Highland heaven and hell

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 1997, 12:00am

Exploring the wild and sparsely-populated coast of northeast Scotland had never been part of the plan. But fate and a dead seagull had forced my hand, leading to a frantic race against time.

This journey should have ended by late afternoon, but instead of being settled in a cosy guesthouse near Inverness, I was still driving after more than 10 hours. Darkness was falling, there was nowhere to eat, nowhere to stay, and I was running short of petrol.

Like most visitors to the Highlands, I had intended to motor around the lochs and mountains of the west, but first drove towards Inverness, the gateway, near the east coast.

I had planned to stay overnight not in booming Inverness, but the nearby fishing and farming town of Nairn, before heading west the following day.

The guide book had described it as 'elegant, with glorious beaches', but its grey streets looked drab even in the sunshine.

The seagull incident tipped the scales in favour of continuing 40 kilometres up the coast to Dornoch, which promised wide, long beaches, sand dunes and fine Edwardian hotels.

My attention had been drawn by guffaws on the opposite side of Nairn's high street. A motorist had struck a seagull which lay injured in the gutter, and two passing skinheads found it highly amusing.

They walked off laughing and the touching scene that followed will be etched in my mind for a long time.

The driver only had one leg. He got out of the car, leaving his crutch on the back seat, and gently picked up the bird, examining it carefully.

It died in his hands, and he hopped over to some nearby bushes, carefully laying it to rest.

I decided to leave Nairn and its skinheads behind me.

Dornoch is well worth the drive, but I was to quickly learn that August is not the best time to come to the east coast unannounced. It was heaving. There was not a bed to be had anywhere.

At the local caravan site, the last resort, I was told there would not be a caravan available for a further two weeks.

Dornoch was about to hold its annual Highland Games. And every village between here and John O'Groats seemed to be either tossing the caber or launching a summer festival.

I edged my way further and further up the east coast. Golspie, no beds. A Brora hotel had one spare bedroom, but a disco was about to start underneath it. No thanks. Helmsdale, full. And on, up the lonely A9.

One guesthouse owner gave me the telephone number of a friend's small hotel further up the coast. I found a telephone box on an isolated headland. Sorry, no vacancies.

I had left the car door open, and the vehicle was full of midges, the tiny Scottish insect with the big bite, and I drove on, my wife and I under attack.

By the time I knocked on the door of an isolated bed and breakfast homestead overlooking sheer cliffs that plunge into the North Sea, I was contemplating sleeping in the car.

To my delight, they had a room. Not just a guesthouse, this was the Kingspark Llama Farm, run by Mary and Brian Gough, not Scots at all, renegades from Bristol in southwest England.

Mary rang the local inn around 10 kilometres up the road. 'Joan, can you do some fish and chips for two people here who are starving?' I would soon learn that the community spirit is still intact in the county of Caithness, a bond formed by its very isolation. It was pitch black when we arrived at the inn, and the meal was already wrapped and waiting. It was now 10.30, and I had driven about 130 kilometres since leaving Nairn, a five-hour search for a bed for the night.

Most tourists go no further than Dornoch before heading over to the west, but fate had brought us to a coastline steeped in history and places of special interest.

Brian took us around his llama farm the next morning, behind his home, and explained that he had left Bristol eight years ago for Berriedale to escape the rat race.

His paddocks also house Chinese pheasants, raccoons, peacocks and goats, but the llamas are the greatest attraction. He uses these South American pack animals to take guests off for picnics in the hinterland.

Only about 40,000 people live in Caithness, mainly in its only town of any size, Wick, a former Viking settlement, further north.

'We don't have time to get lonely,' said Brian. 'We have our hands full with the guesthouse, animals and caravan site at the back.

'If I did have the time, I'd be off along the cliffs bird-watching, or sea-fishing for salmon.

'You can berth your boat free of charge in Dunbeath harbour, just up the coast. Just try doing that in the south of England and see how much it would set you back.' I decided to make his home a base for my east coast travels.

