Cornwall is usually the area of the British Isles most associated with small fishing harbours. Where boats are tucked away in seemingly impenetrable coves. Somewhere boats can seek refuge beyond hazardous rocks and crashing waves. Here at Whaligoe you find a hidden harbour that would make any smuggler proud.

Just a few footsteps from the busy A9 trunk road, taking cars to the far north of Scotland, you will find the start of a walk that will take you back over 200 years. A short grassy slope leads you to 330 vertiginous steps clinging to the sea cliffs around you. These steps take you to the bottom of precipitous cliffs where a fishing community once thrived.

Steep steps down to the sea at Whaligoe
Whaligoe Steps cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Donald Bain –

It seems incredible that by the mid-1800s Whaligoe was a safe haven for 20 boats fishing for herring. The steps were used by local, mainly women, to carry supplies to the boats below. And then making the return journey to the top carrying baskets of herring. Here they met steam trains to take the fish to markets further south.

Clues to Whaligoe’s fishing past remain

The fishing boats are long gone. You can still see the remnants of the herring industry that was so important to the north of Scotland and stretched all the way down the East Coast of England. It’s definitely worth the walk down to the bottom and the lung busting clamber back to the top. The small quayside, known as the Bink, gives you a good idea of how hard life was. It is particularly atmospheric when the fog rolls in from the sea and the waves crash upon the rocks.

The quayside at Whaligoe with sea fog rolling in from the North Sea
A damp and foggy Bink at Whaligoe

After all that exertion you can rest in the quirky Whaligoe Steps Cafe housed in a solid stone building at the very top of the steps. Here you will find an eclectic mix of dishes, with a Mediterranean influence mixed with the best of Highland ingredients.