Eilean nan Ron - Island of the Seals: 700 acres of heather and rock poised atop 200 ft high cliffs, one mile offshore from the entrance to the Kyle of Tongue. Between 1820 and 1938, this was home to several hardy, God-fearing families, whose houses can still be seen from Skerray. The islanders lived in rugged harmony with the sea, and raised sheep, cattle, and crops - a tough but fulfilling life. This picture shows the island as it might have appeared then, with smoke in the chimneys and the Girl Katherine and other boats going home from the day’s fishing. The teacher in the wee school would be ending the lessons for the day, having given her few pupils a glimpse through their studies of a wider world beyond their rocky haven - a world that was, sadly, for all its wonders, soon to bring an end to their peaceful island life.
Looking westwards from the high cliffs of Faraid Head, we saw dark clouds rushing in from Cape Wrath and knew we were in for a wetting. Our dash for shelter in the caves on Balnakiel Beach were in vain, but the view of the storm from sea level was ample compensation. A few minutes later the sun was shining again and the white curve of sand cut like a blade between the sparkling blue of the sea and the fresh green of the headland. The storm was less severe than it had appeared, despite coming from Cape Wrath - but, then, Cape “Wrath” is nothing to do with anger; the name derives from the Old Norse “Hvarf”, meaning “Turning Point”. It was at Cape Wrath that the Viking longships turned south for the west coast. Sutherland, this northernmost of mainland counties, is, in fact, the “Southland” of the Vikings. Things are not always as they appear, and there are compensations for every storm - though they may not always be apparent beforehand.
One of the best deepwater anchorages in Britain, Loch Eriboll reaches 10 miles inland between high ridges of quartzite and Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Europe. The islands in the loch are limestone, and a quarry dug on the wasp-waisted peninsula of Ard Neackie served 4 lime kilns built in Victorian times beside the Ard Neackie jetty. From here, a ferry used to cross to Portnancon on the opposite shore, where an earth house and a wheel house indicate settlements as early as the Iron Age. Today, you have to drive around the loch - no great hardship in such magnificent surroundings. In World War II, however, seamen nicknamed this place “Lock ‘Orrible”, because it was here that the Russian and Atlantic convoys assembled prior to sailing. In their eyes, Loch Eriboll was more of a prelude to danger and death than a present gift of beauty and life.
The most north-westerly golf course on the British mainland, Durness Golf Club opened in 1988. This highly acclaimed course was designed by 3 of the Club members. They laid out its 9 holes with a second set of tees so that the feel is more that of an 18-hole course. To have a second chance to enjoy the expansive views of Foinaven, Balnakiel Bay and Faraid Head is no great hardship! The current course record stands at 69, with the 9th/18th hole (pictured) being the most memorable. At high tide, this 108/155 yard hole involves a stroke across the Atlantic - while those relaxing in the Clubhouse watch with keen anticipation! It is a friendly Club in an exquisite setting, and visitors are welcome all through the year.
This view from near Badcall on the west coast of Sutherland looks across Loch Inchard to the quartzite ridge of Foinaven (2989ft; 911m) and the eroded dome of Arkle (2583ft; 787m). Two racehorses were named after these mountains. Both were Grand National winners, but whereas Arkle was the better horse, Foinaven is, in the eyes of most, the better mountain. On the day of this painting, the browns and ochres of the hills were burnished by the low Winter sun, but the shadows were strangely brightened by crisp white frost. It was as if a greater Artist had not yet painted in the dark tones of cliffs and gulleys - as if Creation itself were not quite finished. This ancient landscape, with its antique etchings of walls and buildings from past generations, seemed invigorated with light that sparkled as if newly minted.
