THE morning of the 11th of March was bright, dry and blustery with the bluster turned up to eleven. This was excellent insofar as it meant that not only would I not be rained on but that the wind should have helped dry the ground out. The only issue was that, if the previous days had been ungodly windy, then that had just been the warm-up – the wind had now become an abhorrent entity embodying meteorological malevolence. If I exaggerate, it’s not by much…
John o’ Groats
After wolfing down a hearty breakfast – and probably way too much of it; after three days of perambulatory exercise, my bodyweight went up – I returned to the tiny harbour at John o’ Groats in search of the coastal path to Duncansby Head. This turned out to be well-signposted but, even had it not been, it wasn’t too hard to spot upon the ground.
I was quite impressed with this easy-going path but not exactly shocked when it ceased to exist about 300 m later. From there, it was a narrow sandy path that climbed the dune face to run atop a low, sandy coastal slope then through a field. This went on for a similar distance before passing through a kissing gate. The small beach of Robert’s Haven and a low-lying headland ― the Ness of Duncansby ― lay ahead.
From the gate, the path ran along the seaward fence of the next field for about 200 m to arrive above the beach at the end of Robert’s Haven. This was Ladykirk, the site of a long-vanished mediaeval Roman Catholic chapel (dedicated to the Virgin Mary, hence its name). No visible traces of the chapel have survived.
In 1969, a hoard of 82 silver coins, mostly dating to the early 14th century, were found there. The coins are from reigns of five kings, two Scottish ― Alexander III (reigned 1249-1286) and Robert I (1306-1329) ― and three English ― Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307) and Edward II (1307-1327). The vast majority were coins of Edward I.
Today, Robert’s Haven is a small, deserted beach with rocks on either side and a rusted boat winch that looks as though it has not seen use in forever. It hasn’t always been so quiet, though. Norse pottery and drystone structures were discovered there in the 1970s and early 80s, along with midden deposits and an anvil stone and a stone polisher. Together, these indicate a long-lost Norse settlement (much longer-lost than the Ladykirk chapel).
Ness of Duncansby
Having seen neither the chapel nor the Norse settlement, on account of their current non-existence, I quickly passed by Robert’s Haven and followed the faint path out onto the Ness of Duncansby, where a handy information sign indicated that there are puffins and seals a-plenty; I guess they were just feeling shy. Or possibly, they were swept away by the terrifying tidal currents…
Bore of Duncansby
While the ness is not that impressive to look at, comprising a low-lying (8 m) headland above a rocky ledge, it becomes one end of a line of breakers that form on the waxing tide and stretch towards Stroma, terminating at a large eddy. This is a dangerous stretch of water and, combined with the ness’s projecting ledge, it has seen a lot of shipwrecks over the years.
Shipwrecks on the Ness
Fishing boats, in particular, seem to keep running afoul of the ness and a non-exhaustive list might include such trawlers and drifters as Ivy Green (1921), Aralia (1922), Abronia (1924), Salmonby (1925), Huxley (1926), Gunner (1928), Roseness (1931), Dragon (1932), Home Friend (1932), Laurel Crown (1933), Ocean Nymph (1935), Sublime (1955) and Benachie (1971). While some of these were successfully re-floated after running aground on the ledge, others were wrecked beyond repair.
While the ness is particularly partial to fishing boats, it is quite content to savage other vessels if given the chance, such as the schooner Ann Fleming (1858) or the brigantine Henry (1878). Perhaps the most ironic of its victims is the salvage tug Salvage King, which ran aground in 1940 and could not be re-floated, requiring that its own salvage gear be salvaged.
Two years later another tug, St Olaves, was towing MV Gold Crown to port for a refit when the rope snapped, and the latter was driven ashore. The tug, attempting to retrieve her, was also grounded. The crews were saved but both vessels were totally wrecked.
Something else totally wrecked on the ness was the bench facing the information sign. The seat and most of the backrest were both gone leaving only the top bar. I leant against this for several minutes, more out of some ill-defined principle than any actual need.
When I felt I had ‘sat’ on the bench’s remains long enough, I pressed on, turning east-southeast to see the somewhat more impressive headland that is Duncansby Head (63 m), the most north-easterly point of Great Britain.
Bay of Sannick
I followed the path along the coastline, the short grass making for easy striding terrain. This soon brought me to the Bay of Sannick, the sandy beach of which separates the Ness of Duncansby from Duncansby Head.
Actually, Sannick’s sandiness can be overstated. While the upper part of the beach certainly meets that description, more rocky ledges are revealed when the tide goes out. These particular rocks are unusually poetic. Not in the inspirational sense, though I suppose they might be that too, but in the literal. Literally literal, if you like. They have a poem written on them.
Stones of the Sky
The poem in question is by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), often considered the national poet of Chile. More specifically, it is his XVII Sonnet from a collection called Las Piedras del Cielo (‘Stones of the Sky’).
The poem, engraved in the original Spanish, was first spotted in 2013 and is only exposed for about an hour a day at low tide. Quite who engraved it, or when or why is unknown. Since it surely took more than an hour to carve in its entirety, it must have needed several sessions:
Neruda’s XVII Sonnet (translated)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, Or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, In secret, between the shadow and the soul. I love you as the plant that never blooms But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, Risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body. I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; So I love you because I know no other way Than this: where I does not exist, nor you, So close that your hand on my chest is my hand, So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Falling asleep at the Bay of Sannick is not recommended if you happen to be in charge of a ship. Thanks to its rocks and its position facing onto the Pentland Firth, its quite dangerous enough even if you happen to be wide awake.
One vessel to exemplify this risk is the Norwegian brig Eos, wrecked in the bay in a gale in 1877. The crew had to disembark the stricken ship by climbing out onto the bowsprit and lowering themselves off it; local rescuers caught them and dragged them to safety.
Another is the fishing boat Deliget, which ran aground in fog in 1955. She fared better than Eos, as Stroma fishermen were able to re-float her and she was towed to Wick by the Fishery Cruiser Freya. Freya herself would be lost just four years later, foundering in heavy seas off Sarclet Head (about 20 miles south of Duncansby Head).
