National Geographic : 1956 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine At the up-to-date woolen mill of Messrs. T. M. Hunter, Ltd., I saw wool in all the stages of washing, teasing, dyeing, spinning, and weaving into colorful tweeds and tartans for Scotland's export trade. This mill handles the small crofter's single bag of wool sent by post, as well as the flocks and bales of the large farmer (page 41). Brora's coal mine is the farthest north in Britain. It has produced coal, off and on, since 1529 but was not continuously worked until 1872. One of its 22 miners took me down its 300-foot shaft to the workings. He told me with pride that in three years its out put had increased from 3,000 to 8,000 tons. In 1951 the Brora miners won the trophy offered by a London newspaper for the greatest increase in output for a small mine in a three-month period. "Not many coal mines have a salmon river in the foreground," said the manager when I returned to the surface. Certainly the Brora coal mine, by the rushing River Brora, is the most picturesque I have seen, and its em ployees are expert fishers (page 33). From Brora the road winds along the coast to Helmsdale at the mouth of the River Helmsdale (page 32), whose tributaries were the scene of a Scottish gold rush in 1869. A town of tents and shacks sprang up in the strath, and the burns were vigorously panned. Though an estimated £12,000 in gold was taken, the precious metal does not seem to be present now in sufficient quantity to be profit able. Nothing remains of the old "Klondike" but a couple of wooden arches by the roadside, one of which bears the attractive Gaelic words Baile an Or (Town of Gold). Fishing Yields Today's Gold Fishing would seem Helmsdale's most golden proposition today. Mr. Cook, the town's energetic schoolmaster, gave up a busy evening to show me the reconstruction of the old pier, from which seining is still carried on (page 34). It was being strongly reinforced by steel and concrete, for the encroaching tides threaten to engulf Helmsdale's old castle on the headland above. Mr. Cook also showed me his schoolhouse garden, in which he grows his own tobacco. Beyond Helmsdale the road rises more than 600 feet at the Ord of Caithness, where the traveler enters Scotland's most up-to-date county. For Caithness is on the eve of revolu tionary new developments. On its northern seaboard, at Dounreay near Thurso, the Gov ernment is building Scotland's first atomic reactor station, its energy to be used for indus trial purposes. The station will add 300 to the town's population, as well as 200 new houses and a new secondary school. In 1953 the Government also established at Altnabreac, amid the wild Caithness moors, a small experimental peat-burning power sta tion, consisting of a 2,000-kilowatt closed cycle gas turbine and a 750-kilowatt open cycle turbine. Thus, for the first time in industry, peat has been brought into associa tion with gas turbines, promising important developments in the use of peat for power. Hitherto Caithness has been noted for its agriculture. The Caithness farmer provides some of Scotland's best cattle and sheep. The famous North of Scotland Cheviots were bred and raised in Caithness from a few sheep Sir John Sinclair imported in the 18th century. Dense Fog Shrouds Caithness On a milestone at the summit of the Ord I read the words "John o' Groat's, 50 miles" painted in scarlet lettering. Happily I swung down the hill. But I had crossed the Ord on a Friday (a thing no Caithness inhabitant likes to do, for thence on a Friday in 1513 a battalion of Sinclairs marched to Flodden Field and only one drummer boy returned), and my luck was out. A dense, clammy sea fog suddenly laid its cold hand on the Caith ness coast, and I hardly saw the county till I reached Wick three days later. This large and stirring town has a busy harbor, home for herring drifters that ply to and from fishing grounds in the North Sea. From its airport planes reach the Orkneys in half an hour and Aberdeen in an hour. In a building that is now a customhouse, over looking the harbor, R.L.S. spent part of his eighteenth summer and wrote that "the rugged excitant of Wick's east winds have made an other boy of me." At Wick the fog changed to rain, and the rain gradually to sunshine. I now stood only 17 miles from John o' Groat's, and my road led through territory that teemed with inter est for the antiquarian. Here are stone circles and monoliths, ruined forts and watchtowers, and villages of lost generations only guessed at by the historian. He is on surer ground amid the remains of Norse and medieval cas tles that crumble on the brinks of cliffs along parts of the magnificent coastline.