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Issue 32 - Caithness – the wild North

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Caithness – the wild North

Neil Gunn explores the wonders of Scotland's most northerly region, Caithness

For me the chance to explore Caithness was a chance to ‘come home,’ to walk the cliff-top paths, tramp across the peat bogs and try to imagine how it might have looked when the Vikings first dragged their longboats ashore probably sometime during the 10th century.

Sovereignty over the area was disputed between the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney and Scotland for many years before the Treaty of Perth in 1266, when Norway finally recognised that it did belong to Scotland.

Caithness is the most northerly county in the British Isles and remains one of the least densely populated areas in Europe covering an area of around 700 square miles. It embraces one of the country’s most ancient landscapes, rich with the remains of prehistoric occupation and still bearing the signs of glaciation and Pictish brochs.

The Grey Cairns of Camster, the Stone Lud, and the Hill o’Many Stanes are testament to Caithness’s early settlers. It has remained essentially unchanged for more than 4000 years.

Much of this beautiful county is Gunn country one of Scotland’s smallest clans, descendents of Sweyn Asleifsson the ‘ultimate viking.’ It was perhaps inevitable that I would start my journey at Dunbeath, 21 miles south of Wick (once famous as the herring capital of the world) on the county’s east coast. The small village is the birthplace of one of Scotland’s foremost novelists Neil Miller Gunn, and the chance to see the countryside through his eyes was one not to be missed.

My journey was also an opportunity to re-visit the pages of my favourite Gunn book Highland River where the landscapes and seascapes provided his inspiration, then eagerly follow in the footsteps of its young hero Kenn to find the source of Dunbeath Water, the ‘Waterhead.’ “These first two or three miles were the rich ones. After that the trees thinned, the strath (river valley) grew shallower, and glimpses of the moor were caught. It was a vast moor, austere as a desert, and the farthest rim of the horizon lit itself on the far edge of the world. Leftward the ridges of near hills shut off the mountains beyond, and somewhere in that country where moor and mountains met the river had its source. But the rich part was so infinitely varied in attraction that only in odd moments did we think, or dream, of one day setting out for the Waterhead.” Today the walk along Dunbeath Strath Heritage Trail is less daunting than it was for young Kenn. As the path meanders along the north side of the river, you pass through some glorious woodland with downy birch, bird cherry and the ubiquitous hazel.

The strath is famed for its hazelnuts which ripen to a golden brown colour in the autumn and can be picked before they fall and become part of the food chain for the woodland’s smaller creatures.

The summer months bring a covering of wildflowers, mosses and ferns and, if you are lucky, you might spot a buzzard watching intently for movement below.

Still on the river’s north side is a gorge formed by the melting waters of the last Ice Age and known as Prisoner’s Leap over which one Ian McMormack Gunn leapt to safety escaping from the Keiths, the Gunn’s hated enemy.

Continue upstream and you will come upon the ruins of Chapel Hill or the House of Peace, believed to be the remains of a monastery, a site mentioned in Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings.

Neil Gunn’s love of the region reemerged in another of his novels My Bit of Britain. “These small straths, like the Strath of Dunbeath have this intimate beauty. In boyhood we get to know every square yard of it. We encompass it physically and our memories hold it… the river-flats with the wind on the bracken, a wealth of wildflower and small bird life, the soaring hawk the unexpected roe, the ancient graveyard, thoughts of the folk who once lived far inland in straths and hollows, the past and present held in a moment of daydream.” The Dunbeath Heritage Centre is an essential place to visit. It provides an insight into the life of its most famous son and also a look at life in Caithness in previous centuries.

Only four miles north in the small village of Latheron you will find the Clan Gunn Museum housed in an old church and perched on a hill top overlooking the seas that Neil Gunn described so well. “How fearsome the sea looked! It came rolling from under the dark weather, the colour of lead. But how wild and how cold!” The museum has a wealth of information on the clan’s Norse history and also its close ties with Clan Gunn members from around the world.

The coastline of Caithness, peppered with castles and fortified houses, many of them now in ruins, is dominated by mighty sandstone cliffs which the pounding sea has carved into stacks, caves and arches.

There are few better vantage points than Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain. It has some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Scotland with splendid views to Stroma and Orkney.

For the ‘twitchers’ (bird watchers) among you, Duncansby Head (Seabird City) is home to the cacophonous, squabbling colonies of razorbills, puffins, fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake and a myriad other species.

Perhaps the best-known castle in the region is the Castle of Mey, purchased by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952 and lovingly restored. The castle and gardens are located six miles from John O’Groats and extend to about 30 acres. They are open to the public, but it is best to check out the web site which gives details of opening times.

At John O’Groats you can visit the first or last house in mainland Britain, but perhaps it is more famous for being one of the points in a walk often undertaken by those raising money for charity that stretches to Land’s End in Cornwall, south west England, where you can also visit the first or last house in mainland Britain.

I was reminded at the museum that the Clan Gunn motto was, “Aut Pax Aut Bellum,” meaning “Either peace or war.” Of course, the warring clans have long since given up their arms and, as you enter the county, the roadside signs proudly display, “Welcome to Caithness.” What better reason to visit such a beautiful part of Scotland?