A LITTLE over two months ago, as I write this, I awoke in Golspie (Goillspidh) and was pleased to realise that I was now back onto what passed for my plan. By adding extra distance into the day before, I was back to being where I had intended when I had intended. But would things stay that way?
Following breakfast, I emerged beneath a clouded sky to discover the Golspie Inn was having a bit of an identity crisis. The unimaginative but descriptive ‘Golspie Inn’ was allegedly its name when first opened by the Sutherland Estate in 1808 and one that it reverted to in 2013. For much of the intervening time the establishment was known, in a shameless display of sucking-up to the local aristocracy, as the Sutherland Arms.
The arms in question, as shown on the sign in the photo but then painted completely black, are those of Elizabeth Sutherland, 19th Countess of Sutherland (1765-1839) and her husband, George Leveson-Gower (1758-1833), 2nd Marquess of Stafford. George was created 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1833.
I say that Golspie Inn was ‘allegedly’ its original name because, while that is what I had read while doing some research, the milestone that stands beside the confused signage, seemed to disagree with that assertion. It was dated 1808 but also bore the name ‘Sutherland Arms’ implying that the inn was called that from the start. Or, possibly, that the milestone was a later addition, and the date was that of the inn.
Other numbers on it were, if not suspect, now somewhat out of date. It said I still had 73 miles to Inverness (the end point of my trip) but, thanks to some subsequent bridge-building, the distance was now just 52 miles.
Oldest Post Box
I might have had a long way to go but, thus far, I had only ventured a few dozen metres into Golspie. The inn is one of the first buildings you encounter when entering the village from the west, which meant that I had yet to see what the village was like. Would it be a picturesque jewel showcasing rural Scottish architecture or would it prove nothing to write home about?
Although it is now part of the A9, Main Street was previously part of the ‘Parliamentary road’ built by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in the early 18th century (which the Golspie Inn was built to take advantage of). A road of sorts had existed long before that, although not built to anything like the same standards. Such a road is shown on the mid-18th century Military Survey map of Maj Gen William Roy (1726-1790).
Roy’s road entered Goslpie (which he spelt as ‘Golspich’) on a different alignment – one that passed south of ‘Dunrobbin’ (Dunrobin Castle), whereas the modern A9 runs north of it. It crossed Golspie Burn without a bridge, probably using the ford that still adjoins what is now Duke Street.
As regards its route through the village, Roy’s map isn’t detailed enough to show anything more useful than that the road passed through the south of Golspie but, looking at early Ordnance Survey maps, I’d put money on its route having run from the ford via Duke Street to Main Street and then westwards out of the village.
West of Golspie, Roy’s road ran down the coast to a ferry house at a point called Littleferry (Am Port Beag), where the mouth of Loch Fleet (Loch Fleòid) could be crossed. This route was not followed by Telford who built a bridge near the head of Loch Fleet circa 1815, which route the A9 still follows.
Littleferry must have still had some local use as, by the time the relevant OS 1st edition map was published in 1874, Littleferry had expanded into the small village that it remains today.
It was my firm intention to leave Goslpie on neither road, instead following a footpath down the coast. This required me to leave Main Street and make my way to the village’s waterfront. I therefore made my way to Golspie’s harbour pier, which wasn’t particularly impressive to look at.
Turning my back on the pier, however, presented this rather pleasing view of fishing boats, village houses, Ben Bhraggie (Beinn a’ Bhragaidh) and, atop the latter, ‘the Mannie’ – the memorial statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland:
Duke of Sutherland
A keen perpetrator of the Highland Clearances, the duke was okay with fishing boats; fishermen weren’t crofting on his estates in the way of more valuable sheep. In fact, he was all for the crofters, whom he had evicted to save money, taking up fishing on the coast. He was also fine with them emigrating. In either case, you might say, they went for a Clearance sail…
From the pier and what passed for its small harbour, I would be following a narrow path sandwiched mostly between a golf course and Golspie Beach.
As one might imagine, the leisurely amble down the edge of the beach was delightful. So much so that even my deeply abiding (and not entirely rational) dislike of golf courses could not diminish it. Alas, there was only a mile of this path, which ended for me at an access road, connecting Ferry Road to the beach.
Turning inland, I followed the access for its full length (about a third of a mile) until it met up with Ferry Road, the road connecting Golspie and Littleferry. Although this was, you will recall, the main route south in Roy’s day, I found it a single-track road with passing places and almost no traffic (I saw one car).
