Cliffs above the racing tides beyond John o’Groats
Memories of the early Viking settlers live on in the un-Scottish place-names of small, isolated communities in this northernmost corner of Scotland. Roads along the north coast pass through acres of fertile cornfields and low-lying expanses of windswept grassland speckled with grazing cattle. By contrast, waves have lashed the red-sandstone cliffs around Duncansby Head into lofty sea stacks and arches.
WICK’S SPARKLING INDUSTRY Since it opened in 1960 the Caithness glassworks lias gained a world-wide reputation for high quality and good design. Caithness paperweights in particular are prized by collectors. Visitors are welcome to walk around the works, daily except Sundays.
Like many other ports in Caithness, Scrabster started as a centre for exporting flagstones in the 19th century. It has changed very much since then. Ferry services now run daily from Scrabster to Strom-ness in the Orkneys. Scrabster also offers anchorage to trawlers and sailing boats. There is a sailing club and the opportunity for fishing off Scrabster rocks. For those who can stomach the incessant Atlantic swell, boats may be arranged for sea-angling expeditions, in search of cod, pollack, coalfish, conger eel, skate and halibut.
Past the lifeboat station, which is sometimes open to visitors, a walk along a private motor road leads to a small lighthouse. From there a track leads up over high gTassy cliffs to Holborn Head and its spectacular sea-sculptured cliffs.
The population of Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland, has more than trebled since the opening in the 1950s of the nuclear power station at Dounreay. Modern housing estates have sprung up along the eastern bank of the River Thurso, but the character of the western bank has changed little.
A clutch of restored fishermen’s cottages stands above the harbour, and behind them there are tidy rows of houses which date from the early 19th century, when Thurso first became a centre for exporting flagstones. This part of the town was planned on a rectangular grid pattern by Sir John Sinclair, a local landowner, whose statue dominates Sir John Square.
The harbour is overlooked to the east by the gaunt ruined outline of Thurso Castle, a 17th-century castle which was substantially rebuilt in 1872; it is not open to the public. Beyond the castle is Harold’s Tower, built over the grave of Earl Harold who ruled part of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland in the 12th century.
Places to visit in Thurso include the Thurso Folk Museum and the ruins of the old church of St Peter, which dates from the 13th century. Thurso also has the only indoor heated swimming pool on the north coast.
It used to be said that when a man from Caithness was in Edinburgh or Glasgow he trod the stones of his native county. For in the 19th century, Castletown exported paving-stones to towns in Britain and to corners of the Empire as far-flung as Calcutta, Melbourne and Auckland. Even today the fields in some parts of Caithness are bordered with great slabs of flagstone rather than with walls.
The heart of Castletown is a neat village of squat stone cottages, built on a grid pattern. It was founded in the early 19th century when the local quarries began large-scale production of flagstones. The quarries at Castlehill are now filled-in, but most of the quarrymen’s cottages have been renovated for visitors. The sleepy little harbour from which the stones were shipped is now used for salmon-netting, and by pleasure craft.
The road which leads from Castletown towards Dunnet Bay passes through woodlands planted by James Traill, who founded the quarries in 1824. The sands of Dunnet Bay sweep northwards for more than 2 miles, and are backed by tall, grass-topped dunes and a forest.
From the little village of Dunnet, the road snakes over a lonely moorland wilderness past lochs and streams towards the most northerly point on the British mainland. Although its lighthouse is perched on cliffs more than 300 ft above the sea, stones thrown up by the winter waters of the Pent-land Firth have been known to smash against the windows.
On a clear day the views from the lighthouse are magnificent – from Cape Wrath in the west and Duncansby Head in the east to Orkney and the Old Man of Hoy in the north. But it is the panorama from the viewpoint above the lighthouse which really gives the impression that Caithness is at the edge of the world. From this point it is possible to watch changes in the weather for miles inland. While beams of sun spotlight certain patches of golden cornfield, other areas of ground are wreathed in palls of glowering cloud.
A steep track leads down from the village of Brough to a rocky bay whose shingly beach is sticky with seaweed. The stone pier which juts out into the sea is overlooked by the Little Clett – a tall, grass-topped sea stack white with sea-birds. The pier was built early last century to take supplies by sea to the lighthouse at Dunnet Head and other isolated lighthouses, but helicopters and larger vessels have robbed it of its former role.
