MY FINAL walking day of 2019 began with breakfast in the Melvich Hotel (established 1851). They had helpfully painted a mural map along one wall of the dining area and I dawdled for a bit, gauging my progress against it. That progress would cease if I didn’t get outside and do the next bit, however, so I settled my bill, picked up my stuff and headed out to do that walking thing…
I had been vaguely (and vainly) hoping for blue skies and sunshine. Not expecting them, obviously — that would have been foolish — but hoping because, well, why not?
The day’s walk began with the familiar: a stroll along the A836. There’d be quite a lot of that throughout the day but, for now, it conveyed me through the village of Melvich (A’ Mhealbhaich). This had shops and houses, as villages do, but also a view on my left of the bay for which it was named in Old Norse; melr vík means ‘sand dune bay’.
Melvich & Portskerra
When the famous military engineer and surveyor Maj Gen William Roy (1726-1790) compiled the first decently accurate map of Scotland, around 1750, he showed both Melvich and nearby Portskerra (Port Sgeire) as settlements, though he labelled them ‘Melwick’ and ‘Portskerry’ respectively. In his day, they were quite separate but today they run into one another, with Portskerra being to the left of the hotel in the first photo above, and Melvich to the right.
Roy also showed a settlement called Torr across the Halladale River (which empties into the bay). The hamlet of Torr has long since been cleared but across the water was nonetheless where I needed to be. But how best to get there?
The footbridge above wasn’t there in Roy’s day although he’d probably approve of the fact that it was built by soldiers. By 3 Troop, 48 Field Squadron Construction, Royal Engineers to be precise, in the summer of 1987.
Its existence was most welcome as it meant I could cross with out fording the river or diverting over a mile upstream. Except, when I’d already crossed it, I learnt that its existence is less substantial than I’d thought.
I’m kinda glad there was no such sign on the Melvich end as I was completely spared weighing up whether to risk crossing it or not.
Just beyond the bridge was something else not present in Roy’s day but built soon after (c. 1765) by landowner Hugh Mackay.
Today, Bighouse Lodge is a sporting lodge, offering accommodation to parties predominantly staying for fishing, stalking and shooting. And also, according to their website, spectacular hiking.
A shooting party was out and about in a nearby field blasting grouse out of the air. I made sure, when I passed them, to take careful note of what direction they were shooting in and, accordingly, not be in it. I was delighted to see that their gamekeeper, having likewise seen me, was making sure he knew where I was and that I wasn’t in the firing line. Me getting shot was a problem none of us needed.
While I was avoiding the numerous twitchy shotguns of the grouse shooters, I was also walking along a narrow single-track road that provided the only road access to Bighouse Lodge. This had started off gorse-flanked and parallel to the river but soon swung away to be surrounded by rough fields and dry stone walls.
Bighouse Farm Road
A little further still was an unsigned turn-off that would ultimately lead to the single cottage and farmstead that occupies the space where Torr used to be. I ventured a little way along this turn-off, for my map showed a footpath leading off it, across a hill and past a couple of apparently nameless lochans.
Pondering the Path
It was my intention to take the footpath, if it was in any fit state to take. I knew that it had been depicted as a proper track on the 1st and 2nd edition OS maps but by the 1920s was only being indicated as a footpath; it might therefore be anything from clear and dry to utterly invisible.
As it turned out, it was tending towards the latter, being delineated mostly by stones to either side of it, but was also as boggy as all hell, thanks to it raining heavily through much of the night. I stood and contemplated the merits of this morass for some moments before concluding that I wasn’t that keen, after all.
I returned to the ‘main’ single-track road and continued along it, until it returned me to my old friend, the A836. Right next to the junction, where the A-road had been realigned and straightened, I found this old bridge still linking the two roads and straddling the tiny Gibigill Burn.
A-Road to Reay
Resuming the A-road
Now back on the A836, I followed it eastwards, running not quite parallel to the footpath I’d shunned. They would converge again soon enough but for now the road snaked its way between low hills with only the occasional car or lorry to concern me.
When the footpath did eventually meet up with the A-road it looked much drier and better defined at that end, making me wonder if I should have braved the bog. On reflection, I think not. Getting to the drier bit would have been just horrible.
As I ambled along, doubting my earlier decisions, I suddenly found that I had quite run out of Sutherland.
