I HAD a problem on the second day of May, which was that I awoke in Helmsdale, exactly where I had planned to be. How is this a problem, you might reasonably ask? Because it was not where I needed to be – my plan had failed to come to fruition and I had curtailed my previous walk some eight and a half miles short of Helmsdale. I thus needed to get back to Berriedale, if I were to pick up where I left off. Somehow.
Walking back there was immediately out of the question. Adding eight and a half miles from the day before onto the day’s walk was going to make it a challenge. Adding seventeen miles by walking it both ways would add so much time and distance that it would no longer be possible. There was an option to shorten this walk too but that would just be kicking the problem down the road, so to speak. No, I was going to need transport options. A bus or a taxi, if either even existed in Helmsdale.
Bridge Guest House
‘I’ll give you a lift,’ said the proprietor of the Bridge Guest House when I enquired about available transport options, ‘but you will have to wait until breakfast is over and people have checked out.’
While this generous offer came at the cost of reducing the time available to complete a walk with eight and a half extra miles added to it, it was by far my best bet. I gratefully accepted.
My proverbial bacon having been saved, I sat and tucked into some actual bacon and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the knowledge that I wasn’t going anywhere if I rushed. My fellow breakfasters were an interesting cross-section of North Coast 500 types ranging from hired camper-vanners to a honeymooning couple in a bright orange Lamborghini.
After breakfast, I had little option but to sit and wait while the proprietor checked out guests, did some necessary admin and generally got quite excited about the orange Lambo.
I cast my eyes about the various ornamental objects strewn around reception. It was clear that the Bridge had formerly been a proper full-service hotel instead of a mere bed & breakfast, but I had guessed that from its size.
As its frontage states, the Bridge Hotel was built in 1816. This was five years after Thomas Telford (1757-1834) had upgraded the road and built what was then a brand, spanking new bridge but is now Helmsdale Old Bridge. Today, the former hotel is named for that bridge and well it might be, because it was that and the County Road that had prompted its existence as an inn and mail receiving-house (basically, an early post office).
In the 1820s, Telford’s former apprentice Joseph Mitchell (1803-1883) built what is now the A897 road from Helmsdale to Melvich, at which point the Commercial Hotel (as the Bridge was then named) expanded its postal role by becoming the starting point for mail gigs running north by that route.
For the first century of its existence, the Commercial Hotel comprised only the bottom two storeys that the Bridge Guest House currently possesses, the top floor being a 20th century addition.
I waited patiently until the proprietor was able to get away from B&B things and whisk me most of the way back to Berriedale. He dropped me in a lay-by just above the steep climb of the Berriedale Braes and I consulted my map to check how far I was from where I had accepted a lift the day before. It was less than a hundred yards distant – turns out I’d already done one of the eight and half miles and arguably the worst one, it being almost entirely ascent. I was glad I didn’t have to do that again.
While my view inland was as shown above, my seaward view was screened by trees. So too would be my inland view a few moments later, as I strode determinedly down the A9. The A-road was quiet, with very little traffic, which suited me just fine.
Almost immediately I passed a pair of snow gates, with which the road can be closed when winter weather demands it. These amused me a little as their placement implied that any vehicle encountering them to discover the A9 was closed must first have ascended the steep Berriedale Braes in dangerously icy conditions.
While the trees on my right comprised a dense patch of forest plantation, those on my left were just a thin screen along the road edge. The latter soon ended, allowing me my first view of the sea to remind me that the walk was coastal.
Shortly thereafter, I saw the first evidence of the day that Thomas Telford’s great work was found lacking by his 20th-century successors. That is, I found evidence of curve-smoothing where the modern A9 described gentle arcs, while Telford’s road had zigzagged more sharply. This was because it was cheaper for him to build a more winding road at a constant elevation on firm ground than to engineer cuttings and embankments to deal with steep hills and soft bogs. His late 20th-century counterparts had equipment and methods that Telford could only fantasise about.
Sadly, much as I love an old road section, I could only fantasise about diverting onto this one. Or, as it turned out, the next. They were entirely blocked by gorse at one point and by a fence at another and my fantasies didn’t include fighting my way past or over either. There would be more accessible old road sections, I was sure. I could wait…
Three miles from Berriedale, I came to a small car park and a path running off to what had once been the crofting hamlet of Badbea (pronounced ‘bad-bay’). Badbea is ruinous now but it is not, as you might expect it to be, a settlement emptied by the Highland Clearances. It is, in fact, the complete opposite – a village created by clearance.
Sir John Sinclair
In 1793, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754-1835) owned the Langwell Estate and needed to make it more profitable, not least because publishing his epic 21-volume Statistical Account of Scotland was ruining his finances. Thus, he introduced sheep farming to the estate and removed twelve families, comprising about eighty people, to a new home in Badbea, where they built stone-walled crofts.
Badbea had already existed before that point – it’s shown, as ‘Badbae’, on William Roy’s military survey map of around 1750 – but it was a tiny, isolated settlement, far from the old Ord Road.
Around 1804, a tenant farmer from Rispond named James Anderson (1746-1828) acquired Ousdale and set about clearing it, displacing a second wave of Highlanders to Badbea. In 1804, he turned Rispond over his son, also named James Anderson (1776-1854), who proved to be a proper chip off the old block and set about clearing the village of Ceannabeinne in 1841.
Life in Badbea was pretty harsh. It was not only exposed and windswept but occupied a sufficiently steep coastal slope over dangerous cliffs that the inhabitants not only tethered their animals for safety but their children too, lest they go for a quick plummet.
