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Issue 96 - The Wild North

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017

 

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The Wild North

Charles Douglas ventures into Caithness

Occupying the far northeast corner of mainland Scotland, the old county of Caithness sits above and alongside the county of Sutherland which, in turn, ranges cross-country to Scotland's west coast. The name Caithness, or Katanes in Old Norse, means promontory of the cat people and derives from a local tribe who lived here when this territory belonged exclusively to the Picts.

From the 8th and 9th Centuries onward, Vikings began raiding the area with increasing frequency before eventually settling. In time, Caithness became part of the historic Norse Earldoms, along with the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. This Norse influence is present in many of the place names that persist to this day. For example, Thurso takes its name from ëThjors·í or ëThorís Riverí.

Reminders of Caithnessís historic occupants are to be found sprinkled throughout the wilderness landscape, which is accessed by two principal roads, the A9 and A836; one railway, with stations at Wick and Thurso; and an airport at Wick. Inland from the coast, the scenery becomes particularly wild and dramatic, not to mention largely uninhabited.

A passenger and car catamaran ferry service from Gills Bay links the Scottish mainland with St Margaret's Hope on Orkney, across the Pentland Firth (Pentland Ferries), while Northlink Ferries sail from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney. From John O'Groats there are 40-minute crossings during the summer aboard the MV Pentland Venture (John O'Groats Ferries) that run seven days a week to Burwick, with onward bus connections to the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall.

To access Caithness from the south, one crosses the Dornoch Firth and takes the A9 coastal road - a route that snakes its way north and takes in a series of dramatic seascapes.

From Helmsdale, the road climbs steeply around the bends of Navidale and the Ord of Caithness, 220 metres above sea level. The road drops at Ousdale and climbs again, close to the clifftop village of Badbea, before reaching Berriedale.

Perched above the ocean are the ruins of a small settlement that was once occupied by crofters evicted from their homes inland to make way for sheep in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Many of the earlier families who lived at Badbea sailed off to Pictou in Nova Scotia on The Hector in 1731. The last resident villager departed in 1911; that same year a monument was erected to commemorate the people who lived and worked here by the son of Alexander Robert Sutherland, who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1839.

As the A9 passes the Berriedale Braes, the road drops dramatically to a bridge before rising steeply with a number of sharp bends.

Welcome to Caithness!

The small crofting hamlet of Ramscraigs precedes arrival at the village of Dunbeath, birthplace of the writer Neil M. Gunn (1891-1973). Gunn famously penned The Silver Darlings, a novel set in the local fishing community during the early 19th Century.

The area became infamous when the Duke of Kent, younger brother of George VI, died here when the Sunderland Flying Boat in which he was travelling crashed onto a nearby hillside on 25 August 1942.

Latheronwheel, at the mouth of a wide valley, is a planned settlement begun in 1835 by one Captain Dunbar. The villageís harbour was built around 1840 with a small lighthouse, which is sadly now redundant. The Craiglea Lodge Holiday Cottages found here are popular with visitors to the area.

At Latherton the road divides. From here the A9 cuts north towards Halkirk and later joins the A882 from Wick to Thurso.

The A99, however, continues up the coast.

There was once a castle at Latherton that was allegedly visited by William the Lion in the 13th Century, but all that remains of it is now embedded in the garage of a farmhouse building. Such is the way of things.

Heading up to Lybster, Mid and East Clyth, Ulbster, Thrumster and Whiterow, the A99 terminates at the well-known town of Wick.

Lybster was once a substantial herring port, now sadly declined, but nevertheless the town continues to host the annual World Championships of ëThe Knottyí, a variation of the famously physical game of shinty. The Sinclair family who continue to live here have roots as far back as the Norse occupation.

Lybster was begun in 1802 as a planned village by General Patrick Sinclair, whose sons fought at the Battle of Waterloo. In reference to the conflict, the section of the A99 that forms the main street of the village is known as Quatre Bras - a battle that preceded Waterloo by two days in 1815.

Clyth comprises Upper Clyth, Clyth Mains, Mid Clyth, Hill of Mid Clyth, and East Clyth.

Scotland's close-knit fishing communities being what they are, you still meet descendants of those who came to be known as the ëWidows of Clythí. The term relates to the families left behind when the community was struck by two fishing disasters in the 19th Century. In 1855 a boat containing 13 young men aged between 12 and 19 years old from East Clyth was lost and they all drowned. Similar circumstances resulted in the loss of six men in 1876, all of whom were related or otherwise linked by marriage. The latter disaster was retold in the novel The Widows of Clyth (2007) by Donald Campbell.

