Scotlands Highlands 2020: Part Three
24 July 2020
Peaceful bays, Escaped prisoners, and perilous river crossings… today was gonna be a good one!
This morning when I woke, I realised there was still no chance of a nice sunrise, so I had another fairly easy start. I looked at my map and wondered where I should go today. As I looked at it, I realised I had driven past a location I very much wanted to find, so thought that maybe I might backtrack a little and go back to Dunbeath. This would leave me the upper part of Caithness in one easier trip, rather than me driving back and forth, top to bottom.
Before I left here however, I was determined to find that little sandy bay I missed yesterday! There was no fog this morning, so my first port of call, was back out to the cliff face to find out where it was, and today it proved much easier to find. I walked/climbed down the equally steep slip way to the one I did yesterday, and when I finally got down to the beach bit, I was really, REALLY pleased I bothered. It was absolutely gorgeous, small, cute and SO incredibly peaceful! I guess this wasn’t a regular beach for visitors, as it was so unspoiled, and other than one couple, River and I had it all to ourselves for the complete duration of my visit.
I had a little explore first, and River had a refreshing paddle in the gently lapping waves. There were more rocky outcrops, and the beach itself was made of a really interesting blend of yellow, red and black grains. Normally you only see one of these, so finding a beach with a mix, felt unusual – it was quite lovely to look at though. I found the rocks that curved out to sea to be the most interesting this morning, and wondered if a minimalist treatment might work here since they were far more picturesque than yesterdays ones. As I got the camera out, I became mindful of the tide. If it was coming in, I had to be aware of it because there was a chance I could get cut off from my exit route if I missed my timings! As it goes, the shot wasn’t very inspiring because the tide was so gentle and didn’t splash on the rocks in the way I envisioned. Its strange how a view can be gorgeous to the eye, but to the camera, it just doesn’t quite work for you. In the end I tried to capture the one little area where the water seemed to flow over the rocks instead. Looking at the back of the camera I didn’t feel too excited by what I was capturing and was not totally sure if the shot was any better than yesterdays one in the end, but I certainly had a lot of fun trying, perched up on some other rocks as I was!
Once I had tried a few different shots, I noticed that the tide was definitely coming, in, and I was also aware that Dunbeath was calling. I had seen only one or two shots of the exact area I was looking for online, so wasn’t totally sure how to find the specific spot. Without that knowledge, I didn’t know how long it would take me to find either, so I decided that I should head off, quite excited at the prospect of trying to explore a location! This bay however, would easily be one I might try again. maybe focussing on the dramatic diagonal of the rock striations next time?
The prisoners leap at Dunbeath has a great story. Legend has it that way back in the day, an Ian McCormack Gunn was held prisoner by the Clan Keith at Forse Castle, some 6-7 miles away. He escaped and ran as far as the gorge at Dunbeath with the Keiths hot on his tail. Once there, he was trapped, so they jeered their taunt of ‘jump, Jump!’ then he was told, rather mockingly, that if he could jump the gorge he would earn his freedom. I assume they thought that one way or other, this man would be no further bother after today, fully expecting him to die of course… It IS quite a leap – but I guess Gunn had little choice but to either try, or die by the sword. So he jumped… and miraculously, made it to freedom.
Aside from the story, the location had struck me as stunning in one particular photo that I had found by photographer Gordon Mackay. I desperately hoped to find the same spot, and some 50 minutes or so later I was parked up in a small car park by the old mill at Dunbeath, and excitedly preparing to follow the walk up. I had found a walking guide online (www.walkhighlands.co.uk – my new best friend!) that apparently went to the leap, and was hoping to follow that. In theory this should be pretty easy. The walk was lovely, as was the weather! The sun was now beaming down on me as I walked alongside the river flowing down the strath, and the peace was so perfect I couldn’t help but stop and take a few photos on the way. (including the header pic) Before long the path turned into a little track, then into a well trodden trail. It took me over a bridge, past a turn off to a broch, and then through some gorgeous trees, that I now know were Rowan, Hazel and Birch. I don’t know my trees, but together this section was so full of character, that I kind of regret not stopping to take a picture. I have no clue how to shoot woodland effectively though, so just left it for my eyes to enjoy. I continued on, and then the internet suddenly cut out. Thankfully, I had memorised the next bit, but it had me concerned that I might not find the spot I was desperately looking for. As I reached the end of my memorised bit, the internet briefly came back, so I quickly did a couple of screen shots of the instructions to the remainder of the route and ventured on with greater confidence. Eventually the route started a steep climb, and I found myself at the top of the gorge looking at the likely spot of Gunn’s leap. From here I doubted his success.. it looked like quite a stretch!