Fields were ploughed by hand, the village only owning one horse, and many made ends meet by working on herring boats. But, in a new blow in 1814, the Berriedale herring fishery switched to processing salmon, which employed far fewer people.
Emigration & Abandonment
From the 1850s, the village started to shrink as many emigrated in search of a better life. The last inhabitant left in 1911, after which the grandson of one emigrant erected a memorial to those who had lived there. Badbea’s 24 cottages fell into decay and, although it has only been a century, only the bases of their walls are now visible.
John o’ Groats Trail
From Badbea, I could, in theory, have followed the old track that ran along the coast linking the houses of Badbea and which now formed part of the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT). I certainly considered it. as an alternative to walking the A9.
My conclusion was that two factors counted against the JOGT path.
Firstly, it was as boggy as hell and, secondly, it started near-invisible and then vanished altogether. I figured that, with a long day already compressed into a tight schedule, I couldn’t really factor getting lost in a bog into my plans.
Remember that thought, we’ll come back to it later.
Allt a Sleibhteann
I returned to the A9 and continued in what was a sometimes southward and sometimes westward direction. I soon reached another example of curve-smoothing where the road had previously arced in a sinuous S-bend as it crossed the streams of Allt a Sleibhteann and Allt Bràigh nam Meur but now cut straight through like the bar of a dollar sign.
The old curve to the south, crossing the Allt a Sleibhteann, was fenced and gated and incorporated into a field, so I merely noted its existence and walked on.
Allt Bràigh nam Meur
Where the muddy Allt a Sleibhteann curve met the A9 on the left, a narrow, metalled road branched off on the right – this was just the sort of old road section that I wanted!
It curved around to cross a culverted Allt Bràigh nam Meur, where a surprise awaited me. For, peering through some very mossy trees, I spotted yet another curve, that the one I was now on had cut the corner of. That was Telford’s original road and bridge and the abandoned (but surfaced) curve I was on was a 1960s road realignment that had ultimately proved insufficiently realigned.
The Ordnance Survey Name Books, used when compiling the OS 1st edition in the 1870s, described Allt Bràigh nam Meur as ‘a mountain stream, rising in the hills above Ousdale to the north east joining Allt a Sleibhteann a little below the County Road.’ Which is to say, the one is a tributary of the other, which then flows into Ousdale Burn. You will recall Ousdale – which rhymes with ‘cow’s tail’ – as the source of Badbea’s second wave of displaced incomers.
The A9 was flanked by trees on both sides for most of the next quarter mile after I re-joined it. At the end of the trees was the turn-off to Ousdale Farm, the conversion of which to sheep farming had displaced Badbea’s second wave. I could have taken this turn-off and used the farm’s access track to link me up to the alignment of the Ord Road, the old post road which preceded Telford’s County Road but I didn’t realise that at the time and so kept on going past.
What I did know was that a fairly significant corner had been cut off ahead where the A9 crossed Ousdale Burn during more realignment in the 1960s (or possibly 1970, by which it showed up on maps).
A fence and notable height difference initially made the old curve inaccessible, which was disappointing, but then I reached a short turn-off, joining the two.
The reason for the turn off was The Cottage, an unimaginatively-named dwelling that had sprung into being sometime between the publication of the OS 1st edition sheet for the area in 1877 and the 2nd edition in 1906.
When they came to move the road some sixty-odd years later, they clearly considered it a tad unsporting to completely cut off the cottage from all outside access. This essentially turned the old loop into the Cottage’s private driveway, although it does continue past it to cross Ousdale Burn on Ousdale Bridge.
Ousdale Bridge is quite tall at just over 12 m as Ousdale Burn, though small, has carved itself quite a deep gully.
The sheep appeared to be staring up at me in surprise. At the time, I imagined to myself that this was because they thought they’d long evicted all the humans and not, for instance, because they just don’t see many passers-by. Although the one would give rise to the other, I suppose.
Now, I think they were wondering where I thought I might be going, since they knew the road across Ousdale Bridge was going nowhere.
The old road curve ended, as it had began, with a fence and a difference in heights. Fortunately, I was able to go around the end of the fence and clamber down the bank. I even managed to avoid putting my foot in the ditch that lurked at the bottom. It was a valiant effort by the old road, I thought, but I still had dry feet. What’s more, I aimed to keep them both that way.
Yeah, we’ll come back to that thought later, too.
Broch Car Park
I followed the A9 south for just under a mile and was rewarded with glimpses of the sea framed by the Ousdale’s ever-deepening valley.
At the end of this mile was another smoothed curve, though this time there was no stream or other obvious reason why Telford had felt the need to put a corner in his road. Here, the two alignments ran closely side-by-side, the old curve serving as a lay-by and car park. From it, a path wound off across the boggy hillside towards the Ousdale Broch.
The path was dry and gravelled and, it turns out, hardly-used as it was only made in 2019. As I headed down it, I was sprinkled by a light spattering of rain. Informative signs let me know that I could expect to see, not only the broch, but also the ruins of another abandoned village, Borg.
But did I have time to make this diversion, I asked myself? Almost certainly not. But I was going to do it, anyway.
Borg takes its name from the nearby broch, borg being the Norse word for ‘fort’. The village was shown in Roy’s map circa 1750 but would then fall foul of the clearances already described. The 1st edition OS map of 1877 shows some of its buildings unroofed but still standing. Today, as at Badbea, only the bases of the walls remain.
