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One-way ticket to paddle glorious Caithness coastline


By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: With the logistics sorted, time to kayak under great cliffs, into hidden caves and around beautiful bays

Along the coast.
Along the coast.

The Latheronwheel children were waiting for the school bus when I turned down to leave the kayak at the harbour – they were still there 15 minutes later when I came back.

The broken-down bus was sitting a few miles away near the top of Berriedale Braes. Twenty minutes later, as I pedalled slowly up the hill, the engine cover was open and a mechanic was working.

I’ve rarely cycled north from Berriedale, the brae’s a bit easier on this side and you see so much from a bike which you miss from a car. Huge swathes of bluebells in the Berriedale Strath. Baby bunnies (probably short-lived) on the verges. All the wild flowers. Views up the coast, past An Dun, to the skerries near Clyth. Two walkers were heading up the John O'Groats Trail towards the cliff-top bird hide.

Once over the top at Newport it’s mostly downhill, just a climb out of Dunbeath after an exhilarating descent over the bridge. Two disappointed motorcyclists were gazing at a ‘closed’ sign on the door of the Laidhay tea-room. The Latheronwheel children had probably gone back home.

Sea cliffs.
Sea cliffs.

It takes a lot of organisation to do a ‘one-way’ paddle but it’s satisfying when it all works and I don’t find I’ve left the spray-deck in the car or the car-keys with the bike.

So now I just needed to don my paddling gear, lock the bike and have a snack before setting out to paddle one of my favourite stretches of coast knowing the car was waiting for me at Berriedale.

The sea was gently rippling, the wind from behind and the grey cloud breaking to warm sun. Indeed too warm – I dress for immersion and soon overheat so a paddle like this is interspersed with rolling practice to cool off at every little bay. After 15 years I’m still seeking that ‘bombproof’ roll…

There are so many caves and arches to explore, so many bays to land! I chose a break at a little cave where the sand and pebbles only gleam under the cliffs at low water. Puffins lined up on the stack below Laidhay, tysties and razorbills flew from low rocks, shags squawked.

After the obligatory paddle through the headland caves I cooled off with another roll just off Dunbeath beach, then headed across the bay towards the white buildings of Dunbeath Castle.

Dunbeath Castle.
Dunbeath Castle.

As always a swell was washing into the castle cave. I didn’t go in this time but you can land on a stony beach, pick your way further in and shine your torch up to the underside of the old, now destroyed, spiral stairs which once wound down from a hidden doorway in the castle.

There is never enough time to do justice to the next stretch of coast under the cliffs. The towering cliffs of kittiwakes and guillemots. The sea caves. The huge sea arch under An Dun. One stony beach after another, increasingly ringed by high cliffs and huge overhangs, a cacophony of seabirds.

Each bay beckons you to land, to explore and beachcomb. There are hidden, dry caves right at the back, once used for purposes legal or illicit, I know not which.

A long dark tunnel links two of the bays, braving falling guano you scramble up over slippery stones and pick you way over a high mark of ancient creels and driftwood. Another tunnel comes in from the side, you can paddle through this bit at high water.

Sea caves.
Sea caves.

The final, small bay tucked under 300-foot cliffs is far and away the most dramatic spot a walker can reach in Caithness – at low springs, you can get all the way on foot from the clifftops near Ramscraigs. For the experienced and brave only!

Sadly, bird flu is spreading in the seabird colonies, I saw several dead birds in the water and the numbers on the cliffs were certainly down. Take care.

The An Dun arch is the high point of the trip but the scenery just carries on, cliffs of folded rock, a high waterfall, more rocky bays, arches, and fine sea caves. Rounding a final corner the stony bay at Berriedale appears backed by the old cottages, if you’ve timed it for high tide you can just paddle into the river mouth under the old castle with its little kittiwake colony, roll in the now-fresh water to wash the salt off, then pull the boat up onto the little quay.

Just a question now of trolleying the boat up to the car, packing up and driving back to Latheronwheel for the bike!

Guillemots and razorbills.
Guillemots and razorbills.
The high arch of An Dun.
The high arch of An Dun.

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