THE last day of April 2022 began with my awakening early enough to be downstairs and ready to eat the very moment breakfast service began in my hotel. Then, pleasingly filled with both bacon and enthusiasm, I headed outside to walk through Wick and then southwards to Lybster, the name of which I had as yet no idea how to pronounce (it’s ‘libe-ster’ not ‘lib-ster’).
To get there, I had two broadly parallel routes from which to choose: the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT) — an unofficial and partly waymarked trail mostly clinging to the cliff edge — in some places by its metaphorical fingernails — and the North Coast 500 (NC500), which is the road route. I would use both before the day was over…
Whereas my previous walk had seen me cross back over the Wick River, this time I stayed resolutely on its southern bank, which put me squarely in Pulteneytown. A herring fishing town, this was planned out by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in 1808 on behalf of the British Fisheries Society (1786-1893) and constructed by local contractor George Burn (1759-1820), who had completed the initial build by 1811.
Named for Sir William Pulteney (1729-1805) — a recently-deceased governor of the society — but colloquially nicknamed ‘Herringopolis’, the new town provided homes and work for those displaced by the Highland Clearances and quickly grew to eclipse other fishing ports and become the largest herring fishing port in Europe (a title it took from the nearby village of Staxigo). That’s the largest port for herring fishing, obviously, not a port for fishing monstrously massive mutant mega-herring.
Even if the herring were normal sized, there were so many boats bringing in vast numbers of them that they soon outstripped the capacity that Telford hand planned for, necessitating an extension of the harbour in 1826. The enlargement was carried out by local harbour constructor James Bremner of Stain (whom we noted last time as the builder of Ackergillshore Harbour).
Herring Today, Gone Tomorrow
Sadly, today, the herring trade is all but gone because the herring are also gone. This fact is probably not unconnected with Pulteneytown having been the largest herring fishing port in Europe. It stands to reason that if you systematically catch all the fish, there’s going to come a point when all the fish have been caught. In this scenario, the reward for complete success is total failure.
I didn’t know it yet — though I definitely harboured some suspicions — but my day would also present a mixture of success and failure. The stunning but sometimes precipitous scenery of the JOGT promised to be quite a challenge, but it was one I was willing to step up to…
Pulteneytown — which knew a thing or two about success and failure, remember? — decided to offer me an opportunity to practice stepping up, should I want it, in the form of the Black Stairs. This is a flight of about thirty steps that link Lower Dunbar Street to Pulteneytown’s Inner Harbour. The steps were a feature of Telford’s original plan, although their name seems to have been attached to them later.
In 1937, the Black Stairs were painted by the English artist Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976). If he was aware of their name then he didn’t show it; not only did he not paint them blackly but he also titled his artwork merely as ‘Steps at Wick’.
Although most of his works depicted his native Lancashire, Lowry regularly holidayed in Scotland during the 1930s, thus explaining his familiarity with the both Black Stairs and the old turnpike tollhouse in Thurso.
Steps at Wick was actually Lowry’s second painting in Pulteneytown, the first being a work from the previous year titled Old Houses, Wick. I had actually hurried past the site of the ‘old houses’ in order to get to the Black Stairs but took no photo against which to compare Lowry’s view of them.
Old Fog Cannon
In hindsight, I might regret rushing past the ‘old houses’ with quite so much unseemly haste. I had, I now realise, somewhat jumped the gun.
The cannon shown above was presented to Pulteney Harbour Trust in 1881, the gift of John Pender (1816-1896), who was at that time the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Wick & Pulteneytown (the two towns were administered separately until 1902 but shared an MP). Its intended purpose was to be used as a fog signal, which I suppose makes it a form of communication over distance. As such it is vaguely appropriate for a gift from Pender, who had co-founded the Anglo-American Telegraph Company in 1866 to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
The fog cannon is not in its original position. Having long since fallen into disuse, it was renovated and re-sited in 2012, facing onto the Inner Harbour as a historic curiosity.
The Inner Harbour is Pulteneytown’s original harbour, designed by Telford and constructed by Burn between 1808 and 1811.
Trying hard not to imagine what the aromaticity of Europe’s largest herring port must have been like, I turned my back on the Inner Harbour and made my way past the Outer Harbour, which was the extension built by Bremner. A little way beyond that I found a structure to cater for those who were too stunned by excessive olfactory assault to pay due attention to the fog cannon…
Old Lifeboat Station
Wick has had a lifeboat station since 1848, when a fierce gale destroyed many boats and cost 37 lives. This appalling loss of life prompted the British Fisheries Society to do something to mitigate against such losses in future, that something being the provision of a 12-oar lifeboat at a cost of £169. A boathouse opening onto the river was built by the harbour swing-bridge in 1872 but, in summer months, the lifeboat was more usually launched from Salmon Rock, upon which the old lifeboat station shown above now stands.
