Scotland Day 42 - Forss to Brough
Today has had both the best and the worst sort of walking. The day started well, as I slept deeply in our very fancy and extremely expensive bedroom. I'm sure David is wondering whether I have really been in bunkhouses and low end B and Bs whilst on my own, having seen the quality of the accommodation last night. The bathroom was a thing of wonder in itself.
David went off to play golf as taped up the various sore sections on my feet, and reapplied Compeed where necessary. Blisters are an annoying mystery. And they are as welcome as the midges. But these ones, although nasty, are manageable, and there's no way they're stopping me. I took a photo of one of them, but you'll be pleased to know I'm not sharing it.
I checked out, chatting to Janet who was very interested in what I was doing and suggested a route possibility as well as a song for tomorrow. And then Margaret and Callum also had a chat too. I'll miss these conversations with strangers, it's great talking about the trek and seeing how excited it makes people when they consider it. And being so near to the end now gives an added frisson, people seem genuinely thrilled that I'm almost there.
Onto the A836 again. The day was perfect, still, blue skies, sunny and just warm enough for easy walking. The sea was flat, the wind turbines motionless. No storm Antoni here.
Just as yesterday the focus was Dounreay, today it was Dunnett Head. That is the very northernmost tip of the UK, and all day I would be walking towards it. And seemingly alongside, the Orkneys were also always on the horizon.
The road started out quietly too, with few cars on this Sunday morning. It gave me time to look at the stone slabs that were again being used as the fencing. I was increasingly surprised by this, surely this sort of stone is more expensive than wooden fences. It made me wonder if there was a stone quarry somewhere nearby.
In the quiet I could hear a very persistent bird calling. My bird identification app told me it was a yellow hammer. I couldn't see it, but who am I to argue with technology? Following my experience with the agressive dive bombing arctic terns yesterday, my parents got in touch to say that they had had a similar experience with them in Iceland. They had been supplied with poles to fend them off. I was glad to hear that it wasn't personal.
Mainly the road was as yesterday for this section, fairly even walking with grassy verges. There was a lovely moment when the verge had been converted into an extension of a garden by the owners of the bungalow across the road. Crocosmia and flowering shrubs were a welcome diversion.
Talking of diversions, my observations of articles on the verge today has produced an unnerving story. A pair of goggles. What appeared to be half a handcuff. One thermal glove and a half empty large tub of Tesco's fresh custard.
As I neared Thurso, the traffic increased noticeably, and the cars were driving faster. A young man in a sports car hurtled past just as I was looking at a memorial for a young man who was killed in the same place. But Dunnet Head was in the distance, and the road was going to get quieter after Thurso. There was a chance of a short period on footpaths which I jumped at. Possibly not literally, but certainly moved swiftly. It added half a mile, but time on softer surfaces and nearer the water was worth it. And it gave me the chance to listen to some music.
My dear friend Cathy had given me a cornucopia of choices, and I went for a couple from Scottish bands, as that seemed only right. I didn't know 'She's a star' by James, but really enjoyed both the storytelling and the voice. And then a classic from Aztec Camera with 'Oblivious'. There might have been some wiggling whilst also climbing a couple of locked five bar gates. My buddy Tracey had sent me 'Patience' by Take That. I am a big fan, as is she, and I built on the wiggling by some very enthusiastic singing.
The path led down to Scrabster in one direction, and Thurso in the other. We were coming back to Scrabster for dinner, so I left that to explore later, and headed towards Thurso. Scrabster has quite a large harbour, and a ferry was coming in from Orkney. Standing watching it, a friendly man started to chat to me. I told him how lucky I thought he was to live in such an extraordinary place. He agreed, but told me that it can get pretty wild here too. He pointed to the ferry, and said that he had been on that when the waves were so high that there was green water coming over the top of the orange stripe. As a terrible sailor, I made a note.
I got a video message yesterday from Dexter, the son of my friend Rebecca. I taught him from reception until the end of Year 2, when I left the school. He is a musical star already, but will definitely be a performer to watch out for when he is an adult. He suggested that I listen to Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked. I listened to it with the peerless view of Dunnet Head beside me, and full musicals glory in my ears. I sent him a very happy video message back.
There was comment yesterday on the standard of the bench in the bus stop of which I availed myself. So when I saw what was surely the epitome of an excellent bench, sturdily constructed and looking over the best view in the world, I thought I should sit on it. I sat on it with Peter Maxwell Davies' 'Farewell to Stromness', suggested as a double dip by Nora. Yesterday her choice blindsided me, and Nora, you did it again. I love that piece, and looking over the sea to a similar island, it was all both too much, and not enough.
Approaching Thurso there was a noticeable increase in lorries and traffic, as the A9 comes into this, the most northerly town in the UK. It's not insubstantial, but on a Sunday it was mainly closed. My lovely friend Janet rang me to check in and discuss our trip to Edinburgh in a few days. So she got the excitement of being taken into the Co-op to buy a sandwich. Dear reader, you will be overwhelmed to hear that today it was not cheese, it was tuna and sweetcorn. My cup runneth over. But there was no coffee anywhere. I had been quite excited about coming into a town, thinking there'd be a choice of independent cafes, maybe with home made cakes as a treat. I ended up in the cafe in Tesco. However, it was a very friendly one, with a decent coffee and Tunnocks caramel wafer, and one of the staff looking after my rucksack to prevent me having to do the rucksack limbo in the loo, and also giving me lots of encouragement for the last part of the journey.