The steep hillside visible beyond the ruins in the photo above is the bank of Ousdale Burn. It has cut quite a deep gully by this point (the ‘dale’ in ‘Ousdale’) and I think Mr Telford can be excused for wanting to bridge it more cheaply further upstream.
Ousdale Broch is an Iron Age ‘second-phase’ broch, dating to the 3rd to 2nd century BC. It was once a tall tower but, as seems to be the general rule, only the base of its walls remain. Even so, for a roughly 2,200-year-old ruin, it’s in pretty good shape.
It’s perhaps ironic that not much remains of Borg village as it is that village that is largely responsible for the reduction of the broch – its stones were plundered to build Borg’s crofts and now lie scattered across the village ruins.
What’s left of the broch was overgrown, crumbling and had a rowan tree growing out of part of it until remedial work was undertaken in 2019, removing rubble and the rowan tree and stabilising what remains. The path and information signs were put in at the same time and the old road loop resurfaced as a car park.
Ousdale, in its Norse form Eysteinsdal, is named in the Orkneyinga Saga as the site of a 1201 confrontation between the Scots and Norse.
The incident was part of an ongoing attempt by Scotland’s King William the Lion (1165-1214) to dispute Norway’s control of Caithness.
In particular, it followed on from the 1196 Battle of Clardon, in which Haraldr Maddaðarson (1134-1206), Earl of Orkney – also known as ‘Harold the Elder’ – defeated and slew Harald Eiriksson (c. 1155-1196) – aka ‘Harold the Younger’ – the site of which I passed six walks ago.
William had made Harold the Younger the Earl of South Caithness in 1184 and, as such, he was pretty miffed about his death. Thus, he assembled an army and, though it took him a while, eventually ended up camped with an army in Ousdale, just across the border from Sutherland.
Harald had had a merry old time of blinding, mutilating and executing anyone who had opposed him but he was quite sure he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of similar treatment. He was also quite sure that William’s army was large enough to stomp him into Caithness’s boggy ground. He therefore contradicted his own terrifying reputation and promptly sued for peace.
Every Fourth Penny
William was not really up for accepting sudden contrition and, the saga tells us, replied that Harald had no chance of peace unless he pay up every fourth penny to be found in Caithness.
Harald considered this seriously and weighed the staggering cost of what was essentially a 25% tax on everything he and his supporters owned against his likely chance of getting a fatal taste of his own unpleasant medicine. He paid up.
Peace at Any Price
William, much as he would have liked to visit torture and death upon Harald, wasn’t about to say no to whopping great handfuls of cash and so kept to his word. Harald then withdrew to Orkney where he died peacefully of old age in 1206. Because real life far too often fails to be fair.
Ord of Caithness
The Ord Road
It makes sense that Ousdale would be the first place William came to on crossing the border of Caithness as he would have been following the Ord Road. This is one of the oldest roads in Caithness and for hundreds of years was the main route in and out. It is named for the Ord of Caithness, a high, granite feature which is crossed by the road.
I was made aware of the Ord Road by the broch’s informative signage. This included a map that showed me how it intersected with both the A9 and the broch path. It looked to me like an interesting alternative to A-road traffic-dodging, even if that traffic is light. This was a welcome, if unanticipated, option.
The Ord road was narrow, and largely composed of boot-eating, ankle-deep bog. There was also a not insignificant chance that it might try to go up, down or along some terrifying gradients; in the 17th century, the road was feared for the steepness of the cliffs to which it clung.
It was improved and gentled to some degree by engineer Charles Abercrombie (1750-1817) in 1802 but there was no guarantee that his definition of ‘reasonable’ and mine would at all coincide.
One danger from which I was probably safe, though 17th-century travellers were not, was that of bandits. In those days, bands of robbers traversed the Ord Road, preying on travellers and taking refuge in the hills.
Sir Robert Gordon (1580-1656) wrote in his snappily-titled Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its Origin to the year 1630 that an organised band of such robbers was captured by an armed posse in 1617 and hanged ‘without benefit of clergy’ on a gibbet erected at the highest point of the Ord.
In other words, not only were they executed but it was made extremely clear that God would not be having mercy on their souls. And this was at a time when mere differences in doctrine were considered enough reason to fight wars.
Allt an Fhùdair
Following the Ord Road, I squelched south-westwards across what was otherwise largely featureless bog. Initially, I gained height climbing Cnoc na Stri but then lost it sharply as the Ord Road crossed the Allt an Fhùdair. This stream was steep-sided and slippery, and I found it tricky to navigate and remain standing up but that might be an artefact of my appalling sense of balance rather than a problem that any normal person might have had.
Somewhere on the western side of the Allt an Fhùdair, as I was climbing the heights of the Ord of Caithness, I took a wrong turn.
The Ord Road had become quite indistinct upon the ground and I reached a point where two faint trails forked. One went left towards the steeply inclined coastal slope, the other right and slightly inland. I looked at the fork and realised my map was no help whatsoever, so tried to judge which looked more like a continuation and which looked liked more like an offshoot. Perhaps because I didn’t want to end up traversing along a 45° incline, I chose wrongly and went right.
The track I was following became less and less distinct and then vanished altogether. By this point, I didn’t really want to backtrack and try again, so I pressed onwards, blazing my own trail, in the hope I might cross paths with it again. That didn’t happen but I did find my way blocked by a massive deer fence, which towered over my head.
I was now lost in a bog with wet feet. The two things that I had earlier thought I should avoid at all costs.
Left or Right?
