NC 500 – Day Three
70.5 miles travelled and 21,343 walking steps
Our third day began with gale force winds and the first real test of our new walking boots. Following a couple of Old Pulteneys the night before, I had found what I thought was the route to the Whaligoe Steps – thanks to the lovely people at WalkHighlands.co.uk – which we dutifully followed. Our first shock was the ‘car park’ (just a layby with space for about three cars) but we parked and set out without question. We walked against wind so strong it would push you backwards as we navigated through bog and briar (well thistle really!) until we reached the Cairn O’ Get. This was an unexpected stop as it turned out to be in the opposite direction to the Whaligoe steps, but it is one I am most grateful for. A Neolithic burial cairn intended for Stone Age man to visit and seek help from the dead, you can feel the power even in what little remains of the 5,000-year-old structure. Nearby a similar aged dam shows how man first wanted to change the landscape and harness its power. Our slight miscalculation also enabled us to see our first Highland thistle. We would see many, many more over the coming days and even start a competition for the best thistle photo; but I will always remember where I saw the first.
Back on track we began our descent of the 330 Whaligoe Steps, kindly provided by Captain David Brodie for £8 in the mid-1800s. Originally 365 steps, their purpose was to make use of the natural formed harbour underneath and they were traversed pre-dominantly by women (some in their early 70s) to carry salt down and herring back up. The sign warning us of the danger says it all! Our much slower and more leisurely descent was rewarded with beautiful views and, luckily for us, we had nothing but ourselves and our cameras to carry. We took our tourist photos as the shadows of those whose livelihoods relied on the twenty plus fishing boats sailing in and out of Whaligoe danced around us.
From Whaligoe back though Wick and then to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Doing my NC500 research I was attracted to this landmark because it talked about a castle ‘rising from the sea’ and I struggled to imagine what that would look like so knew I had to see it. Another castle through the ages, it began life as a late medieval seat for the Sinclair Clan (Castle Girnigoe) and then saw its heyday in the 1600s when gatehouse, drawbridge, and new tower were added to make it a cultural, artistic, and social centre for the region as the renamed Castle Sinclair. My lasting memory of this castle visit will be JD telling me to stick my head into one of the window cavities only to feel like my skin was literally being blown off my face by the tunnelled wind! Watching the North Sea waves batter the very cliffs on which we (and the castle!) seemed precariously balanced is an experience I will never forget. I stood imagining all the nobles feasting here on such a day all those years ago. As with so much of our North Coast journey so far, you can almost hear their singing and story-telling blowing in the wind.
And then to John O’Groats. I know it has to be done but it really wasn’t anything to write home about and it’s not a place I feel any need to return to despite the fact the obligatory photo was ruined by the wind and my coat hood! The best thing about the stop was being able to use the public toilets. The coffee shops were still closed post Covid so we joined the small handful of tourists there and dutifully queued (socially distant) for our photo.
I was pleased I read So Sophey’s note about Dunnet Head as there we saw puffins gliding over the cliffs below us as we looked down at the beautiful turquoise sea. And we got the real money shot for the most Northern point in Britain. We also used our car kettle to make a coffee and eat some cup noodles. As our journey went on, pop up food and coffee stops would become part of the NC500 route once again; but here, just eight days after Scotland re-opened for business, our choices were few and far between. An open café remained something to be incredibly excited about for our entire trip and something I hope I will never take for granted again.
Our final Day 3 destination was Thurso. This town was on my list because I had heard it was for those dedicated to the surf. And in normal times it may well be, but not this day! I’m just a beginner but I had visions of hiring a board and testing out the waves myself, which was not to be. The wetsuit I had excitedly packed stayed bone dry as there was not a surf shop nor fellow surfer in sight. A walk later that evening into Scrabster in the gale force winds made me kind of glad that there was nothing open as it was much stronger wind than I have ever surfed in! We find a Bin Ends booze store to buy JD’s Dad some birthday whisky and us some whisky to survive our first car camping night together. We had intended to car camp at Bettyhill, a further thirty miles or so, but it was cold and wet and we found a bar open (thanks to the young girl that worked at Bin Ends) so we decided that was us done for the day. We ate fish and chips in Scrabster opposite the working harbour where we watched thousands of timber logs being loaded onto cargo vessels. We were joined by port workers without another tourist in sight. It felt strange at the time but when the NC500 got busier with people like us, I came to really value the uniqueness of our once in a lifetime experience on this popular route.
I had visions of whisky drinking and chatting long into the night as we cuddled up on our airbed mattress in the back of our hired Nissan Qashqai but JD was asleep as the sun was setting so I lay watching the lighthouse on the wet and windy night that ended the wet and windy day. We were parked on the seafront with the roar of the wind and the waves giving this Portsmouth born girl strange comfort as I fell asleep too. Sleeping on the seafront isn’t the ‘wild camping’ that this part of Scotland is famous for (we’d do that on the shores of Loch Maree) but the rule goes you can sleep anywhere that isn’t signposted otherwise and you must leave no trace when you leave. I did a nature wee on the beach (if you’re disgusted by the thought of that I did many more by the time the trip was over!) but apart from that left no trace. There are lots of official campsites on the route with proper facilities and many people prefer the tent to the car; but I like the occasional car camp and would recommend it if your car is suitable.