post for now on the ills of the grouse moor. I’ve recently tried to highlight raptor persecution and today want to bring to your attention the vast losses of other wild life occuring on grouse moors. The more the public become aware of these killings the more the pressure on politicians. So read the article, spread the news and sign the petition.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent animals – foxes, stoats, weasels, and hedgehogs, as well as birds are killed in traps and snares on Scottish grouse moors every year. This is having a massive environmental impact as these moors cover a fifth of the land in Scotland. The same is happening in the rest of the UK.
There is a petition to sign here.
A recent article in The Yorkshire Times by David Goff is worth reading. https://yorkshiretimes.co.uk/nature
It’s time I got out to do some some walking…
Inverness to John O’Groats – 147 miles of coastal walking.
A trail of two halves, not just the way I did it but geographically also. The first half to Helmsdale is rural walking often along the shoreline whereas the northern half is rugged cliff top walking. Over the years many LEJOG walkers have ended up walking the dreaded A9 to finish their Odyssey which must be an anti-climax. Local walkers, Caithness Waybaggers, started looking at a coastal route away from the road and an American Jay Wilson who’d settled in the area became enthused by the idea. In 2016 a charity was established to promote the walk – Friends of the John O’Groats Trail and they have their own website http://www.jogt.org.uk/
Volunteers have worked hard on researching and way-marking a route, with more funding stiles and bridges have started to appear and the route is getting publicity and more people are walking it. A ranger, Jim Bunting, has been appointed with funding for a year which will help push things forward.
I first became aware of the route last year when I was planning a week’s walking to help complete my own personal LEJOG walk which I’d been doing for over 50years without realising it. I’d recently finished off gaps down in the west country and was left with the way north of Inverness. So last summer I set off from Inverness with the main idea of staying off the A9, it was only when on the way that I fell into step with the JO’GTRAIL. Waymarks were rare but the walking was easy, mainly on small lanes and tracks with lots along the low coastline – lovely sandy beaches which could be used at low tides for easy walking and a quick swim when needed. Seals were constant companions along the coast. There was a bed at the end of every stage. I was enthused.
Fast forward almost a year, interrupted by illness, and I’m back on the trail. This time I have a Harveys Map which I hardly used – too small a scale for my eyes, but more importantly a draft guide from the powers that be. This was a work of art, Wainwright style, which will hopefully come to publication. [I’ve donated to the cause for the use of it and whatever else] I worry about commercial intrusions from the likes of Cicerone. The volunteers who have put so much into the route deserve their guide to be definitive.
A lot changed in a year and waymarking is coming on a treat. They have adopted an octagonal emblem reflecting the octagonal house of the legendary Jan de Groot and his brothers, Dutchmen of the 15th century who plied a ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, Their house was one room, with eight windows and eight doors, to admit eight members of the family; the heads of different branches of it, to prevent their quarrels at the table.
This northern half of the trail is ‘not for the inexperienced’ as is the mantra – a trail in progress.
Despite the main road being within a few miles inland you feel very isolated on the cliffs. Many fences have to be climbed without stiles as yet, lots of barbed wire to rip your best Gortex pants to bits. Depending on which side of the fence you find yourself there are the dangers of frisky risky cattle or crumbling cliff edges.
Crossing rivers can be a challenge depending on rainfall and tides. I was impressed by some of the bridge-building that has recently taken place. I was also impressed by the depth of fast-flowing water on other unbridgeable burns. Take care!
Despite all that this trail is an experience not to be missed. The geology is amazing, the birdlife incredible, the flora unique, whales and dolphins common sights, historical sites around every headland, the local population welcoming. The geos [sea inlets] are outstanding even if they seem to double the distance of each day’s walk. The little simple harbours, most long ago abandoned, are evocative of the herring fishing industry of the 18/20th centuries. A novel by Neil M Gunn, a native of Dunbeath, The Silver Darlings refers to the sight of the masses of fish visible to clifftop watchers. As the shoals were spotted small boats would be launched from the harbours to maximise the haul.
What more do you want?
I can foresee that once established and trodden [the summer bracken growth is a problem] this will become one of the most sought after challenging walks in Britain. I’m glad I walked it in its infancy for the adventure it provided.
Now, what about JOG to Cape Wrath?
The same bus driver picked me up this morning as had transported me back yesterday, he was keen to know where I was heading today. By the time he dropped me off at Nybster we were on first name terms, they’re a friendly lot up here.
Walking down to the small harbour the weather was awful, maybe I’d misjudged the forecast. Anyhow I was on my way. There were a couple of geo’s and the odd sea stack for starters though the rain was getting on the camera lens.
By now the rain had thankfully stopped but the wind remained strong.
Lovely open walking around Ness Head brought Freswick Bay into view. On a sea stack fulmars were kings of their castle. The other house/tower/castle call it what you like has Norse origins which are normal in Caithness. I was able to wade a stream, have lunch and then walk leisurely across the beach towards Skirza Head.
A diversion sign took me on minor roads to avoid some clifftop properties although I was tempted to go direct. Maybe access negotiations are delicate so I didn’t want to inflame matters. At least I didn’t end up in the field with this chap.
Rough and dramatic walking along the cliffs covered in Sea Thrift, it seemed to take me an age to get around Skirza Head and a couple of geos. There were lots of seabirds on the cliffs with guillemots doing their best penguin impersonations.
