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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter VIII. Dunnet Head


The coast scenery, east and west of Thurso, is very grand. On the one side it rises into Holhorn Head, and on the other into the long perpendicular rocks of Dunnet Head. Holhorn means Hell’s child, from Holla the goddess of hell, and Horn child. Many a ship has been dashed against the rocks there. This has probably originated the peculiar name of the headland.

When a ship in the North Atlantic is caught by a storm, and the wind blows violently from the west, she is driven towards the rockbound coast of the Hebrides. If she can weather the Butt of Lewis, she is driven towards the gigantic rocks of Cape Wrath, which extend for about fifty miles towards Holborn Head. If she can manage, by backing, to enter Scrabster Roads, she is safe. If not, she is driven upon the rocks, and utterly destroyed—ship, men, and cargo.

The faces of the rocks are hollowed into gaping caverns, where the waves thunder in, and roll along the gyoes far inland. The leap of the waves is only exceeded by their rebound seaward again. They rush up the face of the rock like a pack of hounds, and spread themselves along the summit in blinding showers of spray

As yon stand upon the top of the rocks in fine weather, they seem to precipitate themselves into the sea,—in many cases overhanging the water.

Inside of Holborn Head is Scrabster Eoads. Many ships ride at anchor there while the wind blows hard from the west. They are well protected by the headland, which juts out towards the north-east. Scrabster Harbour is also comparatively safe.

But when the wind blows from the north or northeast, the ships riding at anchor there are in great danger. The waves come in with great force. They come hissing along with their fleece of froth, and break with violent force upon the shore. They rebound again, dragging the pebbles under them with a rattle, and—to quote the words of Hardy—are like “a beast gnawing bones.”

After one of these storms, Dick went down to the sea-shore to ascertain whether any of the secrets of Nature had been laid bare. “We have had a terrible storm here,” he says; “such a force of wind that I have never felt the like, so terribly strong and continuous. It has caused great disaster to the shipping. The storm fairly whipped six vessels out of Scrabster Roads, and dashed them ashore to ruin.

“When the wind abated, I went down to the shore, and found a piece of old land strewed here and there with prostrate hazel stems. I picked out of the clay five nuts. How long it is since they grew I know not, but it must have been ages ago. Perhaps geologists would say that they grew when Britain stood thirty feet higher than it does now. But that is all conjecture. Certainly the land along our shores had once a very different appearance.”

On another occasion he says—“The wind to-day blows fearfully hard. A large ship, with seventeen men on board, is ashore at Ham, thirteen miles off. About mid-day we expected a ship ashore here. Unless the wind abates, I should not be surprised if others came ashore to-morrow. The wind is howling like mad, and roaring like thunder over the town.”

Dunnet Head, north-east of Thurso, was one of Dick’s favourite haunts. It was a long walk to the lighthouse, which fronts the Pentland Firth. But he often wandered to it, and descended the headland to the sea by paths known only to himself.' The perpendicular rocks which surround the head, average about two hundred feet high; but at the northern end, which forms the northernmost point of Scotland, the rock rises three hundred feet above sea level; and from the summit of the contiguous eminence, the height above the sea is more than four hundred feet.

Dunnet Head forms a peninsula, extending from the village of Dunnet on the south to the village of Brough on the north. From these points it extends northward. The peninsula contains about three thousand acres of uncultivated moor, with no fewer than ten small lochs or tarns on its summit. In winter time the lochs are crowded with swans, geese, ducks, and northern seafowl. Most of the birds summer in Greenland, and winter on Dunnet Head.

This immense rampart of rocky headland runs along the northern shore of Dunnet Bay, by Dwarwick Head, in an easterly direction. Then turning sharp round to the north by Rough Head, the rocks wend northwards, then slightly eastwards, until you find yourself under Easter Head, where the lighthouse is erected. This is the highest point of the cliffs. They then extend to the south-east, and afterwards towards the south, ending at the village of Brough.

