Witches’ knickers …

… and other monochromes, from a walk between Portmahomack and Tarbat Ness lighthouse.  To get here, head for Inverness, cross the Kessock and Cromarty Bridges, follow the A9 north, by-passing Invergordon, until a turning right is signposted Fearn and beyond.  We are here because of golf, a ‘research’ trip for Golf in the Wild – Going Home – golf doesn’t get much wilder than this.

It is also a fine place to stay regardless of the golf: Known in Gaelic as ‘Port MoCholmaig’ or St Colman’s Port, Portmahomack can trace its roots back to 800 AD. Today, this pretty fishing village is well-known locally for its picturesque setting. The only village on the east coast of Scotland that faces due west, Portmahomack can enjoy spectacular sunsets. And because it is situated in an area of the Highlands renowned for its low rainfall, the village doesn’t suffer with those pesky West Coast midges! – http://www.portmahomack.org/

A remarkably flat landscape for much of the road towards the tip of the peninsular, the landscape was purpose-built for aerodromes.  More than seventy years after the end of World War II, there is much evidence of the decaying infrastructure that supported RAF Tain.  It is also prime farmland, more reminiscent of the Great Plains than a land steeped in ancient Pictish history.  There are the inevitable too-yellow fields of oil seed rape but also, acres given over to potato crops, much of which ends up in crackly packets of Walkers Crisps.

Once you reach the coastal village Portmahomack, the landscape roughens up such that the golf course is anything but flat which makes for a thoroughly entertaining 10-hole layout at the top of the village. Golf was first played here in 1894 and the current club established in 1909.

Portmahomack even has its own Carnegie Hall which, by happy coincidence, was playing host to Lizabett Russo on the night we arrived.

These photos ignore the golf as I am honour-bound to occasionally entertain the Good Wife/part-time caddie with walks that don’t include greens and fairways:

Witches’ knickers

A shed

Wide open spaces

Oil seed rape.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.

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Nancy

I have been ploughing my way through David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie.  I have been panning for gold.  Carnegie was an avid golfer and somewhere in this 878pp tome there are unique, if short references, to the man’s passion for the game.  Golf in the Wild research can be a slow and laborious process.

I mention this only because I have been itching to move on.  Intrigued by the reference to Nancy Ridley in the previous post, ‘buried by the Lych gate’, at St Cuthbert’s Beltingham, I was curious enough to buy her long-out-of-print Portrait of Northumberland, first published in 1965.  I am a short way into its pages but her descriptions of Roman Wall Country are instantly recognisable, a litany of names and places I know intimately by foot, by car and on motorcycle.  It is our home.

After too many years ping-ponging between northwest England and the south, chasing IT’s filthy lucre, it is odd that I should find myself tied to this place, at the very edge of England’s last wilderness. Now, nearly twenty-five years in the same place, it would be unthinkable to be anywhere else other than here.

‘Here’ is a landscape that would be entirely recognisable to Nancy but her introduction to Portrait of Northumberland is from another time entirely – “The Tyne still maintains its reputation as the greatest ship repairing river in the world” – “Every Northumbrian town has a live-stock mart for the sale not only of home bred but also Irish cattle” – “This is one of the most popular holiday districts in Northumberland where the same people go year after year.  There are many good boarding houses in Allendale Town”.  Sadly, the ‘same people’ are now most likely to be found on foreign beaches.

Nancy’s introduction also includes many references to the Great North Road which in her time would have run through the heart of towns and cities on its way to the Scottish Borders and beyond. The same would have been true of the old Newcastle to Carlisle A roads on their journey through the Tyne Valley.  We walk round with computing power in our pockets, unimaginable in 1965 but, the most visible aspect of change are the roads and vehicles on them – this from newcastleuncovered.com

In contrast, these recent images from around Beaufront Woodhead present a landscape unchanged since Nancy’s time and long before:

Lone trees on the lane to Acomb

Broken gate

Unbroken gate

Bridge on the lane to Acomb

This morning, while snow still lay all around we drove to the Allen Gorge car park and again walked to Beltingham, this time in search of Nancy’s grave. It should be easy to find but even after a relatively short time, the headstone is almost indecipherable:

Nancy’s grave – almost indecipherable

Time, she says,
“There’s no turning back,
keep your eyes on the tracks”
Through the fields, somehow there’s blue
Oh, time will tell, she’ll see us through

Finally a technical point re the images – generally I will shoot in Acros (+Yellow filter) so I can see the tones of a mono image on the camera LCD. Then, I will normally process the RAW image, sometimes colour, sometimes mono – for once these are all straight Acros jpegs from the ‘can’ – tweaked with the Camera RAW filter in PhotoShop CC. Interestingly, it is surprising how much shadow detail can be recovered even from a jpeg. Use of the original Acros image also preserves the film grain that Fuji have worked so hard to emulate.

You don’t need a weatherman …

… to know which way the wind blows – Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan, recorded on January 14, 1965.  According to english.stackexchange.com, the lyric was the inspiration for the name of the American radical left group the Weathermen, a breakaway from the Students for a Democratic Society. In a 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs that found Bob Dylan was quoted by judges and lawyer more than any other songwriter, “you don’t need a weatherman…” was distinguished as the line most often cited.

I mention this apropos of nothing other than I was at Traigh for their Open over the weekend and, as always, from the high points on the course, you don’t need a weatherman, you can see the weather coming for miles and there was plenty of it.

The view from the 3rd tee

The Clubhouse – the umbrella accurately indicates that the sun was only a passing fancy

Threatening weather

Not immediately apparent, but my bottom half is drenched 😦

The view from the 2nd tee

Looking back to the 2nd tee – Traigh Open 2018 – the essence of Golf in the Wild

While I am going off at tangents, I will make this not particularly original observation – to fully appreciate any music you must hear it in the context of its own time. This track and everything else on Bringing It All Back Home was a shining beacon of originality which inevitably fades with time and the production of more than 50 years worth of subsequent music. Nevertheless, I can still remember the excitement felt by that introverted 14 year-old as this album first emerged from the single speaker of the family Dansette. All the words are still inside my head.

The Volunteers …

Cullen Links is one of the more remarkable golf courses in Scotland.  Squeezed between the sea and the high ground above the bay where the Great North of Scotland Railway once steamed, the limited acreage demanded an imaginative course design.  At first nine holes, it was extended to eighteen in 1905 and opened by “Sheriff Reid from Banff, in the presence of a large and representative company”.

Extension was achieved by use of high ground above Round Craig and Boar Craig.  You can get some idea of the height achieved by standing at the foot of the town’s railway viaduct as it towers above.  Then consider this – by the time you reach the upper level of the course, the railway has disappeared into a cutting beneath the level of the 5th fairway.  At the seventh, with one glorious drive into the unknown, you descend in a single shot to sea-level.  Forget the Pacific Highway, this is the best drive in the world.

Golf in the Wild at Cullen. The view of the 12th green from the 7th tee – the 13th tee is adjacent to the green and plays between the rocks on the right.

Golf in the Wild at Cullen. The view from the 4th tee.

Despite the course skirting the beach, there are not many opportunities for even the wildest of hitters to reach the briney sea.  Only at the ninth do you aim towards the bay and it would be a monstrous misjudgement to reach the shore.  However, that is not to say that there are no balls in the bay, indeed, there could be thousands.

On the original course map, at a position roughly in line with the current 16th tee, there is marked a “Battery” and on the wall of the clubhouse, an image of a row of cannons.

