Jim Bunting, the ranger for the John o’ Groats Trail, looks at the development of this new walking route that has captured his heart.
In 2014 Jay Wilson, a US citizen then living in Hertfordshire, decided to take on the well-travelled trek from Lands’ End to John o’ Groats. Having grown up alongside the Appalachian Trail, he was a keen long distance walker and this was the biggest and most diverse route he could find in the UK.
He never finished the route; instead, ending up living in a cottage in Berriedale overlooking the two towers, shaped like the bishop and rook chess pieces, used to guide boats safely into the tiny Berriedale Harbour. Like so many others that visit this massively overlooked corner of Scotland, he fell in love with Caithness and decided to spend his time trying to create a walking route that filled the gap between Inverness and John o’ Groats. The gap has left many walkers over the years onto the busy and dangerous A9, at the mercy of the fast passing traffic heading to Scrabster and Orkney; or visitors travelling through Caithness to get to what they see as the ‘impressive bits’ of Scotland on the North Coast 500, the bits that they know are picturesque, the bits they can see without leaving their cars: the west coast.
And so the John o’ Groats Trail was born. Well not quite, as a group called the Caithness Waybaggers had already mooted the idea of a Caithness Way many years earlier. Sitting before me now is a photocopy of a document dated 1987 titled ‘The Caithness Coastal Footpath’. Painstakingly typed, the story starts at Melvich and ends at Helmsdale, although it suggests that “the purist may wish to start in Drum Holliston and to finish at the Ord.” Caithnessians are rightly proud of their corner of Scotland; it begins “Caithness has a splendid coastline over 100 miles in length”, the writer, Trevor Middleton, was not overstating his case.
Even this ignores the fact that these cliff-tops have been walked for millennia. In our recent history we know that Caithness was once the heart of the herring fishing industry. The title of the 1941 novel by Neil M Gunn, himself a native of Dunbeath visited by the trail, The Silver Darlings refers to the sight of the masses of fish visible by clifftop watchers as they passed through the rich Caithness waters. As the shoals were spotted, fleets based in the many small fishing stations and harbours would head out to haul in as many as they could. This was in the days of the crofter-fishermen, and before the vast fleets that eventually grew out of the more commercial harbours that still exist such as Wick and Lybster, although even there the glory days of the herring industry have long past. Most of these harbours are now ruins and provide a continual glimpse of the past as you walk the trail north of Helmsdale. And these are just part of what you miss, and you really miss it, if you drive the North Coast 500 without stopping, without taking into account the very real truth that you CAN’T see Caithness from your car, you can only really see it on foot.
Caithness has three things to offer the visitor. The first is the Flow Country, the largest blanket bog in Europe and a vast landscape full of natural beauty; it is a very real treasure, but also a very specialist interest.
The other two things Caithness offers is its history and coastline, both closely tied together. Since the Clearances of the late 1700-1850s, the population of Caithness has been based on the coast. Further back, ‘Game of Thrones’ style castles teetered above the cliffs, even earlier the Picts and Bronze Age settlers built their forts and brochs on the headlands. Caithness IS the coastline, where natural and human histories collide, and where the cliffs tell the story of ancient cataclysms in their layered and twisted strata. The Caithness coastline is Scotland’s hidden jewel. And the John o’ Groats Trail takes you right there.
Jay walked from Drumnadrochit to John o’ Groats in 2014. He returned to the Caithness coast to walk it again in 2015. Around that time a chance conversation on a train led to the suggestion that instead of writing a book of his walk, he do something more practical – make a trail. Create on the ground the route he had walked rather than leave people to attempt to find it from his guidelines.
May 2016 found him launching the Friends of the John o’ Groats Trail, a charity “whose purpose is to create a walking route from Inverness to John o’ Groats; via cliff tops, shorelines, back lanes and footpaths of the Scottish Highlands”. We are approaching the third anniversary of that launch and so much has happened in that time.
The ‘Friends of the John o’ Groats Trail’ Facebook page states, “[they] are more than anything a volunteer effort”, and the effort has been incredible. With the help of a steady stream of volunteers, some of whom were among those original ‘Waybaggers’, Jay was able to track down and contact over 200 landowners; the route was marked with white paint; stiles went in; and streams were crossed. Of this massive number of landowners, only 5 had strong objections and so no stiles or marking is permitted on their land. While the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows any walker, horse rider or cyclist to pass across land outside the ‘curtilage’ of any property, it does not give any right to mark or improve access on land. Where permission was not granted, the trail runs up to one boundary and continues on the other side of the property. Walkers are wise to make sure they have a map at all times for this reason alone. As the trail developed and funding arrived, a design for the trail markers was agreed, based on the legend of Jan de Groot’s ‘Octagonal House’ at his eponymous settlement at the top of the country. From 2018 these markers are gradually replacing the original white paint markers.
The work has been impressive and without these volunteers the trail would not be where it is today. As the trail developed, retired former SNH long distance route manager Ron McCraw, (the developer of the John Muir Way amongst others), was recruited to look at how the trail should progress. His suggestion was to take on a full-time worker to take it to the next level; to promote and publicise the trail beyond what it already was and, if this is the right phrase, to polish it.