The RNLI took over running the lifeboat in 1895, replacing it with a new oar-driven boat that same year. By 1913, they had decided that motorisation was the future and paid £4,000 to erect the new building in the photo. Work began in 1915 but, thanks to the untimely intervention of WW1, while the boathouse was finished in 1916, the actual boat did not arrive until 1921. After countless brave rescues by a series of ever-improving lifeboats, the boathouse and ramp were abandoned in 1994; today the lifeboat lives permanently afloat in the Outer Harbour.
While the old lifeboat station no longer serves RNLI needs, it is by no means completely disused. It now provides winter storage for Isabella Fortuna, a traditional Fifie fishing vessel launched in 1890. For 86 years, this venerable boat fished the seas for generations of the Arbroath-based family that owned her — the Smiths. They fitted an engine to supplement her sails in 1919 and replaced and upgraded it in 1928 and 1932.
Eventually, in 1976, the last of the seagoing Smiths retired and Isabella Fortuna was bought by a keen restorer, Hobson Rankin, who took four years to return her to her proper glory. In 1997, the Wick Society bought Isabella Fortuna to for £6,000. In the summer they berth her in the harbour — though sadly, she is not in my Inner Harbour photo — and in winter she dwells in the old lifeboat boathouse for maintenance.
Well of Cairndhuna
After passing the old lifeboat station, I found myself following a rough road below a cliff. This was once the route of a long-disused tramway serving the South-head Quarries. A somewhat faded and near-illegible marker stone told me that I was passing the Well of Cairndhuna, described by the Ordnance Survey name books of 1971-3 as a ‘powerful spring or spout situate a short distance from the New Breakwater’.
The name of the well would seem to be derived from Gaelic càrn dubh (‘black rock’), suggesting some antiquity. No meaningful antiquity can be ascribed to the marker stone, however, which is only about twenty years old and its state speaks more to skimping on the cost of its inscription than the irresistible ravages of time.
Speaking of incredible ravages, the ‘New Breakwater’ mentioned in the OS name book is long gone. This was completed by engineer Thomas Stevenson (1818–1887) in 1863, the British Fisheries Society having decided that Wick needed extra protection two years earlier.
The breakwater was a little over 15 m wide and constructed using stone blocks weighing five to ten tonnes, though this didn’t stop it being damaged by a succession of fierce storms. The worst was a particularly savage storm that struck in 1877, sweeping 2,640 tonnes of stone breakwater right off its foundations, destroying it utterly.
Stevenson’s son — the famous novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) — donned a diving suit to examine the already storm-damaged breakwater in 1868, in his capacity as resident inspector. He described the breakwater as being ‘the chief disaster of my father’s life’, which it probably was. Thomas had designed it to a formula that had worked fine elsewhere but didn’t account for the sheer strength and size of the storm waves Wick experiences. Now only its ruins remain.
Not the Best Steps
The road came to an end in the old quarry, which was (as quarries generally are) a scoop carved out of the cliff face. This would have been a frustrating dead end but for the provision of a flight of wet and muddy steps that climbed up a steep coastal slope beyond the quarry, depositing me beside a single-track road.
On my way up, I met a man with a dog who was on his way down. He (the man, not the dog) felt the need to comment on how utterly, appallingly awful the steps were. What was impressive to me, though, was that he conveyed his complete contempt for this staircase almost entirely through tone. His actual words were a mild “they’re not the best steps, are they?” but the way that he said it conveyed so much more. They were not, he was saying, the best steps because they they were frankly the worst. Ever. A shocking and unforgiveable crime against stairways, which could only be a torment to traverse.
His dog, clearly keen to dash down them, was quite failing to sing from the same hymn sheet.
‘They are a bit muddy,’ I agreed though, privately, I was glad of them nonetheless. This seemed to give him the validation he desired. I quickly moved on, leaving him to experience the awful, unbearable anguish of the muddy bits.
The almost traffic-free, single-track road along which I now ambled had flat open fields on one side and the sea below me on the other. Except it wasn’t always directly the sea; sometimes it was great horizontal slabs of rock against which the sea lapped lazily with no hint at all of the wind-driven ferocity of which it is capable. This was a pretty restful road-walking experience and the road upon which I was doing it was known as the Trinkie Road.
What, you may well be asking at this point, is a ‘trinkie’? The answer is that it’s a Scots word for ‘trench’, although that’s not really much help without context. In this case, the Trinkie is an outdoor bathing pool that was created in 1904 out of an artefact of quarrying. Apparently, it is white-painted and repainted every year.
