I CRAWLED out of bed in the Bettyhill Hotel fearing the worst, weather-wise, as the forecast was for heavy showers. To my surprise and delight, however, I found blue skies and sunshine when I threw back my curtains. This was an excellent turn of events! I immediately resolved to wolf down my breakfast with unseemly haste and then get out on the road and do as much as possible while I still had this good weather.
Bettyhill & Farr
I was disappointed to have lost the blue skies but at least it meant that rushing was no longer necessary.
With this in mind, I set off in the most meandering manner by taking a left turn off the A836 and describing two sides of a triangle through the village to maximise my Bettyhill experience.
My choice of route took me past the village’s general store and, at the apex of the triangle, its Free Church (built c. 1845) and the road to what passed for Bettyhill’s port — a small pier at the mouth of the Naver. I felt no need to peer at the pier, though, so headed back down the second side of that triangle past the Church of Scotland parish church (built for the United Free Church in 1909), the old village school and a footpath to Farr Beach.
The latter was a small but delightful stretch of sand facing onto Farr Bay but I did not allow it to tempt me; I’d be seeing the bay soon enough.
The minor road reconnected with the A836 but, it still being early, traffic was extremely light (unlike the sky). Actually, to be fair, the sky did brighten slightly, but that was more an effort to save its rain up for a proper drenching later than any real improvement.
Under its canopy of marginally lighter greyness, I followed the A-road for less than 500 m, before it brought me to Farr Church.
Farr (Fàrr) was the prominent village in those parts before the Countess of Sutherland built Betthyill around 1819. It had a church and everything, which was built in 1774 but, like so many churches, was built on the site of a much earlier predecessor. How much earlier is hinted at by one of the many stones in the graveyard that surrounds it — a stone known inevitably, if unoriginally, as the Farr Stone.
The Farr Stone probably dates to between 800 and 850 and marks the grave of someone of local importance; compared to that, the 1774 church is but a newcomer. But the stone, at least, still serves its grave-marking purpose while Farr Church long since ceased to be a place of worship, having become the Strathnaver Museum in 1976.
This small museum concentrates on the crofting life and the Highland Clearances, with an upper floor dedicated to the history of Clan Mackay. I ambled around it for maybe twenty minutes in the partial hope that maybe the blue skies would come back if I stopped looking at them. They did not.
Farr Bay Inn
Returning to the A-road, I crossed the Clachan Burn and then took the next left, a short spur that in the 1880s led to Farr Church but these days stops at the old manse (built 1819).
The manse is now a hotel, the Farr Bay Inn, but that’s not where I was going. Just before the road ended in the Farr Bay Inn’s car park, a broad footpath diverged off across some low dunes.
The path carried me along past Farr Beach’s golden sands and then should have skirted Clerkhill Farm and carried me up to the western end of Farr village. What it actually did was become somewhat indistinct on the ground, causing me to take a different trail directly to Clerkhill by mistake and, from there, to follow another track north into Farr.
The net result was that I joined the road through Farr a few hundred metres from its end, which I figured was close enough. I mean, I could still see the cottages and farm that marked not only the end of the road but also the land.
Having cut across footpaths and farm tracks to the Farr’s dead-end single-track road, there was little else to do but head on along it in the direction that didn’t end with a cold, wet plunge.
For all that I was, in theory, walking through Farr, it felt more like a stroll in open countryside, with Farr’s cottages being well strung out and in many cases set back from the road so that what I mostly saw was fields. It was lovely.
Swordly West Road
I kept to this course until I’d passed the last of the farmhouses and the road began to climb, at which point an equally narrow road wound off to the left, signposted for ‘Swordly West’.
I knew that Swordly (Suardailigh) was a remote hamlet at the end of that road and also at the end of another (to East Swordly) but that the two roads did not meet. I also knew that Swordly Burn lay between them. My modern Ordnance Survey map seemed to believe that a track of some sort connected the two roads, although it was unlikely to be metalled. A quick search of the internet during the planning of my trip had shown me, via satellite maps, that it was in fact a green lane, and I felt a need to make use of it.