Caithness (Gallaibh) is an old Scottish county occupying the north-eastern tip of Great Britain. Its English names derives from Old Norse Katanes meaning ‘headland of the Catti’, where the Catti were an ancient Pictish tribe.
The Gaelic name Gallaibh means ‘among the strangers’, where said strangers were the Norse, who started to settle there from the 10th century onwards, leading to Caithness becoming part of the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney. Its ownership later became disputed and was settled as Scottish in 1266 through the Treaty of Perth. Thereafter, it was considered a part of Inverness-shire until 1503.
Geographically, its is quite distinct from the mountainous territory of the Highlands, comprising large expanses of flat, open bog, some of which has been drained to form equally flat fields.
The flatness of its terrain was immediately striking with only very low hills to give the moor a ‘rolling’ feel. This meant, though, that I could see quite a way, and had a clear view of Loch Hollistan as I passed it.
This loch is quite small and surrounded by duck-hunting hides but used to be roughly four times its present size, as is shown on old maps. Well, I say ‘old maps’; Roy didn’t show it at all but then there wasn’t a road to see it from in his day either.
Early OS maps show it as different sizes, larger in the 2nd (1907) edition than the 1st (1878). The loch burst its banks, or rather part of the bank gave way, early in the 20th century, allowing much of the water to drain out.
Beyond Loch Hollistan, the road curved around in a series of S-bends without having much in the way of terrain features that it obviously needed to avoid (it was actually curving around the low ridge of Drum Hollistan).
At one point of the curve, a vista of distant Sandside Bay opened up, beyond which Caithness was lower and flatter still. Also beyond it was an industrial site that I knew to be Dounreay, the site of five nuclear reactors.
Dounreay (Dùnrath) means ‘fortified mound’, which, given the topography, sounds like a case of making a military site out of a molehill. The name is assumed to refer to a broch (an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure).
The Reay Shop
Whatever the origin of its name, between me and it lay just plain Reay (Ràth), a village lacking the ‘doun’ part but possessing a shop that was open.
I followed the A-road as it slowly lost height and then passed through woodland to enter the village, where I availed myself of this wonderful opportunity to purchase a sandwich and other lunchy things.
A little further on, a side-road was signposted for nearby Sandside and I thought it might be a lovely idea to sit on its beach to eat lunch.
I ate my lunch perched on a bridge parapet at what I hoped was a safe distance from Sandside’s contaminated beach and considered that, according to my research notes, the beach was no stranger to dangerous bits of metal.
The Sandside Chase
In 1437, it was the site of the Sandside Chase, a battle between Clan Mackay (from Sutherland) and Clan Gunn, which was prominent in Caithness. There had already been many previous border raids by one or the other of them including the 1426 Battle of Harpsdale, for his part in which one of the leading Mackays — Neil Wasse Mackay, son of the clan chief, Angus Dow Mackay — had been imprisoned by James I.
No sooner had Neil been released, he led the Mackays back into Caithness. They made it as far as Dounreay before encountering resistance but managed to push the Gunns back as far as Forss Water (some six miles east of Reay). There, Caithness reinforcements changed the tide of battle, forcing the Mackays to retreat all the way back to Sandside. Once there, however, the tide turned again, with a rearguard force the Mackays had posted on Drum Hollistan coming down to reinforce them.
After bottling the Caithness-men into suitable position, a massacre ensued and those that managed to break out were again pursued, running for their lives, as far as Dounreay.
When I was done with both eating and daydreaming about ancient battles, I set off once more along the A836. The part of Reay I had been in was technically New Reay and this turned out to be separated from (old) Reay by a gap consisting only of open fields.
Reay Parish Church
My arrival in Reay proper was signalled by my reaching Reay Parish Church, a category A listed building that was built in 1739 to a T-plan design, with a pyramidal roof on its bell tower. The tail of the T was turned into a vestry during the 1950s.
Continuing on, beyond the church, I avoided the terrible fate of being burned by rays… no, wait, my mistake, I avoided Reay Burn by crossing it on the early 19th century twin-arch Reay Bridge.
Bridge of Isauld
A similar bridge, the Bridge of Isauld, awaited me at Reay’s far end and I paused perched on its low parapet, as I made my next decision. The choice before me was this:
I could stay on the A836 and thus mostly in sight of the coast, which would take me to Thurso in about eleven miles. Or I could turn right after the Bridge of Isauld and take the single-track road via Shebster (actually the C1001, but C-roads aren’t signposted as such). This would be further from the sea but would have less traffic and would take only ten miles.