Open boggy moorland lay ahead and then the impressive Stacks of Duncansby held my attention for some time. I came round Duncansby Head below the lighthouse and joined the masses milling about in a car park. Some were whale watching. Stroma, Hoy and South Ronaldsay were just visible in the mist.
I left the road as quick as I’d joined it and took a bearing across the open moor to the Bay of Sannick, I was the only person on its beach. A bit of scrambling around the headland, Ness of Duncansby, and I was on a made gravel path heading straight to the circus of John O’Groats.
A couple from the Wirral took my picture at the appropriate signs, I bought a postcard for my old walking buddy Mel who is now on kidney dialysis, enquired without joy at the TI office about bus times, had a coffee from the kiosk who gave me the correct bus times – one in 5 minutes.
I’m now in Thurso for the evening before a long train journey home tomorrow and reflections on my journey.
No not me reaching J O’Groats – but a short walk past some historic sites.
I woke early. uneasy about the weather. The forecast had been dire with heavy rain and strong winds and looking out of my window that’s just how it was. I wanted to enjoy Duncansbury Head and my arrival at JO’Groats so some quick decision making came into action at breakfast.
“May I stay an extra night here?” – “No problem”
“May I change my reservation with you to tomorrow night?” – “No problem”
“What are the bus times?” – ” ??? ”
Decision made, between mouthfuls of Muesli. I would do a short walk and hopefully catch a bus back and hope tomorrow is better.
There was nobody out on the coast this morning, not that I’ve met many people all week. Just after the small harbour of Keiss there was a Broch. The information board suggested that it had been of some importance in the Middle Iron Age. I was unimpressed by the pile of stones.
The cliffs are low now and the rock strata giving horizontal beds exposed at low tide. The path ran outside fields and one enthusiastic sheepdog ran alongside protecting his patch, I was hoping the fence was intact.
By now I was soaked and suddenly realised I’d dropped my camera somewhere so it was back about a mile to eventually find it near a stile I’d had difficulty negotiating. At one point I was obviously on the wrong side of the fence when I had to balance along the top of a slippery wall hanging on to the barbed wire. Everything’s getting wetter and wetter including my camera.
Then the larger Nybster Broch appeared, here one could clearly see the circular structures. Nearby was an impressive monument to Sir Francis Tress who had excavated the site in the 1890s. There were a couple of other monuments nearby, for what reason I don’t know.
I was cold and wet but soon on a bus back to the comfort of my hotel. A drink in the bar at lunchtime was entertaining listening to the locals, though every other Scottish word seems to begin with an F.
Well rested for tomorrow.
A dreich day on Sinclair Bay.
Not so many photos today, it rained.
Near my b&b in the old part by the harbour was a building – Telford House, further research shows that the famous engineer and architect Thomas Telford designed the area, Lower Pulteneytown, and harbour which allowed the herring industry to flourish from the beginning of the 19th century.
Wick is also in the Guinness Book of Records for having the shortest street in the world. Ebenezer Place is just 6ft 9in long. The street is one end of the Mackays Hotel built in 1883 by Alexander Sinclair who returned to Scotland having made his fortune in America.
Nonetheless I can’t say I was sorry to leave Wick, maybe I’m being harsh.
In view of the weather I had thought of taking a short cut on roads to Ackergill but the guide suggested it would be a shame to miss Noss Head and Castle Sinclair.
The forecast was for rain all day but as I walked along to Staxigoe it was the wind causing discomfort rather than the light drizzle. I used the shelter of a bus stop to weatherproof myself for the rest of the day. The little harbour at Staxigoe had all the usual features of an old herring port but there was also an unusual barometer pole from 1850 to help the fishermen gauge the conditions at sea, fairly bleak today.
Walking on the road led to Noss Farm, the guide mentions a sign ‘Walkers Welcome’, it’s covered over – I wonder what happened? Some pleasant cliff walking followed, although the cliffs are much lower the scenery is still very dramatic. Grey seals lazed on the flat rocks and in the bay their heads were bobbing above the waves. A couple of geos were passed with small flat sea stacks.
The way towards the lighthouse was across marshy ground with several varieties of orchids growing. No idea what they are.The lighthouse is still operational and has its own letterbox with a quirky sign, where else would you find this – must be a lovely community around here.
When I saw Castle Sinclair Girnigoe ahead the longer route was vindicated. An impressive and evocative structure in a stunning setting. It has a long and varied history as is common with these Scottish outposts. The powerful Sinclair family were residents from the early 14th century to the mid 17th century. By now the wind was bringing in heavy showers so it was head down across the fields to Ackergill Haven. Up the lane was a scattering of houses and what looked like a village hall, wondering about some shelter I approached the open door to find an active gym with people doing their stuff. It seemed incongruous out in this remote place.
There was a private driveway leading to Ackergill Tower, a stately looking building possibly a shooting lodge, surrounded by high walls. I found a relatively sheltered corner with a picnic table, perfect for lunch.
At this stage I was still relatively dry but once out of the shelter of the estate buildings the way went onto exposed sand dunes. Ahead in the mist was a golf clubhouse and I had visions of hot coffee, alas all was locked – no golf today.
Pushing on I was able to avoid the taxing ups and downs of the sand dunes and walk along the beach, it was a long beach. The birdlife was different, waders at the water’s edge and terns flying overhead.
