308. Thurso to Dunnet

August 2017

This was the first day of a 5 day trip to Scotland and I was stating from home so today’s walk was a little shorter due to first having to get to the north of Scotland from home in southern England. I had to make an early start from home first driving to Luton Airport. Even before 7am the traffic on the M25 was already queuing, (it being a weekday) but thankfully only in the other direction. The way I was going it was busy, but generally kept moving. However it’s always a relief when doing this journey to pull off onto the M1 because now I’m going north, away from London and away from most of the traffic, so things eased off. I parked in the long stay car park at Luton Airport and waited what seemed like an age for the bus to the terminal which seems to act as a local bus serving various industrial units (mostly aviation related) and the car hire centre before we were finally on the main road to the terminal. 

I had no problems through security and I was soon on my way to Inverness. It only takes a little over an hour to fly to Inverness, but that means 2 hours of standing in queues at the airport first. I’m not prepared to pay to choose a seat for such a short flight so I was pleased to get a window seat and get a view of the coast I had already walked as the plane approached Inverness airport. This is the coast just east of Nairn.

The coast east of Nairn

Inverness is a quiet airport though for some reason on arrival, despite arriving on a domestic flight we were directed to enter the terminal via the “International Arrivals” (which on most days is only used for the single daily international flight from Amsterdam) where we were all asked to produce photo ID. It was all very odd and I’m not sure what happened if you didn’t have any, as no documentation is required for internal travel. However I had my driving license and showed that, but it was an irritating and unnecessary delay.

Once into the terminal I headed straight for the car hire desk having previously had a long wait as they can’t really cope with a plane load of people arriving all wanting a hire car. This time I was given a black Vauxhall Corsa which I was happy with though I did find the glow from the radio screen slightly distracting when driving at night (there is probably a way to switch it off but I couldn’t be bothered to spend ages fiddling in menus).

I had quite a long drive ahead of me now, all the way to Thurso first via the A96 and then onto the A9 right to it’s very end at Thurso. This is quite a busy road and there were a couple of sections of road works where the speed limit was reduced to 30mph which slowed things down.

Other than that, things were going well until I got to Berriedale where I had got stuck behind a lorry. The road here heads down a series of hair pin bends almost to sea level, crosses a river and climbs steeply back up (I think some recent road works may have improved matters). It was on this climb back up that the HGV got slower and slower until on a steep bend, it stopped entirely, blocking both lanes of the road. The driver tried to reverse a short way back and try again. I think the road was simply too steep for this heavily laden vehicle to get up, at least not without a run-up. After siting stationary for nearly 10 minutes and the driver of the car behind coming to tell me that she thought he was stuck (no shit) the suggestion seemed to be for the lorry to try to reverse back and try again. I decided at this point, as it was gone 1pm to make a lunch stop. So I made a U-turn to lay-by up on the hill the other side of the village to have lunch in the car (which I’d bought at the airport) in the hope the truck had moved by the time I had finished. Thankfully this plan worked and when I drove back now the truck was gone and I made it to Thurso.

I had a bit of difficultly finding somewhere to park in Thurso. I passed a few parking areas but was not sure if they were private and belonging to a nearby Ford garage or were public, but beyond it I found a car park. I thought I was sorted until I spotted a sign that it was limited to a 2 hour maximium stay! So I turned around and found a few parking spaces beside the river which were free both in price and in vehicles parked there. At last, now into the early afternoon, it was time to get walking!

I headed from my parking area to the nearby bridge over the river Thurso and crossed the bridge to head east, I had never been to Thurso before.

The River Thurso

Thurso Harbour

Just across the bridge I passed a petrol station which had the warning sign outside “Last fuel for 50 50 miles southbound (A9)”. A reminder that I’m now in a pretty remote area. Once across I turned left, off the A9 on a road past a recreation ground and then some houses on the right. These soon gave way to some industry beside the harbour. As I continued north there was soon a bit of a beach to my left, pebbles and I was then following a path beside a wall with the ruins of a tower or castle ahead.

Leaving Thurso

As I got closer the tower turned out to be only part of the building it was clearly once an impressive home but it was derelict and roofless now. I’m quite surprised how many ruined buildings I come across in Scotland, some of them rather grand.

Ruin, Thurso

Ruin, Thurso

Once past this I continued on the feint path along the foreshore in front of some farm buildings. The beach itself seem to have something dumped on it. The left over from some industrial process perhaps?

The coast east of Thurso

Soon I rounded the corner, away from the river mouth and from Thurso. The path had more or less disappeared by now and I continued on the rough grass now on top of low clifs towards the sewage works – lovely! (Thurso wasn’t particularly impressing).