I ummed and ahhed for just long enough to make it a proper little sit down and rest but I’d pretty much made up my mind before even stopping. The A-road traffic was still light and I felt I’d much rather get to see the sea than shave a mile off the distance. A-road it was, then!
The buildings above comprise most of Isauld (Innis Allt, ‘burn island’), with the more substantial one at the far end being Isauld Cottage. It shows up on the earliest OS map, whereas the three weatherboard houses are 20th century constructions. On either side, you can see the Caithness flatness.
Isauld was labelled ‘Easall’ on William Roy’s map but in the 1750s it was without roads. In 2019, by contrast, it had an A836 and I was not afraid to use it…
I strode off determinedly, soon passing Dounreay, where people were doubtless hard at work harnessing the atom.
Two Sites, Not One
Dounreay is really two sites in one: The Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment (NRTE), which has two of Dounreay’s five reactors, and Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment (NPDE), which has the rest. Vulcan does submarine reactor testing for the Royal Navy, while the NPDE had a critical role (pun very much deliberate) in the development of the UK’s fast breeder reactors in the late 1950s and ’60s.
Although still operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, ownership of the NPDE has passed to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and all of its plutonium has now been removed to Sellafield. The NRTE is similarly being decommissioned; its reactors shut down in 2015, the building of test reactors having been deemed unnecessary in an era of computer modelling. That’s quite a lot of trust in computer models!
I passed by the entrances to both Vulcan and the NPDE and through a string of scattered cottages and farmsteads that my map didn’t name but a larger-scale one now tells me was called Buldoo. Off to my left, between me and Dounreay, I could see the signs of the old airfield on which it was constructed. A turn-off offered me another chance to visit Shebster, in case I wanted to change my mind about my route. I did not.
As ever seems to be the way with nuclear sites, I started to see wind turbines sprouting all across the countryside, like some sort of gigantic, moving mutant flowers. A small thicket of them had erupted between me and me the sea but a far greater flowerbed of triple-bladed blooms had established itself on Stemster Hill.
Actually, to be fair, Stemster Hill is 110 m at its summit and the neighbouring Hill of Shebster reaches 130 m. But the rise is extremely gradual — a broad bulge rather than a peak. Even the A-road had managed to sneak up to a height of 50 m and was forced to lose most of that as it approached the Bridge of Forss, an early 19th century structure straddling the Water of Forss.
Bridge of Forss
It was this far, you may recall me saying earlier, that the Mackays got in 1437 before Caithness reinforcements pushed them back.
William Roy, anticipating Star Wars jokes with surprising prescience, actually did spell it ‘Force’ on his map. Aaron Arrowsmith, in 1807, went for ‘Forse’ with an ‘s’. The OS 1st edition, in 1878, had embraced the double ‘s’ spelling and showed the hamlet in enough detail that I can see it’s hardly grown since.
There’s the old mill on the river, Forss Farm, Forss Cottage and Forss House — a Georgian country house built in 1810 and now turned into a hotel. There have been maybe a couple of newer houses added, but otherwise that’s all Forss has to offer.
Forss was exactly halfway between Reay and Thurso, being six miles to each. From it the road climbed slowly but noticeably, having apparently not read all the accounts of how flat Caithness is. It was wooded to begin with but soon broke back out into broad open fields.
Forss, stung my by assessment of its size, made a last-ditch effort to impress me by means of a cluster of newer houses where the old school and smithy once stood. After that, the next few miles were just the same thing repeated: the sea on my left with a flat field between us, a low hill on my right sometimes dotted with wind turbines; occasional farmstead popped up just to keep me on my toes.
As I plodded ever-closer to my final walking destination for the year, I passed on my right an unsignposted turn-off that served as the access road to a farm called Mains of Brims. Next to the farm, had I taken that road, I’d have found the ruins of Brims Castle, built by Henry Sinclair between 1564 and 1590 mostly, it seems, as protection from the thuggish henchmen of the 4th Earl of Caithness, George Sinclair (who was not only his kinsman but also his clan chief).
If you think being the Earl’s kinsman might have spared him such grief, think again; George had already had his own son imprisoned in Girnigoe Castle.
Brims Castle remained a habitable residence until the 20th century but today is a roofless ruin. Not that I saw it, however. I strolled right on past the turning, blissfully unaware, and kept on going.
