You will more than likely be disappointed with John O’Groats but don’t despair as just a mile up the coast is a reward for those that seek it out.
Distance from Mey House: 7 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/xvRAz
Situated at the most north easterly point of the mainland is the wonderful Duncansby Head, a sandstone headland that stands above the juncture between the Pentland Firth and the North Sea. The mighty currents created by the tumultuous clash between the two bodies of water creates an extremely fertile ecology that supports large colonies of seabirds, seals and between April and July, pods of Orca (Killer Whales to my generation). All this plus wonderful views of the Caithness coastline and the southern islands of Orkney can be witnessed from the area immediately around the car park and if your schedule is tight you won’t be disappointed with spending a few minutes of it here.
However if you have more time, follow the grass paths to the south and you will be in for a real treat. First, in the distance you will catch sight of the mighty sea stacks to which you will be inextricably drawn but what will take you by surprise on your walk toward them is the Geo of Sclaites. This natural phenomena is a huge cleft in the cliffs that has been carved out over the centuries and which today provides a sheltered haven for thousands of nesting seabirds including large numbers of Puffins (in-season), a must see.
Continue across the clifftop fields toward the stunning geological edifices of Thirle Door and the Stacks of Duncansby. These features are eroded sandstone, hewn from the nearby cliff faces over the past six thousand years until today, the tallest stands 60m above the waterline and some 200m from the shore. Many of the visitors to the area will venture no further than the obvious view from the fence line but if you make the effort and follow the path south you will be rewarded with not only an ever changing vista created by the moving alignment of the stacks but also an ever decreasing number of people. This is where you need to head for the best photo opportunities of the stacks plus great vantage points to witness the hunting Orca.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The road to Duncansby is opposite the John O’Groats Post Office. There are no visitor facilities at the headland so buy your supplies and use the toilets at John O’Groats!
GREAT FOR: Romantic walks, summer picnics, wonderful vistas and amazing wildlife.
RECOMMENDATION: As much as you might be tempted to straddle the safety fences or edge toward the cliff edges to get a better view DON’T! The ground is incredibly uneven off the paths and it’s all too easy to stumble and fall leaving you at best with a walk back to the car on a sprained ankle or at worst, a fatal tumble down the cliff face (as a tourist did in 2015).
Did you know this is mainland Britain’s most northerly point?
Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/FrNP8C4cRV42
Protruding from the top of the country and clearly visible from Mey House is the imposing and remote Dunnet Head. It is covered in peat moorlands, pock marked with fresh water lochs and crowned by a lighthouse that warns shipping entering the Pentland Firth that its 300ft cliffs and associated reefs are best avoided.
Dunnet Head is many things to many people. If you are a fly fisherman then the lochs are well stocked with brown trout (fishing permits are required), if its ‘twitching’ that takes your fancy then the moorland and cliffs are home to an amazing array of birdlife (Skylarks, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Guillemots and Scarfs to name just a few). Perhaps you prefer to spot for dolphins or Orca – if so then Dunnet Head with its commanding ocean view is a great place to do so.
If wildlife is not your thing, then perhaps the abandoned remains of the World War 2 radar station and Cold War bunker perched at the highest point might be more to your taste? For walkers there is a great cliff edge walk all the way from Dwarwick pier in the south west right up to the tip of Dunnet Head and then on around its eastern flank though beware that there are no safety fences at all!
Maybe all this sounds far too energetic for you? If it does then the more leisurely activity of taking in the views can be recommended, as from Dunnet Head you can see right along the entire north coast of Scotland and across the Pentland Firth to Orkney. In the spring and summer it is a super place to watch the sun set and in winter it is the ideal platform to gape at the star studded Milky Way and colourful Northern Lights.
Perhaps all you want from Dunnet Head is a photo to prove you’ve been there in which case there is an inscribed obelisk signifying that you have reached the most northern point in mainland Britain. And it’s right next to the car park so you don’t even have to walk very far!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Follow the signs off the A836 either just past the magnificent sandy beach at Dunnet Bay or at the Barrock crossroad located about 10 miles west of John O’Groats. There are no visitor facilities at the Head though there are toilets at the Seadrift centre located at the far eastern end of Dunnet Bay (open during the summer only).
