An ancient landscape offers up its treasures

Under vast skies, distinct landscapes merge across great distances in Caithness and Sutherland. The contrasts are stark between the rolling hills of Moray and the coastal flagstone cliffs of Caithness, the blanket peat bogs of the Flow Country (whose melodic name derives from ‘flowes’, itself derived from ‘floi’, Old Norse for wet or marshy) and the ancient mountains of eastern Sutherland. Although much of the region might appear inhospitable, aside from the arable land of the Straths, people have settled here since Neolithic times. Surrounded by towering cliffs, sandy bays, raised beach platforms, and rocky, interlocking coastlines, its inhabitants have, across the ages, sheltered in caves and built crofting settlements and harbours close to the sea’s natural resources. Its old Norse name was Katanes, which meant ‘headland of the Catt people’, and over time this became Caithness, the Gaelic name for which means ‘among the strangers’.

This part of Scotland has a long and complex geological history, too, its Mesozoic sedimentary rocks buckled and warped by continental collisions many hundreds of millions of years ago and separated from the neighbouring hills by a marked fault line. The hills and valleys themselves were sculpted by glaciers only a few thousand years ago, and today, the local character of the coastline is continually influenced by the vigour of the wind and sea.

Caithness was a major part of the herring boom in the early 19th century and, sadly, the scene of one of Scotland’s worst fishing tragedies, when on 18 August 1848, a fleet of around 800 boats set out to sea from Wick harbour. By sunset, ominous grey clouds were gathering thickly on the horizon. Soon, the wind became a vicious gale, charging across the sea in the darkness. With the tide now ebbed, the unlit harbour was no longer a place of safety. Many tried to run the waves in the dark, but were driven behind the old north quay and onto the rocks, and as many as 30 boats collided or foundered at sea.

The anguished families of the fishermen, gathered on the shore, watched helplessly as their loved ones perished―94 men in total. Unsurprisingly, this had a devastating impact on the community, with so many livelihoods lost into the bargain. For years afterwards few fishermen ventured to sea on the anniversary of the tragedy, and Black Saturday remains embedded within the collective memory of the people who still live there.

In the aftermath, an inquiry and report, presented to the House of Commons in 1849, offered two main conclusions: first, the open-hulled design of the fishing boats then in use made them susceptible to swamping in heavy seas; and second, there was a shortage of good quality harbours accessible to fishing vessels in all tidal conditions.

This led to improvements in many of the small harbours that characterise the east coast of Scotland today, and the evolution of boat design to include decks and forecastles in the bow to provide shelter for fishermen in storms.

Since the publication of our Wired guide Scottish Rock Climbs last year, this relatively unsung coastline has been enjoying something of a renaissance, as climbers from even far afield welcome its hospitable microclimate, miles of pristine, compact old red sandstone cliffs (interspersed in places with conglomerate) and, perhaps most importantly, lack of midges. The downsides? A long drive for many, and the need for a keen sense of commitment: abseil approaches are essential for most venues, which are also at least partly tidal.

Many of the best climbs in the region are showcased in the Wired guide, all marked on high-quality photographic topos and supported by detailed information that has been gathered and compiled by local activists. Venues such as Sarclet, Latheronwheel, Mid Clyth and Ellens Geo (whose old Norse gja means ‘creek’) have a treasure trove of routes across the grades and often with at least two or three stars.

Finding it increasingly difficult to hide my envy at yet another friend’s rave account of a jampacked trip basking in the sunshine on immaculate rock, I finally pinned down a climbing partner for an overdue jaunt up there earlier this month.

First stop: Latheronwheel, its clear view of the broad sweep of the local coastline, good quality sandstone and shelter from the prevailing south-westerly winds an ideal reintroduction to Caithness sea cliff climbing. It can also be accessed easily at low tide on foot, and the routes are shorter than at some of the more adventurous venues nearby. With poor timing, we arrived just before high tide and had to pick our way across algae-clad rocks with the waves nipping at our heels. The crash of the sea and wheeling gulls overhead drowned out our climbing calls, so it was reassuring to be there with someone with whom I’ve climbed a fair bit before and whom I trust implicitly.

That evening we pitched a tent at a secluded spot whose freshly-mown flat grassy area, bins and picnic benches seemed designed to welcome thoughtful campers. Earlier boasts of a post-climbing swim in the sea soon fell by the wayside when I dipped a toe in the water and announced that it was at least 10° colder than the water had been a couple of weeks previously at Gruinard Bay on the west coast. Clare, however, is made of sterner stuff.

The weather in the Highlands over the last few weeks has been frustratingly fickle, making it almost impossible to plan trips in advance, but we were in luck on Saturday, with a full sun forecast for the whole day. Clare and I agreed that Skerry Mor would be a good warm-up for a potential visit to Ellens Geo the following day, and as we picked our way along the coastline amid purple orchids, pink thrift and egg-yolk coloured trefoil in search of the fixed abseil point, mile upon mile of glittering sea and clear blue sky before us, I mused aloud that it wasn’t such a bad life after all.

The rock here is excellent, compact sandstone, a band of brittle slate lower down presenting no difficulties. Knowing that the options decrease with the rising tide does focus the mind, and we barely rested as we sought to make the most of our sunny day, having travelled so far.

The routes themselves have a distinct character: almost all steeply jugged, with generally excellent protection, rising vertically from a wide rock pavement and accessible only by abseil. Cams are especially useful―you can sink a double rack of medium and large cams into most of the routes, just for the fun of it. We felt privileged to tick off six classics in six hours, all of which justifiably boast three stars.

But all good things must come to an end, and by 4 o’clock the sea was giving us our marching orders. After wobblingly following Clare up a wet crack with all the kit we’d taken down with us, swollen feet half out of my rock shoes and sunglasses smeary and steamed up, I met her suggestion that we call it a day with relief.

Sadly, the weather dashed our hopes of visiting Ellens Geo on the Sunday to tackle the apparently world-class Hundreds and Thousands (E2 5c). Lying a mile south of Sarclet, and sharing some of its conglomerate geology, Ellens Geo has been developed in recent years by Simon Nadin and championed by Guy Robertson in his award-winning book The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland. The best climbing within this spectacular inlet is on a south-facing wall proudly thrusting out into the sea. Positively edged red sandstone contrasts with pocketed, openhanded holds typical of conglomerate, and like many of the routes in Caithness, they are long and sustained, rather than being cruxy.

Despite our disappointment at having to curtail the trip early, our appetites had been whetted, and we both felt inspired to return to this uniquely beautiful part of Scotland for more rock adventures in the future. Although next time I might try to build up a bit of endurance beforehand.

Lead image: Ben Rhyd climbing at Ellens Geo.