Sunday, 30 April 2017


Dunbeath → Lybster

dunbeath-castle.jpg Distance: 12.71 miles
Ascent: 491 metres
Duration: 4 hours 34 minutes

Power of the sea
« Helmsdale | Wick »

In the interests of making forward progress we've had another day of mainly road walking. The John o' Groats Trail's splashes of white paint suggest a more coastal route across fields is possible here, but frankly we didn't have the energy for it today. So it was back to the A9, and where that headed north across the Flow Country to Thurso we stayed with the A99 coastal road.

beatrice.jpgIn the end it wasn't a bad choice. From the high land we could see the platforms of the Beatrice Oil Field fifteen miles out at sea, and the more recent adjacent wind farm: two very different forms of energy harvested from the wild North Sea.

laidhay.jpgJust north of Dunbeath is the Laidhay Croft Museum, which was well worth a visit (and not only for the coffee shop). Stuffed to the rafters with artefacts of bygone crofting era, this traditional thatched Caithness Longhouse was deeply evocative, and a real change from the ruins we saw at Badbea.

As relief from all the tarmac we made diversions to three harbours: Dunbeath near the start, Lybster at the end, and most impressively of all Latheronwheel at the halfway point (this was made all the more impressive by the stunningly beautiful strath leading to the harbour).

latheronwheel.jpgOn each occasion the power of the North Sea was dramatically evident, with waves pounding against the stubborn cliffs that stood each side of the narrow harbours. It was difficult to imagine that the tide is ever sufficiently still to allow navigation, but these places were clearly central to the life of the village communities.

Notes for future walkers:

  • To reach Dunbeath harbour from the top end of town, pick up a track running east from the old road at its hairpin (ND 160 295).
  • A path leads back up to the A9 from between harbourside cottages at ND 163 295.
  • A signposted path to Latheronwheel Harbour through Latheronwheel Strath leaves the A9 at ND 186 327.
  • For a rest from the A99 we took the track south to Forse at ND 218 345; it was quite wet in places. We then followed minor roads (ND 219 342, ND 221 343, ND 222 342, ND 227 343, ND 226 349. We couldn't find a way across the Burn of Achsinegar so returned to the A99 before leaving it again at ND 231 353.
  • Where the track to Achastle-shore turns west (ND 232 340), we followed white-painted marks along the clifftops all the way to the viewpoint above Lybster Bay (ND 242 344). A good path leads from there down to the harbour road.
    Posted by pab at 17:36 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

    Saturday, 29 April 2017


    Helmsdale → Dunbeath

    heilan-coo.jpg Distance: 15.18 miles
    Ascent: 442 metres
    Duration: 4 hours 36 minutes

    The A9
    « Brora | Lybster »

    In contrast to yesterday, today we made the decision to walk on the road all the way. Anywhere else a single-digit A-road would be a horrible experience, but we're so far north that the A9 wasn't too bad: levels of traffic were more akin to what you'd expect from a B-road.

    Two miles out of Helmsdale we met a pair of walkers coming the other way who were heading to Land's End, camping wild each night. Our walk may be longer but their approach is definitely harder. They told us of the John o' Groats Trail, a recent initiative to establish a coastal route between Inverness and John o' Groats. If it gets off the ground that would certainly improve this leg. (It seems the white paint we saw yesterday is the genesis of this trail.)

    The coastline here is more rugged than further south. Instead of beaches there are tall cliffs and deep gullies; grazing is replaced by moorland dense with heather and bracken.

    badbea.jpgAbout halfway along a path heads out to Badbea, a clifftop village that was the resettlement destination for nearby clearances from Strathnaver. It's a narrow strip of land, the boundary wall of the cleared sheep farm cruelly close to the cliff tops. The community lasted eighty years or so but on a bitterly cold, windswept day like today it's impossible to imagine staying even one night. (The clue is in the name; it really is pronounced "bad bay".) Another half a mile down the road is the Grey Hen's Well, from which the villagers drew their water.

    berridale.jpgThe road climbs before following contours most of the way, descending to sea level only by the tight bends of the infamously steep Berridale Braes. Berridale harbour is worth a detour. Again the fierce wind didn't allow us to linger long, but the setting is beautiful with uniform cottages and a bouncy bridge across to cottages at the back of the beach.

    lichen-dunbeath.jpgUltimately though it's been a slightly unsatisfactory day, chiefly due to the road walking. However, Badbea gave us plenty to think about as we pounded the tarmac.