I came to the crossing of the River Wester and realised how deep and fast flowing it was on the beach made worse because of high tide. I was prepared to bypass it all together until a little inland the water was wider and I paddled across, I was already soaked anyhow.
The next obstacle was the railway for launching pipelines into the sea.
At Keiss there is a small sheltered harbour and beyond it I could just make out Noss Head back across Sinclair Bay. One can imagine the relief of those fishermen when they returned from stormy seas to harbour. There is not much else here.
Appropriately my lodging is the Sinclair Bay Hotel, cosy and warm with some decent food and ale. The forecast for tomorrow looks grim. Sweat dreams.
I slept in. A relaxed breakfast followed so I didn’t set off till after 10am. There was no rush as it was drizzling slightly, I’d only gone a few fields when I saw a sign for Puffins. Sure enough on a small cliff near the path the little birds were arriving prior to nesting. I made my way along the narrow ledge to relish the experience. Along came the farmer who’d seen my approach, not to admonish me but to engage in good old honest chat. He had an interesting history and was full of information about the locality. Further up the trail as I walked inland he reappeared to take a picture for the JOGTrail Facebook page.
The next few hours were a delight on a mainly good path alongside the continually interesting coastline. Lots of large Geo’s to get round, sea stacks galore and the prolific bird life.
At the massive Broad Geo I met a party coming southwards and found that their leader was no other than Jim, the new path warden, more conversation followed. This was a great spot for bird watching – I told you there was too much to see.
By the time I arrrived at Old Wick Castle my enthusiasm was waning. It is one of the oldest castles in Scotland, though originally built in the early 12th century by Norse kings who then ruled Caithness, it was well situated between defensive geos.
My simple b and b by the harbour had the steepest stairs up to the second floor, no pity on the weary.
Wick town centre was a little run down but I managed to find a cheerful Italian for supper.
Accommodation – Harbour Guest House, 6 Rose Street.
For this section the guide keeps mentioning to look back at the views – so I often did. A reminder that if the sea is on the right in my photos I’m heading North, if on the left I’m looking South.
Halfway through breakfast my landlady was called away by a friend who’s car had broken down, leaving me to fend for myself. On her return we put the world to rights so I didn’t leave till after 10.30 with a gift of two hardboiled eggs in my pocket. I walked down that main street like John Wayne, everyone stayed indoors.
The first stile just out of the village seemed to have been appropriated from a swimming pool. After crossing a small burn I was on the cliffs using a tortuous path, more of a narrow sheep trod. I realised that keeping within the narrow line made me walk like a catwalk model. The day was just clearing and the views opening up.
In the first large geo [sea inlet] was an abandoned building presumably related to the herring trade of the 18/19 centuries. The first of several small harbours and geos which all involved a considerable inland detour and descent/ascent to cross streams.
Back on the cliff top the roller coaster ride continued with lots of stacks and arches along the way. One of the finest stacks had a stone cairn on its summit implying an ascent in the past. Everywhere were birds mainly fulmars, kitiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and shags.
Back on slightly lower cliffs the path was easier to follow towards a disused lighthouse and it was here I saw a pair of Orcas, actually I heard their blowing first and then watched them swimming away only surfacing occasionally. Along this stretch were several skerries, low rocks off the coast, The rock strata here is much more horizontal ideal for drying cormorants and a diving shag.
Line Geo was spectacular and the cliff edge path getting round it equally so. The cliff ledges are home to thousands of birds, the noise is deafening in some of the geos. Kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots.
Another hairy crossing of a large geo on a narrow track. More sea stacks and and caves followed. This is possibly the best days walking so far and I was enjoyingmyself. More was to come in the next mile with Long Gate Geo showing outstanding hidden depths.
After that I was lost in gorse bushes and dropped too low down the cliff slope. My first attempt of climbing back up through the inpenetrable gorse led to retreat and a further detour that left me scrambling up the very edge of the deep Red Geo. I thakfully came out close to the A99 road. The final few fields seemed awkward, one final geo and I was glad to see ahead my lodgings for tonight. The famous Whaligoe Steps Cafe, though it looked uninspiring from the outside. The weather was just closing in as I arrived, I can’t believe I’ve only walked 7 miles, a lot has happened.
I was made very welcome by John and Edna and their two Highland Terriers, an Aswam tea revived me sufficiently to go down the 300+ Whaligoe steps to the original herring harbour in the geo. It was a quiet low tide and all was tranquility. I sat and was able to watch some of the birds at close quarters.
Climbing back up those steps I thought of the women carrying baskets of herrings to the store which is now the cafe.
I dined well on authentic Ramen noodles.
Harbour to harbour.
I awoke early and looked out onto the camping site, the backpacking lady had broken camp and was well on the way, never to be seen again. The eclectic international selection of camping vans were asleep.
The sea mist was in as I left the B and B and wandered down to the little harbour. In a shed there was a restored fishing craft used in these parts in the 18 – 19th centuries, the heyday of the herring fishing industry. Old pictures showed the harbours on this coast packed with these vessels. I can’t imagine going out to rough seas in one of these small boats. Further along was an old ice house for storing the fish.
The day’s climbing began up onto the first headland. The cliffs along this stretch were rugged and varied with sea stacks and arches. The path was close, often too close, to the edge giving spectacular views down. The walking was easier than the last two days and I made good progress with time to stare.
