Walking to JoG
This has been a momentous week where my walking pole has continued to be wielded as a machete along the Inverness to John o’ Groats (JoG) Trail, when I left Sutherland and entered Caithness. The 147-mile route is not yet officially recognised, financed or maintained, and this became evident when confronted by continual jungle-like conditions. Coupled with extremely strong offshore winds, this has forced me onto roads for quite a few miles this week.
Entering Helmsdale by road, I couldn’t miss the Emigrants’ Memorial dominating the crest of a hill overlooking the harbour. This memorial commemorates crofters from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who had been affected by the Land Clearance schemes, and subsequently decided to emigrate in search of freedom and a new life. A dark period during the 18th and 19th century in this part of Scotland, the Duke of Sutherland was one such owner who cleared his land of people to create pasture land and introduce large scale sheep farming.
Eviction of entire families was enforced in many glens, including Ousdale, Berriedale, and Strath of Kildonan near Helmsdale. To their credit, the Duke and Duchess planned a ‘new town’ for their tenants at Helmsdale, where they intended to introduce new employment opportunities. Understandably, many families were unhappy at being uprooted. Others were forced to swap their fertile lands for the rough, infertile, sloping land of Badbea, another ‘new village’ perched on remote cliffs near Berriedale: I walked through both. When it became clear to families that they could not make a living from their new circumstances, many took the brave decision to emigrate.
As I gradually made my way towards JoG I passed through many small harbours, each with their own character and story to tell: Dunbeath, overlooked by a grand castle/house on the clifftops, Lybster, tiny Whaligoe with its 300 steps leading to a narrow inlet, Staxigoe with its Fishermen’s Pole (barometer) and Keiss with its old ice house and fishing store. Far larger than all these was Wick harbour, now looking somewhat forlorn – but a special place for me as I clocked 2,000 miles there since leaving Portsmouth.
Although sunshine accompanied me on the last stretch of cliffs towards Duncansby Head, I spent the entire time fighting the wind, desperately trying to remain upright and on land. Its remoteness was beautiful and saw me walking through acres of white cotton grass, mixed with boggy patches; each step sank my boots, but thankfully they always rose again! By the time I reached Duncansby Stacks I was hiking on springy green turf so could stop to admire these incredible rock formations which resembled gigantic Walnut Whips in the sea!
Turning left at Duncansby Lighthouse to head west alongside the Pentland Firth was a notable change of direction: I had begun to walk across the top of Scotland. For the next two miles into JoG, along the cliffs overlooking white sandy beaches and among flocks of sheep, I felt both excitement and trepidation.
Since my last visit to JoG in 2007, when I walked 1,200 miles to Land’s End raising funds for the Poppy Appeal, the area had clearly benefitted from major investment. For me, the disappointment was seeing the iconic signpost, once strictly controlled, now daubed in stickers and looking decidedly tatty. Leaving the signpost again, my feelings of apprehension were no less than last time because I’m now attempting a longer, more complicated and indirect route to Land’s End.
I continued along the shores of the beautiful, but notoriously hazardous Pentland Firth – I can well understand why the Queen Mother so loved her summer residence at the Castle of Mey. Afterwards, my first significant stop was at Dunnet Head. Billed as the most northerly point of the British Mainland, it has superb views across the Firth to the Orkneys but would have been a rather desolate place to be posted to during WWII. The daytime skies were stunning with a complete lack of jet trails, just wild and varied cloud patterns. Being so far north the hours of daylight are disconcerting by southern standards. We watched a large golden sun eventually disappear below the horizon at 2233, and yet it still seemed light! Leaving the Head next morning there were yet more striking cloud patterns which kept me absorbed until I walked into Thurso for an unusual reunion . . .
On my 2007 JoG to Land’s End walk we needed a new teapot and stopped at Thurso supermarket to buy one. A kind and helpful member of staff, Ruth, apologised for a total lack of stock and offered us her own teapot from home - an offer we gladly accepted. Now, eleven years later we made a special point of contacting Ruth and reuniting her with the well-used and long-travelled teapot. She enjoyed the tea-rrific surprise!
See Photo Album Numbers 37 - Walking the JoG Trail at Berriedale; Walking into Keiss; How Was Your Day?; Fighting Offshore Winds at Duncansby Stacks; Interview with BFBS Radio; Walking to JoG