The North Coast of Scotland: jaw-dropping landscapes and a rapidly increasing flow of tourists in motorhomes and cars “doing the 500”. The sheep probably don’t quite know what to make of it all…..
Overview: 3 days, 182 miles
After getting off the ferry at Scrabster, we drove back East the few miles to Kittiwake Cottage CL at Skarfskerry. We’d stayed there for a night before heading across to Orkney the previous week. At £6 (no electricity available) there was nothing not to like. From the CL, we could see the flag flying atop our next destination, the Castle of Mey.
The Castle of Mey has a long history dating back to the sixteenth century, but very few people who visit it nowadays are interested in any of that. The big draw here is the Queen Mother. For almost 50 years in the late 20th century, the Castle of Mey was the Queen Mum’s Scottish holiday home. She purchased it in the early 1950s following the death of her husband, George VI, and it was the only property she ever owned in her own right. The castle was in a terrible state when she bought it; it cost £100 which is the same as the quote the previous owner had received for demolishing the place. It took three years to renovate, after which she returned each year in August and October until the ripe old age of 101.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, which is a shame as it’s lovely. I’d say that it’s an enjoyable place to visit in much the same way as the Royal Yacht Britannia: there are no priceless antiques or paintings by the Old Masters, but you get to see private spaces that were used by the royals. This can be quite entertaining: at the Royal Yacht Britannia, my favourite object was somewhat battered copy of the popular game “Operation” (we had a copy of this back in the 70s). I imagine Prince Philip would have been hard to beat, though I have no idea how I’ve come up with that idea….
There’s a theme of “stubborn old lady” running through the Castle of Mey that many of us would recognise in our own elderly relations. A handrail that the Queen Mother refused to have installed was put in, on orders of her family, on a Sunday morning when she was out at church…. The carpets are threadbare throughout the property, with the exception of the living room, which has an exact copy of the original carpet gifted to her in the 1990s by the Queen. That reminded me of the time my parents spent many weeks trawling the shops in search of the exact same brown rug my grandparents had in front of the fire, all previous suggestions having been rejected as being a slightly different size, slightly different colour etc to the original threadbare article (any change seems to have been unthinkable at that point). Some problems in life are much easier to solve if you’re the Queen! The Queen Mother apparently refused to replace the carpet in the dining room (which actually has holes in it) on the grounds that it had been a gift from Queen Mary (her mother-in-law) way back in the mists of time and that you should never get rid of a gift!
Continuing the thrifty theme, we were amused that Queen Mum also had perhaps the oldest functioning appliances in Britain. The fridge is still going (never replaced as it still worked) and bizarrely, her TV and video combo was rented from Radio Rentals but was kept way beyond its original lifespan as she didn’t want to be bothered having to learn how to work a new one….
The Queen Mother’s book collection was by no means highbrow; there are a lot of novels by Dick Francis…. In terms of videos, think Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, and The Two Ronnies.
I think probably the best story we heard at the Castle of Mey, though, concerns the North West 500, the tourist route around the Highlands. It seems very popular nowadays; we’ve come across lots of people who are “doing the 500”. I’d just assumed that the Tourist Board had noticed the success of the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland and decided to come up with something similar (isn’t it funny how, if a tourist board draws a line on a map, people will follow it in their droves?)….
We were assured that no, the idea came fom Prince Charles. Yes, old big ears himself; he spends a couple of weeks at the Castle of Mey each August. The story gets better – apparently the inspiration came to him whilst listening to the Proclaimers (all together now: “Ah would walk five hundred miles and ah would walk five hundred more…….”). I can just picture him dancing round Highgrove singing that rousing ditty to his houseplants… It was a good idea, wherever it came from; visitor numbers at the Castle of Mey (and presumably, other tourist attractions on the route) increased 20% last year and another 20% this year.
The rest of Friday was spent attending to practical matters. SOK’s tanks had been filled / emptied at the CL; next we headed back to Wick for laundry, food shopping, diesel and LPG. There appears to be no LPG between Wick and Ullapool on the West coast, so it made sense to top up…. We were horrified to note that we got through just over £200 in our afternoon of reprovisioning. SOK is groaning under the weight of the new supplies, though, so it’ll be a cheap week ahead…..
Our overnight stop was at East Strathy beach, which had a lovely view, toilets, oh, and a graveyard (no sign of a church) complete with rainbow. Not a whiff of a ‘phone signal though….
On Saturday, our first port of call was the Strathnaver Museum, housed in what was once Farr parish church. We were now in “Mackay Country”, the traditional lands of Clan Mackay, which stretch right across to the North-West corner of Scotland:
The museum told the story of the Highland Clearances in the area. In 1819, when the area was owned by the Countess of Sutherland, clearance orders were read out from the pulpit of the church. In this area, over 300 families were moved from their homes. Some went to the coast, where they were purposefully given insufficient land as a way to force them to be more industrious, whatever that meant. Some emigrated and others moved to population centres further South.
In my family, there was a story peddled by my grandma (not the one with the brown fireside rug, the other one…) about how her parents came from opposite ends of the country, Cornwall and the far North of Scotland, met in the middle (Lancashire) and married. It would be a very sweet tale if it were true – as it turned out, both of her parents were born in the same Lancashire town where they met and married. Looking further back, though, one of my great grandparents was indeed of Cornish ancestry and the other had a great grandmother with surname Mackay who married in Glasgow in the 1830s, place of birth unknown (but no other known ancestors who could have come from anywhere near the North of Scotland). Hmmmm… Is it a fanciful tale? Or is there a grain of truth in there somewhere?
