Scotland’s Secrets #8 – The underwater treasures of Caithness

Travel as far north and as far east as you can in Scotland and you will find yourself in the county of Caithness, famous for John O’Groats, the geographic opposite of Land’s End in Cornwall and home to the embarkation point for the Gills Bay ferry to Orkney.  Orkney is a diving mecca, thanks to the wrecks of 74 German First World War ships, scuttled by their own crews to avoid passing in to British hands.  Perhaps less well known are the dive sites on the mainland which dot the rugged coastline between the area’s two largest towns, Thurso and Wick.  A visit to these remote bays and harbours is highly recommended, even for those with an aversion to submersion; as well as underwater wonders they offer beautiful views, walking trails and wildlife spotting a plenty.

Staxigoe Harbour

Staxigoe is two miles north east of Wick, roughly five and a half hours drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Its name comes from Old Norse and means inlet of the stack, referring to the large rocky pinnacle that sits in the middle of the harbour.

Divers enter the water from the shore, following a slipway and, keeping the rocks on their right on the way out, and on their left on the way back, can while away a happy 40 minutes to an hour exploring the crevasses of the stack and the creatures that live there.

Scarfskerry

Scarfskerry is the most northerly settlement on mainland Scotland, on the coast between Thurso and the ferry terminal.  Its name is also Old Norse, meaning Cormorants’ Rock.  Another shore dive, access is easy, with divers simply stepping off the end of the slipway at high tide.  Here, if you can find it amongst the kelp, lies the wreck of the SS Linkmoor which went down in 1930, all lives saved.  The fishing industry is waning here and any boats you encounter are likely to be watching for wildlife; seals, dolphins, seabirds are all found here.  We were lucky enough to spot a basking shark from the shore during our time at the site in early June.

Portskerra Haven

The natural harbour of Portskerra is hiding a secret, a sea arch or tunnel that connects the calm inner bay to the sea beyond.  The entrance can be found in the right hand arm of horseshoe shaped bay near to the end of the reef.  Care should be taken when entering the tunnel as the current can be strong, particularly when the sea is rougher than the water in the harbour.  Lots of sea life makes the tunnel its home and during May and June Dogfish (also known as Catsharks and pictured below) come here to breed.

Papigoe

Of the sites we visited, Papigoe is the least attractive to non-divers.  It is accessed through a housing estate on the outskirts of Wick where the road ends abruptly at a steep cliff.  The scramble down is steep and quite difficult even without carrying diving equipment.   Multiple trips will be needed to and from your car will be needed, don’t be tempted to overload yourself.  It’s also advisable to stop and gather your breath before entering the water, otherwise you’ll have sucked your air supply dry in no time.

Papigoe is worth all the effort.  The series of gullies are full of life and some interesting rock formations, including some small caves and a narrow ‘window’ opening.  The dive is not particularly deep, meaning that there is lots of light for photography, although a good flash system always helps.

This post is an introduction to the sites only.  You should always research any new sites thoroughly in advance; if there is a local dive centre or club they will have valuable tips and may be able to provide services of a guide.  Always dive within your qualification and experience.  Never dive alone.  Having shore cover present is always preferable but if diving in a pair without it make sure someone knows where you are and check in with them before and after.  Always check the weather and the tide and don’t be afraid to cancel if the conditions are not right, or you feel unwell or uncertain.

For the previous post in the series click here.  Our next stop on this insider’s tour of Scotland will be the history packed island of Orkney.

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Scotland’s Secrets #7 – The Bealach na Ba

The Bealach na Ba, Gaelic for the Pass of the Cattle, is the steepest road in the United Kingdom.  It is only three miles long but the climb, from sea level to the summit, is a rise of 2053 feet or more than 600 metres of single track hairpin bends.  It is often impassable, due to snow and ice, in the winter and even in the summer months it is an intimidating prospect.  For reasons completely unfathomable to me, it is a magnet for cyclists.

Though the journey to the top is arduous, the views are breath-taking and, if you time it well, a spectacular sunrise or sunset framed by the mountains of Skye on the horizon can be yours to enjoy in glorious solitude.

The weather of course is not always favourable but low light and mist simply makes the Bealach na Ba more brooding and magnificent.  Here you are so high that when the clouds gather they form a milky sea below you, the peak of the pass a floating island in the sky, adrift on the currents of wind, cushioning the sound of rain falling on the valley beneath.