Burn of Sannick
Rather than continuing round the bay and across the Burn of Sannick, the path I was following veered inland to join a single-track road and let that do the necessary stream-crossing. As I was now on the road to Duncansby Head Lighthouse, I figured I might as well stay there and follow it up to the top.
As the road made its slow and winding ascent, the wind intensified and, by the time it came within sight of the cleft known as Long Geo (about 50 m elevation), the wind was gusty enough to need conscious effort to walk into. I was glad to reach the lighthouse at the top.
Duncansby Head Lighthouse
Duncansby Head Lighthouse was built by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) in 1924. Because of course it was. David was part of a prolific lighthouse-building family; his grandfather Robert built the Dunnet Head Lighthouse, for instance.
Unusually, for a lighthouse, Duncansby Head’s tower is square, no idea why (although square towers are generally cheaper to build, despite requiring slightly more materials). It’s also quite the latecomer, compared to many lighthouses and it’s not even that it’s the latest in a long line of lighthouses on the site.
Prior to its construction, there was only a fog signal and even that had only been established during WW1. A lighthouse had been considered in 1830 but Duncansby Head lost out to Noss Head near Wick instead.
If WW1 had brought its forerunner into being, WW2 made a dramatic effort to end its existence when a German bomber machine-gunned it in 1940 after strafing two trawlers (as if the firth wasn’t dangerous enough). Fortunately, his aim was awful and neither damage nor casualties resulted.
The Germans had another go at it the following year, dropping a bomb on it, this time. Although, when I say ‘on it’, I actually mean ‘a hundred metres offshore, falling harmlessly into the sea’; WW2-era bombers were woefully imprecise.
Automation & Asbestos
Duncansby Head Lighthouse was automated in 1997; the keeper’s houses were demolished owing in part to water damage and in part to the liberal quantities of asbestos they contained.
It is a little surprising that a lighthouse wasn’t built there earlier, although as Wick was an important local port, I can see why it might have taken precedence. But with Duncansby Head standing at the eastern end of “Hell’s Mouth,” as the Pentland Firth was sometimes called, it had as impressive a litany of wrecked ships as one could wish for.
These include, for example: The brigantine Dispatch (1807), Favourite (1857), the barque William Mitchell (1872), the schooner Concord (1883), the trawler Barry (1899), SS Thyra (1913) and the coal-hauler Isabella in 1916.
Not that things necessarily got all that much better after the lighthouse was built. Subsequent wrecks include the fishing boats Harry (1927) and Harvest Gleaner (1929), the Norwegian coal-hauler Union (1938), MV Guilder Rose (1952), the trawlers Lord Rowallan and George Robb (both 1959) and Refleurir (1961) and doubtless many others.
Duncansby Head is, as previously mentioned, Great Britain’s most north-easterly point. It is also the farthest point by road from Land’s End, beating John o’ Groats by about a mile and a half. It lacks a tacky tourist signpost, though.
There are two Gaelic versions of Duncansby Head’s name: Ceann Dhunngain (‘Duncan’s head’, a rough equivalent to the English) and Dùn Gasbaith, which is just the English sounds Gaelicised.
The ‘dùn’ in Dùn Gasbaith implies a hill fort and, though that name is largely meaningless, there is evidence of the ground of such a fort having existed. I mean, how could there not be? Where in Britain is there a dramatic headland that didn’t have an Iron Age hill fort built upon it?
As gloriously uncommercialised as Duncansby Head is, it does mean that after you’ve looked at the lighthouse for two minutes and then failed to spot any Orcadian islands in the haze, you’ve pretty much ‘done’ it. Jolly good, time to move on.
Moving on, in this case, meant following a trail south across a headland characterised by low grass, much like Land’s End. On the one had, this was lovely, as it meant no struggling through brambles, bracken or gorse. On the other, it mean there was nothing to slow down the wind, which seemed to want to blow me all the way to Thurso. Although, if my eyes did not deceive me, that might be preferable to facing the monsters ahead…
Geo of Sclaites
I had gone about 400 m from the lighthouse when I reached the fence that protrudes into the photo above from the left. The fence had been thoughtfully put there to stop me from falling head first into the Geo of Sclaites (from Norse sléttr meaning ‘flat’) although I think there was more than fair chance that the wind would have blown me back onto the cliff, it was that fierce.
Running alongside the fence across the head of the geo was a boardwalk, presumably intended to stop me slipping over in the mud (as a possible precursor to falling into the geo). This was a hundred percent effective.
A Quick Sit Down
I stepped onto the wood, which was slippery with sea spray, just as a particularly vigorous gust of wind did its thing. This would probably have been fine if I were most people. Alas, I am not and my sense of balance is very much a reduced-for-clearance, shop-damaged version.
As my feet slipped out from under me and I hit the board with a surprisingly loud thud, I realised that, were it not for the board, I’d now be sitting in deep mud. Of course, were it not for the board, I might also not be sitting at all but there’s no call to be ungracious.
I was glad of the fence too. I hadn’t actually fallen anywhere near it but, had it not been there, I think I’d have been feeling extremely rattled. As it was, I stood up, brushed myself down and strode off with only my dignity having suffered.
At the end of the boardwalk, I resumed my passage over grassy terrain. This got a good deal wetter and muddier as I approached the edge of Queenie Cliff (also thoughtfully enfenced). In the distance, I spotted a couple coming back from the Stacks of Duncansby. I’m pretty sure they spotted me too, so that was the perfect time to slip over again.
This time, there were no wet boards to blame, nor were they there to catch me. The landing was softer but splashier, and felt rather damper too.
Right, I thought. I have to stop doing this. Knock it off. Before it knocks me off a cliff.
A few moments later, I passed the couple and we nodded hello. They had curiously neutral expressions ― the sort, I fancied, that you adopt when trying hard not to smirk. They definitely saw me fall on my arse.
Stacks of Duncansby
The Stacks of Duncansby are spectacular. They comprise three vaguely pyramidal sandstone sea stacks, the tallest of which ― Muckle Stack ― reaches over 60 m and stands slightly higher than the cliff. The other two, in order of decreasing height, are Peedie Stack and Tomb Thumb.
Appropriate to the giant sharks whose fins they vaguely resemble from another angle, the stacks have a shown an appetite for ships and mariners over the years, A cursory glance over records yields the trawlers Mormon (1911) and Euclase (1955) and the Finnish steamer Osterhav (1936) to name just three of their victims.
