Unlike in previous years when Santa had arrived in Dunkeld on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, crowds that would normally have thronged the pavements for his visit on a late December evening in 2021 had heeded government warnings not to gather in large groups.
Instead, folk had turned out in ones and twos to support local businesses. And these businesses had put on a candlelit Christmas welcome! Brightly lit shops sparkled. Despite the absence of Santa and his reindeer the village oozed good cheer.
Dunkeld is a good base for pleasant way marked walks at any time and can be especially attractive in winter. As you approach from the A9 and before crossing the bridge, you may notice a life size statue standing on the right hand side in an area of grass. The statue commemorates Niel Gow (1727 - 1807), a fiddle player extraordinaire and composer of tunes who was famed far and wide in his day. Niel (as he spelt his name) appears to be looking across the main road to the signs pointing to Inver, the township about half a mile from Dunkeld, where he lived until the age of 80.
To walk in his footsteps, go where these signs point along a side road that winds past a few houses, the medical centre, tennis courts and bowling green. Continue straight ahead on a narrow path and turn left under the road then cross the wooden bridge. A signpost here points the way along the Fiddler’s Path to the Niel Gow Oak.
After a few minutes of walking, the Fiddler’s Path turns and now follows the south bank of the River Tay. Along this first stretch there’s a border of mature beech trees, though even their impressive girths can’t compete with that of the Niel Gow Oak further along. Below this particular tree Niel Gow would sit and play his fiddle and compose tunes.
The 4th Duke of Atholl often sat listening on the opposite bank of the river. It’s said he enjoyed the music so much that he paid Gow a retainer, a guaranteed fee which ensured there would be the best of fiddle music at the Duke’s family functions including christenings, birthdays and balls.
Robert Burns was also impressed by Niel Gow whom he visited in 1787during his Highland tour. Later, Burns was inspired to write a poem entitled ‘To Mr Gow, visiting Dumfries.’
One much quoted verse reads,
‘Nae fabled wizard’s wand, I trow,
Had e’er the magic airt o’ Gow
When wi’ a wave he draws his bow
Across his wondrous fiddle!
At the base of the Niel Gow Oak there’s a carved oak bench. During a storm in 2012 a huge branch broke off the tree, fell to the ground and smashed the bench. A year later, on 25th March 2013, Forestry Commission Scotland installed a new bench dedicated to Niel Gow.
Carved along the side are the words, ‘I’ll sit beneath the fiddle tree with the ghost of Niel Gow next to me,’ from a Michael Marra song called ‘Niel Gow’s Apprentice’. The line refers to Dougie McLean, singer-songwriter and fiddle player from Dunkeld and friend of the late Michael Marra.
From the middle of Dunkeld it’s not a long walk to the Neil Gow Oak. To extend this outing you could return to the signpost by the wooden bridge and follow the path to Inver. Then it’s no distance through the village and on to the pavement running alongside the A9. Turn left and continue for a short way along this pavement to find a choice of paths through the Hermitage. This landscape was originally designed by the Dukes of Atholl as a pleasure ground where their guests could wander. The lower path follows the River Brann through mixed woodland and offers spectacular views of white water, especially at the Black Linn Falls where it crashes through chasms and round huge boulders.
The best view is probably from inside Ossian’s Hall, a romantic folly overlooking the waterfall. The original hall was built in 1758 and stories tell of it being set on fire, vandalised, rebuilt and redecorated at different times over the years. Nowadays it’s a popular attraction for the many thousands of visitors to the Hermitage.
Further along the path, Ossian’s Cave was built using dressed stone and large rocks to make it look ‘natural’ and have it blend into its surroundings. There is a tale that one of the Dukes advertised for a live-in hermit for the cave - but there were no takers. In Irish folklore, Ossian was a mythical bard.
To visit trees that are much older than the Niel Gow Oak, find the sign at the left hand end of the bridge as you leave Dunkeld. Here a flight of stairs ends at the path which leads towards the iconic Birnam Oak that may have been growing in the Geat Birnam Wood that features in ‘Macbeth’ – the play written by William Shakespeare.
