22nd May – Nybster to John O’Groats

20190522 Looking north to Ness Head and Skirza Head
Looking north to Ness Head and Skirza Head

We woke to rain as anticipated, and with a poor forecast for the day.  I left Nybster at 8.05 passing Samuel’s Geo and a pig farm…

20190522 Samuels geo
Samuel’s geo

…before arriving at Bucholly Castle.  The castle is delicately balanced between two geos.

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Rounding Ness Head, I dropped down onto Freswick Beach, passing Freswick House on the way.

20190522 Freswick House
Freswick House

Once past the beach I was detoured up to a road before rejoining the trail at Skirza jetty.

20190522 Freswick Bay
Freswick Bay

Skirza Head at the end of the bay had a large guillemot colony, and they were very noisy.

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After two more geos I stopped for a break in an old quarry.  It was one of the few places where I could find any shelter from the wind.

Soon after leaving the quarry, the rain began again in earnest, and I was fortunate that it cleared as I approached the Stacks of Duncansby and Duncansby Head.  I met a lady on Orca watch as I came up to the stacks.  Apparently some had been seen off Helmsdale last week.

20190522 Stacks of Duncanby
The Stacks of Duncansby

I looked at the Geo of Sclaites as instructed by the guide – it looked similar to several others.

20190522 Geo of Scalaites
Geo of Scalaites

I made my way to the lighthouse car park, and sheltered behind an information board to eat lunch.

20190522 Duncansby lighthouse
Duncansby lighthouse

The route led me down to the Bay of Sannick, where locals were tidying up the beach.

20190522 Beach cleanup at the Bay of Sannick
Beach tidy at the Bay of Sannick

It was then just a question of going round the Ness of Duncansby and entering John O’Groats.  I arrived at 1.10.

20190522 John o'Groats through the rain
John o’Groats through the rain

The weather had taken a turn for the worse at Duncansby, and became what my mother-in-law would have called “lazy rain”: it doesn’t bother to go round but just goes straight through.  That being said, I have been incredibly blessed with good weather both last year and this year.  Rainy days have been few and far between, and the dry spells have made the trails much easier.  Few of the bogs mentioned in the trail guide actually gave me any problems, but you could see they would be very difficult in wet conditions.

Today was the highlight of the John O’Groats Trail with easy walking and superb scenery.  Tomorrow I will take to the roads, and with luck should reach journey’s end at Dunnet Head by early afternoon.

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21st May – Wick to Nybster

20190521 The path from Wick - much lower cliffs today
The path from Wick – much lower cliffs today

Another day in the office, but today the roof was leaking.  Consequently I geared up for wet weather at the cottage, and left Wick at 8.10.

20190521 Primroses on the side of a geo
Primroses on the side of a geo

The path to North Head introduced me to the lower cliffs and less dramatic scenery I could expect for the day.  Once round the point, roads led to the village of Staxigoe.  I was intrigued to find that in the 19th century, this was home to the largest herring-curing plant in Europe.  Little remains of its industrial past today.

20190521 Noss Head lighthouse
Noss Head lighthouse

More cliff walking led to the lighthouse at Noss Head, and an abrupt change from walking north to almost due west.  This change coincided with someone adding a fan to the leaking roof; naturally the wind was from the west.

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Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

Just round the headland is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the first of several ruined castles.  This one was used by Cromwell’s army, but fell into disrepair soon after.  The next village was Ackergillshore, and a brief encounter ensued with some of my bovine friends.  Ackergill Tower is a magnificent house, just before the sandy beach of Sinclair’s Bay.

20190521 Ackergill Tower
Ackergill Tower

After a brief stop I raced the tide along the 5k of beach.  I won – thus avoiding being forced off the sand onto either the boulders higher on the beach, or the sand dunes.

20190521 The beach at Sinclair Bay
The beach at Sinclair Bay

Half way along, I had to cross the River of Wester.  The guide said this could be waded, but gave alternatives; and the map indicated that it was a dangerous river crossing.  In the end it was a total non-event, barely calf-deep.

20190521 The Railway of Subsea 7
The railway of Subsea 7

Beyond the river, there is a curious railway track which runs into the sea.  The track is 7km long: sections of pipe are assembled and then towed out to sea to be joined together underwater.  No activity was happening on the beach, but later driving to the cottage we saw the lengths of pipe on the railway.

20190521 Sinclair beach with Keiss on the horizon
Sinclair beach with Keiss on the horizon

I reached Keiss at 12.25, and was now only 3k from the finish for the day.  This was somewhat of a problem, as I had given Alan an e.t.a. of 4.00.  I emailed him explaining I would be finishing by 2.00.  He got the email, but did not pick it up until 2.35.