    Notes for future walkers:

    • We walked on the A9 almost all the way from Helmsdale to Dunbeath.
    • There's a path from between the houses on the north side of Berridale Harbour that reaches the A9 by the cemetery.
    • About a mile south of Dunbeath you can pick up the old road into the village; cut down to it just after the crash barrier on the right comes to and end (ND 153 285).
      Posted by pab at 21:45 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

      Friday, 28 April 2017


      Brora → Helmsdale

      helmsdale.jpg Distance: 12.45 miles
      Ascent: 108 metres
      Duration: 4 hours 35 minutes

      Sutherland Safari
      « Golspie | Dunbeath »

      North of Brora a good path runs for two miles along the golf course and dunes, at the back of the beach, as far as Clynemilton. At this point most other accounts of walking the coastline seem to stick to the main road all the way to Helmsdale.

      There is a better way.

      loth-burn.jpgIf you don't mind splashing across a few stream outfalls (and wading across one – the Loth Burn), you can walk the entire distance on the shoreline. Splashes of white paint on occasional fence posts suggested that others have found this route too, but even when they turned inland we continued on the coastal fringe. There are a couple of rocky bits, and one or two places where the railway and the high water mark squeeze together, but this is a much more enjoyable route than dodging the fast-moving traffic on the A9.

      adder.jpgFor us it became a Sutherland Safari. In addition to the usual suspects (seals in the water, deer on the land) we were also treated to starfish on the beach, adders lazing in the Spring sunshine, and most exciting of all a family of otters scampering and diving on the rocky foreshore.

      otters.jpgIn the interests of making faster progress we, too, succumbed to the road a mile or two south of our destination, making us more grateful than ever that we'd eschewed this straightforward option for most of the day.

      One thing road walkers do get to see is a monument celebrating the deliberate reduction of wildlife diversity. In a lay-by on the north side of the A9 at NC 941 099 a gravestone-like marker declares this to be the location of the slaughter of the "last wolf in Sutherland ... in or about 1700." I imagine wolves and sheep-farming were seen as incompatible, so this is yet another curious remnants of the Clearances of the early 18th century.

      In Helmsdale there's a sculpture commemorating those who emigrated as a result of the Clearances, and an excellent local museum that covers the time in depth. You really can't escape the issue round here.

      Notes for future walkers:

      • We were able to walk along the shoreline 95% of the way from Brora to Helmsdale on a mixture of beaches (sometimes rocky) and grazings. We suspect this can be done at all states of the tide.
      • We had to wade across the shin-deep Loth Burn (NC 954 098).
      • Tired of shingle, we joined the A9 for the final stretch into Helmsdale from ND 018 142.
      • In Helmsdale, don't miss the monument to the clearances at ND 026 152.
        Posted by pab at 18:03 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

        Thursday, 27 April 2017

        Inverness, Loch Ness and the North East Highlands

        The Mannie

        Distance: 6.22 miles
        Ascent: 459 metres
        Duration: 2 hours 26 minutes

        Walk 18: Big Burn Glen and Ben Bhraggie

        The Pathfinder Walks title of this walk is descriptive enough: it is a walk featuring two topographic elements. First the luscious glen of Big Burn, and then an ascent of the adjacent Ben Bhraggie. But who are they trying to kid? The walk can only be about one thing: The Mannie, a huge statue on the summit of the Ben that dominates the Sutherland coast in a way that makes me feel very uncomfortable.

        the-mannie.jpgThe "mannie" in question was George Granville Levenson Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, husband of Elizabeth. The statue claims to have been paid for by subscription of his tenants; my impression is that the contributions weren't entirely voluntary.