There was no way in hell that I was climbing over the deer fence, which only left me with two options.
If I went left, I would eventually intersect the Ord Road but it was likely that this would either put me on a coastal slope below the deer fence, or present me with a towering ladder stile. Or – the worst of all worlds – present me with a ladder stile on the coastal slope!
Alternatively, I could go right and eventually intersect the A9. A glance at the time helped me feel better about the decision that I had already made – I was now way, way behind and would need to get back on the asphalt if I was to finish before sunset.
Regaining the Road
Following the deer fence was slow and tricky as it involved navigating around several boggy pools. As I drew closer to the road, I saw the deer fence ran alongside that too but I figured there had to be a gate in it somewhere. No sooner had I thought that to myself, than I stumbled across what was clearly a vehicle track and I followed this up to the inside corner of the fence. There, a farm gate let me out onto a lay-by. I had regained the A9!
The boundary between Sutherland and Caithness runs right across the highest part of the Ord so the ‘Welcome to Sutherland’ sign thus informed me exactly where I was on my map. I had re-joined the A9 a lot earlier than I had hoped to but I was fine with that. And so, I stepped forward and left Caithness behind…
The weird egg-shaped cairn bore a plaque upon which these words were inscribed:
‘Wm Welch perished here 31st Jan 1878. Be ye also ready’
William Welch was a pedlar who died on the County Road during a snowstorm in 1878 in the sort of inclement weather incident that the Berriedale snow gates are intended to prevent. He did not, in fact die in the lay-by, which would have been remarkably considerate and tidy of him; the plaque was moved 500 m during road improvements in 1998-9 that replaced Telford’s crossing of the Ord Burn.
I set back off along the A9 and, 500 m later, found myself crossing the Ord Burn. This stream, like Ousdale Burn, has carved itself a mighty valley that, in Telford’s day, forced the road to describe a V shape with his single-track bridge at the apex.
Telford’s bridge was partly rebuilt in 1932, widening it to cater for two-way traffic and superseded by an entirely new bridge in 1999. The cost of building bridges being what it is, the 1999 improvements didn’t simply boldly span the valley but put their bridge only just downstream of the original, turning Telford’s V into more of a rounded U-shape.
Allt Briste North
I made my way along the A9 for another two thirds of a mile, rather enjoying its run along the top of the Ord Burn’s valley. It then curved away from the Ord Burn and swung westwards, until it brought me to a turn-off barred by a wooden gate. This was padlocked to prevent traffic but a pedestrian kissing gate beside it beckoned me to divert within.
The turn-off was yet another smoothed curve, this time leading to Telford’s bridge over the Allt Briste North, which had been cut out by road improvements in 2004-5. I took it gratefully as I very much needed to stop. A combination of wet socks and fell-running shoes that had done more miles than they were ever designed for had conspired to do a number on my feet…
Ord Road End
As I reached the Allt Briste Bridge, I saw a rough track leading off from beside it and passing lower down the bank of the stream. This was the far end of Abercrombie’s Ord Road so it was now too late to have second thoughts about missing parts of it out.
Allt Briste Bridge
I sat on the parapet of the Allt Briste Bridge and tended to my feet. As I has feared, the wet socks had rubbed my toes raw and I was bleeding merrily into my socks. The careful application of a flannel, towel, plasters and dry socks went a long way to mitigate this podiatric misadventure and, to be honest, just sitting there was pretty relaxing and joyful.
It wasn’t actually time I could spare for sitting, mind you, but I figured that it was important right now and I’d deal with running out of daylight when it happened. While I’d cross that metaphorical bridge when I came to it, I’d not be moving more than halfway across this physical one until I felt good and ready.
The western end of the abandoned Allt Briste North loop didn’t have a kissing gate, so I had to hop over the road gate but the Arbitrary Gods of Ambulation made up for this oversight by unexpectedly giving me an unusually broad grass verge flanked by signs indicating that it was a cycleway and pedestrian footpath.
I accepted this development with gratitude and good grace, and strolled along it free from concerns about avoiding oncoming traffic. After all of about 150 m, a wooden fence materialised to further separate my path from A-road traffic. This was all lovely but I was wondering why road engineers had built a cycleway to nowhere. And then it became suddenly obvious.
The path I was on was quite clearly former A-road and was , in fact, the A9 up until 2008. A whole new alignment downstream had been constructed over the previous few years and, from the opening of the new road, the old became dead-end access and was singled for about two thirds of its length. Its furthest end was blocked to traffic, becoming the path I’d just traversed.
For a mile and a half, it looped quietly through the countryside separated from the increasingly busy A-road below. I passed over Sput Burn and Allt Briste South and through the hamlet of Navidale. In East Helmsdale, one last section of pedestrianised old road allowed me to avoid an A9 roundabout, after which I had pedestrian pavement all the way into the village centre.
Navidale Road turned left into Stafford Street on a line heading straight for Helmsdale New Bridge. As I followed it down, I saw the second disused petrol station of my trip (the first was the day before).
A R McLeod & Sons
Latterly branded as ‘Scottish Fuels,’ a company formed in 2001 to take over local assets divested by BP, the petrol station shown above was owned by A R McLeod & Sons and existed from 1972 to 2008.
The company was founded by Alexander McLeod in the 1930s on a different site but was moved to Stafford Street by his son, James McLeod. It then passed to a third generation of that family, to be run by Ian McLeod, who finally took the difficult decision to close the business in the face of falling sales and rising infrastructure costs.
