Category Archives: Scotland.

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL – 9. Berriedale to Dunbeath.

Misty clifftop walking – but lots to see.

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.

Ahead the headlands were all a bit vague in the murk but here was my first sea arch.

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 path to nowhere…

Moving on I was getting ready for lunch and spotted a stone bench, this turned out to be the perfect viewpoint for watching the birds on the An Dun headland and it’s massive arch.

I dont think I’ve ever seen so many birds, literally thousands on every ledge available. Mainly Guillemots and Razorbills. The latter are distinctive closeup.

The Kittiwakes and Fulmars tended to stay aloof.

After all that excitement in the next bay was The Cleft sea stack, it remained in sight for some time.

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.

Another stack appeared as I traversed high above the sea.

Diversions inland around Dunbeath Castle weren’t too bad how does this fit with the so called Scottish right to roam?

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.

The old A9 entered the scattered community that is Dunbeath, everywhere was shut.

An old path goes down to the Dunbeath harbour from where there is have a steep climb to my B and B.

That felt like a long short day.

Accommodation – Inver Park House B & B

*****

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL – 8. Helmsdale to Berriedale.

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.

The most notable detail throughout today’s walk was the gorse, I have never seen it so brightly coloured before and in places I became heady with its coconut fragrance.

Easy walking through rough fields was tempered by the lack of waymaking on this stretch. Apparently some land owners 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 bird life to come.

The green table.

Shags or comorants?

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 down hill 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.

One came closer to the sea and seabirds were flying everywhere whereas before it was mainly smaller birds amongst the gorse.

Sheep trods weaved over the headland between the gorse bushes, a tough secion. 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.

Through the gorse there was much bird song and I managed to capture a photo of a Brambling on the monument itself.

Easy walking on heatheery 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.

Two towers, navigational​ aids from the 19th Century were useful markers today. They were aligned for approaching Berriedale harbour and used to carry lights, the Duke of Portland’s Candlesticks.

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 did’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

*****

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. [Episode 2] Helmsdale to John O’Groats – a continuation.

Stacks of Duncansby, copyright Ken Crossan

Last summer I had a week walking up the coast from Inverness to Helmsdale on what is to be the John O’Groats Trail.   http://www.jogt.org.uk/

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.

This year I’ve been able to glean more information and have a download of the draft guide book as well as an optimistic Harveys Map of the 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.

There was some excitement at Perth where it was lassies day at the races.

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.

Helmsdale across the bay from the train.  Dirty window.

The hills above Helmsdale.

Helmsdale harbour

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.

 

*****

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 7 Brora to Helmsdale.

On the beach.

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.

Happy honeymooners.

A long way to go for some.

 

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.

Adder territory.

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.

Portgower.

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.

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.

*****

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 6 Golspie to Brora.

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.

Notice Trail waymark.

Brora Golf Course.

Endless sands.

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.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 5 Embo to Golspie.

Around the Fleet.

Ex-Little Ferry on the Fleet.

Crossing the Fleet today on the bridge far left.

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.

Railway hut and distant monument.

Typical makeshift JO’G Trail stile.

Typical cattle.

Ben Bhraggie and Sutherland Monument.

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.

Typical tick terrain.

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.

Crossing The Fleet.

Missed crag.

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.

Deep in trouble.

Golspie.

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.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 4 Tain to Embo.

A day of two halves.

Two halves scenically and weather wise. It drizzled in the morning but was hot and sunny for the afternoon.

Dornoch Firth.

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.

 

*****