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CAITHNESS - CASTLES AND CLIFFTOPS


Caithness is a strange place. In the Highlands but not of it, beyond the Gaeltacht but largely with Norse rather than Gaelic heritage, and very much a world of its own. From the A9 you get the impression that it's all flattish farmland but the coast is as wild and rugged as you could wish. The landscape feels upside down, with the moorland below the fields and the rocky ground lower still. The shore is a place of hidden valleys, deeply cut rock slots and impressively daunting cliff scenery. There is a coast path but it isn't well trodden and sometimes almost vanishes, while in places it yoyos up and down wildly in a fashion completely unsuspected from above. It gets you into some truly dramatic spots and deserves to be much better known than it is.


The Clett, Ramscraig, Caithness, Scotland
The Clett, Ramscraig

Caithness rarely gets mentioned in mainstream histories of Scotland (let alone Britain) but the past is everywhere you look. There are 3000 year old burial chambers, mysterious stone rows, palatial 16th Century castles and harbours that were crammed with boats little over a century ago. Wales may bill itself as the Land of Castles but Caithness gives it a pretty good run for its money. In the 50-odd miles from Helmsdale to John o' Groats there are ten full-on castles, twenty brochs and three duns, all within a mile of the coast. There were obviously times in the past when this place was both prosperous and under threat.


Bucholly Castle
Bucholly Castle, Caithness, Scotland
Bucholly Castle

You could walk the coast path at any time of year (though winter would be pretty bleak and often stormy) but I've usually tended to go in August because it's a handy refuge from west coast midges. If you were being keen you could walk the whole lot in four days, but although 12.5 miles a day doesn't sound much the ascent and roughness make it a substantial undertaking. Campsites are few and although there are spots to wild camp the streams run through farms so care with water is needed. There's a reasonable amount of accommodation in B&Bs, pods and caravans, though because of the popularity of the North Coast 500 it's worth booking ahead. Because a regular bus service runs parallel with the coast it's easy to stay in one or two places and travel back and forth each day. I've always preferred walking it northwards as you get a feeling of progressing into the unknown, though it does mean that you get thrown in at the deep end. It's a terrific walk, much more dramatic and interesting than you expect beforehand.


Latheronwheel, Caithness, Scotland
Latheronwheel

You leave Helmsdale on an untypically easy trail right by the water, but after a couple of miles you're forced up above the cliffs. It's then several hours of traversing steep grass and heather, with occasional bits of decent path. A right leg longer than your left would be useful. This is the Ord, the traditional barrier between Caithness and the rest of the world. My first acquaintance with it was before the road improvements, driving north from Glasgow in early March. I had fitted in a quick hill on the way up so it was dark by the time I got there and starting to snow. These days I would have stopped in Helmsdale but then I hadn't been driving long and hadn't got a clue. On the Ord proper the snow got heavy and the police shut the road while I was on it. I did make it across rather precariously, the copper at the other end being quite surprised to see me. It felt like arriving in another world, and Caithness has always felt special since.


Looking back to the Ord of Caithness, Scotland
Looking back to the Ord

Eventually you drop into the shelter of Berriedale, hunkered down in the cleft alongside its twin streams. Here you meet the first castle, a ruin perched impregnably on the clifftop. It goes back to at least 1330 and was the scene of 16th century struggles between the Oliphants and the Sinclairs. The Oliphants had acquired a quarter of Caithness, including Berriedale, through marrying the Sutherland heiress but the Sinclairs claimed the land too. Sinclair attempts to take the castle by force failed (unsurprisingly given its site) but in 1606 the Oliphant chief had financial problems and was forced to sell it to his rivals. It was abandoned in the early 18th Century.


Berriedale, Caithness, Scotland
Berriedale, what's left of the castle is just visible on the headland

Leaving Berriedale is steep, winding up through gorse tunnels and out onto open grassland dotted with ruined farm buildings. The path is well used for a while, by local dog walkers I assume, but then just becomes open fields. Through walkers are rare, there's a box on a pole with a log book that you can sign and when I was there the previous entry had been three days before – the Dorset Coast this isn't! More up and down gets you to the Allt na Buaidhe, falling into the sea in an 80m plummet.The detour to its top through a tunnel of hazel scrub is worthwhile, letting you peer out over the sea through a bushy window.


An Dun, Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland
An Dun, Borgue

Even more dramatic is the headland of An Dun, sliced completely through by a narrow arch. You can walk over this onto the top of the head, but the view from the side is better. Another deep slot and another arch take you round to Ramscraigs Stacks, The Clett being the main one. It was first climbed in 2001 but has had no recorded ascents since.


The Clett, Ramscraig, Caithness, Scotland
The Clett, Ramscraig

A mile or so after the stacks you get forced away from the clifftop for the only time on the route, as the huge Dunbeath Castle is still inhabited and runs right up to the edge. It's only for a mile though, as a lane soon descends to Dunbeath. Caithness's most famous writer, Neil Gunn, grew up here and drew upon his childhood for his best known book, Highland River.