There had once been two petrol stations in Helmsdale, the other being an Esso station – Rapson’s – opposite the Bridge Hotel, but that was already long gone. When McLeod’s also closed, it created a 50-mile ‘fuel desert’ between Brora and Wick, which persists today.
I suppose that ultimately, as electric cars become more widespread, it will cease to matter. In the meantime it is a cause of some inconvenience to motorists in eastern Sutherland and Caithness.
There are two ways to cross the River Helmsdale (Abhainn Ilidh) but, before I decided to use use either, I wandered down to Helmsdale Harbour, which sits beside its mouth.
Helmsdale was developed in 1818 as a herring fishing village, a history it has in common with many of its neighbours up and down the coast. As a new fishing port, it provided an alternative to emigration for those cleared from sheep farms. At the height of the herring industry it was home to around 200 herring boats.
Sometimes also called the River Ullie, The river was named as Ila by Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) in his Geography, which was written in 150 as a updated version of an earlier work by Marinus of Tyre (c. 70-130).
This means that around 1,900 years ago a bloke in Egypt knew that it existed (Ptolemy lived in Alexandria) and had probably learnt that from another man in Lebanon (where Tyre is) who had died twenty years before. I think that’s pretty amazing.
Helmsdale New Bridge
As I headed upstream, I came within sight of Helmsdale New Bridge, which was opened in 1972 as one of the many phases of improving the A9, which had hitherto had to wind around the village; the ruins of Helmsdale Castle were obliterated by its construction.
It was built by the firm of Babtie, Shaw & Morton, whom I like to imagine were professional castle-wreckers.
Babtie, Shaw & Morton
Actually, a little research tells me that Babtie, Shaw & Morton were actually specialists in bridges, dams and reservoirs, existing from 1906, when they were formed by a merger, until 2004, when American company Jacobs Engineering Group bought them. Maybe Jacobs had some forts they needed flattening?
In fairness to Babtie, Shaw & Morton, it won’t have been their decision. Also, the castle had been ruinous since 1858. It was built almost 400 years before that, sometime around 1488, and originally belonged to the Sutherlands, passing to the Gordons in the early 16th century, along with the Sutherland earldom.
Murder by Poison
In 1567, the castle played host to a murder. Isobel Sinclair (c. 1526-1567), aunt by marriage to John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland (c. 1526–1567) poisoned the earl and his wife, Marion, in a plot to make her own son Earl of Sutherland.
In order to succeed, this nefarious plan required that she also poison John’s heir, Alexander Gordon (c. 1552-1594) but she failed in the worst way possible when her own son – John Gordon of Garty – unwittingly drank the poison instead and died.
Alexander succeeded to the earldom and Isobel was arrested, tried and condemned. She committed suicide on the morning of her scheduled execution, probably by poison because, if nothing else, she was committed to her theme.
Helmsdale Old Bridge
The older of Helmsdale’s two bridges lies further upstream, directly in front of the old Bridge Hotel and next to the Timespan Museum & Arts Centre which occupies a couple of buildings, one which used to be the Esso garage.
The bridge is a Telford design, constructed in 1811 by Wick-based contractor George Burn (1759 –1820) for the surprisingly reasonable sum of £2,176; that’s worth about £187 k in 2022 money.
Helmsdale Ice House
I crossed the old bridge, thus setting out upon the walk I’d originally planned, and stopped the very moment I reached the end of it. I’d grabbed some some lunch on my way through Helmsdale and I decided that outside the ice house was a good place to chill out and eat it.
The ice house was built in 1824 and was then vital to the herring industry for keeping the fish fresh. However, when the railways arrived in the 1870s, it became possible to transport fresh fish quickly to market and its importance dwindled.
War Memorial Clock Tower
Soon enough my lunch was devoured and Helmsdale’s war memorial clock tower – unveiled in 1924 – was hinting that I should get a move on. Who am I to argue with such an expert in people being late?
I followed the road as it curved around the clock tower and then Helmsdale Church before crossing the railway line that had put the ice house out of business.
Gartymore–West Helmsdale Road
Turning left, I headed back towards the A9 but branched off before I reached it, taking a single-track unclassified road that initially ran parallel but higher up the hillside before diverging considerably.
This narrow lane – also secretly known as the C1046 to its friends at Highland Council – was flanked by the scattered cottages of West Helmsdale and Gartymore and provided me with a whole mile of unclassified country lanes. It was lovely. Certainly, more so than than the A-road would have been, though I’m not sure how to quantify such a comparison.
Gartymore Road South
All too soon, I reached the western end of Gartymore and the road curved around to meet the A9 to the south, constrained by the Gartymore Burn. Had I not spent some of my lunchtime minutely examining my map, I might have followed it but I had, and so did not.
Beside the next cottage along from the daffodils, just before the road turned south, a grassy looking track ran north before turning west to hop across the burn on an old bridge. This was Gartymore Road South.
Gartymore Burn Bridge
I crossed Gartymore Burn on the old bridge shown above, about which I can frustratingly learn nothing.
This was never a main road, so it is unlikely to be one of Telford’s but Gartymore mostly expanded in the early 19th century to house those cleared from elsewhere, so it’s probably contemporary and Telford-inspired.
I left Gartymore Road South just after its next bend, following the access track of an abandoned cottage.
Gartymore has over 50 ruined crofts, which housed those evicted from the neighbouring valleys much as Badbea had done. Here, they were deliberately given parcels of land too small to be viable, in order to prompt them to take up fishing instead.