Further along where the path moved into inland fields the guide suggested walking on the road to avoid cattle. I was only too pleased to conform as I don’t like meeting bulls. The A9 was surprisingly quiet and I walked on for maybe half a mile then realised I was cut off from the coastal path by a high deer fence which took some precarious manoevers to overcome. I crossed a field towards the coast passing perhaps some ancient stones only to find myself up against another deer fence.
My climbing technique had improved and I was soon back on route on a much gentler, lower cliff top still with lovely inlets and stacks. The weather was improving and the sun had burnt back the mist.
I was now approaching Latheronwheel harbour and a few more walkers were out. A track lead down and over a surprisingly sturdy bridge onto the road which climbed towards the village. I took off at a bend to regain the headland with more sea stacks.
Back on the open cliff tops there was a strange stone structure, not marked on the map, perhaps a beacon or lookout. I had a rest and snack on Robbery Head taking in the views up the coast and watching the birdlife. Looking back at the cliffs there were some amazing foldings in the rocks. There’s certainly plenty to see on this walk.
The day was moving on and there were still more ups and downs ahead. The next down was over the Forse Burn and then up to a headland with the precarious looking remains of the medieval Forse Castle. It reminded me of that game where you remove a brick without it all falling down – Jenga. Below was a beach with a ruined building, presumably related to the herring fishing. I was tempted to drop down to investigate when I met a mother with two lads who were going down using a fixed rope, it all looked very exciting.
Rough ground followed below Swiney Hill. I found a seat and fine viewpoint above Lybster bay. Then soon I was above Lybster harbour, the last of the day, as a little boat came in probably from visiting lobster pots.
A shop next to my friendly b and b provided supper. I’ve just found my first tick despite being extra cautious.
Accommodation – Bolton House B & B Main St Lybster
The excellent weather of yesterday couldn’t last and I spent most of today in drizzle, not that it mattered much as I was looking below at the cliffs and all the birdlife.
Yesterday’s bus driver welcomed me aboard for the short trip back to Berriedale,I was the only one alighting. I avoided the temptation of the cafe and made my way down to the harbour, I don’t think many boats tie up here. A bouncy suspension bridge crosses over to a row of cottages above the rocky bay. Proper ornithologists have their telescopes trained on the conveniently placed cliffs, I spot kittiwakes through my pocket binoculars but fulmars are also pointed out to me. The waves are crashing into the shingle beach.
A green path heads up towards a small cemetery but there I become lost in earthworks for another straightening of the A9, as if it is not fast enough already. My frustration is tempered with good views back down to the harbour. A bit of bashing through gorse soon has me back on track but on the wrong side of a fence which can create a problem.
Once on the clifftop I kept mostly outside of fences and walls – this was proper cliff walking – right on the edge. A good head for heights is useful in some places and I wouldn’t like to be here in a gale.
The Bluebells are late flowering up here and they give a colourful show with Pink Campions and Greater Stitchwort
In rough land there was someone’s private bird hide, I imagined the owners bragging at a cocktail party “oh we have our own private hide – don’t you?” It did have a fantastic view though. A little further just entering some trees was a box containing a signing-in book for the trail, only about 25 had done so this year.
Through a high cliff the Allt na Buaidhe stream tumbles in a spectacular waterfall, it was a bit short of water today.
I worked my way round to the valley of the stream where there was a new footbridge to cross. Strangely a path had been strimmed to the very edge of the falls, a every dangerous spot, Samaritans help number needed, but good views back to that small sea arch. You would have to lie on your stomach to look over at the waterfall – I didn’t.
The going became difficult in long rough grass with only faint sheep trods to follow. However a group of sheep startled by me proceeded ahead creating a path as they went – a good idea for helping open up the trail.
The gates to Dunbeath Castle are not overly friendly to walkers, a lot of these estates have been bought by rich foreigners who would like to keep the likes of us off the land. I didn’t get the feeling that there was much opposition to this denial of the right to walk wherever as allowed by Scottish law. Maybe time for a mass tresspass.
That felt like a long short day.
Accommodation – Inver Park House B & B
Baptism of fire.
As soon as I was on my way this morning the familiar sounds and smells of the coast came flooding back. I was glad to be here though this is supposed to be the most arduous day of the whole trail.
A gentle stroll along from the harbour, just above the beach, and then at a ruin a sudden dog leg climb towards Navidale, a few houses and a cemetery. For the rest of the day I was well above the sea but it was ever-present. The Ord of Caithness was prominent ahead, I am in Caithness for the rest of the trail.
Easy walking through rough fields was tempered by the lack of waymaking on this stretch. Apparently some landowners don’t want markings but you are still free to walk across their land in Scottish Law. There were a few small burns to cross and then indistinct trods climbed gorse slopes to meet a more distinct track heading back down again. You could easily get lost hereabouts. Somewhere along here a couple of WW2 lookout huts were passed and waymark posts appeared. The Ord burn was easily crossed and then height gained steeply into the moorland of Ord of Caithness. Fairly random trails across damp moorland were followed almost to the A9 road and yet I felt a long way from civilisation.
The sounds of the sea were still prominent despite being well above it. Below was the green table, a flat promontory and site of an ancient fort. A secluded bay to its north gave an idea of the birdlife to come.
The ground became boggier but as there has been little rain in the last two weeks it was pleasant to walk on rather than troublesome. A burn was followed gently downhill past ruined buildings from the 19th century and a recognisable broch from the iron age with its chambered entrances.
