From: Thrumster to Keis
Distance: 11 miles/17.7 km
Thrumster House was a glorious slice of heaven. Built in the late 1700s and much renovated in Victorian times, it was for me the perfect haven. Comfortable but not over-familiar. Stylish without a hint of pretension. And truly authentic in every way. I would return in a heartbeat. I suppose it really felt like a home .. eclectic piles of books which had clearly been read, not just there to impress. Photos of family on shelves, which were more snaps than posed portraits. Worn but interesting fabrics and wall-papers. And hosts who were genuinely interested .. in their guests and in an abundance of a massive range of subjects. I had dinner with Catherine and her mother, Islay. It was home-cooked food of a very superior nature and the wine was poured with a generous hand. Of all my stops along the way, it was my favourite. https://www.thrumster.co.uk
Over dinner I discovered that Catherine is on the board of the Friends of the John o’Groats Trail, which runs on a charitable basis. Much as Gus and I had thought, the difficulties in making the Trail more established lie in poor funding and recalcitrant land-owners refusing access. The access shouldn’t really be a problem with Scotland’s legal status of the public’s ‘right to roam’ but where there’s a will to make things difficult, there’s a way. It will take a while for the Trail to have the same status and standard as other walks such as the West Highland Way or the Great Glen Way, but Catherine was confident it would happen eventually. I so hope she’s right as the views from the coastal path were infinitely superior to those from the A9 and deserve to be seen by many more folk.
It was a quick jaunt into Wick this morning. I’d imagined I’d have a cappuccino there with a delicious pastry, perhaps. No such luck. While having an interesting history, Wick is now home to a disproportionate number of barbers, tattoo parlours and carpet salesrooms. Although it had a harbour it was difficult to find any other redeeming features.
It wasn’t long after the town that I was able to revert from the A99 to the John o’Groat’s Trail. And wow, what a spectacular section of the trail it was .. four miles from Ackergill Tower along the beach to Keiss. There are castles at either end and glorious blond sand which could give any Aussie beach a run for its money. It was a fantastic way to finish my penultimate day of Walking The Black Dog. I took time to sit on the sand, with my back against my pack and reflect a little, in the Scottish sunshine.
Legend would have us believe that the young and exquisitely beautiful Helen Gunn, was abducted by John Keith in the late 14th century. To escape his advances she flung herself from the highest tower of Ackergill Castle. This heralded the beginning of a great deal of feuding between the Gunns and the Keiths and you won’t be surprised to hear that her ghost still haunts the place. Not long ago a shed-load of money was thrown at renovating the building, so that it can now host conferences and romantic weddings .. when both parties come willingly to the altar.
The ruined Castle Sinclair Girnigoe has an even gorier history. It teeters on the edge of the cliffs looking hopelessly picturesque. Actually, it’s not just one but two castles: Girnigoe built in the late 15th century and Sinclair added on a hundred or so years later. And its history is anything but picturesque: in 1577 the 4th Earl of Caithness, imprisoned his own son, John in Castle Girnigoe, on suspicion of rebelling against his rule. He was held there for seven years, after which his father fed him a diet of salted beef, with nothing to drink, so that he eventually died insane from thirst. Not nice.
A drawbridge over a ravine connects the two castles. Hostilities between the 6th Sinclair Earl of Caithness and John Campbell of Glenorchy, a siege and then an attack in 1680, destroyed much of the structure and it has never been inhabited since. Restoration has begun on the castle, funded by the Clan Sinclair Trust in an attempt to preserve the archeological and historical importance of the structure.
The sand was punctuated by rocks to begin with, all bearing a luminescent lime seaweed. The colour verged on the surreal.
In 1958 the fishing vessel Jean Stephens, an Aberdeen trawler, ran aground during a blizzard in Sinclair’s Bay. The crew survived but the rescue was hampered by the weather which forced rescuers to approach over the snow covered landscape. Getting to the shore was made even more difficult by snow-filled anti-tank trenches dug out to secure the coast from German invasion during Second World War. This is all that remains of her ..
Apart from a few dog walkers, I had the beach pretty much to myself. It was a real treat to walk in such serenity with just the curlews and oyster-catchers for company. The village of Keiss and its castle were at the other end of the bay. The castle is another impossibly romantic, partially ruined fort clinging precariously to the cliffs. It dates back to the 16th century but didn’t provide shelter for very long before the new Keiss Castle was built further inland. Actually it’s not so much of a castle as a ‘large and elegant Scottish Baronial house’.
Just as the shingle and pebbles started to pile up, I was able to return to the JOG Trail, which traced a handy path up to the village of Keiss and my accommodation for the last night on the walk. It was a pretty and very easy path to follow.
At supper in the local pub I got chatting .. the way you do .. to the people on the next door table. Turned out the son had just finished his first day of JOGLE. Having recently left the navy he wanted to do something special, something rewarding and something out of the ordinary .. something he could tell his children and his grandchildren about. I was so happy to tell him it was probably the best thing I’d ever done, realising as I said it that I’d already pushed the misery of yesterday to the back of my mind.
Tomorrow I’ll reach John o’Groats ..
Black Dog Tails
This is Rover, the expert scat tracker. With his powerful sense of smell he helps with eco-diversity research.