I followed Ferry Road south for about another third of a mile. This was as close to Littleferry as I was going to get, the Little Ferry having ceased to run in the mid-20th century. While there have been talks in recent years of building a bridge or reinstating the ferry for the benefit of cyclists and walkers, nothing has so far come of it. I would therefore need to join back up with Telford’s route and the A9 if I wanted to cross Loch Fleet and continue south. To do that, I needed to pass through Balblair Wood (Coille Bhaile a’ Bhlàir)…
Balblair Wood is a pine plantation. It was originally planted some time between 1781 and 1823 but replanted in 1905 following extensive storm damage.
The broad foot trail through it, which today forms a circular walk west of Culmaily Burn, possibly follows an old alternative route by which those who could not or would not take the ferry could skirt around Loch Fleet and its marshy margins; the mouth of Loch Fleet experiences strong tidal races so a ferry at any other time than slack water had the potential to be inconveniently exciting.
The path through Balblair Wood has no such issue. Being composed of conifers, it didn’t even set off my hay fever, which is mostly triggered by various types of tree blossom. It was an absolute joy to amble along it and I mentally thanked those responsible for maintaining the Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve (Tèarmann Nàdair Nàiseanta Loch Fleòid), of which it is part. My only regret is that I didn’t spot any of the pine martens that live there but I never really expected that I would.
In what seemed like no time at all, I came to Culmaily Bridge, a footbridge over Culmaily Burn. This would be my first bridge of the day.
The bridge above was erected in 2014, replacing its predecessor to improve accessibility.
Having crossed it, the path arced around from northwest to southwest and then just plain west before reaching a T-junction. Here, I could either continue onwards into the circular walk – its onward connection to the main road having long since been severed by the railway – or turn right up what appeared to be a long straight access track, connecting a farm to the A9.
An Amputated Crossroads
At the time, I assumed that the reason the track then continued into Balblair Wood and met up with the foot trail was to provide vehicular access for forestry maintenance (and I am sure that is why it is maintained). But, looking at old OS aps, I can see that the T-junction actually used to be a crossroads, with a southern, tidal arm cutting across the marshes and mudflats to join up with Ferry Road.
I obviously wouldn’t have taken the southern arm even had I known about it. And continuing west was only going to loop round and bring me back to the junction. And so, with some regret, I turned north and left Balblair Wood behind me…
Kirkton Level Crossing
The northern arm of the crossroads actually ran north-northwest for just over two thirds of a mile before crossing the railway line via a level crossing next door to Kirkton Farm. The route that I was following coincided with the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT) and it required me to make my way over the crossing then immediately turn left into a field.
Kirkton was shown as a sizeable village on Roy’s mid-18th century map but today comprises the farmhouse in the photo and not much else, presumably thanks to clearance (Balblair was cleared in 1818).
Although, interestingly, this sole survivor of the Clearances arguably isn’t even that. It didn’t yet exist when Roy was mapping the area, having been built circa 1810, when it was home to Sheriff-substitute Robert MacKid (sheriff-substitute was a judicial position similar to an English magistrate).
Whether his house survived them or not, MacKid had an antagonistic relationship to the Clearances, having strenuously objected to the actions of Sutherland Estate factor Patrick Sellar (1780–1851) during those between 1812 and 1814.
So much so, in fact, that MacKid levelled such serious charges as culpable homicide and arson – crofts had been burnt down following eviction to prevent evictees from returning and, in once case, it was alleged that an old lady – Margaret Mackay – had still been inside a building set alight. Whether she was, or was not, removed to an outhouse before the fires were set (accounts differed) she died six days later, providing the crux of MacKid’s charges.
Absolutely No Angel
This probably makes MacKid sound like a champion of the people. If so, it was for entirely inglorious reasons. While Sellar was the sort of man for whom the letter of the law was all and human empathy had no place, MacKid was a vengeful hypocrite who used his position for personal advantage.
Road Fund Mismanagement
MacKid and Sellar were actually neighbours – Sellar lived at Culmaily, about half a mile east-northeast of Kirkton (Culmaily Burn flows through it before winding down to the Culmaily Bridge).
Their feud began in 1811 when Sellar, in the course of his duties as estate factor, interacted with the local Road Fund and found it a shambles, having been mismanaged by the indolent MacKid. He suggested that MacKid be replaced. MacKid was not.
Sellar, being a man for whom rules were rigid, had then set about the matter of deer poaching – an activity rife on the estate and enabled by widespread corruption. He soon found MacKid to be deeply complicit in this, and even caught him poaching himself – not once but twice!
