ACCORDING to the Met Office, what I should have seen on 1st May, as I threw back the curtains of my hotel room window, was a wall of white mist. What I actually saw was that the mist was missing; the weather was clear…
Clarity & Cluelessness
Whatever the Weather
What wasn’t clear was whether this was because the mist had come and gone early – it was supposed to give way to cloud mid-morning – or had yet to arrive, or was just never going to happen. Whichever the case, its absence meant that the start of my walk would be more scenic than I had feared. But, if the mist was merely delayed, my afternoon might be less so.
Of course, I could exert no kind of influence to change that; the best I could do was just get on with things and make the most of whatever weather it was. So I did.
An Uncunning Plan
My plan for the day was not particularly cunning, being essentially to start at Lybster and head generally south, stopping when I got to Helmsdale. Sometimes a simple plan is best, having less to go wrong than a complex one. And sometimes even a simple plan goes wrong, anyway.
I had no idea, as I set out into the mistless streets of Lybster, that I would later abandon my plan uncompleted. If I had known, then I guess that would have been the plan.
An Intriguing Sign
I began my day’s trek south by heading east. Y’know, like you do.
The evening before, as I had wearily approached my hotel, I had passed a small sign pointing off down a lane and had mentally noted to investigate it in the morning. It now being morning, I was indeed investigating.
The sign itself needed very little investigating. It was a sign and I read it. Job done. What I read were the words, ‘Patrick Sinclair’s grave 150 m’.
Did I want to go and see that? Apparently, I did.
Patrick Sinclair’s Grave
The grave, it turned out, was not down the lane, but instead down a gorse-flanked, daffodil-strewn path leading off from the lane to a small clearing. It was also tightly fenced in by its own railing in case Lt Gen Patrick Sinclair should claw his way out as a zombie and run amok. It’s a sensible precaution – as a lieutenant, Sinclair fought the French in the Seven Years War and would make a formidable zombie; it’s best to keep him contained.
Lt Gen Patrick Sinclair (1736-1820) was born in Lybster but joined the 42nd Regiment of Foot and shipped out with them to the Americas, where he was involved in attacks on Guadeloupe and Montreal.
Later in life, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Michilimackinac, just in time for the American War of Independence to turn most of that area into US territory (as part of Michigan). He then returned to Scotland under a cloud, with questions about his expenses that he never properly answered.
It was Patrick who founded Lybster village in 1802, kicking off development of its harbour and establishing it as a herring fishery.
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
The general also owned land in eastern Michigan, which was managed by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (1715-1818), who had formerly been his prisoner, suspected of supporting the American revolutionaries.
Point du Sable and his Native American wife, Kitiwaha, would later become the first settlers of Chicago.
While the modern village dates only to 1802, Patrick’s family had resided at nearby Lybster House since 1655. There had been at least a farmhouse at Lybster long before that, though, with the name Lybster deriving from Old Norse Hlidarbólstaðr, meaning ‘homestead on the slope’.
Patrick’s village is mostly linear in plan, laid out along a north-south road, which intersects the A99 at a right-angle, the A-road running east-west at this point. This road is initially quite narrow and called Village Road but doubles in width to become Main Street as it gets closer to the coast.
Post Office Shop
On Main Street was a Post Office shop, which I had been promised would be open by the chap who had served me my breakfast in the hotel. His word was true, the shop was open and I was thus able to stock up with water and snacks.
Had I continued to follow Main Street, it would have come to a dead end just short of the cliffs. That was unhelpful, so I aimed to take a right turn that wound down to Invershore and the harbour that Patrick Sinclair began in 1810 with a timber pier.
I didn’t think I had much scope to miss the turning, but I hoped it would be signposted nonetheless.
I turned right into Harbour Road, which quickly became Shore Road.
I doubt that Patrick Sinclair’s zombie, were it to escape the frenchily-pointed railings, would recognise Invershore Harbour today. Facing onto Lybster Bay, this natural harbour was first recommended for development by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in a 1790 report to the British Fisheries Society. It took them a while to act on his advice but, in 1817, the society finally developed a proper fishing station. It probably helped that Patrick had erected that pier in 1810.