From the harbour at Ham, corn and oatmeal used to be shipped to ports in Scotland, England and Europe. Today the watermill which ground the corn stands derelict above the beach; and the pier, which is constructed from flagstones stacked side by side, is little used.
At low tide, the ledges of layered rock projecting into the sea are dotted with hundreds of little pools. From the western arm of the cove there are superb views of the cliffs of Dunnet Head.
At Scarfskerry, 2 miles east, a ribbon of squat cottages has sprung up at a point where a narrow inlet in the rocks forms a natural harbour. The village’s seafaring tradition is kept alive today by a boat-builder who crafts clinker-built fishing boats and cruisers from larch and oak.
The harbour at Harrow was built in the 19th century for exporting flagstones from the nearby quarries. Beside the road to the harbour stand a flagstone-cutting factory dated 1871 and the overgrown track of a light railway line. Today, however, the harbour is used by lobster-fishing boats.
The nearby Castle of Mey, set amid one of the few areas of woodland along this stretch of coast, has been a summer residence of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, since 1952. It was built as one of the strongholds of the Sinclairs, Earls of Sutherland, and has been restored from its near-ruinous condition by the Queen Mother. The gardens are open on certain days in summer.
JOHN O’ GROATS
Often regarded as the northernmost point in mainland Britain, John o’ Groats can in fact only claim to be the most northerly village, for Dunnet Head extends nearly 2 miles nearer the Arctic Circle. The settlement is named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot, who was commissioned by James IV in 1496 to start a ferry service to Orkney, which the king had just won from Norway and brought under Scottish rule. A grassy mound and flagstaff mark the site of de Groot’s house.
The cottages, shops and hotels that form John o’ Groats are dotted over a wide area, but its focal point is a harbour from which a ferry crosses Orkney during the summer months. On a clear day the view across the Pentland Firth to the distant islands lining the horizon is breathtaking.
The headland, the north-east tip of mainland Britain, is capped by a lighthouse marking the entrance to the treacherous Pentland Firth, through which tides rip at up to 12 mph.
From the lighthouse car park a short walk leads down to the southern side of the head and to a good view of the chasms, arches and castle-like stacks which the pounding waves have carved from the red-sandstone cliffs.
Built on a gentle slope above a small harbour, Keiss is an important crab-fishing community. An old warehouse and icehouse recall former times, when herring was the main catch, and a few bright boats add colour to the scene. To the north-east the 16th-century Keiss Castle is perched on top of low cliffs, with the newer 18th-century castle behind it.
To the south of Keiss stretch 3 miles of sands facing Sinclair’s Bay, the largest stretch of sands on the Caithness coast. It is backed by dunes which are crossed by footpaths leading from the main road.
The ancient town of Wick has a busy past -but unlike many towns along the east coast from which industry has ebbed over the centuries, Wick still remains a bustling commercial centre. It was an early Viking anchorage and settlement – its name, like that of the Vikings themselves, comes from the Norse word vik, meaning ‘creek’. The 12th-century castle of Old Wick, whose ruinous keep stands guard at the top of steep cliffs just south of the town, is one of the oldest castles in Scotland. It is still three storeys high, and its walls are 7 ft thick. The castle can be reached by a signposted turning off the main road, or by a coastal walk of about 2 miles along Wick’s South Head.
Wick’s stone-built houses and shops follow the medieval street plan, although the buildings themselves are largely 18th century. Wick’s history is displayed in the Wick Heritage Centre near the harbour.
A lighthouse and the ruins of two spectacular clifftop fortresses stand at Noss Head, 3 miles north-east of Wick. Castle Gir-nigoe, which dates from the 15th century, and Castle Sinclair, built two centuries later, were both seats of the Sinclairs, Earls of Caithness.
Along the coast I 1/2 miles further west can be seen the five-storey Ackergill Tower, which after passing through the hands of the Keiths, the Earls of Caithness and the Campbells, in 1699 reached the Dunbars, who lived there until 1986. Footpaths lead down to small rocky caves.