309. Reay to Thurso

August 2017

For this walk I was staying in Thurso at the Weigh Inn Lodges, a pretty grim hotel though at least I was in the main “Lodge” building rather than the others which were more like sheds in the car park. I headed to the main hotel building for breakfast which was at least a decent breakfast and with nice views around the bay from the conservatory. The weather forecast today was poor with heavy rain showers, thundery at times, so I was expecting to get wet. However it was actually a nice sunny morning.

I decided not to bother with the car today. I was planning to take the bus to Reay but it was not until around 9:30am. Instead the hotel was about a mile west of the town centre and almost on the cliff top so I’d end up walking past it on the walk. So I decided instead to leave the car at the hotel and walk the mile or so of the coast to the centre of Thurso first. Then I’d take the bus to Reay and walk back to my hotel. So that is what I did. From the hotel I could quickly find a path to the cliff top and follow this east along a pleasant cliff top path passing a caravan and camping site on the right.

The coast at Thurso

The coast at Thurso

Soon I neared the end of the cliffs and I was pleased to see a promenade ahead.

The beach at Scrabster

I went down onto this but soon left this for the firm sands of the beach, as Thurso has a good beach.

The beach at Thurso

The beach at Thurso

As I neared the harbour I headed back to the promenade and then rounded the corner to follow the western bank of the river Thurso into the town centre.

Thurso harbour

I could see the ruined castle on the other bank and the river was very calm on this still morning. The arched bridge over the river was especially pretty in the low morning sun.

The River Thurso, Thurso

On reaching the bridge I headed into the town to get some lunch and then found the bus stop and waited for the bus.

Thurso

The bus arrived on time and I was pleased to find (as seems to be usual in the Highlands), it was a coach. I was surprised however to find that I was the only passenger! Not just at the start, but for the entire journey.

I got off the bus on the main street of Reay. Now one thing with this stretch of coast is that only a mile or so along the coast from Reay is Dounreay Nuclear Power Station. Actually I think the power station is now decommissioned, so I’m not sure exactly what goes on here, but I do now that it is a major employer with seemingly half the population of Thurso working there. In any case the establishment went right up to the cliff edge and stretches for about 1 mile. I quickly realised that there would be no access behind it on the cliff top and I remember fellow coastal walkers Colin and Rosemary getting questioned by police on the access road, so I decided to play it safe and stick to the road. Already I could see it ahead.

Dounreay

Unfortunately the road is an A-road, the A836 so it was quite busy and not a pleasant walk. I passed the turning for Shebster on the right at Bridge of Isauld and this is the point where the pavement ended. I continued along the road to Isauld Farm Cottages, a row of houses. After that it was really just a bit of a route-march along the road. I always walk quickly on roads generally because it’s easy underfoot and because it’s not pleasant so I’m keen to get off the road as quickly as possible.

I could see the large dome of the site looming large along with various other ugly and industrial buildings. After about a mile along this busy road I reached the first part of the site, Vulcan which is apparently part of the Ministry of Defence and a Naval Reactor Test Establishment, presumably related in some way to the nuclear power submarines.

Vulcan, Dounreay

As I reached the site entrance a car was waiting to pull out and seemed hesitant to do so. As I got nearer the driver opened the window and asked if I wanted a lift! It was a kind offer but I explained I was happy walking (he probably thought I was a bit odd) and so he drove on. I always feel slightly guilty turning down a lift (which is perhaps a bit odd), hoping the driver doesn’t think that I had declined the lift because I had decided they didn’t look trust worthy or I didn’t like their car or something when the reality is that I am choosing to walk.

I passed the main entrance and continued up the hill past the old airfield that is also part of the site.

Dounreay

The road climbed uphill now and I continued past the cottages one of which was marked as a post office, but isn’t any longer. Once I reached the road to Achreamie on the right which from the map meant I had, finally, reached the end of Dounreay and could think about reaching the coast. Just after this turning was a track heading for Wester Borrowston. I followed this towards farm buildings hoping to be able to continue on a track ahead to the coast, but I had to climb over fences to do it. It was as I was about to do this that I spotted the farmer (I presume?) in the field just ahead. So I decided not to risk it (whilst it’s not illegal, causing damage is and I worry the farmer will tell me I’ve damaged the fence in climbing over it) and instead returned to the road and turned left, passing an Animal Welfare Centre on the right, in a place called Balmore. Well I didn’t want this to be a walk along the A836 all the way back to Thurso. So at a farm on the right not long after the animal centre, I turned left.

I headed down the edge of the first field where there was a track. But this soon disappeared to be replaced with over grown grass which made for very hard going. I made it all along the various fields until just before the shore I had a barbed wire fence to get over (Scottish farmers seem to love this stuff, somewhere in Scotland a barded-wire salesmen is very rich). It took me a few attempts to do so, but eventually I made it over safely, trousers intact to the shore. It was a great relief once I did because there was a flat rocky ledge at the top of the low cliffs, making for quite an easy walk and also a bit of a worn path. The scenery too was good and got better and better.

