Alan Hendry takes a trip with Caithness Seacoast to explore a side of the county that’s normally hidden from view – a fascinating landscape of spectacular geological features and huge colonies of seabirds.
WE gazed in awestruck silence as the waterfall high above our heads came tumbling over craggy rocks and scattered patches of greenery, sending out clouds of spray that drifted off into the pale sunlight. The boat that had edged us almost to within touching distance of the sheer 150ft cliff-face was an insignificant speck in this forbidding yet starkly beautiful landscape. It was like a scene from The Lost World
In fact we were only a few miles south of Wick, having set off from the town’s new marina just half an hour earlier on Geo Explorer, the 33ft RIB operated by Caithness Seacoast. We were mere day-trippers, not intrepid adventurers – but for me at least there was a profound feeling of having sailed into some hidden corner of the planet, an undiscovered kingdom ruled by seabirds.
It was amazing to be given this fresh perspective on an area I thought I knew so well. Caithness was revealing its secret side – a landscape of high arches and huge outcrops, deep caves and gaping chasms, stark fissures running at crazy angles and eerily quiet channels in the shadow of towering sea-stacks. And all around, in the air, in the sea and jostling for space on every available ledge, were the birds that breed here in such vast numbers.
The gulls on Scorrie Island seemed to defy gravity as they perched on steep slopes either side of the tunnel that cuts right through its centre. Shags were standing imperiously on low-lying cliff edges, their glossy green plumage clearly visible at such close quarters. Puffins were bobbing about on the surface of the water, searching for food. And extended families of guillemots were flying in formation, no more than a foot above the waves, appearing alongside the Geo Explorer
for a few seconds before zooming off ahead.
The sky had been a particularly ominous shade of doom-laden grey when we embarked on our journey in the unsettled last week of May. Out in the wide expanse of Wick Bay, the driving rain stung my eyes and the blast of cold air numbed my face – but it felt exhilarating to be gliding across the waves, and in any case we were soon in more sheltered waters.
Caithness Seacoast offers a choice of two main routes along the east coast from Wick – to the north, as far as Keiss, taking in several castle sites on the fringes of Sinclair’s Bay; and this one, going south as far as Whaligoe.
Our skipper Mike Martin provided a well-judged commentary that took account of the mix of locals and tourists on the trip. He drew our attention to the many outstanding geological features and gave helpful tips on identifying different species of seabirds, adding some intriguing snippets of local history.
And there’s plenty of history to take in. First there’s the Castle of Old Wick, the former Norse stronghold occupying a narrow promontory just south of the town, looking more imposing than ever when viewed from sea level; then the fishing station of Sarclet, a secluded spot where seals were lolling around close to the shore; and then the barely accessible inlet of Whaligoe, where famously 365 stone steps were set into the precipice so the hardy local fishwives could haul the catch up to the top.
It was just around the corner from Whaligoe that we encountered that wonderful waterfall. The worst of the rain had passed over by then, and the welcome glimpse of sunshine lent an exotic glow to our dramatic surroundings.
On the way back to port the rain returned with a vengeance, but no-one seemed to mind as we were well protected by our waterproofs. It had been an unforgettable outing, an hour and a quarter that gave me an entirely new insight into my home county.
The promotional leaflets issued by Caithness Seacoast promise “breathtaking sea tours”, and that is no exaggeration. It’s an utterly invigorating experience.
CAITHNESS Seacoast was set up in 2008 by local couple William and Adelaine Munro. William is a captain in the merchant navy and when he’s away Mike Martin takes over as skipper of the Geo Explorer.
The trips up and down the spectacular east coast have proved popular with local people as well as tourists.
“A lot of them are amazed at what’s out there – they see it from the cliff-tops but they don’t realise what’s below,” Adelaine told me over a warming mug of coffee after my trip.
“We have a visitors’ book so we generally get them to write in it. They always give good comments, saying the staff are very efficient and the scenery is fantastic.”
The twin-engined Geo Explorer is licensed to carry 12 passengers and two crew, with life jackets and waterproofs provided. Boarding is easy via one of the pontoons at the Wick marina, and a hydraulic chair lift is available for people with restricted mobility.
It’s very much a family-friendly operation, although child passengers should be no younger than four years of age. “At least then they have a perception of what they’re seeing and they can take it in and appreciate it,” Adelaine said.
Caithness Seacoast is a year-round attraction and indeed some excellent conditions can be experienced in the winter months.
“This past winter when we had really bad snow we didn’t do much, but the year before that we were busy,” Adelaine recalled. “It was cold, right enough, but it was bright and we had calm seas – as long as people are well wrapped up, they enjoy it.”
However, with safety being of paramount importance, sailings will only proceed if the conditions are right. Adelaine goes out of her way to keep everyone informed of any change of plan brought about by the elements.
“We don’t stop for rain,” she said. “The only time we stop is if the sea conditions aren’t appropriate. We will not put people out if we think it’s going to be too rough.
“We always try to get contact details so we can keep in touch with everybody. I got a phone call today, for instance, there are two people coming up from Edinburgh at the weekend. But I never firmly book anyone in – I just say, ‘Look, phone me when you get here, and then we can take it from there…’ As long as they’ve got a bit of flexibility.”
Caithness Seacoast is part North Highland Tourism and is doing its bit to promote tourism in the county generally and in the Wick area in particular. William and Adelaine have forged close links with the local hospitality trade, and staff from hotels and guest houses have been taken out on trips so they’re well equipped to spread the word about what Caithness Seacoast has to offer.
Adelaine explained: “When we’re delivering leaflets to bed-and-breakfasts and holiday lets and hotels around the county, rather than just put out our own we take leaflets for Wick Heritage Centre and Pulteney Distillery with us, and distribute copies of the Caithness Explorer, because we need people to stay here – and there is a lot to do in the town.”
- Caithness Seacoast is based at South Quay, Wick Harbour. Prices per adult for 2010 are £15 for a half-hour trip from Wick, £25 for an hour and a quarter, and £40 for a return trip to Lybster (or £25 one way), with reductions for under-16s. Sailings are dependent on demand and weather conditions. Private charters are available for parties or work outings, and there are discounts for schools and youth organisations.
- Tel: 01955 609200 or 07747 404128
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Web: www.caithness-seacoast.co.uk