Looming through the mist
From our croft near Kiltarlity we rejoined the A9,to drive north to the top of Scotland. It’s quite a scenic route along the North East coast which is why it attracts bikers, cyclists, camper vans and motor homes. They are all travelling the North Coast 500, a well known tourist route which goes from Inverness in the east to Ullapool in the West. It is, in fact, 516 miles long but I guess the only ones bothered about the extra 16 miles are likely to be those on a pushbike.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t as crowded with traffic as we thought it might be but it is getting a bit late in the season and I suppose there are also fewer people touring this year. We certainly haven’t seen any foreign number plates amongst the vehicles on the road. The views crossing the Dornoch Firth were beautiful and Helmsdale Harbour made for a very pretty lunch stop.
We were intending to follow the NC500 right up to John O’Groats ourselves as we had booked a B&B for a couple of nights nearby. But a sign flashed up on the road warning of heavy rain for the following day and we had intended visiting a birding site near Thurso then. So as it was still quite sunny we cut up directly to Thurso, through some pretty bleak moorland, and on to Dunnet Head, an RSPB reserve.
Now here is an interesting factoid. John O’Groats is often thought to be the most northerly point of mainland Britain but it ‘ain’t. The O’Groatians, keen to relieve travellers of their cash, generally fail to mention that J O’G is merely the most northerly habited place. Dunnet Head sticks out into the Atlantic by a good few miles more and so if you stand on the RSPB viewing platform and gaze out to sea you really are on the very last few inches of mainland UK. Take one step further and you really ought to have a paraglider strapped to your back.
This is a great place to view seabirds – Guillemot, Fulmar, Gannets, Herring Gull, Cormorant and even Kittiwake and Puffin, though we didn’t see any of the latter two. What we did spot out to sea, however, were Grey Seal and Dolphin, presumably Bottlenose though they were a bit too distant to identify with any certainty.
Dunnet Head features a rather fetching looking lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1831. The light is automated now so there is no longer a keeper there but you can stay there should you wish to get away from it all, though with hoards of visitors to the cliffs I’m not sure it quite qualifies as the ultimate get away place.
The views of the surrounding moorland are wonderful and we did manage to see Orkney from the top of the hill behind the lighthouse though the clouds were obviously gathering ready for the ‘morrow.
And, indeed, the ‘morrow brought with it Caithness haar. Our B&B landlady told us we shouldn’t worry as the haar comes and goes. One minute it’s all misty so you can’t see the house just over the road, the next it’s clear and sunny. I think she was being optimistic. Certainly about the clear and sunny bit.
The weather being so iffy we decided to travel some of the NC500 which we had missed and set off for Wick but just a few miles down the road we noticed Canisbay Church. The Late Queen Mother had a holiday ‘home’ Mey Castle just up the road and attended the church in Canisbay. And the future King Charles spends two weeks at the castle each year and keeps up his grandmother’s church attendance.
However this is not what makes the church interesting, unless you are an arch royalist. For in the graveyard lie the remains of a Dutchman, Jan de Groot. In the 1500’s he built a house a few miles down the road at a place where he could launch a boat. He then initiated a ferry service to Orkney for 2d (two old pence) and the coin for this denomination came to be called a ‘half-groat’. The place where this ferry service commenced became known as John O’Groats.
So, of course, we just had to go and see the place and give thanks to Jan de Groot. It has become a somewhat tacky tourist trap now, of course, and we resisted the impulse to take a selfie by the famous signpost.
The following morning the mist was, if anything worse as we drove the three minutes from our B&B to the ferry port. We could hear the vessel’s foghorn as it approached the harbour but it only appeared out of the mist at the last moment like some ghost ship. I was glad to see that it was called the Alfred not Marie Celeste. We braved the inappropriately named Sun Deck for the duration of the one hour crossing not wishing to sit inside with masks on. We could make out little in the way of land but were able to make out some nice birds in the gloom, including a Puffin which was a nice way to welcome us into Orkney.