In theory, this should have ended MacKid’s career in ignominy but Elizabeth, Marchioness of Stafford (1765-1839) – as the future Duchess of Sutherland then was titled – wanted to avoid the embarrassment of removing a county judicial officer for breaking the very law he was supposed to uphold. She therefore declared a poaching amnesty, letting MacKid off.
MacKid’s escape from justice sparked a fierce feud between the two men. Sellar – who was also a lawyer – felt that laws were laws and MacKid should not retain his post.
MacKid felt outrage that he should be challenged at all and vowed to ruin Sellar. Not the most auspicious of positions from which to level charges.
The charges read out at Sellar’s trial were not quite so curt as their modern equivalents, being wonderfully-phrased as ‘culpable homicide, as also oppression and real injury’ and ‘wickedly and maliciously setting on fire and burning’.
Fifteen witnesses were called for the Crown and nine for the defence.
Key amongst the former was Margaret Mackay’s son-in-law, a tinker named William Chisholm, whose evidence must have sounded damning. Sellar had, the court heard, said of Mackay:
‘Damn her, the old witch; she has lived too long. Let her burn!’
Sellar’s witnesses could hardly top Chisholm – testifying that someone didn’t actually do or say a thing is nowhere near as exciting as throwing in quotes of verbal dynamite. What they could do, however, was attest to the man’s integrity. Bolstering this testimony was a number of signed letters from various gentlemen of Sutherland and elsewhere, which named him as ‘a person of the strictest integrity’ and ‘a most respectable character’.
Summing up, the judge – David Monypenny, Lord Pitmilly (1769–1850) – told the jury that it was unnecessary to consider any charges except that relating to Margaret Mackay’s death. He directed their attention to the evidence for and against and directed them to weigh the one against the other, adding that if they could not weigh the balance they should must take into account the character of the accused.
The jury did as bidden, returning after fifteen minutes to acquit Patrick Sellar of all charges. He might well have carried out his duties with out a shred of human regard for the evictees but he had apparently done so within the framework of the law.
Robert MacKid was forced to write him a grovelling letter of apology and then left the county in disgrace.
Baddan & Creag Bheag
Like the downfallen MacKid, I turned my back upon his house and walked away. In my case, I followed the edge of a ploughed field, running alongside the railway line. After about 300 m, this emerged onto the end of another access road, serving what today seems to be called Pinegrove Cottage but old OS maps name as Baddan.
While the access road ends at the cottage today, the same old OS maps that name the cottage Baddan also show its track continuing across another level crossing to meet up with the circular path deep in Balblair Wood. While my journey from the former Balblair Wood crossroads to Pinegrove Cottage had been perfectly pleasant, it is perhaps a shame that this leafy alternative no longer exists.
Upon my reaching Pinegrove Cottage, I was barked at by an excitable dog and then hailed by her owner – a man apparently dressed for midwinter despite the warm and humid weather. He was well aware that this looked meteorologically inappropriate but he had compelling reasons, he explained.
This Midwintry Man gave me directions onwards, noting that one of the the JOGT waymarks had gone because a bull liked to scratch itches on it.
I had mixed feelings on hearing that there might be a waymark-destroying bull ahead but was reassured to learn that he was in another field that day. Following the directions that I had been given, I navigated my way across a couple more fields and hopped over a stile into another patch of woodland covering the rise of Creag Bheag (‘small rock’).
Creag Bheag presents a rocky cliff face onto Loch Fleet, at the foot of which runs the railway. I, however, was winding around and over it on yet another path that used to link up with the circular path in Balblair Wood. More specifically, I was now on what must have been the old alternative route to crossing the loch via Littleferry.
It was good to be back on a leafy woodland trail, though this one was far narrower and less accessible than the previous one had been. I loved every minute of following it but those minutes were all too few. After only half a mile of green-ceilinged glory, the path spat me back onto the A9 in the shadow of Creag Mhòr (‘big rock’) and within sight of the feature called the Mound.
Cutting across the top of Loch Fleet, the Mound was the work of Thomas Telford. By this, I really mean that he designed it but construction was actually supervised by his resident Highland deputy, John Mitchell (1779-1824) and was apparently an absolute nightmare to complete.
With a road atop it and a four-arch bridge at the northern end – which was expanded to six arches by John’s son Joseph Mitchell (1803-1883) in 1837 – the Mound immediately rerouted the main route south upon its completion, reducing Littleferry from a regular waypoint for travellers to a quiet, bypassed backwater.
