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Clifftop trail at Groats and Duncansby Head is a favourite walk

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Seals and swell are best experienced from a distance and this walk from the end of the road is ideal

The Stacks of Duncansby.
The Stacks of Duncansby.

At this dark time of year it is all the more important to make the effort to get out and about.

One of the few good things from 2020 is that many more people have come to enjoy the benefits of walking and cycling.

In Scotland, you are never a long way from places of quiet beauty far removed from the problems currently plaguing humanity.

The big car park at John O'Groats was completely empty when I arrived, the day was looking good for mid-December, mild with moderating south winds and morning sunshine. A big swell was rolling in from the east and the boars of Duncansby looked ferocious with wind against a spring tide.

Only a few steps from the campsite along the popular path and already there was a group of eider ducks dipping under the breaking surf and the heads of a couple of seals bobbing in the swell.

Beyond the Ness, along the Bay of Sannick, were quite a number of grey seal pups, some white and less than three weeks old still being suckled by their mothers. I kept my distance and they were unperturbed, obviously used to seeing people.

A seal and her pup on the beach.
A seal and her pup on the beach.

Only in the last 20 or so years have the seals recolonised the big stony bays south of Duncansby Head and this was the first year I’d seen more than the occasional single pup at this very accessible spot near the road. Most of the local grey seals pup in late October or November.

I crossed the headland accompanied by the roar of breakers below, the stacks were lit yellow by the low sun and the air milky with salt spray. The tide was high, the remaining seals and pups could be seen confined to the top of the stony beaches under the cliffs, the characteristic pungent smell of seal beaches wafting upwards.

White waves were smashing right through the hole in the cliffs known as Thirle Door, a place you can easily scramble through or kayak up to on a calm summer day. Not this time.

It can be quite busy with tourists till past the stacks but few continue further along the John O’Groats Trail and the clifftop path becomes a narrow and often very wet trod. A mile further on is Fast Geo, another seal bay, you can scramble down to the rocky beach or land a kayak if you wish.

The path then seems to head inland, but is simply avoiding a big detour round the next promontory and soon the spectacular Wifie Geo appears below with its huge stack and three tunnels through the headland. With surf smashing through the main passage I had no wish to be down there in the boat, though this is one of the top two or three must-paddle spots in the north.

Although this is a favourite walk of mine, I’m never sure of the best way to continue, a direct route to Skirza is extremely boggy but there are also some difficult bits if you follow the official line along the clifftops. This route, though, has better views, down to the wild seas and out across the salt-hazy Freswick Bay towards Bucholie Castle with Noss Head far beyond.

Eventually, with wet feet, you emerge at an old quarry above the deep and sinister slot of Long Geo. I chose to follow the track up to the farm rather than continue winding round the headland on the trail but two loose dogs set up such a racket you’d have heard them all over Skirza and Freswick.

I have no fear of aggressive dogs but you need to keep facing them so they don’t get behind you and go for your ankles. All landowners in Scotland should remember that walkers, cyclists and horse-riders have the right of responsible access along any track as long as they don’t intrude on the immediate privacy of dwellings. There should be no off-putting signs or canines!

I always end up on the tempting track which heads north from Freswick but comes to end in old peat workings on Black Hill. On the map it’s just a mile over the moor to the Biel of Duncansby but this is very rough and boggy country – I’ve never found a good route – allow an hour to pick your way round Loch Lomishan and eventually, with relief, emerge on easy ground near the isolated croft.

It’s then just an amble down the road to Groats with grand views ahead over the Firth to Stroma and Orkney. There were now, maybe, half a dozen vehicles in the whole car park.

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