The coast near Balmore, Caithness

I’m not a geologist but the cliffs was in layers with horizontal lines all across a bit like the circles in a tree. The path I was on whilst feint continued and the cliffs gradually got higher and made for some impressive scenery, with rocky ledges below the cliffs.

The coast near Balmore, Caithness

I’m not sure if these are natural ledges or the result of quarrying. No quarry is marked on the map here but some of the lines in the cliff look rather two straight to me to be natural.

The coast at Forss, Caithness

The coast at Forss, Caithness

Ahead I was nearing some wind turbines.

The coast at Forss, Caithness

Continuing along the cliff top path, which was now quite easy to follow I passed some old tree roots which looked to have been retreaved from the sea and put on the cliff top. For what purpose I didn’t know, it seemed a bit odd. As I approached the wind turbines there was a fence across the path, so I had to climb over it to continue. I was now in the area of wind turbines, which are quite noisy, close up. All along the coast are lots of rocky inlets, each marked as “Geo” with a differing name. They were impressive and I presume are formed when the sea erodes the cliffs to make caves and the caves then collapse, leaving a deep valley.

Ahead after the wind turbines I had come to Forss Business and Technology Park. It was an odd sort of place, many of the buildings looked derelict and all seemed run down. I couldn’t see much evidence of business going on and it seemed a rather out-of-the-way place to be building a business park, at the end of a dead-end road not really near anywhere.

I continued to find my way along the cliff tops to reach St Mary’s Chapel, though I had to climb over another fence to reach it. This is now in ruins, with the outer wall and a gable wall remaining, though a sign informed me it dated from the 12th Century.

St Mary's Chapel, Forss

Inside, the old chapel was full of grave stones and there was also the remains of another building (a house?) close by.

St Mary's Chapel, Forss

Another good thing here is that I was, at last, back on an official footpath. This links the chapel to the end of the road at Crosskirk with a bridge over the river, Forss Water. I was relieved to find this path as it meant I knew I could get through and would not have to turn back.

Thankfully as I approached the river I could indeed see the footbridge was present and correct.

Crosskirk, Caithness

The path descend down to the valley and soon reached the bridge, where an old metal sign was directed the way I had come to “St Mary’s Chapel Crosskirk, Ancient Monument”. I crossed the bridge which looked to have been recently replaced. Across the river there was a derelict old building, with no roof but a couple of diggers around it suggesting some building work was being done, whether to build a new building or repair this one I’m not sure.

Crosskirk, Caithness

Crosskirk, Caithness

A little further along the rocky bay here was another cottage this one still intact and looking to still be lived in. I went the coastal side of this, just squeezing in front of the fence and found a path along the cliff top again.

The coast near Crosskirk, Caithness

(You can see that odd rather desolate feeling “business park” surrounded by wind turbines on the cliff top beyond).

I passed more of these spectacular “Geo” inlets.

The coast near Crosskirk, Caithness

There was a small fence to climb over and then I had a good path along the cliff tops, which took me to a ruined chapel marked on the map. This was an odd sort of place, with just the graves remaining, but nothing of the church itself.

Remains of former chapel

(They are the things sticking up in the photo above).

Beyond this there was again a path marked on the map and I followed this approaching the farm at Mains of Brims. This was an ugly farm, with a couple of tall towers. As I neared this I turned left to walk and dropped down onto the beach to avoid walking through the farm yard (which you are mean to avoid under the Scottish access rights). The beach had flat pebbles and a few little areas of sand and another ruined building, this one marked as the remains of a castle.

Mains of Brims

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I think the square pile of stones in front of the ruined house may be the remains of the castle. If it is, there isn’t much left. If it isn’t, well then there must be even less left.

I was soon past the farm house which had clearly seen better days.

Mains of Brims

Once around this and away from the farm I returned to the grass behind the beach which soon began to climb up to low cliffs.

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

I had another couple of these “Geo” inlets to negotiate and here the stone walls were close to the cliff edge and surrounded by thick tufty grass, making the going hard and with nettles in the mix, too.

IMG_0143

I soon gave up with this and resorted to climbing the fence into the adjacent field ahead. There were cows in the first couple of fields (though they left me alone).

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

I was hoping to be able to find a route along the cliff tops all the way to Thurso now, the alternative was to walk a mile inland on the A836. Thankfully after these couple of fields the land was no longer farmed and became moorland.

Here there seemed to be a fairly easy path along the coast which I think is where sheep had walked and worn the grass to short grass, perfect for walking on. I was so glad I had opted to do this, the scenery was spectacular with caves and rock stacks galore.

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

I did come across a field cows too, but they were calm and left me alone to enjoy this amazing scenery. At one point when I did come to a dry-stone wall ahead I was pleased to see that a stile had been provided too, unusual given I wasn’t (too my knowledge) on a proper path.

The cliffs became increasingly high and near vertical. There were by now quite a few showers around I could see, but I managed to avoid them all.

The coast between Brims and Scrabster

I met plenty of sheep that had, I presumed, formed the path, too.

The coast near Scrabster

After a couple of miles of lovely walking I came to the disused quarry marked on the map. I had been a bit worried about getting around this. As it happens, the quarrying had left flat areas of rock I could easily walk through, there were no sheer drops and no fences, and just some sheep wandering about.

