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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Storm Isha? Nothing more than an old-fashioned Caithness gale!

By Ben MacGregor

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Passing squall, Dunnet Head.
Passing squall, Dunnet Head.

Blizzards and storms used to be the the norm in a Caithness winter and life would just carry on, you went out unless the roads were blocked with drifts or there were too many slates flying about.

Nobody would dream of cancelling events or closing Dounreay or even schools just because of weather.

Winters have mostly been much more gentle in recent years and now we have that strange risk-averse culture which closes everything down when we get snow or wind, which would hardly have been noticed 30 years ago.

Even if roads were blocked the trains would almost always get through… now it is the trains that are first to stop running. We need to remember that this is the north of Scotland, where severe weather is normal in winter, and just keep going!

Storm Isha was just an old-fashioned Caithness gale, a bit strong for cycling but nothing to get worried about. It did, though, snap quite a few trees in my wood, trees which are now much too tall, and one flew through the air, crashed onto the log cabin and broke in three. The cabin structure survived fine but a few big holes in the roof now need patching.

After the windy night the morning was bright and clear with just the occasional hail squall.

Remains of the old chapel.
Remains of the old chapel.

Great conditions for a favourite short walk of mine, out from Dwarwick past the Peedie Sands and on along the Dunnet Head cliffs to the remains of the old chapel above Chapel Geo.

The sky had that lovely light of very early spring, the air fresh with white-capped breakers rolling into Dunnet Bay. The wind was mostly a force seven but strengthening to eight in the occasional squall with long lines of white foam forming on the sea.

A good path climbs up over the headland then descends to Peedie, sometimes just a bit too close to the clifftops for comfort in such windy conditions. But it’s easy to walk a little further inland.

Big waves were breaking over the boulders at the back of the beach, the waterfall at the end of the bay roaring with all the rain and melting snow. Several small waterfalls were blowing backwards in clouds of spray, bigger falls nearer the lighthouse can be spectacular and the clouds of back-blowing white water can easily be seen from Thurso.

Here, just inland from the clifftops, is the Loch of Bushta, reflecting the blue sky and only gently ruffled by the wind. Little trods, probably former sheep paths, lead through the heather and can be followed all the way from Dwarwick to the lighthouse.

An old hoary cairn on one of the ‘cowls’, old peat workings beyond.
An old hoary cairn on one of the ‘cowls’, old peat workings beyond.

A squall was turning the sea white as I crossed another boggy patch to the lichened remains of the old chapel. The onward path kept too near the cliffs for my liking so I climbed the steep slopes behind then turned inland with my back to the wind. A slightly drier ridge across the spine of the headland gives the easiest walking, across Dunnet Hill and some little tops with the odd names of One Cowl, Two Cowls and Three Cowls, each topped by a small hoary cairn looking as if it has been there for ever.

To save time – I was just out for the morning – I headed back towards West Dunnet, aiming for the house at the end of the road. I’m always amazed at the extent of the old peat workings here, over a square mile of moor has been completely changed by centuries of peat cutting for fuel. A maze of soft bogs, pools and narrow lines of raised peat marking boundaries between ancient rights.

Old, mostly flooded, tracks twist and fork. Generations of crofters’ hard graft. Nobody does it now, society has completely changed. And the church, which would have been the centre of the community for hundreds of years, sits hidden and forgotten, facing inevitable closure with a congregation in low single figures.

Clouds and back-blowing waterfall.
Clouds and back-blowing waterfall.

I took the West Links path and followed the road back towards Dwarwick, sheltering briefly from a vicious squall which swept sheets of hail and rain inward from the sea. Then the sun came out again, the sky was blue and the next showers just distant white cumulonimbus on the horizon.

Force seven or no, someone was out kite-buggying on the Dunnet Sands, hurtling along the water’s edge towed by a small parachute kite.

Do not let the dire warnings of the forecasters deter you from going out. Do not cancel things. Rarely is it as bad as predicted, and you can be sure that the worst weather will not be forecasted!

Peedie Bay.
Peedie Bay.

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