GREAT FOR: The views and the wildlife.
RECOMMENDATION: Watch the sunset from the cliff edge just south of the car park!
There are thousands of these fascinating and colourful birds on Puffin Island, but where is it?
Distance from Mey House: 28 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/qeyf4f2vRvu
Hidden just off the northern shore of the NC500 are three islands that from a distance look like any other of the many islets and skerries that proliferate along this coast. However, get up close and you will find that one inparticular is pock marked with a myriad of burrows and crowned with thousands of puffins (in-season).
You may assume that with the puffin being such a beloved bird and this colony being of such proportions that it would be a Mecca for both ornithologists and tourists alike. However, you would be very wrong indeed. In fact, it is so obscure that we were residents of this area for a full three years before we even heard of its existence!
Once it was revealed to us we headed out to explore one sunny June afternoon. Our ‘guide’ directed us out to a place to leave our car but from there on in, the directions were a little fuzzy; “hike seaward across the moor and make for the conical shaped island”. What our ‘guide’ failed to tell us was of the existence of a gorge that cleaves the way ahead. We took the western flank which was a mistake as the only way to get up close to the island via this route entailed a descent on wet grass down a steep escarpment. Not wanting to risk life or limb we retraced our steps in search of a safe way to cross the gorge. Once bridged, we followed the eastern edge until finally we could safely go no further and there we sat in full view of the conical shaped island for almost two hours watching the comings and goings of thousands of puffins.
Their colourful beaks and orange legs catch your eye upon first sight and their enduring faces made up like a clown can’t help but make you smile. Their reputation as clowns is only enhanced when they begin to walk as their large feet, seemingly out of all proportion to their stature, have to be lifted and swung just as a clown lifts and swings its oversized shoes! They even make taking off and landing look like a circus act; the former being a kamikaze launch off the island, hurtling downward to gain speed and lift whilst the return sees them using the ground as something to abruptly stop their descent rather than something to gracefully come to rest upon.
They are also surprisingly affectionate towards each other with much kissing of bills to affirm colonial bonds. However, when they have ceased acting the fools or socialising they, like us, seemed very content to just sit and watch the world go by.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The colony exists between late April and early August – the birds return to sea for the remainder of the year. Take a set of binoculars for the best views.
GREAT FOR: The captivating circus show encircled by an amazing seascape.
RECOMMENDATION: Wester Clett at Drum Hollistan is not on any published map so finding it without a little local knowledge is difficult. However, if you stay with us we can guide you there or even better, arrange a private tour with our associates at Caithness Wildlife Tours. Finally, you need to have reasonable mobility to reach Puffin Island so if you lack the ability (or indeed the time) then a smaller puffin colony can be found at Duncansby Head.
From April to September, watch the sun set across the Pentland Firth from Mey House.
Distance from Mey House: 0 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/9svEd
I know it may sound a little daft but prior to buying Mey House, neither of us had considered that it would have such a commanding view of the setting sun. We took up residence in July 2013 and after a frantic day of unloading the removal truck, we sat exhausted on the sofa to celebrate with a glass of wine wherein we were treated to a sensational display of vibrant colour and dancing light as a huge fireball of a sun sank slowly to the horizon. We were speechless.
Picking the ideal location to witness the setting sun depends on your preference! The most commanding views are from Dunnet Head where no matter what time of year you will be offered a stunning panoramic view of the sea, sky and landscape though you will rarely find yourself alone up there (the picture of the lighthouse was taken from Dunnet Head).
If you prefer a little more seclusion we suggest you head off on foot from Mey House to the nearby shore which wraps around the grounds of The Castle of Mey. Here you will almost certainly be alone – except that is for the plethora of seals and birdlife that populate the secluded bay. Take a chilled bottle of wine with you and make an evening of it; it is quite a special place (the picture of the Land Rover was taken from the Castle shore).