There’s a lot of sky in Sutherland! It dominates the mountains instead of being crowded out by them, and is reflected in thousands of lochs and lochans. In this view from Clar-loch Mor on the Bettyhill-Tongue road, even the 2507ft “Queen of Scottish Mountains”, Ben Loyal, seems humbled by the overarching clouds. Whether pristine blue or swirling with cloud, milky with mist or glowing with the northern lights, the sky dominates the lives of people too. It can raise spirits or depress them; exhilarate or enervate. Such power to influence is remarkable given that the sky is really little more than the effect of invisible energy upon unseen particles!
Durness is the most north-westerly village on the British mainland, isolated to the east by the deep sea inlet of Loch Eriboll and to the west by the sinuous sands of the Kyle of Durness. The coastline is spectacular, ranging from broad clean beaches to forbidding cliffs and the triple-chambered, waterfall-delved cavern of Smoo Cave with its cathedral-like entrance - the largest in Britain. The cave is a result of complex geology in this region. Surrounding Durness, the underlying rocks are Lewisian gneiss and quartzites which create rugged, often bleak, vistas culminating in the cliffs and high moors of nearby Cape Wrath. Durness itself, however, rests upon a narrow wedge of limestone which creates an altogether gentler and greener landscape, unusual so far north. What lies beneath the surface is important.
One of the most delectable short walks in an area full of natural beauty is a half-mile, little-known path off an un-numbered byway off a minor “A”-road. It is the anglers’ path along the west bank of the Kinloch River at the head of the Kyle of Tongue. Raise your eyes above the translucent water and the lichen-shaggy trees, and your view is dominated by the towers and ridges of 2507ft Ben Loyal, looking almost Himalayan in stature because you are seeing it from sea level at a distance of less than three miles. On the riverbank itself, amid glorious colour and scintillating light, you may catch a glimpse of a heron or a fisherman, and if so, you can consider the place busy today. What you will not see are any driven people dashing from A to B to fulfil goals and desires. The Kinloch Riverbank is a special place for wayfarers with time to stand and stare, enjoying the simplest and best of delights.
Dale Mill stands by the River Thurso just north of Westerdale Bridge and just south of Dale House, which dates from around 1740. An earlier big house probably stood on the same site, but people have lived here for millenia. The ruins of eight iron-age brochs roughen the smooth local landscape, and the broch-like tower of a beehive dovecote in a walled garden alongside the river dates from the 17th century. In a county strewn with ancient remains, the Mill is a picturesque but outwardly unremarkable building. Although it was originally built to grind grain, however, a water-powered generator was installed in 1919 to provide electric power for Dale House. This pollution-free idea was way ahead of its time, and the house storage radiators are still powered by that generator today, unlikely as it may seem from the Mill’s rustic exterior. It is so easy to mis-judge from outward appearance.
Though modest in height at only 2399ft (731m), Suilven is spectacular in appearance. From the west it looks like a massive tower; from the east, a slender spire; and from north and south, a jagged ridge rising from steep crags. The surrounding rough moorland is pierced by the underlying bedrock of Lewisian gneiss, but Suilven itself is built from horizontal bands of weathered sandstone. It is hard to believe that this mountain is the result of natural processes, yet it is the surrounding landscape that is less natural as it is carefully managed to encourage grouse and deer for shooting. The Lake District fells are likewise modified by sheep grazing. Such sensitive human interaction with the land produces most of the “natural” scenery we all value so much.
Built as a sporting lodge by the Duke of Sutherland in the early 1800s, the Tongue Hotel looks out over Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, and the sand-strewn waters of the Kyle of Tongue.
Inside, the Hotel combines comfort and nostalgia with good food and a warm welcome. Situated on Scotland’s spectacular north coast, it is a long way from the noise and pressures of modern life.
It really is well “worth the journey”.
The wee bothy of Arnaboll stands beside Loch Hope and marks the location of a small settlement that stood on the main route between the Kyle of Tongue and Loch Eriboll before the tarmac road came into being. A walled cemetery stands on the hillside above the cottage, close to the ruins of the main part of the hamlet. Alongside Loch Hope, more ancient remains in the form of burial mounds mark even earlier settlements. Today, the cottage is maintained and used by Durness Primary School, giving modern children a chance to experience a simpler and more energetic way of life.
