Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Adventures with Ellie - Caithness

The end of July saw us packing our walking gear and heading off to Caithness for the weekend. Our decisions as to where to go are usually guided by the weather and so far, this plan has worked.

We headed through Inverness and onwards along the coast until we reached Latheronwheel. I knew there was a parking area at the harbour and when we arrived there were already two German motorhomes and two cars parked, we were soon joined by another van and both cars eventually left.
We settled in and had dinner, whilst watching the a couple making use of the picnic benches and barbeque area until the midges got too much for them. We watched a small boat arrive in the harbour and after the fisherman had tied up his boat, he spent a long time filleting his catch. After we had eaten we went for a little stroll around the harbour and along the road to a rather pretty bridge, crossed by the John o' Groats Trail. On returning to the harbour, we were hailed by the fisherman, now finished his work and on his way home, chatting with the French couple in the van. He offered some of his catch, in return for a donation in the collection box for the upkeep of the harbour area by the locals. How could we turn down fresh mackerel for breakfast?
We were soon settled for the evening and had a peaceful night.

Saturday dawned after a quiet night with low cloud and drizzle, more entertainment provided by local boat owners. We watched a while whilst they faffed and eventually launched their boat. I popped outside for a while, tidied up after other people and left some money in the collection box, by the sound of it we were the only ones to do so.
After a breakfast of fried mackerel, we soon off on our way, our plans for a change were purely to be tourists for the weekend, area is full of history. Our first visit was to the Clan Gunn Museum at Latheron, where there also happens to be public toilets. The museum wasn't yet open, but we wandered around the original grave yard for quite a while, a very interesting place. There were publicly spirited locals working hard in the much larger current cemetery next door. The museum opened just as we were leaving, but it gives us something to explore further next time we are in the area.

After leaving the museum, we headed for Ulbster. Here we turned off the main road and parked Ellie by Loch Watenan. This was the start of a short walk to take in a few historical features, a chambered cairn, a hill fort and the Whaligoe Steps.

We set off for the chambered cairn first, Cairn o' Get, a well worn path with information boards and views. There was another couple but they didn't hang around long or interact. We ventured further than the cairn to a Victorian dam, built using stones from the roof of the cairn, rude, and after crossing the dam we ventured up to the hill fort, although it was hard to tell we were there. We soon made our way back to the road and continued to the Whaligoe Steps. Here we met Davie, just returning to his little cottage after doing some strimming along the verges, keeping his community neat and tidy. What a fascinating chap! He told us the history of the steps, including family members, what patter! He was brilliant, one of the best tour guides I've ever met. He invited us into his little cottage to show us a large photograph of the steps to explain how they fitted in with community life and also told us stories of Billy Connolly's World Tour of Scotland visit and more recently Susan Calman, both sound like really lovely people.
After an enjoyable chat, we made our way down the steps. I had not been looking forward to this, narrow, old, stone built steps are not a favourite of mine and I worried these would feel 'exposed'. Needn't have worried, was all good, and we poked around at the old quayside feeling well informed. As we returned to the top, we visited a view point which required a quick mince along a narrow path and then a quick mince return. This I didn't like much, not helped by having to wait for some Japanese tourists taking their time.
We returned to Ellie and had lunch. For a dead end road, it was a surprisingly busy little spot.
Approximately 3.78 km, 147 m total ascent

After lunch, we continued our journey heading north. As we were approaching a view point on the A99 on our way to John o' Groats, I spotted a trig point on the map, not far from the road, with no direct path. "Stop! Let's bag this trig!"
So, we did! It would have been rude not to.
Warth Hill.
Approximately 1.03 km, 24.3 m total ascent

 The grass by the side of the lay by, hmmmm...
 Tent shaped?!!

 Remains of another chambered cairn

We were really on our way to buy dinner and then head out for a walk, but this was a pleasant little excursion.
After our resupply, we parked the car at John o' Groats and headed out for another walk, this time to Duncansby Head and on to Duncansby Stacks. It was a little late in the day to be heading out on a walk, but we'd had a late lunch and knew where we intended to stop for the night, so weren't too worried. It was a surprisingly busy walk, especially once we reached the lighthouse and the stacks, although most people seemed to stop once they had the first view of the stacks. Just before we reached the lighthouse we'd had a slightly exciting detour around land slips to cross a burn and regain the path. I think many people had been confused at this point and given up, you can't just cross a burn, can you. After we'd reached the best views of the Stacks, our path headed off to cross the road rather than return via the lighthouse, but the path was vague to non-existent, so we made our own way across slightly rough and occasionally wet ground. We eventually regained the coastal path we'd taken on the outward leg and returned to John o' Groats where Ellie was waiting for us patiently.
Approximately 9.15 km, 466 m total ascent

Fence finished in the middle of a field. No gate, no gate post opposite, no further fencing...