In fine or even rough weather, when the wind is easterly, a yachting trip under the cliffs is full of interest. In Dunnet Bay the sea is quiet, being protected from the east by the high grounds of the peninsula. Dwarwick Head forms a singular headland, the strata dipping slightly towards the sea. Between this and Rough Head is a wick or bay, in which ships find safe shelter —an old retreat of the Vikingers.

Kough Head is a bold headland. Numerous boulders are strewn at the bottom of the cliff. There are points near Dwarwick Head and Eough Head, where an approach to the sands is possible, though, in some places, it is rather precipitous. There are numerous gyoes along the headland, worn out into inland caves by the powerful washings of the sea. There is one near Dwarwick which penetrates far inland. When the sea is rough, and drives in from the west, the sea dashes up far inland, and blows through the opening like a whale, throwing abroad sheets of spray.

The precipices gradually rise. In certain places the rocks seem to have slipped away towards the bottom, and left steep slopes overgrown by ferns. There are numerous wild birds among the cliffs. Cormorants are seen winging their solitary way towards the north. Deep caves appear in the face of the rock; with here and there a recent slip from the summit to the sea, where the stones lie in a rough slope. The red sandstone of the rocks looks so clear, so solid, and so near at hand, that it might be thought they were only a gunshot distant, though they are a mile and a quarter away.

And now we are under the lighthouse, where the strata are nearly level. The precipice here is some three hundred feet high. The lighthouse is on the crest of the rocks, only about thirty feet from the precipice. It is the highest lighthouse in Scotland. The height of the lantern above the highest spring tides is 346 feet, and the light is seen twenty-three miles off, on either side of Dunnet Head.

Even here there seem to have been recent slips, for there are long slopes of rock at the bottom overgrown with ferns and greenery. The sea is constantly washing and grinding away the red sandstone and slates, so that, in course of time, the lighthouse will have to be removed farther inland.

Notwithstanding the height of the cliffs, the sea, when driving strongly from the west, rushes right up the face of the rocks, and dashes over the lighthouse, sometimes breaking the glass with the stones which it carries with it. Such is the prodigious force of the wind and the sea united, that the very rock itself seems to tremble, while the lighthouse shakes from top to bottom.

We are now in the Pentland Firth, and the waves are rolling strong from the eastward. The wind and the waters dash about the little ship, and she tacks and bears round under the shelter of the headland. But not before her decks have been well drenched by the billows. She has now to make headway against the tide, which is rushing into the Pentland Firth at the rate of some ten miles an hour. At last, retracing her pathway under the rocks, Rough Head is passed; a calm comes on; the ship makes a tack across the bay; and at length Dwarwick Head is passed, and the buoyant little yacht makes her way into Castletown harbour, from whence she set out.

We have thought it necessary to give this account of Dunnet Head, because it was so often the scene of Robert Dick’s explorations. Sometimes also, Hugh Miller accompanied him in his researches after the Old Eed Sandstone, which is found on both sides of the headland. This will afterwards be found in the course of the narrative.

In the course of one of his letters to his sister, Dick thus describes one of his journeys to Dunnet Head. It was made in April, while the weather was still very wild:—

“Determined not to he beat, I waited over snow, hail, frost, and rain, until I could set out. Then I had my ramble. It was a fine morning, but after I had set out it began to rain. It blew and rained for five miles. I saw little beyond a hare country. The fields were red, and the grass by the road-side was withered and brown. All was of a sad, desolate appearance. I was walking in an easterly direction, and the wind was blowing south-west. To fend me from the rain, I turned my face northerly, and saw only a tossing sea, and the Orkney hills overspread with snow. I passed through the mile-long village of Castletown, and there I saw trees, yes, most respectable trees!

“On the top of a stone wall to the right I saw some tufts of moss. I went to the moss and looked. It was all in fruit. I think it was Hypnum popuieum. I had seen it before. I crossed burn after burn, and then the long dreary sands of Dunnet lay before me—blank and bare, or tossed into fantastic hillocks. The sand was blowing before the wind. The waves were thundering along the shore.

