Coast Part 5c 2009


From Durness to Latheronwheel and Orkney.

                                          "To where?" I hear you say. Read on, all will be revealed.


Time to take stock and tie up some loose ends

Well here we are twenty-five days done plus the day to drive to Glasgow and we are at the top left hand corner of mainland Britain having made it to Cape Wrath (3,724 coast miles since we started at Southampton).  All the in and outs of the western side completed so it should be easier hereafter.  Our total spend on campsites so far is a princely £93 or (£3.50 a night) but this should increase and our average mileage per day is 56 so that is much as we planned.  So far we have had one day where it rained more or less all day (on Mull) and apart from that a few days with mixed or very overcast weather.   I have recorded significant sun on 17 days.   We are all fit and well, Doreen's black eye has faded and I have got used to my old glasses, the dogs are in excellent spirits.  As for the van well it has been near perfect, all the mods I did have worked well and the solar panel has performed better than expected.  The windscreen wiper blade has been fixed and the only remaining problem that I am aware of is a tiny leak in the shower room roof from the vent.  I did investigate it on Mull and it was a failure of the original converter's sealant and a poor method of fixing - no surprises there then.  I bought some high grade marine sealant in Tobermory but as it hasn't rained enough since haven't bothered to fix it (I would need to park next to a wall to get access and then lift the solar panel).  Getting rid of the oven and using double skillet pans to cook on the hob with has been a revelation and we have eaten much better than on previous trips, hardly opened a tin. 


In part 5b I mentioned Tim. After the Cape Wrath trip we gave him a lift back to the Durness campsite, we asked where his tent was and he told us that he didn't have a tent and actually wasn't even on the campsite.  No he had a basha made of a sheet of dark woven plastic in the adjacent field against the outside wall of the campsite but close to the 'facilities'.  He told us he couldn't afford campsites, every so often he would nip over the wall to use the camp kitchen or toilets.  Well you had to admire both his cheek and his fortitude and although he was a bit odd and lived a lonely sort of life you couldn't help liking him.  Tim, nice and not a bit Dim.  Every time we spotted the camp warden visiting the site we crossed our fingers hoping he wouldn't catch Tim before he started hitching home - to Brighton.  


I also mentioned John Lennon and his association with Durness.  Well he used to come to Durness as a child and up to the age of 17 and it is supposedly referred to in his song 'In my Life' (although the Wiki entry disagrees).  There is a blue plaque on the bungalow where he used to stay with his cousins and there is a John Lennon memorial garden.  He brought Yoko Ono to Durness in 1979 I bet they didn't camp under a basha, though thinking about it they certainly might have.  The garden could use some TLC but apparently a team of volunteers come from near and far away each May to spruce it up, they just hadn't been yet this year.


Day 26

After one last walk on the beach, incidentally not a beach to surf or go aground on, just look at those knife edged rocks, we left our campsite early and drove the mile to the Smoo caves.  There is free access to the outer caves but for a small sum you can be taken in a rubber dinghy to explore further in. You have to be good with small spaces, ladders and bending very low but its well worth the money and the effort. 

Durness Beaches and a commanding position above them


Smoo Cave way down and entrance

Inside the caves


Out and back trips might be shorter on this part but there were still large detours. First around Loch Eribol and then we forced away from the coast at Whiten head till Tongue Bay.  Both sides of Tongue bay were interesting and very pretty, in fact Sutherland is every bit as good as Wester Ross we decided.   Although the day started dull it became a beautiful sunny day later and after visiting the harbour at Skerray Bay, the highlight was walking the beach near Torrisdale in mid afternoon. It is massive, a continuation of the same beach that we were to see many road miles later at Bettyhill on the next day. It was one of those days that we saw plenty of places that were suitable for a wild camp when we didn't need one but when we did we still found places but we weren't comfortable with them. For some reason after Smoo caves we only took four photos, here are three of them


Loch Eribol, Skerray Bay, and Torrisdale Bay - The Beach


26th Day - 53 Coast Miles


Day 27

Our first visit of the day was to Bettyhill.  We had seen the bit in 'Coast' about the highland clearances in this area which were particularly brutal, and had already been into a museum in Ullapool, which dealt with the clearances in that area.  So once we had found the Bettyhill museum we went in and spent an hour or so there.  People were literally burnt out of their homes and thousands died all over the highlands as a direct result.  In the longer term more had their lives dramatically shortened. One feature of the clearances was that often the people who knew no other skill than crofting would emigrate rather than starve and often all the people would leave in one boat and set up a community together in North America or Australia.  This sounds romantic but the reality was unspeakable suffering.  Those that stayed learnt new skills such as fishing.  What I found so disgusting was that although the landlords were motivated by self interest they dressed it up as the 'highland improvements' when they were (very rarely) brought to task about it.  This is not ancient history, although the clearances started in a small way from the end of the Jacobite rebellion at Culloden (1746) it carried on well into Victoria's reign though it peaked in this part of Sutherland in 1815.  For those that would like to read more I have included a link at the end.  