Once very popular but requiring some bravery on account of the water temperature, the Trinkie Pool was damaged by a storm a few years back and left to languish seemingly abandoned. Last year a local group secured funds to repair it, however, though its current appearance suggests that the work has still to go ahead. Hopefully they will succeed in their aim and the Trinkie Pool will once again ring to the screams of swimmers who have just learnt that the waters are quite cold enough to make even a penguin think twice.
Abominable Snow Chicken
Old Castle of Wick
The Trinkie Road continued for a short distance beyond the Trinkie Pool before curving around as if it were about to send any vehicles on a flying leap from the cliff edge but then ending abruptly as though it had reconsidered its choices. The literal end of the road was not the end of the journey, however, for a footpath lead off across a grassy field before taking to the cliff edge on the approach to Castle Geo.
The cliffs were still quite low at this point but dramatic all the same. Looming over the geo about as well as could be expected for a building in its diminished state was the Old Castle of Wick (which had been a rectangular four-storey tower (before it partially collapsed).
A tower was said to have been built on this site in the 12th century by Harald Maddadson (1134-1206), the Earl of Orkney and Mormaer of Caithness. These are not the remains of that tower, however, as they date to about two centuries later. Also known as the Old Man of Wick and Castle Oliphant, it perches on a rocky finger protruding into the sea between two geos — Castle Geo on one side and Lord Oliphant’s Leap on the other.
Lord Oliphant’s Leap
This geo takes its name from a story concerning Laurence, 3rd Lord Oliphant (d. 1566), who was out hunting on the hill of Yarrows when he was ambushed by his Sinclair enemies, led by their chief, George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness (d. 1582).
Badly outnumbered, Laurence fled for the safety of Castle Oliphant but found the drawbridge raised and, with his foes on his heels, he had no chance to wait for it to be lowered. With his life at stake, Laurence boldly spurred his horse to jump the 25-feet chasm and the stallion rose to the challenge, leaping across and conveying his master to safety (or so the story goes).
Having passed the Old Castle of Wick, I was now venturing onto the JOGT and, for the moment at least, I was feeling pretty confident. These days, my head for heights is inconsistent, albeit within a limited range of ‘lamentably poor’ to ‘negligible’ but even that is an improvement on where it used to be, which was permanently jammed into the “even thick socks are a challenge” end of the scale. As I said, I was feeling ready for anything within reason as I set off from the castle. Besides, the cliffs weren’t that high so far…
The path conveyed me past another geo and South Point, which was another rocky finger jabbing into the North Sea. It then cut across the grassy clifftop before meeting the jutting corner of a fenced-in field to my right, which had extended out to form a salient, narrowing the gap between fence and cliff edge.
East Caithness Cliffs
Brig o’ Stack
While a JOGT marker indicated that the way onwards lay in heading down the outside of that fence, a second marker indicated that a viewpoint lay off to my left. At first sight, this appeared to be a short promontory with a geo cutting in on either side. A glance at the map gave a better indication, however.
It was actually a rocky stack running parallel to the coast with a bridge meeting it not quite in the middle. The viewpoint was the stack, while the bridge, my map informed me was the Brig o’ Stack. This was actually a natural rock arch, caused by wave erosion.
Given that such an arch is a potential point of failure, liable to (eventually) collapse and also that if there’s one thing I hate more than a sheer drop on one side, it’s a sheer drop on both sides, venturing out onto this thing was the worst possible test I could possibly try to see how my head for heights was doing.
Stack o’ Brough
I may have been feeling pleased with myself but the trifling little stack accessed by the Brig o’ Stack was quickly proven to be nothing impressive at all. At least not when compared with the Stack o’ Brough that lurked a little further down the coast.
Also known locally as Scorrie’s Island, the Stack of Brough is basically hollow, with a cathedral-like tunnel running from end to end. Coupled with a blowhole that illuminates the interior, it is possible in calm waters to take a small boat or kayak inside to explore. In bad conditions, of course, that would be suicidal to attempt.
As the path continued southwards, the cliffs grew gradually higher and the path itself experimented with having less space between fence and edge in which to fit. I was still coping quite well with the situation, though I did soon start to ask myself if the path creators were afflicted by some sort of compulsion that meant they must get as close as they could to the head of every geo?
In most places, the drop of the edge wasn’t quite sheer, there being a coastal slope of sufficient steepness that one would fall down it, not onto it, before then plunging past the cliff.
