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Stairway to Haven

By John Davidson

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The Whaligoe Steps descending the cliffs to the flat area called the Bink.
The Whaligoe Steps descending the cliffs to the flat area called the Bink.

Combining two short walks that sit almost side by side, this little outing has a real sense of adventure about it. It takes you to a 5,000-year-old burial cairn before exploring a unique fishing port that involves a descent and reascent that requires respect.

There are somewhere between 330 and 365 steps – depending on which account you believe (I didn’t count them myself!) – leading down to the harbour at Whaligoe. If you believe the higher figure, that’s more steps than there are up to Big Ben.

The setting is slightly different from the inside of the Elizabeth Tower at the Westminster Parliament, though. The steps at Whaligoe were built from 1792 to enable fish to be carried from the “inlet of the whale” to the road and on to the market at Wick eight miles to the north.

They twist and turn down 250ft cliffs with precipitous drops to a landing area known as the Haven that has been used as a fishing port since at least the 17th century. When the steps were built, a flat area known as the Bink was created for landing the cod, haddock or ling that was brought ashore and boats were also secured there. You can see evidence of all this history still lying around, from chains and loops to what I assume is a circular well or wash basin.

There’s a small area for parking at the end of a row of houses at the top of the steps but I’d first visited the Cairn o’ Get, which is accessible from the opposite side of the A99 just south of Ulbster. Follow the brown sign to Cairn o’ Get up a single-track road to a lay-by beside Loch Watenan. A walk of less than a mile leads from here into this once sacred landscape. One look at the map shows just how many chambered cairns, brochs, forts and other ancient monuments adorn this area.

The Cairn o’ Get was particularly significant as a place for ancestral spirits where the community came to seek the help of their dead.

The walk heads back up the road for a few yards to a gate where a Historic Scotland sign advises visitors to follow the black and white marker posts to locate the burial cairn.

The Cairn o’ Get with the dam in the distance and the hillfort to the right.
The Cairn o’ Get with the dam in the distance and the hillfort to the right.

The route follows a path then, after a couple more gates, veers left off a track to find the edge of a boardwalk section that leads you over a particularly boggy area.

After a final rise you see the cairn, marked with an informational panel showing what Cairn o’ Get might have looked like in its heyday – around the same time that Skara Brae in Orkney was inhabited.

Its circular chamber had a roof of interlocking, overlapping stone slabs and stood more than 2.5 metres high. It would have been an imposing and impresssive sight.

Today much of the stone can be seen in a dam over to the north-west, and I wandered over there to take a closer look. It is believed that the Cairn o’ Get may have survived reasonably intact until the 1800s when the stone was taken to create the Ulbster Dam.

North from here are the remains of a fort called Garrywhin and it would be possible to follow a line through the heather to explore this too, but from here I returned past the Cairn o’ Get and back down to the road.

Instead of returning to my car, I headed straight on along the minor road to reach the A99, crossing very carefully and following the row of houses to the top of the Whaligoe Steps, where there is now a café - see www.whaligoesteps.co.uk for opening details.

I’ve visited this spot a few times and it never fails to fascinate me. The thought of the women working away on the Bink curing the fish before carrying it up the height of Big Ben several times a day is truly incredible.

Even the great engineer Thomas Telford described Whaligoe as a “terrible spot” before the then estate owner David Brodie ordered the construction of the steps. It proved succesful for a while but the rusting remains of this once-thriving industry are now testament to a different time.

Wick historian Iain Sutherland – who played an important part in caring for the site – wrote a booklet called Whaligoe and its Steps which is still available to purchase at the top of the cliff.

The atmosphere down on the Bink can change depending how calm or otherwise the sea is. Today it was still and a few people had taken the walk down the cliffs to enjoy these unique surroundings. After exploring for a while, I started to make my way back up the steps, a feat that requires some fitness!

Back over the main road, I plodded back to Loch Watenan. A peaceful spot and a haven for wildlife, this loch began life as a quarry pit – just another example of the way history has shaped the landscape in this remarkable place.

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