At the Hill o' Many Stanes, at Mid Clyth, there are rows of 200 standing stones dating from over 4,000 years ago. All along this sweeping landscape there are scattered communities that are all associated with cadet branches of the Sinclair earls of Caithness. A Sinclair Mausoleum is set within the grounds of the medieval St Martin's Chapel with the inscription, ëThou who desires ane humbling sight to see come I behold what thou ere long must be.í

Until 1944, at Thrumster there was a railway station and the village was also the site of a BBC transmission mast. How times change! A rewarding, if physically challenging, diversion from Ulbster on foot can be made to the 300 or more Whaligoe Steps that descend a cliff face to the harbour known as Whaligoe Haven. This remarkable spot is surrounded on three sides by 250 foot high cliffs.

At Wick, the A822 cuts west to meet up with the A895 and onwards to Thurso and Ackergill. The town of Wick straddles the River Wick and extends along both sides of the bay. Pulteneytown, founded by the advocate, politician and landowner Sir William Pulteney (1729-1805), is on the south side and was developed by the British Fisheries Society in the 19th Century. Although the two settlements were merged in 1902, the name of the earlier settlement lives on in the Pulteney Distillery, which produces the well-known Old Pulteney single malt Scotch whisky and is open to the public for tours. Founded in 1826, barley was traditionally brought in by sea. The distillery closed in 1930 but re-opened in 1951 and is today owned by Inver House Distillers.

The Irish missionary Saint Fergus had his operational base in this area during the early 8th Century and is the town's patron saint.  The Chapel of St Tear near Ackergill was allegedly founded by Saint Drostan in either the 7th or early 8th Century.

It must be remembered that in those days all of Caithness belonged to Norway. The building in the early 12th Century of the Castle of Wick, also known as ëThe Old Man of Wickí is credited to the half-Norse, half- Scottish Harald Maddadson, Earl of Caithness.

By the 14th Century, the lands had passed from the family of Cheyne through marriage to the Sinclairs and Sutherlands.

Wick was granted by Robert III to Neil Sutherland around 1400 and in 1438 a great battle was fought between Clan Gunn and Clan Keith on the nearby moor of Tannach, with both sides suffering significant losses.

Notwithstanding, the feuding between the clans continued unabated.

In 1588, Wick was put to the torch by Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of Sutherland, in his campaign against the 5th Sinclair Earl of Caithness. During the Reformation, the Anglican Archdeacon Richard Merchiston of Bower was seized by the townspeople and drowned in the River Wick.

Nearby, evidence of Iron Age activity can be found at the hill fort at Garrywhin. Norse pagan bracelets and brooches were unearthed here in 1837, a sign of the Viking communities that once called this area home.

Ackergill Tower (See: Scotland Magazine #55) is situated three miles to the north and was granted to William Keith, 4th Earl Marischal, in 1538 but in 1547 was seized by George, Earl of Caithness. Alexander Keith, Commander of the Castle, and his servitor were locked up in Sinclair Girnigoe Castle (See: pp.14- 17). They were both charged with treason but later pardoned by Mary, Queen of Scots.

Heading north along the coast, the A99 forges on to the small remote hamlets of Freswick and Skirza. John O' Groats lies on Britain's northeastern tip and takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who long ago ran a ferry service from here after Orkney had been purchased by James III from the Norse kingdom in 1468. He supposedly charged one groat (four pence) for a trip. It is said that his children quarrelled, so he built an octagonal house with eight doors. An annual Wildcat Motorcycle Rally takes place here in July.

Close by is Duncansby Head (See: p.12- 13) which juts into the North Sea with the Pentland Firth to the north and west. The point is marked by the Duncansby Head Lighthouse built by David Alan Stevenson in 1824. It occupies a Site of Special Scientific Interest that encompasses the massive Duncansby Stacks, which rise dramatically out of the sea.

From John O' Groats, the A836 runs across the top of mainland Scotland, passing the scattered hamlet of Gills and past the Castle of Mey (See: Scotland Magazine #33). Previously known as Barrogill Castle, these lands were owned by the Bishops of Caithness and the castle was built around 1570 for George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness. During the Second World War it was used as an officers' rest home and, in 1952, caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, who was in mourning following the death of her husband, King George VI.

