Thurso To Helmsdale By Wick And Dunbeath

Northern Coasts

ROUTE LENGTH: 89 MILES

By Road

From Thurso, follow A9 south, then turn left to Halkirk. Return to A9, turning right, then taking immediate left off onto A882 to Watten. At Watten, turn left onto B870, following minor roads to Halcro and Bower. Follow B876 north to Castletown, then take right, coming to Old Olrig, and followA836 to Dunnet and then to John o’ Groats, before turning south to A99 to Freewick and then toAckergill and Wick.

Follow A99 to Whaligoe and Lybster, before reaching Latheron at the A9 junction. Join A9, turning left onto it (south) – drive to Dunbeath, before carrying on down the coast to Helmsdale.

By Cycle

Thurso Old St Peter’s is on Wilson Lane, on the NE side of the town, close to the shore and off HighStreet. From there, ride along High Street and then Traill Street, before taking the B874 out of town (past train station, high school and Dunbar Hospital). Ride to Halkirk on the River Thurso. After crossing the bridge, turn left onto Crescent Street. The old abbey and church well will be on the left after the crescent itself. Rejoin the B874 (Sinclair Street), turning left to carry on the pilgrimage, or turning right to explore Halkirk more.

From Halkirk cycle along B874, then turn right onto A9, then onto A882 to Watten. Turn left onto Station Road (B870), turning left at end onto B874. Where this road carries onto a left turn, follow on, then turn left at road’s end and follow this road to Halcrow.

Follow road after Halcrow to junction with B876, and turn left here. This will lead to Castletown. At Castletown, entering by Harland Gardens, turn right onto A836. Coming to Old Olrig, and follow A836 to Dunnet and then to John o’ Groats, before turning south to A99 to Freewick and then toAckergill and Wick.

Follow A99 to Whaligoe and Lybster, before reaching Latheron at the A9 junction. Join A9, turning left onto it (south) – drive to Dunbeath, before carrying on down the coast to Helmsdale.

By Public Transport

From Thurso, you can take the train or the nos. 81 or 82 to Wick. From Wick the X97 takes you to Dunbeath. From Dunbeath the X99 goes to Helmsdale.

To check times go to Traveline Scotland and click on Plan your Journey on left side of page.

If time allows it is good to sample inland Caithness first, rather than simply follow the rocky and dramatic coastline. It is big open country with much fertile ground rising gradually to moorland and then hills in the south. The early importance of Thurso is shown in the substantial ruins of Old St Peter’s Church on the Bay. The Bishop also had a residence here. But Halkirk, south of Thurso, was the original centre of the Caithness diocese, with dedications to St Drostan and St Fergus on the site of the old parish church. The more recent planned village here was created by Sir John Sinclair the agricultural improver.

Rich agricultural land continues on the road to Watten where there was a medieval convent of St Catherine. Coming round the foot of Loch Watten turn back towards Halcro and then Bower, both traditional church locations though the latter is an ivy covered ruin. Going back north towards Castletown divert west to Old Olrig where St Trothan’s Church is a fine example of the medieval church sites. Trothan may be a version of St Drostan who is also recalled after the Norse period as St Trostan. There is sense of long tradition here, made somehow more orderly by the period of Norse rule and the subsequent systematic absorption of Caithness into Scotland.

Starting on the coast road there is a more vivid dramatic feel to both the landscape and the history. Some remarkable forts and castles perch on the sea cliffs, but the traditional churches keep coming. At Dunnet the old church is still in use, likewise at Canisbay Kirkstyle which was dedicated in the founding Celtic period to St Drostan. These locations relate respectively to Dunnet Head and John O Groats, which looks out towards the island of Stroma. Heading south by Freswick and Keiss we approach the exceptional cliff top strongholds of Ackergill, Girnigoe and Castle Sinclair, which speak volumes about the centuries of warlike struggle for power in Caithness. The old county town of Wick comes next with its successive harbour developments and its long importance as a fishing port. The parish church in the High Street was the site of St Fergus’ Kirk, and there is a Sinclair burial aisle in the burial ground and a medieval effigy supposedly representing Fergus. Wick has some handsome architecture including its churches and the Pulteneytown harbour which was reconstructed by Thomas Telford.

South of Wick there is another grim tower on the cliff as a warning signal that the drama continues, though the road runs inland for a while returning to the coast at Ulbster. There was a medieval Chapel of St Martin in the burial ground here, now another Sinclair burial aisle. The Ulbster Stack is in the sea a little to the north. Nature’s rock artistry is notable in Caithness inspiring many human imitators. At Whaligoe further south access to the harbour is by three hundred steps cut in the cliffs. Three miles south at Clyth is the ‘Hill of Many Stanes’, a prehistoric construction of over two hundred flagstone boulders in twenty two rows. Next north of the main road at Lybster are the Grey Cairns of Camster, a truly monumental testimony to our ancestors’ respect for the dead- and a mighty work in Caithness stone. Lybster is a planned fishing village like Latheronwheel, while Latheron is an older parish centre. The huge burial ground here contains the historic parish kirk, now the Clan Gunn heritage centre, parts of the medieval church absorbed into a burial aisle, and an impressive freestanding bell tower.

We are now approaching the Caithness-Sutherland border once again, but not before stopping at Dunbeath with its magnificent cliff top castle and a fine heritage centre in the former village school. In trying to tell the story of this part the centre is in effect telling the story of Caithness. An additional attraction is the focus on the modern novelist and essayist, Neil Gunn, whose work is a saga of Highland history and life that then flows into a spiritual stream. Gunn belongs to Caithness and Sutherland, but his art is universal and a wonderful way to connect with the inner meanings of the landscapes and centuries through which we have travelled.

Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine,
Voice of the Son of the stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the Father of heaven.

Pilgrim Journeys

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