Our final suggestion is to remain at Mey House and either watch the display from the guest area or retire to your bedroom, snuggle up under the goose down duvet and watch the sun slip below the horizon from the comfort of your own bed. Fabulous!
I have taken so many photographs of the setting sun from the garden at Mey House that it was difficult to choose which one to show. So, I have picked my favourite to be the last one of the selection but many more are available to be viewed on our Pinterest page.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Sunsets are spectacular at any time of year but as the days lengthen, the sunsets linger for longer. At the height of summer the sun doesn’t set until past ten and the skylight display will continue for at least another hour beyond that so don’t expect an early bedtime.
GREAT FOR: Some of the best sunsets you will ever see anywhere in the world.
RECOMMENDATION: We highly recommend taking an early supper to free up your time to view the spectacle as none of the restaurants in the area offer a view.
A hidden gem only accessible for those that seek it out!
Distance from Mey House: 7 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/S2mm9
There is no doubt that the western side of the far north has some fabulous beaches; Coldbackie, Sango Sands and Balnakiel to name but three. However, Caithness too has some wonderful spots but you just have to know where to look.
Hidden away on the western shore of Dunnet Head is a small track that heads overland from Dwarwick pier. Don’t expect a gravel footpath or hand rails on this trek, this is an authentic old fashioned hill walk that follows rabbit runs along exposed cliff edges and empty moorland. If you are able, visit the Seadrift Centre at Dunnet Bay prior to setting off to familiarise yourself with what you might see or if this is not possible, educate yourself on the flora and fauna by reading the highlighted edits on the visitor information board at the start of the path before you push on up the hill.
Pass through the kissing gate and keep to the path which will lead you up and over the first part of the headland and then along the cliff. If you dare, venture toward the cliff edge to see the birdlife nesting on the rock face but do beware, the updraft from the strong winds can lift the unwary off their feet!
No more than half a mile from the top of the headland you will find the secluded beach that is Peedie Sands (Peedie is old Norse for ‘small’). You can get down onto the white sands by venturing to the far end of the beach and clambering down over some well-worn boulders though some care is needed. Once there, kick off your shoes, roll up your trousers and enjoy the peace and tranquillity.
We first visited in late May when the heather was turning green and the wild flowers were just starting to bloom which, when combined with the white sands and turquoise waters of Dunnet Bay made for a picture postcard vista. We wandered the beach, took loads of photographs and then laid back on some of the large flat rocks that line the shore and dozed for an hour. During all that time, we were totally alone.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The walk to Peedie Sands is not suitable for those with limited mobility. You can continue on along the path from the beach to Dunnet Head which will give you fantastic views of the rugged coastline but beware, it is about a 3 mile walk across some uneven and undulating terrain.
GREAT FOR: Sky, sea and solitude no matter what time of year!
RECOMMENDATION: Take a picnic.
A 100 km2 nature reserve set amid the wild and desolate peat bog known as “The Flow Country”.
Distance from Mey House: 43 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/XMY3N
I must admit that the thought of visiting ‘Europe’s largest peat bog’ hadn’t really inspired me, after all, what could possibly be of any interest? Having now been, I am somewhat ashamed that both my prejudice and ignorance had kept me from one of the regions truly wild landscapes. The Flow Country is vast, over 4000 square kilometres straddling the counties of Caithness and Sutherland which, for the most part, is fairly inaccessible to all but the well informed and experienced hill walker.
I visited on an early May afternoon and was blessed with a sunny windless day that made for an ideal outing to witness the spectacular terrain that is pock marked with pools of still water reflecting both the blue sky and distant mountains. I parked my car at the railway station in Forsinard and had a quick nose around the unmanned visitor centre that is housed in the old station buildings. I am sure it would have held my attention for longer if the day had been a cold windy one but the warm sunshine beckoned so I headed off to walk the Dubh Lochan trail.