Very much her retreat and private home until her death in 2002, she created the Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust and opened the house and gardens to the public, although they are closed at the end of July into early August when it is occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay. A visitor centre was opened in 2007 and it is well worth a visit.

At the peninsula of Dunnet Head is a second lighthouse and the remains of fortifications built during the Second World War to protect the British naval base at Scapa Flow across the Pentland Firth.

From Castletown, previously called Stanergill (meaning ëStone Valleyí), and Murkle, the A836 arrives at Thurso. Many of the streets of London, Sydney, and New York are paved with Caithness flagstone originating from Castletown. During the 19th Century, the flagstone quarrying industry was a key employer in the area. In medieval times, a great battle with the Danes was fought at Murkle. It is said the name derives from Morthill or ëField of Deathí.

Thurso, with a 5,000-year history of settlement, is the northernmost town on the British mainland and sits on the River Thurso, which flows into Thurso Bay. This was once an important Norse port with a subsequent major fishing industry that persists today.

A group of Irish renegades led by Donald Macalister Mullach attacked the town in 1649 but were chased off. Unfortunately the impressive Thurso Castle, which was built in the 19th Century by the 6th Earl of Caithness, is in ruins. Nevertheless it makes for an impressive view. Today, Thurso contains the main campus of the North Highland College.

On the A9 through Reay on to Red Point, the Dounreay Nuclear Power Station (UK Atomic Energy Authority) is officially closed but remains a singular feature on the landscape. After Reay, which features stone circles and Viking remains on Sandside Bay, the A836 eventually pierces into the northern share of Sutherland.

Where to visit

1. Dunbeath Heritage Centre Dunbeath, KW6 6ED Run by the local Heritage Trust, the centre offers the chance to learn more about the archaeology and history of the area. +44 (0) 1593 731 233 dunbeath-heritage.org.uk

2. Clan Gunn Heritage Centre and Museum Latheron, KW5 6DN Here visitors may discover the fascinating story of the noble Clan Gunn from Norse times until today. +44 (0) 1593 741 700 clangunnsociety.org

3. Wick Heritage Museum Pulteneytown, KW1 5EY In the heart of the town, furnished rooms and knowledgeable volunteers bring the past to life. +44 (0) 1955 605 393 wickheritage.org

4. Laidhay Caithness Croft Museum Dunbeath, KW6 6EH Enjoy a break at this 200-year-old, rush thatched, Caithness longhouse with cosy tearoom. +44 (0) 1593 731 270 laidhay.co.uk

5. Pulteney Distillery Wick, KW1 5BA A Scotch whisky distillery founded in 1826 by James Henderson. It has very unusual stills that produce a uniquely flavoured spirit. +44 (0) 1955 602 371 oldpulteney.com

6. Castle of Mey Thurso, KW14 8XH Formerly known as Barrogill Castle, it was acquired by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1952 and sympathetically restored. +44 (0) 1847 851 473 castleofmey.org.uk

Where to Stay

13. Ulbster Arms Hotel Halkirk, KW12 6XY Situated on the banks of the picturesque River Thurso. This hotel's comfortable bedrooms and informal lounges are sure to satisfy. +44 (0) 1847 831 641 ulbsterarmshotel.co.uk

14. Breadalbane House Wick, KW1 5AQ A comfortable hotel overlooking Wick Harbour thatís housed in a stone-built villa from 1885. Just one mile from the airport. +44 (0) 1955 603 911 thebreadalbane.co.uk

15. MacKays Hotel Wick, KW1 5ED Expect comfortable rooms and fine food at this charming hotel. Fun fact: it's located on what is officially the worldís shortest street. +44 (0) 1955 602 323 mackayshotel.co.uk

16. Nethercliffe Hotel Wick, KW14NS This is a family-run hotel located in the historic centre of Wick that offers en-suite bedrooms, a popular pub and fine restaurant. +44 (0) 1955 602 044 nethercliffehotel.co.uk

17. Norseman Hotel Wick, KW1 4NL A delightful, traditional hotel overlooking the River Wick. Offers ensuite bedrooms that are tastefully decorated and well furnished. +44 (0) 1955 603 344 norsemanhotelwick.co.uk

