5 Days in Caithness and Orkney: Glasgow to John O’Groats

DAY ONE: Glasgow to John O’Groats via Cairngorm, Dunrobin, Whaligoe Steps and Castle Sinclair


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Dunrobin Castle
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Sunrise from John O’Groats

With my other half, Chris, tied up with work over the long weekend, it seemed a fine time to head off for a few days and see somewhere that had never really interested him – Orkney. I admit I had mixed feelings too, being such a fan of the west coast and the magical Hebrides but the archeological sites beckoned.Plus, I didn’t know the coast beyond Helmsdale -and even then, it had been decades since I’d driven up that way.The boys were 4 and 7 at the time,  I recall – so 20 years at least. Time to rectify a bit of niggling wanderlust. But as I planned things out, a few days turned into 5; I wanted to be back for my youngest son popping through from Edinburgh for a day or two,  so Saturday to Wednesday was it. That would get me back in time to get dinner et al prepared for us all on the Wed night (my key task in life, it often seems).

This really was about exploring areas I didn’t know – Caithness and the North Coast; Orkney including Hoy; and looking out for the semi-resident Killer Whale pod around John O’Groats; the Kyle of Tongue.

The Sat Nav suggested a 6.5 hour drive time from the south side of Glasgow to John O’Groats which turned out to be almost double that given the stops I had en route. But I like driving, so the timescale was fine.And I had all day. There were so many places I wanted to check out,  it was really difficult to decide on stops . Finally, I settled on some old and some new – Inshriach Cake Stop (oh, those gateaux) , Loch an Eilean, Dunrobin Castle, the Whaligoe Steps, Castle Sinclair and Sinclair Bay.

The forecast  – as ever  – wasn’t great but if you waited for a ‘good’ forecast you’d stay at home most of the time in Scotland – it’s often better than the doomsayers predict anyway, especially at the coast.

So, 8.15am on Saturday 16 May 2015 , saw me packed and heading north up the A9. In our new black Renault Megane too, a bit of a baptism of fire for it.

First stop, after nearly three hours driving,  was Inshriach Potting Shed. It’s only a ten minute detour off the relentless A9 but a world away in lovely Cairngorm countryside. A very lush,  birch wood-clad part of the National Park.

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It’s been voted the best coffee stop by RSPB members for its almost OTT range of bird feeders set up in front of the café windows from which you view woodpeckers and red squirrels. I went a bit OTT myself and ordered two gateaux. The Lindt chocolate one was a bit too sweet for me but the fresh strawberry and some other fruit and cream concoction  was moist, light and superb. Seriously good baking going on here.

Just minutes away was Loch an Eilean and  a stroll through its stunning Scots Pine forest overlooked by the distant Cairngorms. Actually Loch Morlich offers better views of the Cairngorm giants and is a far better photo stop if the light is good. Much busier though.Loch an Eilean (loch of the island) has been voted the UK’s favourite picnic spot so I was glad to be here when it was still quiet.

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Braeriach from the loch
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Scots pines

Even in mid-May, there was still a lot of snow on the mountains.

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Cairngorms
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Loch an Eilean

All in all I spent over 2.5 hours between these two stops with plenty more to go. The drive up to Inverness itself is a bit tedious once the Cairngorms disappear and it’s a relief to get over the Kessock bridge and leave the industrial outskirts and traffic of this small fairly nondescript city behind.

Good roads but with quite a bit of traffic slowing things down,  was the way of it over the Black Isle and past Nigg Bay.It wasn’t until I swept across the wide expanse of the bridge over the Dornoch Firth that the roads emptied and the landscape got bigger and emptier. I wished I’d had time for Dornoch, a pretty village with a huge beach and world class golf course.Picked up a few extra supplies in attractive little Golspie – so deserted even on a Saturday afternoon, I almost expected tumbleweed to blow forlornly down the main street. Finally I pulled into the car park of magnificent Dunrobin Castle at 3.45pm  –  a  wow even from the car park.

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Dunrobin Castle

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The location is superb on an empty, unspoiled bit of wild coastline , with stunning formal gardens. A wedding party crowded the main hall and it was a bit of a squeeze to get through the hordes of kilts and clobber to see the grand rooms of the Dukes of Sutherland.Given their role in the Clearances, not a popular family in history.

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The Museum is a five minute walk through the grounds and houses an amazing collection of everything the Duke shot and had stuffed over many decades, from a tiny wren to an African elephant. You’re greeted with the enormously tall head and neck of a giraffe mounted on the entrance floor. It’s all a bit gruesome yet fascinating at the same time.I could have spent hours in the place. There are beautiful displays of African tribal spears and fabrics, a whole host of things collected from all over the world, plus letters and memorabilia from the war years. The highlight for me was a superb collection of carved Pictish stones with intricate designs.I was so impressed , I bought the book at the reception – one of the finest collections I’ve ever seen, even compared to that at Kilmartin Glen.

