‘Discover – To find information, a place, or an object, especially for the first time’,
Cambridge English Dictionary.
Finally it seems as though the world is discovering the joys of the far north. I remember a few years ago I wanted to write an article on the UK’s last great wilderness, and like Ralph Waldo Emerson, I wanted to step into the wilderness to find myself. When I googled ‘wilderness and UK’ it brought up the Knoydart Region, in north west Scotland, so off I traipsed, and lovely it was, and wild it was, so I thought I had found it..The last great expanse of wilderness. At that point I hadn’t heard of Caithness, or Sutherland. I had heard of John O’Groats, but I was told that ‘there is not much up there’, so I just put it to the back of my mind..until fate intervened and brought me to Caithness. And I am so glad that Mrs Fate did, for what I discovered and now live in, is a landscape that far beats any that I have ever visited or been inspired by.
Caithness is wild, rugged, remote, unspoilt, undeveloped and gloriously empty. They were right when they said there’s not much up here, but that, in essence, is a marvellous thing if your ideal day out is to walk for miles and not see a soul, or to sit in a landscape that just lets you be, and to breathe. They were right in the fact that you are miles away from corporate distractions or saturated consumerism, but who needs that when you have miles of stunning coastline to pick and choose from, castle ruins to wander in, and thousands of acres of peatland to roam in? Yes we are low in theme parks, shopping malls and fast food chain restaurants but we do make up for it with areas of outstanding natural beauty, ancient, historical sites and the opportunity to spot, amongst other things, Puffins, Killer Whales and the Northern Lights - all on the same day, if you are particularly lucky!
So welcome to the far north. If it is your first time, you are in for a treat. If you are returning, welcome back – (I knew you couldn’t resist a repeat visit!). I will be your tour guide. I’ll take you on a journey to the places that are off the beaten track, those little hidden gems, that I mainly have to myself in Winter. But promise that you will be kind to this landscape and leave it exactly as you find it. She’s very special.
Let’s start near me at Haven House Art HQ. You really need to visit Sinclair Girnigoe Castle. It’s my favourite castle. It has just so much character. Like everything up here it is free and you can wander round at will. But whilst you are there, you need to take a detour right, follow the little path across the peatlands, towards the lighthouse and you will discover Sandigoe Beach, which you can walk down onto. It’s a little cove of pure delight.
Go back into Wick, visit The Old Castle of Wick, spot the shape of the old man’s head that nature has carved into the rocks in front of the castle. Then keep walking – follow the path past the castle and you will find yourself on a path that is truly stunning, taking you past rock stacks and crags and crevices. You can follow this path for miles.
Drive to Thrumster. Park up at the very end of the road, where the road meets the cliff top. Walk down to the disused harbour, Sarclet Haven, we call it. Visit the old salt house in the bay, but then follow the path up and over the other side. Again you can walk for miles on the cliffs amidst stunning, rugged coastal scenery. Watch out for the sink hole, near the top of the cliff….
I’ll take you south and inland now. How about a forest walk? Rumster forest is a great place to walk the dog off the lead. There’s a good hour’s circuit, of you follow the path to the mast and then down the hill. Two favourite spots in the forest are, one where the old croft house is, with two ancient trees next to it, and a bit further where the burn flows, against a backdrop of a solo tree and the sea in the background.
If you are out that way, you need to visit the Camster Cairns, and there’s a lovely forest track just before you get to it, from the south, Again where you can walk for miles.
Dunbeath Strath is a must. Walk in Neil Gunn’s footsteps as you follow the trail up the river. The path is uneven, sometimes slippy and varied, but definitely worth the hike to the cemetary and back. There’s plenty to see on the trail. Be sure to pick up a guide leaflet from Dunbeath Heritage Centre beforehand.
Let’s hop across to the north side of the county and sit somewhere for a picnic. How about the river at Forss? Park up at the end of the houses and walk down towards the river. Watch the salmon leaping in the still, reflective water, whilst you eat your sandwiches. Then hop over the bridge to St Mary’s Chapel. Fancy a nice, easy walk? You can walk the circuit up to Forss House and back down the other side. It will take you about an hour.
Time for another beach. This one is called Scotland’s Haven, and really does live up to its name, it’s just quite hard to find! There used to be a tea room I could have pointed you towards, but now there is nothing but houses and a really quiet road. You need to be in East Mey, heading towards John O’Groats, and take a left after the one sign posted to Mey House B&B. Stop at the corner by a farm gate. Walk diagonally right across the peatland. It will take you about 20 minutes until you see it, and then climb down to it, but it will be worth your while and worth the effort climbing back up again! To further the walk and the day, follow the path around the cliff and you will get to St John’s Point with a great view of both Stroma and Orkney.
Of course we have to stop at Duncansby Stacks, just 2 miles from John O’Groats, but they are becoming more well-known so hopefully you have found them already. There is one more place I want to show you before we finish back in Wick. It’s a castle that even not many locals know about, and is definitely not sign-posted. Head towards Wick from John’O Groats, past Freswick, then stop at the brow of the hill. Park on the right hand lay-by by Hilltop Cottage. Cross the road and go through the gate. Head down the side of the field towards the sea. You will soon see the remains of the Buchollie Castle clinging to the cliffs. Catch it whilst you can..I am not sure for how much longer it will be there!
So there you have it – enough to keep you going for now. There are plenty more places I could tell you about, but they will have to wait, either until next time, or until you come and see me at Haven House in my gallery/studio. I may be willing to divulge or I may just decide to keep some hidden treasures for myself. I hope you enjoy your stay in our beautiful county.
I say Caithness is like coming home to yourself, so…Welcome Home.