307. Gills Bay to Dunnet

August 2017

On my previous walk I reached the most north easterly point of mainland Britain. This is another compass-point walk as today I will reach the most northerly point of mainlaind Britain, Dunnet Head.

For this walk I was staying in Thurso. This was actually the 4th day of a 5 day trip, as I didn’t walk these sections in order, due to the limitations of public transport, today being a Saturday and this being one of the few walks on this trip where there was a bus service at the weekend. I had breakfast at the “hotel” I was staying at in Thurso (which was more a Motel than a Hotel and my “basic room”, in an annex, was as grim as it sounds).

I had hired a car for this trip and so I drove it to Dunnet. I could not find a car park in Dunnet, so I parked in a residential road just off the eastern side of the A836, as I did not want to park on the main road. From here I had about 20 minutes to wait for the bus as I had allowed plenty of time and the drive had not taken long.

From Dunnet I planned to take the bus to Gills Bay road end. On my previous trip to Scotland I had got as far as Gills Bay ferry terminal but that time I was coming from Wick. This time from Thurso, the bus did not stop at the ferry terminal, but instead the end of the road leading to it (which is only around 300 metres long). The bus was late arriving which meant I was a bit worried it wasn’t coming at all, but it arrived a little over 5 minutes late and I was pleased to find it was a more comfortable coach, rather than a bus.

I asked for a single to Gills Bay and the driver was a little surprised “We don’t go to the ferry you know” but I confirmed the end of the road was fine. I suspect he was a bit puzzled as to why I might want to go to Gills Bay if NOT catching the ferry given there isn’t anything else there! I was also surprised to find that rather than following the A836 we took the back roads via Scarfskerry and Ham. I hadn’t realised this (though it is clear from the timetable) and the driver did well to get the large coach around such narrow and twisty roads.

At the end of the road I asked the driver to stop off and got off, just to see the ferry disappearing out into the Pentland Firth.

Pentland Ferry

It was lucky I wasn’t intending to catch the ferry! For the sake of completeness, I walked down to the ferry terminal along the road and back up, so I had not missed any coast out!

Almost as soon as I met the main road I could turn right off it and follow an old road that was almost parallel to the A836. This ran past a few houses and was more or track than road in places, with grass down the middle. Sadly this only lasted for around 500 metres and so it was back to the A836. After trying and failing to find a better route than this road last time I resigned myself to it as I hoped to turn off in around 1 mile, and I passed the sign welcoming me to Gills.

It was not too bad, it is not that busy a road, though. There was not much to see on the road so I walked quickly keen to leave the road as quickly as possible. After about 1 mile I could turn off north on road over Mey Hill. As this road turned left, where a tourist sign “Birds of Prey” is marked on the map (I didn’t see any) I planned to take a path that was marked going north out to St John’s Point where I hoped I’d then be able to turn left and follow the cliff tops.

The track started of well enough, but soon it became wet and boggy and I made slow and difficult progress, soon getting wet feet too, near the fort at the end of the headland.

The coast near Mey

The track was barely visible at times and certainly not what the map suggested, but nearing the end it became clearer again. I headed down until it opened out to grass and a little bit of heather.

Here I turned left and tried to make my way along the cliff tops.

The coast near Mey

This turned out to be more difficult than expected. To start with there was some grass, but it soon became rough tussocky grass. There ware also regular little inlets and valleys to get around some a narrow squeeze between the fence and cliff top. I tried to squeeze through a few times, but it was becoming increasingly difficult and if I crossed into the adjacent fields I had a barbed-wire fence to cross every 100 metres or so, so I was making very slow progress.

The coast near Mey

The coast near Mey

After about 20 minutes of this I decided I’d had enough and walked through one of the fields inland and back to the road. It might not be right along the coast, but at least I could make better progress and there was not much traffic. After around half a mile along the road it turned sharply left heading south east away from the coast, but a track was marked on the map continuing ahead which I hoped to follow.

This turned out to exist and I could continue ahead on the wide track. On reaching the coast it continue right along the back of the beach. This was much better, now back on the coast with a proper path. There was a beach below me, a mixture of rocks, sand and shingle. I could see someone walking on it, but it didn’t look that easy so I stuck to the path.

The coast near Mey

Ahead the track soon joined a minor road again. This seemed mostly to be used by visitors to the Castle of Mey that I could see just inland.