        His gaze is fixed on the distant horizon, roughly south-east. It's a such a curious orientation that one can't help but wonder whether the intended symbolism is in what his back is turned to: the vast tracts of Highland that he and his wife cleared of crofters to make way for more profitable large-scale farms.

        The statue stands on a large stone plinth, the bottom three metres of which has been recently clad in a sturdy metal gauze. Such is the divisiveness of the Duke's reputation that even in recent years stone blocks have been worked loose in an attempt to topple the man, thus the crude defence.

        The view from the summit is tremendous, and we were able to see pretty much the full extent of this week's walking, from the Black Isle in the south right up to the far corner of Caithness.

        Leveson-Gower's wife Elizabeth died six years after him. Like him she's buried in Dornoch Cathedral although she's not celebrated with a huge statue. Instead on the floor behind the altar are a series of stones with this potted biography:

        In the vault beneath are deposited the remains of Elizabeth, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland and in her own right Countess of Sutherland. Born at Leven Lodge near Edinburgh XXIV May MDCCLXV, left an orphan by the untimely and almost simultaneous death of her parents she succeeded at the age of thirteen months to possessions amongst the most extensive and a title amongst the most ancient in Scotland. To that title her right was keenly contested but by her guardians zealously and successfully maintained.

        elizabeth-grave.jpgEducated under the care of her grandmother Elizabeth Hairstanes widow firstly of William Maxwell of Preston and secondly of Charles Erskine of Alva Lord Justice clerk of Scotland.

        Married in MDCCLXXXV to George Granville Leveson Gower first Duke of Sutherland K.G. her attachment to Sutherland and her clansmen was shared by her husband and during a happy union of XLVIII years was fostered by his encouragement guided by his judgement and made effectual by his wealth.

        Eminent in the exercise of a strong intelligence and excelling in various accomplishments she enjoyed through a long life of energy and usefulness the admiration and love of her family and friends.

        She died in London XXIX January MDCCCXXXIX having on her death bed desired that her remains might rest by the side of her husband in the cathedral church of Dornoch, the burial place of her ancestors.

        While her Mannie was indeed buried in the cathedral, we could find no monument to him within its bounds. Still too contentious, perhaps?

        There's a fascinating story to be told here; Elizabeth and her family could have been feminist role models challenging primogeniture, but she'll forever be associated with the Clearances and even now two hundred years later, the wounds run too deep to heal.

        Posted by pab at 21:20 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!


        Golspie → Brora

        sputie-burn-waterfall.jpg Distance: 7.04 miles
        Ascent: 122 metres
        Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes

        Done robbing
        « Dornoch | Helmsdale »

        dunrobin-castle.jpgGolspie seems to be dominated by two reminders of its former overlords: the huge statue of the first Duke of Sutherland, up on a hill overlooking the town (more on this one later), and Dunrobin Castle, which lies a short walk to the north. Unlike some of the bleak ruins that we've seen along the coast, the castle has survived changes in power and fortune and still stands, a white, Disneyesque riot of pointed roofs and narrow towers, on a low rocky outcrop. The seat of Clan Sutherland, the current building was extensively remodelled during the early 19th century and now resembles a French chateau, but the original was a sparser and more obviously defensive building, which had seen off an attempted Jacobite invasion. Its owner at that time passed it to his daughter, the future duchess Elizabeth, who was instrumental in clearing her tenants from their long-held grazing land to the wind-blasted coastal strips where they eked out a difficult living. It was hard to walk past Dunrobin without thinking about this, and the extreme imbalance of power at work.

        carn-liath-broch.jpgIn sharp contrast, the Iron Age broch at Carn Liath was striking for its size and engineering skill. The northeast of Scotland has a lot of broch sites but Can Liath was the best-preserved example that we've seen so far; there's enough left of the building to explore the hollow wall construction, and follow the network of guard chambers on the way in to the circular central space. On a warm, sunny day like today, with a sight of the sea, it felt like a beautiful way to live.