In 1902, railway tracks were laid alongside the road to service the Dornoch Light Railway (DLR), which branched off from the main line at The Mound Railway Station and ran, unsurprisingly, to Dornoch. The station stood about 170 m off to the right of the previous photo; both station and branch line closed down in 1960. Because of course they did.
Note, however, that its closure came three years before Richard Beeching (1913-1985) published The Reshaping of British Railways and set about dismantling the rail network at the behest of his corrupt, road-building boss, transport minister Ernest Marples (1907-1978). While the economic basis of the Beeching Axe was misjudged at best – or straight-up corruptly benefitting Marples in the harshest analysis – the demise of the DLR was genuinely brought about by growing disuse and financial losses.
Telford’s arched bridge still stands today and, though it is disused as a crossing, flap valves on its arches still allow the egress of water into Loch Fleet while preventing the tide from inundating what has now become one of the largest alder woods in the country but was salt marsh before Telford got busy.
A concrete replacement bridge was built beside it in 1940, in order to expand the carrying capacity to two lanes (Telford’s bridge was single-track). It was this and various other improvements that made driving the A9 a much more agreeable experience and thus helped bring about the end of the DLR.
The 1940 Mound Bridge lasted just shy of half a century, being demolished in 1989 so that a new bridge could be constructed in its place. It was this that I tripped lightly across to then continue along atop the Mound…
No sooner had the A9 successfully crossed Loch Fleet and dismounted the Mound than a JOGT waymark invited me to leave it. The waymark pointed off to the left along a narrow and fairly faint footpath that wound its way along the margins of a screen of trees that separated the road from the shore.
Always up for a leafy woodland wander, I abandoned the A-road with alacrity.
It wasn’t all that obvious on the ground because the trees have pretty much obliterated it, but the path was approximating the alignment of the old DLR. This was fine by me as it meant that my feet stayed dry, whereas another old footpath, which had ran roughly parallel but below the tide line, looked like it might be a tad damp.
The footpath came to an end at the former site of Cambusavie Platform, which had been a request stop on the DLR. Initially, I thought that it continued as the road but old OS maps show that there was always a road there and the DLR later ran right alongside it.
It would perhaps have been a bit much if, having been competed out of existence by roads, the DLR had then been tarmacked over to create one.
Designated the C1026 by Highland Council, this coastal tourist road was a pleasure to amble along, affording excellent views across Loch Fleet while bothered by very little traffic (the latter no doubt in part because it is signposted very poorly for a tourist road).
Partway along the road, I came to a ‘seal watch-point’, which comprised a lay-by for tourist traffic to stop and some informational signage but, most of all, a view across the loch that took in the resident harbour seal population’s favourite sandbanks.
The seals were out and about but blissfully unaware that they’re supposed to prefer one of the sandbanks in the middle. They were strewn casually along the furthest shore of the loch such that my phone camera could not zoom enough to render them as anything more than distant blobs. They were there, though, and I inwardly celebrated seeing each and every one.
After a couple of miles of ex-railway road rambling, I passed in sight of the ruins of Skelbo Castle, a 14th-century keep.
Below Skelbo Castle, the C1026 began to diverge from the DLR alignment, the road sticking to its own pre-railway route. Perhaps a couple of locals could point the DLR out to me?
A short way beyond the unhelpful equines, I came to a crossroads beside which Skelbo Station once stood. The ghosts of its platforms were still visible as visibly platform-shaped but completely grassed-over hillocks in a field. The station had literally been put out to pasture.
The northern arm of the crossroads – a dusty single track heading for the shore – was the old road to the Little Ferry’s southern pier.
The JOGT was routed along the old rail alignment, from the crossroads, though no waymarks leapt out at me to say so. In their absence, I simply kept going, straight over the crossroads.
300 m later, I came to a T-junction of sorts. The C1026 turned hard right to head south along the stem of the T, while to continue onwards required passing through the gates of a private roadway to Coul Farm, around the back of which the JOGT was now passing.
This junction barely even registered with me as such and I walked past the farm gateway and turned right, still following the road.
I realised what had occurred when I found myself passing the houses of Fourpenny and checked on my map where that was. I was going in parallel to the JOGT route and I saw no real reason to backtrack. Thus, I continued south along the C1026 as it ran between the Fourpenny and Coul Plantations.
