The Unique Whaligoe Steps in Caithness

It can probably be described as one of the most unusual fishing stations that Scotland has ever had. This unique destination is located in Caithness. With cliffs of two hundred and fifty feet surrounding Whaligoe Haven and the harbour located at the edge of these cliffs in a very narrow creek, it is no surprise that Thomas Telford’s comment of a harbour in 1786 was that of criticism, but Captain David Brodie still provided the funds that carved no less than three hundred and thirty stairs into the cliffs.

Zigzagging down the mountain cliff, there is some discrepancy in regard to how many steps there really are. The Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland states that there are three hundred and thirty steps, while locals claim there are actually three hundred and sixty three steps. The amount does not really matter, as it does not take away from the determination of those who carved these flagstone steps into the cliff, creating this magnificent feature.

Due to the lack of harbours along the coast of Caithness, many fishermen were forced to use the Whaligoe fishing station. Mostly herring, ling, cod and haddock were the fish that were caught and then later gutted by the women. They were then carried to the fishing station in baskets to the top of the stairs. It is estimated that the stairs date back to the year 1792, and even though the stairs were a daunting task for heavy loads, there were approximately twenty boats using Whaligoe by the mid 1800s, of which fourteen were herring boats. Sadly, the heyday of this fishing station was short-lived, with only five boats remaining in harbour by 1820, and a complete cease of use by the 1960s.

Today, the steps are still very well maintained for visitors to enjoy. Visitors are warned that when wet, the steps can be a little treacherous. At the end of the steps there is an area that is about the size of a tennis court, which has artificial grass covering the site that is referred to as the Bink. The ruin of a salt storage building is also located here, and if visitors would like to explore further, they can descend down to the Neist, which is a rocky ridge located a few steps down from the Bink. Before the steps were created, boats had to moor along the rocks and the Neist was used to pull fishing boats out of the water. Here fishing boats could re-tar their nets and floats, as tar was used for waterproofing. Evidence of this practice is still visible on the Bink. The Whaligoe Steps are a wonderful trip back into history.