Temple Frederick Sinclair
The fishing station was properly developed as a harbour in 1830, a decade after Patrick’s death, by his son, Temple Frederick Sinclair (1790-1855). Temple then had the harbour significantly expanded between 1849 and 1854, employing Scottish civil engineer Joseph Mitchell (1803-83) to do the work, with advice from David Stevenson (1815-86).
Duke of Portland
Temple’s death around 1855 put and end to this period of expansion but, in 1868, his trustees sold his estate to William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland (1857-1943), for £24,000. The duke had the harbour extensively rebuilt in 1882, resulting in what we see today.
Lybster Harbour Bridge
Just as I hadn’t reached the cliffs via Main Street, I didn’t quite reach the harbour via Shore Road as I took a branching path just the other side of Lybster Harbour Bridge (probably built during the 1849 works).
The path climbed steeply up the hillside.
The bridge is surprisingly tall as it has to bridge the Reisgill Burn which flows at the bottom of a narrow gorge and derives its name from Norse Hrisgil, meaning ‘brushwood ravine’.
Apart from where they fall scenically over the rockface of Creag Nattan, the waters aren’t actually all that fast-flowing unless in full spate. This made for a grim scene in the spring of 2013, when someone dumped 53 dead chickens into it from the Bridge of Reisgill, half a mile upstream. They presumably hoped the burn would just sweep them out to sea. It did not.
From the bridge, the path carried me up the flank of Swiney Hill. A couple walking a dog stopped me partway up to comment on the weather, the scenery and how they were proper camper van owners doing it properly and not like these Johnny-Come-Latelies clogging up the North Coast 500 route with their rented vehicles.
In fairness, they – or rather he – had a point about the misadventures of the clueless and unprepared but there was more than a touch of gatekeeping and hipsterish ‘we did this before it was cool’ about his rant. She wore a bored and impatient impression as if to say she had heard this all before, didn’t care much to hear it again and couldn’t care less what I thought, either.
I thought I needed to press on…
…But not very far, because I was quickly waylaid by another distraction, in the form of the Brethren Well. Thought to have been in continuous use for over 1,500 years, the well was last used by a local family up to 1955 but then allowed to fall into disrepair; it was restored in 2004. It’s original users are believed to have been a community of monks, the existence of whose monastery gave Lybster Bay its Old Norse name of Haligoe (‘holy inlet’).
Nothing now remains of monastery apart, perhaps, from the Lybster Stone – a cross-inscribed Pictish stone removed from the site in 1840 and now residing in Lybster Church.
Having looked upon the well, I was ready to press on for real, with no further distractions.
The path atop Swiney Hill started out as a broad, gravelled path but this ended not long after the turn-off to the Brethren Well. The path then skirted the edge of a grassy field. The field ran right up the cliff edge, affording me some good views of the sea.
Just beyond The Stack, I passed the edge of Lybster Bay and the coast turned from south to west. Here, I passed out of the neatly-cropped field and into open, tussocky grassland in which the path might well have showed up from the air but, down on the ground, was near-invisible.
I followed the path, as best as I could, for about half a mile and all the while it kept reassuringly well back from the cliff edge. Towards the end of that distance it began to lose height, dropping to cross a burn at Coan Dian, then passing by the ancient site of Swiney Castle.
Once the stronghold of a branch of the Sutherlands of Forse, Swiney Castle had vanished by the time the Ordnance Survey compiled its Name Books in the 1870s, noting that all that remained were ‘three grassy mounds’ and a ‘small piece of wall’ where the road cut through.
Today, even the latter is gone, as I was able to see for myself, the path having joined the ‘road’ – a rough track – as it made its way down to the shore.
Sheltered by the same promontory upon which the castle stood, Achastle-shore was an important landing place prior to the construction of Invershore Harbour. Local landowner Patrick MacDonald built a herring station there in 1810, predating that at Lybster by seven years.
Burn of Achsinegar
I had intended all along that when I reached Achastle-Shore, which had road access, I would then assess how I wanted to continue – along the shore or inland via road. For, much as I love a spectacular cliff path, my head for heights had proved insufficient to the challenge the day before.
Thus, pausing only to nod in greeting to a man with two enormous dogs at the sea’s edge, I hopped across the Burn of Achsinegar and explored where and how the path continued.