Immediately after South Stack, the now narrow footpath passed around the side of Kettle Geo, at the head of which was the kettle for which it is named. This is basically a big hole in the ground, looking much like the collapsed sea cave that is probably is.
Continuing south, the path conveyed me past a coastal indentation labelled ‘Fasberry’ on my map, followed by Helman Head. The wreck of the Norwegian cargo steamship Rein lies below this jutting headland, which ran aground in thick fog in 1937. Her crew of sixteen were all saved though her wood pulp cargo was lost.
A little way inland from Helman Head, a building – probably a croft — was indicated on early OS maps but seems to have vanished from them by the mid-20th century. Parts of its walls remain as a ruin on the far side of the field adjoining Helman Head.
Beyond Helman Head, the path skirted an old quarry and crossed a wall by means of a stile. This was one of many stiles I would cross during the day as the path crossed between inside and outside field boundaries. Most were wooden affairs, some more substantial than others, but the stile crossing the stone wall was properly robust.
Craig Hammel & Luishal Geo
Beyond the wall, the path initially had quite a calming distance between it and the cliff edge, though it wasn’t long before it clipped the head of the geo that lies beside the rocky promontory of Craig Hammel.
From there, it once again maintained a healthy separation from the edge until reaching Luishal Geo, where it once again clipped the head of the gully. This was doing nothing to dispel my suspicion that the path was the work of someone with a strange compulsion to stand in the most precarious spot possible and stare down into every geo on the route. I, of course, shared no such compulsion.
My head for heights was holding steady, however and, while I didn’t relish those parts, I could take them in my stride. And they were all pretty spectacular.
As it approached Ires Geo, the path merged with the course of another footpath shown on my map, which had been passing broadly parallel to the JOGT but further inland and had once connected the croft at Helman Head to four more close to Ires Geo. The path became alarmingly boggy near the head of the geo, resulting in wet feet and additional possibilities for losing one’s balance and going for a plummet.
When the 1st ed OS map for this region was being compiled in the 1870s, the crofts of ‘Iresgoe’ numbered four. The OS namebook described them as ‘Crofter’s dwellings in the vicinity of the Goe or Creek from which they derive their name; occupied by James Falconer and others, the property of Mrs B Innes, Thrumster’.
By the time the 2nd ed came around, thirty years later, one of these had already vanished. The others were still being shown as roofed in 1940, when the first 1:25,000 scale OS maps were published but became shown as unroofed thereafter.
There would be several other ruined remnants of crofts as I continued on my way, though the JOGT didn’t pass so close to them. Instead, diverting from the Iresgoe track, it conveyed me past Ashy Geo and Tod’s Gote. Alas, I somehow managed to contrive to miss the excellent view from the southern promontory of Ashy Geo, which includes the spectacular natural arch of Needle Eye Rock.
Broad Geo & Corbie Geo
As I passed around one of the many Scottish gullies named Broad Geo, I saw actual intact houses a little way inland, besides the track leading to Ires Geo. This marked the point from which the old track became surfaced road, connecting the houses to the settlements of Sarclet and Thrumster. Not that that affected me, as I wasn’t actually on that track. No, I was still on the JOGT, which now passed around Corbie Goe (right next door to Broad Geo) and then clung to the cliff edge as it aimed south for Riera Geo.
Although it was every bit as rugged and spectacular as the other geos had been, Riera Geo was determined to be something on an overachiever by adding a plunging waterfall into the mix. This was impressive, I noted as I glanced at it, but the closeness of the path to the edge was starting to unnerve me and I really didn’t want to focus on the water throwing itself into the chasm, lest my brain make the connection that I could potentially do that too.
Thrumster & Sarclet
A quick succession of smaller, less alarming geos followed and then I was suddenly skirting the northern edge of Sarclet Haven. A modern house (intact and with roof) marked the start (or end) of a road and I knew that I had reached Sarclet.
Like pretty much all the coastal settlements in eastern Caithness, Sarclet used to be a herring fishing village and grew up around a harbour purpose-built for that industry. Herring dominated the life of Sarclet from the late 18th century until the late 19th, then limping on until the early 20th.
Built around 1780, the village was the brainchild of two men – Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754 – 1835), who was a powerful local landowner, and his tenant David Brodie of Hopeville (1771-1847), who was married to Sir John’s cousin, Helen Sinclair (but not to his daughter, despite some sources calling David Sir John’s son-in-law, which he wasn’t).
Sir John Sinclair
Sir John, who would go on to publish his Statistical Account of Scotland a decade or so later, was already quite keen on developing the fishing industry, being both a member of the British Fisheries Society and a trustee of the Board for Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland (which had been established in 1727 to disburse grants to encourage the growth of the fishing and manufacturing industries).
