Towns / Cities Visited: 125
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 6,742
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,177,138
We awoke, packed our things, and were tumbling into the car before we knew it. Today we would be bidding adieu to Inverness and heading to the very northernmost tip of Scotland, officially completing our journey from the very bottom of Britain, at Lizard Point, to the very top, at Dunnet Head. Most people count the journey as from Land’s End in the south, to John O’Groats in the north, despite neither of them technically being the most far reaching, but as we are completionists we decided to be safe and visit both.
Before we made the trip up though, we had one last place to visit nearby, a site that is some 4000 years old; Clava Cairns, a group of three Stone Age circular chamber tombs located at Balnuaran of Clava. These cairns may not be complete, and may not have quite the ‘wow’ factor that Newgrange has in Ireland, but there is something about this collection of ancient burial sites, nestled beneath the sprawling branches of grand old trees, that stirs a magical feeling within you. Much like the other Stone Age tombs across Britain, this site consists not only of the remains of these once enclosed places of rest, but also of a number of monolithic standing stones, and a series of large kerb stones bordering the tombs which have been carved with cup and ring marks. It is particularly fascinating to discover that when the kerb stones were set in place, it was not simply their size and shape that was taken into account, but they are, in fact, also graded by colour; with the larger, redder stones located towards the south west, and the smaller, whiter ones towards the entrance at the north east. Although they are heavily weathered, and mottled with lichen, if you look closely you can see the subtle differences. It is more than a little impressive how much effort and thought went into the placement of every single stone here; although given that mortar was yet to be invented, it makes more than a little sense.
There is a timeless mystery in the air here, and as you walk down the now uncovered passage to the centre of the tombs, its hard for your imagination not to run wild with ideas of what our ancestors must have thought and believed; especially given that such huge and painstakingly constructed memorials were erected to house their remains. Images flash before you of those yet to discover the wonders of metalworking and complex mathematics as they came to pay their respects on the rise of the midwinter sun, as it aligned perfectly with their gravity defying stone passageways. As you tottle over the moss covered stones, and bask in the way the light plays amongst the pale grey trunks of the trees, it is with a knowledge that before time weathered their final resting place, those interred were most certainly resting in peace.
I could have sat and daydreamed amongst the woods all day, but the air was chilly and we had a long journey ahead of us, so we bundled back into the car, and began our three hour drive north, with a quick stop beside the water at Dunbeath to eat our packed lunch.
The biting wind had only worsened by the time we arrived at the tip of Scotland, and it was with jackets zipped up and hoods on that we wandered the dirt path towards the view out to the Orkney Islands on the horizon, and the yellow trimmed Dunnet Head Lighthouse. With dark clouds looming overhead, threatening to pummel the sheer cliffs with a storm, I wouldn’t help but think that this beacon would be needed more than usual this coming evening. This beautiful lighthouse was built in 1831 and has been protecting ships from the cliffs of the headlands ever since; although it is no longer manned since its automation in 1989. Its designer was none other that Robert Stevenson, a renowned Scottish civil engineer who is best know for his lighthouses; but who also happens to be the grandfather of world famous author Robert Louis Stevenson, the mind behind the classics ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, a personal favourite of mine.
After a moment of quiet reflection, we scrambled back to the car and drove the short distance to our next stop. Despite sounding like an old pub, or a farmer we happened to run into on out travels, John O’Groats is, in fact, a small village. This little place acts as the other end of the journey so many take, from Land’s End at the most south westerly point of England, to this, the most north easterly point of Scotland. This route marks the longest distance between two inhabited British points on the mainland. Unsurprisingly this place is actually named after a person, Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who used to run a ferry from this point to the Orkney Islands after they were taken back from Norwegian ownership in the late 15th century.
The town itself is small and rather uninspiring, but after a quick round of photo taking we bought some chips and gravy from a food van to help warm our bones in the safety of our car. One last quick drive down the road brought us to our last location, Duncansby Head Lighthouse, located at the edge of the head. Funnily enough, this lighthouse was designed by David Stevenson, another grandson of Robert Stevenson, and cousin to Robert Louis.
The day was now growing old, and we made our way south to the tiny town of Thrumster, and our incredibly friendly and welcoming Airbnb host, Raymond. Not only did he make us feel at home immediately, like we were old friends who’d popped in for a visit, he even invited us to sit and share some soup with himself and a member of the choir he is in, who was popping round before they both went to practice. Apparently, he and his guests from the night before had whipped up a huge meal in some epic food adventure, and there was more than enough left overs. Complete with bread and wine we were already flabbergasted by his hospitality, but the feast continued as he shared the remaining fish and potato bake he had warming in the oven. Satiated by our impromptu two course meal, Raymond scampered off with his choirmate and we were left to try and get some work done. Alas, it wasn’t long until we were left in the dark as the power went out. After some brief messaging, and an hour or so, Raymond’s father popped around to flick it back on from the fusebox tucked away beyond our discovery.
Crisis averted, we were soon cooking the pork we had intended to make a meal with, as it wouldn’t make it the long journey we would be making tomorrow, and settling in for a comfortable sleep in the spacious king sized bed we were gifted with.
As I lay in the quiet of this quaint rural town, my mind wandered back to the cliffs beside Dunnet Head Lighthouse. In the whistle of the wind, I could almost hear the cries of joy from lost sailors as the unique pattern of flashes gave them orientation when all hope seemed lost. The very first lighthouses, from as far back as the 3rd century BC, were originally used as a call home; a guide into safe harbours; however, what once drew us in, now sends us away.
There is something stoic about these silent sentinels, unyielding in their protection. I thought of all of the wayward sea farers who have been guided by their light, and kept from certain doom by these often lonely places. For more than three hundred years, they have been used to warn of danger; they are the light in dark places, when all other lights go out. Although sailors are now gifted with the wonders of modern technology, from sonar to GPS, and the relevance and need for lighthouses has greatly declined, there was a long period of time where one reliable lighthouse owner and his carefully tended lantern was all that stood between life and death to ships during a storm. These timeless beacons were, and still are, the unfaltering protector in choppy seas and cloudless nights, they are the watchtower over wild waves, the direction in the dark, and the failsafe through the fog. Although we are so often taught to associate light with safety, it is with great juxtaposition that we turn from these places and sail ahead into the darkness with confidence. When upon the waves, we trust them, unwaveringly; and they, in turn, harmlessly keep us from harm.