I did not much like it.
The Path Onwards
It wasn’t, I have to admit, terrible. Or terrifying. But it was narrow and clinging to the side of a steep coastal slope as it ascended.
It was the sort of path that, if I encountered it miles from anywhere, I would have shrugged and made myself go up it, reminding myself that I had very little choice. Except, the thing was, I did have a choice. And my choice was not ‘fearless’ but ‘less fear’.
Turning about, I hopped back over the Burn of Achsinegar and headed inland up the track.
I backtracked east along the track to where I had first joined it, then followed it around as it swung due north. Initially, it was green and leafily overgrown but this gave way to surfaced road at the cottage of Achastle (from Gaelic achadh a’ chaisteil, ‘field of the castle’).
As I passed Achastle, I was hailed by its resident who, misidentifying my walking poles, asked if I had caught anything. Fortunately, confusion was fleeting, and I raised the poles so he could see his mistake.
We had a brief chat about hiking, cliff paths and heads for heights of which he clearly had not just his own share but mine as he admitted to rock-climbing as his hobby.
Man With Two Enormous Dogs
I chatted to the Pole-Misidentifying Rock-Climber just long enough that, as I took my leave and headed up the single-track road that joined Achastle to the A99, I was overtaken by the Man With Two Enormous Dogs. He, too, hailed me and commented that he had also briefly explored the path I had decided against, but had concluded his dogs would fall off it for sure. What, he asked, was it like the other way, heading to Lybster?
For my answer, I had both good news and bad. The Two Enormous Dogs were pretty safe from going for a plummet but there were several stiles on the way and one of the Two Enormous Dogs (he had just told me) refused point blank to do stiles.
Guardian of the Crossroads
Two Enormous Dogs Man and his gargantuan canines accompanied me up to the A99, where they kept going across it and north. I turned left to head west but not before I had acknowledged the greetings of the Guardian of the Crossroads.
‘Hello,’ I said but she didn’t reply. I knew she would have trouble speaking.
Bridge of Achsinegar
For all that the A99 was a proper two-way road, the traffic was surprisingly light. Even so, I didn’t plan to spend too much time on it if I had a choice, which I did. Thus, I went less than a quarter of a mile to cross the Burn of Achsinegar for the third and final time (this time by bridge) and then about the same distance to the turn-off for Burrigill.
The turn-off was another single-track road, though this one was flanked by gorse on both sides, which was enthusiastically a-flower, presenting a glorious splash of yellow.
This road headed for the coast for about two fifths of a mile, before turning to run parallel to it, conveying me, as it went, past the handful of scattered cottages and farmsteads that comprise Burrigill.
After a while, the road turned north towards the A99 again, as Burrigill turned imperceptibly into Forse.
I had seen old maps, however, on which this corner was shown as a T-junction and I knew that a grassy track heading for the shore had once been considered an actual road by Ordnance Survey. At the end of it stood Forse Castle.
Reginald de Cheyne
Forse Castle dates back to about 1200 and belonged to the Cheyne family in the 14th century. This ended in 1345 with the death of Sir Reginald de Cheyne, who had fought and lost at the 1296 Battle of Dunbar and was one of the signatories to the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath.
Sir Reginald had two daughters but no sons and Forse Castle was given as dowry when his younger daughter, Mariota, married John Keith, the second son of Sir Edward Keith, Great Marischal (i.e. marshal) of Scotland.
Sutherlands of Forse
John and Mariota had a son, who inherited everything except Forse Castle, and a daughter who married Kenneth Sutherland, second son of William, 5th Earl of Sutherland; the castle was once again used as dowry.
Thereafter, the Sutherlands of Forse resided in Forse Castle until about the year 1660, when they moved to a new house further inland. The castle then fell into ruin.
The rocky bay overlooked by the castle is Forseshore and this was a possible point where I might, if I liked the look of things, re-join the cliff path.
From what I could initially tell, the actual cliff path didn’t look too bad, though sandwiched quite narrowly between a fence and the cliff edge. Getting to it, however, did not inspire confidence.
John o’ Groats Trail
Waymarks for the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT) indicated I that should head down to the shore and then more or less straight up a steep slope made climbable only by the footsteps of others. I looked at this and considered.