The trail was a mile long pathway of flagstones that weaved its way through the bog, exposing me to the sound of birdsong, the buzz of insects and scurrying of creatures; it took me a while to realise that to get the most from the walk, I should sit quietly at one of the many seats along the route and let the wildlife go about its business.
I was fortunate enough to have the place to myself which allowed undisturbed observation of the wilderness but my lack of knowledge regarding what I could hear, see and smell left me frustrated. My research told me that I could expect to see deer, mountain hares and all manner of invertebrates, lizards and insects upon the land, that the air would be filled with a plethora of birdlife (from Golden Plovers to Golden Eagles) and that the rivers would overflow with otters and Atlantic Salmon but to be honest, I saw so much that I could not identify that I just observed it for what it was rather than attempting to ‘eye spy’.
The landscape was a little monotone in early spring but I should imagine that come the summer, the heather would bloom to carpet the area with a thousand shades of purple though the spectacle may be overshadowed by the midges that plague the area on warm summer days. On balance, I think I had the best of it.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The unfriendly welcome you will witness from the residents of Forsinard is directed toward the RSPB who are attempting to impose a visitor centre and observatory on the secluded community.
GREAT FOR: The highlight was a pair of nesting Ospreys circling effortlessly on the warm updraft; magical!
RECOMMENDATION: From May to August join one of the weekly guided walks led by an RSPB ranger, check RSPB Forsinard Flows or their Facebook page for details
A 38 mile journey through some of the most beautiful deserted landscape in Scotland.
Distance from Mey House: 30 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/XNEY3
I was travelling from Helmsdale to the RSPB reserve at Forsinard and the shortest route was along a road that was unfamiliar to me, the A897; what a journey it turned out to be.
As I left Helmsdale I was not surprised to find the road almost immediately becoming single track and it stayed that way for the next 30 miles so my progress wasn’t rapid. It weaved through Strath Kildonan (the valley created by the river Helmsdale) and for the most part, it was tree lined, quite green and edged by some rolling hills and a few craggy peaks. There are a few habitations in this area today though there would have been considerably more in the past but the Highland Clearances took a heavy toll here with the area savagely cleared in the early part of the 19th century. The area was also the site of a short lived Scottish goldrush in the 1860s and today a modern goldrush of sorts still occurs with fishermen paying up to £9000 per week for the right to try one of the best salmon rivers in Europe.
The transition from Strath Kildonan to the Flow Country happened quite quickly as the landscape transitioned from lush greenery to an apparently barren moorland; here I was fortunate enough to see two very large birds of prey (Ospreys I think) circling their nest site.
The Flow Country is a 1500 square mile area of peat bog, rich in wildlife and used as a breeding ground by many species of birds. Though the landscape is quite desolate and is almost totally devoid of human habitation the isolation creates the most wonderful silence; not a silence devoid of sound though as the countless species of birds and insects create a harmonious cacophony of noise but the silence to which I refer is a total lack of hubbub attributable to man. It was a gloriously eerie sensation and one I would encourage you to experience.
I stopped off in Forsinard to take the Dubh Lochan trail through the RSPB reserve to experience the Flow Country up close and personal (see the RSPB Forsinard article) before continuing north along Strath Halladale towards the river mouth at Melvich beach.
The landscape became greener, the strath became narrower and the road ambled through the scenery as it hugged the river. The further north I travelled, the more houses I saw and the more agricultural the land became until finally the wonderful A897 came to an end.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The road might be single track but the locals hurtle along it at great speed! If you want to experience the majority of the route without the car then take the train between Thurso and Helmsdale.
GREAT FOR: Scenery, wildlife and very few humans!
RECOMMENDATION: Take the time to stop and experience the sound of silence.
Loch Eriboll has been used for centuries by shipping as a safe haven against the ravages of the northern storms.
Distance from Mey House: 67 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/XGMtR
We encountered Loch Eriboll on our first trip to the Highlands and we were not expecting the surprise that it had in store for us; the road! Sally-Ann is an excellent map reader but she had not noticed that the A838 was a single track with passing places and so what should have been a quick blast from Thurso to Durness turned out to take a great deal longer than planned.
