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

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

Postby Standing Stone 81 » Thu Sep 09, 2021 11:23 pm

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

Date walked: 31/05/2021

Time taken: 7 hours

Distance: 14.25 km

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Two relaxed mornings: the first, Latheron to Dunbeath; the second, Lybster to Latheron. I have written this however to make more sense to the overall journey.

As I wandered down to Shelligoe it seemed a little odd to be walking a 'trail' that would always simply be the braes of home. It can be difficult to see the place you've known all your life through a visitors eyes. However, on that morning there wasn't much to see anyway - the haar was thick.

I paused for a while down on the rocky/ shingle shore at Shelligoe, my favourite spot in Caithness. A large tree lay like a caber where the winter waves had tossed it. The wee waterfall cascaded down the rock.

Taking the steps back up to Lybster I made my way through the bottom half of the village then down the harbour road. Nobody was about that early on a Sunday, even the harbour held its silence in the mist, I climbed the brae for another time in hundreds.

Centuries ago this was a holy place and the Brethren Well is still there to see on a short detour from the trail. An old name for Lybster Bay was Haligoe - Holy Inlet. By the back of the church, further up the village, you can see a very old carving of a cross on a yellowish sandstone. Likely this was the work of the monks, in the end they were supposedly slaughtered by the invading Norsemen.

Above the South Head the base of the old coastguard lookout can still be seen. As a child I remember being impressed by this place with its detailed maps and official charts. Now, looking at the foundations, it seemed a tiny thing. All it did was remind me of the views I was missing!

Past the derelict Achnacraig I startled a short-eared owl up from the damp ground. It silently vanished into the mist that enveloped it. If you scramble down to the rocks near here you can see where the stone for parts of Lybster harbour was quarried. Iron spikes still stand where driven in to the rock, gradually they're rusting away.

I wandered over the hump of a prehistoric mound and looking back it seemed the sun was trying to win through. It never did, though the visibility was perhaps a little better.

Before Achastle- shore I paused for breakfast on what we always called the Point o' Achastle. It was quite an easy scramble out and I found a place to sit where I annoyed only a very few seabirds. The grey mist and the steam from my coffee swirled about me, yet the scene was rich in colour: vivid yellow, pink and white from the lichen, thrift and sea campion splurged the dark rock like an abstract artwork.


Achastle-shore is an attractive spot with the remains of a fishing station above the boulders of the beach. A burn flows down to the sea, it's a place you invariably have to yourself. I made my way up the fairly steep slope that was clad in yellow primrose. The monotonous tone of a creel boat's engine carried over to me then the vessel itself appeared as a shadow that seemed almost beyond reality.

Forse Castle is a fine ruin perched above a wide bay with a long shoreline. I didn't take the time to stop, and the ruins are not all that stable, nor did I take the rope over the steep brae that assists you down to the shore. That rope has been there all my days but for the less adventurous there's an easier slope with a rough grassy path.

At the southern end of Forse Bay is a place we always knew as the 'hidden harbour' - a sheltered little cove with a shingle beach and a fine cascading waterfall. I'd only seen it from the sea before and was interested to see if I could get down to it. A viewpoint is signed from the main trail and though that delight (a view) wasn't happening for me I saw a possible way down quite near the waterfall. The grassy slopes were quite slippy in the damp conditions but the way down afforded a good view of that waterfall that's as fine as I'd remembered it. Only the very last bit was a problem: the clay and rotten rock gave way and I slid the last several feet to the bottom. Getting back up was a pest!

A decent wooden footbridge and stile were among the furniture of the JoG Trail that helped me as I eventually passed the high headland of Forse. The seabird colonies sounds and smells filled the air, the thrift was glorious.

After a slow spring the grass is now coming on and in parts I reflected that the trail will soon be quite overgrown. However, though my thighs were wet, my spirit was un-dampened and looking down on the rocky shore below I turned up to the old church and cemetery at Latheron where there was time for another coffee before my lift arrived.

Songbird music filled the morning air as I wandered down the lovely strath beyond Latheron cemetery. Windy Caithness doesnt have very much in the way of broad leaf woodland and sheltered spots like this are a delight on a spring morning. Nearer the coast the trees gave way to yellow-touched gorse and though the sky was cloudy it was a fair day with a calm sea.

Along this stretch of coast the cliffs are still quite high, though not as dramatic as further north. A long line of shingle and rocky beaches edge the bay of Latheron - part of writer Neil Gunn's 'Grey Coast'.
Gunn was born in Dunbeath and for a time lodged in Lybster in the house I inhabited for the first twenty odd years of my existence. His writings often feature - or are set - in this part of Caithness and they simultaneously capture that very particular and local carachter whilst linking them in to much bigger ideas and themes.
For me Caithness was, and is, a place apart even from the Highlands and certainly from Scotland. Still, enough of such fractious subjects!
A little colour came to the sky and both it and the sea took on a mother-of-pearl look that my camera failed to do justice.

For many months of autumn, winter and early spring this coastline is lashed by salt and the grass was still far from the green it does achieve in summer. I paused briefly as the wee harbour of Latheronwheel came into view below me. This is another truly picturesque spot, and nowadays very popular for summer picnics. Only a dogwalker and a calling hedgesparrow were around as I made my way by the harbour road then up the grassy path to the old bridge - always a spot for rolling Easter eggs in previous years.

I kept climbing and passed through the charming, curious and rusty turnstile that has been there longer than I can ever remember.

Low-tide is a good time to see the complex of rocks that spend part of each day submerged. There are stacks and flatter more skerry-like rocks along this way - good lobster territory! With the sea calm and the day brightening the water was clear and transparent from this height.

On I went and the going was never too arduous but still enough of a walk to get the heart pumping. It's a route that still has a true sense of being as it's always been and I must be honest and say I hope it never becomes a victim of it's own success. A pale yellow primrose, harbinger of many still to come, caught my attention as did the seaward light show. I'm certain the two were in communion.


Not far beyond Knockinnon a ravine requires a brief detour from the coast. A landslip or two was apparent, though perhaps not recent, and without any difficulty I was back along the cliff tops again where soon a fine pair of sea stacks came in to sight.

It wasn't very far now to the harbour and village of Dunbeath. I spied an arch in the cliffs that here take a more reddish colour than further along near Latheron. A promontory fort once stood above and lumps and bumps can still be seen that reveal to better trained eyes than mine what the fort likely consisted of. For my part, I had time to linger, and rest, on the brae until my scheduled lift arrived. Gazing out on the water my mind was filled with the promise of a summer yet to come. In many ways I walked towards it that day as I took the last short stroll down to the shore where blue sky was winning through and the white walled Dunbeath Castle watched the ringed plovers flit along the rocks.
Standing Stone 81
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Re: John o' Groat's Trail: Lybster to Dunbeath.

Postby gld73 » Fri Sep 10, 2021 2:54 pm

Another lovely report, very atmospheric photos
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Re: John o' Groat's Trail: Lybster to Dunbeath.

Postby Standing Stone 81 » Fri Sep 10, 2021 7:13 pm

gld73 wrote:Another lovely report, very atmospheric photos

Thank you very much for all your encouragement to keep writing them! :)
Standing Stone 81
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