As is tradition in many high places, those that reach the summit, whether by foot, bike or car, add a stone to the ever-growing cairns that stubble the otherwise sparse moorland, miniature echoes of the hill itself.

Those that go up must come down and at the foot of the mountain a row of houses face out across a stretch of water called the Inner Sound to the Isles of Raasay and Skye.  This is the biggest settlement on the Applecross peninsula and is generally referred to in most tourist information as Applecross Village but is simply ‘the Street’ to the locals.  At the heart of the community is the Applecross Inn which manages to maintain that rare balance of pub atmosphere and exceptional food.  The menu is locally sourced, seafood heavy and highly recommended.  Although is doesn’t feature on the current menu, the langoustine salad I ate during my last visit is up there with the greatest dishes I have ever tasted.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of camping and for those seeking somewhere to pitch their tent Applecross campsite is a short walk up hill from the village.  As well as sleeping under canvas, the site also offers static caravans and wooden camping huts that resemble the hulls of upturned boats.  This is deer country and, although the site is fenced, we were woken in the early hours to the sound of antlered intruders sniffing at our provisions.  We were camping at the very end of the season, late October, and were the only tent in the field; I suspect the deer would not have been as bold had they been outnumbered.  If you don’t mind a bit of damp and cooler temperatures, off-season is a good time to explore Scotland.  Visitor numbers are lower, the midges are less vicious and although the weather is unpredictable chances of a clear dry day are not really that much different than in the summer.

Stay tuned for more of Scotland’s secrets.  For the previous post in the series, click here.

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Over the sea to Skye – Scotland’s Secrets #6

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Despite the famous song, most visitors to Skye arrive not by boat but by road, crossing the bridge constructed in the early 1990s between the island and Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.  Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides, more than 600 square miles or 1600 square kilometres and, although public transport does operate, having your own car will make your trip easier and open up a more flexible itinerary.

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A popular base is the town of Portree, which is the biggest settlement and home to a harbour of multi-coloured houses, plenty of shops selling local crafts, art and souvenirs, and a good range of pubs and cafes.  In Portree, as well as across the island, there are numerous accommodation choices, from hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, rental cottages and campsites.  If, like us, you fancy sleeping in the vicinity of an Iron Age hillfort, head for Torvaig campsite, just north of Portree on road A855 which sits in the shadow of Dun Gerashader; an atmospheric place to watch the sun set.

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Continue northwards on the same road and you will come across the Storr, a rocky hill famous for its pinnacle, known as the Old Man.  For the adventurous, there is a path to the top which will take you up and back in roughly two hours.  Solid footwear and a keen eye to watch for rockfalls are recommended.  The Old Man is one of many otherworldly outcrops to explore on the Storr and, in good weather, the views down to the road below and out across the Sound of Raasay to the mainland are spectacular.

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The A855 will also take you to Kilt Rock, a cliff face named for its many crenulations that echo the pleats of a kilt, and Mealt waterfall which streams over the edge, dropping more than 50 metres to the sea.  Sometimes, when the wind is blowing at the right angle, the falls look to be running up rather than down, as the spray is pushed backwards.  Continue on in an anti-clockwise loop around Trotternish peninsula and you will come eventually to Uig, where ferries to Harris and Lewis depart.

Whilst most will visit Portree, not everyone includes Dunvegan on their list of places to stop.  This is probably because the small town is in the more remote west of the island, in  a bay between the peninsulas of Waternish and Duirinish.  Location has given Dunvegan a particularly authentic feel; the inhabitants are generally born and bred islanders ready to offer a traditionally Scottish experience.  One particular gem is the Giant Angus MacAskill Museum which commemorates the life of the eponymous Scot who, at 7ft 9 inches, is described by the museum as the tallest ever ‘true’ giant.  Unlike the man himself, the museum is small, just one room, but is packed full of local artefacts and the enthusiasm of its owners.

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North of the town is Dunvegan Castle, historic home of the clan MacLeod.  You can pay to explore the castle and grounds at any time of year, but if your visit happens to coincide with Guy Fawkes Night, otherwise known as Bonfire or Fireworks Night, which takes place on November 5th, you can witness something special.  An annual fireworks display, complete with burning Viking longboat, takes place on the shores of the loch beneath the castle’s walls, giving you double fireworks for your money, one in the sky and a duplicate reflected in the waters below.  When the show’s over, follow the locals to a nearby pub to continue the celebrations in to the small hours.

Whatever time of year you visit, and whatever you choose to see and do, Skye will leave you with plenty of stories of your own to tell.  Stay tuned for the next in the series which will explore some of the places you can visit on your way to or from the island.