A few kilometres inland a profusion of highland rivers empty their contents into what is described as Europe's last great wilderness, the Flow Country, a vast area of wetlands that extends in to the county of Sutherland, and where many of Britain's wading birds breed.

There had been plans to fill in these peat bogs and plant commercial forests, but the environmentalists have won the day for the time being.

Caithness is also scattered with some of Britain's most important prehistoric sites, such as the Camster cairns on the bleak moors near the fishing village of Lybster, and the mysterious Hill O'Many Stanes.

Because of their isolation, the cairns were discovered almost intact on the bleak moors a few kilometres inland.

They are estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, built from slabs of granite by a people who are thought to have farmed in what was then a much-milder climate.But experts can only speculate as to why the cairns were built. Places of worship? Burial chambers? No one knows. I crawled through the entrance to one of the Camster cairns and along a narrow passage only about a metre high. It opened out into a chamber around three metres high. I had the cairns to myself. There are relatively few visitors, and I tried to envisage those hardy farmers standing on this sacred spot thousands of years ago, and wondered why.

Later, in the window of a Wick estate agent's I noticed that these very cairns are for sale. They must be the oldest real estate on the market anywhere in the world. Mind you, a nearby mansion comes with them.

Down at Lybster harbour I got talking to two locals who were standing on the pier, discussing the area's decline.

Lybster and Helmsdale, further down the coast, were once bustling herring ports, along with Wick exporting thousands of tonnes of fish to Europe and even the West Indies. Over-fishing has left the harbours almost empty of vessels.

The chatter of the women, who gutted and packed the herrings in barrels while their husbands mended nets, has been replaced by the mournful cries of seagulls, and the swish of waves against the rocks.

'The young ones are all heading south for work now,' one of the old fishermen told me. 'The place is dying.

'Only eight years ago the harbour was still packed with boats, but then the big vessels started using radar, and the herring is nearly all gone.' He turned towards the boarded-up warehouse a few metres from the pier.

'That would make a great hotel, you know. What we need is a monster-sighting to attract the tourists.

'Look at Loch Ness. There's no monster. The locals know that. But they can't tell the truth or they'd lose their incomes.' Down at Helmsdale, the Timespan Heritage Centre offers a visual programme that takes you through Caithness' evolution from prehistoric to present times.

It tells of the Viking invasions, and Scotland's great disgrace, the Highland Clearances when thousands of families who had farmed for centuries were thrown off their land, and left homeless, to make way for sheep.

The English had broken the clan system by giving Bonny Prince Charlie's men a thrashing at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, in 1746, and the Scottish clan chiefs no longer needed their tenant-warriors.

Many had their homes burned to the ground.

Some went to their nearest church for help, to be denied by ministers fearing for their own positions.

It was the plight of these people that led to the great herring boom, as they learned to fish to survive.

There was also a gold rush around Helmsdale, which for a few short years brought a dramatic increase to the population, and you can still pan for gold in the fast-flowing rivers in the area.

If you have plenty of money, then you can fish the rivers of Caithness for its famous salmon, or go deer-stalking. There are nearly 300,000 wild deer in Scotland.

There are lots of golf courses, too, especially around Dornoch, where Britain's last witch was burned at the stake.

Then there is whale-watching, or the joy of walking the cliffs and moors.

Caithness is rather isolated, and is almost crime-free probably because of this.

People still leave their doors unlocked in this part of the world when they go out.

And if you don't have a car, then it also has its own rail line, which heads inland from Helmsdale, offering spectacular scenery where no roads exist, before coming back to the coast at friendly Wick. British Rail passes offer unlimited travel over a chosen number of days throughout the UK, and scenic rail lines take in both the east and west coasts of Scotland.

I eventually did head off to the west coast of Scotland for a driving holiday much shorter than originally planned, pleased in spite of the midges and the 'No vacancies' signs, that fate had made me take this long, lonely road north.

British Rail passes can be purchased in Hong Kong at Westminster Travel, phone 2369-5051.