Steeped in Houstry

NEIL Gunn’s river was my starting point for an enjoyable morning among the brochs and standing stones of south-east Caithness. Along the way I discovered roads I’d never cycled on before and managed a quick detour to the coast to watch some puffins on a sea-stack.

Before setting off on the bike from the mill car park, I took a short stroll alongside the Dunbeath Water – setting for Gunn’s much-loved novel Highland River, published 80 years ago – as far as the footbridge to the old Milton inn. Even on an overcast day like this, it’s a beautiful spot.

Then I had a look at the Dunbeath Broch, one of the best-preserved defensive towers of its kind in the county. Wide stone steps lead up to the secluded site, surrounded by trees. From the entrance there’s a fine view back along the strath.

This whole area is steeped in history – nearby is Chapel Hill, or the House of Peace, believed to be site of an early monastery – but this wasn’t a day for lingering. Collecting the bike, I made my way up a short section of the A9 before turning onto the Houstry road, going past an engineering workshop and a scattering of croft houses where I slowed down to allow an unconcerned hen to cross safely.

The landscape opened up nicely, with the Burn of Houstry twisting and turning down to my left and the high hills forming a blue-grey barrier across the southern horizon. Although officially well into spring, there had been some snow earlier in the week and white streaks zigzagged down the slopes of Scaraben.

Near the end of the Houstry road my attention was caught by a mighty standing stone in a corner of a field, so I stopped to take some photos (being careful not to step in the marshy bits). Just beyond here there’s a junction with a dead end ahead so I turned right towards Smerral. I was pleased to be on Caithness roads that were entirely new to me – although I didn’t particularly relish the climb over the northern flank of Cnoc Breac. I’m about as far removed from King of the Mountains as it’s possible to get, and I don’t mind admitting that I got off and pushed on the steepest part. Charging down the other side was a breeze, of course.

Following the road round to the left, I took a sharp left again at the Upper Smerral farm sign. Now I was heading due north, more or less following the course of the Burn of Latheronwheel. There were crofts and bungalows dotted around here are there, but no vehicles whatsoever. Crossing the burn at Den Moss, I veered left for a short and steep final half-mile before joining the Thurso/Latheron section of the A9 – better known as the Causewaymire (“Cassymire”).

I passed the site of the former Latheron poorhouse (there are some sad stories associated with that place) and before long the large expanse of Loch Rangag was looming ahead on my left. It had started drizzling, but all the same I was keen to stop and have a closer look at the grass-covered broch that juts out like a crannog from the lochside. As those enterprising people at the Caithness Broch Project like to point out, there are more broch sites in the county than anywhere else in Scotland and this aspect of our ancient history deserves to be promoted as widely as possible.

I got off the bike, edged through a wooden gate and picked my way down through some boggy ground to the water’s edge. This particular broch has an intriguing pseudonym: Castle Greysteil, named after a knight in a medieval poem, some kind of epic saga involving the black arts and a magic sword.

Just north of Loch Rangag I took a right turn onto the Lybster road (watching out for fast-moving traffic at the junction) and was relieved to be back on the quieter byways. Loch Stemster lay before me, with the Achavanich standing stones just beyond. There are more than 30 stones here, dating back some 4000 years, set out in a horseshoe pattern overlooking the loch. There’s a ruined cairn close by, and the remains of cremated bodies were found beneath the peat. An information board asks whether this whole site was an ancient cemetery – or whether the stones represented human remains being offered to the gods.

After a long, gentle climb the road dipped down to Rumster Forest, conifers towering over me on either side, and I took a right turn onto the Achow road. This brought me to the A99 south of Swiney, so then it was just a matter of heading back down the coast through Latheron and Latheronwheel and having to put up with lorries thundering past.

Just north of Dunbeath I got off the bike again for a short coastal walk to a stack which is home to a sizeable puffin colony at this time of year (checking first at the nearby farmhouse, as it involves walking over agricultural land). The sky was brightening now and it was good to be on the cliff-tops. I counted half a dozen puffins (last time I was there, in the late evening, there were about 60). They’re quite a distance away – you’d need a super-duper telephoto lens to get a worthwhile picture. But I was happy to gaze for a while through my binoculars, as restless fulmars swooped back and fore in front of me.

I freewheeled most of the way back down to Dunbeath, where Gunn’s river was now sparkling in the sunshine.

Route details

Dunbeath, Loch Rangag and Achavanich

Start/finish: Dunbeath mill car park

Route: A9 (briefly) then minor roads to Houstry, Smerral and Den Moss before joining the A9 Causewaymire; minor roads to Achavanich/Rumster Forest and Achow, returning to Dunbeath on A99 and A9

Distance: 25 miles (40km)

Map: OS Landranger 11 Thurso and Dunbeath

Exploring some of the lesser-known byways of south-east Caithness, taking in some of the county’s ancient sites

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