I pulled up the photo I hoped to capture for myself, looked down at the river and tried to work out the spot that Mackay had stood, realising to my disappointment that he was likely on the other side of the river. I had two choices, give up, or cross. Like Gunn… I opted to cross. Well… I was here wasn’t I?! Soooo.. Should I jump…??? Errrmmm… maybe not! (well… you now, I had the dog and all…)
I hiked back down, and timidly struggled over to the other side of the river. At points it reached well above my ankles, and was fairly fast moving water, so I was very grateful for the choice of wearing my new hiking wellies. River crossed dutifully behind me, but she didn’t seem altogether confident – once over she was much happier however. We walked for a bit up the other side then realised we couldn’t get any further because of an adjoining river this side, and a deep pool. I looked at River, apologised, then proceeded to cross the river again… then when passed that point.. crossed a third time. I started to struggle a little. It seemed that no matter what I tried, I couldn’t marry up the shot Mackay had taken to the area I was walking in. I eventually found myself back on the original side again, close to the gorge. Whilst here I spotted a gorgeous reflection in the water. I was having a break for a snack, a drink and a think, so I decided to take this photo before trying to continue looking for the other spot – it was rather eye-catching!
We rested a bit longer before I tried the crossing yet again, and made my way up on the other side until I was directly underneath the place where Gunn had likely jumped. It had also started getting to a point where River thought she couldn’t manage the climbs, and was very reluctant to try swimming in other parts, so kept crying until she realised she could do it after all. I chuckled as she overcame her fears, because it was clear she was more than capable! When we found ourselves underneath the leap point, I looked up at the sight. As I did, I thought that perhaps this jump, legend or not, might actually have been possible after all. Not easy – but possible!! The distance across didn’t seem quite as great from down here as it was from the top. For River and I down here however, it became clear I wasn’t going to get any further. Both sides of the gorge were now steep without any chance of walking/climbing points either side, and there were deep, fast moving pools lining the cliff edges of both sides. I couldn’t understand this… where WAS this photo taken then?! I sat for a bit gathering my thoughts, and looked at the picture yet again… and then I spotted it. The water wasn’t coming towards me in the photo… it was going away! This was taken from the other side of the gorge completely!!!! (DUH!!!) I looked up the gorge, following the river with my eyes, and immediately managed to spot where Mackay had stood… a nice, clear, easy spot… but from here, there was no way I was going to get there. I was gutted!!
I remembered that when I had stood at the top looking across, there was a meadow with a clear trodden trail on it. THATS where he must have come from! With no idea where he might have started the trail, I decided to backtrack and head back up the hill to where I had turned around. Maybe I could find a spot round from up there? I climbed it all the way back to the top again, and followed a wire fence along away from the river. This led me to a private road with a huge gate across it and a smaller kissing gate next to that. Going through there I followed the road for a bit, suddenly aware of how exhausted I felt. I tried to cut across the hill, but it seemed to go into some more of the hazel/birch/rowan trees, to another steep drop, and another river. I looked at the distance, and had to stop for a rethink. I could go back to the road and continue following it even more, but I had no idea how far it would go before it led past the second river, a way down, AND all the way back to the gorge. I was already exhausted, could I realistically get all the way down there and back to the camper again easily?? My sensible head took over. No. I was totally on my knees already. I’d (stupidly) brought no food or drinks with me, so had no source to replenish my energy. Very sadly I sat for a bit, and decided that I would have to do this trek another day. For now, I’d had an awesome time, but I was really just TOO tired to keep pushing forward, and I didn’t want to spoil such a great day.
Rather than just go back the way I had come however, I looked on google maps which thankfully had a good signal up here, and it seemed there might be an easy route back following this road. So River and I trudged at a much slower ‘Sandyplod’ speed back along here. I kept checking my position on Google maps, feeling like this road was endless, but eventually I found my turn off, and cut across a field towards Dunbeath Broch, which I knew had a route back to the original path I had taken. When I found myself at the Broch, I was quite taken aback. I had seen some of these in my research, and although interesting, they hadn’t quite caught my imagination enough for me to plot any of them onto my map. To be fair, there are hundreds in Caithness, so I had an inkling I would likely pass some on my routes regardless. I clearly wasn’t wrong. This one however, still had a lot of bricks in place, and had had some repairs done to give a better idea of what I was looking at. The circle of the lower part of this tower was still pretty much clear, and signs of where a second floor might have been, an entry point, a small guard cell, and back chamber were all clearly visible. Given this was an iron age structure (historians seem torn as to their actual purpose) I felt this was really well preserved. It peaked my attention and I had an interesting time exploring the ruin, reading about the changes it had experienced over time, and finding out about the preservation they had been doing to keep what is left, safe enough for people to explore.
The exploration was pretty restful, so once I had seen enough, I felt energised enough to get myself back to Fred and a well earned cup of tea!! As I sat drinking it, I pondered my next options, and decided that rather than cook, it might be nice to try some local fish and chips. The next port of call for me was Wick Lifeboat house tomorrow, so it seemed sensible for me to go Wick for the takeaway, and for the night, in readiness for a possible dawn shot there. I had no idea where the sun would rise, but it seemed like a good plan at least. The drive was very chilled, and I found the takeaway easily in the harbour, opting to have a ‘fish supper’ and to try one of the rather infamous ‘battered mars bars’ as a desert on top! (Ohhh YUMMY indeed!|!) THAT was interesting… warm and gooey is the best description there… and, rather oddly, the batter complimented the chocolate! The food was really tasty, and the portion huge. Lucky too, because I was ravenous!
After eating, I found a spot for the night, parked up behind another motorhome, and went for a short walk to explore the area I was in. On my return I collapsed into bed for a very well earned sleep!
Today felt amazing.