Thank you for your patience, gentle readers. It’s taken a while since arriving at the John o’Groats finger-post to gather my thoughts and put a final blog together .. in amongst the sleeps and the naps and the siestas! I will be writing my about my thoughts of the whole journey but for now wanted to share the joy of the final day with you .. you have been such wonderful companions along the way.
Last Tuesday I woke up really early, had a swift breakfast, packed my backpack one last time and set off to walk the final nine miles. There was something about the day which reminded me of finishing summer term at school. You remember that feeling of excitement with both the end of term and the beginning of holidays in sight. Childhood had a way of heightening those emotions and creating a heady cocktail of excitement and slightly anxious anticipation. It was a sensation I hadn’t had in decades.
I passed the two castles at Keiss almost immediately .. the ruined one standing precariously on the cliff-top and its successor stoutly anchored further inland. Planned obsolescence even in the 17th century.
The narrow A road demanded full attention and it didn’t take much to tempt me off-piste, to saunter down a lane signposted to Nybster Harbour. I hadn’t remembered there being any fishing village marked on the map and so was curious. The place is really famous for having the most important broch in mainland Scotland. A broch is an Iron Age settlement. It’s thought that this one dates back to as early as 700 BC and that people lived there for over a thousand years. There’s not too much to see for the layperson but it’s impressive when you think of the timeframe, nevertheless.
Much more recently the little harbour at Nybster was used for landing fish and creel pots. The uneven stone steps led down to the crystal-clear water, past an old and crumbling fishing bothy. For some reason I found it heart-achingly beautiful. Maybe it was knowing this was probably my last little detour on the walk or maybe it was the poignancy of the simple bothy, once home to a family and now deserted and cold. I sat alone on the jetty and felt overwhelmed by the history, the natural beauty and the humanity of the place.
The geology of the place reminded me of Hartland Quay, back in Cornwall. I smiled at the symmetry of the walk .. starting and ending with such beautiful towering cliffs and ocean. Once I’d torn myself away from the quiet solitude I returned to the road and became focused on reaching my goal of the day and my goal of the journey .. John o’Groats.
The village of Freswick was announced on a sign, well before any signs of habitation. It felt to be more the size of a county than that of a village, as I hobbled along. The Castle close to the shore was a distraction. It’s what’s known as a tower house and was built on the site of a 12th century Viking settlement. Nowadays, the Grade A building is hired out for house-parties. I can well imagine the cloudscapes and night skies are spectacular, with no light pollution and huge horizons.
There was the occasional house dotted along the road and those people sitting in their warm verandahs all smiled and raised their hands to wave .. they must see so many End to Enders passing their windows, in all weathers. It was a tonic and made me smile broadly in return. Motorists tooted as they whizzed past, all seeming to encourage me along the final few miles. But there was one little electric-blue car which slowed down and pulled up beside me. The emotion was almost too much as I recognised Liz and Graham, the friends who had waved me off from Land’s End on 1st of March in the snow. Here they were up in Scotland, ready to help me celebrate as I crossed the finishing line. After much hugging they jumped back into their car and I returned to the road to walk the last couple of miles by myself.
It didn’t take long to crunch out the last stretch. And then suddenly, there it was .. the famous fingerpost at the northern most point of the country, pointing southwards all the way to Land’s End. I could have hugged it .. in fact I did! It was a feeling of utter elation.
There was time for many photos and for drinking the fizz that Liz and Graham had brought with them. There was time to share the elation with Julian, a German cyclist who had also just finished the journey from Land’s End .. but in a spectacular 9.5 days. There was time to celebrate with the Harley Davidson riders who I’d met earlier and who had made a generous donation to Walking The Black Dog. And there was also time to cuddle up to Buzz, the black labrador who just happened to be there on the day, with his lovely owner Alison and her husband.
I was able to reach my husband on the phone in Sydney and talk jubilant nonsense to him. Then I sent messages to other wonderful friends who have been there to support me all along the way. I have NO recollection of what I said now, such was the excitement!
There were more photos, more bubbles and possibly a few tears.
And that was that .. or so I thought. But I’d underestimated the Lights’ kindness and generosity, not for the first time. In the back of my mind I felt something was not quite right as Liz drove at a snail’s pace back to our wonderful stop for the night. Not known for her sedentary driving, I was mildly surprised at just how slowly she was driving. It took us at least two hours to get to Skibo but as we were merrily chatting all the way, it mattered as nought. There was a very good reason for her refusal to overtake even tractors, as it turned out.
As we approached the castle, we were welcomed at the steps by the lovely manager, Caroline and her assistant Amanda. Out of the grand double doors, stumbled a kilt-sporting, doddering old retainer, with drinks slopping about on his silver tray. Muttering words beneath his breath I immediately smelt a rat .. this member of staff was not at all up to Skibo’s usual high standard, in fact he was quite culturally unacceptable. And then the cat was out of the bag as I tugged at the kilt and pulled off the wig to reveal one of my oldest, dearest friends, Nick .. one last wonderful surprise to end my journey! (Turns out Liz was desperately trying to give Nick time to don his kilt and arrange his wig, after his delayed arrival from Inverness airport!)
There was a bath with bubbles, glasses with bubbles and a terrific evening of revelry. I even got my second wind, as I smelled the Glenmorangie in the Gun Room. What a way to finish!
The icing on the cake came the following day as we made our way back to Inverness Airport and called in to see how the puppies were doing in Culbokie. Well, they were looking just peachy, even if some had definitely found a use for those sharp little teeth! Black dogs and walking boots felt to be the perfect end to the journey.
I’ll be back with a few reflections once I’ve had chance to digest the last few months. But for now, thank you gentle readers for being there for me.
Black Dog Heroes
Archie has completely changed Katie’s life. Katie has a fainting condition which means she can black out unexpectedly up to ten times a day. Archie can predict when she’s about to faint by a change in her smell. He alerts her and since he’s been in her life she’s suffered no injuries at all and has been able to continue swimming at a national level.