The Castle of Mey

This was the Queen Mothers favourite home and she purchased it and came here regularly. Sadly the rest of the royal family seemed not to share her enthusiasm, it is no longer used by the Royal Family and instead open to the public. I could see the back of the castle quite well from the road, which soon crossed a stream.

The Castle of Mey

I followed this down to a small village ahead called Harrow. Another road head down the valley for a couple of hundred metres to the small harbour. Although a dead-end, as the road was only short I headed down it but there was not a lot to see just a couple of boats and a derelict building.

The coast near Scarfskerry

Back up the road I continued on the road which briefly left the cliff top again for about half a mile before re-joining the coast ahead.

Soon I had reached the edge of the scattered village of Scarfskerry. Here an old telephone had been put to use as “Mark’s Book Kiosk”, a book exchange.

Telephone box library

Inland I could see some of the water of the Loch of Mey, which seemed to have flooded some of the fields nearby. Although the road was along the coast there houses between me and the coast in places and their gardens meant getting a view of the cliffs and scenery was tricky, though I could manage it in a few places.

The coast near Scarfskerry

The coast near Scarfskerry

The coast near Scarfskerry

The coast near Scarfskerry

As I was walking along here the bus I had been on earlier came back around. I did wonder if the bus driver had recognised me and wondered why I’d got off the bus at Gills Bay only to walk back to here!

After half a mile along the coast the road turned inland a little again. To my right was another dead-end road heading back to the coast at The Haven. I had decided it was lunch time, but I didn’t want to stand beside the road or sit on the grass (it was damp) so I decided to head down this so I could sit on the beach and have lunch. At the bottom there was an old concrete slipway which looked disused and rocky and shingle beaches. However it was a very windy day and I was glad that the cliffs provided some shelter from the wind.

The Haven, Scarfskerry

After lunch I returned back up the dead-end road. Just as I did so I spotted a footpath sign just after the house nearest the harbour. This pointed along the coast over a stone stile, but beyond it was overgrown. I followed it for a short distance in front of the houses after which there seemed to be no visible route. Like so many footpaths in Scotland it seems to exist as a sign only!

The Haven, Scarfskerry

I made my way with difficult along the cliff top until I reached a couple of isolated houses on the map at “Kirk o Banks”. Here there was not room to get between these houses and the cliffs so I had no choice but to drop down onto the beach.

Near Scarfskerry

I managed to follow the rocks at the back of the beach around the corner only to come to a fast-flowing stream (Burn of Rattar). This looked tiny on the map but it was too wide to step or jump across and the water was flowing rapidly.

The Burn of Rattar

It might have been possible to wade through, but the water was dark enough I couldn’t see to the river bed, so I decided against that. Frustrated, I headed back to the houses and followed the access road that serves them back to the road. Defeated again, I headed back to the road and turned right to cross the stream on the bridge and continued on the road heading south west along the road, passing Ratter House.

The Burn of Rattar

At the end of the road I came to a T-junction by an isolated school where I could turn right and head back to the coast to the hamlet of Ham.

Here there was a large old mill now sadly derelict.

Ham

I often wonder who owns these places and why they end up simply abandoned. Here I headed down onto the beach for a short rest and snack stop.

The beach at Ham Berry, Caithness

The beach at Ham Berry, Caithness

It was again nice to get off the road and out of the wind. Whilst I sat and planned my route again the bus again went past. My planned route was to continue west along the road to Brough and the B855. Here I had a decision to make. I could make this a short walk by turning left along the road and in a little over a mile I’d be back at Dunnet. Or I could turn right and try to make my way around Dunnet head, but there was no path marked. In truth the short option meant a walk that was a little too short whilst the route around Dunnet head was really too long.

I set off, deciding on the way. It was a rather dull walk west along the road. As I was walking along I was caught in another heavy shower. As I was nearing the first of the houses of Brough I sheltered in the edge of some low trees and bushes in the right under my umbrella. As I did so a car came past, but soon stopped, then the reverse lights came on and they reversed back to me to offer me a lift! (This is something that I’ve since found happens quite often in the Highlands). I thanked them very much but said that I thought it was about to stop raining so I was fine, which they accepted and drove on. Shortly after the rain did ease and so I set off again, but shortly after I’d set off, another car went past me, stopped, then came back to offer me a lift again! This time I explained I was about to turn off the road anyway so there was no need.

