Once you are at John O’Groats you can go west or south*. Going south would have meant retracing my path, so west it was. Going west, the road runs along the north coast of Scotland, sometimest beside the Pentland Firth, but more often a mile or so inland. It passes through several villages and after about 25 miles comes to Thurso, which is (apart from Wick) the only town of any size in this part of the world. Perhaps it was the weather, it was a bit grey and fairly chilly when I arrived there, perhaps it was the fact that the town has a bit of a run down feel to it, but it did seem as if I had arrived at the “Ends of the Earth”
First impressions aren’t always completely accurate. Wandering round the town I found that it is quite a pleasant place (if a little run down) and it has a very interesting small museum/art gallery, Caithness Horizons. Which also has, as you would probably expect a rather good café attached. You can tell that it is good as soon as you enter, because it seems to be the place where, if she had lived in Thurso, my mum and her friends would have met for coffee, cake and a blether. There is no way that mum would have put up with inferior coffee or cakes. So after a look round the museum I had my lunch there.
Moving on after lunch I carried on along the coast road to Dounreay . This was the site of an experimental semi-commercial nuclear reactor known as a Fast Breeder Reactor. (There is a good section in the museum on the history of Dounreay. It also has a reconstructed control room from one of the reactors.)
There was a reason that it was built in this remote part of Scotland. It wasn’t to bring jobs to a depressed area (although it did that to an extent). With most nuclear reactors if things go badly wrong you will have what is known as a meltdown, as happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Meltdowns are serious enough, but if things had gone seriously wrong at Dounreay a fully fledged nuclear explosion was possible. The last reactor was taken off-line in 1994 (though the Royal Navy continued to run a smaller reactor for nuclear submarine research until 2015). The plant is currently being decommissioned, a process that might be complete by about 2118, though it is thought that It will be about 300 years until the site is fully decontaminated.
After Dounreay the roads became single track with passing places, even the roads designated as “A” roads. They continued as single track with a few exceptions for the next three days. Further along the coast I came to Farr Bay, near the village of Bettyhill. I stopped to make myself a cup of coffee, then the sun came out so I went for a walk along a pristine deserted beach.
Looking at the surf made me think that this is the real North Shore, who needs that one in Hawaii.
Continuing along the coast to Tounge I had a decision to make, whether to continue on to the North West corner, though it wouldn’t be possible to get to Cape Wrath except on foot, or to turn south. Because I had for some unaccountable reason always wanted to visit the village of Altnaharra I decided to turn south. It should be noted that villages in this part of Scotland are not like villages in the rest of the world. Houses tend to be spread out and a village is deemed to exist when the houses get a bit closer to each other.
I set off south in the direction of Altnaharra and Lairg through an almost deserted, bleak but rather beautiful landscape of peat bogs, lochs, heather and hills.
Altnaharra came and went and to be honest I would have missed it if I hadn’t noticed a sign for the Altnaharra hotel. I thought about heading west again, but as I had decided that while I was in the remoter parts of the Highlands not to let the fuel tank get much lower than half full, and I was slightly below that, the best plan would be to carry on down Loch Shin to Lairg, where I was fairly sure that I would be able to find a petrol station. When I arrived there it was about 18:30 so I ended up spending the night there. There was also a hotel with a restaurant just at the entrance to the campsite, so I let someone else do the cooking and washing up tonight.
*Not strictly true, Duncansby Head is slightly further east and Dunnet Head is a bit further north, and of course, you can always get the ferry north to the Orkneys.