Ascending it was well within my capabilities but I wondered, if that was the quality of ascent, what other sections I might encounter where the path was more nominal than practical? Was I game for such challenge?
I was not at all in that mood, I decided. I had had a perfectly pleasant time so far, just ambling down the roads and the ‘easy bits’ of cliff path. I saw no reason to make things harder.
I returned to the T-junction of old and then followed the road back to re-join the A99 beside the farmhouse of Torrymain.
Old Mill of Forse
About half a mile along the A99, I passed a building on my left that had once been the Old Mill of Forse, though the millpond had long since been drained. Today, the old mill is the home to Northshore Pottery, the studio and gallery of ceramicist Jenny Mackenzie Ross.
The road opposite the old mill became screened with trees but these soon gave way to what was unmistakeably the gate lodge and driveway of a much larger house. Today, these comprise a guest house, café, craft centre and event venue rejoicing in the puntastic name Forse of Nature but have their origin as the Sutherlands’ replacement for the crumbling Forse Castle.
Captain John Sutherland built his new house in 1753, but this was itself replaced through rebuilding in 1765. It remained the Sutherlands’ home until 1905, with the last male descendant of the line, John William Sutherland, dying four years later in 1909.
The house then enjoyed a a variety of uses, including a poor house, an infirmary, a care home, and a hotel. It is Category B listed.
I didn’t need a café yet, so I kept heading westwards, knowing that the village of Latheron lay just a mile down the road. As I headed towards it, the forecast mist started to arrive, rolling across the fields and road in drifting banks so that one moment all was clear and the next all was lost in spooky whiteness. It was, I guess, like a scattering of white cumulus clouds except they were down on the ground where I was instead of up in the sky.
‘You’re late,’ I scolded. The mist didn’t care; it was following its own schedule.
Clan Gunn Museum
The clue that I was on the outskirts of Latheron, assuming I’d failed to notice the curve of the road, should have been passing the Clan Gunn Museum. This is pretty much what it sounds like and has been housed in Latheron’s old parish church since 1974. The church was built in 1734 and given a bellcote in 1822 (replacing a free-standing bell tower to the north) and, while it might not look vastly different to so many other Scottish churches, it would at least have been a distinctive enough landmark to gauge where I was.
As it happened, my passing it coincided neatly with a drifting fog bank, so I mostly caught just fleeting glimpses of it. By the time the mist had passed on (or I had passed through it), I was in Latheron itself.
Latheron Old Bridge
Described as ‘a small hamlet on the turnpike road’ by the OS Name Book, Latheron takes its name from Gaelic Latharn meaning ‘muddy place’. It may once have been that, of course, but modern A99 traffic doesn’t need to worry too much about mud.
Honesty compels me to admit that modern A99 traffic doesn’t need to worry about that vegetation either. Firstly, because the A-road becomes the A9 at a junction just before that bridge and, secondly, because the A9 uses a new bridge built slightly downstream sometime around 1970.
The bridge shown above is the old bridge, built around 1815 as part of Telford’s ‘Parliamentary’ road-building efforts.
Just south of both bridges, beside the Burn of Latheron, is the site of the former Latheron Castle. Slightly more remains of this than of Swiney Castle but rather less than Forse in that there’s just one short section of wall extant.
It was originally known as ‘Harald’s Tower’, suggesting that it may have been built by Harald Eiriksson (c. 1155-1196) – also called ‘Harold the Younger’ – who was made Earl of South Caithness by King William the Lion (1165-1214) in 1184.
After Harald’s death, it may have been converted into a ‘hospital’, here used in the original sense of a resting place for pilgrims. In this case, specifically those journeying north to the shrine of St Magnus in Orkney.
Over the years, it successively passed into the hands of the Cheynes, Keiths, Sutherlands, Oliphants and, finally, Sinclairs. Still standing in 1726, a storm in 1911 demolished a large section, after which its ones were plundered for reuse elsewhere.
Having crossed the Burn of Latheron on the newer bridge, I continued my way on what was now the A9 but had once been Thomas Telford’s Caithness Road. He would probably have been much impressed with its modern asphalt surface and systematic road signage.
