Dunbeath Strath is another of those hidden corners of Caithness that I feel I should have visited many times, but its somewhere that’s fallen completely under my radar. However it had been on my ‘to walk’ list for this year, and the last Saturday of July had the perfect weather combination of dry, calm, warm, but not too warm, plus it was Photo An Hour Day, so it was the ideal opportunity.
Thee Strath is heavily present in the novels of local writer Neil Gunn, most famous for his 1941 novel, The Silver Darlings. However it brings to mind his earlier novel, Highland River (1937), in which Kenn makes a pilgrimage to the river’s source. The whole journey is alive with history; a water mill, an iron age broch, a derelict inn, the remains of a monastery, an abandoned farmhouse, a remote cemetery, standing stones, a neolithic quarry. It’s like taking a walk though time.
I wandered along the river bank, surrounded by ferns, canopies of leaves, and the scent of wild garlic. I passed tangled bushes sprouting early raspberries, and sleepy bumblebees crawling inside the deep petals of foxgloves that were taller than me. There was no one around except a farmer ploughing beyond the hedge, but once I’d rounded the broch and headed further upstream, I really was alone, expect for the abundance of wildlife and nature in this secret garden.
Dippers bobbed in the silver-tipped water, while chaffinches, wrens and blue tits chirped among wizened birch, hazelnut and rowan trees. Buzzards flew high above, barely moving as they soared on unseen gusts. I spotted a large dragonfly with a face like a fighter pilot’s helmet, and I found some tawny pheasant feathers.
When I reached the gorge known as the Prisoner’s Leap, I clambered up the steep side and set off into a different world. A more typical Caithness landscape; bleak, flat and treeless. Rangy, yellow-eyed sheep watched suspiciously as I walked along the track, and a furious lapwing screeched as I passed; presumably she had a nest close by. A lone oyster catcher stood on a fence post, and a pair of red legged meadow pipits followed me along the path.
The A9 was only a couple of miles away, and Balcraggie Lodge was visible over the river, but still, I felt alone. Alone in a good way though. Self-sufficient, peaceful, alive, yet intimidated by just how remote I was. I sat on a hillock and looked across to Scaraben, Maiden Pap and Morven while I drank some water and a couple of curious lambs edged closer, eyes wary and nostrils twitching.
I walked until I reached Tutnaguil, a tiny (and I mean tiny) whitewashed cemetery in the middle of nowhere but with the most wonderful views down over the Strath. I explored inside the cemetery, then sat down outside, looking down to the river. I thought about Kenn, searching for the source of the river as a means of finding the source of himself, and indeed the source of life, after having seen first-hand the horrors of the first world war. He may only have been a fictional character, but Gunn must have walked this route many times himself and gained much inspiration from this magical landscape, right on his doorstep. And right on mine. I had never been here before, but I would be back. In the autumn, to see the hazel nuts on the trees, and on another fine day so that I could walk up Cnoc Na Maranaich to the standing stone and the quarry, or maybe continue up the track past Tutnaguil, on towards Loch Dhu.
I headed back along the track and faced the steep clamber down the bank at the Prisoner’s Leap. Legend has it that a prisoner, Ian McMormack Gunn, was offered his freedom if he could leap across the gorge. Apparently he did it. I’m not convinced, but leaping it possibly seemed like the easier option, as scrambling down the side had a few breath-holding moments. But I made it down, and as I walked, I spotted two people with dogs on the opposite side of the river. We waved; it was nice to see humans again, and it put the solitude of the last few hours into context. We are not meant to survive without other humans, but its important to be alone sometimes, and really connect with ourselves. And I can think of no better place to do so than off the beaten track in a wild, beautiful place like this. I was left invigorated, inspired and enthused.