The stacks were labelled as ‘Stacks of Dungsbay’ on James Dorret’s and William Roy’s maps (both circa 1750), but had attracted their current spelling by the time Aaron Arrowsmith created his in 1807.
Back in 1953, as the UK desperately tried to develop its own atomic bomb (having been stiffed by the Americans, who had reneged on wartime promises to share), consideration was given as to where to test the prototype. In the end, the test explosion was conducted in Australia but the Stacks of Duncansby were under consideration for some time.
It was not the destruction of a spectacular landscape that curtailed this possibility, nor its effect on sea life, nor even fears of contaminating nearby communities. No, it was fear that the prevailing wet conditions might damage the device’s electronics. No such problem in the Outback…
From the Stacks of Duncansby, the path continued south across a largely flat landscape dominated by short grass and ankle-high heather. According to my modern Ordnance Survey map, it would continue up the Hill of Crogodale and then stop in approximately nowhere. The question was, would it really?
I didn’t actually think that the path would end abruptly and force me to turn around. I did have a slight worry that it might just peter slowly out but I figured that enough people probably walked this way as part of the unofficial John o’ Groats Trail that there would be some sort of path on the ground. And, it being early spring, it was probably at the peak combination of not quite so boggy as winter, nor so overgrown as summer as to give me the maximum chance of spotting the path.
Hill of Crogodale
The path duly ascended the Hill of Crogodale (76 m) and then failed to terminate. It did become narrower and less distinct and the heather around it got a little taller. It also got a boggy in places, where it crossed minor burns after Burnt Hill and before the Striding Man. My feet soon got wet but that was a relief of sorts as, once they got wet and cold the first time, I had no reason to mess about trying to avoid that thereafter.
I passed through the old boundary wall of the long-vanished croft of Fastgoe and followed the path along the top of Red Cheek, which was described in the Ordnance Survey’s 1871-3 name books (used to compile the 1st edition) as ‘a very conspicuous part of the face of the cliff, immediately at the north entrance to Fast Goe.’
I have no idea how conspicuous the redness actually was, as I couldn’t see from atop it.
Moments later, the path brought me to the head of Fast Geo. This was spelt ‘Fast Goe’ in the OS name book, which described it thusly:
‘A long wide creek, high rocky slopes on both sides, Extends inland for the distance of ten chains or so. There is a croft house stands overlooking the goe at the extreme end, from which access is had to the shore below.’
At least some of an ankle-deep burn was spilling down into the creek; the rest was being blown straight back onto the clifftop to have another go at falling. For all that I had wet feet already, that was a little more wading than I was ready for, so I diverted slightly upstream to find a shallower place to cross. I had mixed success and squelched coldly back downstream to the croft house described in the name book.
This building was shown as labelled ‘Fastgoe’ on the 1876 1st ed OS map, but was unlabelled by the 2nd ed in 1906, indicating its abandonment.
One of the authorities providing information for Fast Geo and Red Cheek in the 1st ed Name Book was ‘John Gibson, Fast Goe’, which suggests he would be the then-resident of the croft. However, the name book entry for the house of ‘Fastgoe’ describes it as ‘a small croft occupied by Mr A Gibson,’ adding that it is ‘the property of Mrs Thompson Sinclair of Freswick’.
According to the census, in 1861, John Gibson was a 50-year old fisherman living with his wife Mary (49) and their 11-year-old niece Jemima Manson; Peter Manson of Skirza was another contributor to the Name Book, so may well have been a relative.
In the 1871 census ― concurrent with the name book ― John, Mary and Jemima had moved to the schoolhouse in Freswick. I did not find the mysterious ‘A Gibson,’ who we must assume is either another relative or an error. This census result suggests they must have moved out of Fastgoe in early 1871, after contributing to the name book.
The path onwards from Fast Geo was neither more nor less distinct upon the ground but was, for about 150 m, indicated in the 1st ed OS maps as an actual track (it had vanished in the 2nd ed, never to return). Despite its cartographical non-existence, I followed it anyway, letting it lead me to Wife Geo.
Wife Geo is particularly striking, as it not only comprises a tall sea stack set within the geo, but it tops it off by having a natural arch communicating between the geo and the sea (both are visible in the photo above, the arch looks like a rectangular cave). It is allegedly so-named because the central stack looks (or, at least, looked when it was named) like a woman from the right angle.
As I continued south, despite the wind’s apparent determination that I should really be going west, I passed (but did not notice) the site of ‘Wifegoe’ croft house. Like Fastgoe, this was named on the OS 1st ed but not the 2nd. According to the name book it was occupied by James Matheson (but was again the property of Mrs Thompson Sinclair of Freswick.)
I continued south, fighting the wind, which was getting ever gustier. I had no real fear that it would blow me off the cliff ― it was blowing inland ― but I was concerned lest it cause me to stumble and I was very glad of having brought my walking poles.
The path led along, sometimes closer to the edge and sometimes further away, until it brought me to Skippie Geo (Norse Skipa-gjá, ‘ship’s geo’) and an impressive view of a cliff.
I had hardly ventured atop that cliff at all when the path dropped down into a quarry. This both sheltered me from the wind and brought me a premature sense of relief – much as the cliffs had been exhilarating, with the gustiness ever intensifying, I was no longer entirely sure that walking them was safe.
From the quarry, my modern OS map assured me, I could access the road through Skirza via a farm. The lying bastard.
The quarry has been showing up on OS maps since the 2nd ed in 1906. There was no sign of it on 1st ed maps. I followed its access road out to within sight of the farm, at which point I became aware of two things. One was a small sign, directing John o’ Groats Trail walkers to go around the farm’s fences at the cliff edge, the other was a really barky dog that was very excited that I might try to enter the farm. And not, I judged, in a good way.
I sighed, and followed the sign. It led me onto a narrow path between a fence and the drop into Long Geo. This was relatively sheltered, but I could see I was only going to have to come back out along the other side into the full force of the wind.