I had roughly drawn level with the site of Latheron Castle when I passed evidence that sometimes our ‘modern’ road infrastructure proves even more ephemeral than it was – this former filling station had long since pumped its last petrol:
Where the castle persisted for half a millennium and Latheron Old Bridge managed just over a century and a half of utility, Latheron’s petrol station only managed around fifty years. It was built in 1957, when the land was sold by James Gunn to Caledonian Service Stations and, though I can’t find an exact date, seems to have closed sometime in the 2010s.
From Latheron, I had about a mile of the A9 to the next village, and this was again enlivened by sudden misty white-outs. Soon enough, though, I came to Latheronwheel (Latharn a’ Phuill, ‘muddy place of the pool’). This is, just like Lybster, a linear village, laid out along a road between the A9 and the coast with a winding side road leading off to a harbour just before the main street comes to a dead end.
Laid out in 1835 by landowner Robert Dunbar, it was named by him Janetstown, after his wife. That didn’t stick, though Ordnance Survey persisted with the name until at least 1970.
The Old Bridge
I turned off the A9 and ambled down Latheronwheel’s singular street, then continued on down to the harbour, where I sat on a low wall close by an old bridge. The Old Bridge, in fact, though it is also known as ‘Wade’s Bridge’ despite in no way whatsoever being the work of George Wade (1643-1748).
In fairness, though, the Old Bridge was built in Wade’s lifetime, dating back to about 1726. It thus predates Telford’s road by almost a century and is part of an earlier Post Pony route.
The Old Bridge was erected by Patrick Dunbar, in keeping with what seems to be the general rule that landowners who built stuff in eastern Caithness ought to be mostly named Patrick. This is clearly why ‘Janetstown’ never caught on, Robert should have changed his own name first.
Before I crossed the Old Bridge, I took a quick look at the harbour. This was built at around the same time as the village and would once have been bustling with herring boats.
Returning to the Old Bridge, I crossed it and ascended to the clifftop. There, the way onwards passed through an aged, rusting turnstile.
Actually, there’s no sign at all on the ground today where the old pony post road used to run, it having been completely swallowed up by a field. At least, that’s true near the harbour – further on, its route was joined and taken over by Telford’s road and is now part of the A9 – so, I quickly found that I would not be walking the post road, instead being led along a cliff-top path between the field boundary and the sea.
The path led me past a site where the old harbour lighthouse had once stood. Originally hexagonal, by the 1920s it had become a rectangular 2-storey building that locals nicknamed ‘Latheronwheel Castle’. Today, its existence is much like that harbour’s herring boats – long vanished except in the mind’s eye.
The footpath weaved about from side to side, sometimes well back from the edge and sometimes beside it and sometimes, because whoever makes these paths just can’t resist it, at the head of a geo, looking down into it.
The above cleft is called New Fhail, and was described by the 1871 OS Name Book as a ‘small creek […] on which stands three cletts about 30 feet high, and one at the edge of the flat rock at low water. Partly exposed at high tide.’
I followed the cliff path for three quarters of a mile until I reached a point above the foreshore named Little Fraigheach.
There, a stone wall had popped up on the seaward side of the path, an extension of a field boundary. This wall then curved around to lead inland, an overgrown track between it and the fence that had been on my landward side. This looked pretty rough to navigate but that was fine because the JOGT had other ideas. It wanted me to hop over the wall and continue along the cliff edge.
If you are looking at the photo above and wondering what on earth the problem is, then good for you! You clearly don’t have my crippling fear of heights. Because what I see in that photo is a ‘path’ across an inclined surface above a terrifying plummet onto rocks below. And that’s not even taking into account the mist patch lurking ahead. This path is not for me…
Once again, I might have psyched myself up to press onwards, had I been miles from anywhere with no other choice. But I did have choice. I had three:
- Go forwards, or:
- Go inland up the overgrown track to the A9, or:
- Go back to Latheronwheel.
I went back. This might seem like a really odd choice, what with the unnecessary backtracking and all, but I did have my reasons.
I had seen a signpost for the Latheronwheel Strath path on my way down to the harbour and had felt a slight pang of regret that my plans did not include it. Well, now they could.
The path started up the eastern bank of the Burn of Latheronwheel before crossing on a footbridge to the west. It was cool and leafy and quite magical. How magical, you might ask?