The exact purpose of the battery is unclear, but presumably there was some thought to coastal defence. However, while possibly never fired in anger, they were certainly exercised regularly for “Volunteers Big Gun Practice”, a sport which bears some resemblance to foursomes golf. A press cutting from the time indicates that the match was halved:

On Friday last, this Company, under the command of Capt. Ross and Lieut. Peterkin, fired off the remaining allowance of shot and shell for year 1865.  The day fixed on was anything but favourable for practice – the wind blowing a regular gale off the land – yet the detachments mustered at the stated time nothing daunted, and it was a general remark of the on-lookers at the battery, that seldom if ever had such fine practice been made in like weather.  At the conclusion of the practice, Adjutant Crabbe, who was present inspecting, complimented the several detachments in the highest terms, both as to their efficiency at drill, and their precision in the laying of guns.  In the course of the evening, the recruits of the company competed for the prize of one thousand rounds of carbine cartridge, given by Alex. Wilson, Esq., Tochineal, a thorough supporter of Volunteer matters.  The prizes were to have been awarded to those showing the greatest proficiency in big gun drill.  The contest was judged by Adjutant Crabbe, and in presence of Captain Ross, and other officers, along with Mr Wilson, and a goodly number of the company, when it was agreed that distinction or any individual superiority could not well be pronounced, the whole having done their part so well, so that the prize came to be equally divided among the ten young recruits of the detachment, giving satisfaction to all.  As a finish, three hearty cheers were heartily accorded to Mr Wilson by all present.

With thanks to Cullen Past and Present and Cullen Links for unearthing the information relating to the Battery.

Golf in the Wild – Going Home is a work in progress – the sequel to www.golfinthewild.co.uk

The Light Railway

The Wick to Lybster Railway conformed to the Light Railway Act of 1896 which did not demand specific legislation to construct.   Reducing legal costs and enabling new railways to be built quickly, it was intended to encourage the building of new ‘light railways’ in areas of low population.  Using the powers of this Act, the Wick to Lybster Light Railway finally opened 1st July 1903 but with the new legislation came certain restrictions: the weight of the rolling stock could not exceed 12 tons on any one axle; the maximum speed was 25 mph, reducing to 10 mph on curves which had a radius of less than 9 chains; level crossings had to be approached at no more than 10 mph.

The decline of the fishing industry at Lybster and the construction of a road between Wick and Helmsdale in the 1930s signalled the end for the Light Railway which closed on 1st April 1944.  John Skene who was the driver of the first train on the opening day of the railway in 1903 steamed up the engine for the last trip in 1944.

Perhaps because of the harsh terrain and climate, perhaps because of its ‘light’ construction, little remains visible – the occasional embankment seen from the A9, the hint of a cutting through an empty field and maybe the odd stationmaster’s house, largely indeterminate from other Caithness architecture.  The wonderful exceptions are the station buildings at Thrumster and Lybster.  Following the line’s closure, Thrumster Station continued life as a Post Office, a caravan site office and finally a garage store before being acquired by the Yarrows Trust in 2003.  It is now perfectly preserved internally and externally, defiantly sited just a few feet from the busy A99, heading north to Wick.

Thrumster Station

The station at Lybster survives through simple vested interest – it is now the clubhouse for the Lybster Golf Club where the cutting heads north west through the course and the 7th whites tee box sits in the middle of the line – it is a pity that there is no longer any evidence of the platform:

Lybster Station

The Far North

Wick has been on my agenda for some time, almost five years to be precise, ever since my Highland Railways post from February 2013.  The ScotRail Club 55 discounted price has expired but with enough forward planning, you can still go a very long distance for not very much – in this instance, from Hexham to Wick and back for £66, a journey not too far shy of 1000 miles.

I set off with some trepidation – Wick and I have form.  Back in the summer of 1987 I flew there from Edinburgh on a business trip.  It is one of those airports that is disconcertingly close to the sea.  For the last half mile approach, there is the distinct impression that the plane is about to do a Captain Sully on the Hudson.  As it turned out, it wasn’t the landing that was the problem but the take-off a few days later.  Around 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, Loganair unceremoniously cancelled the return flight and left me stranded.

Taking to the railways was also full of uncertainties – the Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick, has a well documented poor reliability record.  Aging rolling stock and a single track with insufficient passing loops means that disruption to one service snowballs across the rest.  The occasional thump of shrubbery against windows also testifies to poor trackside maintenance.  I need not have worried.  All seven of the connecting services over four days ran exactly to time, the Inverness to Wick sections included.

