The trees around Forss house are speckled with crows’ nests and as we set off down the gravel path towards the car, we noted the sociable and very smart birds cawing and wheeling above the trees. Seconds later things of a more uncharitable nature were observed about them, because they had shat all over the roof of the car which was parked under one of their trees. “I think it’s good luck”, said I, “it’s on the left side of the car.”
Passing through Thurso, a town of about 8000 and the largest in Caithness, our first stop was the lighthouse at Dunnet Head which, like many others on the Scottish coast, was built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the great Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson. Built in 1831, it sits atop 300 foot cliffs that plunge into the Pentland Firth and although it still functions as a lighthouse, everything is automatic and the solitary job of lighthouse keeper is no more. We did not hang around because of the fierce wind, though a few hardy souls were setting out along the clifftop, perhaps hoping to see puffins or walk the 2-mile length of sands at Dunnet Bay. We, on the other hand, motored sedately on to John O’ Groats, which almost everyone mistakenly believes is the most northerly point in Britain. This is because the furthest distance of any two places apart in Britain is the 876 miles from there to Land’s End in Cornwall, as the much-Instagrammed fingerpost attests – but the most northerly point on mainland Britain is actually Dunnet Head.
There is not much in John O’Groats aside from a hotel and some shops, and that there is anything at all is because a Dutchman called Jan de Groot, used to run a ferry from here to the Orcadian island of South Ronaldsay, during the reign of James IV in the late 15th century. For this he charged a groat (from the Dutch ‘groot’), a medieval unit of coinage, for which he ended up with the moniker John o’ Groats. Who knew? Not I until now. After our ritual morning coffee, we strolled into a shop where I bought some Rock Rose gin. As the distillery is next door in Dunnet Bay I thought it only right to support local business. Meanwhile, John was looking at a small sheepskin. A New Zealand friend of mine once told me that over there it is the custom to lay babies on a sheepskin in their crib. I was telling John this when I looked at the label to see that it was a New Zealand sheepskin. New Zealand has 30 million sheep and a population of under 5 million so I understand the need to export a few. But Scotland has six and a half million sheep and five and a half million people – why to us? Don’t we have our own sheepskins? What’s wrong with Scottish sheep? Are they the wrong breed for sheepskin? I am not advocating the wholesale slaughter of sheep for their skins you understand, but if people are going to eat lamb, why can’t we find something to do with all their bits instead of tossing them in landfill? Or are they exported to New Zealand??
From John O’Groats we drove down the east coast on the A99, passing by a string of ruined castles perched on clifftops that in less frigid months I’d definitely be up to explore, including the ruins of Bucholie, Keiss and Sinclair Girnigoe. The World Monuments Fund in conjunction with Historic Scotland, Clan Sinclair Trust and various other local organizations, is working to stabilize Sinclair Girnigoe castle which, like the others, is slowly disintegrating. The 16th century Keiss castle which lies on the opposite side of Sinclair Bay and was once the seat of the powerful Sinclair family, is too far dilapidated to be salvaged. Another nearby castle – not in ruins – is Ackergill Tower which was run as a hotel until last year. It is now privately owned by a wealthy American who is an ordained minister, which will undoubtedly come in handy as it is said to be one of the most haunted castles in Scotland. Tidal river, Wick
Eventually Wick hoved into view. Derived from Vik, a Norse word meaning ‘bay’, it is a rare inlet along this rocky coast that was a safe haven for sailors. Although it became a royal burgh in 1589, Wick did not develop much until the 19th century when more than 200 boats worked from its harbor to fish for herring, known as silver darlings. At its peak in 1862, an incredible 1122 herring boats were based in Wick during the season. In addition to fishermen and boat crews, this bounty provided work for other trades like coopers, and for women who gutted the fish on the quayside, and for auctioneers, not to mention pub landlords who all profited when the population of the town swelled during the fishing season. But as drifters and seine netters replaced the traditional luggers and ‘fifies’, the herring were massively over-fished and the once teeming silver darlings were reduced to a trickle. The industry died as quickly as it had boomed and it never recovered. Alas, a quick trot through Wick gave all of us the sense that Wick itself has yet to recover and we found it a bit sad and hollowed out. It is a pity, because a repository of substantial commercial and residential buildings attests to its former prosperity. We visited on a Saturday, yet even the main streets were curiously empty and as we strolled to Wick Heritage Museum – only to discover that it was still closed for the season – the only people we saw were washing their cars. Perhaps it was the first nice day of the season. In a throwback to when a goodly portion of the herring profits were disbursed in the direction of the publicans of the more than 60 pubs in and around Wick’s harbor, the busiest place by far was Wetherspoons pub in the center of town, which was doing a roaring lunchtime trade.
