“An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished by this wide extent of hopeless sterility,”Samuel Johnson wrote about the north Scottish Highlands. One of the biggest shocks of my summer travel in this part of the world was the extreme difference between England and Scotland, which are adjacent. If there hadn’t been a sign, I wouldn’t have known I was entering Scotland. But England and Scotland proved as different as Arizona and Vermont, which are 2,500 miles apart. It didn’t take many miles pst the border for Scotland to develop its own character.
The A838 and A836 that John, Trish, Ruth and I drove from Durness to John O’Groats were generally no better than paved track and mostly one lane. I was glad that John, expert driver and patience personified (unlike me), was at the wheel the entire time. There were frequent “passing places” where I could stop holding my breath and unclench.
Durness was a series of what appeared to be unoccupied houses strung along the road atop a cliff. Thanks to Lonely Planet, I learned that this was John Lennon’s boyhood summer holiday place. It was a gloriously sunny day, which was rare in a village just a few miles west of Cape Wrath, but no one was about. We went into a restaurant for lunch and had to leave because no one came to serve us. It felt like a place inhabited only by ghosts. We stopped at a craft village at Bainakeil, once an early warning radar station, and found few of its bunker-like shops opened. Perhaps it was because it was Sunday, but it was also sun day and tourist time.
The undulating A838 with grand scenery but few trees and no buildings took us 37 miles west to Tongue. A good deal of the time we were circling Loch Eriboll, a one-time deepwater Royal Navy anchorage that those in service called Loch ‘Orrible because of the weather. I wrote in my travel log, “not many attractions but awesome scenery all day long.”
Passing through Bettyhill, one of half a dozen tiny villages with no one to wave hello to and no place to stop for a cold drink, I read in Lonely Planet that this was a crofting community of tenant farmers kicked off the land during the Clearances. Life is hard here, hence few residents.
Thurso was the only typical town along the Top. Norse for “Thor’s River”, Thurso is “an unlikely surfing center” according to Lonely Planet, but our July day had turned cold and drab so we saw only people pumping gas or buying groceries. Right before Thurso was Scrabster, an oil storage port and unlikely anchorage for the Royal Yacht when the family used to come to Castle Mey to visit the Queen Mother.
We stayed 2 nights in Castletown. The only person I saw the entire time was a kind woman running the B & B in a fortress-like, walled mansion where we stayed in a very cold attic room. Every time she saw me she jumped as if she had seen a ghost. By this time I wasn’t surprised. From here we explored Dunnet and Duncansby Heads, the Queen Mother’s remote, much-loved Mey, and The Orkneys. At both Heads we hiked but saw more sheep than people and were glad to get back to the warmth and windlessness of our rented Vauxhall.
Passing through the tourist oriented village of John O’Groats I saw absolutely no one. No surprise there.