Latheronwheel Fairy Glen
Latheronwheel New Bridge
A little further upstream, the path became steps as the Burn of Latheronwheel flowed through its own gorge, though not one so narrow as that of Reisgill Burn. The path climbed up to the top of the gorge, which put it on just the right level to emerge onto Latheron New Bridge, which was built aroud 1970 when the A9’s alignment was smoothed.
Latheronwheel Old Bridge
I crossed the road and kept going, heading up a side road added during the realignment to provide direct A9 access to the Old Smithy. I did this because of my second reason for backtracking, namely that it meant I could seek out Thomas Telford’s 1813 bridge, which I had originally been going to miss out.
I nipped across Telford’s old bridge and then back, bringing the number of my Burn of Latheronwheel crossings up to five and then I set off past the Old Smithy and down a leg of the old Caithness Road that would meet back up with the A9.
About a mile on from the bridge, the A9 went through a shallow cutting. This was another 20th-century smoothing of its alignment, which had hitherto skirted around the hill of Knock Innon instead of cutting through its flank (the overgrown track I had not taken from the cliff edge would have joined up with its abandoned curve).
The summit of the hill is said to have been the site of a castle begun in the 14th century but then left unfinished after the 1513 Battle of Flodden. I couldn’t see any ruins from the road.
Old Road Loop
Much as traffic was light, walking the A99 while shrouded by drifting mists seemed quite foolhardy. I thus resolved to consider any alternative route that might present itself. Such the turn-off flanked by those white bollards in the photo above, for instance.
Before the road realignment that cut through the edge of Knock Innon, the A9 had described a sinuous double-curve, arcing inland after the hill. This bend, now abandoned by the straightened A-road, remained in use as a side road servicing a couple of houses. As such, it was delightfully traffic-free. It only lasted about a third of a mile, but I was still very glad of it.
Or Possibly Lydebrae
A quarter of a mile on from where I re-joined the A9, a welcome sign loomed out of the mist, telling me I had arrived at the Laidhay Croft Museum and Tearoom.
Laidhay is marked on old maps as a croft sitting beside the Caithness Road a mile from Dunbeath, though the 1877 OS 1st edition instead names it as Lydebrae.
The croft itself is a traditional Caithness longhouse and barn and is thought to date back to the late 18th century, though its current configuration came about in 1842. It remained a working croft until 1968, when it was purchased by the Laidhay Preservation Trust. It was then restored and converted into a museum, opening in 1976.
The tearoom stood next door to the croft, housed in its own bespoke building. This was a very welcome stop as, by now, I felt in need of a good sit down and refreshment. Tea and a cheese & ham toastie went a long way to restoring and preserving me, although, thankfully, I failed to turn into a museum.
Actually, I quite literally failed to turn into a museum, as I forewent the chance to turn left and look inside Laidhay Croft, instead pressing straight on when my toastie was consumed.
While resting and refuelling, I had consulted my schedule and the map and realised that I was now well behind time. Sufficiently so, in fact, that it would require some effort if I were to get to Helmsdale ahead of sunset (which would be around 9 pm). Basically, I needed to properly pick my feet up.
Watched by the sheep in the field opposite Laidhay, I put on a burst of speed for the remaining mile to Dunbeath…
Dunbeath (Dùn Bheithe) has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age but, like so many villages on Caithness’s eastern coast, saw the pinnacle of its fortunes during the 19th century herring boom. Its harbour was built around 1800 and, just fourteen years later, had become home to 155 fishing boats.
Prior to the herring industry reigning supreme, Dunbeath had been home to a distillery, sited on Dunbeath Water close not far from the shore.
The distillery was registered to a man named James Sutherland in 1755, which makes it unusual as most distilleries of the time were unregistered and illegal. Legitimate, licensed distilleries were quite the rarity! It is sadly long gone today.
Neil M Gunn
Dunbeath’s other main claim to fame is as the birthplace of Neil Miller Gunn (1891-1973), a prolific novelist with over twenty works to his name, with Highland life constant theme through his works.
Though perhaps obscure now, he was big news a hundred years ago, being one of the leading lights of the Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. His father had been a skipper of one of the harbour’s many herring boats and thus spurred a lasting fascination with the sea.