The road curved around, skirting the edge of a boggy, low-lying area that maps tell me was actually Swordly Loch and, was showing clear ambitions to become an actual body of water again.
Having also snaked past a lonely cottage, the road then began a gradual climb until, suddenly, it overlooked the hamlet.
I don’t know why Swordly had a semaphore signal; I’m fairly sure it’s never had a railway. What I do know is that I’m not a train, so the signal couldn’t keep me off their tracks. Although, they did have alternative means of dissuasion…
The Green Lane
Undeterred, I followed the road and then an access track until I reached the farm at the end. Beyond this, according to my map, was the connecting green lane. So, was it there?
The lane somehow managed to combine being overgrown with also being very boggy. It was a squelchy, boot-soaking, careful-or-you’ll-lose-your-balance sort of track but that’s not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable.
I squelched, lurched and windmilled my way along it until I reached the bottom where things opened out considerably and also the ground firmed up.
The ford across the burn appeared to also be blessed with stepping stones, of a very uneven and ad-hoc sort. But, for all they looked like someone had just chucked some big stones in the burn (because they probably had), they seem to have done it over a century ago; the stepping stones were clearly marked on the 2nd edition OS map (published 1908). Happily for me, so too was a footbridge slightly further upstream and it was that which I used to cross over the burn.
On the far side, the ground became boggy again but the track was at least clear as it rose up to meet the (East) Swordly Road. Mission accomplished! I had crossed from one road to the other!
Having regained the tarmac, I saw no particular need to hang about in Swordly. I thus followed the winding road as it climbed gently away from the burn.
To my left was a hill with a cairn on its 130 m summit (and another footpath crossing it to Kirtomy), while on my right was a patch of low lying bog behind which was a rocky escarpment. Behind that somewhere was the A-road, which I would soon be re-joining.
The road topped out at 106 m before dropping down sharply to meet the road to (and from) Kirtomy. This then curved its way up the valley of Kirtomy Burn, at the top of which was a bus shelter, a post box and the A836.
What there wasn’t was a milestone — the A-road having been widened since 1908 — but had it still been there, it would have told me that there were ten miles to Melvich and only three to Bettyhill. Since setting off that morning, I had hardly even moved.
Back on the A-Road Again
I did not run at 60 mph but I did walk on at about one twentieth that speed.
Initially flanked by low hills, the A-road soon climbed to reveal miles of low and largely flat moorland stretching off into the distance as far as the eye could see. Well, at least I knew what I’d be doing for the next couple of miles…
I had walked about that distance, when I came to the cottage of Druimbasbie, which is actually visible in the photo above, for a given value of ‘visible’. This was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage, built in the late 19th century on a bend in the road that was smoothed out and realigned sometime in the late 1950s or ’60s. This left Druimbasbie on a short loop of old road alignment that now serves as its drive. I could hardly resist that, now could I?
The Ordnance Survey became aware of Druimbasbie’s existence in 1894, and I initially assumed that its absence from the 1st edition maps meant it was built about then. However, as Peter Sargeant’s comment to this post informs us (see below), it actually appears to have been built in 1876 but somehow was left off the 1st ed map!
A short section of crash barrier where the old road re-joined the new provided a suitable perch on which to sit and eat sandwiches, examine my map and generally take a breather. The louring clouds chose that exact moment to begin spitting lightly with rain but I wasn’t too fussed.
Two Steps Forward
I became slightly less unfussed when, about ten minutes after setting off again, I realised I’d left some things behind and had to retrace my steps facing into the rain. It had seemed a lot more bearable when it was only dampening my back.
Strathy North Windfarm
Even if the light, damp breeze wasn’t exactly favoured by me, I could see in the distance where it might better be appreciated.
When I’d repacked my bag with everything I’d rummaged through in order to locate my sandwiches, I had another go at continuing the walk. The road described an S-bend, rounding Crasbackie Hill, from the flanks of which many pairs of eyes watched my progressed. I watched them back.
Having curved around that hill, the A-road began to lose height as it dropped down towards Armadale (Armadal). Before it descended, it offered a view across the moorland to Armadale Bay.
The descent into the valley was long, looping and gentle and took enough time that the rain got bored and went away.
