I've been lucky enough to find myself in several impressive places in my adult life, including the top of Mt Fuji, strolling along Hadrian’s Wall, and hanging out with the sheep at Neist Point on the Isle of Skye. But if you’re in search of jaw-dropping surroundings pickled in the brine of interesting, arduous history, it's tough to beat the Whaligoe Steps. Located about seven miles south of Wick, along the A99 in Caithness on the northern tip of the Scottish mainland, you’ll want to look specifically for a sign for the nearby Whaligoe Steps Café. The steps themselves aren’t as well signposted as the nearby Cairn o'Get or the Hill o' Many Stanes, which is a bit strange as the site is one of the most dramatic I've ever visited, for a number of reasons.
It's tough to really convey what it's like to descend (and then later ascend) the Whaligoe Steps. This first-person video (shot with my Samsung smartphone and a DJI Osmo Mobile) gives a sense of what it's like to walk some of the steps.
But the video doesn't do a great job of showing off just how many steps there are—currently between 320 and 360, depending on who you ask. Though according to the caretaker, there used to be 365.
Nor does it show what the surrounding scenery is like as you descend the 250-foot cliffs.
For that, I’ve embedded several panoramas here, from various sections where the steps switch direction, making their zig-zag pattern down to the flat, grassy section at the bottom, known as the "Bink.”
I've also included a huge panorama of what I call the "Whaligoe woah!" shot, of the view at the bottom, looking out into the sea.
Standing at the bottom, you feel almost physically assaulted by the relentless power of the angry turquoise sea as it crashes in at you, onto rocks speckled by bright-yellow lichen.
Then there are the towering 250-foot cliffs that surround the Bink on three sides, as hundreds of sea birds glide on the updrafts above. In an unceasing, tide-like dance, they take to the air in search of food, then return ever-so-carefully to roost and rear their young on the cramped, slippery outcroppings of the otherwise vertical expanse of bare stone.
While you're soaking all that in, there's also the human history here to consider, which is easily as jaw-dropping as the scenery. Thousands of people toiled here from the late 1700s (when the stone steps were originally installed) through to the 1960s: the fishermen, with their gleaming, slithering hauls, and the many people who processed the fish on the site. The fish were then piled into baskets and hauled up the hundreds of steps to the top, where they were barreled and carted off to Wick.
Many of the people who did this dangerous, arduous work were women. And there are many accounts of women working here into their 70s. Such a feat would be impressive in the best of conditions, regardless of gender. But take the time to imagine the stench here on a humid day (or any day), both from the fish, and from the boiling tar and urine (housed in the so-called “Barking Kettle” that’s still on the site), which was used to treat the nets and other tools of the trade. Imagine the fish parts and slime that must have coated every surface during the busy summers here.
Now imagine how dangerous these steps can be on a wet day today, more than 50 years since the last fishermen unloaded their boats at Whaligoe. And remember there are no railings on the steps. Nothing to hold on to and nothing to keep you from slipping over the side or tumbling forward down a section of stairs into a solid wall of unforgiving stone.
Indeed, it’s much more than just the scenery that makes Whaligoe imposing and impressive. It's the 150-plus years of human hell that took place here. The kind of hell a great many people likely also grew to love.
I'm happy to have been able to walk the steps, to experience the power and the atmosphere created by the cliffs and the sea and the birds. I'm thrilled to have reached out and touched the winch that was used to haul in the boats, and the kettle that was used to boil tar. I also had the pleasure of getting a first-hand account of some of Whaligoe's details from Davy Nicolson, caretaker of Whaligoe, whose grandfather was one of the last fishermen to use the site on a regular basis.
As fascinating as the whole experience of visiting Whaligoe is, I'm also happy to be at a fair distance from the harsh realities of the world that was the Steps and the harbor (Whaligoe Haven) at its height. During the fishing boom in the mid-1800s, more than 20 fishing boats used Whaligoe Haven continually during the summer months.
From my comfortable perch in the present, I gaze back in awe at those who toiled here, whether it was for just a few months or years, or their whole adult lives—which may well have been just a few months or years in those conditions.
I'm sure life at Whaligoe was never dull, but it must have been more difficult than I can imagine. I hope the bones of all the people who worked here rest easy. The cliffs and the steps stand in stark remembrance of the magnitude of their arduous labor, helping to feed a hungry world as it stumbled its way toward modernity.
Those of us lucky enough to visit Whaligoe, who take the time to absorb both its violent beauty and its harsh history also remember. Thanks to Davy’s colorful stories, the ever-present, ever-powerful sea crashing into the cliffs, and the birds that glide silently on the updrafts created by it all.
Perhaps the birds return here in part due to some genetic memory from their ancestors, hoping one day to return to a Haven busy with boats and people, again covered in the bounty of cast-off fish parts. If that’s at all possible, I’m sure some kind of genetic memory of this site—or places like it—is precisely what brings many human visitors to Whaligoe as well.