AFTER a two-year hiatus in consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was with relief, joy and not a little trepidation – after all, just how out of practice would I be? ― that I resumed my perambulatory pastime in early March 2022, returning to Thurso to continue clockwise along the coast…
The logistical challenge of getting from London to Thurso resulted in my breaking the journey into two. The morning of the ninth of March therefore saw me catching the very first train out of Inverness, which arrived in Thurso at one minute to eleven. The morning having thus been whiled away on railway wheels, I would only have just over half a day to walk in. A gentle start, then. I could do that.
At Thurso railway station ― opened in 1874 as the most northern station on the Sutherland and Caithness Railway and still Great Britain’s most northern station ― I alighted onto the station platform full of energy and enthusiasm. From there, I bounded down Princes Street into the centre of town and Sir John’s Square, which was to be the start of my walk.
Sir George Sinclair Memorial Fountain
At this point, I was sufficiently keen to get going that I might not have stopped to pick up a bottle of water from a suitable shop; fortunately, Thurso made a point of reminding me otherwise:
This drinking fountain was erected in 1874 by local bigwig Sir Tollemache Sinclair in memory of his father, Sir George Sinclair (1790-1868), although it previously stood at the other end of the square where the town’s war memorial now stands.
Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster
Sir George had been a heritor – an important parish landowner with legally-defined financial responsibilities – of St Peter’s Church and for a decade (1833-43) was a national leader of the Evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland. When the church schismed in 1843, he joined the splinter Free Church of Scotland and was responsible for the establishment of numerous Free Church congregations in Caithness. He also proposed a union between the Free Church and the United Presbyterians, which would come about in 1900, some 32 years after his demise.
St Peter’s & St Andrew’s Church
The fountain, which was listed in 1979, stands at the north-western side of Sir John’s Square, between St Peter’s & St Andrew’s Church and the floral garden that comprises the square itself. The Church was built in 1832 by the architect William Burn (1789-1870); he was a prominent pioneer of the Scottish Baronial Revival style, although in this case he built gothically instead. A clock, gracing its tower, was a later gift by Sir Tollemache.
Sir John’s Square
The square itself comprises a floral garden, a war memorial and a statue of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754-1835), father of Sir George and grandfather to Sir Tollemache. In addition to being a politician, agriculturalist and the civic planner who laid out and developed Thurso from the small fishing village it had hitherto been, Sir John could also lay claim to the singular distinction of being the first person to use the word ‘statistics’ in the English language. It would have been hard to write his epic and ground-breaking 21-volume Statistical Account of Scotland without using it; I mean, it’s even there in the title in its adjectival form.
Sir John remade Thurso in 1798, expanding it upon a grid pattern to the west and south of the old town although the square in which his statue now stands was gifted ― as Macdonald Square ― to the town by his grandson Sir Tollemache in 1879. The square was renamed after Sir John in 1893, when his statue moved from Thurso Castle to its current position in front of the bandstand. It wears the uniform of the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles, the militia regiment of which he was, of course, colonel.
Sir John Sinclair may have expanded Thurso but there had long been a settlement there already, waiting to be expanded. Its modern name Thurso and its equivalents ― Inbhir Theòrsa in Gaelic and Thursa in Scots ― all derive from Norse Thorsá, meaning ‘Thor’s River’ and the settlement was an important one in Norse times, being mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga.
Indeed, the settlement dates back to at least the 900s but Thorsá was a corruption of an earlier form Thjorsá which itself derived from an even earlier Celtic name, Tarvodubron (‘bull water’). This aligns nicely with the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy (100-170), which gave the name Tarvodunum (‘bull fort’) to nearby Dunnet Head.
I made my way north from Sir John’s Square and into the part of Thurso known as the Fisher Biggins. This was the site of the ancient fishing village, biggin being a Scots word for dwelling.
As this part of town predates Sir John Sinclair’s grid pattern, its streets are rather more winding in nature and cluster directly west of the river mouth. While none of the buildings are Viking-ancient, their architectural style is simpler and older than much of the later planned town, dating mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The distinctively-turreted building shown above can be found in Shore Street and dates, according to an inscription on its gable, to 1686. It is believed to have been the tollhouse of the old turnpike road and thus the departure and arrival point for stagecoaches to or from the south.
This part of Shore Street with the tollhouse was painted in 1938 by the English artist LS Lowry (1887-1976) in an artwork titled Street Musicians.
As the name Shore Street suggests, there was not a great deal of distance between it and running out of land. In no time at all, Thurso Bay lay directly before me, with Holborn Head and Scrabster visible on the far side. All at once, the amount of wind became something ungodly.
As running out of land had been so easy and achievable, I decided to do it again. Turning right, I headed eastwards until I hit the banks of the River Thurso (Abhainn Theòrsa). This was, once again, pretty much immediate.
Old St Peter’s Church
I made my way a short distance upriver, passing on the way the ruins of Old St Peter’s, the church superseded in 1832 by its replacement facing Sir John’s Square.