Most steadfastly ignored the hint and stuck to crofting, which they found difficult by design. Eventually many gave up and left, often taking advantage of emigration schemes.
From the cottage, a track wound its way through some towering gorse bushes down to a junction with another track about 200 m west beside the banks of the Garbh Allt (‘rough stream’). There, a bridge would allow me to cross the stream. Or, at least, it would if were not for the cows.
A small herd of cows with calves in tow looked up as I approached and mooed loudly in alarm. They had not been expecting my appearance and seemed a bit agitated by it. This would not have been a problem except that they had arrayed themselves on and around the bridge, spread out in such a way that I couldn’t see how to get through them without coming between a cow and her calf, thus causing mayhem.
…And Other Assorted Ungulates
For all that I was in a hurry, I had no choice at all but to wait for the cattle to move of their own accord. When I failed to attack and eat them, they soon quietened down and, milling about aimlessly, they gradually moved until they were off the bridge and more spread out. Moving slowly and calmly, I picked my way between them, taking care to go around each mother-calf pair.
With the cows now behind me, I followed the track south, passing assorted other ungulates on the way.
The track became a road, then joined up with the A9 in Portgower. My original plan for the day had included following another track past the railway line and onto the beach but that plan was now in tatters.
I had read that the beach was pebbly and tough going in places as far as Kintradwell and my walking it had been contingent on having enough time. Between the late start, the additional Berriedale-to-Helmsdale mileage and waiting for the cows to move – or should that be moooOOOooo-ve? – I was going to be lucky to make it to Golspie other than in darkness. Regretfully, I had no time for strolling on sand and pebbles.
To lessen the blow, I told myself I would reassess the situation at Kintradwell, where beach access would again be possible and the pebbles should give way to glorious sand.
I set off apace along the A9, somewhat mollified by an excellent view of the sea. Along the way, curve-smoothing had turned a number of old bends into lay-bys and I paused in one in Culgower, just over the Westgarty Burn (about a mile and half down the A-road) to look ahead down the coast.
In the 1870s, when the OS 1st edition was mapped, a smithy stood beside the road at this point, pretty much underneath where the carriageway runs today. This was described as being ‘in good repair’ in the Name Books and persisted onto the 1906 2nd ed before vanishing at some point in the first half of the 20th century.
On this section of coast, at a place called Strone Rungie (Sron Rubha na Gaoithe, ‘promontory of the winds’), local tradition holds that a mediaeval battle took place between the men of Caithness and Sutherland. Sadly, the details have been lost to time, so such particulars as why they fought and who won are long-forgotten.
Time being of the essence, I made like the smithy and vanished. I fairly raced past Culgower House – a farmhouse built around 1850 – and then, another mile and half on, I passed the hamlet of Lothmore, (Loth Mhòr, ‘great Loth’) which has always sat on its own minor road parallel to, and uphill of, the main road.
Below Lothmore, the A9 crossed the Allteenie Burn on a straightened alignment with an earlier Telford-era bridge peeking shyly out from a veil of vegetation upstream. Lest I embarrass it further, I kept on going.
Loth Railway Station
Between Lothmore and Lothbeg (Loth Bheag, ‘little Loth’) is the farmstead of Crackaig and various cottages formerly associated with it. Leading south from the farm is a surprisingly well-made road that connects with the otherwise isolated Station Cottage, whose name rather gives the game away.
Loth Railway Station served the village for 89 years, lasting from 1871 to 1960, when it fell foul of Dr Richard Beeching’s infamous axe.
Three quarters of a mile past Crackaig was Lothbeg, where a significant U-shaped road loop was not only cut off by subsequent road development but also pretty much obliterated. Here, the new bridge actually was a proper bridge instead of a culvert, which meant I enjoyed a fleeting section of pedestrian pavement for its length. This always amuses me.
I get that including a pedestrian footway is a general design requirement of road bridges and I’m always grateful for its provision. But when there has been no such thing beside the road for miles before the bridge, nor will there be for miles after, it always seems a bit incongruous.
About a third of a mile later, I reached a stone by the side of the road. Not just any stone mind you, but one set up to commemorate that, according to a third party, someone else did a thing somewhere nearby on an uncertain date.
Now assured that being attacked by wolves was unlikely and had been so for over 300 years, I strode confidently down the A9 for another mile and a half. There, I passed the ruins of the long-vanished hamlet of Wilkhouse, not that I could see them from the road.
Though small, Wilkhouse was shown as a settlement on Roy’s mid-18th-century map and its thriving drovers’ inn was very modern for the time and an important element of the local economy. It was abruptly abandoned in 1819 – the notorious ‘Year of the Burnings’ in which the Highland Clearances were in full swing. Around fifty years later, it was shown as a single unroofed (ruined) building on the 1st ed OS map.
Today, nothing remains of it above ground, though archaeological excavation of its wall bases and foundations took place in 2017 and 2019 (the latter year being the bicentenary of the clearance).
Cinn Trolla Broch
Practically next door to the site of Wilkhouse were the rather more visible ruins of Cinn Trolla Broch, which sat between road and railway line on a natural terrace by the shore, forming a doughnut of dry stone walling.
What I didn’t see, as I continued onwards past Kintradwell Farm, was any obvious route down to the beach. I had espied a level crossing for farm use far across one of its fields but, even at that distance, I could see the massive ‘private level crossing – no unauthorised use’ sign on its gate.
A little further on, the intervening fields narrowed and disappeared, bringing both railway and beach into tantalising proximity.