        An easy walk along the grassy foreshore gave way to a shingly beach, and the glorious double mini waterfall of the Sputie Burn, which pours into a clear pool on its way out to the sea. After a brief pause to enjoy the scent of the gorse, the sound of the rushing water, and the sight of an inquisitive seal watching us, we headed on to Brora where we were met at a boat shed by The Softest Cat In Scotland™. A lovely end to a stunning walk.

        Notes for future walkers:

        • There is a signposted shoreline footpath all the way from Golspie to Brora.
          Posted by pab at 21:19 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

          Wednesday, 26 April 2017


          Hilton of Cadboll → Portmahomack

          tarbat-ness.jpg Distance: 12.94 miles
          Ascent: unknown
          Duration: 5 hours 38 minutes

          On paths
          « Nigg Ferry | Tain »

          This is the last "out-of-sequence" walk, sewing together the sections we walked earlier in the week. It's a stunning walk, on excellent footpaths all the way. Unsurprisingly this walk is described in a number of local guide books.

          beinn-mhealiach.jpgOn the eastern side of the peninsula the paths were generally beneath the cliffs, but rose to the clifftops as we reached the northernmost point. From here the view to the north opened out and it was startling to realise that the last headland we could see was likely the very last headland: Duncansby Head, just shy of John O' Groats. Our island really does have a limit.

          Early on we startled a small herd of deer who were making the most of the lush grass on the coastal fringe. Later on we detoured to avoid a field full of frisky bullocks.

          hilton-cross-slab.jpgNear the start of the walk is a replica Pictish cross-slab. We'll have to look out for the original next time we're at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

          portmahomack.jpgSince we'd not had enough of old stones we finished off by visiting the Tarbat Discovery Centre — a museum in St Colman's church on the edge of the village. It's crammed full of stones and artefacts from the peninsula, and well worth an hour or two. Don't miss the atmospheric crypt: an ancient space that still bears the traces of an infamous act of violence, provoked by a long-running feud between two rival families. These cold, damp stones have many stories to tell.

          Notes for future walkers:

          • There is a good shoreline path/track from Hilton of Cadboll all the way to the slipway just south of Tarbatness Lighthouse (NH 945 871) though in the latter stages it rises to the clifftop (signposted).
          • From the lighthouse road (NH 943 872) there's a signposted route across fields to Portmahomack.
            Posted by pab at 20:48 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Tuesday, 25 April 2017


            Nigg Ferry → Hilton of Cadboll

            cromarty-firth.jpg Distance: 10.03 miles
            Ascent: 272 metres
            Duration: 3 hours 27 minutes

            « Cromarty | Portmahomack »

            At last we're picking up where we left off in September.

            The bus driver was a little surprised when we asked for singles to Nigg Ferry since the ferry won't be running for another three months. He was even more shocked when we told him we were planning to walk in this weather. While the forecast was marginally better than yesterday, in practice it looked worse. The snow had settled across Nigg Hill so after climbing the excellent track to Castlecraig Farm we opted for the inland roads via Nigg village instead of trying to stick to the coast.

            nigg-church.jpgTaking this route gave us the opportunity to look at Nigg Old Church, which is a beautiful building with inventive woodwork. Nowhere else have I seen a raked bank of pews, or pews that can be transformed into communion tables by means of a couple of latches and slides.

            Also in the churchyard is an otherwise unremarkable stone labelled the "Cholera Stone". During the 1832 cholera outbreak (the same one that wiped out half of Inver ten miles to the north), a church elder saw a mist rising from the graveyard and on deciding it was the cholera itself, threw a blanket over it and fixed the blanket in place with this stone. Hugh Miller of Cromarty relates this as an apocryphal tale in his contemporaneous 1834 work Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland but makes no comment as to the method's success or otherwise.

            shandwick-stone.jpgInside the church is a carved Pictish cross-slab. We passed another one in-situ on the hillside south of Shandwick, protected from the elements in a modern glass case.

            shandwick-mermaid.jpgShandwick, Ballintore and Hilton run into each other and are collectively known as the Seaboard Villages. They seem to have a thriving community with an artistic bent; a series of five sculptures in Ballintore reflects the local culture.

