306. Gills Bay to Keiss (via John o’ Groats)

May 2017

This walk is a milestone walk as I shall pass another of Britain’s compass points, the most north easterly point of the UK and that also means I’ll have walked from Lands End to John o’ Groats via the coast. It also marks the completion of the entire east coast of Britain.

For this walk I was staying in Wick so I had breakfast in my hotel and drove to Keiss where I parked on the road. From here I took one of the fairly infrequent buses to Gills Bay. In fact this was a very long walk and I had originally thought of starting at John o’ Groats and walking back instead, but the bus I wanted to catch didn’t stop there (or so I thought) and it was several hours for the next one, so I settled on Gills Bay. (The bus timetable has since changed so all buses that go to Gills Bay now also stop at John o’Groats).

The bus when it arrived was a coach and though I didn’t think it served John o’ Groats it stopped at the top of the road where it is about a half a mile walk. I decided to continue to Gills Bay as planned though.

The bus goes down the road right to the pier at Gills Bay. It is a tiny place which is basically just half a dozen houses or so and a ferry terminal. In fact I think this is one of, if not the only, commercial car ferries in Scotland (most are subsidised). The ferries, operated by Pentland Ferries run to to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, one of the Orkney Islands.

Gills Bay ferry terminal

The bus stopped at the ferry terminal and was timed to connect with the ferry. This is the shortest distance and fastest sea route to the Orkney’s and I plan to visit – but not today. This is a ferry route that restarted in 2001 after a long gap and has proven quite successful. (A new vessel was introduced on the route in December 2019).

I followed the road back up from the ferry terminal, being the only passenger on the bus that did not get the ferry! I tried to follow a rough path along the tufty grass at the top of the cliff, but the grass was almost to my knees and damp, so it was hard going.

Gills Bay

I soon ended up at a lay-by just beside the main road a short distance away from the road to the ferry.

Gills Bay

I had a long way ahead of me and decided to abandon trying to find a route closer to the coast here and just stuck with the A836, as it was taking so much time. This road runs only 100 or so metres from the coast anyway and was not that busy, but it was a boring walk.

After about 1 mile I reached the unusual church at Kirkstyle. This is a remote location and yet it has royal connections.

Kirkstyle, near Canisbay

Kirkstyle, near Canisbay

The Queen Mother owned the Castle of Mey and loved to come here when she could (though the rest of the Royal Family did not share her enthusiasm and the castle was sold not long after her death). This was the local church to the castle and so the royal family were regular visitors, photographs outside the church show the Queen Mother here, as well as Charles and Camilla. I stopped in the church yard for a quick drink stop as I had been walking fast on the road and was now thirsty and this was a safe place away from the traffic.

From here I returned to the road passing some sort of weird electric plant or something on the left , it looked like it might be a hydro electric plant of some sort, but with electric fences and warnings not to trespass. What was odd is that none of this is marked on the map, which always makes me suspicious.

The road was boring. I could only see the sea in the distance and inland it was flat and there were few buildings, so I made quite a quick pace, despite walking into a strong wind.

Near Canisbay

At one point a cyclist passed me and said something, but I couldn’t catch it in the wind. The road turned back to almost the cliff top again at Out Skerry and Roadside Cottages where I could look over to the Orkney Islands just a few miles away.

I headed down the road to Huna here which seemed to have some derelict cottages and a derelict lifeboat station, which was a bit odd. But it was nice to be back beside the coast.

The coast at Huna

The coast at Huna

Returning to the road, I passed the dead-end road to Newton but since this was on the coast I decided to follow it. Sadly this was a waste of time as it just ended at the front garden of a house with no way to get to the coast short of going through their garden, so I had to turn back. I was pleased to see the mill just beyond it was not derelict though and looked well cared for, it was a pretty building.

Mill west of John o'Groats

Mill west of John o'Groats

From here it was just half a mile more to John o’ Groats, where I turned left on the A99 to reach this milestone. I’d not heard good things about this place – that it was a tacky run-down mess of a place that was best avoided. Nevertheless it is famous as being the far north east corner of our island (even though it isn’t). In fact, the north eastern most place in Britain is actually Duncansby Head, about 2 miles further east (which I’d be getting to later).

Here I met the cyclist that passed me earlier who couldn’t believe I’d got here so quickly. I think he was the Gordon Ramsey of cyclists because whilst he did not look like him, he certainly sounded like him with seemingly every other word being “fuck”, whether about the wind, the cold or how tacky it was here. But he seemed happy despite the swearing but I was glad when he left me alone!

I had a look around and it wasn’t so bad. The hotel I understood had been derelict for some years, but had now been restored, along with some very brightly coloured cottages alongside, which are new.

John o'Groats

John o'Groats

There were nice views out to sea and boat trips on offer to see the wildlife and to Burwick on the Orkney Islands.