By contrast, David was late to the game of fishery development but made up for this with keenness, being the key driver within the pair for developing Sarclet. Not that it was going to be called that; he intended to call it ‘Brodiestown’. Because, well, you would, wouldn’t you?
David would also fund other fishery developments in the local area before then liquidating his farm of Hopeville (also called Sibster Mains) and emigrating to Tasmania in 1823, with a plan to invest and develop a new fortune from scratch. I’m not sure if he succeeded or failed but he died in Edinburgh, so he clearly didn’t stay Down Under, regardless.
At Sarclet, I joined the single-track road and began to head inland. My clifftop adventure was not necessarily done yet but there was something that I wanted to go and see, and that lay a mile and a half from the coast, in the village of Thrumster.
Almost immediately, I was greeted by a local man, standing outside his house by his car, and we chatted amiably about the weather, clifftops, harbours and why I was now walking to Thrumster. He then, as I knew he must, offered me a lift. This was mildly tempting but hardly in the spirit of walking, so I politely declined. I knew then that this Generous Greeter would, in the course of running his own errand to Thrumster, pass me at least twice on the road.
He passed me for the first time, just minutes later, before I had even reached the limits of Sarclet. About twenty minutes of walking then passed by, and I drew close to Thrumster, before he went by on his return journey, again waving to me as he went.
Thrumster is a small crofting township that straddles the A99. It has a school, a pub and some houses but not much else.
About a quarter of a mile beyond the A99 lies Thrumster House, the main part of which was built in 1790 by David Brodie, but that’s not what I had come to see. Nor was it the nearby hill of Yarrows, from which Laurence Oliphant had fled back to the Old Castle of Wick. No, what I was looking for was a remnant of something that would have got Lord Oliphant back home quite a lot faster…
Today, the limits of the Wick & Lybster Railway (W&LR) are pretty restrictive, seeing as the entirety of its track is very nearly captured in my photo. Opened in 1903 to connect Lybster to the railway at Wick, the W&LR was anticipating a growth in the herring trade that never actually materialised. Instead, between storms and dwindling fish stocks, the industry was instead diminishing. This alone made the W&LR a bit of a white elephant but the coming of improved, tarmacked roads in the 1930s ensured it could never prosper. With what was left of the herring catches heading north on the A-road instead, the W&LR folded, closing for good in 1944. The line was lifted that same year.
Thrumster Station’s building survived dereliction by being repurposed as a post office for the village. Eventually, this too went the way of the railway, closing down to be replaced by a mobile post office coming by road. In 2011, the station building was bought by the Yarrows Heritage Trust and restored with a lottery grant. It is now a quirky relic of local history and a good place to sit and rue the closure of that post office and shop.
Having seen, photographed and sat at the station, I was now ready to resume my journey southwards. I could have done this by simply heading south along the A99 but, at this point, that didn’t seem like nearly enough fun. I thus set off along the road back to Sarclet. I had gone less than quarter of mile when a car drove past, its driver waving cheerfully, It was, of course the Generous Greeter, passing me for the third time.
Mains of Ulbster
Having decided to head back towards Sarclet, I now found another choice looming ahead. About halfway down the road, there was a side road branching off to Ulbster (from Old Norse ulfr bólstaðr ‘wolf’s farmstead’). More specifically, it led to the ruined farmhouse of Mains of Ulbster and the Sinclair Mausoleum. The former was a seat of the Sinclairs of Ulbster and the latter a burial ground for them, built around 1700 on the site of a mediaeval chapel.
Although the Ulbster road ended at the farmhouse, from there, an old track had led to what was now the A-road and my modern OS map still had it marked as a footpath. Now, admittedly, Scotland sometimes laughs at the OS map and shows no indication on the ground that the map’s dotted line has any meaning but, in this case, satellite maps seemed to indicate that it did still exist, making it a viable route option.
Having checked all this beforehand, my plan had very much been to go and check out the ruined farmhouse and mausoleum. And it remained so pretty much until I reached the junction, when I had to actually commit or else change my plans. The truth was, perilous parts notwithstanding, I’d been really enjoying the JOGT and I wasn’t ready to give it up just yet. I would, I decided, forego Mains of Ulbster and continue coastally from Sarclet.
You can see from the photo above that by occupying a broad geo (but not one called ‘Broad Geo’), Sarclet Haven was a pretty good natural harbour. By the time David Brodie was finished, it had an actual harbour inside it, complete with a breakwater pier. This was substantially rebuilt by James Bremner between 1834 and 1841 using blocks of stone carried from Wick by barge. This rebuild was undertaken at the behest of Robert Innes (1794-1852), whose late father Maj James Innes (1752-1832) had bought Thrumster House and its estate from Sir John Sinclair in 1819, after Sir John fell into financial difficulties.