Over the next steep stile the ground dropped away alarmingly into the deep ravine of Ousdale Burn. Attempts are in progress at building wooden steps but for now I was grateful for the trees I could swing off [opening photo]. Eventually down the burn was no problem as a bridge has been recently erected, there is a surprisingly large amount of new infrastructure appearing. I must make a donation to the charity responsible, I suspect a lot is a labour of love.
Of course it was steep up the other side of the ravine.
Sheep trods weaved over the headland between the gorse bushes, a tough section. Then there were the ruined buildings of Badbea and there in front was the monument to honour the tough families forced off the land in exchange for more profitable sheep. Life at Badbea would have been harsh, many residents emigrated in search of a better life and the memorial commemorates many of them. A good spot for some lunch. Having seen nobody all day suddenly people started appearing from nowhere, well actually the close-by A9, all attracted by the ‘clearance village’ signs.
Easy walking on heathery tracks continued over the headlands, if not quite on the edge of the cliffs close enough to hear and see more seabirds. Inland were the Caithness hills with the conical peak of Morven, at 706m the highest, in the background.
More headlands appeared ahead but I’d done enough for today. The harbour of Berriedale was below and dropping down to the A9 I headed for the renowned River Bothy tearooms for tea and cake whilst waiting for a bus to take me to my B and B in the scattered village of Dunbeath.
Its been a long day and fortunately I didn’t go far astray in sometimes difficult terrain. A good start to my week and not as arduous as I was expecting mainly because the bracken has only just unfurled, wait till it’s head high.
Accommodation – Inver Park House B & B
This was the penulitmate section of my 50 odd years linking Lands End to John O’Goats on foot.
I realised the trail was in the process of being developed by a gang of volunteers and I had little information. Most of the time I was able to walk at my will on beaches and minor roads in the general south to north direction. Occasionally I came across white waymarks and stiles showing the proposed route.
For this next part of the trail there are warnings of difficult walking over rough pathless ground, awkward or non existent stiles [take thick gardening gloves to negotiate the barbed wire], ticks and cattle, high summer vegetation [carry a sickle],dangerous river crossings but also dramatic cliff tops, sea arches and stacks, abundant bird life, historic harbours and welcoming villages.
Can’t wait to get started.
I’ve a train ticket to Helmsdale, a 10hr journey, where I’m booked into the friendly Belgrave Arms. The forecast is good . It’s time to complete the trail.
As I passed through the highlands I couldn’t help but notice how what had been pony tracks were now harsh landrover highways. On reflection it must be 20 years since I’ve climbed a Munro.
After Inverness the train followed part of the coast I walked last year and I even spotted a backpacker heading north . I’m now waiting for my meal in the hotel with gorgeous evening light across the bay. I can’t help but notice the gorse covered hills looming up above the coast – tomorrow morning’s start.
For reference in my subsequent posts if the sea is on the right in photos I’m heading north if it’s on the left I’m looking back.
The route description “Sections on railway embankment are stony and narrow, overgrown vegetation and long grass make the going difficult in places, Loth Burn requires wading (could be impassable in spate conditions) ” was not encouraging and I thought I was in for a long day.
I enjoyed a sociable breakfast with my hosts and managed that lift up the road to where I’d left off yesterday which gave me a good start. The tide was out so I was able to walk on the beach which in most places was easier than the poor track. The first stretch of sand was a joy seemingly going on for ever. Fresh boot imprints in the sand suggested I was not alone today and sure enough I caught up with a couple walking to Helmsdale. They are on their last stretch of a LEJOG pilgrimage over several years using a campervan backup. This time they have walked from the Southern Uplands and actually married in Peebles en-route. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and kept overlapping all day. These were the only ‘serious walkers’ I’d met all week and yet within an hour a couple appeared coming the other way with heavy rucksacs. They had only just started on their end to end and were not complimentary about the JO’G Trail further north which they’d found virtually impassable.
The beach varied from sandy to rocky and from time to time I had to scramble up into the dunes adjacent to the railway, on one of these occasions I disturbed a sizeable adder which slithered off into the grass.
Intermittently along the coast were groups of common seals both in the water and out on rocks. They were ‘talking’ amongst themselves or was it to me? a haunting sound. There was also an abundance of bird life but without binoculars only the commoner species were recognised.
Halfway along there was a better track in the dunes which took me past some caravans on an informal site. Outside one of these was Julie who invited me for a morning coffee. We sat in her ‘garden’ as she told me about her life there overlooking the sea. Very self-sufficient she’d slowly added to her encampment with storage vans, sheds, chairs and tables, barbeques etc. As I left she was about to start cutting up her winter wood supply, I imagine winters here can be pretty bleak.
The crossing of the burns was no problem today with all the dry weather and being on the beach. One had to take the rough with smooth as some of the beaches became extremely rocky. This added interest in itself with the variety of rocks. Many were of a conglomerate granite, probably technically breccia, almost artificial in appearance. There were also black rocks that looked suspiciously like coal – I found out later that there was a coal mine in the past at Brora.Many bays later the route used a level crossing to climb into the hamlet of Portgower. Some nice wee cottages ideal for a quiet life. This village was just off the A9 which was crossed and then little lanes climbed into the countryside to find a quiet way into Helmsdale which was seen below with its prominent harbour. On the way in was another of those clock tower war memorials. Theres not a lot to Helmsdale once you’ve walked round the harbour and up the main street.