John o'Groats

John o'Groats

Yes there was of course some tourist shops and the famous sign, but I thought it was far better than Lands End and less intrusive.

John o'Groats

John o'Groats

You didn’t even have to pay to take a picture of the sign or have your picture taken under it, unlike Lands End. However that did mean that it had been mostly covered in stickers. Sticking stickers on things seems to be a weird obsession of those driving the NC500 route (which I was now on), for some reason.

So here’s a picture of me not standing underneath the sign.

John o'Groats

East of the harbour I was pleased to find there was seemingly a good coast path along the back of the beach which was very welcome, so I followed that.

Robert's Haven, John o'Groats

It soon stopped being surfaced and became a rougher grass path but it did at least seem to have been reasonably well walked and the beach had some sand.

Robert's Haven, John o'Groats

Robert's Haven, John o'Groats

The path soon took me past the beach of Robert’s Haven which was lovely with some white sand and dunes behind it and I stopped here for a quick rest.

Robert's Haven, John o'Groats

Robert's Haven, John o'Groats

Continuing around the Ness of Duncansby I soon reached the next beach, Sannick. This was a mixture of sand and shingle but also rather beautiful.

Bay of Sannick

Bay of Sannick

Beyond this beach the low grassy cliffs were now rising to higher cliffs, with many rocky inlets including this impressive one with a hole in the bottom which I think is called The Glupe and is I suspect a collapsed cave.

The coast west of Duncansby Head

The coast west of Duncansby Head

I then passed a second larger inlet to reach Duncansby itself, with the lighthouse. Now this is the most north easterly point of Britain (not John o’Groats) but far fewer people come here (even though it does have a road and a car park), but it is much the better for that. In fact it made me reflect that the last “compass point” I passed was Ness Point in Lowestoft, Suffolk, a long time ago. (Though the next compass point is only a few miles ahead of me).

The Glupe, Duncansby Head

Unusually, the lighthouse tower is square.

Duncansby Head lighthouse

Duncansby Head lighthouse

A fair few tourists had walked from John o’Groats to Duncansby Head but south of here it seemed few continued as the path was now far more feint and narrow. That was a surprise really because the scenery that had already been good just got better and better.

There were more rocky inlets (or “Geo” to give them the proper name), which seemed to be higher and longer than those I had passed earlier in the walk.

Duncansby Head

Duncansby Head

Soon I saw the sea stacks known as Stacks of Duncansby ahead.

Looking south from Duncansby Head

Rounding a few more inlets, where the cliffs were again layered, I soon had a clear view of the bay and these impressive stacks, which are higher and larger than I had imagined.

Looking south from Duncansby Head

Duncansby Head

I was fortunate too that the weather was excellent (albeit windy) and the path along the cliff tops was still pretty good. It made for an easy walk with some wonderful scenery, which is a good combination.

Duncansby Head

As well as the sounds of the sea crashing into the rocks I also had the sounds and sights of the many sea birds that seemed to be nesting on the cliff face. It surprised me that this wonderful section of coast seems to be fairly little known, or explored.

Duncansby Head

As I passed these impressive rocks stacks one of them looked to me to be a bit like the end-gable of a church though it is of course entirely natural. (The last photo below).

Stacks of Duncansby

Stacks of Duncansby

Stacks of Duncansby

This really was a stunning stretch of coast and the cliffs were now extremely high.

Stacks of Duncansby

Again I was left musing over why so many people go to John o’Groats, which is nice enough but miss out the far more stunning scenery just a few miles away.

Stacks of Duncansby

Just south of here the map showed the path I had been following as ending, which was a bit odd since it didn’t seem to end at anywhere in particular. In fact the path got fainter and fainter until there wasn’t really much of a path at all but the cliff tops were mostly covered with heather so I could still make quite easy going where it had been partly flattened down, presumably by others walking here.

The coast south of Duncasby Head

The coast south of Duncasby Head

Fast Geo

Ahead, according to the map, I know had Burnt Hill (which wasn’t burnt) and Striding Man (was that me?) and finally Red Cheek (the result of striding fast?!). Beyond these strangely named places I reached some more astonishing scenery. This is Wife Geo and it is quite amazing an almost square hold (a collapsed cave, perhaps) with the sea crashing through the rocks at the bottom.

Fast Geo

Fast Geo

I stopped here to enjoy these amazing views and for lunch. Onwards the cliffs were now becoming lower, but as a result I was nearer to the sea, which was nice as it was really crashing into the rocks below me.

The coast north of Skirza

Sadly the path was now increasingly rough with some boggy areas, but it was worth the effort for the wonderful scenery.

Sadly this wonderful part soon ended when I reached and old quarry and I could follow the track from here up to Skirza farm and the end of the public road just beyond.

Near Freswick Bay

I followed this road through the small (but spread out) village of Skirza. In about a mile there was a path on the left down to the beach of Freswick Bay.