“I saw a man breaking sandstone boulders. He little thought of what he was doing, or of the time when ice went grinding along the surface of the stone he was hammering. No: he was building a cottage, and the stone was only a stone to him, and nothing more.

“Passing on, I left all human habitations behind, and had only heather, heather, before me. The heather was brown and bumt-like, so severe had been the weather during the past winter. As I passed on, I found a cocoon of the Emperor Moth sticking on a piece of heather. I was next brought to a stop by some crimson-tipped lichens—moss cups. They were taller than any specimens I had seen before, but they were under shelter.

“After crossing another burn, and striding through heather only ankle deep, I found myself on the edge of the precipitous cliffs of Dunnet Head. Before I descended down their front I looked around. Orkney seemed quite near, with the snow-wreaths on its hills. The waves of the Pentland Firth were rolling away westerly.

“Down I went! down! It was at that place only about 100 feet deep. When I reached the foot of the cliff, I gazed upward in wonder and admiration, full of intense curiosity to see the various layers of sand—for such it once was. It is not every day that one stands at the foot of such a cliff.

“I moved westwards. I passed along delighted. The scene was grand and unusually striking. I came at length to a narrow fissure, up which I forced my way in quest of Ferns. Yes, Ferns! Ferns grow green on Dunnet Cliffs all the year round. In fact, Dunnet Head is a forest of ferns. It was the Sea Spleenwort that I wanted, and sure enough I found it growing green in all its glory. I gathered a few, and left the rest.

“Retracing my steps, I ascended the cliff. It then began to rain, and it rained nearly all the way home.”

Dick often descended the cliff, sometimes to gather ferns, and at other times to inspect the geological conditions of the rocks. One day he went down the face of the headland a little to the west of the lighthouse. He went searching about among the rocks and clefts, finding many new things to wonder at. But he completely forgot the lapse of time. Looking round, he found that the tide had risen and completely overflowed the path among the rocks by which he had come. On one side was the precipice, on the other was the sea, coming in higher and higher at every wave. He had no alternative but to go onward, for the sands were still dry in front of him. At length he discovered a portion of the headland which he thought might be attempted, and he succeeded, with much difficulty and danger, in reaching the summit of the cliff.

In fine weather, when the billows are asleep and the waters merely lave the base of the cliffs, pleasure parties sometimes set sail from Thurso, and, when the tide is low, they land on the sands under Dunnet Head. On one occasion, Dr. Smith and a party who had just landed from their boat, found to their amazement that Dick was there before them. He seemed to have got there by miracle. But no ; he had merely come down the rocks by a path known only to himself, for assuredly nobody else would have risked his life in so perilous a descent.

Dr. Smith asked him to return with his party in the boat. Ho ! he would ascend the rocks by the path down which he had come. Besides, he never accepted any accommodation of this sort while on his journeys. His skin was in a state of perspiration, which he desired to maintain. If he took a seat in a boat or in a road conveyance, with his wet feet, he was sure to get chilled, and the result was a severe cold. Hence he strode back to Thurso by the heather, the sands, and the road, as he had come.

On one occasion Dick describes the geology of Dunnet Head. It is during the month of June that he undertakes his journey. He has already reached Dunnet sands, which are about seven miles by road from Thurso. The description is best given in Dick’s own words:—

“Dunnet sands are a long and a weary trail in a warm day in June, when the dark thunder-clouds creep overhead, when not a breath of air stirs, and all is still and motionless, save the dull, sluggish fall, at solemn pauses, of the incoming and retreating waves on the burning sands, or the humming of the overjoyed flies feeding on the dead fish cast up by the tide; when the cattle from tlie benty links have come down towards the sea, where they stand knee-deep in it, stooping and eyeing it wistfully, but yet unable to drink; when the parched sands stretch away in the distance, the heated air flickering upwards like the breath of a furnace !