Funding for the work on the trail has continually risen. From early stages funding was acquired from well-wishers, the local council, Caithness and North Sutherland Fund, Beatrice Windfarm, Tannach and District Fund, Tesco ‘Bags of Help’, Subsea 7, Ramblers Scotland, and finally from LEADER (where once again well-wishers found 10% match-funding) to contract the services of a full-time ranger, myself. The story is that no funding application has been unsuccessful, and the infrastructure has been installed gradually. One early contact with very useful skills and, more importantly, machinery, was local one-man-band Far North Fencing, who donated his time, skills and materials to construct a variety of bridges over some of the numerous burns and ditches along the trail.
Stiles initially were just a means to get over a fence, whether that was three bits of wood nailed together or a more elaborate design. The days when the range of stiles on a long-distance path was a badge of honour are long past (Offa’s Dyke once boasted over 50 designs among 774 stiles along its 180 mile route), in my position as ranger, along with any willing assistants, I am rolling out the ‘stile revolution’ whereby first the wobbly stiles, and then all stiles will be replaced with a longer lasting and more substantial design.
The trail crosses the Beauly Firth at Kessock, and from there traverses three counties, offering very different experiences. At first it winds along country lanes and forest tracks, crosses benign farmland and takes you through Easter Ross to Tain. Most people walk it from South to North, but the experience is equally interesting either way. From Tain, it crosses the Dornoch Firth on a bridge of nearly a mile with fantastic views in either direction. Here you meet the coast and rarely leave it until the finish. Sutherland offers fine views and lowland coastal walking.
The development still ongoing is largely in Caithness. Here the terrain changes, the land use changes and the views change. Here you really discover the coast and the walking really rewards you. From Helmsdale, the trail becomes something I have never come across in a long distance route apart from the Cape Wrath Trail – you never walk any part of it just to get to the next. None of it is a means to an end. Each stage from Helmsdale offers a complete walk in itself and as such offers a very real opportunity to Caithness if it could be grasped. This coast is arguably the best on the British mainland, sea stacks, arches, caves and geos (as deep inlets are locally known) follow one after the other. The sedimentary red sandstone runs from horizontal to almost vertical, changing from one to the other in less than 100m at points, telling tales of massive geological turbulence.
These cliffs harbour hundreds of thousands of sea birds: gulls, shag, cormorants, guillemots, razorbills and fulmar jostle for position on the tiny ledges as puffins pop in and out of their burrows on the turf tops to the stacks. Orca pass by at times, and have been seen from just outside Wick. Grey seals will watch you from the waves, and in autumn the inaccessible beaches hundreds of metres below fill up with seal pups. Otters fish between the sea and the burns running down to it. These fish-rich waters may no longer feed the human population, but they still feed the wildlife.
Walkers need to understand their rights and the privilege they own in Scotland. At times the path is perilously close to the edge. Where permissions allow we have taken the path inside farmland, but has not been possible everywhere. If necessary walkers can cross boundaries as long as they do not damage the fence, this is their right. Wherever they cross into farmland, they may encounter sheep or cattle, and they need to understand the consequences to themselves and the livestock. The trail is not ideal for dogs due to this and the occasional lack of stiles. This is not rich farming land and landowners often have to hold down a number of jobs to make a living, the loss of any livestock is not just something that can be written off. Gates inadvertently left open and damaged fences can lead to livestock going over those cliffs.
The work is not yet finished, but it is a route on the ground; a Harvey Map; an as yet unpublished guidebook (draft copies are available via the trail website); and a detailed description and OS map with the trail marked on WalkHighlands. Discussions are ongoing as to how to descend safely to the Ousdale Burn on stage 8, a very steep descent through a beautiful birch woodland. Two rivers still require fording in high rainfall or high tides, and the biggest issue of previous years has been deep vegetation obscuring stages 8 and 9 in high summer. Aside from the tick risk (that will never be fully conquered), it is actually well-nigh impossible to route find at that time, or it has been in the past. I, with whoever willing to assist, will be kept busy this year keeping the vegetation down. Indications so far this year are that the increased passage of walkers already has improved this, but no chickens are being counted.
The opportunity to walk such an iconic route so far ahead of the masses is rare. This trail, especially the Caithness section is one not to be missed, and the ‘Friends’ are offering a walking holiday for seven days in July based out of Thrumster House (where the trail was launched back in 2016) to take in this northern section. Details are available on the website or by contacting me on email@example.com.
We are always interested in volunteers. Anyone passing is welcome to stop and get involved. Although there are planned volunteer days, a willing volunteer will not be turned away just because there is nothing pre-booked. Tasks can usually be found to help improve the trail. There is also a regular programme of ranger-led walks, taking in a full or a half stage, these are just a great chance to meet people and to find out what’s there. I always make cake, and sometimes wear a kilt. Details of our programme of events is to be found on our website page or on the Friends of the John o’Groats Trail facebook page.
Jim Bunting is a Mountain Leader whose interest in the Highlands was cemented by a visit to Arisaig at the age of 15. Since then he has been trying to find reasons to come back and was always angling for a reason to stay. Having worked variously as a gardener, tailor, English teacher, fencing contractor, field work tutor, postman and musician (many of these never paid anything), he is most at home running or walking in the hills and mountains, looking at things and telling people why they matter.
Walkhighlands route description: John o’ Groats Trail