Soon, the fields turned back into moorland and low dry stone walls flanked the A-road, upon which the traffic was about to go bananas. The A-road reached its summit (105 m) on the flank of Scrabster Hill and, rounding that hill, revealed Thurso Bay ahead and Dunnet Head beyond it.
I’m fairly sure I didn’t say ‘race you down that hill’ out loud but the traffic behaved like I did. One moment, I was walking by a mostly empty road with a car maybe every couple of minutes. The next moment it was nothing but cars. At first, this binary traffic state perplexed me but then I checked the time. I was within spitting distance of the only town for miles, on a main road during rush hour. I quickly resolved to get off it.
My salvation came at the very next bend in the form of a footpath sign pointing off down a farm track. It led, it said, to Scrabster, which I knew to sit at the western end of Thurso Bay. A stroll across fields and then along the bay seemed infinitely preferable than sharing an A-road with everyone heading home from work. I charged down the footpath apace.
By taking this path I had temporarily stopped making progress towards Thurso and was now basically cutting across in front of it. I could afford to be patient though, I knew I’d get there soon enough.
The track met another, which then spat me onto a road. Moments later I was standing by the bay, gazing upon Scrabster Harbour.
Scrabster is a fishing and ferry port, the latter serving Stromness in Orkney. Prior to 2008 there was also a weekly service to the Faroe Islands but the Faroese ferry line that ran it then savagely cut its operations, ditching two ports in Denmark and a service to Norway too.
A9 & East Gills
The road from Scrabster to Thurso was another A-road, the A9 to be precise. Although generally, the shorter the number of a classified road the more major it is, the A9 was bucking that trend magnificently, forming a dead end spur to Scrabster Harbour. I set off along it, around the edge of the bay but soon found an alternative in the form of a private road (East Gills) that ran closer to the shoreline. This was clearly the old course of the road, a new one having been needed when they widened it as there simply wasn’t space.
The old road rejoined the A9 by the ruins of Scrabster Castle. And when I say ‘ruins’, what I really mean is ‘grassy bumps’.
First recorded in 1328, this was the site of the palace of the Bishops of Caithness, though again here there might be better descriptions: ‘keep,’ perhaps?
In 1544, the castle was seized by George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness (yes, him again), as part of a feud he had ongoing with the Earl of Sutherland (the Earl’s son was about to take possession of it as a ‘temporary’ bishop).
The castle was ruinous by 1726 and today only its earthworks and some rubble remain.
Entering by A-Road
Although I was forced back onto the A9 at Scrabster Castle, I could have left it again at the next side-road, from the end of which the footpath around the bay would have continued. I was, however, now at the edge of Thurso proper and I needed to cut into the town centre, where I would find my hotel.
I thus followed the A9 until it met the A386, where the latter stopped and the former continued now more worthy of its single digit number. Despite it being well past rush hour, the A-road was still busy but that was no hardship as I now had pedestrian pavement to walk upon. And, by doing exactly that, I entered the northernmost town on the island of Great Britain.
Thurso is proud of that claim, it would seem, for it was proudly emblazoned across the ‘Welcome to Thurso’ sign. Beneath it was the town’s second claim to fame, namely that it was the birthplace of Sir William Alexander Smith, the founder of the Boys’ Brigade.
The Boys’ Brigade is an international interdenominational Christian youth organisation, founded in 1883. It was founded as essentially a kind of explicitly Christian boy scouts, except this was a full quarter century before the scout movement got started.
Smith & Baden-Powell
The similarity between the two organisations is not purely coincidental. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, wrote a military manual, Aids to Scouting while on service in Africa and found, on his return, that youth groups like the Boys’ Brigade had embraced it with enthusiasm. So much enthusiasm, in fact, that Baden-Powel became the BB’s vice-president in the May of that year and Sir William encouraged him to both lead the organisation’s scouting activities and to rewrite his book with children as the audience. The result was Scouting for Boys, the scout movement’s foundational handbook.
I have to admit that I didn’t give two hoots about Thurso’s connection with Sir William Alexander Smith. What I did care about was finding my hotel, which I achieved just as the sun slid down behind the horizon. Later, clean and rested, I went in search of food and found an Indian restaurant that suited me just fine.
My walking for 2019 was now over. Roll on, 2020…
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,935 miles