The coast here had low cliffs which looked a bit like slate, it was in layers with a shelf below the current cliffs presumably where they had been eroded over the years.

The coast east of Thurso

The coast east of Thurso

As I continued to head east there were numerous little inlets and caves forming. I continued along the sometimes rough grass, (though in places it was short) to a little bay at East Lug of Tang (interesting name!). This was mostly rock but it was still quite pretty.

The coast east of Thurso

I continued east along the rough grassy and low cliff tops passing Clardon Haven, another rocky beach this time with beach access, where I stopped for a brief rest.

The coast east of Thurso

The coast east of Thurso

The coast east of Thurso

Fed up of the rough grass I dropped down onto the beach and decided to see if I could reach the start of Murkle Bay ahead, which was marked as sandy on the map, around on the rocks and beach.

The coast east of Thurso

The coast east of Thurso

I soon regretted this decision as the rocks became flat, smooth and slippery, but mixed in with a few lose stones and rocks too. I made my way around the base of the cliffs very carefully and slowly, but at least the cliffs were low enough I could have climbed them if needed, but this wasn’t needed. Soon I was on the beautiful white sandy beach at Murkle Bay.

Murkle Bay, Caithness

Three layers of “Dragons Teeth” could be seen in the dunes, presumably left from World War II.

Murkle Bay, Caithness

Murkle Bay, Caithness

Mine were the only footprints on the sand at this beautiful beach too, which I was surprised by. In the middle of the beach, as I had seen from the map, there was a stream flowing out. Soon I had reached it and it was wider than I had expected.

Murkle Bay, Caithness

So it was shoes and socks off time as I went through the water, though it was little more than ankle deep, it was cold. Once over this I continued on the beach.

Murkle Bay, Caithness

It soon started to become rockier as I headed east with just a thin strip of sand near the back of the beach.

The coast near Castletown

After a while it became mostly rocks and only a bit of sand, mixed in with some pebble and rock sections, so my pace slowed. The cliffs were only low here and the map suggested there might be a path, but if was very rough so I soon decided the rocky foreshore was the least worst option.

The coast near Castletown

The coast near Castletown

The land almost merged to the coast here, it just seemed that the back of the beach just became grassy and later fields!

The coast near Castletown

The coast near Castletown

Soon I could see the buildings at the edge of Castletown ahead. Oddly they too seemed to be mostly derelict (though most of the town is half a mile or so inland).

Castlehill, Castletown

There was now a good path too, so I left the beach to follow this and continued to the harbour. The harbour was small and looked shallow with a single fishing boat and a couple of pleasure boats, but I liked how we’d ended up with a blue boat, red boat and a yellow car on the harbour wall behind, it was very colourful.

Castlehill Harbour, Castletown

Castlehill Harbour, Castletown

I rounded the harbour and continued along the foreshore. Ahead of me was a sandy beach and I was looking forward to it, especially now the weather was improving too.

The coast at Castletown

It stretched for around a mile and a half north so I knew it would be an easy route and I hoped a beautiful one, too. Dropping down to the beach when I could I was soon on the slightly stony sand at this end of the beach.

Dunnet Bay

Dunnet Bay

Dunnet Bay

Ahead I knew there was another stream. This one turned out to be narrower than expected and with numerous stones sticking up above the water I was able to make it across without taking my shoes off and without wet feet, which was a bonus.

Dunnet Bay

Now I just had a lovely walk along this beach. A few people had been here today, judging by the footprints, but very few as there weren’t many footprints. Roughly mid way along the beach was another stream to cross. This one was a bit deeper so I took my shoes of again to wade this one, though it was not much more than ankle deep. Once across it was lovely walking along the beach.

Dunnet Bay

Easy underfoot, fresh air and the sound of the waves next to me, it was wonderful.

Dunnet Bay

Near the north end of the beach where there was a campsite and visitor centre there was path up to the road, which I took.

I had deliberately planned this walk for my first day as it was short and there was a reasonably frequent bus service between Thurso and Dunnet including two buses an hour apart in the early evening. I knew that later in the week I’d be relying on buses that run just once a day!

I’d made better time than expected and was now following the pavement beside the road into the village of Dunnet, just in time to catch one of these buses.

The A836 at Dunnet

As I headed towards the village I thought I had 5 minutes before the bus was due but before I’d reached the first of the buildings I saw it coming down the road! It must be early. I was not going to make it to the village centre, so my only hope was to cross the road, stand on the grass verge and flag down the bus in the hope it would stop. Thankfully it did, although I’d have had only an hour or so wait if it didn’t so it wouldn’t have been a disaster.