Before reaching the Birnam Oak, look for the massive sycamore tree, a few yards off the path. It’s thought to be about 300 years old. A few steps further on, the girth of the Birnam Oak suggests an even greater age of around 600 years. This would mean it was already mature at the time of Shakespeare’s visit, if he did visit, in 1589. Records show that a company of English strolling players put on a play that year in Perth. Shakespeare may have been one of them - unfortunately, none of their names are listed.
In the play, Macbeth murders his way to the throne believing he is safe from defeat after hearing a prophecy made by three witches.
‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.’
As his castle on Dunsinane Hill was some miles away Macbeth thought he would be safe. He wasn’t to know his enemies would camouflage themselves with greenery for their approach to Dunsinane. The prophecy was worthless. Macbeth was overthrown and beheaded.
The actual Birnam Oak probably isn’t old enough to have been the source of the greenery to camouflage Malcolm’s army in 1054 but there was an extensive forest here on both banks of the River Tay at the time.
From near the Birnam Oak on the riverside path you can walk into the village of Birnam for a café break. As well, the Beatrix Potter Garden and Birnam Art Gallery are well worth visiting before heading along the road back to Dunkeld.
For more history of the area, Dunkeld itself is a great resource. For easily accessible information, look for the blue plaques on the side of many of the buildings. In the High Street at the Cross, stop for a look at the Atholl Memorial Fountain with its carved stone creatures and masonic symbols. The fountain (no longer working) was funded by public subscription in memory of the 6th Duke of Atholl who had introduced a piped water supply to Dunkeld. Until these works were done, water had to be drawn from the River Tay.
The High Street leads into Cathedral Street and the Cathedral (still in use for services) where the museum and graveyard are well worth a look before you head out along one of the paths bordering the north side of the River Tay.
Back in the High Street, Dunkeld Community Archive housed in a corner building, is staffed by very helpful volunteers. Touch one of the screens to hear a few of Niel Gow’s compositions played by Perthshire fiddle player Pete Clark.
Further information: www.historicdunkeld.org.uk
Should you be travelling north on the A9 up the east coast of Scotland there is every chance you might pass Whaligoe, about seven miles south of Wick, without even noticing the few houses. There’s no signpost, though nearly opposite, on the other side of the road, there is a signpost indicating the narrow minor road leading inland to the Cairn of Get.
From various Neolithic middens around this archaeological site, finds of mussel and limpet shells indicate people had discovered a means of living here thousands of years ago.
It seems likely they found a way down the near vertical cliffs at Whaligoe to gather food from the sea shore rocks.
As well as mussels and limpets, another resource would have been the whales that drifted ashore from time to time on strong eddies coming around Sarclet Head about two miles further up the coast. If it was possible, these whale carcasses would be towed to Whaligoe to be cut up. As suggested by the ‘whal’ part of Whaligoe and the ending ‘goe’ being another name for an inlet, Whaligoe translates as the inlet of the whale.
The Whaligoe inlet, known as the Haven, reaches deep into the cliffs. Since the arrival of the Vikings around 900 AD it has been a safe harbour for boats landing catches of fish. Over time, as greater amounts of fish were being caught and processed, the traffic on the cliff increased.
Though local people had built steps down the cliff, it seems that the flight was incomplete and it was only at the most dangerous places that a safer way was constructed.
The steps were upgraded to their present form in 1792 on the instructions of the landowner, David Brodie. By this time, Whaligoe was being promoted as a commercial fishing port.
It is believed there were 365 steps originally. Today there are a few less steps completing the zigzags down the near vertical face of the cliff. Where they end, a few feet above sea level, a flat area called The Bink was also constructed. The Bink now has a covering of grass. When there were only a few boats working out of Whaligoe they could be stored on the Bink in times of stormy weather though its main purpose was as a landing and curing station. This was where much of the fish processing work was done by teams of women.
There would have been six crews with three women in each crew gutting herring. When enough barrels were filled they were manhandled from the staging on the Bink down a gangplank consisting of two or three thick planks laid together giving access to a waiting schooner which had been brought alongside from an anchorage at the mouth of the Haven. For this manoeuvring, a fishing boat took ropes from the schooner to at least four of the metal rings which were fixed into rocks in the sea and into the face of the cliffs. The schooner was then hauled in using her capstan.