Had I not had my walking poles, and had the wind been blowing in any direction expect the one it was, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have gone and asked the farmer if I might escape through his farm anyway. But, as it was, the wind might blow onto, or along the cliff edge but it was never going to be trying to blow me off it. So long as I went slowly and carefully, so as not to stumble, I would be fine…
There was a bit of a scramble down at the head of Long Geo, where the burn of Green Mire had to be crossed, followed by a clamber back up to the cliff top. I then found myself advancing into the weather’s full bluster. It was a bit stop-and-go, waiting for a lull and bracing against its strongest gusts. But I made my way, slowly and carefully round the headland and back up into Effies Geo.
Effies & Rushy Geos
Effies Geo takes its name from the Norse Efju-gjá, meaning ‘muddy geo’. I crossed the head of it and passed a small jutting headland, jammed between it and Rushy Geo. There are the remains of an Iron Age broch on the headland and a number of ‘standing stones’ can be found at the head of Rushy Geo.
The latter are not ancient, however, but date to the early eighteenth century, being impromptu grave markers for shipwrecked mariners washed ashore.
James Traill Calder
Local poet, historian and schoolmaster James Traill Calder (1794-1864) wrote a poem regarding the stones ― The Graves of the Mariners on Skirza Head ― which was published in 1842 in a collection titled Sketches from John O’Groats in Prose & Verse.
In his introduction, Calder said that the incident happened ‘about a 100 years ago,’ (i.e., circa 1742) and that all aboard the ship died except for the cabin boy, who leapt from the mast at the moment of impact.
The Graves of the Mariners on Skirza Head
On the dread verge of this impending steep, Soundly at last the shipwrecked strangers sleep; Yes―they sleep sound, above the eternal waves, Whose voice oft bursts in thunder round their graves. Alas! Nor line nor epitaph is here, To mark their memory to the wanderer near, But all unknown ‘forgetting and forgot,’ They slumber on in this deserted spot, Where dark frowns the promontory rude, Sacred to horror and to solitude! Remote even here from kindred dead they lie, Outcasts as ’twere, from all humanity― Where never parent sorrowed o’er their bier, Nor friendship shed for them a single tear― Nor lovelorn beauty, frantic with distress, Poured o’er their sod her widowed wretchedness. Yet doth November with her visage pale, Sigh their sad requiem on the hollow gale, And the dark storm that sweeps along the heath, Howls as in pity round their bed of death. O! ’Tis a fearful cemetery sublime, To make one pause and meditate on time, Wild as it hangs above the ocean nigh, That bursts around you like eternity! Tremendous Skirza! Round thy dizzy head, Thy beetling brow, that sepulchres the dead, No joyful sound―no living voice we hear, Save the loud screaming of the sea bird near, That harshly mingles with the breaker’s roar, Along thy bleak and melancholy shore. Now summer purrs around thy rugged height, One glorious burst of ever-cheering light; Yet bare and naked in the solar ray, Thou rear’st thy savage precipices grey, Save where some rock-flower, beautiful and sweet, Smiles mid the horrors of its wild retreat.
A Darker Version
While looking this up, I also came across references to a darker version of events, though, frustratingly, never an actual source. In this version, the seven dead mariners actually made it ashore alive and started to climb up the cliff from Rushy Geo. They were spotted by an old woman living near the broch, who assumed that they were nefarious raiders and, armed with a makeshift flail fashioned from a rock in a stocking, brutally clubbed the unfortunate mariners to death.
In this version, the cabin boy once again survives, though this time it is because pity stays her hand long enough for him to explain the terrible mistake she has made. The villagers then bury the seven, marking their graves, and put the survivor on the next ship bound for his native Aberdeen, which was also his ship’s home port.
With this in mind, I went looking for appropriate shipwreck records (which is partly why I have found so many relating to this stretch of coast). I found none for 1742 but, if James Traill Calder was out by a few decades, then Elizabeth fits the bill. She was an Aberdeen-registered ship under a Captain McAlpin that was wrecked on Skirza Head in 1708.
At the end of Rushy Geo, I turned south, allowing the wind to vent its full force into my left ear. The cliff top was slowly decreasing in height and, as it did so, the wind began to add sea spray to its portfolio, the better to lubricate its determined attempt to burrow right into my brain.
I rounded Skirza Head, a headland about 25 m high with another massive stone ledge on which ships might come to grief. Thus Elizabeth is joined in her demise by the brig Daniel Cotton (1842), the barque Perseverance (1857), the steamer Willesden (1911, re-floated), Kentucky (1920, also re-floated) and the trawler Navarre (1939) and doubtless many others.
Having rounded Skirza Head, I was now entering Freswick Bay. The cliffs descended further until I was walking atop dunes and then dropped down onto a rocky shore. This happily negated the chance of stumbling and going for a plummet but turned the sea spray element up to the max. Still, cold water in your face is refreshing, right?
Haven of Skirza
I had ventured less than a mile along the bay’s edge from Skirza Head, when I came to Haven of Skirza, and the end of a public road; my clifftop adventure was now over. Whether temporarily, or for the rest of the day as yet remained to be decided.
The tiny harbour at Haven of Skirza is a handy gap in the rocks that gained a harbour pier sometime between the OS 1st and 2nd editions.
It was used by equally tiny creel boats for lobster and crab fishing ― whether it still is, I don’t know ― and also as one of many points from which pilot skiffs would launch to guide sailing ships through the firth’s troubled waters.
Skirza House, overlooking the harbour, was home to James Mowat, who was one of those pilots.
Such pilots were generally fishermen who would earn additional income by going aboard ships passing through the Pentland Firth and guide them through the turbulent waters. This could be dangerous – not only because of the obvious dangers but because sometimes ships proved unable or unwilling to let them off again, sending them on long and unanticipated voyages!
James ended up in Quebec in 1869, for instance.
Pentland pilotage began in earnest in the 17th century ― in 1540, Alexander Lindsay piloted James V’s fleet through the firth ― and grew rapidly in the early 19th century, as industry and thus shipping likewise increased, peaking mid-century with 41 pilots recorded the 1841 census (in various ports, not just Skirza). It then began to decline in the latter part of the 19th century as the advent of steam ships meant that vessels were no longer quite so much at the mercy of wind and tide except in poor conditions; the last sailing vessel piloted through the firth may have been guided by James Rosie of Swona in 1900.