The old church, now roofless, dates to at least 1125 and was founded by Bishop Gilbert de Moravia (d. 1245). Later features were added in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a large window on the west aisle; which was carved from a single stone slab and inserted in 1630. This alone was worthy of a photo but I, alas, somehow omitted to take one. Whereas, I did take a picture of this somewhat less aesthetic structure:
According to a plaque, Ellan Bridge was opened in 1960 by a stone dresser named John Mackay, who had spent fifty years crossing the river to get to the flagstone works. Flagstones for use as paving slabs were a major product of this part of Caithness, on account of its geology, and formed a significant local industry until cheaper pre-formed concrete alternatives completely captured the market.
I crossed Ellan Bridge to Thurso East, and made my way back downstream. Before long, I found myself approaching the ruinous shell of Thurso Castle.
Like many castles, the story of Thurso Castle, also known as the Castle of Ormly, is one of repeated rebuilding on the same site. The first proper castle was built there in the 12th century on the site of an Iron Age broch. Destroyed by a fire, it was rebuilt in 1660, then restored and enlarged in 1806 and 1835 and remodelled again as a Scots baronial mansion in 1872. Its demise, however, was quite unlike the history of most castles, as it was directly brought about by being blown up by a naval mine!
In 1943, with WW2 in full swing, an anti-shipping mine washed up on the shore about a hundred yards from the walls of the castle. This duly exploded, amazingly injuring no one but destroying some eighty windows and skylights, damaging the interiors and rendering certain walls unstable. The damage was deemed to be irreparable and the affected sections were demolished in 1952.
Lady Janet’s Seat
The paved road had ended just before Thurso Castle and I was now following the sort of clifftop footpath I hadn’t seen since God knows when. The cliffs were low but by no means any the less lovely for it.
About 600 yards further on from the castle, I came to what appeared to be a lookout platform, albeit in some disrepair (its floor was potholed). Something about its design and ornamentation suggested that it had been more than a viewpoint for tourists, though:
Identifying what it had been proved more challenging than I expected but it turns out to be one of those things that deliberately looks like more than it actually is. Which is to say, it’s the remains of a late Victorian folly. It is actually just the base, having previously housed a cupola on top. The folly is named for Sir John Sinclair’s mother, Lady Janet Sutherland (1720-1795), who was the daughter of William, Lord Strathnaver (1683-1720).
Passing a small sewage works, I now left Thurso East behind me as I skirted the coast at the edge of Clardon or Clairdon Hill, a gentle rise of just 52 m at its summit. The path gradually curved around from facing northeast to more eastwards and Dunnet Head dominated the horizon. My plan for the day included reaching the tip of that headland if the weather so permitted. So far, so good but rain was threatened later.
Below the low cliffs were slab-like stone shelves in lieu of beaches, both showing the particular geology that made this part of Caithness such a quality source of flagstones.
As I passed north of Clardon Hill and approached Clardon Haven, I started to see mysterious concrete structures dotted about the place. Each comprised a short pillar projecting at about 45° from a heavy concrete slab. They didn’t appear to have any particular purpose or orientation and their purpose was not obvious. My only guess is that, given that dragon’s teeth tank traps graced the nearest beaches, they must be WW2 defensive paraphernalia of some sort. If anyone can tell me what they are, then please do.
Battle of Clardon
The Two Harolds
Actually, you’d want to keep the zombies away on Clardon Hill, because they’d be pretty formidable, The hill was the site of a battle in 1196 between the forces of two different Harolds, age-tagged for your convenience as ‘Harold the Elder’ and ‘Harold the Younger’.
Harold the Elder was Haraldr Maddaðarson (1134-1206), a notoriously cruel and ruthless Earl of Orkney and Mormaer of Caithness, named by the Orkneyinga Saga as one of the three most powerful men to hold the title Earl of Orkney.
His opponent, Harold the Younger, was the grandson of another, previous, Earl of Orkney and had been granted lands in Caithness by Scotland’s King William I. This occurred within the context of a wider struggle between Scotland and Norway’s Earldom of Orkney for authority over Caithness.
Victory for Harold!
The battle was not exactly a masterpiece of tactical manoeuvring, with both sides just having ferociously at each other.
Harold the Younger was killed pretty much immediately but his lieutenants, Murt and Lifolf, kept up their momentum, driving the Norwegians to nearby Murkle Bay. And then, at the last minute with their foes on the brink of utter destruction, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by dying themselves.
The Caithnessmen faltered, Harald the Elder rallied and Orkney carried the day. This was not at all great for the locals as Harald the Elder wasn’t the sort of man to let any suspected assistance of his foes go unpunished. He quickly subjugated Caithness but the broader struggle for control of it went on for about another decade.