20190521 The New Castle at Keiss
Keiss New Castle

After an extended lunch, I sauntered on.  Old Keiss Castle is a fine ruin, with the New Castle only 200m away.  The defensive positions, where these coastal castles were built, are very impressive – they look impregnable.

20190521 The Old Castle at Keiss 01
The Old Castle at Keiss

Despite my best efforts, the car park at Nybster kept getting closer, and I arrived at 1.50.  After a second lunch break, I walked up to the Caithness Broch Museum for a look around, and soon after 3.15 Alan arrived to pick me up.

20190521 Mervin Tower at Nybster Broch
Mervin Tower at Nybster Broch

Tomorrow I will reach John O’Groats.

20190521 Another fine sea arch
Another fine sea arch

20th May – Whaligoe to Wick

20190520 Whaligoe
Whaligoe

Today was a much shorter section, only 17k (11 miles).  My plan was to start by 8.00 to be finished by early afternoon.  However we woke to thick sea mist, and in the end I got away at 8.50 in a light drizzle.

20190520 Stack of Ulbster
Stack of Ulbster

The whole day was basically spent on the cliff edge path with only a couple of excursions inland to cross burns.  Amazing stacks and arches followed one after another.  The Stack of Ulbster was the first highlight, followed quickly by a blowhole.  That would be spectacular in an easterly gale.

20190520 Looking down the blowhole
Looking down the blowhole

Carrying on past geo after geo…

20190520 Riera geo
Riera geo

…I came The Needle’s Eye at Ashy.  This huge arch easily rivals Durdle Door in Dorset.

20190520 The Needle's Eye
The Needle’s Eye

At Girston there were South Stack…

20190520 South Stack at Girston
South Stack

…and Dunbar’s Stack.

20190520 Dunbar's Stack at Girston
Dunbar’s Stack

Just when you thought nothing could top these, Stack o’Brough appears…

20190520 The Stack o’ Brough
Stack o’Brough

…with finally another impressive arch near The Castle of Wick.

20190520 Sea arch near Wick Castle
Sea arch near Wick castle

Unfortunately, towards the end of my day the mist came back, so my photographs are not as good as I would wish.  It would be wonderful coastline to paddle, and I am a little surprised not to have seen any sea kayaks.

20190520 Looking north from Ashy geo
Looking north from Ashy geo

Near the castle I caught up with another walker, my first for 3 days.  He was carrying an enormous rucksack and going very slowly.  I was incredulous when he explained that he was only on a day hike.  Goodness knows what was in the bag.

20190520 Wick Castle built 1160
Wick Castle

The rest of the route was through Wick, and I met up with Alan at 2.15.

20190520 Sarclet Haven
Saclet Haven

The weather for tomorrow is not looking great, and more fog is likely.  It is not the most impressive scenery, being largely on a golf course or beach, but there is a lighthouse and castle, so I hope that I can get some pictures.

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  • Spring Squills (Scilla verna) – blue flowers
  • Sea-thrift (Ameria maritima) – pink flowers
  • Seagulls or Kittiwakes on the cliff

19th May – Dunbeath to Whaligoe

20190519 0842 Dunbeath harbour
Dunbeath Harbour

Today was another long day as I combined two sections of the path.  The cliff scenery was magnificent, but you earned the right to enjoy it due to the nature of the trail.  In the past two days I have not seen anyone else on the path.

Rather than give a description of the route, I am going to let the pictures give an impression of the day and just make a couple of comments.

20190519 0851 Dunbeath Castle
Dunbeath Castle
20190519 0915 Sea stack near Dunbeath
Sea stack near Dunbeath
20190519 1120 Typical section of the path
Typical section of the “path”

The trail is new as a through route, but it is obvious that hardly anyone walks it.  Most of today was spent outside or inside the cliff boundary fence.  Outside, you are very near sheer drops at times and you definitely don’t want to slip or trip.  Inside, cattle have reduced many of the fields to a rutted uneven horror which is unpleasant to walk on.  Many of the stiles, where they exist, are topped with barbed wire, and the Trail signage is at best sketchy.  It will definitely improve over the years as more people walk it, but the walking conditions are much tougher than the South-west Coastal Footpath, which is probably a good comparison.