My hotel was central and characterful. The dining room something from the 60’s but with some good food and the bar had a good selection of whiskeys! Veteran motorcyclists [their bikes – not necessarily them] were staying here on their North Coast 500 trip, a scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, which seems to be achieving widespread popularity if not notoriety.
I have to return home for the weekend, so I will be at the station early for a long train journey. The station apparently was an important staging post for troops on the journey up to Thurso and naval bases in both world wars. There were no facilities on the crowded trains so the WVS had a tea stall at the station. Hopefully today’s journey will be more comfortable.
I’ll return to complete the sections up to John O’Groats in the autumn when the vegetation has died back.
A perfect walk.
Breakfast was shared with a man from France who was taking a dog and a cat over to Orkney – that is a long story. The day was perfect – fresh and clear. The trail went out of town past the houses of the former Sutherland estate with their Duke’s statue looking down on them. In the close up photo below the quarry used for stone for the base can be made out. Onto the dunes and a path towards Dunrobin Castle the largest house in the Highlands and once owned by the notorious Duke Of Sutherland. I saw it from below and it did look impressive, I was too early for their falconry display. A bit further on and I diverted up to Dun Liath broch expecting I’d be the only one there but a mini bus pulled in and discharged a group of tourists who were mainly interested in taking selfies of themselves. After they departed I wandered round the 2000 year old ruins in peace. After regaining the shore I dropped onto the beach as the tide was out. There were some interesting rocks covered in seaweed, one reminding me of Dougal the dog from The Magic Roundabout. There were seals on the rocks and exposed sandbanks, their calls were hauntingly human. I arrived into Brora by the harbour area where a few fishing boats were preparing to go out to their lobster pots. Nearby was the old ice house used when the harbour was more prosperous. This coast was famous for its herrings which would have been smoked locally. Up the road was a clock war memorial of unusual design. I lunched in the delightful Linda’s Cafe and enquired about a taxi who could pick me up if I walked a few more miles up the coast, none was available but they suggested I would be able to catch a bus back. So off I went again over the golf course onto the perfect beach for two or three miles. A swim was needed halfway to cool me down. At the end of the golfcourse I clambered over the railway and landed on the A9 where I managed to flag down a bus back to Brora.
My airbnb was good with plenty of time for stimulating conversation with the hostesses and the Jack Russell. There was a private episode in my bedroom when becoming concerned I may have a tick attached to my derrière. I attempted to locate it without the benefit of mirrors with no success until I came up with idea of a selfie from my phone. Eventually I focused in to the right area, a false alarm as it happens, but I hate to think what Google may have done with my images. Now all I have to do is persuade someone to drive me back up the A9 in the morning which will make for an easier day’s walk to Helmsdale.
Around the Fleet.
At one time there was presumably a ferry service at the Little Ferry marked on the map but now a detour is needed to get round the estuary using the A9’s bridge. It was refreshingly cool when I left Embo across the dunes which are apparently threatened by another golf course development. People were out dog walking and it is interesting to see how many are English who have moved up to this part of our land for peace and quiet. Everyone I met had warnings about the local tick population. Before long I’d joined the track of an abandoned railway which gave easy walking. This became tarmacked with the ruined C14 Skelbo Castle visible ahead on an outcrop above the Fleet. It was along this stretch that I also became aware of the prominent monument on Ben Bhraggie which overlooks Golspie. This is the statue to The Duke Of Sutherland who became notorious for the clearances forcing the population to resettle in favour of sheep. Apparently it is 100ft high and was erected in 1837 after the Duke’s death. The monument was a constant landmark for the next couple of days.
The road now followed the coast and there were ample opportunities for seal spotting as they lay up on the exposed sanbanks. These are Common Seals and have a head and tail up posture on land. They have probably just finished rearing their pups. After that pleasant interlude the trail came up against the A9 and entered woodland above the rocky shore. As it is in the making the route was very overgrown and vegetated, I stopped briefly and realised the place was teeming with ticks. I moved on quickly but became paranoid about any slight itch on my exposed skin.
The busy A9 had to be joined to cross a bridge over the River Fleet and was rather dangerous with a narrow verge. Looking down I was thrilled to see salmon leaping from the water. Once over I was glad to escape into a lovely wooded area on a well-marked path which if I had followed all the way would have brought me to the foot of a rock climbing venue, bolted routes on conglomerate rock. Looking back whilst I ate lunch I could see climbers in action and I regretted not having visited. I was back beside the railway line which was followed through fields to a level crossing.
A long narrow road headed back to the coast and into a forest park where I followed a nature trail. Another golf links was crossed on the outskirts of Golspie and then a gentle stroll along the dunes into town.
My homely b and b was on a quiet backstreet and on their recommendation I walked into town to the Fish and Chip restaurant. There were queues in the street for takeaways and the restaurant was full, apparently people come from miles around and I suppose there are a lot of holidaymakers about. Not wanting to wait for ages I visited the reliable Co-op shop for some sandwiches to be eaten on a bench overlooking the harbour. Back at my room a couple of ticks were removed from my legs.
A day of two halves.
Two halves scenically and weather wise. It drizzled in the morning but was hot and sunny for the afternoon.
