Even on a misty winters morning, the views across the seemingly tranquil Pentland Firth to the deserted Isle Of Stroma belies the violent and turbulent nature of the sea here. The shipwreck museum at nearby John O'Groats gives a better clue to the power of the ocean as it funnels into this channel.
The long, green headland is home to a reeling left hand point break that people in the know liken to those found around the Indonesian archipelago. A haven in huge westerly swells accompanied by westerly winds. But this is a break that really shines in any big swell, producing heavy, barreling lines that feel their way along the smooth, slab-stone bottom of this sheltered bay. As the tide drops out, rocks and boulders appear in the inside section. Usually quite a quiet spot as the long walk to the point puts off many who stop to contemplate the challenge.
Places To Eat
A 20-minute drive away, Thurso has a number of cheap and cheerful take-aways and pubs. Somerfield supermarket does a good line in cheap, filling 'all day breakfasts', Central Café is the place to grab a coffee and a piece of homemade cake while Le Bistro does a good line in moderately priced evening meals. For a decent Highland steak try the Upper Deck restaurant at Scrabster Harbour.
Places To Stay
Although you can stay at John O'Groats, don't! For camping try Stroma View Caravan & Camping Site east of Gill's Bay. Nearby Thurso offers the best sleeping options. Sandra's Backpackers on Princes St with dorm or double rooms, communal kitchen and Internet access, is a popular choice. Open through the summer Thurso Caravan & Camping Park overlooks Thurso reef. At the other end of the scale is The Royal Hotel on Trail Street, which sometimes cut off-season or extended stay deals.
Things To Do
To the north lie the Orkney Isles - an archipelago consisting of more than 70 islands home to awesome Neolithic monuments including standing stones, stone circles and ancient tombs. The Pentland ferry crossing takes about one and a half hours and runs daily between Gills Bay and South Ronaldsay. There is a cinema and bowling alley at The All Star Factory in nearby Thurso.
Gills Bay History
The first pier was constructed in 1905 with the harbour some time later. In the 1980s Orkney Island Council decided to re-introduce the short sea crossing from Gills Bay to Burwick on South Ronaldsay. Tens of millions of pounds were spent on a new ferry and building a terminal and linkspan at Gills Bay together with similar facilities at Burwick. The service started on the 15 August 1989, sailing to Houton near Orphir as dredging still had to be done at Burwick, and ended on the 16 September 1989 when the linkspan at Gills was damaged by heavy weather.
It was then realised that it would be impossible to run a regular service as planned due to the weather conditions and the operation was closed down, the ferry being laid-up for a while before being utilised by Orkney Ferries for inter-island work. Recently Burwick has been used by the passenger-only ferry which operates from John o' Groats during the summer.
In the late 1990s Andrew Banks, an Orkney entrepreneur and founder of Pentland Ferries saw the potential of re-introducing the short sea crossing and attempted to get the use of the terminal. It was only after he had threatened to build his own a short distance away that the council relented and he obtained a 99 year lease on the site. With a handful of local workers and some second hand construction machinery he spent two years, living in a caravan on site, making the terminal better able to withstand the swell and weather conditions experienced. This involved the construction of a pier, incorporating the ‘Dolphins’ (freestanding structures a vessel lies against) constructed by the previous operators, together with some dredging work.
By the summer of 2001 Pentland Ferries were ready to start regular sailings with their vessel the MV Pentalina-B to St Margaret's Hope. It was soon realised that even with these improvements there would still be problems and that a much longer pier would be needed. Fortunately an old floating dock was available for disposal at Lerwick. This was purchased, towed to St Margaret's Hope, where it was cleaned of all contaminants and then towed to Gills Bay where it was sunk to form a continuation of the pier thus greatly increasing its length. Old oil transfer hoses from the Scapa Flow oil terminal were used as fenders for the ferry while rock armour was dumped on the seaward side for protection against the waves. The tanks have been filled with concrete and the dock itself filled with the spoil from dredging to make more room for the ferry to manoeuvre. By the time all this work is finished the dock will be incorporated into the pier.
At present it is designated as a wreck and exhibits two green lights at its seaward end, rather than a pier which shows two red lights. As all this work is funded by the ferry company at present (2006), work continues slowly as finances permit. It is planned to continue dredging to make sufficient room for a ferry to turn round if need be and then possibly extend the pier again at an angle at the seaward end to stop the swell which is sometimes too great for work at the linkspan. This will not be before the summer of 2008.