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John o' Groat's Trail: Whaligoe to Lybster.

John o' Groat's Trail: Whaligoe to Lybster.


Postby Standing Stone 81 » Thu Mar 04, 2021 11:28 pm

Route description: John o'Groats Trail: Lybster to Whaligoe

Date walked: 28/02/2021

Time taken: 7 hours

Distance: 12 km

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Two consecutive Sunday mornings, both dry, but the first with a headwind (strong enough at times to impede progress) the other perfectly still.

I'd never seen Whaligoe from the other side before and as I looked down on its deep cleft in this coast the sun cleared the horizon. The waves below were breaking on the cliffs - a long white trim of lace decorating the dark rock.
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It was a strong wind that faced me every step of the way as I headed southward, I wondered how far I would get. I decided to keep going until I'd had enough.

The ruins of the old kirk at Bruan (along with its renovated neighbour) are landmarks of this coast from land and sea. It seemed a while since I had watched the sun set on the skeletal roof beams from the north side of Whaligoe. Everyone back in lockdown, why do our politicians not even offer hope these days? I thought about how I was 'doing' this trail: a series of short walks in higgldy-piggldy order. Not the same experience as a single long journey.

Still even a mile on this coast gives much delight. I peched my way up the slopes above Red Geo. The main A99 road runs close to the high sided cliffs here. I now understood why on many a stormy day I'd seen foam flying in the air whilst driving past!

A large clump of whins seemed impenetrable on approach but as the walk guide explains a path leads through. I was glad of the shelter from the wind for a bit and the wooden boards someone had placed across a boggy section.
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Emerging out I passed Long Gote. The terrain is croft land along here and this late in winter its green was bleached. Rock outcrops of Caithness flagstone are plentiful, I always enjoy pausing to spot any ripples or polygons silently telling their story from millions of years ago. Good for the soul that!

The Haven at East Clyth is somewhere I was surely told about in my youth but didn't recall. Two long ropes snaked down from a couple of new looking wooden posts to an inhospitable shore below. There were rough stone steps however and the views here were fine indeed, I decided to explore.

It wasn't too bad, but would be quite treacherous without the ropes. The Haven - as the waves smashed on the rock below it seemed anything but. What a harsh life those that fished from places like this had surely endured, the fishermen and their families.
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The Burn of East Clyth finds its end through an attractive wee gorge. I paused for a bit enjoying the waterfall.
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Centuries ago two fine castles stood on this stretch of the Caithness coast but little remains today. As I moved on the site of what was Gunns Castle appeared. It is difficult to figure out how this was ever easily accessed, perhaps by sea alone or more likely a bridge now long gone and forgotten.

Legend attributes the castle to a prominent Gunn who was betrothed to a daughter of a Scandinavian king. The princess (sometimes Norwegian, sometimes Danish) sailed with a large dowry of gold unknowing that her intended already had a Caithness wife! Her vessel was lured by false light upon the rocks, north near Whaligoe, and her body flung up on the cliffs as what gold could be salvaged was taken. The o.s map names this spot Leacan Oir - flagstone of gold.
Eventually his misdeeds brought great wrath upon the wicked Gunn and his castle was destroyed. These are the stones perhaps that feature in the fine dykes along the coast at Clyth.
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As a footnote: The princess was hurriedly buried in the graveyard that still exists further north at Ulbster Mains; the wee chapel of St Martin that is supposed to have existed now has a distinctive mausoleum on its site. Records from Victorian times inform that a stone bearing hieroglyphs marked the princesses grave. The famous Pictish Ulbster Stone (now in Thurso museum) came from this graveyard but the Victorian records refer to a raven (then much weathered) of which there is none on that stone.
However, I have seen in good light a large flagstone grave cover in that cemetery that bears a clear Pictish double disk and a very weathered indecipherable pattern above. Could this be the raven and this the resting place of the ill fated princess?

Halberry Castle, only a short distance south, was a grander pile. The promontory upon which it stood is easily accessible over tussocky ground. A defensive ditch and the clear footprint of the keep were clear to identify but like its earlier neighbour the walls have long since gone with the stone now boundaries of the fields of Clyth.

The wind by now had taken its toll on me and as I passed the splendid Stack of Mid Clyth I thought of wrapping things up for the day. At Ousbacky there are fine exposures of rock and a view of the cliffs that truly conveys the strength of this coast.
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My second leg of this stretch of the trail saw a trace of frost on the ground. It was one of those rare days of late winter with a clear sky, still air and the hint of something kinder to it. Picking up the trail where I had left it I became aware of the sounds that weren't there only the week before. Borries (guillemots) were lining the cliffs, noisily calling to each other, life returning to the ledges.

I remember when the lighthouse at Clyth was lit but now it is switched off and privately owned. The trail passes by it on the landward side and it is certainly well worth a pause to see.
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The east coast of Caithness has many fine stacks and geos but less by the way of skerries. Those I passed this ramble were good examples of their type: fine flat shelves of rock with the gentle waves lapping over them.
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It was time for a snack and Clyth Harbour (a childhood haunt) was ideal. A wee waterfall tumbles into the sea here, a wren was keeping close eye on me behind its protective curtain.
Once upon a time there must have been a bustle to this place. A roofless building still stands and the iron rings to which the fishing boats were moored are there, driven into the rock. As I finished my jam piece I thought about how I'd had the place to myself, there must be many days like this and so little distance from a main road!
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Onwards I went, the sun had now warmed the air considerably and only in the deepest shade did frost linger. Sea stacks pepper the next section of this coast. I paused to photograph a particularly fine one.
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Past Roygoe and I approached the Burn Mouth. This is a place I know better from sea than land (we used to catch ling just offshore) but with wee waterfalls it's a delightful spot. Caithness has many waterfalls like this.

I didn't have time to wander down to the shore at Occumster as the morning was wearing on. A scrap banger sat precariously parked - I doubt anyone would miss it if the handbrake fails!
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I was nearing Lybster, the Caithness hills of Morven, Scarabens et al were now a prominent feature beyond the coast. Soon I reached Shelligoe.

For many reasons Shelligoe is my favourite spot in Caithness. I've known it covered in deep shingle or scraped to the bare rock. Sat down there on still summer evenings, watched huge waves drive in on a sou'easter. Today it sparkled with sunlight diamonds a fitting end to a walk of which I'd enjoyed every step.
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Standing Stone 81
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Re: John o' Groat's Trail: Whaligoe to Lybster.

Postby Anne C » Fri Mar 05, 2021 9:52 am

Just beautiful - very dramatic coastline. I've been to the Whaligoe Steps a couple of times, they really are something, so beautifully built , a work of art in many ways, albeit a sign of hard lives. Interesting to see them from the other side.
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Anne C
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