There’s another Pictish stone in the graveyard:
From Strathnaver, we continued West until we came across a brown sign pointing us towards “The Unknown”. Naturally, we followed it – who could resist discovering the unknown? It took us into Borgie Glen, about 3/4 mile down a forestry track to a parking area. From there it was a nice walk up a hill to discover The Unknown.
Naturally, as I got to about 100metres from The Unknown and pulled out my camera, the heavens opened (again!):
The Unknown is a modern sculpture by a chap called Kenny Hunter. A helpful sign at the car park attempted to explain that it’s all about
“outcasts” condemned to exist in remote or barren places. Scotland has an empathy with this tradition, indeed much of its history has been defined by characters and events marked by sacrifice and exile, such as William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highland Clearances.
What a depressing way of looking at things! When I think of Scotland, I think of haggis, bagpipes, Nessie, Billy Connolly and Wee Jimmy Krankie (not necessarily in that order….)…….
We couldn’t work out why The Unknown has a blue hand. That’s the trouble with modern art – it can be hard to work out what’s original (ie “artistic”) and what’s been added late (ie “vandalism”).
Mackay Country’s wild, rugged scenery:
Continuing West, we followed the route taken by poor Donald Mackay in the 1780s (one of our favourite tales from the museum). As a young lad of 13, he was offered money by some sailors to show them the way to Loch Eriboll, where they were to board a trading ship (Donald was lead astray in stages; this is the cut-down version!).
When they got to Loch Eriboll, they offered to show Donald their ship. What young Scottish lad could resist? They then set sail quickly, taking the hapless (and helpless) Donald with them. It was to be seven years before Donald managed to escape when a ship he was on went back to Loch Eriboll, and from there he made his way back home. Poor Donald! Apparently he’s buried in the churchyard at Farr, though as the rain was bouncing when we came out of the museum, we didn’t go hunting for his grave.
Saturday night was spent in another quiet little car park, this time at Rispond just to the East of Durness. Again, not a whiff of a ‘phone signal…..
On Sunday we had a look at Smoo Cave. The name Smoo comes from the Norse “smúga” which, unsurprisingly, means “cave”. The first chamber in the cave has been eroded by the sea. Over time, a sheltered inlet has formed as the cavern became deeper and successive parts of the roof collapsed:
This made Smoo an ideal location for the Vikings to build or repair boats: Viking ship nails, rivets, and metal slag have been found. The inlet was used by local fishermen right up until the 20th century.
The first chamber links into a second chamber, which has been formed in the limestone by the river. This second chamber is normally open to visitors, though it was closed when we visited due to all the recent rain (we could hear a waterfall thundering in there). Similarly, the tours that normally take visitors beyond the second cavern are not running at the moment for safety reasons.
It was thought by the locals that the Devil lived below Smoo Cave, resulting in some interesting tales. In one cheerful story, Donald McLeod, a henchman for the Mackay Clan, murdered 19 people and threw the bodies down the waterfall on the basis that no-one was likely to ever go looking down there. In a more fanciful tale, Donald Mackay (who may or may not have been the same Donald Mackay we met earlier) sent his dog into the cave to see if the Devil was home. The dog ran out again, terrified. The Sun then rose, leaving the Devil powerless, and in a fit of rage he blasted his way out through the roof of the cave. There is indeed a large blowhole in the roof of the cave, though quite how the Devil made this whilst supposedly powerless, or more to the point, what Donald and the dog had to do with it, was left unexplained.
More rain, and even some hail, on the way South:
Shortly thereafter, another sunny interlude! This is Loch Inchard, heading out towards Kinlochbervie:
We had been planning to spent Sunday night on the campsite at Scourie (£20 a night for two people with electricity, £16 without), but when we’d tried to ring them that morning, they hadn’t been answering their ‘phone. This turned out in our favour – down at Kinlochbervie, we spotted a sign to the “Loch Clash Stopover”. This turned out to be a lovely spot at a quiet harbour. £15 for the night with electricity, or if you just wanted to use the filling / emptying facilities, you were asked to make a donation at the Spar shop just up the road. Fabulous – we’ve put Loch Clash down as our second big discovery of recent days, after Prince Charles and the Proclaimers!
We donated a fiver, so that was £11 saved towards all that shopping we did on Friday at Wick! “Savings” are very thin on the ground in this part of Scotland (neither the National Trust nor Historic Scotland have anything at all to offer on the Scottish Mainland North of Ullapool) so we’re having to take our “savings” opportunities as we find them!
We found a nice free spot to spend Sunday night next to Kylesku Bridge:
Needless to say, there’s not a whiff of a ‘phone signal (hopefully, you’re starting to see a pattern here! We have been picking up bits of signal as we trundle along during the daytime, enough to know that there are no ongoing disasters back home).
The bridge was only built in 1984. Before that, if you missed the last ferry of the day, it meant a 100 mile detour to get to the other side. There’s a memorial by the bridge to the X-craft (midget submarine) crews who trained here during WW2:
From here, we’re heading further down the West coast. This is where we say goodbye to Mackay Country and Hello to whatever comes next…..