The Fourpenny Plantation, on my right, was a mature conifer plantation, providing a dense screen of trees along the roadside.
The Coul Plantation, on my left, had once been similar but had been felled in the first half of the 20th century and not replanted. The exception was its southernmost part, separated from the rest by a stream, which remained forested.
This remnant of Coul Plantation also flanked the edge of a turning for the village of Embo (Eurabol). I took the turning, which I knew would reunite me with the JOGT.
The turn-off ran for about two thirds of a mile, then briefly turned south on the outskirts of Embo – the road into the village had rerouted to use part of the old DLR alignment. I identified the footpath where the the DLR had once run to meet it and the JOGT had arrived and expected that I should find its equivalent a short distance onward when the road abandoned the old DLR…
Battle of Embo
A far less friendly welcome awaited some Vikings who dropped by for a bit of a pillage in 1245, turning Embo into a battle site. Richard de Moravia (d. 1245), resident of Skelbo Castle, engaged them in an holding action until his cousin, William de Moravia, 1st Earl of Sutherland (c. 1210–1248) could come to the rescue, which he did.
The earl’s arrival did Richard little personal good – he was slain in the fighting – but turned the tide, pushing the Vikings back to the sea. In a somewhat unorthodox move, Earl William slew the Viking leader using the severed leg of a horse, having lost his sword in the melee!
As expected, the road soon curved back off the DLR alignment, leaving the latter to continue as a broad footpath away from the village.
The footpath continued through open fields for a while, before transforming to be flanked by tall gorse just after drawing level with the hamlet of Embo Street (so named because it was on the road to Embo).
Before long, a branching path provided options and I took the more coastal route, even though it slightly added to the distance. This changed from a gorse-flanked track to a narrow footpath above a beach-side golf course before finally ejecting me onto one of Dornoch’s streets. There, I gratefully sat on a handy bench to take a rest and look at my map, while I figured just where in Dornoch I was.
Grange Road, apparently.
With my location located and feet lightly-rested, I then ventured further into Dornoch to both see the sights and find foodstuffs.
In the past, Dornoch carried a lot more political and spiritual heft than today on account of its cathedral. This was built in 1224 and subsequently dedicated to its founder, St Gilbert de Moravia (d. 1245), the elder brother of Richard who was killed by the Vikings at Embo. As a cathedral, it enthroned a bishop (Gilbert) and exercised authority over the Diocese of Caithness.
It lost this power with the Reformation, when the Church of Scotland abandoned the episcopate and today serves as a local parish church.
The cathedral’s current appearance is the work of the architect William Burn (1789-1870), who rebuilt it in 1837 at the behest of Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland. To be fair, the renovation had been long overdue, remedying two and a half centuries of damage, after the feuding Iye Du Mackay, 12th Laird of Strathnaver, burnt it down while the Murrays of Dornoch (the descendants of Gilbert’s brothers) sought refuge in its tower.
The name of the duchess’s chosen architect was thus more than a little ironic.
Following the 1570 burning, the cathedral had sat roofless and in ruin for almost fifty years, with a gale in 1605 blowing down some of what had managed to stay standing. Partial rebuilding was attempted in 1616, which at least allowed the building to be used, but Burn’s 1837 reconstruction was almost total, rebuilding from the foundations up apart from the stubbornly-surviving central tower. The Murrays clearly knew what they doing when they took refuge inside that…
Requiescant in Pace
Being a cathedral of substantial local importance, Dornoch became the last resting place of several people whose names we have already encountered. These include St Gilbert and his brother Richard and the horse-leg-wielding 1st Earl of Sutherland plus the latter’s successors and avid estate-clearers, the 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
Someone who did not get to rest in peace but who definitely continued the cathedral’s theme of fire was Janet Horne (d. 1727), the last person to be executed legally for witchcraft in the British Isles. She was senile and her daughter deformed, so obviously, they could only be witches.
Both were convicted but the daughter escaped. Janet, meanwhile, was stripped, tarred, paraded in a tar barrel and then burnt alive in it.
Opposite the cathedral stands a hotel that used to be Dornoch Castle, which in turn used to be the palace of the Bishops of Caithness.
While such a building occupied the site in Gilbert’s time, the current structure was erected for that purpose around 1500 but didn’t stay an episcopal palace for long, being given to John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland in 1557.
Bishop Robert Stewart handed it over together with an appointment as hereditary constable for Dornoch, as a cunning wheeze to prevent it falling into Lutheran hands, should the church succumb to Protestantism. This was almost certainly meant to be temporary, to be returned once papal authority had firmly stamped out these heresies but that, of course, is not how things turned out.