20190519 1132 First we go down and then we go up
First we go down, then we go up
20190519 1218 Looking back at Forse Castle
Looking back at Forse Castle
20190519 1227 Looking down at the old herring processing station at Burn of Ashsinegar
The old herring processing station at Burn of Ashsinegar
20190519 1258 Lybster Harbour
Lybster Harbour
20190519 1342 Spectacular sea cliffs north of Lybster
Spectacular sea cliffs north of Lybster
20190519 1356 The old house at the Clash of Mavesey
The old house at the Clash of Mavesey
20190519 1415 Sea stack from Roy geo
Sea stack from Roy Geo
20190519 1416 Not a great advert for the John O’Groats Trail
Not a great advert for the John O’Groats Trail

Right, now for an angry old man rant.  Many of the geos (zawns) I passed today were unofficial rubbish dumps.  These places are very beautiful and isolated, so it’s not being done by fly-tippers.  I am afraid that the culprits are the local farmers who seem happy to dump any old thing down the cliffs.  It is not a great advert for the country, and I will only say that it doesn’t seem to happen in Devon, Cornwall or Wales.  Rant over.

20190519 1426 The upper waterfalls at Burn Mouth
The upper waterfalls at Burn Mouth
20190519 1438 The Stack of Mid Clyth
The Stack of Clyth
20190519 1446 Clyth harbour
Clyth harbour
20190519 1502 Spectacular cliffs and Clythness Lighthouse
Spectacular sea cliffs and Clythness lighthouse

Today was the last of the long days, and I am looking forward to more fantastic scenery and views in the next parts of the journey.

20190519 1549 The Stack of Mid Clyth
The stack of Clyth

18th May – Helmsdale to Dunbeath

20190518 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

Today lived up to its billing as the toughest section of the John O’Groats Trail not helped by fog and light rain.

I left the hostel at 7.50, and walked down to the harbour and then along a beach path before the real work of the day began.

20190518 The view back towards Helmsdale
Looking back towards Helmsdale

I started to climb up onto the ridge in gorse, heather and bracken following bearings as the path was very intermittent.  This set the the scene for the rest of the day.  It started to rain when I arrived at an old lookout station, and I took advantage of being able to don wet weather gear in the dry.

20190518 The Ord of Caithness
The Ord of Caithness

I crossed the Ord Burn and the Ord of Caithness, and disturbed a herd of deer.

20190518 Deer above the trail
Deer above the trail

After flogging across some heather moor, following the Allt a Bhurg Burn, I passed another broch and arrived above the Ousdale Burn.

20190518 The Broch above Ousdale Burn
The Broch above Ousdale Burn

Nothing in the guidebook suggested a descent to the Burn being the equivalent of going down the North Face of the Eiger.  The top set of wooden steps I descended facing inwards, as they were so steep.

20190518 Looking down on Ousdale Burn
Looking down on Ousdale Burn

I stopped at Badbea, a crofting community for victims of the clearances.  I am sure it made sense to someone to move farmers, who were being encouraged to go herring fishing, to a village on a steep slope above cliffs 130m above the sea.  Unsurprisingly the village was quickly abandoned.

20190518 Taking a break at an abandoned Croft in Badbea
Lunch stop at abandoned croft at Badbea

From Badbea there was more lush vegetation before I came down to Berriedale where I arrived at 1.00 with another 6.5 miles to go. I had been getting very low on energy, so stopped for lunch and warned Alan that I would be late at our rendezvous.

20190518 Berriedale harbour
Berriedale harbour

In all honesty I was probably too tired to appreciate the magnificent scenery on this section of the trail.  The walk out of Berriedale seemed endless with difficult vegetation and no clear path.  The waterfall at Allt Na Buaidhe was non-existent and the path further on difficult to find.

20190518 Big cliffs and bad weather
Big cliffs and bad weather

The weather was not helping bringing fog and poor visibility, thus explaining the lack of photos.  The sea arch at An Dun was spectacular as was the sea stack called The Clett.

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A few miles before Dunbeath I followed the trail away from the sea, through a herd of cows, to the old A9 and Dunbeath.  I met Alan at the Post Office at 4.15.

All in all a hard day in the office.  With hindsight I think I mainly brought it on myself.  I only had a small pot of porridge for breakfast, and had not got enough food with me. Tomorrow I have farther to walk, but will only have a light daysack, and that’s going to be loaded with lots of food!

20190518 Looking down a geo (zawn)
Looking down a geo (zawn)

17th May – Brora to Helmsdale

20190517 Brora harbour
Brora harbour

This was the first time that the sea was in sight for almost all of the day.  I left Brora at 8.35, and walked past the harbour and around the edge of the golf course.  At the end of the course, I entered fields adjacent to dunes where the path became indistinct.

20190517 Looking north towards Helmsdale
Looking north towards Helmsdale

Crossing the coastal fence, I walked on and almost stepped on an adder basking in the sun. Thankfully he was more alert than me, and moved to a new position.  I reached for my phone to take a photo, but he got bored and slid between the boulders.  I wasn’t about to put my hand down the hole to get him to pose again.  Moving on, an Eider Duck erupted from the undergrowth, exposing her nest and eggs.

