After we said goodbye to our private group at Stornoway Airport from where they flew back to Glasgow, we took the ferry back to Ullapool on the mainland. I used the fact of being already in the North Highlands to do a recce for a private guided archaeology themed tour in the north Highlands and on the Isle of Lewis in 2020. This took me to Caithness, which must have been a very busy place in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age. The landscape is littered with remains of cairns, brochs, round houses, standing stones and other signs of the people that lived here.
Caithness is also called the Flow Country, which means that there is moor all around, so very wet and boggy underfoot. Fortunately there are board walks to the major sites but if you want to explore further, be prepared for wet feet! Since people lived here in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, it must have been much drier in order to be able to grow crops and having time to spare for building cairns, brochs and quarrying and erecting standing stones.
Bog cotton everywhere in the Flow Country of Caithness
The Grey Cairns of Camster, a pair of Neolithic tombs originally built more than 5,000 years ago, are a highlight. There are two cairns, a round cairn and a long, horned cairn. The round cairn has one chamber and the long cairn has two chambers. The entrances to the chambers are low, but if you are prepared to crouch, you can go into all the chambers and admire the skills these chambers were built with. You will find these types of cairns all over Caithness, but the Grey Cairns of Camster are the best preserved.
Grey Cairns of Camster: long cairn from the round cairn
Inside the round cairn
Everybody knows about the stone circles with the stones facing inward, but Caithness has some unusual arrangements. Think of a hillside many stones in rows. There are many in Caithness. The most impressive one is the Hill o'Many Stanes near Lybster with 200 stones erected in more than 22 rows. Such a large arrangement of stone rows is rare, and comparable sites are only found in a few places in Europe.
And what about stones placed in a horse-shoe shape with their sides pointing inwards?
Brochs, rounds towers with a double wall, are unique for Scotland. Most brochs on the west coast and on Orkney and Shetland are along the coast, but in Caithness many are inland and close to each other. They are on prominent positions, but while on Orkney and Shetland you can imagine that the brochs, apart from being a dwelling, also had a defensive role, in Caithness you get much more the feeling that they are just the residence of the most important family in the community.
The Whaligoe steps are from a more recent date. In the 18th and 19th century herring and other fish were landed down at the natural harbour between two sea cliffs and woman after gutting and salting the fish took them in baskets up the 365 flagstone steps to be taken to Wick. They also took barrels down to put the fish in before being shipped to the Central Belt. The Whaligoe Steps is a man-made stairway of 365 steps that descend to what was once a landing place for fishing boats.
Whaligoe harbour and steps
It was a wonderful recce and we are looking forward to taking the group to Caithness, but I was very disappointed about the visitor facilities. Parking was very limited on most sites and trails have not been maintained for a very long time.