Scottish Highlands 2020: Part Seven
28 July 2020
So the night did end up very rocky, with winds up to 40-45 mph, although I managed to sleep through some of it. By morning there was a low cloud giving a persistent drizzle, and the winds were still very high. I took the briefest of walks out and couldn’t even walk a few steps in a straight line, so I didn’t even bother to try and take a photo. The weather was just too poor to venture out in safely with a camera. When I walked through the car park I noticed the other campers from last night had already gone, even for this early in the morning, and one other had joined me. I don’t blame them for having left, we were pretty exposed up here, and if you hadn’t slept in a camper during high winds before, I can categorically say from experience… its very frightening!! While I ate breakfast, I decided that as I had achieved several of my favourites spots here and my days were moving quite quickly, waiting here for any clear days would be a waste of valuable time. Instead I would sort Fred out (fresh water, empty loo and waste water), top up with fresh foods and move on from Caithness to Sutherland. By the time I left, the cloud was lifting a little giving a slightly better visibility, but the wind remained. As I drove round the top of the A836, I did a very quick swing past John O’Groats, to pick up an NC500 sticker for Fred and a fridge magnet for home. (there wasn’t much else to do here – everything was closed, and other than the signpost pointing to Lands End/New York etc. its not very photogenic) Shortly after driving round a bit further, I noticed a sign pointing to Dunnet head. Now I knew this was the most northerly point of mainland Britain, and have never been here before, so thought that maybe, before I go any further, I would just be a tourist and go have a look… and I followed the road round.
What a laugh this ended up!! The site is quite nice. You have great views across to the Orkney Isles now the cloud had lifted, and there are gorgeous cliffs that are clearly home to puffins (among other sea birds) as one flew right past me! The laugh itself however, was in the winds here. Still very high, with gusts that were a real challenge to stand up in, this proved to be the biggest amount of fun to walk in that all of us tourists here were having! I say this, because, we were all wearing huge grins as we walked around challenging it to blow us over, and we all commented to each other about how hilarious this was! Thankfully the rain had stopped completely now, or this might not have been quite so entertaining. I tried a quick video for the kids, but you couldn’t hear a word I said, so plumped for a quick one of River looking totally unimpressed as she tucked behind some rocks, with her ears whipping her face and blowing almost horizontal.
I went from here to Ferry View Service stop, and sorted the camper out. (https://www.ferryview.scot/) The lady here was absolutely lovely, and very helpful, and for £5 I was able to sort everything out in Fred. This felt very worth the money, and together we discussed the lack of service stops to the west, with her very confused why camp sites don’t allow people, other than those staying, any services for a similar fee. I guess she should know what’s involved, and she was genuinely confused when I told her that one site had said they could only cater to the amount of people staying. ‘But they just get it emptied a day or two earlier if they need to’ she said ‘ they are getting the money to have it all emptied, so it doesn’t cost them any more… it doesn’t make sense’. I didn’t have an answer for that point. I could only quote what I was told, but I cant deny that she made sense and the question had already crossed my mind. There are other sites that are part of an umbrella company, such as camping and caravanning club, and the rules of membership for the campsites are that they cannot let non residents use their facilities. This seems very unfriendly, unhelpful and exclusive. Topped with the fact that staying AS a member costs no different to other sites that are not franchised (those being the helpful and considerate sites strangely enough), I didn’t understand what I, as a consumer, was getting for the extra money I would have had to have spent out. I told her I refused to even entertain staying at these sites with a money grabbing attitude like that, She nodded in understanding and told me she didn’t blame me for that opinion! It should be worth pointing out here, that an an added problem for me, is that as I don’t know where I need to stay more than a day in advance (I gauge on weather and how much I achieved on any given day), and by the time I do, nearly every site I have tried are normally fully booked up anyway, so these sites especially are often useless for my needs.
Once that was all done, I said goodbye to Caithness for this trip, headed to Thurso for some provisions and then onto Sutherland. I had no intention of actually doing any photography today since I knew I had things to do that would encroach on the larger part of the day, but I plumped for Varrich castle anyway, as it was pretty much the first place in Sutherland on my map, and one that looked really nice in the photos I had seen. As I drove, I saw the landscape change a little, and instead of being flat and open, meandering hills started appearing. To my delight, I noticed this with each change of area – Ross and Cromarty was marked by a more mountainous vista, and Inverness-shire by more populated and tourist driven areas. I loved that each county had its own character. As I the drive took a couple of hours, I found my self munching through a bunch of junk food that I had picked up… First big munching session I had had since the drive up and I particularly fell in love with Aberdeenshire Buttery’s. Yum! A simple little flat bread thing described perfectly online somewhere as ‘roadkill croissants’, these were absolutely wonderful, and I made my greedy way through nearly a whole pack! I am quite gutted that we cant buy these down my way…
Varrich was fairly easy to find, and I arrived by 2.30. The walk to the castle itself was also really easy, and despite the drizzle here, I have to say a really pleasant one. Nothing seems to be known about this castle but its definitely a treat for a beautiful day, or even a not so beautiful one, (like today unfortunately!) As I crested the hill, I realised a) how exposed the castle was and b) that the wind had definitely not dropped by much here – it nearly took me out! I gripped onto the walls of the castle itself, and slowly made my way around the edges until I reached the metal rung steps that led to the entrance. In here things were much better. There was little left of this castle other than a square tower, and most of that was taken up by a spiral staircase leading to a viewing tower. River really didn’t like it, as it was made of the same metal rungs as the steps in, and she could see down. It had taken major coaxing just to get her in here. So I left her at the bottom, for a quick look up top. I decided very fast, that the wind wasn’t worth the view anyway! I came back down and through the derelict window saw patches of light dancing across the landscape beyond. It looked beautiful, so I got the camera out and took some photos of that, having felt quite disappointed that I hadn’t seen anything exciting so far.
