Sunrise was a 6:47 AM. At 6:00, we quickly dressed and quietly left the Bencorragh House, heading in to the pre-dawn mists and driving the narrow country roads out past John O’Groats to the single track road that crosses the Burn of Sannick (Old Norse, Sandvík) and leads to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head. When we arrived, it was still semi-dark; the large herd of sheep on the open field around the lighthouse looked at us as though we were nuts to be out there so early. We parked in the car park, looked across the Pentland Firth to Swilkie Point on the north side of Stroma Island (Old Norse: Straumr-øy, “island in the tidal stream”) and could just barely see the Stroma Lighthouse. We walked toward the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and found the path that leads out to the cliffs. The muckiest place of the path had been made in to a board-walk so we didn’t have to sink in to the soft earth up to our ankles. Still, it was in walking across the heath that I learned there was a leak in my boots, and by the time I reached the cliff’s edge, my feet were soaked. Not bothered by the discomfort, I continued on with my goal of standing at the most north-eastern point of the Scottish mainland and greeting the rising sun.
The view from Duncansby Head cannot be captured in a photograph, though many more people than I have tried. All of the photographs I have seen of the area had been taken in the bright sunlight. The soft, vermillion-hued light of the sunrise coming through the lifting mists, the muffled sound of the waves crashing to the rocky beach 210 feet below the cliffs, and the fresh salty air blowing over the field of musty wet grasses combined with the fragrance of wet sheep’s wool made for an earthy yet ethereal experience of natural beauty at its most rugged and breathtakingly beautiful.
Duncansby Head is located in the Caithness area of Scotland, which was named after the original Picts who were of the Cat or Catt tribe, the Catti. Ness comes from the Old Norse and means “headland”. The area was called Katanes (“headland of the Catt people”) by the Norse who settled part of the area starting in the 10th century and it slowly developed into Caithness. The Gàidhlig name for the area is Gallaibh (“among the strangers” or “land of the non-Gaels”, referring to the Norse).
In modern times, the Gàidhlig for Duncansby Head is Dùn Gasbaith (although sometimes Rubha Duncansby is used). The name for Duncansby Head comes from the Old Norse, Dungalsbær as it is written the in Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney”). Dungals-bœr, “the farm of Dungall” is the Old Norse version of the Gàidhlig name Dùghall which in turn comes from Dubgall, dubh gall, (“black foreigner or Dane”). It seems that at some point, Dungall had a farm with an incredible view.
The Duncansby Head Lighthouse stands on the cliffs, just to the south of the Glupe, where huge areas of collapsed coastline called a “geo” have formed an arch of land between them. The lighthouse was built by David Allen Stevenson (cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1924 and is built as a square instead of the usual round structures. It looks over the Pentland Skerries, churning waters caused by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, each moving in a different direction. The opening to the Pentland Firth has had the nickname “Hell’s mouth” since the days of the sailing ships.
Walking across the heath from the lighthouse, another bit of collapsed coastline called the Geo of Sclaites is to the south. Named from the Old Norse, Langa-gjá-sléttna (“long geo of flats”), the Geo of Sclaites is a collapsed portion of a cave with the cave still continuing beneath the cliffs. A little bit further south along the eastern coastline is a sea stack called The Knee (Old Norse, Kné “knee”). During the summer, puffins can be seen roosting on The Knee.
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We got our first look at the Stacks of Duncansby (Old Norse: Dungals-bœjar-stakkar) just as the sun rose. Also called The Stacks (Old Norse: Stakkarnir), they are probably the most impressive of any sea stacks in the Biritsh Isles. Certainly, rising out of the dissipating mists into the glowing sunrise, they were one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. The largest of them stands higher than the cliff edge and over 650 feet from the shoreline.
Smaller and closer to the cliffs are other sea stacks that form the Thirle Door (tirl, the upright axle of a waterwheel), so named for the churning of the surf as it is washed through the opening formed by two of the sea stacks and a geo.
On the way back to Bencorragh House, we drove past John O’Groats and saw it in daylight for the first time. Named for a Dutchman who ran a ferry from Gills Bay to Orkney in the late 1400’s by direction of King James IV, John O’Groats is Taigh Iain Ghròt in Gàidhlig (taigh, “house” and Iain Ghròt, “Jan de Groote”). John O’Groat’s house is believed to have stood where the John O’Groats House Hotel now stands. The history of the house is interesting because O’Groats had seven sons, and the story goes that they were in competition for control. O’Groats sent them all away, telling them to return in a year and he would have the answer then. They returned to find that he had built a house with eight doors and eight sides to the dining table so that each had his own entrance, and no one sat at the head of the table.