The North coast of Scotland from Cape Wrath in the West with its 1,000 ft high cliffs to John O’Groats in the East is a little known, but fascinating part of the British Isles for anyone with an interest in geology or archaeology.
In Sutherland, the chief rock types of the area are Lewisian gneiss and Moine schist containing quartz, Orthoclase and Plagioclase feldspar, hornblende, biotite, epidote and garnet which can all be very conveniently seen in the large blocks of stone forming the wall of the bridge built across the Kyle of Tongue about 1968.
In May of 1982 we paid our third visit to Sutherland and stayed for a week at the Scottish Youth Hostel beside the Kyle of Tongue, from where we set out each day to explore.
One particularly beautiful day we drove westward right round Loch Eriboll to visit Smoo Cave near Durness. This is a typical cave with several chambers, formed by a river running northward through a curious belt of limestone to drain into the North Sea at the head of a narrow, rocky inlet with steep, grass-covered cliffs on either side. At that time of the year every nook and cranny in the cliffs was covered with nesting fulmars, and it was delightful to watch one or other of the pairs of birds gliding effortlessly in front of the cliffs with scarcely any movement of their wings.
A stoney path with numerous steps down the cliff, and finally Some stepping stones across the now shallow stream flowing out of the cave, brought us to the entrance where just inside is a large shell midden left behind by Stone Age man about 7,000 years B.C., the first people to arrive on the scene after the final retreat of the ice from Scotland.
Another interesting excursion was to Port Vasco, a rather grand name for a minute little beach between two towering headlands just to the West of the entrance to the Kyle. Ome of the headlands is faulted and split from top to bottom, and one could imagine that the seaward half had broken off, fallen into the sea and then been rolled over on its side and washed back up against the landward half by some gigantic wave!
Unfortunately, as yet, I have not been able to discover any “literature” about the geology of Port Vasco, and can only gaze in awe at the plum-coloured jumble of anticlines, synclines and bedding planes - and at an immense arch of rock, the last remains of a sea cave which now stands on a raised beach out of reach of the sea. After its formation it must have become a “blow-hole” until finally the major part of the roof collapsed, as evinced by great blocks of rock over which one can scramble to pass through the arch to further ledges of rock.
The modern beach contains numerous mementos of a busy past when 30 or 40 men earned their living from netting salmon using smal] sailing craft - a rusty old windlass for hauling out the boats, lengths of old rusting wire, a number of rows of tall posts set into the ground for drying the nets, and some old stone-built sheds where doubtless the fishermen stored their gear.
Close to the West end of the bridge over the Kyle is the site of a neolithic settlement which, when excavated some years ago, produced sherds of crude pottery and some primitive stone implements, but nothing now remains to be seen there.
During our stay at Tongue, we also spent many hours walking over the hills inland searching out large stones with ‘cup and circle’ and fish markings on them, reputedly of Bronze Age date which we found were rapidly becoming covered by the growth of peat and heather. Further afield were the remains of cairns (or long barrows as we call them in the South) also of the same period, but I am afraid that we were unable to get to them.
Close to the Youth Hostel and beside the Kyle is Tongue House, the home of the present Countess of Sutherland who holds the title in her own right. Built around 1678 on the site of an earlier dwelling, Tongue House was originally the seat of the Chiefs of the Mackay Clan, but, following financial troubles, all the Mackay land had to be sold, and was bought by the then Earl of Sutherland in 1829.
All too soon we had to look at the calm waters of the Kyle and the four great rounded masses of Ben Loyal (2,504 feet) beyond, which can be seen from the Hostel, and head towards our next stopping place, the John O’Groats Hostel in Caithness, actually situated in the scattered village of Canisbay, two or three miles from John O’Groats.
Caithness is noted for its flagstomes, and many of the small fields are still enclosed by flags erected on and in place of hedges.We even saw old cottages roofed with flagstones placed edge to edge,not overlapping like our Cotswold stone tiles.
Driving eastward the land becomes bleaker and bleaker and more and more treeless, and the only East-West road hugs the coast, passing through the small town of Bettyhill, overlooking the sandy entrance to the River Naver. Then come Strathy and Reay and, just before Scrabster, passes the vast complex of Dounray with its greatwhite sphere, the first atomic power station to be built in Britain.
Scrabster, due to the development of North Sea oil, is now a busy, thriving seaport serving Stromness on the Mainland of Orkney and can boast an up-to-date roll on/roll off ferry. This has replaced the old ship when cars were loaded aboard by means of a derrick.
A few miles further on is the town of Thurso which we found has greatly expanded and, like Scrabster, appeared very prosperous. Just beyond Thurso we came upon a good spot to park and eat our picnic lunch beside the beach of Dunnet Bay. Stretching our legs before setting off again, we discovered that in places the beach was littered with large pieces of flagstone, some with beautiful ripple markings - just ideal for making a garden path.
Before reaching Canisbay one catches a brief glimpse in the distance of the Castle of Mey belonging to H.R.H. the Queen Mother. another castle with a long and stormy history, which was degenerating into a ruin until bought and restored by Her Majesty.
Setting out the next day we drove to the top of Dunnet Head to enjoy one of the most amazing views in Scotland - Westward to Cape Wrath, Northward across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, Eastward across the gently undulating land to John O’Groats and Southward to the Highland Massif, which then was still covered with winter snow.
On the way back to Canisbay we stopped at a little parking area at the side of the road to watch a large colony of grey seals lying on the rocks below at the foot of a perpendicular cliff, safe from all disturbance by man.
From Canisbay we joined a party of Scottish archeelogists staying at Wick to be taken round some of the antiquities of Caithness by the County Archaeological Officer. As we soon discovered, Caithness has even more Bronze Age remains than Sutherland - stone rows, standing stones, chambered cairns, settlement sites, and of course, inmnumerable brocks and castles. Many of these sites were also becoming covered with peat and heather like in Sutherland.
This lead to endless speculation among the party on the deterioration in the climate since the Bronze Age, especially as the weather decided to do its worst during the four days of the tour. Many sites were situated where today it would be impossible to live and farm even at a subsistence level, Unfortunately, several places on the itinerary had to be omitted simply because of the impossibilies of tramping over water-logged moors in mist and pouring rain.
We made many new friends and met several old ones on our holids round Scotland, and we look forward to visiting the North Coast agea.