IT wasn’t yet 7am and already I’d seen two things that lifted the spirits: first the sun rising into an almost cloudless March sky, then a farm sign bearing the message “walkers welcome” in bold letters.
I was at Staxigoe, one of my favourite early-morning spots. On a tranquil day such as this, with only the cries of the birds and the gentle lapping of waves to break the silence, it’s hard to credit that this was once a major herring port and a centre for the export of grain.
The village’s most prominent feature is the large stack standing guard over the harbour. The name comes from two Norse words joined together, “stakkr” (rock or stack) and “gja” or “goe” (inlet).
My starting point for this coastal wander was the village hall car park, where there’s a well donated to the community in 1868 by the owner of Staxigoe’s main herring curing station, the appropriately named William Watters.
A short stretch of road leads to Field of Noss Farm, with its friendly signpost, and I made my way through the farmyard without disturbing anyone. Ignoring an eroded and redundant stile in the gap between two robust sets of fencing, I carried on until I was able to step over some low-hanging barbed wire to get onto the coastal trail.
Down below, a couple of fat seals were lolloping across the gently shelving rocks. The ground was wet and muddy in parts, although not as bad as I’d feared following recent snow and rain. Mind you, I did come close to losing my footing as I attempted to leap nimbly over one of several streams.
There’s a succession of inlets, some with stacks of their own concealed between cliffs, and a small natural arch close to a point marked on the map as Scholl. This is where the trail veers inland towards the boundary wall of Noss Head lighthouse. A gateway to the lighthouse grounds had a semi-circular mudbath spreading out from it so I carried on, carefully bypassing a few more boggy patches.
Earlier, just north of Staxigoe, I had passed a warning sign – wordless, but with a large lightning-flash symbol. It’s from here that a subsea cable has been installed as part of the huge Caithness/Moray transmission project. Now, clambering over a metal barrier close to the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe car park, I found that the side facing away from me had a notice attached saying “ABB CDM area”, then “Keep out” in capitals (with a frankly unnecessary exclamation mark) and, to underline the message, a graphic of a raised hand.
ABB is a company working on the transmission scheme. Are members of the public expected to know what a CDM area is? I certainly don’t. And I’m not too keen on being told to keep out of my own landscape.
In any case, I had already traversed the forbidden zone. No harm done.
I strolled up the Noss Head access road, crossing a gate to go round a lochan with its own mini-island below the lighthouse, then reached a gap in the wall further down where a handy stile had been put in place since my last walk here.
I stood high above Sandigoe beach with a panoramic view of Sinclair’s Bay, its sky-blue surface still and calm. I dug out the binoculars and gazed from left to right, from Reiss sands to Keiss Castle, Warth Hill, Duncansby Head and the Pentland Skerries, with Orkney beyond.
I made my way round deep chasms and towering cliffs to the castle – always a magnificent sight, no matter how often I visit. With the success of the North Coast 500 route, more tourists seem to be finding their way here than ever before, but today I had it to myself.
Sinclair Girnigoe was home to the earls of Caithness and what you see now are the ruins of the 17th-century layout. There’s an excellent series of information panels at regular points along the easy walk from the car park (the direct route) featuring detailed illustrations of what life inside the castle would have been like in its heyday.
Leaving the castle behind, I passed a stack in shallow water where gaps in the seaweed revealed splashes of dark turquoise. Looming ahead were the dunes of Reiss and the luxury Ackergill Tower.
I made my way down to the rocky foreshore and walked across a stretch of white sand. A couple of squat concrete structures above the shore serve as a reminder that during World War II the Caithness coast was on high alert to the threat of invasion from occupied Norway.
A pair of shags sat together on the old slipway at Ackergill, looking for all the world as if they were having a leisurely chat in the sunshine. A dog-walker was the first human I’d clapped eyes on since setting out two-and-a-quarter hours earlier.
I headed up from the harbour and through the village, turning left at a minor junction and following a long, straight concrete track to Upper Ackergill. I turned right at the end and a few yards further on went through an open gate and onto a further track, rougher this time, curving across guttery farmland. I kept as far as possible from a herd of cattle as I picked my way through.
Soon I was alongside the perimeter fence of Wick Airport, and here on its northern edge – unseen from any nearby road – there are extensive remains of bomb and ammunition stores. Planes based at RAF Wick were responsible for, among other things, attacking enemy ships and U-boats.
I emerged at a sharp bend on the single-track Staxigoe/Noss road and continued on towards the village, past the war memorial and down to the harbour. I had a look at two relics of Staxigoe’s seafaring and trading history that survive from the 19th century: the fishermen’s barometer pole and the last of the girnals, its solid walls still intact and the roof space colonised by pigeons.
The sun was high in the sky now, the early chill had gone, and I had worked up a thirst. I had, of course, brought a bottle of water... although it would have been tempting to try a sip from Mr Watters’ well.
Staxigoe, Noss Head and Ackergill
Distance 6.5 miles / 10.5km
Terrain Rough coastal paths, farm tracks, minor roads
Start/finish Staxigoe village hall
Map OS Landranger 12
A leisurely trek around the coastal triangle just to the north of Wick, where landmarks include a ruined castle, a lighthouse and disused RAF buildings