In 1570 – just thirteen years later – the Mackays burnt it down as part of the same feuding that saw them torch the cathedral. Because if you’re going to burn down the town of your enemies, you might as well do it properly!
Dornoch Castle Hotel
Following a cycle of rebuilding, deterioration and restoration, Dornoch Castle became a school and jail in 1813 and a court-house in 1860. As a jail, it briefly held Patrick Sellar until he could get bail, pending the case Robert MacKid had brought against him.
More restorations – and alterations – followed in 1880, turning the castle into a hunting lodge until 1922, when it passed into private hands. After much internal modernisation, it became the Dornoch Castle Hotel in 1947 and remains that today.
Just down the road from the castle is Dornoch Jail. This was purpose-built as a prison in the early 1840s and designed by Thomas Brown (1806-1872), who was architect to the Prison Board of Scotland. It cost the County of Sutherland £2,930 to build it. The prisoners housed in Dornoch Castle were transferred there in 1850.
The prison served as such for just thirty years before it was closed and the inmates transferred to Dingwall. It had been bigger than was ever really needed and proved a part-empty extravagance.
The Sutherland Rifle Volunteers – a territorial militia unit – bought the prison for £220 – less than a tenth of its building cost – and used it as a drill hall. While it had been too large as a prison, it was too small for the rifle volunteers and they added an L-shaped extension in 1896.
The Sutherland Rifle Volunteers became part of the Territorial Force in 1908, which became the Territorial Army in 1920. They then continued to occupy the building until 2018, meaning that it was a drill hall for 138 years, over four-and-a-half times as long as it was a prison. That being so, there was only one possible choice of name for the gift shop that took it over in 2000…
Dornoch War Memorial
Having acquired some food on my journey through Dornoch, I sat on a bench between cathedral castle to eat it. Then, when suitably refreshed, I made my way further up Castle Street to see if I could find the road that would take me out of Dornoch.
Dornoch War Memorial was unveiled in June 1922, so almost exactly a century ago. It eschews the usual boring memorial cross for a Highland soldier scanning the field for his fallen comrades and it cost the people of Dornoch £1,700 in voluntary subscriptions to build.
As it turned out, he couldn’t see my way onwards on account of my having ventured too far along the A949 (Castle Street being so classified). I left him to his eternal vigil and backtracked slightly to my turning.
My route out of Dornoch was Sutherland Road, which started as a quiet street and quickly became a single-track road leading arrow-straight across open fields. This road sees very little traffic now but in times past was rather busier, being the road between Dornoch and Meikle Ferry. It is clearly shown on Roy’s military survey map, as is the ferry.
Meikle Ferry (‘large ferry,’ to contrast with Little Ferry) was the principal crossing of the Dornoch Firth (Caolas Dhòrnaich) for centuries, from its first mention in a charter of 1560 until about 1812. Its diminution in importance came about through tragedy, in the form of the 1809 Meikle Ferry Disaster.
Meikle Ferry Disaster
Unlike many ferry disasters, Meikle Ferry’s occurred in perfect crossing weather, having been brought about not by sailing conditions but through greed. The ferry was massively overloaded and capsized partway across. Of the 111 aboard, 99 were killed and only twelve were saved.
While the overloading was the primary problem, it was badly exacerbated by the poor state of repair of the ferry – the ferrymen were apparently not keen on maintenance and re-investing their profits. Indeed, some witnesses alleged that they had clearly been drinking their profits instead and were working in an inebriated state.
One witness to the disaster was Thomas Telford’s deputy, John Mitchell, who had had the seeming misfortune to have narrowly missed catching the ferry. It is no coincidence that Telford then designed a bridge to cross the water at a place that had been Bonar Ferry but is now called Bonar Bridge (Drochaid a’ Bhanna).
Of course, they then went on to build the Mound, bypassing the similarly ramshackle ferry at Littleferry too.
Even after Bonar Bridge had opened, Meikle Ferry continued to operate as an alternative route, perhaps because the bridge was eight-and-a-half miles further inland and so required quite a diversion. By the time motor vehicles became a thing, a century or so after the accident, they had no choice but to take the bridge route, with the ferry suitable only for pedestrians and cyclists.
