Late July 2010, Wick and Caithness.
Having enjoyed three weeks in Stromness as a base for exploring Mainland Orkney we were ready to move on, but typically the wet and windy weather arrived. After nearly a week it cleared leaving sunny but calm days. It was time to tackle the Pentland Firth which has some of the strongest tides in the UK. Timing is everything, and with no wind so only our engine to push us on, we were over cautious arriving about half an hour before the tide turned in our favour. Even with only a short time before slack water the tide knocked us back to 1.5 knots over the ground. By the time we got to near the other side we were going at 7-8 knots, giving us a fast passage to Wick.
Wick used to be an important fishing town. Wick proper is the north side of the Wick river and Pulteney is the south side. At the height of the herring boom in the mid-nineteenth century Wick had a fleet of over 1100 fishing boats. Now there are only a handful of shrimpers. Much of the harbour area of Pulteney was planned by Thomas Telford in 1806 and is built with the dark local stone. Sadly it is now rather run down with many of the old warehouses just roofless shells. It is the Guinness Book of Records for the shortest street, Ebenezer Place (left) which is only just wider than the only door on the street - the entrance to the Mackays Hotel Restaurant.
Naturally we paid a visit to the Pulteney Distillery. Unfortunately it was their summer maintenance shut down so they were not brewing/distilling. They were doing tours, but it would not have been the same without the aroma, so we only looked around their visitors centre. They did have a "pour your own bottle" (right) but we find cask strength whisky a bit too much, so were not tempted.
A short bus ride took us to John O'Groats. The Rough Guide accurately describes it as a tourist trap. It is a large car park surrounded by grockle shops. The only impressive building is the boarded up hotel (left). The "Lands End" signpost attracted a regular stream of people paying to have their photograph taken in front of it. We could see the appeal if you were just starting out, or had just completed the distance, but our 15 mile bus ride from Wick would have been taking the mickey
It was not a place to inspire us to linger, so we quickly set off for a walk around Duncansby Head. We quickly left the people behind and had the footpath to ourselves, with only the sheep and fulmars for company. The fulmars were very busy ferrying food to the quickly growing chicks. Many of the chicks were on their own, clearly now too big to be a meal for a Great Skua or Black Back Gull.
We caught up with the crowds again as we reached the car park at the lighthouse. From here there is a well worn path out to view the dramatic cliffs and sea stacks (below). It was the strongest time of the tide, so it created large standing waves and eddies around the base of the stacks. A good time for a small boat to be safely in harbour!
About mid way between John O'Groats and the town of Thurso is the Castle of Mey. This was the holiday home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. She bought it a few months after the death of King George VI in 1952, as a retreat for some peace and tranquility far from London. It was run down and empty at the time, and as it was to be a home rather than a show piece, it was furnished for comfort rather than with expensive antiques. The majority of the furnishings apparently came from local shops, though it was clear that many of the paintings did not!
The tour of the castle was very slick. In each room a guide would describe the room and contents, with a sprinkling of anecdotes. All in "very good taste" though the antics of Prince Andrew as a child seemed to get more than his fair share. There is a new visitors centre and cafe that is also top quality, with flagstone floor, oak chairs and tables in the cafe, and top class lavatories with granite sinks and quilted paper. The food in the cafe was fit for royalty too with a price to match. We enjoyed some delicious scotch broth, but found the Queen Mother's favourite cake (date and almond) rather dry. Maybe her own chef did it better!
Adjacent to the castle is a walled garden. This as lo has a Queen Mother theme with her favourite roses and other flowers. It also has a large area of vegetables, including many cabbages which did not impress Tim (Tim hates cabbage). Each bed is surrounded by tall hedges, and these vary from hawthorn, to fuchsia, and even some redcurrant hedges! Even though the walls are 15ft high, they found that they still needed hedges to protect the plants from gales and sea spray.
In the grounds in an animal centre. Judith made friends with Alice the donkey (see more pictures) but the goats and sheep were all snoozing in the afternoon sunshine. In the granary are rabbits and guinea pigs, and also Daisy the wooden cow where you can try your hand at milking (left). You can tell we were the only ones there, otherwise Tim would not have gone anywhere near Daisy!
By coincidence we were in Wick for their annual gala. This was a very entertaining spectacle. A procession of elaborately decorated floats (see more pictures) crawled through the streets of the town, we were most impressed by the Alice in Wonderland float with scenery and characters from the latest film. Also of note were the Dickens, the Robin Hood, and pop start floats. The characters from the floats would descend to shake collecting tins in the crowd, and along with these there were many "walking entrants" (below). The variety, inventiveness and quality put a permanent smile on our faces. It was a very amusing evening.
Having had too much wind in Orkney we now had too little. There had not been a sailing wind for many days, and none forecast. So we decide to motor to Inverness. It was a long day, 70 NM and took us about 15 hours, but the tiller pilot took control so we could relax and enjoy the scenery. There is a tidal gate at Inverness meaning that we could not arrive until late evening. This was a shame because the Inverness Firth is the home of 100+ dolphins, but we could not stop to watch them as we would have run out of light. There was a pod in the narrows around Fort George, having a great time with much splashing about and leaping out of the water. There was also one hanging around outside the marina. This was most off putting, as it would pop up next to the boat and make Judith jump as she was putting out the fenders.
It is now only a short distance through the Caledonian canal back to Oban, so Tim is going to collect our car from home, enabling us to go touring in the Cairngorms and Speyside using Inverness as a base.