Saturday, February 24, 2007

On the Road to Dunnet Head

A sunny day up here is a special gift. The best advice I was ever given was to take advantage of them when they come. With this in the back of my mind I drove into town and did essential chores with a vague resolution to do something with this day. That resolution took shape when a friend said that she liked to drive to all the little harbors along the coast. I do not know all the little harbors let alone how to get to them, but I know a few, so I headed east to explore a harbor or two.

John o Groats, the most northeasterly point of Britain, is dubbed by the Lonely Planet guide as boring. It has a handful of uninteresting shops and a mostly synthetic tea room. Despite this, I at first planned to go there as so many other people no doubt do, so that I could say that I had been there. Along the way, however, I realized I could go to the real beauty spots.

The sense of adventure and purpose helped still the melancholy that my husband was not with me. I used to do everything on my own, so I hiked up my nerve and settled in to discover the harbors along the way to Dunnet Head. I made note of Castletown beach as I headed east and also of Dunnet Bay. I had only about 3 hours of sunlight so I decided to stop by on my way back. Now that I had a mission, I was resolved. The day was so warm, that I opened the sun roof. BBC 3 (Radio Scotland) first offered Classical music, which filled the empty spot in the car as I passed the dunes beyond Castletown, and then jazz as I passed by Dunnet woods. A lovely walk for a day when more shelter from the elements is needed, but today the sun is high and the wind is soft.

Because I am on a road that is designated as a tourist route, I can follow the big brown signs to get to Dunnet Head. The road is easy to find as long as you can accept that a single track road is, in fact, the road. I like the snugness of a single track road and now that I can navigate laybys and the insouciant wave that accompanies the choreography of two cars in one lane, I am free to enjoy the rare treats at the end of such roads. The road makes a sharp right past the little(r) road that leads to Mary Ann's Cottage and begins a slight climb that will continue until I reach the peak. I know two people who live in Brough, but the signpost for the village baffles me. There are so few houses and at such a distance from each other that I cannot see a village.

I do see broad sweeps of growing heather and bracken and grasses that move gracefully among each other in broad swirls of patterns that seem to form an ocean of its own. Among the heather-ed hills are bright blue lochans--rounded, often deep pools of fresh water. Carving their way through the hills are secret rivers. They leave traces of their paths etched on the heather, but any water moves out of sight.

A broad sweep of ocean view startled me as I rounded a bend. Just off the coast is a tall stack of rocks. I laugh as I think that this would be a magnificent site in its own right, if not for the others. The road winds back and forth on itself. I catch a glimpse of a large black head atop massive shoulders and before I can bring it full into sight, the road bends and it disappears. As I move onto higher ground I see that the large black Highland bull is part of a family scattered on the hillside. He sits sunning himself in the middle of the hill. A younger, red haired heifer sits right by the edge of the road. A handful of others are busying themselves at a hay feeder. I resist the temptation to get out and take a closer look. They are normally docile enough, but mothers can be very protective when they have young about them. It is a bit early in the season for calves, but I can look at cattle at home. They are no longer the stuff of adventure for me.

I am high enough up now to see a boat riding very low in the water. The warm sky is being chased by the colder, wetter weather that is never far away here. I park in the furthest car park and bundle up. On top of my jacket and scarf, I layer a long down parka and gloves. The wind up here is much more insistent and seems to be coming right out of the north. I take only my camera and hike up the path labelled Viewpoint. The entire hilltop is beautiful, but the sign seems to point to the very highest point. I see two other cars in a car park closer to the lighthouse, so I choose to go the other way. Up the hill, I pass the remnants of World War II when this part of the world was a strategic battleground. The ocean sweeps around below me. I sit on the wall of the view point to steady myself and my camera, but the best light of the day has already been dulled with greyness of the clouds moving in and the start of the still-too early twilight. It is, after all, only February. I snuggle into the hood of my parka as the full force of the north wind hits my face as I walk down the hill. The boat is now on the other side of the lighthouse from where I first saw it. I wonder how far away it is, where it is going. The whitecaps form scrolls of lacework from where I see them, but I doubt if they seem like lace to the people on the boat.