The coast near Thurso

It was also fully of rusty old bits of metal, some I presumed were left from the quarrying, but others looked as if they were cars that had been driven here and burnt out. I made my way through this quarry without any issue and continued on a path the other side.

IMG_0163

The sky was becoming increasingly dark now and I suspect it would not be long until I got wet. As I neared Thurso, the scenery became more spectacular, with rocky inlets, rocky islands and sheer cliffs.

Near Holborn Head

Near Holborn Head

There were also some blow holes where water would sometimes spurt out the top when there was a large wave. It was amazing scenery and I was so glad to have found this path to enjoy it.

Near Holborn Head

Holborn Head

In some places there was the start of one of these “Geo” where part of the cave had collapsed but there was still a land bridge, with a hole either side.

Holborn Head near Scrabster

Holborn Head

It was clearly well walked as it was worn to mud, clear evidence that this part of the coast was walked more often. It was impressive, if a little scary to look down such a steep sheer drop to the sea in a cave below. There was also a large cairn not much further along.

IMG_0186

I continued south from Holborn Head, now on a good path and soon I could see Thurso ahead and the lighthouse at Scrabster. Sadly this has closed as a lighthouse in 2003 and was now a private residence.

Holborn Head

I dropped down on the path just in front of the lighthouse and followed the access drive down to Scrabster.

Holborn Head lighthouse

Holborn Head lighthouse

This headed down to the ferry port at Scrabster, where ferries run several times a day to Stromness on the Orkney isles.

Scrabster Harbour

Here a proper footpath had been marked on the ground around the ferry port, with a sign directing you to walk this way, so I did. I continued along the road and was surprised how much traffic there was along this road. It’s the A9, but this is the very end of the A9, at the harbour. With no boat due I was surprised how much traffic there was. Wood seemed to be a major export with piles of logs piled up at the back of the port.

Scrabster Harbour

Just around the edge of the port I found steps down and a path leading to the beach. Fed up with the amount of traffic on the road, I decided to follow the beach instead.

The coast at Scrabster

This was easy to start with, as there was firm sand, but as I progressed this ran out to be replaced by stones and some lose rocks. As I was down here the rain that had been threatened soon began and got quite heavy.

I made my way along the beach which soon became difficult as it was all large lose pebbles. Worse, I came to a stream. I tried to follow it up inland to cross it but ended up at a World War II pillbox with no obvious route to the road beyond. I dropped back down to the beach, crossed this stream and then found steps back up to the cliff top the other side.

From here it was only about a 5 minute walk to my hotel, though I was by now quite wet. Thankfully the good thing at staying at a “Motel” like this is at least I don’t have to walk through reception dripping wet, but could go straight to my room (which was in the white building below rather than one of the “chalet” type buildings in front).

P1010843

The hair dryer in my room was useful to dry the worst of the dampness from my shoes!

This had been a good walk, after a slow start. A boring and not all that safe walk along the A836 for several miles past Dounreay, but after that I was able to find good paths across the cliff tops, and what stunning cliffs they were. The scenery here was fantastic and I was so pleased I had been able to find a route to take it all in, rather than sticking to roads, which would have been easier, but far less interesting. A shame I had dropped down to the beach at the end though, or I might have made it to my hotel before the heavens opened!

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

Stagecoach Highlands bus route 73 / 273 : Thurso – Janetstown – Shebster – IsauldReay.  3 buses per day Monday – Friday only (no weekend service). It takes around 25 minutes to travel between Thurso and Reay.

Stagecoach Highlands bus route 274 : Thurso – Forss Business and Technology Park – DounreayIsauldReay – Melvich – Portskerra – Strathy – Armadale – Bettyhill. 1 bus per day, weekdays only (no weekend service). This bus takes around 35 minutes to travel between Thurso and Reay, as it waits at Douneray for 10 minutes.

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

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3 Responses to 309. Reay to Thurso

  1. 5000milewalk says:

    Well done Jon, a good trek that one. I’ve edited my planned route along there now to reflect your success getting to the coast!
    Did you avoid the beach at Sandside, or is that to come in the next instalment? I was reading about several “nuggets” of highly radioactive nuclear waste being found on the beach, courtesy of the Dounreay NPS. I think I might give that beach a miss when I eventually get there. It’s really quite scary and depressing reading about the mess they made there over the years. I read the Wiki article you linked to.
    Great coastline though, and nice pictures of it.👍

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Paul and glad you found it useful too!

      Sandside is coming next time! I started from the A836 this time because that is where the bus stopped and next time I was coming from the west (where there is beach access to Sandside), so that will be on the next installment.

      I did walk along the beach. I did survive, but do now glow in the dark 🙂 (just joking of course). I did see a sign mentioning it at the car park but decided to take my chances, I wasn’t going to be digging in the sand just walking along it.

      • 5000milewalk says:

        I’ve recently attached a “samples bag” to my rucksack, where I collect shells and bits and bobs I find, but I think I’ll forego any squirrelling on Sandside beach!😁

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