If you’ve looked up ideas for travelling around Scotland in recent years, two types of ‘tour’ will have jumped out at you:
Outlander and NC500.
The Outlander tour routes are all about visiting filming locations used for the Outlander TV series and some (all) of the places you’ll get to visit on these tours are amazing. I know because I’ve been to some of them. But that’s for another post.
The other type of tour that jumps out at you from Google is the NC500 or North Coast 500. This is something a brilliantly-minded marketing official at Visit Scotland came up with a few years ago. Many tourists visit Scotland each year. Many tourists go to the Highlands each year. Many tourists do not venture further north than Loch Ness. The Great Glen and its lochs, including Loch Ness, form a watery geographical border stretching from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east. Until recently this also seemed to be a tourist border. For some reason, people didn’t venture further north than this.
Being an intrepid explorer sort of tourist (ha!) I’ve been going north for years. Right to the top and beyond. All the way to the top tip of Shetland in fact. And let me tell you, the north is stunning. It’s beautiful, spectacular and really, really interesting.
How to get more people to realise this and travel further north? Make a road trip route and heavily market it of course. And thus the NC500 was born. A 500 mile road trip along the east, north and west coasts of Scotland using the Great Glen as the southern (and only inland) part of the route linking it all together.
As I said, a brilliant bit of marketing.
I’ve never done a whole NC500 road trip as I’ve done so many bits of it anyway over the years. But all the guides and blog posts I’ve read about it have included places I haven’t been, but which sound wonderful. So I’ve set myself a mission of visiting a few of these places each time I’m in the north of Scotland.
One such place which has intrigued me ever since I first heard about it is the Whaligoe steps.
The Whaligoe Steps
Whaligoe seems to consist of a few houses at the top of a cliff. I doubt it’s big enough to call itself a hamlet let alone a village and it doesn’t appear on many maps. It’s not even signposted from the road.
If you do stumble across it you wouldn’t think it anything special. Just a bit of a car park in what seems like someone’s back garden and that’s pretty much it.
But you have to go round the houses (literally) because at the back of them, winding their way steeply down the cliff are 365 steps. Or 360. Or 330. Depends which source you believe. And actually, even though each source gives a different number they’re all probably right. More on that later.
The steps zig-zag their way down to a tiny harbour sheltered in a natural geo (inlet). This apparently was one of the few safe places to land fish in the 1800s. That there was a 250ft (76m) vertical cliff to be climbed before you could even begin getting the fish to the market in Wick was irrelevant because, well, that was women’s work so didn’t really matter.
There are reports of rough steps being here in the mid 1700s though the steps as we see them today probably date from the late 1700s which is also when the raised grassy platform was built. The platform, which now looks like a natural feature, is known as the Bink. As far as I can ascertain, ‘bink’ is a Scottish word for a bench or open shelf. The Bink here was built as a safe place for boats to be hauled up to at night and for salt to be stored. So I suppose it was a bit like a shelf, just a very large one.
The Bink still holds a few remains from days gone by. A rusty winch and a ruined stone building in which salt used in the curing process had been stored. There’s also a circular hole in the ground, obviously man-made. I though it might have been a well, but apparently it was a barking kettle used for heating tar to waterproof the nets and floats.
I visited the Whaligoe Steps on a fine sunny day. It was quite pleasant to stroll down and back up again stopping frequently to take in the spectacular views. I could imagine that it’s very different on a rainy, windy or misty day.
The steps are made out of local Caithness flagstone which is hewn out of the cliffs in natural thin slabs. Even though the steps are maintained it needs to be remembered that they are over 200 years old and exposed to all the wild weather the North Sea can throw at them. Thus they are uneven, broken and split in parts and I imagine quite slippery on a wet day.
I couldn’t imagine having to climb them over and over whilst gripping a huge basket of fish and wearing poor quality shoes. And most of the time in bad weather. But this is what the women did. It wasn’t just young women either, as women up to 70 were known to have still been doing this work.
They would descend the steps to the Bink carrying the heavy barrels used for salting, spend however long gutting and curing the fish and then carry them back up the steps to the top. I’ve tried to find out how heavy the loads of fish the women carried would have been, but to no avail. If you know, please share!
The work wasn’t finished once the women reached the top of the steps. There was still the small matter of having to get the fish to Wick. Eight miles away. And yes, they walked. Carrying the fish.
Some of the most picturesque and sought after places today seem to be those where in the past people had the most hardship. I suppose the same wildness and roughness of these places that made life so hard in the past is what appeals to us in our cosseted modern lives. We can enjoy the beauty and as soon as it starts to rain or get a bit chilly return to our cars or the nearest coffee shop. We can descend the steps and climb back up carrying nothing more than a camera and we know we don’t have to do it again and again and again. Until we’re 70. They might lose some of their appeal if that were the case.