As I climbed away from the river, and past the housing estate on the edge of Thurso I got the most lovely message from my Samaritans colleague Noreen. The charity had been in my mind as I'd just passed the Thurso branch. In our branch we have three computers, two for volunteers to use when taking calls, and the middle one with documents and other useful information for the shift. It has a rolling screensaver, often with reminders of events or introducing new volunteers. She told me that the screensaver is currently a picture of me, with a link to the blog. I was so pleased. She also sent me a kind message saying that they were all rooting for me. It quite set me up as I started the next bit of road walking. At the time of writing, the fund is currently at £4678. That's amazing.
I left the town and turned away from the A9 again, spotting Harold's Tower peeping over the horizon. I thought it must be in a dip, but it appears it's just not very tall.
I was feeling confident that the weight of traffic would reduce with having left the A9 behind. How wrong I was. This section of road is one that the Romans would have been proud of, if they'd got this far. Completely straight for four or five miles, it appears to encourage people, mainly men, to push their cars to the limit. Because the verge was higher for this section, I wasn't able to walk along it, so I would have to rely on drivers to be considerate, and to pull out and slow down. I couldn't just jump out of the way. And sometimes they were considerate, but very much not always. This section of walking was exhausting, both as usual on the feet, but also because the tarmac was pitted and uneven at the sides of the road I had to concentrate hard on my balance whilst they were passing me. It was also sensorily tiring, with the sound of the fast tyres on tarmac, together with the reasonable fear that someone might just stop concentrating for a split second as they passed me. I would never walk this sort of road at home, even though the views, if I climbed on the verge, were amazing.
I stopped for a breather just before the 10 mile mark. This wasn't especially pretty, just a scrap of grass off the road by a caravan site. But there was no danger of being hit by a car, so I could sit down, enjoy the change from cheese and relax for a little while before girding my loins to take on the road again. Continuing, I found myself showing my best 'teaching year 9 on a Friday afternoon' face to the oncoming drivers. Expecting excellent behaviour, but being ready for idiocy.
I couldn't have been more pleased to finally reach Castletown, which had a 30mph speed limit and a pavement. When it looked like there was an opportunity to leave the main road, even though it extended the walk a little, I was delighted to do so. This detour took me to Castlehill Flagstone trail. And here was the answer to my questions about the stone fences. For this area was once a flagstone 'factory', employing hundreds of people. It had a quarry, cutting yard, a harbour and many of the cottages in Castletown were built to house the workers. According to the information board, flagstone production made the local area prosperous, and helped pay for a new church, five schools, a library and an inn. But, unsurprisingly the work was dangerous and the quarry owners controlled many aspects of the workers lives, including discouraging the drinking of alcohol. Which made it surprising that they'd built an inn. And then when the industry fell into decline because of the popularity of cheaper concrete paving the workers had to look for jobs elsewhere. Many ended up emigrating. There are various ruined buildings left over from its heyday, but the little harbour appears to still be functioning.
When I planned today's route, I'd anticipated staying on the road for another three miles or so. But I wanted to avoid that at all costs, and the alternative was the considerably more appealing Dunnet beach. I am very familiar with Woolacombe beach in Devon, and this appeared to be about the same length, the same sort of beautiful golden sands with dunes at the back and cliffs at the side. The weather was warm enough for people to be swimming without wetsuits, and children were happily running in and out of the water. So much like North Devon. Except this is the most northerly beach in the UK, and whereas in Woolacombe there would be hundreds of people on the beach on a day like today, here on Dunnet there were maybe 30.
It was blissful. I walked on the sand for about half of the beach talking to Philip, and then in the sea for the rest, cooling my tired tiny feet. I then drew appreciative looks by sitting on my extremely stylish beach mat (a Bucks purple bin bag) soaking it all in and having a rest whilst talking to our elder daughter Jessie. As a contrast to the nasty road walking it couldn't have been more extreme. All the joy again.
To get to our B and B tonight I had to cross from the south to the north side of Dunnet Head, passing St John's Loch and an extremely photogenic Highland coo. It had been a long day, but I was still smiling at the end.
After a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down, we got in the car and drove back down that awful road to go to Scrabster for dinner. Scrabster is renowned for its seafood, and we had chosen a place that specialised in that. The meal was excellent, but strolling to the end of the harbour afterwards was even better.
There were anglers reeling in fish after fish from the water, literally taking seconds for the next one to bite. I chatted to a girl who was fishing on the opposite side, and she said that they were mackerel, and that the commotion that we'd seen in the water earlier, with things rising and falling from the surface were mackerel 'boiling'. A fishing trawler came in covered in seagulls looking for an easy meal, and then on the way home we could see Dunnet Head appearing to float in mid air. Going out there meant that I'm still writing this at 11 at night, but wow, it was worth it. It is the most magical place, and I just feel so lucky to be here, and amazed to have made my way just with my own two feet.
There are two more days after today - I finish on Tuesday lunchtime. I could get there tomorrow, but when I was planning it I thought I'd prefer to extend the finale a little. I'm so glad I did. It will give me time to savour this last stretch of the most northerly and extraordinary part of the UK. So tomorrow is Dunnet Head, and then I'll be walking east, leaving me a final few miles for my last day on Tuesday.
Distance travelled: 17 miles
Total ascent: 654 feet
Calories burned: 2222
Local tipple - Peroni zero
Dinner at The Captain's Galley, Scrabster - absolutely fantastic
Lobster with rocket salad and chunky fries
Sponsors' music, thanks very much to Cathy, Tracey, Rebecca & Dexter and Nora
She's a Star - James
Oblivious - Aztec Camera
Patience - Take That
Defying Gravity - from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz
Farewell to Stromness - Peter Maxwell Davies
Video of the day