A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Last House

My time in Scotland was nearly over. I had to get back for work by mid-August. So I hurried along the northern coast, edging from Sutherland into Caithness. Caithness, in the north-east corner of Scotland, rapidly became another of my favourite counties. Gradually I left the bare, isolated mountains of the far north-west and entered the flatter landscape of the Flow Country, Europe's largest blanket bog. Though much of the interior was desolate peatland, the cliffed coastline was constantly interesting. Along the coast and in shallow, sheltered valleys were square fields neatly dotted with big, round bales of freshly-cut hay. I passed grey and black, turreted castles guarding bleak, windswept settlements.

I skirted the nuclear power plant at Dounreay, looked down over Scrabster harbour (a ferry sails from here to the Orkney Islands), then stopped for a while in the tidy little sea-town of Thurso. This whole area was colonised by the Vikings, and Scandinavian influence still remains strong today. I spent a couple of absorbing hours in Thurso's brilliant new museum, Caithness Horizons, housed in the old Town Hall and Library building. On the ground floor you can see the Skinnet and Ulbster standing stones with their mysterious Pictish carvings; and on an upper floor there's a fascinating display dedicated to local geologist and botanist, Robert Dick.

Just east of Thurso, and beyond Dunnet Bay, stands the lighthouse at Dunnet Head, the most northely point of the Scottish mainland (see top pic). From here you can gaze out across the Pentland Firth at the Orkney Isles. You can identify quite clearly the Old Man Of Hoy (the famous rock stack much beloved of climbers) just off Hoy, Orkney's south-westerly island; and the entrance to Scapa Flow, that great natural harbour used by the Vikings more than a thousand years ago and more recently by British fleets during both World Wars.

It's not much further to John o' Groats, journey's end for most tourists and coach trippers, with its cafés, fast food stalls and souvenir shops, and its Last House in Scotland...

It's much more rewarding to make your way out to wildly beautiful Duncansby Head, just a few miles north-east of John o' Groats. From the cliff-top path you can approach nesting fulmars, their nests perched precariously on near-vertical cliff faces; the chicks, seeming almost bigger than their parents, were huge, grey-white balls of fluffy down. In some of the rocky bays seals trod water, basking - heads up - in the sun. Kittiwakes shrieked, gannets dived, and a small raft of 8 eider ducks floated close to shore.

These are the striking, needle-pointed sea stacks at Duncansby...

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