This had rocks and pebbles at the back but there was sand at the shoreline which made for a lovely walk, and the remains of some more World War II “Dragons Teeth” at the back of the beach. At the far end too I could see a large building, marked as Freswick Castle.

Freswick Bay

Freswick Bay

Freswick Bay

As I neared it, I could see it was more stately home than defensive castle now.

Freswick Bay

At the end of the beach and before the castle is Burn of Freswick. I was able to cross this on the beach by some rocks that had been piled up and then followed a path in front of the castle.

Freswick Castle

Freswick Castle

The castle is in private ownership and I think primarily used as residence but it has a website which suggest it is also used to host events and available for hire.

Unfortunately ahead there was no clear route along the coast and the map showed many walls or fences that I would have to cross. With many miles still to cover I reluctantly decided to head for the A99 and so followed the track from the castle to the A99. I figured that at least the A99 ended at John o’Groats so it wasn’t likely to be that busy.

Freswick Castle

Track to Freswick Castle

It was quite a long boring trek along the A99, dodging the traffic and in a little under 2 miles I reach Auckegill.

Here I followed a short dead-end road from the A99 down to the shore where there was a tiny little harbour, remains of a Broch and another building.

Auckengill

Auckengill

Auckengill

From here I was pleased to find a good path south along the coast again so I could avoid the A99.

The coast at Auckengill

The coast at Auckengill

The coast at Auckengill

This soon took me to Mervyn’s Tower, a commemorative monument. Sadly beyond the monument the path became rough and hard going and I continued to struggle along the shore until I reached  a stream.

Mervyn Tower, Auckengill

The coast north of Keiss

The coast north of Keiss

Here I climbed over a gate and barbed wire fences to make my way back to the A99. Another mile or so along the road and I reached the Square of Keiss and the track leading round to the castle. I had hoped to follow this as an alternative to the A99 but it was private so instead I climbed over a gate into the next field and follow that down to the coast instead.

I could get quite close to the old ruined castle that was on the cliff top here, which looks somewhat precarious right at the edge.

Keiss Castle

From here I could look back to the more modern Keiss Castle (another stately home, really).

Keiss Castle

I continued along the coast along the grass which wasn’t too bad, passing another odd ruined structure (perhaps a sunken World War II pillbox, but it looks like it has a face) and the cliffs got gradually lower until the grass was basically the back of the stony beach.

The coast north of Keiss

The coast north of Keiss

I continued past another building built into the side of the hill to a left, which I later found is an old ice house.

The coast north of Keiss

Anyway I now had a short distance further to walk down to the harbour at Keiss.

Keiss harbour

This had been a long walk and I was really tired now. I’d probably tried to cover too many miles today but I was pleased to have now done so and made my way back up to my hired car that I had parked in Keiss for a welcome sit down!

This was a mixed walk. The first part to John o’Groats along the A836 to John o’Groats. Then I had a wonderful stretch of walking around from there to Duncansby Head. From there thinks improved even more with some absolutely stunning scenery south of there which I had to myself, as I puzzled why this wonderful bit of coast is seemingly ignored in favour of John o’Groats. Sadly when the path ended it was then mostly a fairly dull walk back to Keiss along the A99, but at least this was still close to the coast and traffic not too heavy.

This walk also passes the milestone of completing the east coast of Scotland. Now I have rounded the corner and my next few walks will be along the northern coast of Scotland, which I’m looking forward to. It was quite an achievement I felt to reach Duncansby Head and so now complete walking the entire east coast of not just Scotland but Britain (and I had also already completed the south coast, so now it’s “just” the north and west to go!).

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk.

Stagecoach Highlands bus route 77 : Wick – Reiss – Keiss – Bowermadden Crossroads (77A only), FreswickJohn o’ Groats – Cainsby – Gills Bay (Ferry Terminal) – John o’Groats – Thurso. Only 2 buses per day Monday – Friday (there are other services which terminate at John o’Groats). No service at weekends. It takes a little over 20 minutes to travel between Keiss and Gills Bay.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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6 Responses to 306. Gills Bay to Keiss (via John o’ Groats)

  1. That bit of coast past Duncasby Head and the Stacks is some of the best in Britain.

  2. I’ve only been to John o’Groats once and it looks as though it has improved since then (maybe 20 years ago). I’m sure you had to pay for photographs at the sign then (though we didn’t). We’ve visited Duncansby Head and thereabouts a couple of times and I agree it’s wonderful.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes I’d heard John o’ Groats was a run-down dump best avoided but it was considerably better than I expected. I guess in the age of the selfie and mobile phones there is not much call to have your own photo taken though I think they did used to put up a sign giving the name of your town (or a destination of your choice) and the mileage, which doesn’t happen now.

      Glad you enjoyed Duncansby head, too!

  3. 5000milewalk says:

    Love the photos Jon. The gorse on that track from the castle is spectacular!

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