The big slab of rock in the photo above is called The Spur and it has a taste for eating boats. In 1857, it tried to take a bite out of Brothers, a grain ship bound for Leith. Her cargo was damaged (presumably through water) but she appears to have been re-floated.
The Spur bided its time, however, before successfully destroying an Aberdeen-registered trawler, Sunlight, in 1953. Fortunately, the Thurso lifeboat saved her crew.
As the path turned into Murkle Bay, it took inspiration from the battle by suddenly giving up the ghost at the last minute, which in this case meant succumbing to coastal erosion within sight of the beach. It proved necessary to duck under a barbed wire fence and enter a field to continue but, as that was still much less troublesome than being murdered by Orcadian earls, I considered myself let off lightly.
I paused for a rest beside Murkle Burn and sucked my finger, which I had somehow managed to cut on the barbed wire.
If Murkle has a taste for blood, it’s possible that it got it from a murder about two hundred years before the Harolds’ massacre. The Orkneyinga Saga tells that Arnfinn Thorfinnson (c. 930-c. 979) — another Earl of Orkney — died at Myrkkol in Katanes, i.e., Murkle in Caithness. His murderer was his own wife, Ragnhild Eriksdotter, the daughter of Norway’s King Eric Bloodaxe, whom the saga portrays as an ambitious and scheming woman. Arnfinn’s brother, Havard, may also have been complicit as he married Ragnhild soon after.
Like I said, I got off easy with a scratched finger.
Re-joining the Road
Having hopped across the burn, I had hoped to continue along the beach but, alas, it was not to be. It started promisingly enough but what seemed to be a faint path soon dropped onto beaches of flagstone slab that required more scrambling and dodging of waves than I was prepared to commit to.
Still sucking my finger, I retreated to the mouth of the burn, from where a track joined a public road. This led inland, straight as an arrow, for about two thirds of a mile until it met the A836 just east of Murkle.
Here Comes the Rain
The A836 led me eastwards for a mile until it reached the edge of Castletown (Baile a’ Chaisteil). There, a footpath sign pointed north towards Dunnet Bay along Battery Road. Just as I turned into this road, it struck two o’clock and the rain, which had been forecast for then, arrived dead-on to the minute.
At the end of Battery Road were the remains of a Victorian coastal artillery battery, erected in 1866 under the influence of the Earl of Caithness.
From the end of Battery Road, a muddy track led eastwards along the shore until it firmed up and became a proper road surface alongside the ruins of the Castlehill Pavement Works.
Castlehill was the name of an estate inherited by a man named James Traill in 1788. The Sheriff-depute of Caithness, He immediately set about improving the estate’s agricultural processes and built a series of mills. Around 1824, he added a pavement works and, for about a century, the works exported significant quantities of quality paving slabs. Eventually, though, concrete competition won out in the 1920s.
Paving slabs are heavy and roads around Castletown tended towards boggy, so another way of shipping them out was required. The answer was literally shipping them and, in 1825, Traill had a new harbour constructed by local engineer James Bremner of Keiss (1784-1856).
The road curved past the harbour and the end of Castletown Beach to re-join the A836 beside the ruins of the other Castlehill Estate buildings. As I followed it out of the village, the rain redoubled in intensity, properly amping up to meet the Met Office’s description of it as ‘heavy rain’. The forecast had suggested, somewhat optimistically, that the rain would hang around for an hour and move on. It did no such thing.
Indeed, as I plodded damply north, it felt like it might be trying to emulate the pavement industry and stick around for the next hundred years.
The A836 curved northwards, separated from the beach of Dunnet Sands (which I had distantly glimpsed from Murkle Bay earlier) by a system of impressively tall, pointy dunes. I could probably have walked up the beach, or followed a path over the dunes but the heavy rain threatened to put various burns that would need crossing into spate. I stuck to plodding through the puddles on the asphalt.
Boggy flatland on my right eventually turned into the trees of Dunnet Forrest, a 1950s Forestry Commission plantation now community-managed and home to several short circular walks. Charming as these might be, they seemed a pointless detour in the damp conditions.
There were several vehicles parked in its car park, and a number of sodden woodland walkers squelching forlornly back to them. I knew how they felt. But, while they had only a few yards to shelter, I still had almost a mile left to go…
Almost a mile onwards, which translated to another twenty torrential minutes of deluge, I arrived in the village of Dunnet.
Plan ‘A’ had been, if the rain had been and gone as expected, to dump my bag in the Northern Sands Hotel and make my way to Dunnet Head unencumbered, getting back to the hotel just as twilight would be failing. It had been a perfectly good plan except that it was composed of a tissue of optimistic assumptions and tissue doesn’t hold up well when wet.
The plan, I decided, could get stuffed.
Plan ‘B’ (for ‘better’) was to check in and stay put, swapping the Dunnet Head dash for a hot shower, dry clothes and a warming bowl of Cullen skink. I would squeeze the headland into day two somehow but, for now, my enthusiasm had well and truly flagged.
This time: 11½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,946½ miles