Breakfast in The Royal was excellent and made entertaining by a group of plonkers on a nearby table. On some sort of group activity holiday the 30somethings were engrossed in laptops and tablets and ignoring the staff. Their ‘leader’ announced that they had to leave at 9am and went off to rouse a couple of late risers. After 8.30 they eventually switched off, almost, their electronic devices and put in complex orders for the cooked breakfast. Not surprisingly they started getting frustrated with the slightest of delays and complaints were put to the waitress who dealt with the little darlings with restrained Scottish aplomb and a wry smile.
After passing the Glenmorangie Distillery little estate lanes were used before dropping down to another brush with the A9 to get across the Dornoch Firth – 30 minutes of fumes and speeding cars. I was glad to clamber down a steep bank onto the shore. The track eventually swung away from the coast onto a road past farms. Bulls guarded the fields and there was some equine presence at some stables. It was along here it started drizzling, so off with my shirt and on with the waterproof. A little further the JO’G Trail was signed into Camore Woods, pine woods standing on a gravel ridge from the ice age. Within this area were several obvious mounds which are the remains of hut circles and chambered cairns 3000 yrs old. A standing stone was seen in a field on the right seemingly reflecting the steeple of Dornoch Cathedral. As an aside I noticed for the first time the sound of rain falling on different trees – almost silent on the pines but waterfall like on the larger deciduous leaves.
Dornoch was busy with tourists, I visited the cathedral with its beautiful vaulted ceiling and then found a little cafe in the square behind for a light lunch. The rain had now stopped, the sun was out and fortified I walked down to Dornoch Royal golf course which has been used for the open in the past. The fairways were narrow between the sand dunes and the bunkers looked horrendous. The track on the edge of the course was directly above the sandy deserted beaches and I couldn’t resist a paddle which turned into a brief refreshing swim.
I was dry by the time I walked through a large camping/caravan park and into the little village of Embo. This was made up of streets of small houses presumably a fishing industry in the past. My B and B for the night was comfortable and peaceful.
It was only in the morning as I left that I noticed all the wall murals in town depicting the history and culture of the area. There is also a distillery on the edge of town, a part of Whyte & Mackay producing grain spirit for the blending industry.
The B817 road along Nigg Bay was almost absent of cars and for some of the way I could use the beach. Oil rigs were prominent in the bay.The villages passed had no facilities so I pushed on and found even quieter lanes inland. The odd cyclist passed me with a cheery greeting [not all cyclists are odd!] A petrol station appeared and an ice cream was purchased.
The A9 was perishingly close but I was able to continue on an old road which was slowly being reclaimed by nature. At its end it was a short hop across the main road to reach the rather isolated Shandwick Arms where I rested over a Belhaven ale and sandwich. Despite being refreshed I soon ran into blocked ways and escaped to fields and barbed wire crossings. Then all was all plain sailing on little used lanes passing small crofts. I didn’t try to join up with the JO’G Trail in the forests which I had heard was difficult. So I was soon dropping into Tain a prosperous looking town just above the Dornoch Firth. It was only in the last few hundred yards that I touched the JO’G Trail. An uneventful day’s walk through very pleasant scenery.
On the outskirts of town today a Highland gathering and games were taking place. My hotel was central and the games continued into the night by the sound of it.
After a breakfast of fresh farm eggs I took the lane dropping down to the Cromarty. The causeway bridge carrying the A9 was plainly visible, it looked a long way across. The traffic was heavy and fast but there was an adequate footway on the verge for my 30 minute crossing. As well as the traffic hazards terns were dive bombing me at the far side. I couldn’t wait to leave the road on the other side and I probably took the wrong path which led me up to the railway but no further. I resorted to trespassing along the line, The Far North Line, for a distance until I reached the level crossing I should have been on. These private level crossings were a frequent feature across the single line railway, there aren’t many trains per day. My track went up to a house and then onto a quiet country lane high above the water so there were good views all morning. The only people using the lanes were cyclists, many on a LEJOG trip. Groups of them were using backup transport which meant they could travel light. The busy A9 was somewhere out of sight and sound.
I arrived in sleepy Evanton at coffee time and the Novar Arms duly obliged. The B817 road was a bit busier but immediately out of the village was a signed cycle path in the trees alongside the road so the continuation was quite pleasant. Interestingly most cyclists persisted on the fast road leaving me to enjoy their cycle route. This gave me time to take in the views and high above me on a hill was the Fyrish Monument. Built in 1782 for Sir Hector Munro lord of the area who had served in India. It represents the Gate of Negapatam, a port in Madras, which General Munro took for the British in 1781. At the time the local population was being cleared off the lands they had worked for centuries to make way for profitable forestry and sheep. Survival was a problem and it is said the folly was built to help keep the locals in labour. The view from up there must be good but no time today. Along the road were signs of the Novar Estate, Sir Hector’s home. now concentrating on tourism of the shooting and fishing variety, somewhere in there is the big house. Out of interest his two sons were both killed in India one by a tiger and the other by a shark! His daughter married and the estate passed into new hands.
The cycle path ran out leaving a stretch on a boring footpath adjacent the busy but safe road into Alness. A thriving little high street on which I found the basic Cafe Picante for a cheese toastie. I got the impression that most of the staff were central European as well as many of the clients. Oh and why do all these villages have so many, mainly Turkish, barbers?