This is the view northwards from the mouth of the River Hope along the coast towards Whiten Head. The shepherd’s cottage at Inverhope marks the end of the track, but another rough 4 miles or so of adventurous tramping along steep hillsides and across turbulent streams brings you to the remote bothy of Freisgill, where a shepherd and his family used to stay for several weeks of the year. Beyond Freisgill, the cliffs towards Whiten Head become ever more dramatic, the complex geology producing folded strata, sea stacks, caves, and natural arches which echo to the moan and sigh of a thousand seals. The postman used to walk this route twice a week to deliver mail to Freisgill when the shepherd was in residence. He would certainly have been rewarded for literally going the extra mile with refreshment at Freisgill, and hopefully the beauty of the landscape would also help compensate for his aching feet.
It is strange how the severest of conditions that cause hardship and suffering can also produce the most sublime beauty. This midwinter day on the Kyle of Tongue took one’s breath away - literally because of the cold, and figuratively because of the splendour. It felt and looked more like the High Arctic than the north of Scotland, especially when pancake ice appeared on the sea surface a few days later. Scenes like this are a glorious compensation for the short winter days.
Sandwiched between Torridonian sandstone and Lewisian gneiss, the rocky north bay at Clachtoll is a magnet for geologists. The sandy southern beach attracts seekers of serenity. This beautiful curve of white sand with its scattered crofting community is probably named after the dramatic split rock on the southern headland. In Gaelic, “clach” is “rock” and “toll” means “hole”. Evidence of earlier, more strenuous, occupation may be seen in the remains of an iron-age broch to the north, and the salmon bothy, ice-house, and net-drying poles between the 2 halves of the bay. This salmon fishery operated until 1994 - the last on the west coast. There is also a memorial to beloved preacher Norman Macleod, born in Clachtoll in 1780, who led his flock of over 800 souls to Canada, Australia, and finally New Zealand, during the Clearances. Today, Clachtoll is a haven of peace - a place in which to relax, fall in love - even propose marriage. Its turbulent past is mostly hidden beneath a veil of scenic tranquility.
Lochan Hakon is a golden loch - and not necessarily in just a figurative sense. In 1746, a small Jacobite force was captured here by the local Mackays as it fled south from a shipwreck in the Kyle of Tongue to bring aid to Bonnie Prince Charlie, just three weeks before the Battle of Culloden. Legend has it that some of the £70 000 in gold they were carrying was cast into the still, shallow waters. If so, it has remained elusive. The only treasure pulled from the waters since then is the silvery glint of trout caught by happy fishermen. Beyond the lochan, the syenite towers of Ben Loyal recall more ancient gold - that of the magma from which this Queen of Scottish Peaks is formed. But on a clear winter’s day, the whole view is a treasure - whether you are fishing, walking the dog, or simply gazing in awe.
This remote and rugged stretch of coast, between the bothy at Freisgill and the cliffs of Whiten Head, is almost surreal in appearance. Peat bogs at sea level fade into green, sheep-cropped turf, alongside beaches of white boulders which abut against layered rock which twist up into some of the highest sea-cliffs on Mainland Britain. Strangely, younger rocks of Durness limestone and quartzites are overlain by older layers of Lewisian gneiss. This anomaly is a consequence of the Moine Thrust, named for this area, and it makes this coast a geologist’s dream - or nightmare - depending on the calibre of the geologist! Everywhere, the rock strata are folded and twisted, and gnawed by the sea into caves and arches and stacks. In October, the rough beaches are strewn with Atlantic grey seals and their pups, whose mournful cries echo around the geos. It is an untamed landscape, where a straggle of decayed fences and the old bothy only serve to enhance the sense of wildness.