Allt Beag Old Bridge
Before the road had quite reached the bottom, I came to the turn-off along which most of the village lies. That, however, was a dead end and I still had places to go — down, for instance, to the bridge across the Allt Beag (‘small burn’). As it turned out, there were two bridges, an old disused one and a new one. Given that I love an old bridge, did I excitedly cross it?
The building in the background of the photo above is Armadale House, constructed in 1854 on the site of an earlier farmhouse. Much of the current village was also laid out around that time, though it had been in existence since at least the 13th century.
Armadale House is now a B&B and its owners have been busy restoring it.
Armadale Burn Old Bridge
On the way out, there was another old stone bridge, this time over Armadale Burn. Like the one over the Allt Beag, this too was choked up with gorse but also had some fencing across the Armadale end.
Thanks to all the gorse, there was no access from the other end either, so whatever is trapped there can stay there. Also, it’s quite a way down from the modern A-road alignment. Even so, there was a slip road leading down onto a loop of old road that would once have connected with that bridge.
Old Road Loop
The A-road hadn’t been busy by any means, but this old road section, retained for farm access, was utterly devoid of traffic. Alas, it was over almost as soon as it had started.
All too soon, I was back on the A-road as it continued to gently climb to a height of 96 m near a place called Lednagullin (Leathad nan Giullan).
Loch Gainmhich & Lochan Ealach
A long and fairly straight section of A-road followed, as it passed Loch Gainmhich.
I could potentially have tried to follow further old pre-smoothing alignments but, unlike the last one, they had been abandoned and were looking somewhat boggy and notional. No, I stuck with the modern road, even it was a little dull.
A layby just beyond Loch Gainmhich offered a low stone wall on which I could sit and take a rest, so I did. There, the A-road, stung my criticism of its dullness, offered up intrigue and excitement with abandonment:
Actually, that is pretty intriguing because that’s a really out of the way spot to abandon a car. Did it break down? Did the driver suffer some sort of medical emergency? Did they go for a hike across the bog and sink without trace? I have no idea and I’ve not been able to find out, either.
All these questions and more were buzzing about inside my head as I continued along the A836, past Lochan Ealach and across the moor.
The A-road conveyed me past a small quarry and then began to lose height as it dropped down towards Strathy (Strathaidh, ‘valley place’).
Strathy Point Lighthouse
Like Armadale, much of Strathy was off along a side-road that I had no intention of taking, however tempting Strathy Point and its lighthouse at the far end might be. (Fairly tempting, on my carefully calibrated scale — constructed in 1958, it was the last manned lighthouse to be built in Scotland and the first to be converted to electricity — but not quite tempting enough.)
At the junction I found what was in many ways the opposite of the Swordly turn-off milestone; it was modern, it was there and it reversed the mileage — it was now three miles to Melvich and ten from Bettyhill.
Strathy owes its size, if not its existence, to the Highland Clearances. Local landowner William Honeyman — who bought Armadale and Strathy from his maternal grandfather, Capt John Mackay, in 1790 and took up residence in Armadale — was the first of Sutherland’s landowners to realise that his property would be worth more as large sheep farms than small crofts. He thus set about clearing the land with thoughts of his bank balance and none for his tenants.
In a very short time, Strathy, which had consisted of just four crofts, increased in size by a factor of ten as those displaced from other parts of the estate took refuge there. Today, it’s about double that again.
The Mackays of Strathy appear to have used the undifferenced Mackay arms, despite being a cadet branch. William Honeyman had his own arms, which were augmented with the Red Hand of Ulster when he became a baronet in 1804. He also became a senior judge with the title Lord Armadale.
Strathy had an inn, at which I had thought I might seek refreshment but the news that I was just three miles from my destination fuelled my determination to press on.
Strathy War Memorial
I continued down toward the River Strathy, on the way glimpsing a beautiful view of the bay that was almost immediately hidden behind a misty veil. I felt cold water sprinkle upon my face. The rain had returned.
