Often tourist attractions announce themselves to the world, “look at me” they proclaim in a grandiose way. Seldom will they live up to the hype and often what is fashionable in one era soon finds itself out of favour in another. Much has changed over the years but one understated gem of an attraction in the North East of Scotland still retains a sense of timelessness.
A curious relic of the fishing industry here, is the unique series of steps that meander down the face of the seemingly sheer cliff faces to one of the most isolated harbours in the UK. Descending the steps is actually like stepping back in time and an interesting challenge for those not used to heights or exposure.
According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the name has an early Christian origin. A Goe is a rocky inlet surrounded by cliffs so the name would derive from Holy Goe and not as is commonly repeated from an incident where a whale was washed ashore. If you are lucky then you may actually spot whales of the coast. They are not altogether uncommon in the area which partially explains the persistence of the erroneous myth.
To get there is not simple. Despite the amazing efforts of the local volunteers to maintain the steps, there is little in the way of signs or tourist information boards to guide you. Heading north, about seven miles before you get to Wick look out for a crossroads where a sign points inland to the Historic Scotland ancient monument at Cairn o’ Get. Take the road opposite and stop in a parking area past a row of fishermen’s cottages. A track leads from here to a farmstead on the edge of the cliffs and then onto the steps themselves.
The steps are made of flagstone and descend the 250ft cliff-face in a series of zigzags. There is a minor dispute as to how many steps there exactly with sources claiming anything from 330 to a poetic 365. I’ve never actually taken the time to count, but if you do, please get in touch with your findings. The angle of descent is comfortable but the stones can get slippy in the wet so care is required, especially on the lower section when the low stone wall on the seaward side disappears and you are left with a tremendous feeling of exposure.
Once at the bottom you reach a small grassy meadow known as the bink. This was artificially constructed sometime after the steps and it once contained a building for storing salt used to cure the fish once they were landed. There is also a further set of steps which lead to a rock shelf known as the Neist where fishing boats were pulled up out of the water before the bink was built. You can also see the remains of the barking kettle and fireplace here which was used for heating tar to waterproof nets and floats.
Women would be invariably bear the brunt of the hard work when it came to Whaligoe. That would typically involve transporting barrels from the cooperage at the top of the stairs to the harbour below to store the salted fish, then spending the day gutting fish before carrying heavy creels back up the steps and all the way to Wick – a wee jaunt of only 8 miles!
Opinions differ on exactly who built the steps and when but there are references to their use as far back as 1769. Certainly by the mid-1800s there were over 20 fishing boats using the harbour during the summer herring season, and schooners were regular visitors to the haven. Despite harbours along this stretch of the Caithness coast being scarce its use declined towards the end of the 1800s and by 1920 only five boats remained, fishing for salmon. By the 1960s there was none.
The steps were badly damaged in a storm in the 1970s but local volunteers and historians have been very active in repairing and preserving this unique reminder of the vital role that fishing played to the lives of coastal communities and the hardships of making a living from the sea.
So, next time you pass, or maybe make a special trip, pack your sturdy boots and have a thought for those hardy women as you walk in their footsteps, often barefoot, carrying heavy loads and some of bus pass age!