What on earth do people do that requires a notice like this?
We left the delights of John o' Groats behind to find our overnight spot, fingers crossed that noone else was there. It seems we park up late compared to some other folk, who seem to pick there spot anytime from 3pm onwards. We didn't have far to travel, but tootled along taking in the views. At Thurso we turned south onto the A9 with the intention of parking at Loch Rangag. As it happened, noone else had had this idea, or else for some reason decided it wasn't for them. We had the little layby to ourselves.

 There's a chambered cairn by this layby

We do eat (and drink!) well with Ellie
I slept well, but David was aware of the occasional vehicle passing along the road. We were up and away at a reasonable time on a slightly dreich day and took the opportunity to back track along the A9 and take a minor road to investigate some other parking opportunities. We popped out at Lybster, then continued our short journey south to our planned walk at Dunbeath. Parking was a little more tricky than expected, possibly a popular local dog walk, but being a Sunday the office of a publishing business close by was shut, so we parked out of the way tucked beside their building. After a short amount of faffing, made uncomfortable by the presence of a few annoying midgies, we set off for a stroll along the Dunbeath Strath Trail. Straight away it is obvious this is a well cared for route, there was evidence of much maintenance and strimming of the paths and we made excellent progress. Most of the people we met were heading in the opposite direction and with dogs, I expected the route to be quiet further along. We bypassed the short out and back to a broch, but did visit it on our return. The path followed the river and was lined by woodland. I soon realised there were a huge amount of hazel trees, heavily laden with nuts. I have never seen so many in one woodland! We caught up with a small group of four walkers, one of which was an elderly gentleman with a curious long necklace and as we approached them he spoke and engaged us in conversation. He was obviously taking visitors or tourists on a guided tour up to a nearby Victorian lodge, Balcraggie Lodge, and was full of fascinating local information which he freely imparted to us, about the lodge, about a local monastry, about a flood, and about the history of the hazel woodland (that was the bit that I was most interested in!) We were invited to join them on their stroll, but I had already realised their target was not for enough for us and on the wrong side of the river, so couldn't sensibly be worked into our route, so we bade them farewell and continued, onwards and upwards, as it happens!

 As the path turned sharply uphill, we left the woodland behind and crossed a deep gorge, continuing across the hillside which had a healthy sprinkling of orchids. We reached a fence and followed it over boggy ground to gain a metalled track to head further along the strath. It felt wild and remote, despite the tarmac underfoot. The buildings we passed and those we could see along the strath were mostly ruinous, except the cemetery. We could see it for a distance, the surrounding walls painted white and well maintained. Once we reached it, the gate was locked, but what we could see over the wall was evidence of wealth, large monuments and graves.
From the cemetery, we headed directly across wet, boggy ground to visit another chambered cairn. We should have picked up a 'vague, grassy path' here somewhere, according to my Viewranger track, we did! But we could see no evidence of it on the ground and it was very difficult ground, wet, boggy and at times knee deep, ankle grabbing heather, my least favourite kind, so we opted to cut back to the main track and do a short out and back to some more chambered cairns, if we could be bothered. Which of course, we did.

 Gate across the road, pedestrian gate and a hole in the fence for the sheep?

 Emperor Moth Caterpillar

We spent a long time loitering at the chambered cairns, interesting places with fabulous views, what drew people to live here, what was it like in their time?
We returned by our outward route, crossing the gorge and heading down the steep hill was not my favourite part, but we were soon in the safety of the hazel woodland and visited the broch before returning to Ellie and deciding where we would eat lunch.

Approximately 11.3 km, 278 m total ascent

A quick look at the map suggested public toilets might be found at the harbour, so we headed there and found excellent parking, toilets and a small museum, but on this occasion I chose not to investigate.
After lunch, we headed home, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable weekend!
There is so much to see along this coast of Scotland, we will be back.