Eventually, Sutherland County Council concluded that the ferry was not cost-effective and it finally ceased in 1957. From then on, there was only the road…
Sutherland Road proved a perfectly pleasant walk past fields of sheep, scattered farmhouses, patches of woodland and the hamlet of Lonemore (An Lòn Mòr, ‘the big wet meadow’). Slowly but surely, it was conveying me towards where the ferry wasn’t.
Just past the farmstead of Cuthill, I came to what old maps clearly showed as a crossroads but today seems more like a mere right-hand bend as two of the ways onwards are now gated tracks. Of the latter, the way forwards looked more substantial, this being the continuation of the road to Meikle Ferry but the JOGT wanted me to turn left towards the shore.
Àrd na Cailc Road
This was a route not shown at all by Roy but formed a minor road on the 1st ed OS map, leading to a pier at the tip of the headland of Àrd na Cailc (‘limestone heights’).
Dornoch Forth Bridge
While some of the JOGT’s route choices since Wick had been… well, questionable… this was not the pointless trip out to a dead end that it first appeared. The main problem with Telford’s bridge – that, as a replacement for the ferry, it wasn’t where it was needed – had been obvious right from the start.
As early as 1830, alternative plans for a huge bridge at Meikle Ferry had been drawn up by lighthouse-builder Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) but adequate funding could not be secured. The firth would have to wait another 161 years before a bridge would grace the tip of Àrd na Cailc.
Àrd na Cailc
The path ended at Àrd na Cailc, as it had always done and the JOGT made one of its questionable decisions. Granted, it had to pick one of three poor solutions, but still. Let me explain…
Three Routes to the A-Road
Back at Cuthill Crossroads, I had had three ways onward that would eventually get within spitting distance of the A9.
- The right-hand route – carrying the actual road – would have connected with it properly but added two thirds of a mile to the distance.
- Straight on – the old road to Meikle Ferry – theoretically crossed the A9 ahead but, in reality, was blocked by a massive thicket of gorse at the last moment, which looks suspiciously like a deliberate move to deny use of that route and stagger the junction.
- The third option – the JOGT option – ended in the shadow of the A9 but with no easy way to connect. The JOGT solution here was, just as it had been at Forseshore, was to ignore the gradient and just go straight up the incline.
Up & Over
I’m not entirely sure how I scrabbled my way up it. It certainly wasn’t with any shred of dignity; a mountain goat I am not. Still, I made it to the top and perched on the roadside barrier while I recovered my breath. If getting up there had been an effort, at least the crossing itself was now safe and easy.
As soon as I reached the far side, I espied a Highland Council sign welcoming me to Ross & Cromarty (Ros agus Cromba). As a substantial natural barrier, it was inevitable that the Dornoch Firth would also be an administrative boundary, in this case separating Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty.
It was this division, in part, that scuppered Robert Stevenson’s plans for a bridge. He needed, in addition to private funding, cash and cooperation from both county councils. He hadn’t got a hope in hell…
Meikle Ferry Station
Having regained land, the A9 crossed over the railway’s Far North Line and met back up with Telford’s North Road at a roundabout.
Close by stood the site of Meikle Ferry Station, which had sort-of served Dornoch via the ferry for all of its pitiful five years of existence – it was only ever meant as a temporary measure until the line could be extended, which it then was.
For me, the roundabout presented a choice. I could go left and follow Telford’s route along the modern A9, which was a little too busy for comfort, or I could go straight on and take the back roads, which was the JOGT’s preference.
The track led me to Tarlogie Farm, where it firmed up and became surfaced with asphalt but the JOGT then let me down just 200 m beyond it. There was a lack of waymarks and I could not figure out where it went.
I now realise that it must have passed through the gate and grounds of Tarlogie House but that was looking to me like an unnecessary trespass on someone’s privacy.
Tarlogie House was a fairly typical Georgian country house – it was built in 1825 – with alterations made in 1897. The latter were carried out at the behest of owner Peter Mackenzie, 1st Count of Serra Largo (1856-1931) in celebration of his son’s 21st birthday. Sadly, much of the original house was demolished in 1966.
Count of Serra Largo
Mackenzie had been an international salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. In the 1880s, they sent him to Brazil, where he married a Portuguese woman, Anezia Augusta do Amaral. In 1896, four years after his return to Scotland, Charles I of Portugal (1863-1908) made him a count for unspecified services to Portuguese people in Brazil. All very mysterious!
Tarlogie Farm Road
Having not cut through Tarlogie House to follow its drive back to the A9, I kept on going down the single-track road that served the same purpose for Tarlogie Farm. This emerged onto the A9 about a quarter of a mile earlier than the JOGT had intended, doing so directly opposite the Glenmorangie Distillery.