The dramatic north-east corries of Foinaven, divided by the buttressed ridge of A Ch’eir Ghorm, are rarely visited. They lie hidden above the long cleft of Strath Dionard and face the steep white screes of Cranstackie and Conamheall, across whose gritty shoulder the two climbers are making their way in this painting. At just under 3000 feet, Foinaven misses out on Munro status, and so its narrow quartzite ridges remain peaceful, whether the mountain is bathed in sunshine or wreathed in mist. To climb up into the clouds on such unfrequented slopes can be scary, but it brings exciting glimpses of vapour-veiled crags backed by distant lochans, softly framed in luminous mist. But the greatest reward, perhaps, is the confidence gained by one’s ability to navigate in such conditions, and to overcome the fear of the unknown, which assails us whenever our senses are compromised. It really can be a case of walking by faith, not by sight.
Follow the twisting, single-track road through the various coastal settlements that make up Melness, and you come to the road end at Dalvraid in the quiet, peaty valley of Strath Melness. It’s not a place you expect to find a gorge and waterfalls, nor are these scenic attractions apparent from the small car park. But a short walk south-east over the rough moorland falling from the flanks of Ben Hutig brings you suddenly to the edge of a narrow ravine which hides Bell’s Pool and its two waterfalls. Small trout dart and hover in the crystal clear waters, dappled by the rowan and silver birch that cling to the surrounding rocks. There are lovelier waterfalls and ravines, but the beauty here is enhanced by the bleakness of the surrounding moorland. Tumbling water and tree-tangled crags are a surprise in such a place - like finding hidden talent and qualities in someone condemned as plain and mundane.
In five or so turbulent miles, the River Shin connects Loch Shin at Lairg to the coast at the Kyle of Sutherland near Bonar Bridge. For much of its short length the river flows through a wooded gorge, the highlight of which is the Falls of Shin. Here there are forest walks, children’s act-ivities, a visitor’s centre, and a viewing platform from which Atlantic salmon can be watched as they attempt to leap the falls. Their determination to succeed is testimony both to the power of the fish and to the strength of the olfactory memory of the freshwater shallows where they were spawned several years before. Such early influences have a profound effect on future directions in life - and not just for salmon. Parents and teachers have an awesome responsibility and privilege as they impart moral direction to the next generation.
Just south of John o’Groats, the Devonian Old Red Sandstone of Caithness is weathered into these magnificent 200ft high cliffs at Duncansby Head. There are three sea stacks: Muckle, Peedie, and Tom Thumb, accessed by a scramble through the Thirl Door at the foot of what may one day be a fourth stack. The cliffs resound to the cries of thousands of fulmars, guillemots, and razorbills. Puffins whirr like clockwork toys, and gannets and skuas wheel and dive like confetti. This scene of abundant life and wild beauty is the result of aeons of savage erosion, much as the pain and trials of life mould our own characters to produce differing degrees of beauty and compassion, depending upon our inner strength and core values.
One’s first sight of the Black Cuillin evokes amazement at the ruggedness of its Tolkienesque towers and pinnacles. The highest point on this jagged ridge is Sgurr Alasdair at 992m (3257ft). In this view from Elgol, however, both Alasdair and the infamous Inaccessible Pinnacle nearby are hidden behind Gars Bheinn. These are truly mountaineers mountains, able to stand comparison with higher ranges anywhere. It is not size, but character, that matters.
Just upstream from the elegant structure of Bonar Bridge is this fascinating ruin that was once a salmon fishing station on the Kyle of Sutherland. These stations, from which a net was carried out across the river by rowing boat under the direction of a salmon spotter at a high point on shore, were once common around the north Scottish coastline. Today, it is mostly only ruins or rusting equipment that is left to tell a story of past endeavours to those with the knowledge to interpret the remains. Our lives also leave “ruins” behind - legacies which may be of physical structures or institutions or, more importantly, of happy memories in the minds of others whose lives we have touched and inspired.
