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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: A tribute to souls lost on coastal walk to the Portskerra drownings memorial


By John Davidson


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The Portskerra Drownings memorial overlooking Melvich Bay.
The Portskerra Drownings memorial overlooking Melvich Bay.

The small fishing community of Portskerra on the north coast has a permanent and poignant reminder of the danger of the seas.

It’s difficult to comprehend on a calm early morning walk around the coast how these seas took so many lives so close to their own homes.

The Portskerra Drownings memorial is a lasting tribute to the sailors who died, and a plaque refers to a trio of disasters in 1848, 1890 and 1918.

Portskerra’s last fishing boat was sold in the 1970s and the peaceful area now offers a lovely coastal walk, with views over the bay to Melvich beach and across to the island of Hoy in Orkney.

I started at my base of the Melvich Hotel, conveniently situated on the junction of the minor road that leads down to Portskerra. I popped my boots on before breakfast was due to be served and wandered down the road, past the small newsagents and post office – yet to open for the day – to a fork in the road.

Close-up of the Portskerra Drownings memorial.
Close-up of the Portskerra Drownings memorial.

Keeping right here, there are already tantalising views to the bay in between the houses. A short distance ahead you reach a track off to the right, marked by an ageing fingerpost to the ‘Coastal Path’ as well as a more modern sign pointing to the drownings memorial and car park.

As I plodded down towards the sea, the local sheep and lambs must have thought it was breakfast time for them, as they eagerly came over to the fence bleating loudly.

Where the road bends right towards the bottom, the coastal path is marked straight ahead over a small bridge to a grassy area. However, I continued along the road first to reach the memorial, where there is also a long verse by the celebrated poet Hugh Macintosh, who was born in Portskerra in 1901, about the 1918 disaster.

Another poem by Barbara Mackay of Portskerra is also featured, and both bring the disaster into sharp focus with their reference to not only the names but the individual characters who died.

Past the memorial the road drops to the pier, and I headed past it to a small building from where there’s a fine view of the golden beach.

Melvich Bay with its golden beach.
Melvich Bay with its golden beach.

Returning to the corner, I then took to the coastal path, which follows the fence line over the top of some initially high cliffs. I paused at the first corner to take in the view past the headland to the Dounreay former nuclear complex, which is currently undergoing the long process of decommissioning.

As the grassy path bends left to head around the coast, there are lovely little rock pools below and in the distance I could see Hoy through the haze across the firth.

It was a lovely, fresh morning for a stroll as I followed the occasional marker post along the path, which reaches a bit of a lump at the end. The posts direct you left around the bottom of this rise, but a clear path also climbs directly up and along the edge, so I followed this instead.

As it drops, you reach the car park for the Portskerra slipway – where another fingerpost points back the way to the drownings memorial.

Hut at the harbour.
Hut at the harbour.
The slipway and harbour at Portskerra.
The slipway and harbour at Portskerra.

There’s a nice old fishing hut here and a steep slip drops to the pretty, natural harbour. It’s quiet here today, with no boats or people around, and I imagined what it must have been like here back in the heyday of the herring fishing days.

A few photos of the ‘Olden days at Portskerra’ on a noticeboard helped me picture the scene. Today, I thought, a small beach area in the harbour would make a great launch spot for a kayak.

It was still early as I headed up the short road to the main loop road, so I decided to turn right and follow it all the way round. As it rises, I saw another monument by the roadside, this one dedicated to lives lost on a boat from Sunderland in 1842.

The road climbs again, rather steeply, before heading back inland, but the magnificent views continue from this high route which soon passes the local school before returning to the fork in the road.

I was back at the hotel just in time for a well-earned cup of coffee and a warming breakfast, with another view from the window over Melvich Bay. If only more days began like this!

A small rise leads over to the slipway.
A small rise leads over to the slipway.

Route details

Portskerra coastal walk

Distance 2.5 miles / 4km

Terrain Minor road, grassy coastal path

Start/finish Melvich, Portskerra road end

Map OS Landranger 10; OS Explorer 449

A poignant wander on the far north coast where a tribute to lost sailors offers a pause for thought

Sign to Portskerra slipway along the coast.
Sign to Portskerra slipway along the coast.
The Portskerra Drownings memorial.
The Portskerra Drownings memorial.

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