Whilst I was genuinely grateful I was also a bit concerned I was now going to find every car passing stopping to offer me a lift if the rain kept up! Soon I had reached the B855 and turned right along it, signed to “Dunnet Head Viewpoint”.

The A836

Although a B-road it was not much busier as it only went to Dunnet head, which is a dead-end. To my right I soon passed a pretty little bay with high cliffs, a few rock stacks and an old pier.

Near Scarfskerry

It seemed unnamed and I’m not sure what it was for, though at the end of the bay a little dead-end road headed down to the base of the cliffs and the sliproad.

This also marked the point where the road turned left, away from the coast. If I wanted to get to Dunnet Head the easy, but boring way, is to follow the road to the end (at the lighthouse), and come back the same way, but I was hoping to take a more coastal route. So I was very pleased to come across a proper footpath sign pointing north and signed as “North Highland Way”. Well I’d heard of the West Highland Way so assumed this was another long distance walk. So I followed this.

Things started well enough as I found a narrow and rather overgrown path. However ahead I reached a fence where there was no path ahead and a crossing of a fence left. I decided to keep ahead and soon reached a small little stream, Burn of Sinnigeo. Here there had clearly once been a bridge, which was presumably the route of the footpath. I say once though as the planks going left to right had entirely rotted away, leaving only the north-south planks at either edge of the bridge, now decayed and rotting too. I gingerly made my way across hoping it would not give way under me. It didn’t, but by now I’d lost all confidence this was a well walked path as the only hint of any path at all was this broken bridge.

I struggled on for a while with no visible path through overgrown heather and long grass making slow and difficult progress. Can you see a path? Neither can I!

Dunnet Head

Dunnet Head

I felt like I was getting nowhere and when I could see higher ground to my left I made for it in the hope I might spot some sort of path. If not, I was either going to have to head back or cut inland to the road. I found a very feint barely visible path and began to follow that. I kept losing it, but would eventually spot it again. As I headed slightly more easily north the path gradually widened until it was quite obvious.

Dunnet Head

Dunnet Head

I was not sure if it was formed by people walking or sheep, but I was glad to find it. I kept to this path over the undulating hills. I had to jump across a few small streams but soon I could make out the lighthouse ahead of me. I was pleased about this as I knew if nothing else I could join the road here and walk back.

As I neared the lighthouse I could see other people about and my path widened as it ran alongside the edge of an old dry-stone wall.

Dunnet Head

Soon I head reached the lighthouse and the road leading to it. I went up for a closer look.

Dunnet Head Lighthouse

This mark another mile stone. This is in fact the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland and so I head reached another compass point – the most northerly point. It would have been nice to go inside the lighthouse, but sadly it is not open to the public. The houses that were once the keepers cottages are now all private.

Dunnet Head

Having reached the end of the road and the well walked path past the lighthouse it was time to decided on how to get back. Having found the path on the eastern side of the head I was feeling more confident. I was hoping for a similar path on the west side. First I could see a path ahead on the other side of the fence, so I climbed over the fence and continued along the path next to the remains of a sign that probably once told you not to climb over the fence.

Dunnet Head

Once again there was a very feint narrow path. I occasionally lost it, but soon spotted it again after a few metres. Now I was on the west side of the headland I was exposed to the full force of the very strong wind, too.

Dunnet Head

Dunnet Head

Soon I reached Shira Geo where a couple of waterfalls were marked on the map. This turned out to be more of a problem them I might have expected, as the wind seemed to be blowing the waterfall up and back over the ground, making it like walking through a heavy rain shower!