Not much remains of the building that stood at the east end of the Bink where salt and other materials needed for the industry could be stored under cover.
The back wall of the Bink, a retaining wall supporting the last run of steps, has three openings. Lamps were placed out of the wind in these recesses when work carried on in darkness.
The very last steps lead down to the back wall of the cliff. Here the rock underfoot slopes at an easy angle down to the sea. This area was called the Neist. The rusting remains of a manually operated winch still stands there. Using this winch as well as fixtures in the cliff face and another winch on the Bink, boats could be hauled ashore to safety in stormy weather.
There are many tales of the hardiness of the men and women who made a living at Whaligoe. The women, who all lived round the Haven, would carry baskets of cod, haddock and ling up the steps to be salted in a shed at the top or sometimes to be taken along the road and sold fresh to crofters as far as Wick. Their baskets were made from heather or dwarf willow to be carried on their backs with a straw rope around their shoulders. The men, carrying basket loads of up to 50 crabs preferred to have the bands around their foreheads.
Apart from dealing with the fish brought ashore, these women raised families of perhaps eight children. They cut peat in season, milked cattle, spun wool, weaved and knitted. Water had to be fetched from a well and boiled over an open fire before anything could be washed by hand.
In his booklet, ‘Whaligoe and its Steps,’ the author Iain Sutherland MBE tells us that from early childhood he enjoyed visiting his relatives at Whaligoe who worked at the fishing. While the Steps were in regular use the fishermen would replace the odd stone that had come loose due to weathering but after fishing ceased nobody looked after them.
About 1972 Iain concluded that the Steps had been abandoned. So with the help of a couple of friends he began doing some much needed repair work which continued over the years. Unbeknown to Iain, ‘a very slight woman, Mrs Etta Juhle was doing the same thing.’
One day in November 1975, Iain received a message that a landslide had completely blocked the Steps at the first bend. When he went with Mrs Juhle to take a look they found ‘three or four truckloads of earth and clay lying on the Steps with more spilled halfway down the next traverse.’
This material was fairly loosely packed and Iain thought clearing it would need at least four men. As winter was approaching, he decided the job should be left until the following summer and Mrs Juhle seemed to agree.
When he returned in summer with a few friends readied with picks, shovels, buckets and brushes, they were surprised to find the Steps were already spotless.
It turned out that Mrs Juhle had cleared the Steps over the winter using a shovel from a fireside companion set and a small bucket. As Iain wrote, ‘it was an incredible achievement and I was staggered with disbelief.’
Work on the Steps continued and in 1992 Iain and his associates were awarded a Shell Best of Better Britain Award – one of the premier conservation awards in the country after the Steps had been badly damaged by vandals.
‘They had thrown coping stones from the upper retraining walls on to the lower steps and smashed about twenty of them. To repair the damage it involved taking twenty two tons of assorted stone down the stairs on a sledge made especially for the job’.
Iain went on to say he was then joined by another relation on a regular basis, David Nicholson, who carried out all the grass cutting and weeding as well as building the stonework.
In 2001 a section of the Bink collapsed into the sea. To repair this latest damage, another 14 tons of stone had to be manhandled, this time to a more dangerous location. For this conservation work, Iain and his co-workers were again awarded a prize from the Shell Better Britain Campaign.
To commemorate Mrs Juhle, a stone was placed near the top of the steps in 2002 with the wording,
‘Erected to the memory of Etta B. Juhle
Who cared for the Steps for many years. ‘Whaligoe Steps so much admired’
The Whaligoe Steps are probably in as good a condition today as they have ever been. However, as past landslides prove, the stairs could be threatened by North Sea storms and extreme weathering at any time. As well, there are more visitors nowadays up and down the stairs.
The history and stories about the folk who lived round the Haven and worked there at the fishing give a glimpse of a hard life now long gone. As part of Scotland’s industrial heritage, uniquely peculiar to this corner of Caithness, the Whaligoe Steps deserve to be preserved.
For Further Information:
Whaligoe and its Steps
The Unique Harbour
This is a booklet by author Iain Sutherland.