Improvements in charts and navigation in the early 20th century accelerated the decrease in pilotage, even as shipping continued to increase, and now it is almost ― but not quite ― vanished. Large container ships and tankers still often use pilots if traversing the firth as their size makes manoeuvring a challenge.
I set off along the road from Haven of Skirza. Though this would have been my immediate choice anyway, a diversionary sign warned John o’ Groats Trail followers to do likewise as erosion had taken the path between there and Freswick Beach. The road veered north to join up with that east-west road whose eastern end had connected with Skirza Quarry (barky dogs permitting).
I was now passing through the village of Skirza, which has been variously spelt in the past, including such forms as ‘Skirsa’, ‘Scourzie’ and ‘Skirssarie’. Roy had it as ‘Scarscary’ on his map, while Arrowsmith opted for ‘Scarskarry’.
At this point, I would have been glad to encounter a village shop but, alas, it was not to be. Skirza had once had a shop, run by James Mowat’s daughter, Margaret Laird Mowat (1883-1976), between 1923 and 1963 but she retired at the age of 80 and the shop turned into a house.
I strolled past it, about 150 m from the junction.
Sadly unrefreshed, I continued heading westwards and Skirza became what Roy labelled as ‘Middletown’ and Arrowsmith as ‘Middtown’ and various census records have recorded as ‘Mitten’. This was pretty much indistinguishable from Skirza, being a few more scattered farmhouses strung out along the road.
The road swung southwest, returning closer to the coast, and I gazed across to Freswick Bay, where Freswick House was lost in a haze of spray kicked up by the gusting wind.
Freswick House was also known as the Fortalice of Burnside, Freswick Tower, Freswick Castle and even, most evocatively, as the ‘House of Cruelty’. It is a five-storey blocky-looking of largely 17th century construction.
It was originally built by the Mowats in the 16th century to replace Bucholie Castle (a little further down the coast) but they sold it to William Sinclair of Rattar in 1661. He had it rebuilt and enlarged, creating the building that still stands today.
It is the house’s Sinclair occupants of the eighteenth century whose oppressive ways earnt it the ‘House of Cruelty’ moniker. They had strict rules about demanding a cut of harvests, fish catches, and even animal litters (they were to receive every third piglet for instance). To enforce their rule, they built a prison cell into a bridge on the Burn of Freswick, into which prisoners were dropped via a trapdoor in the road!
With the wind mostly at my back for the moment, I made good time as I pressed on down the Skirza Road towards Freswick. This was a single-track road, numbered in the Highland Council’s list of unclassified adopted roads as U1557. I was the only traffic on it.
After a while, the Skirza Road stopped heading southwest and swung back to heading due west. At the bend, a side-road led off to the south, where it would terminate at Freswick Beach, surrounded by WW2 tank traps.
Looking at the sign to the beach, I knew I now had to make a hard decision ― head to the beach or stay on the road? The beach route was certainly calling to me the loudest, as it would not only include Freswick House and the prison bridge but also, once past Freswick Beach, Bucholie Castle and a whole new bunch of spectacular geos. There were however, two points counting heavily against this choice…
The first was the wind, which I think I have mentioned once or twice. The background, base level of wind wasn’t actually too bad (which is why the waves weren’t gigantic), but the gusts were properly fearsome and consistently getting more so. I was already being shoved into taking unintended steps on the level surface of road asphalt and was growing increasingly certain that it wasn’t safe weather for cliff-edge antics. Well, not safe for me, anyway unless I wanted to learn how to fly.
The second question was time. While I had loved every minute of my John o’ Groats to Skirza adventure ― well, almost every minute; the moments of slipping over or soaking my feet were hard to love ― it had taken me over twice as long as expected, largely thanks to constantly fighting the wind. I was now badly behind my planned schedule and looking at the very real possibility of not reaching Wick before dark.
A Reluctant Conclusion
Frustrating as it might be (and it was), I was going to have to stick to the road. At least until I’d clawed some time back and/or the wind had dropped off.
Old Baptist Chapel
With a sigh, I continued on past a small cottage that used to be a Baptist chapel, appearing sometime between the 1876 1st ed and 1906 2nd ed OS maps. It was still marked as such as late as 1970 but had obviously become disused since.
The Track Not Taken
A little further on, I passed a gap between two field fences, forming a grassy farm track. This was pretty unremarkable in itself and also first appeared on the 2nd ed OS map but lies close to what had been a turn-off on the 1st ed map and would have communicated with the road that led from it. This was an old road running down, past Freswick Beach to Freswick House (and crossing over the bridge with the cell when it got there).
To what extent the track still exists was uncertain ―it seems to still faintly show up on satellite photos ― but that there was any sign of it at all seemed to serve only to mock my route decision.
Are you really sure you want to take the road route? it asked me, mockingly. I steadfastly ignored it and hurried on my way…
Bridge of Freswick
Skirza Road came to an end at a junction with the Wick to John o’ Groats road, now better known as the A99. It met the A-road within sight of the Bridge of Freswick, which today is an unremarkable modern affair carrying a two-way road across the Burn of Freswick. The burn is most likely the feature that gave Freswick its name (from Norse þraðsvík, meaning ‘bay of fresh water’).
There was no sign of an older bridge, though one must have existed in the past, the current bridge having replaced it in the exact same position. Where the A99 now runs there was no road at all in Roy’s day (or at least no track worth including on his map) but Aaron Arrowsmith showed a road in 1807. The 1st ed OS map shows a narrow bridge ― visibly narrower than most of the road ― but also a broadening of the road at the banks that strongly implies a ford had been there before.
From the Bridge of Freswick, I headed south along the A99. Traffic was light but by no means non-existent. While hardly exciting, it wasn’t a terrible road to walk upon and I could still see the sea (or would have been able to, had the wind in my face let me keep my eyes open).
While the road upon which I was walking is the A99, it was originally classified as the B875 in the 1920s but had become the A882 by 1932 due to some rerouting and renumbering of roads in the region. Three years later, it became the A9 until that was rerouted in 1997, making this road the A99.
The Old Statistical Account of Scotland (published between 1791 and 1799 by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster) described this road as having ‘never been completed’ and ‘very uncomfortable in the winter,’ so I should probably be grateful for its firmness and dryness underfoot.
