Articles - Whaligoe Steps
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.