The Long Road North

It’s Thursday 2nd of July, the day before the travel restrictions are about to be lifted in Scotland, and I have no plans. Sitting watching TV, I get a typical late message from my friend Tommy asking if I fancied a visit to Duncansby Head to explore the sea stacks. I instantly thought yes, why not. Just a mere 290 miles (one way) for one photo… Let’s do this. It’s easy enough getting there, head north and keep to the coast, keep going and you can’t go wrong. For anyone that has not been or doesn’t know about this place, Duncansby Head is the most north-easterly part of the UK mainland and sits just beside the village of John O’Groats.

The next day I started to prep, as we decided to go on Saturday. Got all the camera batteries charged, drone batteries charged, cleaned a few lenses, dusted more than anything else, formatted a few cards and route planned for fuel and food. This was a golden opportunity for me to test out my new tent as well, purchased for trips like this. So I managed to get it set up in the living room of all places for the first time to see how and where it would peg into the ground, because un-bagging a new tent in the field would be a very irresponsible thing to do. So, all the gear is done, tent looks good and I’ve got the stops planned.

The drive from Edinburgh is about six hours direct, but me being the nice guy I am suggested picking up the guys from Glasgow, as they were coming from an hour west of the city. So this added 45 minutes to an hour onto my journey both ways, which was fine because I enjoy driving anyway… Lucky for them. I set off at 7.15am aiming to get to Glasgow for 8am, but in typical Patrick fashion I forgot something crucially important that would have ruined my entire trip. My sleeping mat of course. So, I doubled back not too far from home, ran in and picked it up without waking anyone up and set off again.

Arriving in Glasgow just after my planned time and catching the guys as they trundled over George square with all their gear, watching as they made sure that coffee and breakfast were intact. We set off in good time aiming to arrive at the stacks around 4pm with a stop in Inverness on the way, a 3-hour drive and nothing much exciting in between. Heading north towards Stirling with great views over to Stirling Castle and the Wallace monument. Eventually arriving on the outskirts of Perth and joined the dreaded A9. I say dreaded, but there are plenty of amazing spots around Perthshire and the highlands, the drive is very scenic, but the A9 is my second least favourite road in Scotland. They have been working on sections of it for some time which does not help the mood at all, and people seem to have zero patience on this road. Basically, it feels like a race to get to Inverness first, never enjoyable on such a busy stretch of single carriageway.

I mentioned that there are plenty spots to visit around Perthshire. A few of my personal favourites are Pitlochry, Dunkeld, the Hermitage, Dalwhinnie and Aviemore so you are not short of options. Once we’d had our refreshments in Inverness and continued our journey, we crossed the Moray Firth over the Kessock Bridge and into the Black Isle. Also, I should add that a firth is an estuary, meaning that it's the mouth of the river running into the sea. A little fun fact about the black Isle, it’s a peninsula north of Inverness and it was given this name because the snow does not lie in the winter months, casting a black patch from a distance, or does it? I like this reason, but you can do your own research on that one. Leaving the Black Isle we come to our next crossing, the Cromarty Bridge, which you guessed it, takes us over the Cromarty firth. Following the shoreline you can see in the distance oil refineries, as you move further up the coast you can see more and more structures in the water. They are here for few reasons, usually for repair or service but can be kept in the estuary if they are not required at the time. A few more miles further on before crossing yet another firth… The Dornoch Firth, you can visit the Glenmorangie Whisky Distillery, I’m not a great whisky fan but the building is very impressive.

When I got into photography, I was only ever focused on one part of the country, the west. It just seemed natural that I had to be taking photos of mountains and castles, the east coast is quite flat and nothing to me stood out or seemed worthy enough of my time (I was ignorant then), but I soon remembered something that my Father told me when I was younger. The little village of Lybster, in the far northeast has a connection with my family. This little village is where my great great grandmother on my father’s side was from and somehow manged to work her way to Edinburgh. Anyway, a little further south is a place called Dunrobin Castle. It is a grand looking building from the front and quite ugly if I’m honest, but once you walk into the grounds and down to the flower garden… Wow! It reminds me of the castle from beauty and the beast. It shines bright white and it is just an incredible building. There are a few castle ruins between here and our final stop. Keiss Castle and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe being the more popular stops but if you search a little deeper you will find Dunbeath, Gunn’s, Old Wick, Bucholie and Freswick castles, impressive in their own rights.

So after around 8 hours since I left the house, I finally arrived with my passengers at Duncansby Head. It was quiet, with clear skies and views north across to the Orkney Islands, Dunnet Head to the west, nothing to the east but ocean and most importantly, not raining! We decided that we would go and explore, shoot a little and try to take advantage of the light and scout for potential camp spots and then grab the overnight accommodation from the car. Starting at the lighthouse car park, you can follow the very noticeable path that’s been marked out by everyone before you, heading south with the coast on your left hand side, as soon as you reach the top of the small hill you get instant views to the incredibly powerful looking sea stacks. Continue down the hill, dodging all the mess from the sheep (plenty of it), bringing you to your first viewpoint, a large gully carved out of the cliff face, quite spectacular. Littered with wildflowers around the top and life on every shelf below, seabirds stuffed into every nook and cranny. From here, it’s a short walk towards the Sea Stacks themselves, you get amazing views right down the east coast but it isn’t until you get closer that you can truly appreciate the size and scale of these large chunks of rock. Standing at 196 feet tall (60 metres), you really can’t stop looking at them. This place is truly incredible, even on a bad day it would still be epic.

The guys decided that they wanted to go down to the bay that was accessed via a well-trodden path down a narrow gorge with the help of a rope that someone has tied at the top, but I decided to skip this as a previous visit nearly left me stranded and didn’t fancy another try. So I decided to head up the hill closer to the stacks to get a better view and as you carry on, all you can hear are the birds while passing the odd million midge. Reaching the top I thought I had the best view, but I was wrong and was greeted with a delightful looking Gull sitting right on top of one of the stacks and a few hundred more perched on all sides of both stacks. Trying to peer over the barbed wire fence, you couldn’t really see much below but there was one little gap where you could see the clear blue water.

I decided that it was time for a bird’s eye view and got the drone up, such a good decision, the views were stunning and captured photos that I’ve wanted for such a long time. So as far as I was concerned my mission was complete. By this point, I could hear the concern from the radio chat about how fast the tide was coming in from the explorers down in the bay… Instantly having a little laugh to myself as this is where I found myself on my previous visit, but they made it back up safe and sound. They joined me at the top of the cliff and after a huge struggle with the insects, we decided that we had to retreat.

Duncansby Stacks

We ended up setting our tents up in the least midge infested spot we could find and on the flattest patch of grass, set up a small campfire with a view that nobody could complain about.

Always remember to leave no trace.