After making our way across country we found ourselves parked in the dunes at Dunnet Bay Caravan Club site feeling distinctly higgledy-piggledy. Sleeping with one corner of the van slightly downhill is something we haven’t got used to – but we still managed our full ten hours of deep sleep. We definitely sleep better in the van than we do anywhere else.
Within minutes of arriving Shirley had her bike off the back and was off into the village to find out whether St John’s Loch was worth buying a permit for a few hours’ fishing. It wasn’t long before she was back to report that the loch really needed a boat so she’d give it a miss but I should get on my bike and go with her to visit the Dunnet Gin Distillery just up the road. The word gin was enough to get me off my bahookie and onto my bike. We were too late to get a distillery tour but we did get an interesting explanation of how this new distillery uses locally grown herbs and plants to produce unique types of gin and vodka. We bought a bottle of Rock Rose gin and a couple of miniatures of vodka and pedalled back, delighted with our find.
The next morning we set off for a touristy day in this most northerly part of the UK mainland. Our first stop was Dunnet Head, which is in fact the most northerly point – not John O’Groats as most people believe. There is an RSPB centre there with a lot of interesting information about sea birds – we also discovered that if we’d been there the day before we could have joined a guided tour of the headland with one of their rangers. It seemed that we could also have parked up overnight. In other words we paid £20 to sleep on a tilt when we could have slept on the level for nothing. Hindsight eh?
Moving on we arrived at John O’Groats and gave into temptation with cream scones and coffee. We hoped to join one of their wild life cruises but it turns out we were ten days too early for that. Not doing well with our planning here at all! There is also an option here for a day trip to the Orkney Islands that includes a bus tour of some of the Orkney’s main attractions but our two canine companions made that impractical for us.
Finally we made our way up to Duncansby Head where Shirley rashly promised that we would see puffins. We didn’t … but nonetheless it was the highlight of the day – the incredible stacks in the bay are a sight to behold.
The signpost says it’s a short walk but it turned out to be quite challenging, especially on the way back over the steep fields to the car park. Watching the seabirds sweeping out to sea to feed then shooting back to their nests tucked into the rocks is fascinating and quite hypnotic, if a bit noisy and smelly. Given that we’re in one of the most remote parts of the British Isles it really is amazing how many people come to visit. On this occasion we met a party of Australian students making our adventure seem quite small in comparison.
Turning right at the very top of the British Isles we started our journey south via Wick. Here we happened upon a fantastic Tesco supermarket. I know this blog isn’t about supermarkets but by then big ones were a true rarity and anyway, we needed new heads for our electric toothbrushes. These are hard to find in small Co-ops in the back of beyond.
The plan was to find a spot to wild camp for the night and we left Wick with that aim in mind. Our first attempt was Lybster Harbour, as sometimes harbours allow motorhomes to park up for a small fee. Lybster doesn’t. It’s too small and also – other motorhomers be warned – it is a very tight spot to turn around in when you discover that they don’t accept overnight parking. Driving on we found a parking place on a track called ‘the road to nowhere” where the bleak environment and slightly spooky name gave us the creeps, so we moved on but not until we’d cooked our tea of steak and vegetables. Yum. The one positive thing about the ‘road to nowhere’ was that it had a mobile phone mast so we could get on the Internet and look for somewhere else. We discovered that Dunbeath Harbour allows motorhomers to park and we were only 5 miles away. Following instructions we made our way right to the end of the harbour road and found ourselves in a sheltered, level area with picnic benches and our own beach. The dogs voted this the best yet and after scampering around on the beach (them not us) we all settled down for a long quiet night with the sound of the waves to lull us to sleep.
(Edit 2023) I recently heard from a member of the local community at Dunbeath to say the following:
we now have donation boxes up for those who are able to pop a couple of pounds in for camping overnight at our harbour and beach area. This is so that we can keep adding to the area for visitors. We have just ordered new benches and picnic tables, are putting in a new path. Have a toy library and games and plan to put some bbq areas on the site as well.
Thank you Dunbeath for your hospitality. It is much appreciated.
We were a bit reluctant to leave the next morning but it’s important not to overstay ones welcome when small local communities are so hospitable, so off we went again. Next stop – Helmsdale Harbour where we discovered to our surprise that this is another harbour where motorhomes are welcomed. It’s a bigger harbour meaning a lot more room and we found a row of them all enjoying the hospitality of the little town. We spent a happy couple of hours in their excellent multi media presentation about the Highland Clearances (Timespan) and wandered around the few shops before we made our first mistake of the day – we left. Hindsight again but we really should have stayed there. It had a companionable feeling with motorhomes from several different countries and the locals were obviously happy to play host to tourists spending a little money and enjoying the very pretty town. We decided instead to move on and find a site and that’s when it went a bit downhill – literally.
About 22 years ago our family had a short holiday on a huge holiday park near Dornoch. I won’t name it here because other people’s experience might be very different but I remember feeling that it was a bit sad and exposed and that there wasn’t much to do. You know that way when you see an advert and you think ‘It must have improved a lot in all these years’? The site we wanted wasn’t available and I saw the advert and the price was good and the rest is … yes you guessed it.
To be fair there is nothing wrong with the site in terms of the camping area itself and the facilities – as in toilets, showers and electric. The problem is three fold. First of all there is a complete disregard for the notices pinned around the place with the usual requests to basically behave with some regard for other people. Large dogs (off the lead) and gangs of kids and dads with footballs roam the camping field and, inevitably, cause ‘incidents’. I’m not talking football hooligans here; just the occasional bump of a football hitting the van and on one occasion a small child getting accidentally embroiled in a dog disagreement. At no time did a member of staff appear, so anarchy had free rein. The ‘entertainment’ was never going to be on our to do list but we do love a game of pool. On the second day a drunken man, waiting to watch the football in the bar, broke the mechanism on the pool table with his fists because it wouldn’t work. We departed quickly. The third and probably most disturbing thing about the park is harder to explain. The whole place had a depressing feeling that made us want to run away. It has hundreds of static caravans, many of which are owned by people who return several times a year. Most of the punters we saw looked as miserable as we felt. We were completely drained of energy and all the joy we’d felt on our travels just left us – so after staying three nights and paying for four we did the only sensible thing. We left. Thirty miles down the road and the flattened feeling lifted completely and we were back to our normal cheerful selves. Make of it what you will but I for one believe that some places have an energy that can suck the joy right out of you. We won’t be back.
We’re in Dingwall now and on a Camping and Caravan Club site close to the town. We’ve got wifi for the first time in several days and all is quiet and peaceful here. We have plans to meet up with old friends and some other exciting exploring possibilities for the few days before we move on to the Highland Motorhomers Meet near Loch Ness. All is well in the Seabury-Hart camp.