This morning we caught the 7:45am huge catamaran car and passenger ferry from St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay on mainland Scotland, run by Pentland Ferries. This ferry crosses the old Viking Highway – the Pentland Firth, with the journey taking one hour.
From here we travelled west to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain. Sitting above the cliffs overlooking the Pentland Firth is the lighthouse built by the Stevenson family in 1832. On the peninsula are a number of disused lookouts and other structures built during World War II to help defend the naval base at Scarpa Flow on Orkney. We walked along a track and if it had been a clear day we would have been able to see the Orkney Islands to the north and Cape Wrath to the west.
Then we drove to Castle of Mey, the former holiday home of the Queen Mother who purchased the run-down castle in 1952 (after the death of her husband, King George VI) for £100 and set about renovating and restoring both the castle and its gardens and parklands to its present-day stature. She visited the castle annually with her 20 staff for over 50 years. We went on a tour of the castle and walked around the grounds and animal nursery. The interior of the castle has remained how it was when the Queen Mother lived here. There are a lot of nick knacks, family photos and personal keepsakes on display and the furnishings are very eloquent but dated. Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, visits for 2 weeks every year in July. The castle is closed during his visit.
Next stop was John O’Groats, renowned as the ‘end of the road, the northern extremity for many charity treks to or from Land’s End. It is one of the key destinations on the North Coast 500 route and is also where you catch the passenger ferry service to Orkney. At the harbour there is a mound and flagpole which mark the site of the first ferry 500 years ago. A very busy place full of tourists.
Then we drove along a single lane road to Duncansby Head which is the ‘real’ north eastern tip of the Scottish mainland with another lighthouse built in 1924 by the Stevenson family. We followed a well-trodden path which bought us to huge eroded cliffs surrounded by a wire fence. As we approached we could hear the sound of its vast number of feathered inhabitants and a smell of ammonia wafting into the air, a seabird colony which is home to razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and puffins. I finally got my picture of the elusive puffin which was on the edge of the cliff near its nest. A little further along the clifftop fields are the Stacks of Duncansby, spectacular red sandstone cliffs which have been carved by the pounding seas. There is a rocky arch and a group of large jagged sea stacks.
Second last stop of the day was the Grey Cairns of Camster, which are two of the best-preserved Neolithic chambered cairns in Britain. We had to travel along 5 miles of single tack road, but it was worth the drive. The two cairns are very different in appearance. One forms a circular structure while the other sprawls along a ridge line. Both were built during the Neolithic era some 5000 years ago, but there are signs that the round cairn is the earlier of the two. We walked along a wooden boarded path over peat bogs which leads from the roadside to the round cairn, then to the long cairn, and back to the road. In each of the cairns there is a very low and narrow passage which leads into the central chamber, but we weren’t agile enough to tackle the passage to see the chamber. Excavations in the 1800s revealed burnt bones, pottery and flint tools, along with the remains of a number of skeletons.
Last stop of the day was Dunrobin Castle. When we arrived, it was closed so we could only see it from the outside. The Castle is spectacular, perched on a high terrace above the North Sea. It resembles a French chateau with large spires and turrets, very much like an illustration from a storybook.
We arrived late in the day at Inverness to Ian’s favourite park in the Tesco carpark for the night as we are continuing on our family genealogy search and all the records are in the Highland Archives Centre in Inverness town centre.