Storm of 1877
Despite its robust build, the rebuilt harbour lasted less than forty years; the breakwater being completely destroyed by a massive storm in 1877. Thereafter, Sarclet Haven was little used by herring boats and was abandoned completely a decade later.
This was, of course, the same storm that swept away the Southern Breakwater at Wick. The mighty ocean looks upon the works of man and laughs…
East Caithness Cliffs (Continued)
The mighty ocean was playing all coy and looking as though it would barely rattle a teacup as I made my way past Sarclet Head and resumed my southward journey along the coast. Certainly it wasn’t rattling me, although something else would very soon…
An Unstable Stile
I was having a merry old time, striding along the cliff tops with confidence, all of which was undone in an instant by this:
Now, for someone without a ferocious fear of heights, I imagine this would not have been a problem. Also, had I realised how it was going to be, I might have found an alternative place to hop the fence. As it was, I gamely started to climb over this thing only to have it wobble about alarmingly beneath me, right next to the edge of a geo. Falling with stile suddenly seemed all too likely and, at this point, the fear that I had been holding at bay jumped up and smacked me in the face.
I did succeed in clambering across it and I clearly didn’t plummet to my death. But wobbling unstably next to a cliff edge really did a number on my confidence. I was sufficiently shaken that I’m not even sure which geo the stile was next to; I completely failed to take note (I think it might have been Oily Geo). Henceforth, any precipitous sections entirely ceased to be enjoyable…
I’m moderately sure the above is the view from Lummers Geo but, as I said, I had been flustered enough to stop keeping track of where I was. This was a bit of an issue as I now had anxiety about the path ahead and it might have been useful to have some certainty and be able to look ahead on the map. Still, I figured I’d come across something more definite soon enough. Like the Stack of Ulbster, for instance, which duly came to my rescue.
Stack of Ulbster
From the Stack of Ulbster, the path continued past several more coastal indentations, including Land Cove, Sellifar and Sea Cove. For most of this, the path kept far enough from the edge that I enjoyed it, and its vertiginous encounters with the heads of the above were brief enough that I could make myself keep going. Before long, the path brought me to Skeps Geo, where the path experienced an abrupt and unexpected change in character.
At Skeps Geo, the path crossed another, thankfully non-wobbling, stile and immediately ceased to be vegetated by short grass close to the cliffs. Now, instead, it veered inland but was shin-deep in heather and difficult to keep sight of. In several places it also added gorse into the mix, which had sufficiently overgrown it to add a certain spikiness to things. It was, I fancied, as if the path was punishing me, by keeping away from the cliff edge in the most maliciously compliant way it could. Well, if so, the joke was on it — a few gorse prickles were well worth the lack of anxiety, even if they — and other flowers — seemed to be a comment on my courage.
At its absolute gorsiest, the path crossed the Burn of Jubidale and then climbed to come alongside the farmstead of Rowans, where a small flock of sheep watched me climb another stile. I was some distance from the coast at this point, and a fairly clear but still part-overgrown path led me back to it, re-joining it at Ellens Geo. This was, it turned out, a geo too far.
In truth, I don’t think Ellens Geo was necessarily worse than some of the others but it did look to involve the path occupying a narrow gap between a fence and a sheer drop. It also looked as if that would be the case on all three sides of the geo. I think that what really did it for me though, was that the head of the geo was higher than its mouth. Thus, I could see the path rising up in front of me, the context of its situation plain to see and allowing me to anticipate the fear.
‘Hell no,’ I said to no one in particular, and turned right around. My only rule is it’s meant to be fun and that wasn’t meeting my criteria.
Hitting the Road
I retreated about a third of a mile until I’d returned to Rowans. The farm had to have road access, and now I was ready to take it. I briefly hopped in with the sheep and then out again, finding the end of the road.
Ironically enough, Rowans’ access road turned out to be on the alignment of the last third of the old track from Mains of Ulbster, meaning that I would now join the A99 at exactly the same point as if I’d taken the Ulbster route.
The farm’s access road was single track without passing places, because why would it need them? No one except the farmer shoud be driving on it, anyway. About halfway up it was a second farmhouse, shown but unnamed on OS maps, which suggests it was also part of Rowans. Its owner stood outside it, completely unfazed by my appearance on his road, and we exchanged pleasantries.
He turned out to have a main IT-related job, with farming being his getaway from all that. We stood and chatted for way longer than expected or intended until we both belatedly realised that we were stopping each other from getting on with stuff. In my case, that meant continuing on to the A99.