Although Dunbeath is more than ready to claim him as its own, he actually moved south to Dalry in Kirkcudbrightshire at the age of 13 and then, after a short stint in London, resided for much of his life in or near Inverness. Still, we can’t blame Dunbeath for making the most of it. Besides, it needs a famous birth to cancel out the famous death…
Duke of Kent
In 1942, HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, was flying in a Short Sunderland flying boat when it suddenly stopped flying in the worst way possible by coming into rapid and unintended contact with the ground. Specifically, it crashed into the hillside over Dunbeath, killing fourteen out of fifteen people aboard with only the wireless operator, Sgt Andrew Jack, surviving his injuries.
The plane had been conveying the duke (a younger brother of King George VI) to Reykjavík on official business. Since the duke had been on duty as an RAF Air Commodore, this made him the first British royal to die on active military service since Scotland’s James IV bought it at Flodden in 1513.
Dunbeath Old Bridge
While Dunbeath’s hills have proved a problem to air traffic just the once, they have long been a problem for those restricted to moving about on the ground. Thomas Telford, while building his Caithness Road, had to incline it quite steeply in order to get down to a point on Dunbeath Water across which he could throw a bridge.
Erected sometime around 1813, his bridge is still standing though it now carries only a minor road. The rise of 20th-century motor traffic meant that the gradients and narrow stone bridge proved a bottleneck, where traffic would often choke up the A9.
Dunbeath New Bridge
The solution was a new bridge, completed in 1989, which crosses Dunbeath water on five spans, curving around to better fit into the A9 and showing a noticeable gradient between northern and southern ends. It was designed by Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners and built by Whatlings (Civil Engineering) Ltd.
Opting for Modernity
Since that is, sadly, not how it works, I crossed on the new bridge and speed-marched my way up the A9. I had given some serious thought to using the old bridge, which, having been disconnected from the A9, would lead me through the southern part of the village and thence to Dunbeath Castle via the route of the old Caithness Road.
Two considerations had counted against this idea, though. One was that I doubted I had time to meander as much as that route required – I still had sixteen miles between me and Helmsdale and completing that before sunset was looking increasingly unlikely. The other was that a close look at various maps had showed that the old road had also been disconnected from the A9 at the far end and that trying to bridge the gap was definitely going to require barrier-hopping and probably also fighting through undergrowth.
Having decided to stay with the A-road, I was pleasantly surprised to find that from the bridge onwards, for the next mile and a half, it had a proper pedestrian pavement beside it. Why it should have this was not at all clear but I was grateful that it did.
Dunbeath Castle Dovecote
I had done just over three quarters of a mile since Dunbeath Water, when I became aware of a stone structure peeking out of the trees on my left. This was within Dunbeath Castle’s grounds but it didn’t look much to me like your typical fortification. While it was made of stone and its only visible opening was small – the better to protect any defenders – this seemed a bit too singular to be a firing port of any kind.
Its dovecote was all I would get to see of Dunbeath Castle, which remains a private residence.
There has been a castle on the site since at least the 15th century, though the current building is mainly 17th-century with 19th-century extensions. There may have been even older fortifications predating the 15th-century castle and it’s possible that the site was the ‘Dún Baite’ besieged in 680, as told by the Annals of Ulster.
Sutherlands & Sinclairs
The 15th-century castle belonged to Alexander Sutherland (c. 1395-1456) but his daughter Marjory married William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness (1455–1476) and so, it passed to the Sinclairs. They retained it, with much remodelling, until 1945, after which it passed through several unrelated owners.
Stuart Wyndham Murray-Threipland
It is currently owned by engineer Stuart Wyndham Murray-Threipland, who purchased it in 1997; he is a direct descendant of Stuart Threipland (1716-1895), who was personal physician to Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788) during the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
A quarter of a mile further on, I came to the point where the old road failed to meet the new and, as expected, it did exactly that. The old road was hidden away behind a crash barrier and quite a lot of foliage and I was glad not to have to had to push through it.
The pedestrian pavement ended a couple of metres short of an isolated house that had no obvious name on it but which a post-war detailed OS map helpfully labelled ‘Mains Cottages’. The name makes sense as it was then two cottages and lies close to the farm of Dunbeath Mains.
