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Dunnet Head is a fine objective when the weather plays ball

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH Leave those indoor tasks behind and make the most of the freedom – when you can get it!

A spectacular view from Dunnet Head.
A spectacular view from Dunnet Head.

Spring is slowly making an appearance between days of gale or sleet. Suddenly there is a rare, perfect day of unbroken blue skies and views so clear that from Olrig Hill the snowy top of Sutherland’s highest peak, Ben More Assynt, can be sharply seen some 60 miles away.

On such days there’s a strange quietude about the country as life slowly awakens, blinking into the sun. The first primroses appear on steep grassy slopes and upland rivers and burns gently sing the day long on their way to the sea.

Most people who work outdoors are far too busy to notice the larks and early flowers, there are so many tasks needing doing at this time of year, calving, lambing, ploughing, planting, building…

Others are forced indoors by their occupation, I spent far too much time working in offices when the only relief was a brief escape at lunchtime or a long cycle home by Broubster and Halkirk.

So if you are fortunate enough to have freedom of choice and a fine day turns up, just put off those indoor tasks, however urgent, and get out there. As Donald MacDonald says, ‘Life’s too short for ironing shirts!’

Having said that, I found myself spending the whole of the best day so far this year planting trees. Well, at least I was out in the sunshine – by afternoon I realised I needed both sunscreen and a hat! But whatever the weather, I always go out for an hour or two first thing in the morning.

Peedie Bay with no sand.
Peedie Bay with no sand.

Dunnet Head is not far from home and always makes a good objective when a fine morning beckons. Ten years ago I could run to the lighthouse and back from home, a distance of 23 miles, over the hill, along Dunnet beach and out through Brough. Now it is quite enough to cycle.

The day dawned frosty with little wind and I took a whole leisurely morning over the trip. Already early tourists were making an appearance, a campervan had overnighted below the Head and there were one or two others on the road like the first bees awakened by the sun.

Cape Wrath could be seen, hazily, in the far west beyond the high peaks of Sutherland. I scrambled out as far north as you can get below the lighthouse to look across to the Hoy cliffs and watch the white-capped waves and tides of the Pentland Firth, glad not to be out in the kayak. Fulmar pairs already occupied ledges and rafts of guillemots drifted on the water far below.

To walk right round Dunnet Head is best given a full day, but a good morning’s walk is just to go out and back from Dwarwick. Cross the hill to the Peedie Sands and carry on. Not that there’s much sand at the moment, it’s all been scoured away by the storms and the bay is mostly bare rock and boulder. It will return by summer.

The well near the old chapel, Dunnet Head.
The well near the old chapel, Dunnet Head.

There’s always an awkward wet spot to cross at a ruin just beyond Peedie Bay. The building was, I think, once the terminal of an undersea cable to Orkney. Beyond, a delightful little path runs along close to the edge of the low cliffs, and after another mile you reach the remains of an old chapel – there are signs of former cultivation here and this may once have been a hermitage site.

The path onwards climbs sunny slopes amid bracken, one of the more attractive places on the headland, before gaining the top of the higher cliffs and rounding a deep, unfriendly geo. I often follow the ridge over Dunnet Hill back to the road and walk through Brough, but it’s just as good to return much the same way.

I kept further inland, discovering an old well just a little way above the chapel, clear water running out of small rocky cleft. Beyond, just above the cliffs, is the Loch of Bushta, a lovely spot on a sunny morning with water lapping on heathery shores.

An otter path crosses the short stretch of moorland linking the top of a geo to the outflow. Sometimes there may be a large flock of ducks in residence. The loch has a sandy floor at the eastern end and gives a fine swim on a warm day.

Quite a few folk had taken the opportunity to walk out with dogs or along Dunnet Beach during this early foretaste of spring, by the following day it was blowing half a gale again!

Loch of Bushta.
Loch of Bushta.

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