I pick up a new tour and head up to the top of Scotland to see John O'Groats
Tuesday 17 April - John O'Groats
On Monday, I had visited the information centre before going to Culloden. I was interested in picking up another tour.
The man in the centre was extremley helpful. He suggested a day tour to John O'Groats, which is the top north of Scotland. I explained that this tour clashed with the Jacobite tour of Loch Ness. He got onto the phone and spoke with both companies, moving my cruise to the following day and organising the John O'Groats tour to the following day.
Tuesday dawned wet with the rain looking to settle in for the day. It wasn't heavy, but persistently steady.
I put on my raincoat, packed my backpack and walked up to the information centre where I was to meet the coach. By the time I got there, about fifteen minutes later, the water was dripping off my hood and raincoats in a steady stream.
The small coach arrived and it seemed that I was to be the only one on board. This was confirmed by Fiona, by tour driver. I offered not to go, but she said it was fine if I wanted to have a private tour. We agreed and off we went into the rain.
I had been told that there was nothing much to do at John O'Groats, rather it was just the fact that it was the top north of Scotland and the
jump off point to the islands. I didn't care, the drive up was supposed to be nice,
Fiona, having just me to entertain, relaxed and we chatted as she drove. The tour guides are all wonderful, giving heaps of local knowledge as you drive through the countryside. There is so much that you hear that you just can't find on the internet or in a tour book.
We travelled out past the Cromaity Firth ( pronounced cromarty, firth meaning inland sea). The crops here are predominently oats, barley and wheat. Canola is also grown.
On the firth are a number of oil rigs, sitting up high in the distance. They are brought into the deep waters of the firth from the north sea to be repaired. There were four of them here when we drove by.
There is also a big training base for the army located here.
We drove past a distillery, one of the many to be seen in Scotland. The walls of the distillery was very black. 2 1/5 percent of alcohol is lost to evaporation in the distillery. The black walls help prevent further loss. The Scots call the evaporation loss the angels share.
A large part of the land around the Cromaity Firth is owned by the Al Fyad's. Diana and Dodi visited the estate here. Dodi's father has brought a fair bit of wealth to the area.
We passed by Glenmorangie whisky distillery. They use old sherry oak casks from Spain to age their whisky, giving it a distinct yellow tinge. The whisky is aged for 15 years and made my mouth water just to think about it.
We travelled up through farmland and forests, leaving Cromaity Firth behind and approaching Dornach Firth. There were highland cattle dotted here and there along the way, some with young, gorgeous calves. The highland cows provided lovely meat, blood for black pudding and they are good mothers. They are slow growing and often crossed with Aberdeen angus.
Many of the sheep are marked on the farms because the paddocks are shared with other farmers. It's lambing season and the lambs looked cold and miserable, with no shelter other than their mothers.
We entered the lands of the Duke of Sutherland, which are substantial and hold a lot of forests. Fiona stopped at Dunrobin castle, the seat of the Duke, for morning tea. The castle looks out over the North sea and is surrounded by oak and larch forests. It was the Duchess of Sutherland in the 18th century who was a tyrant. She saw that there was more money to be had from hunting then rents from her crofters.
They turfed a lot of the crofters off the land and charged a fortune for visitors to hunt and fish on Sutherland land. There is still a big business to be had for landlords, with many still employing gillies, beaters for pheasants etc. The average charge per week for fisherman to fish the rivers is £3000.
The castle was very big, with it's own clock tower. When you entered the building the massive family crests dominated one of the walls, with armour and historic artefacts adorning the other walls. The enormous stairwell had a few deer heads mountain on the walls, with the stairwell culminating in a largre dome ceiling. The view from the first floor was marvellous, overlooking the sea with the manicured gardens below.
The lady in the castle shop was very friendly and said that she loved living in such a quiet location. The place was cold, as no amount of heating would keep such a place warm, but it was wonderful to such so much history in a place that was obviously home to someone.
We drove past the gatehouse on the way out and I could have happily lived in the gatehouse.
The castle is overlooked by a huge statue of the Duke of Sutherland, situated on a big hill looking out to see. Not sure when it was erected, but the size of the statue was very impressive, even from such a long way away.
We travelled through a number of small villages, each one having a post office, shop, inn or pub and a stream or river.
We drove through Brora, which used to be known for making tweed, but this has now stopped,.
Helmsdale was the next village, a fishing village, with boats going out to catch herring.
As we travelled higher I noticed metal poles on both sides of the road. Fiona explained that these were snow poles. On the left were poles with red on them and on the right were white poles. This allowed drivers to see where the road edges were when driving through snow. It made me realize that the snow must get pretty deep here.
We travelled down into a deep ravine, through the Braes (little hill), which were forest covered hills and a river at the bottom. It was beautiful, but too poor visibility to take a good picture.
As we got closer toward John O'Groats we saw more heather covered hills and less forests. The heather is burnt to keep it low and fresh for the deer and other animals to eat. It was used by highlanders in the past for a number of purposes, including fuel, rope and jewellery.
Leaving Inverness shire behind us we moved into Caithness shire and would then follow the coast to John O'Groats. There were lots of crofts houses here. Some still inhabited, some ruins. The croft houses were single story, with two windows. The crofter would live in these with their animals, the animals providing warmth in the winter.
The modern crofters have two storied houses. Two windows upstairs and two windows downstairs, with many of them building annexes onto the houses.
You cannot buy and build on new land here, but if there is an existing croft house, you can buy and build on the same land that the croft house occupies. Way too rocky for crops, so the land is used for predominently sheep.