St Trolla’s Chapel
Beside the driveway that led to Kintradwell House – said to be one of the oldest manor houses in Sutherland, though without any certainty and incorporating 19th-century extensions – was the site where St Trolla’s Chapel had once stood.
Trolla was supposedly a nun who came from Greece with Saint Regulus in 345.
Once again, there are no visible remains to indicate that a chapel ever stood there but a 2001 excavation of a trench for a water pipeline led to the discovery of sixteen burials, eleven of which had been disturbed by the digging and were removed.
Greenhill & Dalchalm
A mile later, I passed the strung-out line of houses on the seaward side of the road that comprised the hamlet of Greenhill. A turn-off a quarter of a mile further on would have allowed me to divert through the village of Dalchalm before returning to the A-road but I decided against it, wanting to just press on to Brora.
I was very much ready for a rest and some sort of refreshment, so I was quite happy to reach the limits of Brora and cheered inwardly as the countdown led me to a ‘welcome to Brora’ sign. More fool I! I still had almost another mile of A9 to traverse – now named Victoria Road and flanked by houses – before reaching the centre of the village.
On the way, I passed the day’s second obvious and third actual site of a disused petrol station.
Disused Petrol Station
I can find almost no information about this particular establishment.
The petrol pumps are Avery Hardoll electric pumps manufactured in the 1950s and calibrated only for measuring fuel in imperial gallons, so that puts the absolute latest it can have been in business as 1995 (when pricing by litre became mandatory). The pumps are BP branded and would have had decorative ‘globes’ atop them – which would actually have been discs or shield-shaped – bearing the ‘BP Super’ brand.
Incidentally, that roof is corrugated asbestos – which makes sense considering the fire risk, I suppose – so I doubt anyone is overly keen to get involved in its demolition.
Even if this petrol station hadn’t gone the way of the dodo years ago, it would probably be struggling now, and not just because of its illegal pumps and health and safety nightmare roof. There are two others in business in Brora – one branded ‘Gulf’, the other ‘Gleaner’ – situated about a third of a mile down the road. Faced with that kind of competition, it probably wouldn’t have a prayer…
St Columba’s Church
St Columba’s Scottish Episcopal Church was erected in 1909 at a cost of £322 4/- (that’s roughly equivalent to £41 k today). This was relatively inexpensive, as church-building goes, on account of the materials used to build it; it is made of corrugated iron around a wooden frame. This was a fairly popular method of erecting ‘temporary’ church buildings at the time. So much so, in fact, that such ‘tin tabernacles’ could be ordered from a catalogue.
Corrugated iron may have been cheap but the church had cause to regret not using asbestos like its near neighbour when it caught fire in 2016. It then remained closed for repairs for three years, reopening in 2019 just in time for the pandemic to make congregating a no-no.
As you may or may not recall, St Columba’s was not the first tin tabernacle I had seen. I passed one in Tenby way back in 2013.
There were three bridges spanning the River Brora. The oldest, which I walked across because I could, was rebuilt in 1801 on the site of a 1575 predecessor and was repaired in 1920. The repairs proved to be a short-term measure as it was replaced with a newer, wider bridge in 1929, which still carries the A9 today.
The third bridge is the railway bridge, erected for the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway in 1871.
War Memorial Tower
At the southern end of the new bridge stood the Brora and Parish of Clyne War Memorial Tower, which was unveiled in 1922. Of course, at that point, the new bridge didn’t exist yet, so it was actually just situated between the road and the river a short distance from what was then the road bridge.
Rest & Refreshment
Having concluded that I absolutely, definitely needed a sit down, and also something to eat, I set about attending to those needs. Brora’s Co-op sold me the necessary foodstuffs and a handy bench catered for the sitting. I was extremely grateful for both things.
As I sat and ate and rested, I considered what my next move should be. There were still five miles between me and my destination and I had an hour and a half until sunset. This was still doable, though I’d be finishing in twilight.
Duke of Sutherland’s Railway
One possibility I had was to abandon my walk and take the train. Both Golspie and Brora had stations, thanks to George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland (1828-1892), who had really, truly, desperately wanted a station handy for Dunrobin Castle and was annoyed when the Sutherland Railway only got as far as Golspie, two miles short. He was so annoyed, in fact, that he built his own railway, linking Golspie to Helmsdale (and building Brora railway bridge in the process).
The Duke of Sutherland’s Railway was absorbed into the Highland Railway a few years later, which in turn became part of the London Midland & Scottish Railway in 1923 and then British Railways (BR) in 1948.
In 1963, BR chairman Richard Beeching (1913-1985) wanted to close it – because of course he did – but it somehow survived the Beeching Axe and was available for my use. So when was the next train?
Speed or Distance?
It was, it turned out, due that very minute. I was faced with the choice of a five-mile walk or a 300 m sprint back to the station, which had been just before the bridge.
I briefly considered the choice, reducing the available sprint time in the process. Although I was tired, I could still walk but sprinting felt like a demand too far. Plus, running for a bus was how I injured my knee back in 2013 and I didn’t want to risk that again.
No, I would finish my walk as planned.
Field of View
I rested a few more minutes, mostly to revel in the joy of not sprinting, before setting off along the A9 out of Brora. Fortunately, the traffic had dropped off almost completely, so I had few cars to worry about when the pedestrian pavement ended at the edge of the village. The A-road, which had veered upstream after the bridge, now swung back toward the coast in a wide arc and I paused at the point of its coastal return to take in the view of distant inland hills.