The west coast of Dunnet Head

Having made it over here I got caught in another heavy but brief rain shower. The going ahead was difficult as I kept coming across boggy areas and streams to cross, which took me some time to find the easiest route. I made slow but steady progress.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

The various “Geos” marked on the map turned out to be deep rocky inlets that I head to head a bit inland to get around, as the cliffs either side were near enough vertical.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

The west coast of Dunnet Head

I passed several more waterfalls blowing upwards and got pretty wet at each of these.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

The west coast of Dunnet Head

I passed the streams feeding Sanders Loch and Nether Sandser Loch which were not a problem. I felt like I should be nearing the road now but when I stopped to check the map I realised I had badly under-estimated the distance and still had miles to go. This was proving to be a hard walk, I was tired now but I estimated at the current rate of progress it would take me another 2 hours or so to get back to my car.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

At one point I ended up on a higher path and had to drop down to a lower path I could see ahead. After a while I seemed to be running along what was once a fence, but all that remained was the odd rotted wooden post.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

Ahead I could see a large loch, Loch of Bushta and was worried about getting around the coastal side of this.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

As I neared it, I again ended up on the higher path and head to make a tricky descent to a more obvious lower path. It was spectacular coast and although tired I was really enjoying it now.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

The west coast of Dunnet Head

The west coast of Dunnet Head

As it happened the water out of the loch did not prove difficult to cross. Once past this the cliffs got lower and I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice are of sandy beach ahead, it reminded me a little of west Cornwall.

The west coast of Dunnet Head

Dwarwick, Caithness

I passed through another shower whilst my path passed through some bracken to end up on the low cliffs above this lovely sandy beach with large pebbles at either end. There was a path down to this beach but I was tired now and just wanted to get on, so I continued ahead.

Dwarwick, Caithness

IMG_0292

I had one more hill to climb and then ahead was the very welcome site of the road.

Dwarwick, Caithness

Dwarwick, Caithness

I now just had an easy path to follow down to the small car park at Dwarwick Pier (I had considered parking here this morning and now wished I had). I stopped for a much needed rest at one of the picnic benches here. After a nice 10 minute rest I continued up the road.

Dwarwick, Caithness

I knew I only had a mile or so go go now. At the road junction a museum was marked. This turned out to be a couple of very pretty cottages that reminded me a bit of the Isle of Man. I presume they are now a museum and sometimes open, but they weren’t at this time, but then it was gone 6pm so perhaps no surprise. Once was called Mary Ann’s Cottage. The museum was by the road junction and here I could turn right and follow this back to the A836 and my car just beyond it.

Mary Ann's Cottage, Dunnet

I was shattered and was grateful of the warm dry seat it offered! After polishing off the last of the drinks I had left, I made the short-ish drive back to Thurso and my not very nice hotel, where I had dinner in the hotel bar (the bar was at least better) and then returned to my room for a rest. With all the rain and blowing waterfalls I had got wet feet. Fortunately although basic my room did have a hair dryer. Being I man I don’t use it for it’s intended purpose but instead used it to dry out my shoes ready for the next days walking!

Despite the long length I had walked I was pleased to have made it and to have completed such a long walk over difficult terrain. This was really a walk of two halves the first mostly along roads around the various villages, which was not that interesting and the second the difficult walk over Dunnet head, but with some really stunning scenery on the way. Despite the difficulty, it had been very beautiful scenery and a very enjoyable walk and I was very pleased to have passed the milestone of reaching the most northerly point of mainland Britain. (That means I now have the north west and west compass points to reach).

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk :-

Stagecoach Highlands bus route 80 : Thurso – Castletown – Dunnet – Brough – Greenvale – Scarfskerry – Mey – Gills Bay (road end) – Canisbay – John o’ Groats. Approximately 5 buses per day Monday – Friday and 4 per day on Saturdays. No service on Sundays. It takes around 25 minutes to travel between Dunnet and Gills Bay.

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

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5 Responses to 307. Gills Bay to Dunnet

  1. artieleblanc says:

    I am so much enjoying this series, and learning a great deal about the geography! Many thanks.

  2. 5000milewalk says:

    Hi Jon, my plan for this section was just up and down the B855, but now knowing there are paths along the east and west coast I’m not so sure. Given your experience would you recommend the paths? Perhaps one side but not the other?

    • jcombe says:

      I’m impressed you are making plans for this area already. I’d not recommend either path I’m afraid, though in my view the east side is a better bet if you only do one because it’s shorter from where you leave the road to reach the lighthouse and there is, in theory, a proper path (unlike the west side), part of the North Highland Way. It’s also a bit closer to the road if you want to give up and return to the road. However the path that is mean to exist on this side didn’t really seem to most of the way. (Though I still wonder if I somehow lost it and regained it later…)

  3. Sounds a bit frustrating! Lovely scenery as usual though.

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