Things had improved a little by the time of the New Statistical Account of 1834-45, which stated that ‘the length of good and passable turnpike road in the parish is twelve miles,’ though whether I was walking on any part of those twelve miles is uncertain.
For all that the road was now sufficiently wide for vehicles to pass in both directions, the density of development didn’t change a jot. Freswick, through which I was passing, continued to comprise the occasional dwelling strung out intermittently along the road. In this, I guess it has always been consistent; the OS name book of 1871-3 described it as ‘a number of small farms and crofts etc.’, which it still is.
It also added that it was ‘the property of Mrs Thompson Sinclair of Freswick’ along with pretty much everything else for miles.
Barbara Thompson Sinclair
The ‘Mrs Thompson Sinclair’ of the name book was Barbara Sinclair of Freswick (d. 1876), eldest daughter of William Sinclair of Lochend (1748-1838), who had inherited Freswick House and its estate from a cousin in 1794.
The ‘Thompson’ part of her name came about because Barbara had married William Thompson, a Deputy Commissary-General (i.e. senior supply and logistics officer to the army).
Hill of Harley
Following the A99, I went first south, then southeast, as the road began a slow ascent up the Hill of Harley, peaking at 57 m, about 7 m below the summit of the hill. This provided a perfect vantage point to look back to Freswick Bay and Freswick House.
The Sinclairs were, of course, far from the first people to dominate Freswick Bay. Before them. As previously mentioned, the Mowats held sway. And long, long before even they built Freswick House, Vikings were settling the bay, recognising it as a safe haven in a coast of treacherous rocks.
Several Viking names are mentioned in connection to Þraðsvík including Havard, a relative of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson of Orkney ― ‘Sigurd the Stout’ ― who died circa 990, and Skeggi, who lived there in 1014. And in 1152, Sweyn Asleifsson had a house and farm in Freswick, according to the Orkneyinga Saga.
Yet More Shipwrecks
Unfortunately, it is possible to overstate the safety of Freswick Bay. Wrecks occurring in it include (but are not limited to) the ship Two Sisters (1795), the snow Lincoln (1827), the sloop Adelaide (1865) and the trawlers Neptune (1928), Robert Gibson (1931 and Ormond (1932).
Near the summit of the Hill of Harley, I passed a ruined cottage that old OS maps tell me was a smithy well into the the mid-20th century. Its roofless ruin was pretty forlorn and served to remind me that I was about to miss out an even more dramatic ruin on the coast, almost level with my position. Namely, Bucholie Castle.
I perhaps could have still taken in the delights of Bucholie Castle and Castle Geo, had I been willing to fight my way face-on through the wind across the uneven and slightly overgrown ground of a field. As it turns out, while I wanted to see it, I didn’t want to see it quite that much.
The castle was the seat of the Mowats before they built Freswick House. What’s left of it sits upon a narrow promontory and can only be accessed by means of a narrow isthmus with sheer drops on either side, the crossing of which is discouraged in windy weather (so even had I made my way there, getting close was out of the question).
I permitted myself a deep sigh of resignation and pressed on…
The road veered southwest as it began its long, slow descent from the Hill of Harley. Along the way, it passed what was clearly a milestone, though its inscription was quite illegible. Clearly, I was some miles from somewhere worth naming.
I was, in fact, six miles from Huna and eleven from Wick, as revealed to me by the early OS maps, that liked to include such information as mileages indicated on milestones. Thanks, Ordnance Survey!
Bridges of Auckengill
The descending road began to carry me past mores scattered houses, now comprising Auckengill in place of Freswick. It crossed a culverted stream, barely worthy of notice, at a point that had been labelled as ‘Bridges of Auckengill’ (i.e., in the plural) on early OS maps.
What is now the Loch Burn but had been the Water of Auckengill, has long been canalised for irrigation and forced to follow an artificial route between in fields. In times past though, it followed its own route, branching in two before meeting the sea, hence requiring multiple bridges. The two arms of ‘Water of Achingill’ are clearly shown on Arrowsmith’s 1807 map, even if no bridges are.
The burn cuts quite a gully before meeting the sea, giving rise to the village’s name ― Auckengill comes from Norse Hákonar-gil, meaning ‘Håkon’s gill’ (i.e. ravine).
Auckengill was spelt as ‘Ockingill’ on the mid-18th century maps of William Roy and James Dorrit. A hundred and twenty years later, the OS name book would inevitably record a description almost identical with that of Freswick: ‘A large district containing a number of farms, crofts etc. The property of Mrs Thompson Sinclair of Freswick.’
It too has been the scene of many shipwrecks, such as the coaster Dunleith in 1930, the trawler Hassett in 1953 and a Swedish steamer, Stelatus, which ran ashore in fog in 1959.
Contiguous with Auckengill, but historically distinct, was Nybster, half a mile down the road.
Many local place names end in ‘-bster’, which is a contraction of a Norse worse bólstaðr, indicating a farmstead.
St Clare Hall
While Nybster was still spread out, it was slightly more centralised and village-y than Auckengill had been. For one thing, it had a community hall ― St Clare Hall ― the pebble-dashing of which disguised its origin as a large wooden hut that originally served as a canteen at a naval base in Scapa Flow. It was bought at auction in 1920 and erected in the village and, the recent war being very much on people’s minds, its gateposts were made as war memorials, accompanying a plaque within the hall.
The gateposts were sculpted by John Nicolson (1843-1934), a farmer with a talent for such things, combined with a deep interest in local history. He lived on a farm in Nybster from 1858 onwards.
Caithness Broch Centre
Next door to St Clare Hall (or as close to next door as these strung-out villages get) was the Caithness Broch Centre. Renamed from the Northlands Viking Centre in 2009 to reflect that Caithness’s history goes back further than the Norse, as exemplified by Nybster’s very own broch, this local history centre occupies Nybster’s Old School House.
Any hopes I might have had about finding refreshment there were probably unduly optimistic even had it been open. However, the centre is open April to September, so I was too early by weeks.
A grassy area behind the building was entirely in its lee however, which meant I could take a rest out of the wind and could actually dare open out my map.