The Vikings didn’t just sail in to Wick, pronounce it Vik and sail off, they settled in this windswept northern corner and we know this because of all the place names there that end with ‘ster’, which in Old Norse means settlement; Bilbster, Badlipster, Camster, Haster, Killimster, Lybster, Mybster, Nybster Scrabster, Shebster, Thrumster and Ulbster. And if there are any more in this alphabet sweep of Nordic communes I didn’t come across them. Before the Norsemen, the area was settled by Picts who ruled from Fife in east central Scotland all the way to Caithness, which means ‘Headland of the Cats’ – the Cats being a Pictish tribe. The Picts date back to around 100BC and were around until the 10th century when they appear to have merged with the Gaels in the west. We know tantalizingly little about them and what we do know comes mostly from other sources, although they themselves left behind many engraved stelae.
And before the Picts were people who built stone cairns and brochs and erected standing stones that are some of the best preserved examples of their kind in the country. None are as imposing as Stonehenge, Callanish on Lewis, or the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, but the sites are unique and there are a lot of them. Hill o’ Many Stanes just north of Lybster, is a field of over 200 stones less than one meter tall, which are arranged in rows on a hillside. They appear to have been laid out around 2000BCE and although we do not know what they represent, it has been posited that it was an observatory. The Grey Cairns of Camster, a group of chambered cairns to the west of Thrumster, are even older. Dating back to 3000BCE, they are the most intact cairns of their type ever found in the country. The nearby Achavanich Stones, thought to date to around 2500BCE are a U-shaped group of 40 stones that are between one and two meters high.
Unfortunately we did not leave enough time to see them on this visit, so I must go back. I am curious about them because I’ve seen similar fields of stones from Kurdistan in northern Iraq, to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, where they are known as balbals. In this case however, the stones are almost certainly funerary as most of them are carved with human faces and symbols.
Back at Forss House J and I went for a walk to the coast. We were just at the edge of an area called the Flow Country, 1,500 square miles of blanket peat bog south and west of Forss that has matured over thousands of years. The landscape here is not the dramatic sweep of the Highlands’ lochs and islands and mountains, but its rolling expanse of sphagnum moss mottled with pools and hummocks of tawny grasses is no less impressive in its way and it remains a vital ecosystem in the all-encompassing issue of climate change. It is a haven for migrating birds and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has two reserves here, one at Forsinard and another at Broubster Leans. Migrating Greylag geese, white-fronted geese and whooper swans winter at the latter, while in spring you can see lapwings, which we called ‘peewits’ in our childhood, after their distinctive call. At Forsinard greenshanks, golden plover and dunlins breed in spring and summer, and if you’re lucky you may see hen harriers, short-eared owls and red-throated divers.
Later that evening we got chatting to some locals at the hotel bar, one of whom worked in local government. At one point he lamented that not enough was being done to promote Caithness or to publicize its uniqueness. I would have to agree, because until I started researching the trip I did not know about the county’s cairns and stelae and the only reason I knew about the Flow Country was because I had read about the genius in the 1980s who figured it was a brilliant idea to drain the bog and plant stands of conifers as a tax shelter for the wealthy. Conifers are not native to the habitat and fortunately the program did not last long (at least there), the trees were chopped up into matchsticks and bog is returning to bog.
And talking of the hotel bar, Ann McKenzie, who is something of an institution at Forss House, is the sort of character who is also an endangered species; think vaguely older, female version of Craig Ferguson and you’re about there – a brand of humor that is uniquely Scottish. Taking J’s order of a double shot of a double-casked single malt (we forget which….), she reminded him that it would be strong, whereupon he changed his order to a single. “Chicken,” she retorted in mock scorn, before pointing out the tiny tap on the bar counter from which he was allowed to add two drops to his dram. “No more”, she affected a stern rebuke, “you want to open it up, not drown it.” Whisky is taken seriously here, so do not do anything so crass as asking for ice with your single malt. We ended up having a fine evening of Highland hospitality when, after another splendid dinner at the hotel, Nick, the manager, who is a whisky connoisseur, introduced the two J’s to a post-prandial 40-year old Old Pulteney, which is exceptionally rare. Exceptionally pricy too, as they discovered when they went to pay the bill…. Still, all agreed it was one of the best evenings of our trip.