“I look up, and implore the ‘all-conquering sun to intermit his wrath.’ He only continues to shine out stronger and fiercer; till at last, faint and exhausted. I throw myself down, and drink out of the burn which flows across the sands, careless of the consequences. Your very wise people may say what they please about the consequences of imbibing cold water when overheated, but I have never found any harm, but much good to be the result, and in no case more than in taking this drink out of the burn as I crossed the sands towards Dunnet.

“Refreshed and invigorated, I rose and pursued my way. Hot long after, I had the pleasure of striking my first hearty blow on the yellow stones which crop out through the unconsolidated beach. I examine and search for organic remains. But no. Again and again my efforts are renewed, and still the answer is, Ho.

“Passing on along the foot of the cliffs—now yellowish, then reddish—now thin and slaty-like, then in thick solid beds—I go rambling along.

“Owre mony a weary ledge he limpit,
An' aye the tither stane he thumpit; *

but thumped in vain. Oh for one scale! But no; no organisms; not one, though you upturned the whole stupendous accumulation of quartzy sand, which rears its lofty and weathered front to the wasting waves and sea-breezes.

“We have chosen the right time, when the tide is at the lowest. Consequently we are enabled to move along at the foot, of the cliffs, which otherwise would be impassable. We actively and untiringly explore, but with no success; and are at last so wearied that we clamber up to the top of the headland by a rugged sort of footpath, and, moving along the edge of the precipice, we make through the grass and heather for the crags immediately facing the Western Ocean. How strange to find, as we move along, a white butterfly or two flitting about, a solitary mason wasp, and a sparrow-hawk looking out for prey, the sun all the while beating down upon us.

“It is possible to get down the western face of the rugged cliffs of Dunnet Head. We got down, and what do we find? The sight is worth all the toil of walking to see it. Immense masses of sandstone, fallen from the cliffs overhead, skirt the mighty wall. The masses lie in rude confusion. Applying the hammer to them, no remains of fish or quadruped are to be found, but pieces of quartz, clay pebbles of a reddish brown, and in some places balls of sulphur-yellow clay, as big as a man’s fist. Here and there are large patches of something like rusty sheet-iron, which would almost make one fancy that they were the remains of some Antediluvian Frying-pan that had been swept to sea and buried there.

“There is very little real red sandstone at Dunnet Head. By far the greatest bulk is what I take to be a yellow quartzose sand. In one place, and in one place only, is the sand in any way red. In crossing Dunnet sands we had not failed to notice little stones, standing out here and there in the sand, left by the retiring tide, and great was my surprise to find the same appearances here. In some places, where the boulders are a little asunder, the exact beds of the strata are to be seen, walked over, handled, and hammered. I had seen sandstone beds with here and there a pebble, but they never struck my imagination so forcibly as now, when I was down upon my knees and busied in the work of extraction.

“What a vast gathering of sand! I was forced to exclaim. Where did it all come from? How long did it take to pile up this heap in the silent depths of the sea? How long? How many years? These are pertinent questions,—questions which enter one’s very soul. Then man feels instinctively his own littleness, and his utter inadequacy to solve even the simplest of his questionings.

“But however amazed he may feel at this vast pile of sand, it was at one time unquestionably much greater. Looking across to the Orkneys, immediately opposite, the spectator cannot fail to remark that they are of the same material. Then, turning from the Orkneys to Hol-born Head, where a strong sea now rolls, one cannot help looking back, and we are led to picture the time when there was no sea between them, but only sandstone beds, stretching continuously from shore to shore!

“The beds have been burst through by the ocean, and where dry land once was, the grampus now rolls, and the tall ship speeds on her way to the farthest ends of the earth. Amazing change!

“Art, empire, earth itself, to change is doomed;
Earthquakes have raised to heaven the humble vale,
And gulphs the mountain’s mighty mass entombed;
And where the Atlantic rolled wide continents have bloomed.’