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Touching the past on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

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The Isle of Lewis is more populous than its neighbour, Harris. The landscape is predominantly flat and therefore more conducive to crofting, Scottish subsistence farming.  It is also rich in peat, which is still extracted and dried today using methods unchanged for millennia, for building, fuel and export.  The current inhabitants are just the latest in a long line of islanders who have benefitted from Lewis’ natural resources and made it their home.  Traces of the past can be found everywhere, but particularly in the north west, which is abundant with Neolithic artefacts.

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Perhaps the most awe inspiring of these are the Callanish standing stones, also referred to by their Gaelic name of Calanais. The stones are set on a ridge in an otherwise flat plain, designed to be seen from a distance and to provide those standing amongst them with views across the countryside and upwards to the sky.

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Archaeological research suggests that the stones were erected in the late Neolithic period, somewhere between 2,900 and 2,600 BC. This makes them roughly 5,000 years old.  5,000 years; for beings who manage 70 to 100 years on this planet if we are lucky, it is a length of time that is hard to comprehend.  You cannot help but be moved in their presence.  Unlike that more famous of Neolithic monuments, Stonehenge, the relatively low visitor numbers to Callanish means that you can still walk freely amongst the stones.  Place your hands on them and you feel a tangible link to the past that is almost overwhelming.

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The stones are arranged with a central circle surrounded by an outer cruciform pattern that draws the eye away to the land beyond and also in to the heart of the formation. Some time after the site’s construction, a burial in a chambered tomb was squeezed between two of the stones that form the inner circle.  We can only speculate about the background of the person buried there, but it is not hard to imagine that they must have been of some significance.  Equally mysterious, is the purpose of the stones themselves.  There are many theories and these are explored in the nearby visitors’ centre.

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If you are planning a trip to see the stones for yourself, make sure to include a stop at the thrice named Doune, Dun Carloway or Dùn Chàrlabhaigh Broch in your itinerary.  Brochs, drystone towers, are a uniquely Scottish form of architecture.  The word comes from the Norse for Fort although it is debatable whether the structures were predominantly used for warfare. Dùn Chàrlabhaigh dates from the first century AD and is remarkably well preserved for its age.

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A visit to Lewis, whether as a daytrip from Skye or (at a push) Ullapool, or as part of a longer stay on the island, will leave you with great photographs, strong memories and a bit of perspective about humanity and our place in the world. I only hope that in five thousand years our descendants are left with something equally beautiful to remember us by.

The Isle of Skye will be the next stop in this Scottish secrets series. To learn more about Lewis’ twin, Harris, click here.  

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The Isle of Harris, Scotland’s Caribbean

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Harris, together with its conjoined twin Lewis, forms the largest island in the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland.  As both names for the archipelago suggest, this is a remote place, over 60 miles from the mainland.  It can be reached by plane from Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness or by two ferry routes, both of which require some serious travel before you are even on board.  The first option is to sail from Ullapool on the north west mainland to Stornoway on Lewis.  The crossing takes nearly three hours, in good weather, and Ullapool itself is a four hour drive from Edinburgh.  The second option, and the one we chose, is to make your way to Uig, on the Isle of Skye, for the shorter crossing (roughly two hours) to Tarbert, Harris.

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Harris is smaller and more mountainous than its immediate neighbour, and less populous.  Tarbert, the main settlement, is home to roughly 500 people and whether out walking, or driving on the winding, often single track roads, hours can pass before you see another person.  It is a wild and spectacularly beautiful place of big skies, white sand and uninterrupted breath-taking views.

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We arrived shortly before dusk, chasing the light as we drove south from the ferry terminal to our chosen campsite of Horgabost and were treated to the soft mellowing of colours across the bay and a glorious sunset.  The facilities at Horgabost are minimal but the beach-side location more than compensates; in early April we had the place completely to ourselves.  Nothing tastes better than BBQ under the stars and, that far away from artificial lights, there were too many to even begin to count.

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April is a good time to visit any of Western Scotland; the crowds will be smaller, the weather in the last few years has been fair, not necessarily warm but often dry and clear, and most important of all, the infamous midges will not yet have stirred.  Midges are small, mosquito like insects, who swarm in vast clouds in the Scottish summer, biting mercilessly and seem to have become immune to most varieties of bug spray.  They are not harmful but are unpleasant and best to be avoided if possible.