The cattle form a rustic tableau as I pass them again and wind down the narrow road. I stop at the bend of the road where I first saw the ocean and the stack of rocks. I realize that there is a road down to the water and that I have been there. I was terrified then and have no wish to venture down again in a car. Instead, I try to catch a photo of the rocks with the last good light of the afternoon moving slowly away from them from the top of the brae.

As I walk back to the car, I meet a couple and their daughter. They are from Yorkshire and have only been here for 7 weeks, but they love it. They, too, heard and took the advice to savor a sunny day. I realize that it is as much a foreign country for them as for me. Perhaps a bit more. Having been here now for 2 years, I was able to tell them some things they didn't know about the area. They clambered down the path to the water's edge with their daughter leading the way. I waved goodbye as I headed for Dunnet Bay.

Since the light was fading, I made just a quick stop at the waves rolling into the surf. I stopped a bit longer at Castletown beach. The tide was still far enough out that remnants of seaweed made large freckles on the beach and the sinuous patterns of sand and rock showed the path of tides. The water was getting the silvery cast of twilight, so I did not linger. I did not stop for Thurso harbor or Scrabster or Brims, and merely nodded a welcome to the ocean in my back yard as I pulled into the farm road.

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At 7:55 AM, Blogger scorrie said...

you are so liquid in yoour descriptions, always, so I resolve to let you know I have read them with a comment from unohoo // super fotos of sea and rock and land which you have grown so quickly to love so much // makes a change from Indy and flat land and corn // scorrie //, m

At 9:50 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

You gave us a lovely tour; have to tell you though that Dunnett Head is the most Northerly point of the UK and John o' Groats is the most northerly tourist outlet. Thurso is the most northerly Town on the mainland and it boasts the most northerly train station in the UK

Whatever Lonely Planet says about John o'Groats, which I agree is not the most inspiring of locations, though it could be, there are as you say, lovely places en route and also just nearby which, in all probability the guide writer did not even attempt to explore.

Bill Bryson did a pathetic job of writing about Caithness when he wrote his book of the UK; in all likelihood he went around (albeit briefly in a car) suffering with myopia and not much cultural thought in his head.

I have passed some super hours communing with seals, watching my husband stir up the sensibilities of the males with his calls, the ladies had to mind their P's and Q's. They are not the friendliest of animals but seals are real scene stealers and great to observe, from quite close up too.

There are wonderful walks to be had in the company of knowledgeable rangers, both in woods and around the dunes that adorn our coast.The rangers, introduce rare fauna and flora to their parties and teach people how to protect these species. Finding funghi is fun,I remember the custard and cream ones, also other edible and non-edible varieties.

We have more ancient artefacts than most other parts of the U.K., a lot of it is covered up, buried, as Scottish Heritage can't afford to care for,or maintain the quantities that we have.

I wax lyrical here...

At 5:45 PM, Blogger kathy said...

Oh Landgirl, my sister must've been reading your blog because she suggested a Scottish vacation to me yesterday. You know her--tall, willowy, charming, (she'll probably be reading this!) most recently transplated to Phoenix from Indy. She gave me your blog address so I too could be enticed to a Scottish vacation! Are you still knitting? I've been knitting through "stash", and spinning prolifically! It's wonderful to read about your Scottish farm life--my NW Indiana life pales in comparison! Hugs to you!!

At 7:14 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Kathy! So good to hear from you. Yes, I am knitting. In fact, I have found some knit pals and we have our own SNB. You would love Scotland. The colors and textures would inspire you. Would you like to think about giving a class or something while here? I'm sure I coudl round up an adoring audience and you could count it as a business trip! Or you can come just for fun. Listen to your sister. Also, modify the settings on your blog so folks (like me) can leave comments there, too.


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