The bus was actually a comfortable coach and I sat back and enjoyed the views of the coast I’d just been walking. As I settled into my seat I checked the bus times and realised I’d remembered the time incorrectly, the bus was actually on time and had been due 5 minutes earlier than I thought!

(For any pedants that have noticed – when waiting getting off the bus in Castletown the next day, which is actually the previous walk I wrote up I did go back and walk the short bit of road (about 100 metres) that I missed between Castletown and where the bus stopped for me today so as not to leave any gaps in my walk However you can see all there was to see really on the photo above taken a few seconds before the bus came around the corner).

It was nice to make it back to Thurso before it was too late in the evening as I was tired after my early start and didn’t want to be eating too late. This part of the town looked a bit nicer, too.

Thurso

Ruined church, Thurso

I headed back from the bus stop to my hired car, which was now all alone and drove the short distance along the coast to my hotel, The Weigh Inn Hotel about a mile to the west of the town centre at the junction with the A9 and A836.

Once again I’d really struggled to find accommodation for this trip. It seems the Highlands of Scotland is very popular (it being especially popular with Americans and, increasingly, Chinese from my observations) along with the North Coast 500 which has bought even more people it means accommodation gets all booked many months in advance. That means finding somewhere to stay can be very tricky. I had come this particular week simply because it was about the only time I could find a hotel anywhere in Thurso where I could spend the whole 5 days, most seemed to be either full or only had vacancies for one or two days at a time (and this was at the time of booking, six months earlier, back in February).

There does seem to be a real shortage of accommodation in the north of Scotland where demand seems to far exceed supply. That means hotels don’t have to try that hard to fill rooms and unfortunately that means many don’t. Think very dated and run-down rooms. That was the case for me. The main building of the hotel only has 16 rooms all “deluxe” according to the website. However the main building was fully booked. Instead I had ended up in what the hotel describes as a “Basic Standard” room which I was told is “not star-rated” and located in the separate “lodge” building. I think the hotel is as much a motel as hotel as more of the rooms seemed to be located either in this “lodge” building or flat-roof wooden buildings that looked a little like chalets, as seen on Google (I think I dodged a bullet not ending up in one of those). All the “lodge rooms” have doors going straight outside (either at ground level or an upper walkway with outside stairs) so it is like a motel really. Whilst not all that expensive at £60 a night I also didn’t consider it to be especially cheap given what was on offer (albeit it did include breakfast) and what I had been paying (considerably less) for nicer rooms at Travelodge or Premier Inn hotels further south.

On entering my room there was a small hall where one door led to the bathroom and the other the room. The bathroom had plastic panels as the wall, like a caravan. The shower screen was cracked and the extractor fan was broken, and it was cold (I later found the bathroom had no heating).

The main room wasn’t much better. It was a good size but the furniture was all mixed and looked like it was from a house clearance! One of the drawers in the chest of drawers was off the runner and a couple of the knobs off the front were missing. It smelt funny, not dirty, just odd (probably the cleaning chemicals used) and the curtains from one of the windows draped down onto the pillows of the bed, so you end up opening the curtains a bit when turning over a night!

The only heating was a dented and very battered electric heater on the wall of the bedroom, but it did at least work. In short, it was pretty grim. There was a small TV but no Wifi. My “welcome” was a rather aggressively worded letter left beside the TV that warned that people had been smoking in the rooms and the penalties for doing so. I don’t smoke so that wasn’t going to be happening but I was surprised to find this hotel did actually offer smoking rooms still (I thought that was long gone), so was glad I hadn’t been allocated one of those.

I was not impressed. Despite this, I headed to the hotel bar for dinner, I was tired, it was getting late and I couldn’t be bothered to walk the mile or so back to Thurso or drive back. Thankfully the bar was in the main building and whilst still a little basic, the food was reasonable and the beer welcome. I sat in the nice conservatory where I was away from the noisy bar and could enjoy views over the bay and to the harbour. Still despite the poor hotel I was looking forward to what the next few days had in store for me!

This was a walk of two halves. The first part, getting out of Thurso was not all that interesting but as I headed east things improved greatly. I enjoyed the sandy beach at Murkle Bay and especially the beach at Castletown which was a gorgeous sandy beach that stretched for well over a mile and made a nice finale to the walk. The low cliffs in between were also nice, if not spectacular.

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 hourly Monday – Friday between Thurso and Castletown. 6 buses per day on Saturdays. No service on Sundays. It takes about 15 minutes to travel between Thurso and Castletown.

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

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1 Response to 308. Thurso to Dunnet

  1. I think it’s a bit daft that they’ve marketed the north coast 500 so much without actually improving infrastructure to match. Nice walk though!

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