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Outdoor activities dominate on Harris, though there are a number of small art galleries, gift shops and cafes selling local crafts including the world renowned Harris Tweed, a protected product of the island. Some of the weavers offer demonstrations to visitors and the warehouse shop in Tarbert is certainly worth a visit whether you’re staying in the town, passing by on the way to your campsite or whiling away time before your ferry departs.  Crossing the border to Lewis is also recommended; keep a look out for my next post for some sights not to be missed.

For the previous post in my Scottish secrets series, starring the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, click here

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Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, Scotland

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The Mull of Galloway lighthouse sits on the southern most tip of Scotland, on a promontory high above the point where the waters of Luce Bay meet the Solway Firth.  It is reached by a single track road, with passing places, that winds its way through fields of cows and sheep not far from the small seaside town of Drummore.  To reach the light you must leave your car and walk for five to ten minutes across relatively rough ground to the cliff edge.

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Designed by the famous lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson (grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson a quote of whose is the inspiration for the name of this blog), construction of the tower began in 1828 and was completed in 1830.  For the bargain sum of £2.50 visitors can either tour a museum of lighthouse history, housed in the tower’s old engine rooms, or climb the 115 steps to the top of the tower.  For £4 you can do both.

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It is a steep climb and not one for the weak of leg or faint of heart.  At the top of the narrow spiral staircase is the Keeper’s control room just beneath the light, which opens out on to a balcony where the brave can circumnavigate the tower, 26 metres above the ground.

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From the control room the unbelievably unrestricted access continues in to the light itself, reached by means of a ladder.  Here, on a clear day, Scotland, England, the Isle of Man and Ireland are all visible at once.  You are a dizzying, vertigo inducing 99 metres above the sea below, ensconced in 360 degrees of glass.  I must confess that I had to sit on the floor to take my photographs, glad no other visitors were there to witness my barely contained fear.

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The light is still in use but has been automatic since 1988 and is currently controlled remotely from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s headquarters in Edinburgh.  The remarkably high cliffs on which the tower stands mean that the beam can be seen up to 28 miles away.

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Back down to earth and, once your legs have stopped shaking and your heart rate has returned to normal, a path behind the lighthouse leads you down the cliffs to a platform jutting out from the side, home to an enormous horn, used to warn of the rocks below when sea fog descends.  The horn and the collection of pipes that feed it, are futuristic pieces of industrial engineering that set the imagination running, so out of place do they seem in such a stronghold for nature.

Wildlife is everywhere on the headland, from snails that shelter under ledges on the lighthouse cottage walls, to rabbits, deer and the scores of sea birds that make this remote place their home.  You can learn about them all from the informative and friendly rangers who run the RSPB hut a few minutes walk from the lighthouse.  And, for those in need of sustenance, before or after their climb, there is a café adjacent to the car park whose large glass windows offer excellent, and sheltered views.

Stay tuned for more Scottish secrets.  The previous post in the series can be found here.

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Some place twixt earth and sky, Scotland

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I am not a religious person but I have, on occasion, felt what I imagine is akin to the divine inspiration believers describe.  For me it is a sensation conjured by place, a realisation of being in the presence of something special, a tangible connection to the people that have stood on that spot before me, to the history that has passed.  It is an overwhelming feeling of euphoria followed by sharp clarity and, later, a deep calm.  It is pure, simple joy at being alive, experiencing a moment that is not to be repeated and being at peace with that.

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The first time I felt this way was at the Acropolis in Athens when I was thirteen years old.  I have felt it a handful of times since then; once at a beach in Devon, a low sea mist hanging in the cliff-lined estuary, trapped between cool water and warm air; once at Callanish stone circle on Lewis in the Western Isles of Scotland; once riding in a trailer behind a snowmobile across a frozen lake in the darkness of a Finnish February, once on a river boat at six in the morning in the heart of Bangkok, and, most recently, on the path behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland.

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There is one more place that has moved me this way and, if you visit the far south west of Scotland, perhaps you will find it.  You must leave your car at the side of the road, climb a gate and follow a path between trees to an open space of strangely rounded ground and views across the surrounding fields.  Its current incarnation is as a church but the stone runes betray another past.  I was there alone and it was, for the hour or so that passed, as though there were no one else alive.  It was uncannily still.  I have never experienced such silence; no noise from the road, no birds, no wind in the leaves, just me, the earth and sky.

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Stay tuned for more Scottish secrets.  The last, and a clue to the general location of this spot, can be found here

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