5 Days in Caithness and Orkney : The North Coast

DAY 2 : Duncansby Head, Castle of Mey and Dunnet Head


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Stacks of Duncansby

Breakfast beside the ocean in John O’Groats 

A watery sun greeted me as I poked my head outside the tent around 7am. The sky was overcast but the cloud was high and the forecast promised showers and sunshine.I liked the last bit.There was a good phone signal so I checked for messages just to make sure all my nearest and dearest were ok.I get quite obsessive about that when away and have unfortunately become one of those annoying people who is always checking their android (I’ve even got the lingo now.).It took me years to get one but Chris must sometimes wish he’d never bought me this technological Life Companion three years ago for Xmas. As ever when I’m away there was a lovely good morning text message from him however. We don’t spend much time apart in terms of holidays so this little break on my own was unusual and we were both getting used to it.

Oh, the joy of firing up the trangia and getting the first of half a dozen small plastic cups of tea underway. A shower passed and it seemed safe enough to put the tent flap up to admire the heavy surf breaking 50 metres away. Kittiwakes and the occasional Skua patrolled the shoreline and oystercatchers cried harshly.It was just so peaceful here and beautiful, I already planned to stay an extra night.I lounged on the comfy air-filled ‘mattress’ (which collapsed down into the size of nothing in my bag – the wonders of new technology re. campaign equipment) , anticipating a day with not too much driving and more new sights to explore. Unusually,as I generally skip breakfast,  I decided to make myself a Cup-a-Porridge and not bad it was too.Then it was a case of putting the valuables in the car and heading off for the day, checking first that the tent was well pegged down as strong winds were forecast.

By the time I left the campsite around 8.15am the office was still shut.But the site was quiet  – I couldn’t imagine it being a problem to just leave the tent and settle up later.

I’d read so much that was bad about John O’Groats (tacky, touristy, shabby) that  I really expected to hate it but I loved the area.The buildings had clearly been spruced up a bit and all looked quite tidy and well kept.Ok, the few shops were crammed with souvenirs and tartan tat but it was all fairly small scale, so bearable. Besides, I have a weakness for fridge magnets and there were TONS to choose from.Lots of bikers and some cyclists were getting their photos taken at the famous signpost and tourist coaches were disgorging their captives in the car park.Much further back from the shore itself, the buildings were all a bit grey and grim and untidy, but down at the harbour , it was quite pretty and very manicured.

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The day boat to Orkney but not today

Those poor coach parties – they were headed for the Orkney Day Tour but I overheard them being told that the sea further out was so rough and the winds were forecast to be so strong,  that the boat couldn’t sail: Orkney was off. About 60 people were now wandering around the place at a loose end. I was amazed the boat company hadn’t got in touch with the driver to warn him.Few of the mostly foreign visitors (from their accents,   a lot of Americans) looked clad for any sort of walking , which was really the only option for entertainment after you’d grabbed a coffee. Maybe that’s why so many folk complain about there being ‘nothing to do’ in John O’Groats. Which is a shame because there are some superb coastal walks and, by all accounts, a pod of Killer Whales in the vicinity,  which I was now going to do my best to spot.

Duncansby Head

Drove to Duncansby Head, just 5 minutes away and the start of the coastal walk to the famed Duncansby Stacks.The whole place was alive with seabirds, crashing surf and a sparkling ocean – my kind of place.I loved it immediately.Took off across fragrant moorland towards the cliffs, with barely another soul about at 9am.A heavy shower came blowing across the open ground and I was glad I’d kitted up in full waterproofs at the car. But I’ve no complaints about a sunshine and showers day ; the light is often really dramatic for photos. Much more interesting than clear blue skies.

Thirle Door

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It took just minutes to reach the viewpoint and immediately ahead rose the most spectacular sea stacks with the cliffs receding behind them as far as the eye could see. It was truly magnificent – one of those moments when you just think ‘ wow’ and know you will come back again and again just to see that view. Another burst of heavy rain had me getting the waterproofs zipped up again (I lived for 5 days in waterproof trousers. Nearly slept in them once, I was so used to them) but it passed quickly, given the strengthening wind.

Then it was sunshine again as I made my way round the cliff edge.Great Skuas – marauding seabirds feared by other birds – flew silently above my head, chocolate brown with white stripes and quite majestic, if slightly scary. Woe betide you if you ever stray into their nesting grounds – serious attack will ensue and when those black eyes are focused on just you as a target, I’d defy anyone not to get the heck out of there.I watched one drown a gannet once, holding it under the surface, just to prise the food from its gullet.Even Black backed gulls will quickly give up their catch to them.

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Great Skua
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Guillemots and Razorbills

Early summer on the cliffs meant primroses and pink sea thrift were in full bloom.Meadow pipits rose with their melodic song guarding their territory as I passed,  then floated like little parachutes down into the moorland again.A delight.Peregrine food however and this must be an area well frequented by the fastest bird on earth.Every ledge of the cliffs and stacks was covered with guillemot, razorbill,  fulmar and kittiwake colonies.Puffins were around but harder to spot.Sometimes you find the tell tale cluster of feather and a few bones, a broken wing perhaps that is all that is left of a peregrine kill; spotting them stationary on a cliff ledge is well nigh impossible.I did once see one at the Mull of Oa but it took an RSPB ranger on a guided walk to point the falcon out and two or three minutes before my eyes finally made out his superbly camouflaged shape ,  pale striped breast  and blue back blending in brilliantly amongst the pale rocks and lichens.

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I spent an hour just strolling along the cliff edge, heading beyond some fence posts to a small headland which gave even finer views back across the Stacks.The tallest rose 60m from the ocean.  Thirle Door drew my gaze,  a large archway in the cliffs. Grey seals occasionally bobbed their heads on the sea surface  – killer whale food, I thought , as I  scanned the sea for their tell tale dorsal fins.