Dunbeath Castle, Caithness, Scotland
Dunbeath Castle
Dunbeath Castle

Next you round Portormin Head, where the soft sandstones have been heavily eroded to produce a hollowed out promontory with multiple exits. The three stacks of Cleit Mhor, Cleit Bheag and Cleit Ruadh are just beyond, then you start to arrive at more solid looking cliffs as you approach Latheronwheel. This has a reputation as the friendliest of the coast's climbing grounds, though approaches are mostly by abseil and even the V Diffs are vertical. The classic route is Stepping Out (Severe), offset grooves up the front of a detached stack with a ridiculous "surely it can't go out there" move over an overhang at half height. Once you've worked out how to put your foot at shoulder level then stand up on it it's fine, honest!


Latheronwheel, Caithness, Scotland
Latheronwheel. Stepping Out takes the big half height overhang on the right

After the little harbour of Latheronwheel the coast gets lower. At low tides you can even use the stony beach for much of it. Below half tide it's possible to creep round the outside of Red Point, possibly with a bit of scrambling. Trying it a higher tide state once I got within a couple of moves of the far end but had to back off, escaping directly up the end of the headland, which was quite exciting in walking boots.


Forse Castle, Caithness, Scotland
Forse Castle

A complicated meander in and out takes you past the hidden waterfall of the Eas Forss, where sea level fluctuations after the ice age have produced an almost enclosed doomy slot, Poll an Easaich. The far side of the bay is dominated by the stark ruin of Forse Castle, whose outer walls now diverge markedly so it's going to fall apart soon. Lybster is next, and it's hard to visualise that in 1859 there were 350 fishing boats based in the small harbour, employing over 1500 people, not counting those onshore.


Stack of Mid Clyth, Caithness, Scotland
Stack of Mid Clyth

More smallish cliffs, minor ruined castles and occasional sea stacks follow, the hollow Stack of Mid Clyth being striking, then Whaligoe Steps hits you between the eyes. This is almost a compulsory stop off on the NC500 so it's always busy. It deserves the attention though, an airy stairway dropping into an enclosed harbour. The last time I was there it was living up to its name, with Bottlenose Dolphins cavorting in the mouth of the inlet and Risso's Dolphins just offshore (only the second time I'd ever seen them).


Whaligoe Steps, Caithness, Scotland
Whaligoe Steps

Beyond this you're out onto open moorland and the rock gets sounder. The next few miles contain the best rock climbing on the whole coast, at Ellen's Geo and Sarclet, with the VS/HVS Groove Armada reputedly one of the best single pitches in the country. You still won't see many people on it though! August is a great time to be here, with the heather in full bloom.


Ulbster, Caithness, Scotland
Above Ellen's Geo, Ulbster (two climbers right of centre - it's bigger than it looks!)

The approach to civilisation is heralded by the Castle of Old Wick, currently fenced off because of unstable masonry. It's thought to have been built around 1160 by Harald Maddadson, the Norse Earl of Caithness and Orkney. He was the son of the Mormaer (earl) of Atholl and his territory extended to the Dornoch Firth, making him one Caithness character who did make a sizeable impact on events further south. He was heavily involved in the persistent attempts of Moray to assert its independence from the Perthshire-based MacAlpin dynasty, and despite losing most of these battles he was undislodgable from his northern base and died in his bed after 65 years in power. Quite an achievement in those bloodthirsty times. The Moray struggle was finally ended by the judicial murder of the last claimant, a baby daughter, in 1230, and the earldom was given to Freskyn the Fleming, the ancestor of the modern Murray family.


Castle of Old Wick, Caithness, Scotland
Castle of Old Wick

Once past the built up area of Wick the walking becomes an easy stroll along a level clifftop on a good path. Noss Head lighthouse marks a boundary, with a sense developing that you're running out of land. Beyond it twin castles mark the original northern headquarters of the Sinclairs. Girnigoe is the original, dating from at least the 15th Century, with Castle Sinclair being built in 1606. The Sinclairs were officially made Earls of Caithness in 1455 but had controlled it in practice for around a century before that (the first de jure earl, William, is best known as the builder of Rosslyn Chapel). Both castles were abandoned after 1680 when they were damaged in a succession dispute between John Campbell of Glenorchy (married to the last earl's widow) and George Sinclair of Keiss (a cousin).


Girnigoe Castle, Wick, Scotland
Girnigoe Castle

You now cross the only sizeable beach on the Caithness coast, the wide sweep of Sinclair's Bay. It's almost always necessary to cut inland to cross the stream from the Loch of Wester as it's fairly deep. The beach is flanked by yet another pair of castles, the restored Ackergill Tower and the ruined Keiss. The latter gets my vote for the most scenic castle in the county, absolutely right on the clifftop and complete to its full height. It was abandoned for more comfortable lodgings in the 1750s.


Keiss Castle, Caithness, Scotland
Keiss Castle

More easy walking takes you past Bucholly Castle to Freswick Bay and another beach, then a short bit of minor road goes back out to the cliff at Skirza. A mile beyond this is the stunning Wife Geo, one of the most impressive gulfs on the whole walk. Three slots enter the inlet, one a narrow gateway, the others tunnels. The waves surge through these, meeting in the interior in an earth-shaking roar. A couple of easy miles along the clifftop take you past the twin Duncansby Stacks, then you arrive at the end of all things. People often loosely refer to it as John o' Groats but really this is the village a couple of miles west, the lighthouse on Duncansby Head being the real end. Although there are likely to be more people than you've met for a while it's still not a busy place. The trig point at the top of the hill is a great spot to rest, look back to the stacks and count your laurels.


Duncansby Stacks, John o' Groats
Duncansby Stacks


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