But as it’s not the case and if you’re going to be in the northeast of Scotland you’re probably wanting to go there, I’ll give you a few clues on how to find them.
How to find the Whaligoe Steps
Whaligoe is just off the A99 about 7 or 8 miles south of Wick. Of course it’s on the coastal side so that is your right if you’re travelling north and your left if you’re coming south from Wick. When you get to Ulbster slow down because it’s easy to miss. There’s no sign for Whaligoe itself, but there is a brown Historic Scotland sign pointing inland to the Cairn o’ Get. The Cairn o’ Get is worth seeing as well whilst you’re here. Opposite the turnoff for the Cairn o’ Get is a narrow road with a phone box on the corner. This is the road you need to turn down. It’s not very long and at the end is a small car park.
As you stand in the car park with your back to the A99, the path you need to take is to your left. Don’t take the obvious looking path straight ahead – I don’t know where it goes, but it’s not to the steps. The path goes by someone’s garden with a lot of ‘stuff’ in it and leads to a house. Go around the house to the right hand side and the steps will be straight in front of you. You really can’t see them until you’re actually at them so don’t worry when you don’t spot them straight away.
There was a tourist group of mostly older people ahead of me when I visited the steps. A few of them made it to the bottom, some partway and some stopped near the top. I slowly made my way down, taking lots of photos and stopping to chat. By the time I got to the bottom the last of the tour group had left and I had it all to myself.
Not a lot of light or warmth from the sun makes it into the geo (the ‘goe’ at the end of Whaligoe means geo. The first part of the name either means holy place or more likely that a whale washed up here once) so the feeling at the bottom was very different to that on the bright sunny steps. It was so still, so quiet. There weren’t even many seabirds which I thought was unusual.
Making a Film Starring the Whaligoe Steps
As I soaked up the atmosphere I thought it would be a perfect place to have a go at making a video. On my trip this summer I’ve shot a few bits of video as well as taking my usual thousands of photos as one of my challenges on my 60 things to do before I’m 60 list is to make a film. I’ve no intention of making a full-length feature film or anything like that, but I want to learn some of the techniques used in film-making and understand how to create a good film rather than a crappy home video.
From the bits of film I’ve shot already I’ve realised I need to pan more slowly (seriously, I feel like if I pan any slower I’ll stop completely and yet it still looks really fast on film), that I need to do something about camera shake and I need to find some way of cutting out the sound of the wind. I’m only using my phone or regular camera and as I don’t want to get into film-making big time I just want to find ways of resolving these problems simply and cheaply. Drop me a comment if you’ve any advice!
Once I’d videoed a bit at the bottom, I decided to video my ascent back up the steps. As it would have been completely boring to just film me climbing 365 steps (or 360 or 330) I took the opportunity to make a series of short videos so I could learn how to stitch them together.
So how many steps are there?
I did think about counting the steps on my way back up, but realised there was no point. Having come down the steps I understood why there were so many different figures around for how many steps there are supposed to be. The flagstones are split and broken in parts and the steps are sometimes pretty uneven. So if two people climb them side by side, each counting, they could end up with very different numbers once they get to the top. As I have short legs I climbed the parts with lots of bits of steps, but someone climbing alongside me would have climbed steeper, further apart steps and so not as many.
Editing my Video
Once I was home my next challenge was using video-editing software to put together the clips I’d taken. After some research I decided to use Windows Movie Maker as that seemed the most obvious one for a complete beginner who doesn’t want to spend any money. But when I tried using it it seems like you can’t actually do anything with the free version, not even put different bits of video together in the one film. After a bit more research I settled on VideoPad as it’s supposed to be very simple to use and includes pretty much everything I’ll want to do in the free version.
I managed to get all my clips together and add in a simple title and end credit. I struggled to get effective transitions though – I put transition effects in between the different clips but couldn’t get them to show up on the actual film. I also couldn’t get the credits to last longer than 3 seconds. Every time I tried to get it to pause or linger a bit, it still lasted 3 seconds but chopped some of the credits off!
However, as this is my first attempt I’m quite pleased. Yes, I know it still looks like a crappy home video rather than a good film, but it’s my first attempt! And as I have film-making as one of my challenges I think I should document my learning journey on here.
And even if my video skills aren’t perfect the Whaligoe Steps are so just try to focus on those rather than my wonky videoing.
Here’s the video if you’d like a look.
Have you been to the Whaligoe Steps? Would you like to? And do you have videoing tips for me? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.
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