Starting mileage: 22552
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 22:00
We’re still in Durness, still within bounds of the Geopark, and there’s one more thing to see here: the Smoo Cave. The cave is entered from the beach below the cliffs – and it’s the largest cave entrance in Britain, a truly cathedral-like portal carved in limestone by the sea waves. But there’s more beyond, behind a rickety wooden bridge leading deeper into the bowels of the Earth.
To get there, we need to talk to a man who’s as much of a local legend as the cave itself – Colin the Caveman, who’s excavating the cave by himself, and runs daily tours to support his excavations. The tour is not the usual cave tour – if there is such a thing – not only because Colin is an unusual guide (he knows the geological terms in pretty much all the languages, and looks more like an old cobold than a human being), but because it takes place on an inflatable boat, rowed by Colin around an underground pool.
There’s another chamber behind the entrance hall, this one is carved by the iceberg water, and has a magnificent waterfall pouring down from the hole in the ceiling; and then yet another, a corridor which can be walked briefly, ending in a wall of karst, produced by the river. This dual action of sea waves and rain water is what makes the Smoo truly unique in Britain – and the host only adds to the uniqueness.
We climb back to the top of the cliff – you can now look down into the cave from here – passing a gaggle of German tourists (there are no British tourists here; only foreigners get so far north), glance at the John Lennon memorial across the road (Lennon visited here in his youth, and, allegedly, wrote “In My Life”) and then we’re off. I’ve mentioned before that some of the roads in the wilds of the Highlands and Isles wouldn’t seem out of place on an American Mid-West or in Australia, if only the temperature was a few degrees higher; nowhere is this feeling stronger than along the A836 strip running through northern Sutherland past Durness.
There are miles and miles of absolute nothing here, in terms of civilization, except a telegraph track running along the road and an occasional road sign pointing to some village to the side. The landscape is a barren heath and sheep pasture, low, flat hills stretching to a distant horizon where sometimes a lonely peak or crag shows, black against the steel sky – Ben Hope, the northernmost of the munros, is visible like a shadowy beacon for the most of the journey to the right. Closer to Caithness, beyond Tongue, the heath begins to recede into the shadow of small, wind-torn groves of distinctly Nordic-style wood: birch, rowan and aspen. While fairly inconspicuous, this is an important change; that’s how the Highlands looked like before the Clearances and the spruce forest plantations, this is the remnant of the native Scottish forest.
You can tell the Romans never got this far; the road winds needlessly back and forth, trying its hardest to follow the jagged, unruly coastline. It makes a wide U-turn to skip around Loch Eriboll – a busy naval base during WWII, the remains of which can still be seen from the shore – but then goes straight through Kyle of Tongue on a long causeway. Just before Kyle of Tongue we made a brief detour, following a sign advertising German Bread; never ones to pass an opportunity to buy good bread (especially if it’s not English – sorry guys, but you really shouldn’t be allowed near a bread oven) we drove into a small village of Talmine, where the local grocer informed us that “the baker is on holidays, but he left some bread in the freezer”. Sure enough, we got a loaf of proper German-style rye bread, and went on our way.
As we entered Caithness, the landscape changed; the barren wilderness was gone, replaced first by cultivated spruce forests, then fields and villages. The land flattens and opens up towards the north east – towards Orkney. The road widens, the houses rise and bulk up, and finally, a great white dome rises on the coast, surrounded by massive cubes of steel and concrete: the Dounreay nuclear testing facility. The DNPDE, established in the 1950s, is now in the process of being decommissioned: a process that is supposed to last, according to the government plans, until the year 2336.
The village of Forss, not far from Dournreay, looks already like a typical Lowland manor, with its oak grove and a grey stone walled manor house, now a hotel. Three miles further to the east lies the major harbour town of Thurso: a cluster of old and new houses that’s shockingly big after the vast emptiness of the last two days. Thurso and the nearby ferry haven at Scrabster prove we are now in the part of Scotland which historically had little or nothing to do with the rest of the mainland, but everything with the Norwegian-owned islands to the north. The only reason for the existence of a large town so far away from the population centres of southern Scotland was to trade with Orkneys and Shetlands. It takes only a few hours to reach the islands by boat: by horse and cart it would take days to reach any major settlement in the South.
We go a few miles still beyond Thurso, just to tick off another extremity of British mainland: the Dunnet Head. Like Land’s End in Cornwall, nearby John O’Groats is another over-hyped point which is not really what it’s supposed to be. Dunnet Head is the actual northernmost point on the mainland, and apart from that claim to fame it also has an impressive cliff-side bird reserve, with dozens of fulmars and kittiwakes nesting on the rocks, as well as many gannets and a couple of skuas visiting over from the Orkneys. There’s also a lighthouse here, and a good view of Hoy’s red cliffs.
We returned to Thurso – more precisely, to Scrabster, an old Viking harbour, whence an evening ferry takes only an hour and a half to reach the town of Stromness on Orkney’s mainline. The route is short, but nothing short of spectacular, as the ferry navigates around the island of Hoy, passing by the Old Man of Hoy stack and the great cliffs. The sandstones of Hoy are brick-red, and horizontally striped, which makes them look more like actual giant castle walls than any other mountains we’ve seen before. At some point even a semi-circular tower seems to jut from the ramparts, adding to the overall impression.
Followed by a stream of fulmars and gannets, the ferry arrives at Stromness at 8:30pm. We know where the campsite is; we know where everything here is. We had first visited this town five years ago, and instantly fell in love. Tomorrow, we do nothing except strolling its narrow streets.
The Point of Ness campsite is just as near the perfection as we remembered it. It’s surrounded by the sea, but sheltered from the winds, calm and quiet; it has all the necessary facilities, including a TV lounge, but is still small enough, and cheap (£17 with hookup); there’s an abundance of wildlife to be seen right from the windows of the van – arctic terns and seals in June, skuas and hunting gannets in September; it overlooks a busy sea port, with many opportunities for ship spotting; and finally, it’s just five minutes walk from the best little town in Britain, Stromness. We’ll be staying here for the next four nights, and it still feels much too short.