Far to the north of Scotland lie Caithness and Sutherland. Twelve miles across the tempestuous Pentland Firth from John o Groats, Hoy, on Orkney, is even closer to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK mainland with its 100m high cliffs. Orkney itself is also a wonderland of islands. You could spend years exploring and not see them all. The tours over the water stop in the winter. Why would you want to cross to Orkney anyway. Caithness and Sutherland have it all. Archaeology, history, geology, great opportunities for outdoor activities. The North Highland Way from John o Groats to Cape Wrath is being developed. In the long term it will be the only route in Scotland which will be multi use, and adhere to the principles of sustainable tourism.
The far north of Scotland is spectacular at any time of year. The wild windswept moors, the wide open spaces, the driving horizontal rain, the snow on the magnificence of the Ben Loyal mountain. Jeremy Clarkson loved it. There are of course wonderfully crisp days – ice on Dunnet Beach, frost sparkling in the trees in Dunnet forest. There is a general lack of trees in both counties. Dunnet Forest was planted in the 1950s and the Forestry Commission have several plantations in both counties. In general, the high winds scorch the trees and stunt their growth. Therefore there are very few wonderful trees as those you see in Ireland and France.
Walking out with the horses in the snow is fun, there are not too many cyclists at this time of year. The winds make it difficult for them to stay on their bikes. It is great walking country at any time of year. As for the horses, they stay cosy in their stables if they are lucky. If not, they are rugged up and left outside with lots of hay. Shetlands and Highlands can weather the winter without being indoors, but the more fragile throughbred and Arab horses would not survive the cold.
Walking on Dunnet Head in the winter stimulates the senses and you return home feeling refreshed and invigorated. It is best not to walk too close to the edge of the cliff. Several folk have done so to their demise. The geos (inlets) are particularly dangerous, even more so if they are covered in snow. Dunnet Head itself doesn’t get much snow. That is reserved mainly for inland villages such as Halkirk and the east coast around Wick which faces the North Sea. The winds howl in from Orkney. Sometimes at 120 mph. It is impossible to stand. There are grand tales such as geese lying flat on the ground with their wings spread so they don’t get blown away. The roofs of houses are vulnerable, as is anything which is not firmly tied down. Radio aerials are particularly vulnerable. They are often seen bent at right angles as they cannot stand the furore of the wind.
The skies low and thunderous. Multi coloured clouds skudding across the leaden sky. Fog in early winter is common place. The wildlife are all hiding, even the seals in Brough Bay keep a low profile as the winter closes in. The farmers have trouble with storing all of their produce – hay, straw and haylage. More and more large agricultural sheds spring up every year. The days are short, the nights long. If it is cloudy, it seems as though it never gets light. Rain, rain and more rain lashes the coastlines on both north and east.
Further west towards Thurso the terrain is flatter and there are not such high cliffs. Weather patterns differ to those on Dunnet Head, and at Halkirk. The area around Halladale and Betty Hill have snuggly bays and golden beaches, havens for wildlife in the summer months. Around Loch Eriboll you will have to walk on the road. There is a long section around the Loch where road walking is essential. Mobile phone reception can be unreliable in this area.
The summing up is that the winter is just as good a time to visit Caithness and Sutherland as the summer. Take the train and be rewarded by the views of the magnificence of one of Europe’s last wildernesses. Vast swathes of land, mainly peatbog, environmentally important. There are snow warning signs. Snow breaks to attempt to prevent the drifting of the snow onto the line. The drive north by road can be unpredictable in the winter. Floods, snow, ice and high winds can make driving miserable. At least there will not be much traffic on the roads.
If you are undertaking a winter adventure outdoors, make sure you wrap up well, with multiple layers of clothes rather than one thick sweater and a warm waterproof. Thermal vests and leggings are a must. Then a tee shirt or two. Do not wear jeans. They do not dry out quickly and are heavy when wet. Good waterproof boots are essential. If you get your feet wet, you will get blisters. Thin socks next to your skin, preferably cotton, with thicker socks over the top.
Taking safety matters in such a remote area is essential, even in the summer. Your mobile phone or GPS will not be able to get a signal in large swathes of the route, although things are improving
The North Highland Way is designed to be a multi use route from John o Groats to Cape Wrath and will also adhere to the principles of sustainable tourism. There is no ambition to have a built path, but rather a “way to go”. There is no public money available for this project, so we look at other ways to raise funds.
Tina Irving climbed Kilimanjaro in October 1994 on her fortieth birthday and is well versed in winter walking conditions. She lived at Dunnet Head for 15 years and was very involved with the tourism. She organised the Caithness and Sutherland Walking Festival for four years and is currently developing the North Highland Way in conjunction with public services and the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso.
We will be leading tours to this area in 2020