For a little over the next mile and a half, I strode alongside the A9 as it skirted Uppat Wood. At Dunrobin Point, the coast swung around from north-south to east-west and the road duly did likewise. Road realignment at this corner had created a lay-by, in which I stood to get a better look along the coast.
Dunrobin Castle & Ben Bhraggie
Ahead, on the left, I could see the white fairy-tale towers of Dunrobin Castle. On the right, atop Ben Bhraggie (Beinn a’ Bhragaidh), I could see the jutting and deeply controversial figure of The Mannie. This is a statue of George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland (1758-1833), the most notorious and enthusiastic perpetrator of the Highland Clearances.
Half a mile on from the Dunrobin Point lay-by and the Victorian dwelling – Strathsteven Cottage – that almost overlooks it, I came to a far, far older building. This was my third Iron Age broch of the day, rejoicing in the name of Càrn Liath (‘grey cairn’).
In addition to the walls of the broch itself, the surrounding enclosure also contains the ruins of an associated village, at least some of which would have been contemporary with it. Their exact age is uncertain but the broch-building period lasted from about 300 BC to 200 AD, a 500-year span into any part of which they might reasonably fit.
However early Càrn Liath might have sprung into existence, it was almost certainly still in use for a good while after as a silver brooch of Roman-derived design was found there, dating from roughly the 4th century.
The road had crossed over the railway line just before Càrn Liath, so was now on my right. Unfortunately, it had also diverged from the line of the coast, so the sea was hidden from me on the far side of both a field and a screen of trees. This was perhaps just as well, as I had other things to stay aware of. Road works were taking place on that stretch of the A9, requiring temporary traffic lights to control the flow of traffic.
What this meant for me, of course, was that, instead of encountering the odd car at sizeable intervals, the lights were now saving them up so that I’d get a sudden convoy barrelling past.
As I continued westwards, trees sprang up on both sides of the road and I reached what was technically a crossroads. The eastern and western arms of it comprised the A9, while the southern arm was the driveway to Dunrobin Castle, passing between two gatehouse towers.
Most of Dunrobin Castle’s current structure is a glorious Victorian fantasy though parts of it date back to the 15th century. It began as a stronghold of the Earls of Sutherland and remains their home to this day. Its name, Dunrobin (Dùn Robain, ‘Robin’s fort’) is thought to derive from Robert Sutherland, 6th Earl of Sutherland (d. 1444), Robin being in origin a diminutive of Robert.
The castle’s modern form was commissioned by George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 2nd Duke of Sutherland (1786-1861), who engaged Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) to do the work. For all that it looks like a Disney creation, I suppose that compared to Barry’s work on the Palace of Westminster, it is actually quite restrained.
Dukes and Earls
The reason the castle’s residents got an upgrade from earl to duke lies in the 1785 marriage of Elizabeth Sutherland, 19th Countess of Sutherland (1765-1839), to George Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham. He succeeded to his father’s title of Marquess of Stafford in 1832 and was created Duke of Sutherland in 1832, just six months before his death in 1833 (the Mannie was erected in his memory).
Upon his death, which displaced crofters no doubt cheered, his castle-altering son became the 2nd duke but also inherited the earldom from his mother seven years later. His descendants then remained both duke and earl until 1963, when George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland, died without issue.
Rules of Inheritance
The two titles – one in the Peerage of Scotland, the other in the Peerage of the UK – had different rules for inheritance. As a result, the earldom went to his closest heir, his niece Elizabeth Sutherland (1921-2019) who became the 24th Countess of Sutherland, but the dukedom could pass only to a male heir. It therefore went to a distant cousin, John Egerton, 5th Earl of Ellesmere (1915-2000), who received a nobility upgrade and became the 6th duke.
Dunrobin Castle Station
You will recall that the 3rd Duke was so keen on having a railway service that he built one himself to avoid a two mile trek to the station. Well, having built it, he put a private station directly outside his front door, beside the northern arm of the crossroads.
Overlooked by a statue of his father, the 2nd duke, it remains privately-owned but opens for public use in the summer months, when the castle is also open to the public. It has a glorious waiting room in the English Arts and Crafts style, which was added in 1902 by Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 4th Duke of Sutherland (1851-1913).
As I stood on the station platform, the sun slipped behind the horizon. I had just under a mile to go and about twenty minutes of useable twilight to do it in. I would, it seemed, get to where I was staying before it got dark. But only if I got a move on…
By following the A9 as it curved through what was essentially a limb of Dunrobin Wood, I soon came to the castle estate’s side gate, Flagstaff Lodge. Where the main gate had comprised two square towers, this one had opted for round.
From Flagstaff Lodge, I had less than a quarter of a mile to go. I started to see signs of other buildings and passed a ‘welcome to Golspie’ sign. I had finally reached Golspie (Goillspidh)! As expected, I did so just as the twilight was failing and quickly made my way to where I was staying.
As luck would have it, where I was staying was the Golspie Inn, which was one of the first buildings encountered along the A9. I thus went no further into the village than about 200 m, although even that was just far enough to enjoy one last Telford bridge cut off by route-smoothing.
The Golspie Inn was built in 1808 by the Sutherland Estate as a staging post for the main stage coach along the Telford’s new road. For much of its existence, it became known as the Sutherland Arms but reverted to its original name in 2013.
I had missed the kitchen but I expected that (hence my food-shopping in Brora). I settled for a shower and change of clothes and a leisurely end to the day in what had once been the first bar in the county of Sutherland.
There are worse ways to wind down after a walk…
This time: 27 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,068½ miles