18. Links House at Royal Dornoch Dornoch IV25 3LW Situated adjacent to the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, this beautiful hotel is also perfect for country pursuits and fine dining. +44 (0)1862 810 279 linkshousedornoch.com

19. The Eagle Hotel Dornoch, IV25 3SR Recently refurbished, this old coaching house offers well-appointed rooms, some with whirlpool baths, and a popular bar. +44 (0) 1862 810 008 eagledornoch.co.uk

20. Dornoch Castle Hotel Dornoch, IV25 3SD Traditional, luxurious rooms in an outstanding building that dates from the 15th Century. Home to (arguably) Scotlandís best whisky bar. +44 (0) 1862 810 216 dornochcastlehotel.com

21. Seaview Hotel John O'Groats, KW1 4YR A range of basic rooms and accommodation in the main hotel and annex. Well situated for those wishing to explore the surrounding area. +44 (0) 1955 611 220 seaviewjohnogroats.co.uk

22. Murray House B&B Thurso, KW14 7HD A delightful Victorian townhouse with a charming enclosed garden. Conveniently located in the heart of the town centre. +44 (0) 1847 895 759 murrayhousebb.com

23. Muthu Royal Thurso Hotel Thurso KW14 8EH A traditional hotel with 103 simple en-suite bedrooms, a fine restaurant and well liked bar bistro. +44 (0) 1847 893 191 www.muthuhotels.com

24. Forss House Hotel Forss, KW14 7XY A beautiful country house hotel built in 1810 that's set in 20 acres of woodland.Perfect for biking, walking, bird watching and more. +44 (0) 1803 500 402 forsshousehotel.co.uk

Where to Eat

25. Whaligoe Steps CafÈ Ulbster, KW2 6AA Fresh, seasonal produce used for an everchanging menu. Open Sat and Sun, 11am-5pm, with special events on selected dates. +44 (0) 1955 651 702 whaligoesteps.co.uk

26. Bord de L'Eau Wick, KW1 4AR Delicious French cuisine prepared to a very high standard. Featured in the Michelin guide, expect a high standard and a great menu. +44 (0) 1955 604 400 www.viamichelin.co.uk

27. Wickers World CafÈ Wick, KW1 5EP Traditional cafÈ offering home baking and hearty comfort food. Also offers guest rooms with en-suites on the lovely harbour front. +44 (0) 1955 602 433 wickersworld-cafe.co.uk

28. Morags Wick, KW1 4LR Expect tasty and wellcooked food thatís popular with locals and visitors alike. You may even meet the eponymous Morag! +44 (0) 1955 605 161 MoragsCafe

29. Captain's Galley Seafood Restaurant Scrabster, KW14 7UJ Simplicity, integrity and sustainability are the values that drive this popular seafood restaurant. +44 (0) 1847 894 999 captainsgalley.co.uk

30. Telford's Cafe at Pulteney Centre Wick, KW1 5BA Good comfort food at reasonable prices. Tasty soups. Recommended spot for a quick lunch while exploring the area. +44 (0) 1955 608 530 pppwick.org.uk

31. Crofter's Restaurant Wick, KW1 4NL Expect genuine and warm Highland hospitality, traditional cuisine, a relaxed atmospheres and homely surroundings. +44 (0) 1955 603 344 norsemanhotelwick.co.uk

32. Stacks Coffee House and Bistro John O' Groats, KW1 4YR Great spot for local produce. Stacks is famous for its home baking and popular tartiflette night! +44 (0) 1955 611 582 StacksBistro

33. Pavilion Restaurant Pentland Crescent, Thurso KW14 8BL Charming and intimate with a good reputation for superb Scottish steak and the freshest local seafood. Tel: +44 (0) 1847 895 577 PavilionThurso

34. The Y-Not Bar & Grill Thurso, KW14 8ER Contemporary, with a great menu and cocktail selection. Adjacent is the Grove Lounge, a traditional and characterful pub. +44(0) 1847 892 272 theinnynot.co.uk

35. No 1 Bistro Wick, KW1 5ED Situated within the Mackays Hotel, this restaurantís mouthwatering Highland menu keeps visitors coming back. +44 (0) 1955 602 323 mackayshotel.co.uk

36. Thyme and Plaice Helmsdale, KW8 6JA Delicious sandwiches, steak, soups, chicken skewers and more.  Popular with locals and visitors driving the NC500. +44 (0) 7826 929 200 thyme.n.plaice