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  • Writer's pictureLilly

Dunnet Head - the Top of the Mainland

Dunnet Head, October, 2016. The most northerly point of the UK mainland (many think John O’Groats is furthest north but not quite). A milestone reached!

Loneliness - but the wonderful kind, not the sad kind. I had this place entirely to myself. It was windy, a bit dreary, but the clouds were high letting enough light through for the blues and whites of the ocean to really pop. It was chilly and I was bundled up against the wind. But it was a pleasant chilly - the kind of cold that feels cozy and welcoming.

I sat on a rock and took in the ocean air, the waves crashing at the base of the dramatic cliffs below me. I wondered what this place looked like in centuries past - the cliff had clearly eroded, as ocean cliffs always do. Below my feet was a type of light brown stone with pock marks, smoothed by wind and rain. Tufts of grass held on here and there, and further from the edge there was a narrow path with periodic piles of sheep droppings. As I'm sure you've gathered, sheep are everywhere in Scotland. In my head I had taken to calling them Woolsey Fluffybottoms, which made me smile, as did the creatures themselves. This is what happens to a solo traveler - you have inside jokes with yourself. (I might even admit to having a laugh with the stuffed highland cow that sat on my dash...)

I felt happy, being alone with the lighthouse, and the ocean. Having lived both on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, lighthouses have always been alluring to me. This one was no different, sitting stoically and dutifully on the exposed cliff. Years of memories trapped in the tower walls. Robert Stevenson built this lighthouse, along with many others in Scotland. I envision his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson sitting on my rock, quietly taking inspiration from this place.

I had actually visited the previous night, chasing the Northern Lights. I remembered Lighthouse the night before, when its light bounced off the fog, illuminating itself in the darkness. What a difference the daylight made. The next day in the gift shop at John O’Groats, I told another traveler I had caught a glimpse of the Northern Lights the night before. She asked to see my photos. I told her I didn’t have any. I absolutely love taking photos - its a creative outlet for me, and another form of storytelling. But on some occasions, I just choose to put my camera down and be in the moment, just my own eyes. This had been one of those moments. It was my first time seeing the Lights in Scotland, and I didn’t want that memory to be tinged with the frustration of not being able to capture the shot, eyes down checking my camera settings. So I put my camera back in the car and I stood there, face to the sky, capturing secret glimpses of green through the clouds.

The sign at the viewpoint reads: “In clear weather, Dunnet Head offers superb vistas as far west as Cape Wrath, east to Duncansby Head, and the Pentland Skerries and north to the Orkney Islands. These uninterrupted views have always made Dunnet Head a very important place, particularly during the Second World War. The many derelict buildings from these years lie scattered around the lighthouse. Serviceman stationed here kept close watch on the coast and the approaches to the Royal Navy Base at Scapa Flow, just across the Firth in Orkney. In 1939 and 1940 Scapa Flow was a target of several bombing raids. Even today, in winter or stormy weather, with the sea battering the cliffs and the wind howling in the deserted buildings, it is only too easy to imagine the motions of the serviceman posted here on wartime duties.”

Off to the right a stone wall snaked up the gently sloping hill which was dotted with small, nondescript concrete structures. These were remnants of WWII radio stations and Gee operations. To the left, cliffs and ocean wrapped around for miles, enticing travelers further west. I could see waves crashing into cliffs, spraying water far into the air, swirling and frothing in a cold cauldron of icy, deadly water. I scanned the landscape around me, searching for a way down to the rock below, but to actually attempt it would have been sheer madness - this was an unforgiving place.

The land across the water is the Island of Hoy, part of the Orkney Islands. Scanning the coastline with my zoom lens I could see the Old Man of Hoy, a tall, imposing sea stack that guarded the western edge of the island. I felt a tinge of sadness as I knew a visit there would have to wait. I shifted on my rock and stared back at the Old Man, I met his gaze and pined over Orkney in all its Norse splendor, over Shetland and its desolate beauty. But it was time to turn my thoughts forward to the possibilities of adventure the day would bring.

Orkney and Shetland are still on my “haven’t been there yet” list. I can’t wait ❤️


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Hi Lily, I actually thought Cape Wrath was the most northerly point! By the way, if you haven't been there yet, Durness beach is definitely worth, especially at sunset. Thanks for sharing!


Alan Brown
Alan Brown

Hi Lily, if you ever make it to Orkney, go via the Gillsbay ferry, not as scenic as the Scrabster trip, but it is cheaper and quicker. It goes to St Margarets Hope and then its a 35 min car drive up to Kirkwall. There is a B&B I recommend called the Bankburn House Guest House on the hill above St Margarets Hope, its run by Mick Fraser who also hires out an electric car. I stay there every time when I visit for work at the radio masts. You will love Orkney.

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