Tour 19/22 : Northern Lights

When we came back to the glen,
The winter was turning;
Our goods lay in the snow,
And our houses were burning,
I will go, I will go.

Roddy MacMillan I Will Go

March, 1813. Mr Reid, a Northumbrian sheep manager, had come to inspect Strath Kildonan. He returned to Golspie after being attacked by a mob. The factors panicked, swore in 160 men as special constables, and charged the cannon at Dunrobin. The townsfolk of Golspie - many of them planted Lowlanders - were in uproar at the thought of Highlanders rebelling, and spread rumours that they were planning to hang the factors and burn Dunrobin. The men of Clan Gunn marched into Golspie and halted, waiting for someone to hear their grievance. The sheriff rode out and announced that those who had mobbed Mr Reid would be punished, that the mob should disperse: ministers berated them with the vengeance of God and eternal damnation. The sheriff read the riot act (in English) before returning home, followed by the 21st foot and artillery, a regiment of pressed Irishmen from Fort George. (The choice of the 21st was deliberate: a regiment from Sutherland had helped put down the 1798 rising in Ireland.) But the people of Kildonan, who only wanted their case heard, meekly surrendered to their social superiors. They were evicted to Churchill and Winnipeg to endure a Canadian winter, and their glen was given over to sheep.

Simonde de Sismondi, a Swiss, said in 1837: "if the Marchioness of Stafford was indeed entitled by law to replace an entire province by 29 families of foreigners and hundreds of thousands of sheep, they should hurry up and abolish such an odious law... In Switzerland the law gives the peasant a guarantee of ownership in perpetuity... while the British empire has given the same guarantee to the Scottish lord and left the peasant in insecurity."

Golspie is ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. In the 19th century they were the biggest landowners in Britain with 794,000 acres - an area larger than Lancashire. History has not been kind to them due to the extent of the     Sutherland clearances, masterminded by their factor Patrick Sellar and his ideological companion James Loch. To Sellar, a Lowlander, the Gaelic-speaking natives were 'a slothful parcel of beggars, filthy aborigines, poor savages with a barbarous jargon.' But the Sutherlands and their henchmen were hardly alone: between 1760 and 1860 the entire Highlands were cleared of people and reconfigured to suit modern economic priorities. Where once song lilted across the glen, the plaintive baa of sheep. Where once shelter, warmth, and welcome were guaranteed, tumbled ruins and hard rain. The clearances remain an unhealed wound in the Highland psyche.

Sutherland is a Norse word, the south land of the Vikings. Cait was a Pictish province or sub-kingdom conquered by     Sigurd the Mighty in the 9th century and subsequently split into two counties, SuĂ°rland and Cat-ness (Sutherland and Caithness). For a couple of centuries, Sutherland was a volatile frontier. The Scots appointed a Bishop of Caithness, who ended up mutilated in 1213. His successor Adam was murdered in 1222. Adam's successor Gilbert prudently retired south to Dornoch, as close as possible to the Scottish-held land of Ross.

Dornoch is a handsome little royal burgh with a restored cathedral, a great links golf course and a vast beach with sweeping views, more like Easter Ross than the rest of Sutherland. Heading north, the last coastal town to be set in an agricultural, wooded landscape is Golspie - beyond, the heather and broom sweep down to the sea, settlements become smaller and further apart, and the road switchbacks over a moor on top of high seacliffs. On returning to sea level you are in a different country: the land of Picts, Scots and Gaels left definitively behind for the land of the Norse.

This is Caithness, a horizontal place of large, flat flagstones, small grey towns, wind-blasted crofts, and abrupt seacliffs. When the Vikings colonised Orkney and Shetland they settled Caithness too: place names like Berriedale, Rumster, Occumster, Lybster, Thrumster, Ulbster, Scrabster, Camster, Ires Geo, Stacksigeo, Ulbster Geo, Wick, and Thurso are pure Norse. However the Sinclair Earls of Caithness eventually brought Caithness into the orbit of Scottish kings - they fought on the Scottish side against Haakon IV in 1263's Battle of Largs.

Small fishing villages nestle in tight geos along a cliff-girt coast that only relents at Sinclair's Bay. Across the well-husbanded dales of the Wick and Thurso rivers, the surf pounds in to Dunnet Bay and Thurso Bay. Thurso, claim aficionados, has some of the best surfing waves in Europe. The wind and tides that power these waves are key to future developments in the area. A huge amount of energy is contained in the tides that surge around the top end of Britain, speeding up as they squeeze through the gap between Orkney and the mainland. The Pentland Firth has been described as 'the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy', and the latest research is ongoing into harnessing its power. Today, the future lies in harnessing the power of nature: the atomic age promise of limitless clean energy - as manifested in Caithness' Dounreay nuclear power station - now seemingly quaintly anachronistic.

But if Caithness is known for anything it is John o' Groats, an inconsequential place whose fame rests entirely on Land's End to John o' Groats endurance races. What you might not know is that John o' Groats (and Lands End now we mention it) is a massive fraud. It is the largely unknown Dunnet Head that should be praised. This imposing headland, not John o' Groats, is the most northerly point on the British mainland, a great pile of old red sandstone rearing up between the Pentland Firth and Caithness. In early summer its cliffs are home to puffins, and on a clear evening you stand without any tourist crowds whatsoever and look along the north coast to Ben Loyal, Ben Hope and Foinaven. Tantalisingly close, to the faint sound of drums (Dunnet Head lighthouse has been converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio), the Old Man of Hoy stands sentinel to Orkney.


Dornoch Beach

Clearance statue, Helmsdale

Sutherland from Portmahomack

Portmahomack beach

Glen Calvie kirk

Dunrobin Castle from a distance

Dunrobin Castle from the gardens

Caithness wind turbines

The Stacks of Duncansby near John o Groats

Dunnet Head - northermost point on the mainland

Dunnet Head

Orkney from Caithness