One time when heading towards a little harbour (Port a Chinn) we ran out of road by some sheds and net drying frames but we were still over 30 metres above sea level by steep cliffs.  Then we realised what the structure a little way further on was for.  It looks like everything goes up and down this cableway.  Shows what sort of lengths people will go to to scratch a living, compare this with Whaligoe later.

The same beach as yesterday!

No way down?       The way down 


Although we try and drive to the very edge of the coast and for some important headlands we will walk the last little way sometimes we get stopped in our tracks. For example on our way to Strathy point lighthouse we were met with a succession of notices telling us not to drive and not to take dogs beyond this point, behind us was another sign "Turning Circle no parking" so we bowed to the inevitable at least we could see the headland, there were other similar occasions as the photos show.


No Dogs no Vehicles,   Drowning Memorial no Dogs

Decommissioning Dounreay - No Access


We gradually worked our way across the north coast of Sutherland, amazing scenery then suddenly you cross into Caithness and it is so different, bleak, and in stark contrast to what went before. Then once you get to Dounreay the roads become much wider and busier.  Thurso was nice though, it was readying itself for a surf contest so lots of strange looking people with even stranger looking campers.  Doreen had run out of some tablets and although they were available over the counter (at a price) the pharmacist advised us to see a local doctor as a 'visitor' and get a prescription, this she did and thanks to the low cost of prescriptions in Scotland got a very good deal.

Some Surfing Motorhome!


We weren't certain about making the trip to Orkney that evening as it was decidedly dull at midday when we arrived at Thurso but had made the telephone booking anyway.  As soon as we left the mainland coast that evening we could see the bright cliffs of Orkney.  As we approached Hoy the clouds vanished and we were in evening sunlight and got a really excellent view of the sea cliffs and the 'Old Man of Hoy'.

The Old Man of Hoy


27th Day - 60 Coast Miles and 12 on Orkney


Days 28 to 34  Orkney


Mainland Orkney

We had planned to visit Orkney since 2003 when looking over the Pentland Firth from John O'Groats, this was an ideal opportunity and we intended to have a rest from 'coast'.  The major flaw in that plan was that on Orkney you can't be far from the coast and every night we spent there we were probably less than 100 metres from the beach.  It was also our plan to stay in one place, we even took a small tent with us to act as a campsite store.  In the event we stayed on a campsite two nights and wild camped the rest of the time.   Wild camping is a little different on Orkney we found.  For a start there are no really out of the way places on the main island, houses have been sprinkled all over but what also has been sprinkled about are tiny car parks often with a public loo.   This is what we used.  We only found one car park with a 'no overnight' notice and a couple that were really unsuitable.  Of the four car parks that we used one had no toilet, one had a toilet but no electric or hot water, one had electric and hot water and one had electric, hot water, and an outside drinking water tap with hose connector and a waiting room for the bus!

Those of you who are Caravan and Camping Club members will know that (unknown to us at the time) the club magazine featured Orkney.  Well we did all they said we should, so you can skip the next bit.  For those who aren't members this is what we did.  We drove all over mainland Orkney but especially visited the points marked with red dots in the map above


The Archaeology 

We bought explorer tickets that gave us access to the main sites at a discount.  These were Skara Brae, a Neolithic village older than Stonehenge, that had been covered by sand until a storm revealed it in 1850, Maeshowe a chambered cairn which you can walk right to the middle of and is at least the equal of Newgrange in Meath. Ireland.  The cairn has Norse runic graffiti, of the 'kilroy was here' sort, carved a mere nine hundred years ago .  Maeshowe and Skara Brae are World Heritage Sites along with the ring of Brodgar and the stones of Stennes (free public access).  We also saw the iron age settlement 'Broch of Gurness'.

Skara Brae,   Maeshowe

Broch of Gurness


The ticket also covered the Bishop's and Earls palaces in Kirkwall which are next to St Magnus Cathedral and its visitor centre.  We have to say we liked the Earls palace.  He was a very wicked Earl, but his palace was the sort of place you could imagine living in.  Its rooms, even the grandest, were not much bigger than some built in ordinary homes today.


The Earls Palace

St Magnus


Modern History

The scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow and the torpedoing of the Royal Oak along with the building of the Churchill barriers were nationally significant but what most people come to see is the little Italianate church made out of a couple of Nissan huts by the Italian prisoners of war who helped construct the barriers.  I kept on having to go up close to the walls, to see the paint on flat plaster which expertly gave the effect of tiling and 3D relief.  On another part of the island I was particularly pleased to find some anti-submarine netting .... yes I know, sad!