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Pictish stones in the Museum

I could easily have spent more time again wandering around the Castle and its grounds and also exploring a bit of the empty and beautiful coastline.

But time was beginning to press and I still had a lot to fit in.  The afternoon had turned sunny with a bitterly cold wind, clearing the air.Great for admiring the fine coastal scenery as the road climbed up towards Helmsdale, Berriedale and Lybster.

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Latheron Wheel harbour

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Some of the names were so unusual, I was enjoying just reading them. Latheron Wheel really caught my eye and I about  – turned, the first houses of its single main street beautifully restored. A mile or so’s drive took me down to a lovely old stone harbour ringed with cliffs.It’s a real feature of this coast – little hidden ‘geos’ – (pronounced Gyaws with a hard G), steep sided inlets between cliffs. The one I really wanted to see was the Whaligoe Steps, where 365 stone steps have been cut into the cliffside to take you down to an old fishing station. Just south of Wick, they proved as tough to find as the proverbial needle in a haystack.

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Whaligoe Steps
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Harbour, Whaligoe

There is no signposting for the Steps and I managed to forget the rough directions I thought I’d memorised from reading Scotland the Best (which as usual was in the car-boot instead of at my side). So I drove up and down the same bit of road about 3 times before I found the small car park at the end of a row of unremarkable cottages, opposite the sign for the Cairn of Get. A beautifully restored 18th Century fisheries building is now a cafe and marks the start of the truly spectacular stone pathway which hugs the cliff.Unfortunately the cafe had just shut, by minutes at 5.30pm so no more tea till the tent – a good few hours away yet.

I don’t look forward to exposure and was slightly nervous about descending the vertiginous cliffside, but the steps are wide and beautifully graded so that you feel very safe, with the big drops blocked nicely by a flower-strewn grassy bank. They lead to a grass platform – the Bink – and terrible, wave lashed weed-covered slippery rocks. It’s a dark, cold place when the sun drops, with fulmars flying overhead and I didn’t linger, relieved to climb back up into the light.Tough, cold work it must have been for those hardy fisherfolk.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaligoe and  http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/lybster/whaligoesteps gives some really interesting information about the history of the herring fishery and a sense of the hard lives of the men and women who worked there.

By now, journey’s end was in sight but there was still Castle Sinclair and the bay to tick off.

It was a glorious evening now and it all felt very ‘far north’ with the Norse names and the grey houses and sparse , flat landscape above the cliffs.There was plenty of arable land but everything had taken on a hard edge somehow.Hard living, harsh climate, hard land and cruel sea.

I followed the winding directions for Castle Sinclair  – Girnigoe Castle – through the brilliantly named Papigoe and Staxigoe, (not particularly attractive settlements unfortunately) until I reached the Castle’s deserted car park in a lonely spot beside Noss Lighthouse.

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Castle Sinclair

Not another soul was about as I strolled across the moorland towards the ruin itself. The early evening sun cast incredible shadows on the impressive structure making it a great time to visit. Wandered across the drawbridge and had a look into the few nooks and crannies open to the public, the sea surging below. Quite a sight and well worth the extra diversion.

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Castle Sinclair

Back onto the main road and a quick breenge onto Sinclair bay itself, a huge arc of beach,  deserted but for two people, the Castle just a tiny speck at one end.Drat – I’d forgotten about Ackergill Tower and spied its wonderful outline further along the bay. Another time.

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Sinclair Bay

Stops now completed it was time to make for the campsite at John O’Groats and get myself set up for the night.Hunger pains had started as the last I’d eaten was nibbling on the strawberry gateau at Inshriach and munching a few crisps whilst driving.I have a bad habit of skipping breakfast and lunch to keep most of my calories for evening, something a health-conscious friend often raps my knuckles over. She’s right of course.But – age doesn’t come alone and I can’t eat the mounds of food I used to without it all settling in stubbornly in the wrong places.

It was 8pm before I drove up to the reception cabin at John O’Groats. £12 for one tent and my car seemed reasonable enough. It was quiet, with just a few, mostly foreign,  camper vans so I could take my pick of where to pitch.It’s a lovely site – well manicured and tidy. Just 15 mins later and I was all set up, a stone’s throw from the crashing ocean with Orkney on the horizon. Bliss.

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Stroma island

Food time – at last. I was ravenous now and wolfed down a starter of smoked salmon with a mini bottle of Cava to relax with, then some Tuna con Fagioli.Two small tins of tuna, which I mixed in with cannellini beans, lots of chopped red onion and balsamic dressing. Quick, cheap but filling. Plus a nice French baguette c/o Golspi’s Co-op. Then the usual gallon of tea and some chocolate mint thins.Ever-changing light and shadows along the deserted coast and across the ocean.The whole place really did feel magical and was way above my expectations of this little part of Scotland.

Tomorrow – 5 Days in Caithness and Orkney : The North Coast

 

 

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Towards Duncansby Head
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Stroma and Hoy , evening light

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