The problem with the Far North Line runs much deeper than reliability.  Travel by car from Wick to Inverness and under normal circumstances it will take about two and half hours.  Travel by rail and it takes over four.  It is all down to geography.  The line takes the long route around three firths: Beauly, Cromarty and Dornie such that the distance by rail is roughly twice that of a well trained crow on a still day.  All three firths are crossed by road bridges with no accommodation for rail.

At least these rail routes to the heads of the firths take in modest areas of population.  This is not the case north of Helmsdale where the line wanders inland to avoid the major civil engineering challenge and associated cost of constructing a line over the Ord of Caithness.  The consequence of this 19th century decision is that the line travels remarkable distances to go to the very epicentre of the middle of nowhere.  For the idle rail enthusiast with no desire other than to observe the empty majesty of the Flow Country, this is heaven.  For the good people of Wick and Thurso and a commercial enterprise dependent on attracting passenger traffic, it is not what the doctor ordered.  To have survived post Beeching is a minor miracle.  I am just grateful it has and with the support of the Friends of the Far North Line, I trust it always will.

Kildonan Railway Station

An overnight stay provided the opportunity for only the briefest impressions of Wick.  Seen in a dull, clouded January light, it is a monochrome austere town.  There is no graffiti, no primary colours and no evidence of the too-familiar chain stores.  This creates an air of independence and self-reliance.  Grey stone and grey pebble-dash is contrasted by brown woodwork; individuality is expressed by the shade of brown wood stain. Everywhere there is solid 19th century architecture which will outlive its original purpose; the place has a curious magnificence.

It also seems prosperous – there is major construction work down by the harbour whilst oil rig support vessels are moored to the quayside alongside modern fishing boats, although nothing like the herring fleet numbers that crowded these waters in the 1800s.  In the busy harbourside cafe, Wickers World, the preferred choice of dress is hi-viz and hard hat.  If ownership of German SUVs is a reliable indicator of general prosperity, then the people of Wick are doing just fine.  This is a collection of images taken on the evening of my arrival and the morning of my departure.  Before too long I will return – by car and with golf clubs.  The links course, three miles north of the town, is just too tempting.

Cutting Edge Barbers

Ronnies Restaurant

The Camps Bar.

In 1651 Cromwell’s Army formed an encampment before moving on to invade Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles.  This area of the town is called The Camps.  Temperance (Scotland) Act closed all licenced premises in Wick for 25 years from 28th of May 1922 until 28th May 1947, with the Camps Bar being the first to open its doors.

Birons Ironmongers

The Post Office – Pulteney Town, Wick

The harbour, Wick

The lifeboat – Wick harbour, late afternoon.

The lifeboat station – Salmon Rock – no longer in use.

Fishermen’s huts Wick Harbour

Catherine, out of the water, Wick Harbour

Wickers [sic] World Cafe – Wick harbour.

Across the road from Wickers World.

Farewell to Wick – the train back south

… No sooner has the sun,
Swung clear above the earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live as gleaners of its vestiges.

Damon’s Lament for His Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654
Geoffrey Hill – 1978

Sunrise over Wick harbour.

Travelling by train, particularly on the near-empty carriages of the Far North Line, is one of the most relaxing modes of transport devised by man, with or without the clickety-clack of sleep-inducing rail expansion gaps. However, there is mild frustration for the photographer – a fine landscape is only visible through mucky windows which reflect the carriage lights. This is the near-best moving image I could manage – a video of the Inverness to Edinburgh line heading south on the final day:

(dig around on this site and you may find various tweeted phone images from the same journey).

When I was small …

and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things.  Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines.  Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside.  The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near.  In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it.  In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.

Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window.  And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.

Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a  more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.

At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the  British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack.  As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay.  However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development.  Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it.  Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.

The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid.  Just fifteen years later it was switched off.  Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere.  Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.

I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR.  This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without.  Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years.  Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.

This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington.  Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:


An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).