When I felt sufficiently rested, I continue southwest down the road, missing out a billion more interesting geos on the way. The weather somehow endeavoured to get ever more blustery as the day progressed, topping up the haze and supplementing it with occasional blizzards of sea foam, just to keep me on my toes. Not that I was on my toes – my feet were firmly planted on the asphalt for maximum purchase against sudden strong gusts.
At some point, the sporadic buildings stopped being Nybster and started being Keiss. In the distance, Keiss Castle lurked hazily in the shoreline, much as Freswick House had done.
Keiss Baptist Church
One of the sporadic buildings that I passed on my way into Keiss was Keiss Baptist Church, which looked to me like the love child of a church and a garden shed. What its quite unremarkable exterior failed to betray from a distance ― but then literally spelt out if you got close enough to read a shield-shaped plaque ― was that it was the first Baptist Church in Scotland. Sort of.
Keiss’s Baptist congregation was organised in 1750, which does make it the first, but the current church building wasn’t built until just over a century later, in 1854. It replaced a small chapel built in the 1840s which, in turn, had replaced a nearby turf-built house erected some time after 1763.
I failed to properly appreciate the historicity of the structure, which is to say that I forgot to photograph it.
Looking at the map, it had seemed that a road would take me from the A99 to Keiss Castle. Once again, the map was, if not lying, then playing fast and loose with the truth. The road existed but it was a gated farm track of the sort where I would have had to stride right through the farm. Some farms sitting across footpaths, you you can do that with no problem. This looked to me like a farm fed up with people pulling that sort of stunt. It was perhaps just as well as, by looking from a distance, I avoided being pummelled by brine-laden winds.
Keiss Castle was a four-storey affair plus an attic and vaulted basement. It was built by George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness (1582-1643) around 1600 but was already ruinous a century later. It was bought in 1710 by Sir William Sinclair, 2nd Baronet of Dunbeath (d. 1767) who made Keiss his family seat in 1752.
Keiss House ― also called New Keiss Castle ― was built about 1755, which suggests that Sir William wasn’t that keen on living in old Keiss Castle, however repaired it may have been. He only got to live it in for ten years, though, before his imploding finances forced him to sell it to his cousins, the Sinclairs of Ulbster.
Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835) ― the author of the Old Statistical Account ― sold the house in 1813 to John Macleay (c. 1779-1821), head baillie for the Burgh of Wick. It gained its current form in 1860, when it was extended in the Scottish baronial style by the architect David Bryce (1803-1876) for Col Kenneth MacLeay (1817-1890), John’s nephew.
After the Sinclairs
In 1866 it was purchased by the Duke of Portland. The duke at that time was the highly eccentric John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879) who did not want to meet people and never invited anyone to his home. Though he employed hundreds on various construction projects, employees were forbidden even to acknowledge him (he sacked one for raising his hat).
In the 1880s, it was purchased by English businessman Sir Francis Tress Barry (1825-1907). It remains in private ownership, today, though I’m not sure who owns it. The most recent reference I could find pertained to the 1980s and said only that it was ‘in use and occupied by an American family’.
Continuing down the road, I passed Keiss Cemetery, which had many impressive memorials and also one of Keiss’s three Iron Age brochs. With three brochs and, arguably, two castles, one might accuse Keiss of trying too hard to impress. It needs to chill.
A pedestrian pavement began at the cemetery, it generally being seen as bad form if cemeteries add to their business by drumming up new custom via roadkill. This conveyed me into the heart of Keiss (Cèis), with its church (built in 1827), school and, most importantly, pub.
I, too, needed to chill and this was just the ticket.
The Village Inn was the Sinclair Bay Hotel until 2019, when it had a change in ownership. The hotel aspect became self-catering holiday apartments under the name Sinclair Bay Apartments, while the bar became the Village Inn. Its owners are endeavouring to provide a centre for community activity, which is much-needed following the closure of Keiss’s last shop in 2017.
The Village Inn fed me a G&T and some chocolate and I felt all the better for both.
I emerged from the Village Inn still vaguely hoping to encounter Keiss’s long-closed shop, a hope that was both forlorn and doomed. I shunned Keiss’s tiny harbour (built in 1831); choosing instead to press on down a cycle/footpath that had been handily supplied.
Keiss Harbour and the surrounding part of Sinclair Bay have their very own itany of shipwrecks, incuding the sloop Kintail (1823, pre-dating the harbour), galliot Minerva (1831), schooner Oscar (1838), Emily and Empress Eugenie (both 1853) and the trawler Star of Victory (1939). Minerva had come from what was then Stettin in Prussia but is now Szczecin in Poland.
The foot/cycle path lasted for about two thirds of a mile, ending just past the turn-off for Keiss Beach. I had intended to take that turn-off, as Keiss Beach stretches out to Reiss Sands forming over three miles of beach that, under other conditions, might have been lovely to walk.
However, not only had the wind, amazingly, become even more gusty while I was in the pub but also a bank of dark cloud was promising to sweep in and cut out much of the daylight. I was having some trouble fighting the wind to keep going forwards on the road and I didn’t feel the need to add sand-blasting and spray-drenching to the experience.
Instead, I headed south along the A99 with the beach’s dunes visible beyond the fields to my left. After a mile and a quarter, this brought me to the Bridge of Wester.
Bridge of Wester
The Bridge of Wester crosses the Water of Wester, which flows from the Loch of Wester out to the sea. There’s a bit of a theme with the names, there. Technically, these days, the Bridge of Wester is actually four bridges ― old and new road bridges plus two others related to an undersea pipeline fabrication works.
The original road is stone with two arches and was built between 1830 and 1835. It was designed by Thomas Telford (1757-1824), the so-called ‘Colossus of Roads’. In the 1970s, the road was realigned and a new bridge constructed. This second bridge was itself demolished and replaced in 1994.
The latest bridge is a lifting bridge comprising two spans with a central pier in the river. One of the spans passes over a narrow-gauge railway (which itself occupies one of the works bridges) and it is that span that can open to allow large pipeline apparatus to pass underneath. Strangely, there are no warning signs or lights pertaining to the swing bridge.
The pipeline fabrication works is operated by Subsea 7, a Luxembourgish company with its head office in London (a situation brought about via its creation through corporate mergers).