The busy crofting settlement of Lairg at the southern end of Loch Shin is the crossroads of the Northern Highlands. From here, roads radiate out to the north, north-west, west, south, and east. The north-west road follows the shore of Loch Shin, passing Shinness on its way to the west coast at Laxford Bridge and Scourie. Here, the way is dominated by the high peaks of Ben Hee, Ben More Assynt, Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven - a rugged and stern country. By contrast, the roads south and east from Lairg run through more gentle farming landscapes. It is interesting that the more spectacular and exciting destinations lie at the end of the longer and more tortuous roads - a little like life itself.
Two mediums interlocking where the An Garbh-allt stream flows into the Kyle of Tongue. Salt marshes worldwide illustrate the convoluted boundary between land and sea - and like all such boundaries (land and air, grassland and wood, saltwater and fresh), they teem with life. Many would claim that human beings occupy another, more profound and less easily discerned boundary - that between physical and spiritual. This interface, however, is only perceived with faith, although all may encounter it.
Just below the imposing crag of Sron Ruadh, northern outlier of 1500ft Beinn Stumanadh, nestles the old farmstead of Achnanclach - “Field of the Hill” - locally known as Poole. The main cottage now serves as a bothy maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. It is owned by the Ben Loyal Estate, overseen by volunteers Mike and Kai Geldard of the Crask Inn, and provides free accommodation for anyone needing shelter for the night. In exchange for a roof and a dry space to unroll a sleeping bag and mat, bothy users are expected to leave the place in a tidy state ready for the next callers. It is a system based on trust and generosity, and most of the time it works remarkably well, which is encouraging. The ethos is basically “The Golden Rule” - treating others as you wish them to treat you - a philosophy which is surprisingly satisfying when applied to all of life.
The north Sutherland coast stretches across the top of Scotland for about 42 miles as the crow (or gannet) flies. To the north, the next land is East Siberia, beyond the Pole - and in a winter squall it feels like that! Much of this coast is contorted rock strata which rise to cliffs almost 1000 feet high near Cape Wrath and Whiten Head. Seal-strewn caves, soaring rock arches, and probing sea lochs indicate the sea’s ascendancy over the land, while sweeping crescents of white sand between high headlands demonstrates the opposite. This picture is a composite based on Torrisdale Bay near Bettyhill, with the cliffs of Eilean Neave painted closer on the horizon. The light and wind are such as you often experience in an autumn gale when the battle between sea and land is at its height, and the exhilarating cycle of Creation is sharply drawn in the surge of the sea and the scouring streamers of wind-blown sand.
Eilean nan Ron - 700 acres of cliff-girt heather and rock off the north Sutherland coast, where seals breed in the sea caves and geos - hence the name: Island of Seals. Three families settled here around 1800, and were soon joined by others as a result of the infamous Clearances, and a small but thriving community developed living close to God and the sea. It was a hard but good life: fishing, growing crops and rearing sheep. Oil lamps lit at night shone a welcome, especially in winter. Then the herring shoals declined and island life was no longer sustainable. The 4 last families left on December 6th, 1938, delayed until evening when the roosting hens could finally be caught. Looking back as they sailed to Skerray on the mainland, they saw only darkness behind - those welcoming lamps would not shine again.
The East and West Grain Mills at Forss were built around 1810 on opposite banks of Forss Water, where a tumbling waterfall provides power to drive two 16 foot diameter overshot water wheels - one for each mill. The mills are both traditional Caithness rubble-built with flagstone roofs, but whereas the West Mill has fallen into ruin, the Grade B Listed East Mill has been restored and sensitively converted into spacious self-catering holiday accommodation, overseen by the nearby Forrs Hotel, itself once a country estate house. The mill-stone, grain shoot, and other original machinery have been retained as part of the interior design. A smaller, gabled Miller’s House adjoins the main building. Mature beech woods cast dappled shadows over the rough-cast walls, and the sparkling water lures fishermen to the deep pools below the falls.