The distillery was founded in 1843 by William Matheson, who already had experience in the industry. It draws its water from the nearby Tarlogie Springs and purchased the surrounding 600 acres in the 1980s to ensure that the land around the springs could not be developed as housing, reducing water quantity and quality.
The distillery uses the tallest copper stills in Scotland, contributing to its whisky’s particular flavour. It is certainly a popular taste; it consistently snatches the top spot as best-selling single malt in Scotland. It isn’t my whisky of choice though; I’m more a peaty Islay malt man. I mean, I do like it; I just like other whiskies more.
Glenmorangie not being my thing, I barely spared the distillery a glance as I set off along the half mile or so of busy A9 that conveyed me to the edge of Tain (Baile Dhubhthaich) proper.
Tain is Scotland’s oldest Royal burgh. While that that designation no longer remains meaningful, it does confer some historical clout with its Royal charter dating to 1066 and issued by Malcolm III (d. 1093). Its Gaelic name means ‘town of Duthac’, the Scots-born but Irish-educated St Duthac (1000-1065) having died there according to the Annals of Ulster.
Tain’s architecture is generally a lot younger than 11th century but impressive nonetheless.
The building on the right is Tain Picture House, a disused cinema that operated from the 1920 until the 1960s. As a general rule, 1920s cinemas are usually pretty impressive but the reason this one takes the biscuit in that regard is because it wasn’t purpose built but is actually a repurposed town hall. It was built in 1876 and designed by local architects Andrew Maitland and Sons. They also designed the Royal Hotel (1870), the Picture House’s neighbour on the left.
Also on the left, just poking into the picture above, is this…
Tain Sheriff Court
Tain Sheriff Court, which remains in use for exactly the purpose in its name, is a complicated beast. The tower is the oldest part, and was a tollbooth – a building for the payment of taxes, doubling as courthouse and jail. It was completed in 1708 to replace a 1631 predecessor that had collapsed in 1703. Bartizans – i.e., overhanging corner turrets – were added in 1733 and a clock installed in 1750.
The building attached to the tower was built in two phases. The first involved Thomas Brown – whom you will recall was the designer of Dornoch Jail – who in 1849 replaced an 1825 structure that had burnt down in 1833.
Phase two added an extension, not visible in the photo, in 1873. Like everything else in the centre of Tain, this was designed by the ever-busy Andrew Maitland (1802-1894).
As I stood in the centre of Tain, I was about a third of a mile from my final destination for the day. This required me to head south-southwest along Scotsburn Road, climbing a hill all the way.
Yeah, I wasn’t wildly keen on the hill after a whole day of walking. In stark contrast, I was pretty overjoyed when I saw this:
Mansfield Castle Hotel
Behind the chairs – O, happy chairs! – was Mansfield Castle Hotel.
Originally named Thornwood, this was built in 1870 for Andrew Oliver, a Hawick livestock auctioneer who had apparently not realised that every single building in Tain was supposed to be designed by the Maitlands. He instead employed Glasgow-based architect John Thomas Rochead (1814-78) to design it in the Greek Revival style. It subsequently passed through a bewildering array of various owners and is now – as its current name gives away – a hotel.
If you are thinking that its tower looks rather more Scottish Baronial than Greek Revival, you are not wrong. At the turn of the 20th century the house belonged to provost Donald Fowler – a provost is the Scottish equivalent to an English mayor – and he and his wife, Johanna, felt their house needed to be a lot more castellated.
The internet would have me believe that they made good on Andrew Oliver’s omission by engaging Andrew Maitland to make the changes in 1902. This would have a bold choice, given that Maitland had died eight years prior but, while the obvious conclusion is that they employed Maitland’s sons – who were still running the family firm – we can’t entirely rule out a terrifying application of necromancy for architectural purposes.
Mrs Fowler’s Ghost
I suggest this unorthodox possibility mainly because the internet would also have me believe that the hotel is haunted by the ghost of Johanna Fowler, who allegedly wanders about attending to fabric and décor like she didn’t notice dying in 1938.
All I can say is that I didn’t see her and Mansfield Castle was the hotel in which I was staying that night.
I gladly checked in, dropped my bag and got showered and changed.
Food followed and a leisurely evening in the bar. At no point did I see the restless dead inspecting the curtains. Indeed, the only spirits that I encountered came in legally-mandated measures…
This time: 22½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,091 miles