The works themselves were founded in 1978 and include the aforementioned narrow-gauge railway tracks, which stretch nearly 5 miles (7.8 km) inland. Pipeline bundles are assembled on the tracks and then driven into the sea to be towed by ship.
Quoys of Reiss
After the Bridge of Wester, the A99 swung about to head south-southeast and I followed this down for a mile to the farm of Quoys of Reiss. A quoy is, in Scotland, an area of wasteland enclosed for farming.
As I was passing the farm the ever-gustier wind decided to properly flex its muscles and plucked my hat from my head. Now, this might not sound very impressive ― wind lifts people’s hats all the time, it’s why some have chinstraps ― but mine was a thick woolly hat vaguely resembling a tea cosy, which was jamed tightly onto my head. There was no brim or other surface for the wind to apply to lift to. In short, the wind’s removal of my hat was down to simple brute force. I said it was gusty.
I spent the next few minutes desperately chasing my hat about in the road, as it danced on eddies in the wind. I managed to catch it before it could disappear over a field never to be seen again, while simultaneously avoiding being run down by traffic.
With my hat jammed tightly back on my head, I walked another mile down the long and ramrod-straight road, until I came to the entrance of Lower Reiss Farm. Their sign was mounted in its own low wall, and I sat in its lee for several minutes, taking a quick rest.
As I sat there, the light levels dropped alarmingly. The sky was now a dark and brooding shelf of cloud an, beneath it there rolled a bank of misty haze. Within minutes, visibility dropped sharply and I reconsidered a plan I had had to turn off here and make for Ackergill Tower. Visibility was already appalling and it looked very much like it was going to rain too. Not for the first time that day, I decided the best, though least interesting, bet was simply to press on to the end…
About a third of a mile later, I found myself in Reiss, where the A99 meets the B876. This is a staggered junction now, but in times past was clearly a crossroads. The northern and eastern arms comprise the A-road, and the western arm is the B-road, meaning that east-west road suddenly changes designation. The southern arm is unclassified.
Traffic had picked up a little, partly as both A and B roads were now feeding it and partly due to time of day. Nonetheless, I turned east (southeast, really) and picked up speed. A light rain began, as expected, and now I just wanted to get to the end and be done for the day.
The rain kept up for the next mile and a half, easing up only as I reached the turn-off for Ackergill Tower, along which I would have come had I stuck with my plan to leave the A99 at Lower Reiss.
Ackergill is a 16th century tower house built by Clan Keith and which passed violently between them and the Sinclairs several times. It then passed through several owners and became a hotel and business venue from 1986 to 2018 and now belongs to an American philanthropist and former Episcopalian minister, Betsee Parker.
I, sticking with my frustrating theme for the day, saw nothing of it as I walked straight past the turn-off. From this point, I had a pedestrian pavement, so at least the risk of being run over had receded.
Wick John O’Groats Airport
Now at the outskirts of Wick, I passed Wick John O’Groats Airport, which is owned and maintained by the Inverness-based Highlands and Islands Airports Limited. The airfield first opened in 1933 and became RAF Wick during WW2; it was from there that the photo-reconnaissance plane that spotted the Bismarck took off (she was hiding in Norway’s Grimstadfjord).
Wick Airport was a departure point for commercial domestic flights to Edinburgh and Aberdeen but, in 2020, both Loganair and Eastern Airways ended their respective services. Today the airport mainly handles helicopters servicing oilrigs and windfarms.
After the airport, I found myself passing a Tesco superstore, where I was able to grab a drink and a much-needed sandwich. Upon my emergence from the store, I was greeted by a large crow which cawed at me and followed me down the road.
‘You’ve done this before,’ I commented to it. ‘I’ll bet someone regularly feeds you while they’re waiting for a bus.’
‘Caw,’ the crow agreed. ‘Caw!’
Sadly for it, I was unwilling to share; I felt oddly guilty about that.
Wick (Inbhir Ùige) is a small town taking its name from vík, the Norse word for ‘bay’. It was made a burgh of barony by Robert III sometime around 1400, and a royal burgh by James VI in 1589.
I entered Wick proper via North Road, which became George Street, then the High Street, lined with shops. From there I turned into Bridge Street and then crossed the bridge.
The earliest reference to Wick Bridge dates to 1665, with the original being a wooden bridge standing on stone piers. This was was refurbished in 1776 but then replaced by a new Telford-designed bridge downstream in 1809. This too was replaced in 1877, with a broader stone bridge that reused Telford’s footings. It now carries the A99 (which I was still on).
My hotel was right next to the end of the bridge, which was handy.
Mackay’s Hotel was built in 1883 by Alexander Sinclair, who had returned from America, where he had made a fortune; in its early days it was a temperance hotel.
It later came to be owned by John Mackay, who started out as owner of the Masons Arms Hotel in Stromness, Orkney, and built a small Orcadian hotel empire ― in addition to building a new Stromness Hotel in 1901, he built the Stenness Hotel and acquired the Kirkwall Hotel, and Lerwick’s Queens Hotel. Expanding to the mainland, he also acquired hotels in Strathpeffer and Wick, renaming both of the latter as MacKay’s Hotels.
The hotel currently belongs to the Lamont family, who have owned it since 1950s when it was bought by Catherine Macrae. Her son-in-law, Donald Lamont, took it over in 1956 and his son, Murray Lamont, bought it in the 1990s. Murray, his wife Ellie and their daughter Jennifer run it still.
You might notice that, in the photo of the hotel, the street name Ebenezer Place can be seen above the corner entrance. For some reason best known only to them, the good burghers of Wick demanded that Alexander Sinclair name that cut-off end as a separate street, when he built the hotel. Today, its single doorway leads to the hotel’s ‘№ 1 Bistro’ restaurant (in which I was served an excellent a meal).
At just 6’ 9” or 2.06 m long, Ebenezer Place has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest street.
The Day is Done
Having checked into my room, I immediately went out again just to make absolutely certain I knew where Wick railway station was; I would be catching the very first train of the morning. In the meantime, a hot bath and a good meal went a long way to righting all ills.
My first walking trip in two years had gone reasonably well, even if I had missed out a bunch of interesting things. It was good to know that I could still do the distances and I certainly intended to do more…
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,987 miles