Over the years, we have enjoyed many trips to various parts of Ireland but have always travelled in our own car or, as we did on one occasion as part of a family group, in a larger vehicle rented in Dublin. For this latest trip we decided to sit back and let others do the driving.
Starting in Scotland, in Central Station, Glasgow, we boarded a train to Ayr. Outside the station, after a few minutes wait, we got on the bus to Cairnryan Ferry Terminal. It’s a pleasant journey through rural Ayrshire and along the golf course coast. The ferry crossing to Belfast takes about two hours. A bus was waiting for passengers coming off the ferry and within thirty minutes we were in Belfast city centre.
It’s a walk of a few minutes through a shopping mall near Belfast’s Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street to Victoria Street Bus and Train Station where you can buy a combination train/bus ticket for the train to Coleraine. The train crosses the River Laggan and is soon out in the countryside, then runs within sight of the sea. A seat on the left hand side of the train is recommended for the chance to spot the ruins of Dunluce Castle. Formidable on a rocky headland, the castle must have appeared impregnable when it was built in the 1500’s.
Outside Coleraine Station the bus going to the Giant’s Causeway pulls in minutes after the train leaves. The connection appears to work near seamlessly.
The bus passes through small towns including Bushmills and Port Ballintrae.
From the final stop, passengers walk the short distance to the National Trust Visitors’ Centre where an introductory display gives information on the stones of the Causeway, some of it scientifically sound and some of it myth. There is also a shop and a café.
From the Visitor Centre there’s a shuttle bus, or you can walk along a pavement to the columns of the Causeway or take the rougher coastal path running along the cliff top. From this vantage point there are immense views along the sea-battered headlands, as far as the horizon and down to where walkers appear like moving dots on the pavement bordering the rocky beaches. Over a fence on the other side, sheep and cattle graze the fields.
Heading back, there are straightforward ways down the cliff to reach the lower path by the sea shore and the Causeway columns.
There are roughly 30 - 40,000 of these interlocking, many sided blocks of basalt which took shape 50-60 million years ago when successive, slow moving flows of lava from an ancient inland volcano reached the coast and cooled on contact with the sea.
Back in Belfast, on Great Victoria Street, there is a choice of restaurants and pubs. The Crown, directly across the road from the Europa Hotel is well worth a visit. The gas lamps are gone but the wooden booths with doors to ensure privacy are still there. It hasn’t changed much from the late 1800s. In the city centre, at 17 Donegal Square North, the Linen Hall Library has a welcoming café but it’s the wealth of books on Irish topics that is hugely impressive.
For the next stage of our journey we retraced our steps to Victoria Street Station where a local train took us to Lanyon Place Station for a train to Dublin.
The Enterprise is a long distance modern train running eight times a day from Belfast to Connolly Station, Dublin. From a comfortable window seat the views of the east coast, out to sea and the distant Mountains of Mourne are magnificent.
Dublin, like many cities, has dedicated tourist buses giving visitors an overview of the layout and attractions of the city. You may land lucky and be with a driver who, as well as telling tales about places along the route, may occasionally burst into song – it’s all ‘good craic’ as Dubliners might say.
If you choose to walk in Dublin, you shouldn’t miss O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, the Quays by the River Liffey, Trinity College campus and Grafton Street for shopping and buskers.
From Grafton Street cross over the road to St. Stephen’s Green, an extensive park with trees and formal flower beds, duck ponds and statues.
Along the perimeter path there are a number of information boards giving details of the Easter Rising of 1916 when 200 insurgents established positions in St. Stephen’s Green. They in turn were being fired on by British soldiers who were garrisoned in the Shelbourne Hotel on the north side of St. Stephen’s Green.
Today the Shelbourne is a much loved meeting place. As well as presidents and politicians, celebrities and stars of stage and screen, it hosts wedding parties and other assorted gatherings. In the lounge bar, the price of drinks may make your eyes water but get comfortably seated in an armchair, relax and enjoy the ambience, do some people watching – it’s worth the money.
The train journey across Ireland from Dublin on the east coast to Galway in the west takes about three hours. We pass small fields with grazing sheep, cattle or a few horses. Through the train window, this landscape when seen in bright sunshine does appear to have ‘forty shades of green’ as the song goes.