I still hadn’t seen the view other photographers had used until I realised they had probably walked up the hill next to this one. I was very tired, having had a poor night, but after realising I would be unlikely to come back here this visit, I persuaded myself to go and have a look to see what the view was like from there. Finding a footpath or any kind of trail was very hard due to the lack of footfall this year so far, so for the bulk of the hike I realised I followed sheep tracks. The heather here was beautiful though where it was just starting to bloom, and after quite a hard hike up, I finally found myself on the top of the second hill. This was the view alright, but the few gaps in the cloud from an hour ago, were now definitely not there any more, and I could see darker patches heading my way – rather quickly. The wind was still really strong, so I set my tripod as low as I could, focussed, and covered up the camera until the rain and wind stopped. I spend an hour in this unsheltered position, cussing myself for being here. In reality there wasn’t much of a photo at all as the light was really lacking here today, but it had been a challenge to find this spot that I had quite enjoyed mastering. Maybe any other time, regular walkers might have trodden a clear path, but for me, it had been like wandering off into the wilderness. The rain came in short waves, the wind stopped for very short moments, and when the two came together I quickly unwrapped the camera, snapped what I could, and hunkered down again for the next battering. When it became clear there was definitely no blue coming despite my highest hopes, and a sighting of solid black unbroken clouds appearing on the horizon heading my way, I packed up and worked my way back down again.
There was still daylight left, and time to drive somewhere else by the time I got back to Fred, so I had a look at my map and plotted my next stop. Tomorrow, I was likely to drive past Sango bay, and I knew that here was a spot where there was a definite composition no matter the weather, as I had seen many photographs from there. Because of these, I thought that this would be a good day to practice my seascapes. After the disastrous time I had had at Durdle Door earlier this year, I had actually been a bit scared to try proper seascapes, but this beach looked to be much safer. So I headed on over to there!
As I drove, I passed a loch, immediately stopped at the sight and reversed straight back into a lay-by. I jumped out for a quick look at the view and a read of the board. This was Loch Eriboll, and according to the board, this area had been under water as part of a huge lake just below the equator, some thousands of years ago. This left white sand settling at the bottom, and as the land mass moved up, it made the white sedimental lines in the sandstone we can see up here. After this, the land mass moved to North America, and then broke away, crushing into the bottom part of the United Kingdom. This crushing forced the land masses up at the join, making the mountain ranges of which Ben Nevis is the greatest part of. I imagine, it was also the cause of the dramatic striations that veer upwards rather than horizontally that I had seen around the coastal areas in Caithness. I found all this fascinating to read.
This was also spot I had wanted to photograph, but for some reason I hadn’t plotted it on my map! I ran back for my camera. It was less than an hour for sunset, not that the light would have given me a glorious one, but there was a little colour in the clouds that looked really photogenic and I felt I should at least try to get a photo or two, as it was unlikely I would be coming back past this way now. I could also see a really grim cloud at the end of the loch, raining and heading my way, and there was still a little sunlight on the little island I was desperate to photograph. Very quickly I snapped a couple of shots, and as the light went with the cloud approaching at some speed, I dived back for the camper!! It rained hard for a few minutes, and thinking that the evening light was going to fail now fairly quickly, I decided to continue the drive and try and get to Sango bay as soon as I could. I began the long drive around Loch Eribol, but when I was at the bottom had to stop, pull over again, and take a couple more shots, because the sight was just so gorgeous to the eye! I wasn’t sure if the shots did the sight any justice, but they have marked the spot in my mind now for a return!
I was a little annoyed with myself as now the location for tomorrow had been set in my head, I found it really hard to deviate from the plan and consider stopping here for the night to shoot this location properly. The island, especially, had several photo opportunities on it that I now regret not utilising. In hindsight, starting here at 7 or 8 am and moving on after that, wouldn’t have made any big dent in the day, but I couldn’t divert from my decision, mostly because I was unsure of when the high tide at Sango was (no internet connection to check) and I definitely didn’t want to miss that.. I continued the drive instead, vowing to make this a proper, focussed stop next time I am here.
With the time ticking, it would be nearly 9 by the time I arrived in Sango, but if I could find somewhere to stay the night, at least I would be ready to start early if the tide was high.