We stopped at Dunbeath village to have a look at the harbour. It was icy cold, the coldest I have been in Scotland, with freezing wind whipping the rain into my face.
The sea was wild and choppy, dark grey to match the grey sky. The harbour walls were thick and made of stone, providing a good barrier to the pounding waves. There were lobster pots stacked up against the rock wall and the warehouses were those used back in the 18th century. There was even a salt house, a storage area built back into the rock bed to provide dry storage for the salt used to preserve the fish.
It must have been a bleak existance, with many fisherman not returning from the sea. Life would have been cold and lonely here, the weather keeping many people indoors for days at a time.
Moving on, we travelled through East Clyth, the start of the land of the stones. There are a lot of standing stones in this area. Very little is known about why they are there and who put them there. They are not burial stones and the theory is that they may have been placed here by the Picts.
We stopped at the Cairn of Get, just past Ulbster village. The stones are almost always on someones farm, and we go through a kissing gate, sort of like a drafting gate for sheep, to get onto the property. It was very wet and still raining lightly here, There were black faced sheep and suffolk sheep, all of which had lambs and were bleating loudly at our intrusion into their paddock.
The stones were just a scattered pile of stones, which were surrounded by boggy ground which we couldn't get through to get close. With such little knowledge of the Picts, the enigma of these stones will probably never be solved.
The farms here often have stone fences and even have gabbro (slate) slabs for fencing. The slabs look like headstones all lined up against the wire fencing.
Arriving in Wick was surprising because all the other villages were small. Wick is in the North East and has it's own airport. The families here work mainly in the oil industry. There is even a very big Tesco's here. Not sure I'd like to live here as the town is quite isolated from the rest of Scotland.
Fiona stopped the coach at the Hanes of Stanes. This is a very weird stone circle. Believed to be put here by the Picts, there doesn't seem to be any sort of symmetry, or uniformity in the stones. They are in a sort of circle, but are not straight. The stones are less and two feet high and some are upright, whilst others are laying flat. They are all different shapes too. It's not a burial site, nor is it obvious that it's facing either the sun, moon or the sea. It's just there, with almost two hundred stones in the ground. Very strange, very weird and another enigma that will not be solved.
Dotted all along the coast line, right back to the Duke of Sutherland's lands are lookout posts and castles. These were built back in the time when there was a threat of invasion from the Norse vikings. With Norway only about 80 miles from the coast, the Scots didn't want there life placed into upheaval by an invasion. I understand the theory behind the lookouts and castles, but I'm pretty sure they weren't that great at beating off all the people that ended up invading this country,
We travelled through Keiss, with the castle of the Ross family visible on the cliff tops of above the sea.
Our destination, John O'Groats was finally here, after almost four hours driving. The place was named after a Dutch man who would charge passengers a few groats to ferry them across to the islands.
From here you can see the Orkneys in the distance, although visibility was very poor. Not too much rain, but the wind was appalling and we didn't go near the cliff tops as there was a fear, even for me, of getting blown off the edge. I got the giggles because I had to really struggle to walk against the wind and kept thinking of Marcel Marceau.
There isn't much in the way of buildings, a couple of craft shops, an ice cream shop, a cafe and the most hideous deserted hotel I have ever seen. What on earth did the owners think about when they decided to paint the lovely old building I'm not sure. It looks like a weird circus exhibit. No wonder it's now deserted.
I had a quick look around and found it fascinating that the ice cream shop was doing good business, even in the icy conditions. I headed for the cafe to thaw my frozen fingers and get out of the cold for a while.
I was at the top of Scotland, and probably the highest northern point in the world I would ever be. This is why people come here. To be in this location and look out at the north sea. The weather was better than being sunny as it was more natural to be rough and cold than warm. It gave me an appreciation, once again, for the hardship and loneliness that farmers and fishermen face living out here. Even now, life would still be pretty hard.
Despite the day, a bus load of visitors pullled in and the cafe was full. We left to head back and the clouds had lightened a little, providing a better view of the rugged coastline. It wasn't unlike the twelve apostle area in Victoria, although the rocks were more jagged and darker.
On the way back we stopped at Auckengill to visit an old clearance village called Badbea. Fiona had never been here, but as it was only me on the tour, we stopped and had a good look. We walked over the heather covered moor, up and down hills towards the sheer cliffs of the water.
I couldn't believe how close the ruins were to the actual cliff top. The stone wall was in very good condition, wending it's way up and down the hill slopes. The cottages were only ruins and faced directly out to sea. The harsh weather would have been terrible for these people and I wondered why they hadn't built further back amongst the heather.
The villagers had been relocated from Badbea to another area, hence the name clearance village.
On our return home we chatted about how things were down in Scotland compared to Australia. We talked about a lot of things, even car registration. Scotland pay about $120 per year to register their cars. The number plates are white on the front and yellow on the back, because they are more visible this colour. The registration numbers are letters, numbers and then more letters. They let you know what town the car was registered and what year. Makes sense.
We arrived back in Inverness to sunshine and rainbows, late in the afternoon. After so much rain, wind and a short snow fall, it was a welcome sight.
I bid Fiona farewell and it wasn't until I got back to the hotel that I realized I hadn't left a tip for her. I felt pretty bad as she had given me a fantastic tour.
I had been cold all day and started sneezing mid afternoon so I knew my cough was developing into a cold. I headed for my room and rugged up with a hot coffee, pretty sure I wouldn't be going on the Loch Ness cruise the following day.