Upon reaching the A99, I turned left and passed a house that had once been a school. Somewhere behind it was the long-disused alignment of the W&LR, which I was moderately temped to investigate. Maps suggested that it wasn’t that navigable, however, with field boundaries no doubt fenced across it and 78 years of overgrowth in others. Also, it looked to be be missing at least one bridge. No, I regretfully decided, I’d stick with the A99.
I had feared that the A99 would be roaring with traffic but, so far north and so early in the tourist season, it was actually fine. There was definitely traffic, and some of it was lorries, but it was by no means a constant stream. There was perhaps a vehicle every few minutes and plenty of room to step off the road onto a grassy verge.
I followed the road for just less than a mile, until I reached Whaligoe, where I had thought to leave the cliffs anyway, had I not already chickened out at Ellens Geo.
Whaligoe & Bruan
Whaligoe is another former herring port, It was first prospected by Thomas Telford in 1786 but he declared it a ‘terrible spot’ and focussed his efforts on Wick. To be fair, the actual geo — Whale Geo — is, while sheltered, damned hard to reach. There wasn’t an obvious route to get down to it, unless you wanted to use ladders or cut an awful lot of steps (the cliffs are 240 ft (73 m) high). And Telford didn’t. As primarily an engineer of roads, he knew that you build or cut cuttings where you have to and go around where you don’t. Making Whaligo usable would be a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere…
If Telford had no desire to develop Whaligoe in 1786, his reluctance didn’t rub off on David Brodie of Hopeville, who paid a local mason the sum of £8 to cut the steps sometime around 1792. An online inflation calculator tells me that’s about $1,236 in 2022 Sterling, which sounds like an absolute bargain for the work that must have been involved. There are 330 steps, though some accounts say there were originally 365 (the top steps may well have been destroyed by vandals).
At the bottom of the steps is a platform called the Bink, which is still a few metres above mean sea level (further steps lead down to a rocky shelf called the Neist; I contented myself with remaining on the Bink). Blasting the Bink into existence apparently cost David Brodie another £53 but it was necessary, as the fishing boats needed to be hauled out above the waves in bad weather.
The Bink has a number of features related to its purpose, such as the rectangular recesses at the bottom of the steps to hold lanterns for night work, and a vertical recess (just out of view in the above photo) for holding a mast, which (with others) held up nets for drying and maintenance. There is also a circular barking kettle — in which tar would be heated for waterproofing — and the remains of a salt store.
For all that it was a small port and inconvenient to access, Whaligoe initially boomed. It was home to just seven boats in 1808 but had more than tripled that number by 1826, when 24 boats used the port. It reached a peak around 1855, with a total of 35 boats, but then began to decline.
By 1920 there were just five, dwindling to just two by 1945, when one of them dropped out. The very last boat clung on until 1970, after which Whaligoe became neglected and the steps slipped into disrepair.
The restoration of the steps has come about primarily through the activity of a small number of concerned locals, one of whom is a man named Davy Nicolson, whose grandfather owned one of the boats. Davy is now 60 himself but still keenly involved in the maintenance of the steps and equally enthusiastic about telling their story to any visitors he encounters (he lives in one of the cottages near the top of the steps).
He espied me sitting and taking a rest, having just re-ascended the stairway, and seemed duly delighted to have an interested audience. He explained to me about the Bink and its features and, while kindly refilling my water bottle, showed me an old photograph he had in his kitchen which depicted the Bink in its heyday and included his grandfather’s boat.
You can hear a recording of Davy here, courtesy of the Wick Society.
Bruan Old Free Church
With my water, refilled, I set off along the road again, not at all feeling bad about not braving nay more of the cliffs — Davy had told me that they would get worse and higher, heading south, but at least going that way I wouldn’t have seen how undercut the cliff path I’d already done was! No, I’d stick to the road, thanks, which I understood would experience a double-bend about a mile onwards near two churches. And it did. One of the churches was a little worse for wear though…
Bruan’s Old Free Church dates to 1843 and remained in use as a church until 2006. It was already in a poor state by then, however, having been added to the Buildings at Risk Register in 1991. Of course, all that did was begin to catalogue its deterioration, rather than do anything to arrest it.
Despite planning permission to convert it into a home and multiple attempts to sell it, the old church has spent most of the intervening time as an agricultural building.
Clyth & Occumster
Following the A99 for another mile conveyed me past a handful of scattered farmhouses, which made up East Clyth.