Strathy war memorial threw my rain-related woes into perspective. Sure, I was getting a bit damp but I didn’t have trench foot and I wasn’t being shelled or machine-gunned. What was I even complaining about, really? I reckoned I could put up with precipitation…
A short distance on was Strathy’s village hall — built with Millennium Commission funds — where some sort of event seemed to be taking place, and Strathy Bridge beside it.
The OS namebooks, used in compiling the 1st edition, (published 1878) describe this as:
‘A large stone bridge which spans the river of that name, on the county road leading from Thurso to Tongue’.
I’m sure they were correct in this, having got their information from three different residents of Strathy.
The 2nd edition (1908) shows the bridge crossing at a different angle, which suggests it had been rebuilt. If so, it was rebuilt again in 1932 as a reinforced concrete bowstring bridge (i.e. suspended from an arched concrete truss), which was both stylish and practical.
Sadly, wear and tear took their toll and the 1930s bridge was mostly demolished in 1994 and rebuilt as a modern steel girder and concrete affair that’s essentially just a roadway with railings. Only the concrete abutments of the 1932 bridge remain.
I took no photo of my own of Strathy Bridge because the rain chose the exact moment of my reaching it to intensify into a torrential downpour, which frankly shocked me in its intensity.
The deluge continued for several minutes, during which I could barely see for the rain in my face, before mercifully easing back off to a light drizzle. By that time, I had climbed back up out of the River Strathy’s valley, ascending Dovecot Hill (Cnoc na Tuthcaid) on some unexpected but helpful pedestrian pavement that I was thankful for in the dire conditions.
Strathy Free Church
At the top of the hill was the derelict former Strathy Free Church, which was built in 1845, added to in 1881 and has been empty and abandoned since at least the early 1990s. It is on the register of listed buildings at risk.
Heading out of Strathy and back onto open moor, I passed Strathroy Farm on its outskirts. This was built sometime between the 1st (1878) and 2nd (1908) editions of the OS map and was right beside the main road in the latter.
Today, the A-road has been realigned and widened and this has moved it south, setting the farm back from the road.
Some evidence of the road’s old route was visible further on, where both alignments had needed to cross Baligill Burn.
Field of Hope
At the next bend after Baligill Burn, sandwiched between the old road alignment and the modern one was a small, square garden space signposted as the Marie Curie Cancer Care Field of Hope, which is a bit of a branded mouthful. This was a flower garden planted by pupils of Melvich Primary School in 2007, when the Strathy to Melvich section of the A836 was being upgraded and realigned.
Allt na Clèite Old Bridge
These last few miles to Melvich had actually been quite significantly realigned, the 2007 improvements cutting through the sinuous curves of the old alignment like the central bar of a dollar sign. Sadly, most of the old road was both boggy and overgrown, though occasionally, I’d see well-paved sections that made me wish I was on them.
Almost immediately after passing the Allt na Clèite bridge, I also passed a sign welcoming me to Melvich (A’ Mhealbhaich). Moments later, I crested a low hill and could see the bay from which it takes its name (via Old Norse melr vík, ‘sand dune bay’).
Actually, I knew I’d have to wait until the morning to see any dunes, as I wasn’t quite going as far as the bay.
The houses in the photo above are part of the hamlet of Portskerra (Port Sgeire, ‘skerry harbour’), which overlooks the western side of the bay and, like Armadale and most of Strathy, sits on a side-road off the A836.
Melvich itself was arranged along the A-road, with the Melvich Hotel at its western end, right on the Portskerra junction. I was staying in that hotel so would basically reach the edge of the village but no further. Which is just what I did.
There was a farcical moment in hotel reception, where three people were standing, having apparently rung the bell for attention repeatedly to no avail. I, knowing nothing of this, wandered up to the desk and rang the bell and someone appeared almost instantly, much to the consternation of the three. I let them check in first; I was in no hurry.
Once I’d checked in, I went through the usual motions: get clean, get changed, find food and relax with a drink. I’d only walked 14 miles but it felt further, mostly I suspect, due to cumulative fatigue from the overall mileage of the trip. In the morning I’d be doing the last walk of both this trip and the calendar year, ending up (I hoped) in Thurso. But that was tomorrow; this evening was all about rest…
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,916½ miles