Scotland Magazine Issue 62
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Wide Open Spaces
Our journey around the coast of mainland Scotland at last reaches its zenith, from the sweeping bays of east Sutherland, to the very tip of the mainland itself
This issue, we pick up our trail on the A9 from the Cromarty Firth and follow it all the way along the gentle coast and bays of east Sutherland, into the wide skies and dramatic seascapes of Caithness. This is a beautiful and largely empty landscape of rugged peaks and rolling moors, shaped over many centuries by the activities of crofting, fishing, the Vikings and, more recently, by the greed of men….
This pretty little town is probably most famous for its golfing pedigree; its Championship Links having been voted number three in a list of greatest golf courses outside of the USA.
Also putting this town on the map is the beautiful 13th century cathedral. It is Scotland’s smallest, and is built of pretty, honey-coloured stone. Appearances are often deceptive, though, and the building has endured a violent history, having been burnt out and blown up more than once during its 800 years. Most recently it hosted Madonna’s wedding to director Guy Ritchie. Outside, visitors can see the town’s ancient mercat (market) cross, where weekly markets would have been held from medieval times. Here you can see the Plaiden Ell, a flat stone which acted as a fixed measure of length for merchants selling tartan cloth or plaid. It is one of only three known remaining ells in Scotland.
Also, because we can’t leave without sniffing out just a little bit of macabre legend and gruesomeness, Dornoch just happens to be where the execution of the last remaining ‘witch’ in Britain took place.
In 1727, local woman Janet Horne was accused by her neighbours of the rather fantastic charge of having used her daughter as a pony, and having her shod by the devil. In actual fact, Janet was probably just showing signs of what we would now recognise as senile dementia, and her daughter merely had a deformity of her hands and feet.
Nevertheless, Janet and her daughter were found guilty of witchcraft and imprisoned. The daughter managed to escape; but Janet was not so lucky. She was stripped, rolled in tar, and paraded through Dornoch in a barrel. When she arrived at her execution place, at what is now Carnaig Street, Janet is said to have smiled and warmed herself at the fire which was about to consume her.
Nine years after her death the Witchcraft Acts were repealed in Scotland and England and it became unlawful to execute anyone for alleged witchcraft. There is a stone commemorating the event in a private garden, and the owners’ sometimes allow interested visitors access to take photographs of it.
Like many of the villages along this coastline, Golspie was a tiny finishing hamlet that was forced to expand dramatically in the early 19th century to shelter some of those evicted during the notorious Clearances, one of the cruellest and most hotly debated periods in Highland history.
Some historians argue that the Clearances were a barely veiled attempt by the British establishment to destroy, once and for all, the Clan system which had facilitated the Jacobite risings of the 18th century. Others say it was purely an act of greed and betrayal on the part of the ruling classes, who were only too eager to sacrifice their people for more profitable sheep.
Whatever the reason, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes and the landscape was changed forever.
One of the culprits was George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland. His likeness now stands atop a 100ft plinth on Ben Bhraggie, dominating the landscape for miles around. It seems surprising, now, that a monument should have been created for such a notorious character, but, following his death in 1833, donations came in from far and wide. The statue itself was sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey, and was completed in 1837. Despite various plots to bring it down, it remains a poignant reminder of why the landscape is so much emptier.
Even the sheep have gone, having been undercut by cheaper, often better quality products from Australia and New Zealand during the 19th century (farmed by the very people displaced from the Clearances, perhaps?).
Other sites associated with the Clearances include the Badbea Clearance Village, north of Helmsdale, and Croick Church near Ardgay where evicted Highlanders scratched messages on the glass of the kirk’s window.
Also worth a visit is Dunrobin Castle, just north of Golspie, seat of the aforementioned Dastardly Duke. But don’t let that put you off; this fairytale castle is one of the grandest houses in the north of Scotland and is also believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited homes in Britain, dating from the early 14th century. As well as its wonderful interiors, the castle is well known for its vast and beautifully-kept formal gardens.
Not only did the Clearances have a dramatic effect on the inland landscape, the coastal landscape was also transformed. Like Golspie, the village of Helmsdale was dramatically enlarged as many of the evicted crofters were forced to look to the sea to earn their living.
Fortunately, the relocation coincided with the herring boom which sustained the village for much of the 19th century. At its height there were more than 200 herring boats in the harbour. But, inevitably, after boom comes bust, and the industry declined and was fairly over by the middle of the 20th century. There are still a few fishing vessels based here alongside the leisure craft, and you still get the feel of a working harbour.
In fact fishing, albeit of a different kind, remains one of the area’s main attractions. The River Helmsdale is regarded as one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the north and anglers come from far and wide to cast from its banks.
Another of the town’s claims to fame began in 1869 at Kildonan, site of the Scottish Gold Rush.
Following the discovery of gold in California in 1849, prospecting for gold became the get-richquick scheme for every Victorian entrepreneur. In 1868, local man Robert Nelson Gilchrist, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia, was given permission to pan the tributaries of the River Helmsdale. He got lucky. The greatest concentrations were in the Suisgill and Kildonan burns, and reports of his findings spread like wildfire. Within six months, more than 600 hopeful prospectors had collected in the normally deserted Highland Glen, their huts forming a kind of shanty town alongside the burn. It was known in Gaelic as Baile an Or, or ‘Village of the Gold’.
The Kildonan gold rush lasted just a year, and ended almost as quickly as it began. Visitors willing to try their luck are still able to rent the necessary equipment from shops in the village.
King James VI made Wick a Royal Burgh in 1589, but it was the Vikings who gave the town its name. The word comes from the Norse ‘Vik’, meaning bay, as the Norsemen were the first to use the mouth of the river as a harbour for their longships and trading vessels.
Indeed Caithness and Sutherland were considered to be part of Norway at one time, as the Castle of Old Wick can attest. This simple fourstorey tower is thought to have been built in the late 12th or early 13th century when Caithness was ruled by the Norse Earls of Orkney.
It’s little more than a stumpy ruin on a rocky outcrop, but is worth a visit if only being one of the oldest castles in Scotland.
Today, Wick is a lively little town, and is a great base for exploring the area. You can find out about the town’s role in the herring boom of the 19th century at the Wick Heritage Museum, or at the nearby Waterlines Visitor Centre in Lybster, which also looks at the local seabird colonies.
Wick also incorporates Pulteneytown, another settlement specifically planned to provide homes and jobs for displaced crofters, this time by respected engineer Thomas Telford.
Today it is home to the Old Pulteney whisky distillery, which is an essential stopping-off point for thirsty travellers.
From Wick, it’s just a hop, skip and a stumble (if you’ve been at the whisky) to John O’Groats.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t the most northerly village on the British mainland, but goes by the less catchy moniker of ‘the northerly end of the longest distance between two points on the British mainland’. So there you go. The actual most northerly point is nearby Dunnet Head, but nobody seems to quibble over it.
For a village with such a big reputation, John O’Groats is surprisingly small.
Activity centres around the little harbour and car park, where there are usually plenty of people around, posing for pictures beneath the famous harbour signpost, or about to sent off on some charity bike ride to its geographical opposite: Land’s End in Cornwall (a distance of some 874 miles by road, representing the entire length of Great Britain).
For the marginally less intrepid, there are a few local shops including a café and craft village where you can buy candles, knitwear, ceramics, paintings and prints all made by local artists. There are also boat trips and day excursions to Orkney, and plenty of coastal paths to explore.