I was now level with a site on the coastline that I had originally wanted to see, namely the site of Gunn’s Castle. This was a mid-13th century castle, allegedly founded by Snaekoll Gunnison (1200-1250), the son of Gunni Andresson (c. 1170-1213) and great-grandson of Sweyn Asleifsson (c. 1115-1171), the latter being a great Viking hero of the Orkneyinga Saga. As such, it was an early seat of Clan Gunn.
By taking the A99, I had pretty much ensured I wouldn’t be seeing it but then, as Davy Nicolson had told me, I wouldn’t be seeing it if I went by the coast either — there is literally nothing of it left to look at. Knowing that I was missing out the empty rock where a castle had once been was a lot easier to come to terms with than skipping a dramatic cliff-top ruin would have been.
I continued onwards for another half a mile and East Clyth gave way to Mid Clyth. Here, a turn-off was signposted for the Hill o’ Many Stanes, about a quarter mile away. This is a site with about 200 standing stones — though none are higher than a metre — and is around 4,000 years old. I gave some thought to diverting off to see it but decided in the moment that I wasn’t all that fussed. I kinda regret that in hindsight but I was feeling fatigued at the time.
Mid Clyth War Memorial
Not bothering to see stuff was threatening to become a theme, so I mixed it up with peering at stuff from a moderate distance instead. I started with Mid Clyth War Memorial, which was standing in a field to which the gate was tied with string and seemingly blocked by a second gate attached to the first. Or possibly a bit of fence; I didn’t pay it that much attention. It seemed pretty clear that visitors to the memorial were not being encouraged, so I took the hint.
Mid Clyth Burial Ground
Some minutes later I passed the Mid Clyth Burial Ground, which was off in a field on the other side of the road. This was easily accessible via a track but I had a thing going now, so merely glanced across the field at it. I mean, I’ve seen graveyards before…
Much like the Hill o’ Many Stanes, Clythness Lighthouse required a detour of very nearly quarter of mile to see but it is 20 m high and has a red stripe halfway up it. None of the Many Stanes could boast that! Of course, it’s also a tad newer than they are, having been built in 1916 by David A Stevenson (1854-1938) — nephew to Wick Breakwater’s builder Thomas and cousin to Robert Louis. It was created as a wartime measure, filling a gap in lighthouse coverage between those at Tarbat Ness and Noss Head.
Clythness lighthouse was automated in 1964, when the keeper’s cottage passed into private hands. The light remained in operation until 2010, when the Northern Lighthouse Board decomssioned it as surplus to requirements.
Having returned to the A99, I passed through West Clyth and crossed Clyth Burn on the Bridge of Occumster about a mile and a quarter from the lighthouse turn-off.
While it may have been less rugged than the coast path, I nonetheless enjoyed this gentle stroll. The sky was blue, the A-road road was pleasingly quiet and flanked by dry stone walls, and I could see the sea off on my left, beyond some fields. Also, I was now getting close to sitting down with a drink…
On the far side of Clyth Burn, I passed through Occumster, which took almost as long to type as to accomplish. (it was quite small). I was now about a mile from my hotel and my pace quickened as I approached.
Arriving in Lybster
A mile later, I found myself passing a brutally simple but rather more accessible war memorial and then I was suddenly in Lybster (Liabost). Or, more accurately, the A-road was intersecting Lybster, which is arrayed along a perpendicular road reaching down to the coast.
Lybster was another planned fishing village, though this one does not owe its existence to David Brodie but rather to Lt Gen Patrick Sinclair (1736-1820), who founded it in 1802 when he still held the rank of colonel. On my way into Lybster, I had passed a sign pointing down a turn-off to his grave, which I fancied I might look for in the morning. For the moment, all I wanted to locate was the Portland Hotel.
The hotel wasn’t hard to find, it was sitting right on the crossroads, right where it was built in 1851 to take advantage of coach traffic.
Rest & Refeshment
I checked in and, having found my room, quickly showered and changed. Food and drink were very much in order and I was soon in possession of both.
The drinks came via a barman about whom something initially perplexed me but I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I realised he was speaking with an Essex accent, which I would barely have noticed had we been in southeast England but was contextually unexpected in Caithness. He told me, to my great joy, that Lybster was big enough to have an actual village shop that would be open the following morning (which was Sunday). The only question was would it be early enough? He generously offered to look in its window on his way home and check and let me know in the morning as he’d be serving breakfast. And he did.
Breakfast, of course, lay in the distant future of ‘tomorrow’ and I was in no hurry to get there. I enjoyed a leisurely meal and a whisky to follow before retiring to rest. My plan for the next day involved walking from Lybster to Helmsdale and, if a good night’s sleep had restored my inner serenity, I planned to try the JOGT again…
This time: 22½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,019½ miles