Do you need a break? I do. Come for a walk with me…
We’re going to go to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. If you want to know the history and see some far better photos than I could take, click that link. I’ll wait for a moment while you have a look.
It’s a cool day but the sun shows its face now and then between the clouds. There’s no one around for miles, it seems, but we’ll pass a dog-walking rambler or two along the way. As we leave the small, gravelled parking lot behind, we walk out onto what looks like an endless, windswept moor with a long pathway sloping gradually towards the sea. There are sheep munching contentedly close by; we hear the occasional sonorous ‘baaaaa!’ as we pass. They mostly ignore us, though sheep are masters at casually easing away, as if to imply that they are not afraid of us, really, but maybe they’ll just move on to that other patch of grass for now.
It is peaceful, here. Noss Head Lighthouse is to our right, looking crisp and white on the near horizon. Once upon a time we could have entered the gate and had a long look around outside the lighthouse and outbuildings, peering down over the walls and cliffs into the crashing sea. Sadly, we can’t go wandering around the grounds anymore these days, that is unless we were to rent the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage for a holiday. Well, we could have, in times other than these. Right now, they have made all of their accommodation available to National Health Service staff, which makes me feel a bit more kindly towards them than I did the last time we were there, faced with a closed gate and ‘do not enter’ signs!
Correction: With thanks to Ben from Noss Head Lighthouse for his comment, please note that visitors are definitely welcome to come in and see the grounds around the lighthouse, as long as they remember that it’s also a home where people live privately. Respectful and sensible walkers and cyclists are free to enter and have a look around. I am so glad to know this, and grateful to Ben for clarifying!
But we can admire it from afar as we walk ever onward down the rough track. The choice is to feel the bite of stones through the dirt (watch out for mud!) or to take a step up on the side of the path where there’s a little bit of grass that’s easier on the feet. In the distance, ahead and to the left, we begin to see Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. It doesn’t look that far away. (Hint: it’s farther than you think; for a while you’ll be in what feels like that dream where you keep going towards something but never quite get there.)
The wind is a constant companion, not quite roaring but making itself known. We can hear the sound of the sea in the distance but there’s another lovely sound on the breeze. There are skylarks about (listen here), and they want us to know that we are intruding. One parent flits high in the sky, fluttering and fussing to attract our attention away from a hidden nest. If we venture too close, the other parent on the ground will sound the alarm. And if we stand very still, they will start going about the business of being skylarks again.
We walk on, the wide sky above us and the sparkle and glimmer of the sea before us. More of the castle reveals itself, and you find yourself marveling at the size and scope of it. There are information boards along the way about the wildlife around us, and the history of the structure looming up ahead. The wind is stronger, here.
There’s another sound now, clearer than before as we leave the nesting skylarks behind. A piercing, sharp birdcall; oystercatchers are nearby. Stand for a moment, and listen …
Finally we are here, almost at the entrance to the castle. There’s a cove down there, filled with clear turquoise water. If we could see back through time we would spot my husband down there as a small boy; he didn’t swim in it but he tells me the water was very, very cold.
The path takes us all along the castle and around to the side, over to a bridge that leads to the castle interior. If you look down you might feel a little bit dizzy. The sea is louder here as waves roll and break across ancient stone, and there’s one more bird to become acquainted with: the curlew, making its liquid warbling sound, skimming over the shore. Be still, and listen …
You see a cliffside section of the castle as you walk across the bridge and wonder how they built it so close to the edge. It is a marvel. There are measures in place to preserve the structure, and safety barriers as well to preserve the lives of sometimes-reckless tourists. But today we have the castle to ourselves; it’s just us, the swirling sea, the birds, and the wind.
Speaking of birds, there are more nesting here among the ruins. Fulmars look down at us suspiciously from their sheltered perches, chattering and scolding. It’s good that we can’t get too close to them. If we did, they would spit an oily, foul-smelling substance at us. Best avoided! We cross the bridge now, approaching a portcullis that looks like it’s just waiting to be brought crashing down by castle guards, harking to find out who goes there.
But the gate stays in place and the fulmars don’t spit, so we enter the castle and walk among the old walls and rooms, peeking out of deep-set windows in some places, towards the sea and distant land beyond. Our footsteps are muffled on the grassy ‘floor’ as we meander, sometimes sheltered from the wind, other times feeling and smelling the cool sea air as it ruffles past. Clouds cast shade-shapes on land and sea, and birds circle overhead. The rock formations beside and below the castle are breathtaking and beautiful, shelves of rock below and stacks that look like the building-block toys of giants’ children. There is much to see, here. (If you’d like to fly over and around it like a fulmar, have a look at this drone video; I will warn you though that the music is dire, so I’d watch it without sound if I were you!)
Eventually we have explored enough in and around the castle, the sounds of nature filling the air around us. It’s a long walk back to the car as we retrace our steps through the strange, somewhat undulating landscape, with ridges and ditches that have been there for ages. We walk on as the grass underfoot changes again to rocky soil, the seabirds’ calls recede and the skylarks lead us ever farther away from their nests. Swaying ‘bog cotton’ dots the landscape as we leave the castle far behind, and white-and-purple moths delicately flit from one tiny flower to another in the tangled grasses next to the path. Even as we approach the road there are no sounds of modern life, just the soughing of the wind, an occasionally strident sheep, and birdsong, all around.
There’s a small picnic area surrounded by a Caithness flagstone wall next to where we’ve parked, and I unpack snacks, a thermos of hot coffee, bottles of cold water and a flask of smooth, peaty whisky. We sit for a while in the sunshine (no whisky for me, I’m driving us back to civilization), resting our pleasantly tired legs and soaking up a bit of sunshine. Castle Sinclair Girnigo is once again hidden beyond the landscape, keeping its secrets to itself.
Thank you for coming on a walk with me.