Still, the glacial pace of your journey around the 10 mile single track will enable you to be in awe of the summit of Ben Hope which dominates the unspoilt wilderness where wild red deer roam free. I guarantee that you will be challenged to keep your eyes on the road as each new turn in the road will present you with another jaw dropping scene.
The Loch itself has many faces. We have seen it flat calm reflecting cloudy blue skies in the height of summer and whisked into a boiling cauldron in the midst of a December storm but however you find it, it will be sure to impress.
Sitting at the end of a small spit at the north eastern end of the Loch you will find Ard Neakie, a crescent shaped promontory that has been used as a ferry terminal (long since abandoned when the road was completed), a store for naval ammunition during both World Wars and the site of a limestone quarry and kilns. Today, the quarry, kilns and derelict ferry house can be seen from the road but if you fancy a leg stretch it is worth the short walk to investigate them at a closer range.
It is amazing to think that a place, so remote and desolate, could have played host to some of the most significant naval events of the 20th century. The Loch was an important anchorage point for British vessels, though it was not universally liked by the sailors (who nicknamed it “Lock ‘Orrible”). To kill the boredom of shore leave, they would write the names of their vessels on the hillside in stones painted white. The stones are today slowly sinking into the hillside, covered in heather and moss but if you look carefully on the western hillside, you can make out the name of “HOOD”, a poignant last monument to the 1400 men whose last shore leave was here just before they were sunk by the Bismarck. Furthermore, had you been at Eriboll in May 1945, you would have witnessed over 30 German U boats (the Atlantic fleet) surrender here.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Situated 6 miles east of Durness on the A838 (did I mention the single track road?).
GREAT FOR: The wide open space.
RECOMMENDATION: There is a very rustic café on the western shore if you are in need of refreshment (in-season).
The Highlands are blessed with some spectacular beaches, often sandy and usually deserted, but if you don’t know where they are, it’s all too easy to drive right past.
Distance from Mey House: 86 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/BEmPu
Unlike its spectacular neighbour (Sandwood), Balnakiel beach is just a few metres from the car park and it is ideal for either a short stroll or a yomp (the beach is over a mile long). It’s also a great place for a picnic and if you have kids, you can let them run around without fear of them coming into any danger as you can see for miles. If you don’t have kids and would rather stay as far away from them as possible then don’t fret as there is more than enough beach to share amongst everyone! If you fancy just that extra bit of seclusion, find a spot amongst the rocky inlets of the headland, kick back and relax.
The whole area is nestled amongst sand dunes, framed by mountains and in mid-summer, is the ideal place to watch the midnight sunset. If you like photography – this is a very special place.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are no toilets or refreshments available at Balnakiel so make good use of the facilities in Durness or at the Balnakiel Craft Village before heading to the beach. If you are a golfer, you can play the course which overlooks the bay (it’s mainland Britain’s most northerly course apparently) but bring your own clubs as they don’t have any for hire.
GREAT FOR: Photography, romantic walks and summer picnics.
RECOMMENDATION: Make time to enjoy it properly.
Mainland Britain’s most north westerly point; it’s an adventure just to get there!
Distance from Mey House: 99 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/mM11R
The name Cape Wrath is derived from the Old Norse for “Turning Point” and until relatively recently the area was home to a small but thriving community. Today it is a deserted and desolate headland edged by mighty cliffs and host to Europe’s only live aircraft bombing range.
We used to holiday in Durness so making the additional effort to visit Cape Wrath was not a problem for us. We would drive the couple of miles to the slipway at Keodale, take the ‘ferry’ across the Kyle of Durness and then take the ‘bus’ to the tip of the headland to enjoy the views, marvel at the lighthouse and enjoy a cup of tea at the Ozone Café. If the truth be told, the ferry is nothing more than a small crabbing boat piloted by a local waterman, the bus is a rickety old Sherpa van that is most definitely passed its best and the Café is housed in one of the old outbuildings of the lighthouse! Whatsmore, the journey across the Cape is made on a very poorly maintained track way right across a military training ground.