Galway gets especially busy around Eyre Square and the surrounding streets where there is a variety of shops, restaurants and pubs. To leave the crowds behind, a bracing mile and a half walk westwards by seaside path and pavement will take you to Salthill, perhaps for a café lunch, before a return through the streets to Claddagh and Galway.
Claddagh, a fishing village in its own right on the south side of the River Corrib was once separate from Galway. Now you can stroll along a riverside path by sloping gardens fronting homes half hidden by trees. It’s a delightful way to reach Galway Cathedral on Nun’s Island. Made of stone, the Cathedral looks old but building only started here in 1958 and was finished in 1965.
Claddagh was where the famed Claddach rings originated. Each ring shows two hands clasping a heart topped by a crown. As an expression of love, friendship and loyalty, the rings adorn fingers all over the world.
From Galway Train Station our next destination was Kilkenny. We changed trains at Kildare and had time for a short walk to the town centre for a leisurely lunch in the Silken Thomas restaurant before boarding a connecting train to Kilkenny.
One of the many attractions of Kilkenny is the Design Centre where you can watch silversmiths working. As well as items produced in the workshops the shop sells a range of goods made by craft workers from around the country.
In the Centre’s formal walled garden there’s a lily pond. Spaced around it is a ring of substantial blocks of stone that came from Dublin. When Nelson’s Pillar was blown up on O’Connell Street by the Irish Republican Army on 8th March 1966, these blocks of stone lay unwanted amongst the rubble - destined to be dumped. How they came to arrive in Kilkenny is still debated. But it seems that admiration for the stone carver’s skill was a factor in their being placed here at the home of Irish craft and design.
Kilkenny Castle lies across the road from the Design Centre on The Parade. From one side of the Castle you can follow a path through mature trees and by a duck pond in the extensive parkland. On the other side of the Castle, varieties of roses are grown in the formal gardens set around a fountain. Lemon drizzle cake with a pot of tea in the castle café goes down a treat.
Kilkenny has a number of independent shops as well as the sizeable MacDonagh Junction Shopping Centre built around the restored Kilkenny Famine Workhouse. While shop fronts show familiar high street names, an unusual feature of the complex is the audio trail which guides listeners to numbered stopping points. You can hire a set of headphones at the information desk and listen to the story of the Irish famine and particularly the two young brothers, John and Patrick Saul who were given refuge here in the workhouse after being abandoned by their parents on the docks in Dublin. The trail ends outside in the famine memorial garden where a sculpture portrays the boys, ‘helping each other along the journey and inspiring hope of survival’. It’s a harrowing tale but this trail helps to perpetuate the memory of these young lads and thousands of others who spent time here in the workhouse.
Kilkenny grew alongside the River Nore. A pleasant riverside walk from the centre of town starts at the hurling statue, ‘dedicated to all those who played for the county and the stars of the future yet to come.’ At 14ft tall it can’t be missed.
Follow the path as far as the footbridge below a main road bridge then cross over and stroll down the other side back into town.
Our next train journey took us from Kilkenny to Dublin Heuston Station. Outside the station tickets can be bought for the tram trip to Connolly Train Station, Dublin. The Enterprise carried us back to Belfast.
On this train trip in Ireland the service couldn’t be faulted. Trains were on time and many of our fellow passengers were happy to talk - mainly about Brexit. We were able to sit back in comfort and look out at the countryside. Would we do similar trips again? Would we recommend travelling by train in Ireland? Absolutely!
Take time to explore the Royal Burgh of Wick in Scotland’s north east corner and you may be pleasantly surprised by what there is to discover.
From Bridge Street in the centre of town it’s no distance back to the bridge over the River Wick and the roundabout where five roads meet.
Wedge shaped Mackay’s Hotel stands on one junction where Union Street meets River Street. Above a doorway in the gable there’s the name Ebenezer Place. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the shortest street in the world at 2.06m (6ft 9inches). It is also the entrance to No1 Bar which is part of the hotel.
River Street follows the course of the river, at this point no great distance before it reaches the harbour and the sea. The marina, busy with leisure craft and fishing boats is soon in sight. Over on the far harbour wall the enormous columns and blades of aero generators lie in wait for their next move.
