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Tuesday, July 14, 2020 ARCHIVES  |  SEARCH  |  POST ADS  |  ADVERTISE  |  SUBSCRIBE   |  LOGIN   |  CONTACT US

Reminders of past hardship

Gordon Boyle

One of the best kept secrets in Scotland is Whaligoe Steps, a remnant from the industrial past.

The steps have no signs to guide the visitor to where they are but once you find them, they are truly impressive.

The narrow steps are hewn out of the cliff face and plunge down hundreds of feet to a small sandstone harbour where the North Sea smashes into the cliffs.

The harbour, known as the Haven, has long been used as a small port in this far flung part of the north of Scotland.

As a result of the growth of commercial fishing in the late eighteenth century there was a curing station built above the steps in an area known as the Bink.

Willow baskets known as creels were roped to the backs of women who hauled fish from the harbour up the steps.

A loaded creel would weigh around 12kg and half way up the steps there was a large flat rock where the women could rest before continuing their climb up the cliff face.

At the top of the cliff face the women would either take the fish to the slating shed or walk seven miles north to the town of Wick to sell them.

A local man, Davie Nicholson, has taken on responsibility to make sure the steps survive for future generations.

Twice a day, morning and evening, he visits the steps in order to make sure all is in order. He cuts the grass around the top of the steps, does some weeding and carries out repairs as necessary.

Several years ago, he and his cousin manhandled 22 tonnes of stone down the steps to repair damage.

A few years later due to part of the structure collapsing into the sea a further 14 tonnes of stone was required to repair the damage.

If you are brave enough to walk down the 337 narrow steps, you will arrive at the remnants of the old fishing station.

You can still see lengths of rusty chains, metal eyes for mooring the boats and the pot where they boiled their nets and lines in a brew of oak bark and cow urine.

The wall beneath the final flight of steps has a tall narrow recess for holding a mast and three niches where cruise lamps, fuelled by fish oil, lit up the landing area in order that catches could be received at night.

On the climb back up the steps there are carvings on the rock face. They include names, dates and drawings of ships and anchors.

Close to the steps is a burial ground which today is overgrown with bracken and in the corners are great drifts of snowdrops in Spring.

It is evident from the details on the gravestones the people of this remote community not only had an extremely tough life but a short one.

In our pampered world today many of us have no understanding of the hardships the communities had to endure a couple of centuries ago.

Our world of consumerism, excellent heath care, social media, overseas holidays, etc bear no relationship to the life many endured in the recent past.

Food for thought.

Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at