The land of Cape Wrath may look a little desolate to the untrained eye but it is actually a very special environment. Being largely untouched by man, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area for birds and areas of the coastline have been designated as a Special Landscape Area. The drive across the Cape (or the Parph to give it the correct nomenclature) is an experience in itself and assuming your back and bottom survive the bumpy journey to the lighthouse you should be prepared to be blown off balance as you step off the bus by the fearsome winds that often blow up there. If it is a windy day you would be well advised not to get too close to the cliff edges as it has been known for the unwary to be lifted clear off the ground (the cliffs are the highest in mainland Britain, towering 900ft over the roaring north Atlantic and they can create quite an updraft)!
The lighthouse that sits at the point of the headland is actually not that tall (it doesn’t need to be) but you have to admire the tenacity and doggedness of the men that built it way back in 1828. It is automated today but it was one of the last manned stations only losing its lighthouse keeper in 1998.
You have to really want to see Cape Wrath to go there, it is most definitely not for the casual visitor! Reflecting upon our own experiences, I would have to say that the trek makes the arrival at the destination more rewarding; take the trip for yourself and see if you agree with me!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: It can be expensive; we last went in 2009 and if my memory serves me correctly, the trip cost around £20 per person (it’s worth noting that the fee is paid separately to the ferryman and bus driver; cash only). The ferry runs 7 days a week May to September and there are two sailings at 11 AM and 2.00pm (mid-season) with more in high season. There are no advanced bookings so call ahead for sailing info (01971 511246).
GREAT FOR: The adventure of getting there.
RECOMMENDATION: Take plenty of midge spray if the wind is calm.
Even in darkness, the Caithness ‘Big Sky’ provides an awesome display, with or without the Northern Lights.
Distance from Mey House: 0 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/qmFIE
Before becoming residents of the Highlands we took regular holiday trips here usually in June or July to take advantage of the long days and good weather but this meant that we were unwittingly excluding one of the Highlands’ greatest jewels from our itinerary; the Night Sky.
We relocated to Caithness in late July 2013 and although the solstice had already passed some 4 weeks before, the days were still incredibly long (over 18 hours daylight) so it wasn’t until late August that the growing darkness began to reveal the star studded dome that envelops Mey House.
One particular night, after a neighbourly visit to The Castle Arms, I found myself standing slack jawed in the garden with my head craning across 180 degrees of sky in astonishment; the Milky Way blazed starlight in a vast arc overhead, shooting stars streaked silently across the sky and noctilucent clouds shimmered an eerie blue high above the earth (Google the latter to learn what they are)!
I had never been much of a stargazer nor had I developed any skill as a night photographer but within a matter of days I found myself spending countless hours standing in the garden looking dumbstruck at the heavens and desperately trying to learn how to photograph it all. Thankfully, my skills had developed sufficiently enough to capture the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) which made the first of their many subsequent appearances later that same week.
When seen from Mey House, the Aurora seems to germinate over the Orkneys creating a flickering luminous glow of green and red light which is often as far south as they venture (as seen in the lighthouse picture). However, on a night of particularly strong solar activity the lights dance their way across the Orkney Islands and over the Pentland Firth until they are weaving, darting and wafting right above Mey House.
Goodness knows what the ancient inhabitants of Orkney made of it all, perhaps it was the night sky that inspired (or terrorised) them into building the plethora of monuments that seem out of proportion to the landmass and its population? For myself, the heavenly panorama is an awesome and humbling sight despite the modern scientific explanation for it all.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Caithness is one of the best places in the UK to view the night sky as not only are there very low levels of light and atmospheric pollution but also because the sky scape is so vast.
GREAT FOR: Watch this video in HD, it says it all! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpMa-vNB9mo
RECOMMENDATION: Visit Caithness or the Orkney Islands between late August and early April to see the sky at its best (the lengthening summer days make star gazing less rewarding outside these times).
The Orkney island with more postmen than police!