Two Nissan Huts some Nifty Painting

Nifty Knitting 


Summary and other stuff 

Orkney has no sizeable trees, so do expect wind, but has fantastic beaches and wild life along with historic and prehistoric sites of international significance.  We added Fulmar, Artic Skua, Eider duck and Whimbrel to our holiday list. Provided you dress suitably, and expect three out of the four seasons most days, there is much to commend a spring holiday there.  Just to be close to the Highland Park distillery will be enough of a draw for some!  I spent a happy hour or so in the tiny Wireless museum in Kirkwell and used the library in Kirkwall for free internet access. We did look into visiting the smaller islands at the end of our stay but the weather, as usual, was mixed which would have made it awkward as foot passengers with the dogs.  Restaurant tip, try Smiddies in Kirkwall for high tea or supper.


Spray over 40m cliffs  Light in Eynhallow Sound 

 Light in St Magnus

Waulkmill Bay, Scapa Flow from Houton Bay


It was with regret that we folded up our OS map sheet 6 for the last time as we prepared to board the Hamnavoe.  After 7 windy days we shouldn't have been surprised when the skipper said 'we will pitch a bit in the mouth of Hoy Sound and then roll some afterwards', but it shouldn't be too bad.  Well the fried haddock and chips we had in the restaurant as we took white water over the bows and plunged into the occasional large green wave didn't seem such a good idea but we, with our haddock inside us, made it back to Thurso unscathed.

Stromness and MV Hamnavoe


28th to 34th Day - 294 Orkney miles




After leaving our very average campsite in Thurso  we drove by the harbour at Castletown. it looked a lovely spot for a wild camp  - perhaps next time.  Our first stop was Dunnet Head which ticked one of the two boxes we had to tick today, that of the most northerly point of mainland Scotland.   It was a glorious day and it stayed that way for about an hour more and just as we went past Castle Mey at midday it became overcast.  A little while later we paid lip service to John O'Grouts before going to Duncansby head which is the most north easterly point.  As we turned south the weather turned more still, and showers and overcast skies were with us until evening and I can tell you, Wick for example, is not improved by heavy showers.

Castletown Harbour, Dunnet Head, Duncansby Head


Before that and despite the deteriorating weather we stuck to the coast like glue and eventually found a beach where it wasn't actually raining to give the dogs some exercise, what a beach that was around 5km long, we parked at one end, at Rough of Stain, but we didn't walk very far as the rain came back. So on to Wick and skirting the airport to Noss head.  

Stacks of Duncansby, Sinclairs Bay, Noss Head


As I have mentioned earlier well as our dvds of 'Coast' we had brought along a seaside book that had been given free with our newspaper.  It has been very useful for the more out of the way and unusual features of the coast. It does have one big drawback, it only gives the vaguest clues about where any of these places actually are.  So it was that we drove backward and forward in Wick in the wet looking for the 'Trinkie Pool', we saw a sign to it but never encountered the actual place. Its a batheing pool partly carved out of the rocks, apparently it was made and it is maintained by volunteers.  Eventually we gave up and found a Somerfield instead.  I think that had it been dry we would have persevered and found it. when we googled it sometime later we found it was some distance from Wick on a turning we must have missed in a downpour.


In one of the downpours we drove past Whaligoe where the herring catch was unloaded at the bottom of a staircase of 330 (or is it 365?) stone steps set in the rocks, it was the women of the village who carried all the fish up the steps.  We can't tell you how many steps because having seen them there is nothing that would persuade me to go down and up them in the dry let alone the wet and carrying a box of fish on my head, no way. At this point we fell off the map. I should explain, we packed 26 OS maps for this journey, which took up a fair bit of space in a small van.   Where we had gaps in our collection we had bought new ones, except in one or two cases.  We never bought number 11 or number 17, because when I looked at them in the shop, I realised that there was a lot of overlap and very little coastal content that couldn't be covered by an ordinary road map.  However by now we had gone well over our 60 mile average on the West coast or indeed the 80 mile average we had planned for on the East coast.  So it was more by luck than planning or detailed map reading that we found the amazing harbour of Lybster, but then could see no suitable place to wild camp.  Then just a few miles later the tiny harbour of Latheronwheel which was to be our wild camp for the night, and was one of the best locations found on this trip, and you wait till tomorrow morning (in Part 5d) when the sun is out.  

Lybster Harbour, Old road at Latheronwheel, Latheronwheel Harbour


Well the original aim of this part of the blog was to get around Duncansby Head but rather than leave it there in the middle of the day have carried on to our night stop, and now we will resume in part 5d.

35th Day - 100 Coast Miles 


Link to John Lennon and Durness

Link to Sutherland clearances

You tube link to the MV Hamavoe leaving Orkney

Link to Part 5d coast Part 5d 2009