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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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.