It wasn’t clear, looking at it, whether the pedestrian pavement ended because Mains Cottages were in the way of it continuing, or if the full mile and a half it existed purely for the benefit of whoever lived there.
Moments later, now back to dodging traffic – a task made more difficult than it needed to be by the drifting mist-banks – I passed the gates of Dunbeath Mains and continued southwards. Dunbeath was now behind me.
Ramscraigs, Borgue & Newport
Ramscraigs & Borgue
The road swerved from southward to south-westward then southward again as I passed the scattered cottages and farmsteads that made up Ramscraigs and Borgue.
In the latter, the mists, which had been getting thicker, parted briefly to allow me fleeting glimpses of the sea. This made me happy, as it reminded me that my walk was coastal and not somehow aerial in the clouds.
I had walked two and three-quarter miles since Dunbeath Mains when I came to a turn-off on my right, sign-posted for Newport. This seemed a strange name for a hamlet up a hillside but I didn’t argue; the mists had redoubled and were blanketing the A9 alarmingly thickly, yet Newport – a mere 10-15 m higher up the hill – was still gloriously clear of them. Its narrow single-track road was also likely to be devoid of traffic.
I diverted uphill. The side road climbed briefly, raising 10 m in about 50 m and then turned hard left as Newport’s row of cottages began.
Two Chatty Ladies
Two women were stood outside one cottage chatting, and they hailed me cheerfully. We then had a short chat about the weather and walking up hills, which provided me with a sneaky chance to get my breath back.
After a while, I left the cottages of Newport behind and found myself flanked by open fields. To my right (uphill) all was sunlit and glorious. To my left, the fields vanished into a sea of misty whiteness. It was lovely but I knew it was also limited.
About half a mile from Newport, I re-joined the A9 only to find that I had left the mist banks behind. From here on in, things would stay clear.
Berriedale Braes (North)
The Berriedale Braes are the hills either side of Berriedale’s valley, which holds the confluence of two streams. These hills get sufficiently steep as they get closer that, unlike Dunbeath, they still constrain traffic flow. They are also the reason the railway doesn’t run straight up the coast to Wick like it might have, but instead diverts in a great inland arc.
The photo above shows the start of the north hill and the road snaking up the south one across the valley. As I made my way down the north hill, there was clear evidence of curve-smoothing on the zig-zags, with the modern A-road not quite so keen on very slow slalom as Thomas Telford had been.
Berriedale Old Bridges
In Telford’s day, after descending the Braes in a steep and acutely-angled manner, one then had to cross not one but two bridges, over Berriedale and Langwell Waters respectively. This was no doubt much, much better than the ford that probably existed before – William Roy’s military survey map of around 1750 shows the pre-Telford post road on either side but no crossing – but, after 150 years, his bridges struggled to cope with motor traffic.
Berriedale New Bridge
Thanks to their traffic-conveying inadequacy, Telford’s bridges were superseded in 1963 by a single twin-arch bridge that straddles the confluence of the two waters and handles two opposing lanes of traffic.
I was feeling pretty tired as I reached Berriedale New Bridge, and took a break to sit beside the war memorial (also visible in the photo above) and enjoy a cool drink and a rest.
Berriedale Braes (South)
Eventually, no matter how tired I felt, I had to get up and do the painful climb up and out the far side of Berriedale. This felt, as I knew it was going to, like an awful lot of up. And even when I got to the top, I had no time to rest; I still had eight and a half miles to Helmsdale and only two hours until sunset, so even if I maintained a really strong pace, I’d still be finishing in twilight.
An Unexpected Hitch
Still, I had accepted this and was gearing myself up to power forwards when a car pulled up and I was offered a lift.
‘But only as far as Helmsdale, I’m afraid.’
Normally I’d have said ‘no thanks,’ and finished under my own power. But, not only was I tired, I was also concerned that I’d reach Helmsdale way too late to find food and I was far, far hungrier than tired.
With great gratitude and hardly any guilt, I accepted the lift. It would make the next morning more difficult, sure, but I’d deal with that tomorrow. And so, my walk curtailed, I sped by road to food and rest…
This time: 22 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,041½ miles