The Orkney Day Tour operator had some fabulous photos of orcas which had cruised right up beside one of their trips last year, hunting seals off Stroma, the nearest island to John O’Groats. But the day trippers’ happy snapping turned to shouts of horror as the sea turned red with blood.They pod had found what they were looking for –  a whole cluster of seals feeding offshore and unable to escape the most lethal hunters in the ocean.

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Wish I had seen this….

Unknown to me at the time, BBC’s ‘Springwatch’ had been filming off Duncansby around 4am that very morning when the pod was spotted heading down the coast, on the hunt.I was far too late! The few Atlantic Greys I saw that day were the ones which still lived to tell the tale.

I took the longer route back to the Lighthouse, hugging the cliff edge all the way and passing the Geo of Sclaites, a deep cleft in the rock, loud with nesting seabirds – somewhere you smell before you reach it.Rafts of guillemots floated on the ocean surface, the whole place was alive with birds and I really had to pull myself away if I was going to fit in all the sights I planned to see on the rest of the coast.

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Geo

Birdwatchers had now set up their scopes near the Lighthouse, hoping for puffins (I presumed).I spied a nice looking beach just west of the Lighthouse, the Bay of Sannick so stopped off there to stroll its incredibly steep shore. In fact the sea was crashing so far up the beach it was almost impossible to walk along it.

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Bay of Sannick

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The sun was out most of the time now and the light on the white sand and turquoise water was just beautiful.Making my way to the far end of the bay, I retraced a higher route on the return to get some wider views over the ocean.For someone who didn’t rate our east coast particularly highly, I was very impressed, though I was certainly seeing it all in near – perfect conditions.

The Castle of Mey

The settlements along the coast are not particularly attractive as such;  mostly scattered and comprising grey buildings and modern kit bungalows.There are none of the whitewashed cottages and croft houses of the west.But the seascape is ever-present in this flat landscape, with the islands of the Orkney archipelago always on the horizon.It’s a very green landscape too, arable and with many farms.

The Castle of Mey beckoned, once the Queen Mother’s summer holiday home with its famed gardens , overlooking the island of Hoy, a short drive along a pretty empty road.

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Castle of Mey

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I just made getting round the castle without having to join a tour, which I didn’t really feel I had time to do.It’s a gorgeous place – very lived in, clearly very loved by the current Royals.Family photos everywhere and – slightly spookily – the Queen Mum’s clothing on show here and there. The little blue coat she wore for her beach walks; the dress she loved to wear of an evening.She sounded a delight all round with her rituals of tea and cakes at 5pm and then time for a gin or three before dinner. Lovely memorabilia from her walks were on display – a buzzard’s feather, sea shells, bleached wood.And family gifts – shell pictures made by the young Royals.

The only disappointment were the gardens which I was too early to see in full bloom.There wasn’t much colour yet,a real disappointment –  a complete contrast to Dunrobin Castle. Maybe they get them into peak condition for the Charles’s visits later in the summer? The views from the whole place however, were exquisite.Deep blue ocean and green fields, some fine old stone farm buildings. Drystane dyke walls lining the narrow roads and a rocky coastline.The island of Hoy (Old Norse for ‘high island’)  with its magnificent cliffs lived up to its name on the horizon. Marvellous. The wealthy certainly nabbed the best spots for their grand houses.

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The cafe had a good write up in ‘Scotland the Best’ (which I always travel with), so I ordered some potato and leek soup followed by apple crumble.Both were good though pricey.Nice environment. Got a Castle fridge magnet in the attractive shop then made for Dunnet Head, the true ‘most northerly point’ on the UK mainland.

Hardly a soul there on a sunny, blowing – a – gale afternoon,a wild, empty area with great cliff scenery though the trig point top itself was a bit of a blasted heath. Fine Hoy views though and I spotted the inshot which was Rackwick Bay, another wild place which had caught my imagination after reading the Orcadian poet and author George Mackay Brown’s musings on it . A wild camp there was on my agenda if the weather held in two days time.

I had a bit of a panic around 3pm when I realised that I still hadn’t told the campsite owners I was staying another night . I’d just left my tent where it was and had a horrible vision of it being lifted up and dumped somewhere with a big ‘unpaid’ sticker on it.Ridiculous of course but it niggled me a bit so decided I’d just head back to camp and enjoy the pitch a bit more and  have some relax time after a pretty full-on couple of days.

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View from the tent
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The Inn at John O’Groats looking quite spruce now.

It was a good decision. The evening was a fine one, the wind dropped and I even got a camp chair out.Relaxing with a glass of Cava and some crisps (big weakness), I watched the surf rolling in and the Atlantic Grey seals hunting along the shallows. An occasional Skua flew past and snowy white Kittiwakes flitted above the shoreline.More Tuna con Fagioli, very lazy of me but I love that dish and there’s no cooking required! Later, a stroll along the coastal path  took me over to Sannick Bay again and past lots of interesting shorebirds. Eiders, gannets, turnstones, curlew, ringed plover, dunlin, cuckoos, sky larks, oystercatchers.Then the light began to fade around 10pm and the lighthouse beacons began to flash from all directions: the Pentland Skerries; Duncansby Head; Stroma. Quite mesmerising to watch and so evocative.Beneficent beacons, like stars fading in and out, each with their own special pulse.

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Sunrise over the Peatland Skerries
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An Orkney ferry

And so passed my final night in this excellent camp – undoubtedly the finest spot in John O’Groats (and the cheapest). I would never in a million years have imagined I would have enjoyed this little corner of Caithness so much.

Next  – the ferry to Orkney.5 Days in Caithness and Orkney: Orkney mainland and Hoy

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