20190517 Eider duck eggs
Eider duck nest

The next excitement came on fording the Loth Burn.  The stones were partially underwater, and slippery.  Wet socks ensued.

20190517 Hard walking on the boulder beach
Hard walking on the boulder beach

After walking through a caravan park and passing a nudist beach, the path is sandwiched between the railway and the sea.  (Geographers would recognise it as being on a rather fine wave-cut platform.)  For the best part of an hour you walk through knee high tussocks of grass, being forced onto the boulder-strewn beach every so often.  It was a relief when I could cross the railway and ascend to the pretty village of Portgower.

20190517 The headland before Helmsdale
The headland before Helmsdale

After a quick lunch, I crossed the Garbh Allt, marvelling at its deep gorge, and Helmsdale soon came into view.

20190517 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

I reached the town at 2.35, found the village shop, and bought dinner and breakfast for tomorrow.  The hostel is excellent with en-suite facilities, a comfortable lounge and big kitchen.  Definitely the best hostel I have used this trip.  It is disappointing that a charming Dutch lady is the only other person staying here.

20190517 Looking up Helmsdale from the river bridge
The view up Helmsdale from the river bridge

It looks as if the weather is finally deteriorating tomorrow, which is a shame as I am combining two sections of the trail before meeting Alan at Dunbeath.  I am promised lots of ascent and descent, combined with wet ground and wild vegetation.  Sounds like it could be fun.

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Sights along the trail

  • stone sculpture
  • one of many WW2 defences on the trail
  • cormorants – or shags?

16th May – Golspie to Brora

20190516 Dunrobin castle 2
Dunrobin Castle

Today has been a semi rest day.  I left my B&B and stayed at Golspie waiting for the Rock Shop to open at 10.00.  Last night I spied a rather attractive stone-carved bear in their shop window.  I really like Inuit carving but cannot justify the prices they command.  The bear was in my price range, and in the end I bought it and arranged that we would pick it up on our way to Inverness next week.

20190516 Looking back at the bridge at Golspie
Looking back at the bridge at Golspie

I left Golspie around 11.00 and made my way to Dunrobin Castle.  I had mixed feelings about whether to stop or not, for reasons I will explain later, but in the end I decided to break my journey there.

20190516 Dunrobin castle from the path
Dunrobin castle viewed from the trail

The house and grounds are magnificent, and my visit coincided with a falconry display which was most informative.  The falconer flew three birds, the last of which was a peregrine.  These birds stoop at over 200 miles an hour, and when they pull out of their dive they pull 24g.  This is remarkable when you consider that a fighter pilot in a special suit passes out at 9g.

20190516 Falconry at Dunrobin castle
Falconer with peregrine falcon

The reason I was hesitant about visiting Dunrobin was that I knew something of the darker side of the history of the house.  This is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.  The first Duke and Duchess were responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Highland Clearances.  Whilst they spent much of their time socialising in London, their factors were busy evicting their tenants to make room for black faced sheep, which were more profitable.  Initially tenants were moved to poor land at the coast, to become fishermen, and when that proved unsustainable they were encouraged to emigrate so as not to be a burden on the landowner.  The profits from this paid for the house.  ‘Done Robbing’ might be a better name.  I was put to shame by a group of Canadians from Nova Scotia, who I met at dinner this evening.  They were visiting the original homes of their Scottish ancestors and refused to visit the castle, as they did not want to be supporting the Sutherlands in any way.

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On a happier note, the route to Brora was a delight.  Bluebell-covered woodland led to open pasture near the sea.

20190516 Bluebells on the route to Brora
Bluebell time

I passed the remains of Carn Liath Broch…

20190516 Carn Liath broch
Carn Liath Broch

…before passing under the first cliffs on the walk.

20190516 The first cliffs on the John O’Groats Trail
Cliffs add interest

During the next section, I saw several seals sunning themselves on the rocks.  Like my father, I love the sea.  There’s always something interesting happening, and it was lovely to walk along being serenaded by the seals and a pair of ravens.

20190516 Seals basking on rocks near Brora
Basking seals

I reached Brora at 3.15.  The town seems to have an active fishing fleet judging by the lobster pots at the harbour.  It also has a Salt Street, reflecting the importance of salt pans to the town.  The Duke of Sutherland opened a coal mine in the town to provide employment for the population.

20190516 Approaching Brora
Approaching Brora

Overall a very pleasant day, and the scenery will only improve from here.  One slightly worrying point is that two walkers told me today that around Berriedale the route is almost impassable – but we will just have to see when I get there.