Distance from Mey House: 52 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/BMuPt
The island of Hoy is only 4 miles from Mey House and (on a clear day) it can be easily seen from either of our suites. However, to reach it requires crossing 25 miles of water on two ferries and journeying 27 miles by road around Scapa Flow but my goodness, it’s worth the effort.
Hoy is the second largest island in the archipelago but it is the least densely populated of the inhabited ones with an average of only 7 people per square mile. The lack of inhabitants stems from its geography and geology which is vastly different to its neighbours – it is noticeably more rugged, has higher peeks and is covered in significant areas of peaty moorland that is unsuitable for cultivating crops, trees or pasture. It is bizarrely remote and unspoilt despite it being so big and so close to civilisation.
We visited one April and were blessed with fabulous weather which encouraged us to venture along the 6 mile return walk to the Old Man from the picturesque Rackwick Bay. The Old Man is a rock stack that stands 450 feet above the surging north Atlantic and whilst it is an impressive sight, it is thought to be less than 250 years old and liable to collapse at any time! It regularly attracts rock climbers and I understand that a small visitor’s book is stored in a container that is buried in a cairn on its summit! The cliffs nearby are the tallest in Britain towering an unbelievable 1100ft above the ocean and as well as being imposing they are also stunning to behold – on the day we visited they were ablaze in hues of reds and greens.
En route to Rackwick Bay you will pass ‘The Dwarfie Stane’, set back about a ten minute walk from the roadside. This is a 5000 year old tomb cut into a single solid megalith of red sandstone using nothing but stone or antler tools and a great deal of muscle power. It is the only example of such a tomb in northern Europe and if you crawl inside it you can see (by torchlight) the 18th and 19th century graffiti that has been carved into its structure.
Hoy has played an important part in Britain’s maritime history and whilst there is precious little room to elaborate here, we visited and can recommend the Hackness Martello Tower and the Naval museum at Lyness. If you are of a mind, the naval cemetery at Lyness is a moving place to visit – so many young men are buried here, victims who died simultaneously in one local maritime disaster or another.
Finally, we just encourage you to explore! We discovered the wonderful ‘gloop’ holes on the Hill of White Hammars nature reserve, the memorial to the Longhope lifeboat, the grandest home on Orkney (18th century Melsetter House) and the final resting place of Betty Corrigal said to be “Britain’s remotest grave” – what a sad and tragic story that is (read about it here).
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are two ferries to Hoy – one for foot passengers only (sailing from Stromness) and another for vehicles and pedestrians which sails from Houton. Unless you are a walker or cyclist, we recommend taking your car over for a day or two as there is no public transport on the island. Book your ferry crossing in advance as it gets booked up in the high season.
GREAT FOR: Being so far away whilst being so close.
RECOMMENDATION: Lunch at the Beneth’ill Café (Moanness) and a steak supper at the Stroma Bank Hotel (South Walls).
The vast swathes of empty golden sands and the biggest skyscape in Caithness will take your breath away no matter what time of year you visit.
Distance from Mey House: 5 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/6j9kt
I’ve lost count of the number of times we have been to this amazing beach and every time we go we experience something different. I always make sure I carry my camera as the place just exudes atmosphere; in fact, the place is so charismatic that even Sally-Ann can be guaranteed to reach for the camera whenever she visits!
What always grabs us about Dunnet Bay is the space. The beach is over two miles long and is golden sand the whole way. Huge waves, miles wide, roll in off the ocean creating white foaming surf that is fun for the kids in the summer, perfect for surfers in Spring and Autumn and vast and threatening after a winter storm. The sky too is just as panoramic with nothing to interrupt the relationship between it, the land and the ocean making for an ever-changing vista.
In January 2013 (when the photo above was taken) we went to the beach to blow the cobwebs away after New Year’s Eve. The beach wasn’t deserted but we had enough space to be alone but equally enough people around to stop and chat if we wanted that too (bearing in mind that at that point in time we were not living here and our bright red waterproof coats screamed ‘tourists’, we chatted with passing locals; a guy who was flying a model Spitfire, two girls riding ponies along the beach and a rather bedraggled man still suffering the effects of the night before walking a very enthusiastic dog).