Viewed up close from a safe spot on a Harbour Quay pavement, one of those blades laid on the beds of two well - spaced trucks takes up a lot of room during an operation to transport it through the narrow streets of Wick.
Harbour Quay runs into Harbour Road and from here this walk, just yards from the North Sea follows the coastline along the road leading to Old Wick Castle.
Look out for the name ‘Trinkie’ painted in large white letters on an area of flat rock that gets covered by the tides. Trinkie is a Scottish word meaning a trench and here it applies to one of Wick’s outdoor coastal swimming pools (the other, the North Baths is on the other side of Wick Bay).
The Trinkie used to be a popular meeting spot and was where many people learned to swim. As time went on and the comfort of heated swimming pools became preferable, the Trinkie lost its appeal and gradually became more and more dilapidated. However, there is now a local committee working to raise funds to save the Trinkie and have it repaired and refurbished.
There’s now a belief in some circles that cold water swimming has various health benefits. Perhaps the Trinkie’s time has come again?
Much further out over the silvery North Sea there is a forest of aero generators. The blades will be turning in the wind, creating electricity, lighting up the houses of Wick.
Where the road ends there are views south along the sea-battered headlands and it’s no distance across a field of grass to reach the remains of the tower of Old Wick Castle.
The cliff top tower has a formidable, commanding position. There’s probably less than half the tower still standing but from its once sound upper rooms the views must have been vast – out to sea and inland over the flat countryside.
The castle was probably built by Harald Maddadson, the Earl of Caithness and Orkney, in the 1160’s at a time when kings of Norway exercised huge power on Scottish life and politics. As well as the tower providing accommodation, there would have been extra halls and lodgings, kitchens, a bake house, a brew house, stables, workshops and servants quarters - all that was necessary for a mighty Earl.
From the fenced off area surrounding the castle a gate opens to a cliff top path continuing south.
To return to town, follow the path heading inland between hedges to reach South Road and eventually your starting point on Bridge Street.
For a quieter return, follow the road round the cemetery to Harrow Hill and find a way to Lower Dunbar Street that ends at the Black Stairs as they are known locally. These stairs replaced the original flight which was the setting for L.S.Lowry’s well- known painting the Black Steps.
Lowry visited Wick in the 1930’s and from that visit produced two paintings. The other was entitled the Old House.
Round the corner on Bank Row take a few moments in the Wick Memorial Garden to enjoy the mosaics and the peace of the garden which commemorates the eighteen people who lost their lives in two air raids on Wick during the Second World War.
On July 1st 1940 a lone enemy aircraft dropped two bombs on Bank Row, then an area of homes and shops. Fifteen people died, eight of them children, in what was believed to have been the first daylight air raid of World War Two on mainland Britain.
On October 26th 1940 three enemy aircraft dropped a number of high explosives on the north side of Wick, close to the aerodrome. Three people – two children and a young woman died as a result of a direct hit on a house in Hill Avenue. The victims of both raids are listed on a memorial plaque in the garden that reads,
‘May their names never be forgotten and may the flowers in this garden blossom for evermore in remembrance of their loss.’
It’s no distance to Harbour Place to find the seven gates covering entrances to the cellars where salt needed during the packing of barrels of herring was stored. The gates were designed by artists Sue Jane Taylor and Liz O’Donnel and fabricated by blacksmith Ian Sinclair. The images were created by Wick school pupils who were inspired by local history and folklore.
Overlooking the harbour, Wickers’ World Café for coffee, home baking or a meal offers a splendid ending to this walk.
Should you want another, but very different walk from the centre of town it’s easy to find and follow the riverside path upstream from Bridge Street. Ahead an obvious bridge allows a circular walk or you could go on to the viewing platform overlooking dense reeds and rushes or further still, before retracing your steps. The lower stretches of the river are bordered by both tidal and fresh water marshes providing good feeding and shelter for a great variety of wading birds and wildfowl.
Further information: Unfortunately at the time of this walk, Wick Heritage Centre, 20 Bank Row was closed due to the Covid 19 pandemic restrictions.