Countryfile Magazine - - Water -

“And what will you do with your­self?”

“Oh, I’ll knock about and fish and that…

Though, ac­tu­ally I do have one

small idea – I in­tend to fol­low

a cer­tain river to its source.

It’s a thing I have wanted to do

for a long time.” The river, our river, is the place in which Kenn played as a child, where he learned to swim, caught his first salmon, felt the first stir­rings of love, learned the mean­ing of loss. I am not the first to fol­low in Kenn’s foot­steps and I doubt if I shall be the last. If you do travel all the way from sea to source, a round trip of about 30 miles, then you will have com­pleted what one lo­cal re­ferred to as The Great Jour­ney.

Mod­est enough in terms of phys­i­cal en­deav­our, the Dun­beath Wa­ter has in­spired artists, writ­ers and read­ers for decades. As a river of the imag­i­na­tion it flows com­fort­ably along­side its more fa­mous, and longer, sib­lings: the Thames (where to start?), the Sev­ern (Alice Oswald) and the Dee (Nan Shep­herd) to name a few. And it’s Dun­beath Cas­tle over­look­ing the Mo­ray Firth, into which the Dun­beath Wa­ter de­bouches easy to get to, as the iconic and lovely A9 passes straight through Dun­beath. The jour­ney be­gins on the coast­line of Caith­ness, among the heaps of bal­last where the river meets the North Sea. When my 12-year-old daugh­ter Evie and I were there, the moor­land grasses had bleached and bent, the gold and red glowed against the black peat be­neath, and the cliffs be­came an old gilt frame around the sky, sep­a­rat­ing it from the mack­erel-coloured sea.

Neil Gunn pays as­ton­ish­ing at­ten­tion to the de­tail of the land­scape in his work. This makes walk­ing up the river­bank like be­ing in­side a pop-up book. The first three miles are so well doc­u­mented that I felt as though I was meet­ing an old friend – the well pool, the old road bridge, the Dun Beath Brock. Wide, shal­low, stony pools, the wa­ter am­ber from the peat, the oc­ca­sional slick curve of a salmon break­ing the wa­ter. A beech wood, hazel­nuts, sil­ver birch, a dis­turbed grouse rat­tling like a bro­ken gate.

You could hap­pily spend the whole day here, in the first few miles of the river. Or you could go be­yond to where the land starts to rise, into a land­scape breath­tak­ing in its aus­ter­ity, its clean lines, washed colours, yet heav­ing with sound: the wind lay­ered like gesso, the grass hum­ming with bees, the song of the wa­ter, the odd cry of a bird. There are few birds once you reach the moors, and most of those that we met flew from be­neath our feet. Deer are ev­i­dent every­where, their prints in the peat, the flat places where they have stopped to rest and, of­ten enough, they come in per­son.

I should men­tion High­land cat­tle. Maybe they’re just curious, but I wouldn’t rec­om­mend the High­lands to any­one who is squea­mish about th­ese great or­ange rum­pled stacks, their di­lat­ing wet noses only marginally less dis­tract­ing than their ex­ag­ger­ated hat-stand horns.

And then there’s the loch… If you do com­plete the jour­ney you’ll find a loch with shores of the finest quartz, its cool wa­ter glow­ing like a pol­ished shield cast into the heather by some re­turn­ing Pic­tish hero, long since gone.



by Katharine Nor­bury is pub­lished by Blooms­bury, £16.99.

The Fish Lad­der: A Jour­ney Up­stream

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