The afternoon was amazing and a photographer’s delight. The sun, which never gets very high in the sky at that time of year, seemed to be in a permanent twilight which when combined with the fast moving clouds made for dramatic skies.
When the rain showers came Sal and I sat open mouthed watching a succession of rainbows form and then disband and what was most amazing was that you could see the whole rainbow, not just part of it. I am disappointed to report however that there is no pot of gold at either end …
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Make good use of the facilities at the nearby Sea Drift Centre but beware, these are only open May to October! If you are walking the beach in the winter, make sure you have a decent set of waterproofs as it may be dry when you start your walk but should it rain when you are half way along the beach you will get VERY wet!
GREAT FOR: Sky, sea and surf no matter what time of year!
RECOMMENDATION: If you don’t want to clamber over sand dunes and wade through a stream, avoid the car park located half way along the beach between the Sea Drift centre and Castletown.
Regular seafarers on the Pentland Firth know that one of these features offers shelter, the other the threat of destruction.
Distance from Mey House: 1.5 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/lmGu2
As the tidal flows of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea are squeezed between the Scottish mainland and the archipelago of Orkney and Stroma, some of the most dangerous waters in the world are created. The compression of such a huge volume of water not only generates exceptionally fast tidal races (up to 20mph) and dangerous overfalls several feet high but also a whirlpool so vicious it was named “The Swallower” by the Vikings. If you think I am exaggerating then heed the British Admiralty who warn that the Pentland Firth “can scarcely be imagined by those who have never experienced it”. Get caught out in a storm aboard an unpowered vessel in these waters and you are in serious trouble.
One of the danger zones is a little over a mile from Mey House. A small rock stack known as St. John’s Point sits close to the shore and whilst it rises no more than 10 metres, its prominence signifies the hidden danger of a run of jagged rocky islets known as ‘The Men of Mey’ over which one of the strongest tidal flows of the Firth races. This mighty current is known as ‘The Merry Men of Mey’ though its jovial name belies a hidden danger – if your stricken vessel is caught by The Merry Men they will surely lead you in a dance over the hidden rocks and dash you against the shore. This fate has befallen many boats over the years and it is perhaps why an ancient chapel was located on this headland, dedicated to St John.
However, no more than a few hundred metres along the very same shore is a sheltered inlet that at low tide is cut off from the Firth. This beautiful natural harbour is known as Scotland’s Haven and for good reason too, as it is one of a few safe havens for small vessels in the Pentland Firth. However, its proximity to the ‘Merry Men’ means navigating to it in times of trouble is fraught with danger.
For the land locked observer, both locations are a real treat. Sit on the headland overlooking St. John’s Point and you can watch the sea birds nesting on the cliff faces or soaring effortlessly on the updraft – whilst just below you, hidden amongst the swirling waters of the Firth will be numerous seals. Look out toward the islands and you will inevitably see ships passing to and fro, using the Firth as a shortcut between Europe and North America and on a day when the sea is slight, keep your eyes peeled for pods of Orca. It should come as no surprise to learn that this was a favourite picnic spot for the Queen Mother.
Wander eastward around the coastline and you will discover Scotland’s Haven. Stand at the head of the western incline and look down to the water and you will generally see large numbers of seals basking in the sunshine, softly calling to each other across the still waters. Scramble down onto the sandy shore and you will find yourself alone in a windless arena and on a sunny day, it just begs you to indulge in a picnic. Kick off your socks and shoes and paddle in the warm water or if you dare brave the water proper, it’s a safe place to swim.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Stout walking shoes are recommended to reach both locations and to make the most of the stunning locale, take a pair of binoculars. Beware of the uneven and slippery slope down to Scotland’s Haven – it is not recommended for those with restricted mobility.
GREAT FOR: Uninterrupted views of Dunnet Head, Orkney and along the coast to John O’Groats.
RECOMMENDATION: Watch the spring and summer sunsets over the Firth from St. John’s Point!