Wanting to lengthen the day I pushed on a further 3 miles or so to Invergordon. This meant leaving the route of JO’G Trail, not that there had been much evidence of signage throughout the day. Again I was lucky as there was a cycleway out of town parallel to the road. I dropped down past the renowned Dalmore Distillerry to the shores of the Cromarty which I followed pleasantly into town. Along here I passed a standing stone marked as a Symbol Stone on the map. This is the Bronze Age Thief’s Stone which has three C6th or C7th Pictish symbols carved on it, I couldn’t make them out. Looking back up the Cromarty I’m fairly sure that is Ben Wyvis in the back ground.
Invergordon was an unpretentious town with a wide high street. It was at one time an important naval base and there are masses of old fuel tanks still on the edge of the houses. Aluminium smelting works closed and the oil rig business was a saviour. As I found later when wandering down to the harbour Cruise ships now call here because of its deep waters. One was being piped out this evening on its way further north.
The Marine Hotel where I stayed benefits from the cruises by the bus drivers and guides staying here, It was basic but friendly.
What had appeared to be a day on lanes turned very pleasant and interesting.
The Black Isle lanes.
A delightful day’s rural walking.
The day started dull and moist but before long brightened up with ever increasing temperatures. From the tranquility of the waterside I ducked under the A9 and followed lanes up onto the Black Isle. It’s not an isle at all, just a peninsula and there doesn’t seem to be an adequate explanation of the ‘black’ bit either. Walking along I had time to award a top 5 of discarded cans in the ditches – Iron Brew, Dr. Pepper, Lucozade, Red Bull and Tenants in that order. Wild flowers also drew my attention in a more positive way. There were wooden signposts which I wasn’t sure related to footpaths or roads. The road I was on soon became a dirt track anyway to isolated farms. At the first the farmer explained to me that the dominant crop on the Isle was potatoes, which weren’t doing well in the draught conditions, there was ample evidence where they went to.
Further on was a croft where the man expressed surprise at my presence, he proceeded to tell me how he existed in this remote place as buzzards wheeled overhead. His 4 wheel drive vehicle was backed up by several identical scrapped versions lying around – “for spares”. He proudly showed me the onward path down to the bay which he personally mows for his own route to the pub. It was therefore a pleasant stroll down to the water’s edge where I met up with the real JO’G Trail which had come through the forests. My hostess had warned me about ticks and in the high vegetation I was becoming paranoid about their presence.
Oyster catchers and Shelducks congregated on the bay. By the time I reached Munlochy village I was hot and sweaty and ready for a drink so the Allangrange Arms was irresistible. The locally brewed [Cromarty Brewery] Happy Chappy pale ale was perfect with a salmon bagel. In the village was an impressive church, unfortunately locked, with its presbytery alongside.
I followed a sign for forest footpaths, birch and pine, to the Clootie Well, a place of pilgrimage where a cloot or rag belonging to a sick person is hung in the hope of a cure. I wasn’t prepared for the vast amounts of rags deposited within a 50 yard radius of the well itself, every tree was festooned.
I used small lanes passing crofts and cattle but no traffic to take me over the hill to Culbokie, a small hamlet with a shop and a part time pub. I stocked up with salad items before going down to my evening’s B and B. This proved to be a characterful lodging with sociable hosts and dogs, lovely rooms and a view over the Cromarty Firth and distant Ben Wyvis. Whilst watching the sunset I got to sample Steve’s home brewed beers which were every bit as good as many a micro brewery.
There’s a new trail being developed up the coast north of Inverness, partly to keep ‘end to enders’ off the maniacal A9. This venture also hopes to highlight the magnifcent scenery in NE Scotland.
In some ways the route consists of two halves. The southern week’s walking is mainly flattish along the shoreline whereas the second half north of Helmsdale is rugged walking over high cliffs.
The next few posts are of the first half from Inverness.
The beginning of how to avoid the A9. Inverness to North Kessock.
As part of my ongoing Lands End to John O’Groats exploits another week was looming. We are having such hot weather down here i thought Scotland could give some relief. A few weeks ago JD and I filled the gap in the Scottish Lowlands leaving me only a section north from Inverness. I had heard horror stories of people walking on the A9 and was determined to avoid it if at all possible. A little eleventh hour research came up with the John O’Groats Trail, a coastal route from Inverness. Before I knew it, most of my trips are last-minute decisions, I was stepping off the train in Inverness. I was not impressed by the city – too many tourists, too many drunks and beggars, too many cheap high street shops. I was therefore glad I had booked a B and B across the river for the first night, this gave me an easy 4 miles evening walk to help me on the way and escape the city. I didn’t even stop for a coffee.
The official start of the trail is outside the castle where there is a fine statue of the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, the one of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame. I did find a waymark for the JO’G Trail. Pleasant walking initially alongside the River Ness led into industrial estates where the only building of interest was Cromwell’s Tower – this is all that remains of a great fort here completed in 1682, It seemed incongruous in the industrial setting.
Once alongside the Beauly Firth the massive Kessock Bridge carrying the A9 made itself present. A scramble up the banking onto the pathway felt illegal. The way across was scary up close to thundering traffic which seemed to be ignoring the 50mph limit. It was a long way down to the water and my search for dolphins was futile.
Thankfully off onto quieter lanes at the far side life became tranquil once more. My B and B on this north side was a haven of peace overlooking the Beauly Firth. I slept well anticipating some interesting explorative walking.