“Who told Beattie this? It seems to prove Lyell's theory of the sameness of ancient and existing causes for geological changes in the earth's surface. And the change is still going on; and ‘ come it will, the day decreed by fate,' when not a vestige of the sandstone of Dunnet Head will he found above the encroaching ocean.

“What induces me to think so is this :—1st, Dunnet Bay does not, in my opinion, owe its existence to a fault, hut has been literally hammered out by the force of the Atlantic waves. The sandy links are the broken remains, in part, of the dispersed strata; and were they now to become solidified, they would he found as rich in fossil remains as the present beds are barren. 2d, The ocean tempests are telling surely on the western face of the beds of Dunnet Head; and time alone is wanted to effect their ruin. 3d, The beds on the south, at Brough, are in some places in a mouldering, crumbling state, and the sea will ultimately effect a junction with the upper end of Dunnet Bay. Dunnet Head will for some time be an island; but it will ultimately be blotted out of existence altogether. There is a prophecy for you!

“I remember once getting up, towards the end of harvest, while the blue canopy above was still adorned and enriched with innumerable stars. I was gaily crossing Dunnet sands in the first peep of day, when I made directly across the peninsula for the stupendous cliff immediately westward of the little haven of Brough. I found that the tide did not retire far from the coast, but rose and fell close to the cliffs, wetting and allowing to •dry the big stones at the base of the precipice.

“The cliff, under which I rested for a time, was about 150 feet high. It seemed sound and hard. The morning sun rose in beauty. I hammered away, and kept moving down upon the hamlet of Brough. There I found the cliffs in sad decay; in fact, they were a sloping mass of rotten materials. A little out to sea there is a ledge of what was once red sandstone. It is a mouldering hint of what is to come. It is 50 feet in height, and rests upon slate.

“I had made this long journey in the hope of finding some very fine organisms where the slate cropped out from beneath the sand. I found a few fish scales and droppings, but no fossils; and sounded a retreat, very much chagrined at having to return home almost empty-handed.

“There is a loch or two near Dunnet Head. There is one on the top of the hill. It is a quiet secluded spot, a place of great attraction for wild swans, geese, and ducks, during their autumnal migration, when winging their way southward. There is another loch lower down, famed for its miraculous cures. It is quite common for mothers to carry their sickly children there on the first Monday morning of a Wraith; and, going round the puddle three times, they dip in the chick at the end of each revolution. The children have sometimes returned home cured. So they say.

“I remember a sort of cure. A poor woman took thither a child who could neither sit, stand, walk, nor talk. She performed the customary observances, and returned amidst much derision. But lo! a marked change took place in the child. He gained strength, walked, and learned to speak. He often came to my back premises, and called out: ‘Bakie, bakie, gie’s a lopiebut' still he was very ancient-looking in the face. About two or three years after he died of gravel. So that the cure, whatever it might be, was not permanent.”

The piece of water referred to by Dick is Dunnet Loch, or the Halie Loch, not far from the village of Dunnet. It was once supposed to possess great healing virtues. People came from all parts of Caithness and the Orkneys, to be cured by the waters. The patient had to walk round the loch, or, if not able to walk, he was carried round it. He washed his hands and feet in the loch, and then threw a piece of money into it. He had to do this early in the morning, and must be out of sight before sunrise. There was in ancient times a Boman Catholic chapel dedicated to St. John at the east end of the loch. Some say that the alleged healing virtues of the waters were converted into a source of pecuniary emolument by tlie priests. The loch is merely a collection of water dropped from the clouds, and possesses no healing or other qualities, except those of rain water.

Among the superstitions of Caithness, the Swallow is called “Witch hag.” They say that if a swallow flies under the arm of a person, it immediately becomes paralysed. Is it because of the same superstition, that in some parts of England the innocent Swift is called “the Devilin”?


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