            It was in these villages that we picked up a stone of our own, as has become custom when we cross a thousand mile boundary. Gretna is 4,000 miles behind us and possibly only about 3,000 miles ahead. We press on.


            Notes for future walkers:

            • From Nigg Ferry the signposted Castlecraig Circular Walk is an excellent start (NH 797 689). This loops south from NH 807 690 via North Sutor but we stayed on the hard surface to Castlecraig.
            • From NH 811 712 a signposted path leads to Bayfield Loch; it may be possible to follow this through further fields around Hill of Nigg to avoid road walking.
            • We stayed on the roads: NH 804 715, NH 827 738, NH 850 750, NH 858 751.
            • From Shandwick to Hilton we followed the shoreline path.
              Posted by pab at 19:28 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

              Monday, 24 April 2017


              Portmahomack → Tain

              dornoch-firth-storm.jpg Distance: 10.76 miles
              Ascent: 124 metres
              Duration: 3 hours 14 minutes

              Wintery showers
              « Hilton of Cadboll | Dornoch »

              Today's weather forecast was for "wintery showers" so we selected another short route of mainly road walking. We're filling the gap that we opened on Saturday, but not in the "right" order.

              Only a little under half of today's walk was pleasant: the section from Portmahomack to Inver. The remainder was a march along a road trying to ignore the unseasonably cold weather, strong winds, hail, sleet and rain that pounded our faces.

              But that first part — the beach walk — is to be recommended, affording wide views across the Dornoch Firth to the hills beyond. We watched as the sky darkened, obscuring the far shore, an ominous sign of what was to come.

              inver-cholera.jpgInver seems to have had a troubled past. Half the village succumbed to cholera in 1832 and was buried in a mass grave to the east. A cairn marks the spot, its mournful brass plate stoically calling "Let Inver Live". A little over a hundred years later in December 1943 the entire village was evacuated so that surrounding land could be used to train troops for the D-Day landings.

              There is no shop on Shop Road. The Inver Inn was closed. With the weather closing in we couldn't avoid the march to town any longer.

              Before we reached Tain we'd had enough so took the most direct route possible to the nearest tearoom.

              Notes for future walkers:

              • A signposted path leads from the road end in Bainabruach to Inver.
              • In Inver/Skinnerton, turn right at Main Street to join the Shore Path. On reaching the shore, the cholera monument is a little east of this point.
              • From Inver we walked on the obvious minor road towards Tain. Local traffic is fast here, although one driver stopped to offer us a lift.
              • After crossing the railway on the final approach to Tain, we turned up Kirksheaf Road (NH 789 816).
              • There's undoubtedly a better route to be found, but not in today's weather.
              • The "o" in "Porthahomack" is short.
                Posted by pab at 16:59 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

                Sunday, 23 April 2017


                Dornoch → Golspie

                a9-distances.jpg Distance: 18.12 miles
                Ascent: 182 metres
                Duration: 6 hours 1 minute

                « Tain | Brora »

                As a student in the early 1990s I shared a tiny flat on Sutherland Avenue in London. Back then I didn't know who road was named after, or about the vast region of Scotland that shares the road's name. Yesterday we entered the old county of Sutherland and will not complete its coastline until sometime in 2019.

                ben-bhraggie.jpgFor much of today we've been crossing land owned by the Sutherland Estate, and for the entire walk we've been watched over by "The Mannie" — a statue of the first Duke of Sutherland that dominates the view for miles around. It was erected in 1834 on a hill above Golspie. One hundred and sixty years later persons unknown attempted to blow up the statue in order to destroy a reminder of this exploitative landowner.

                littletown.jpgAt the start of the 19th century the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were responsible for some of the most egregious acts of what became known as the Highland Clearances. In order to turn their land over to large-scale sheep farming they decided to relocate communities of crofters to the coastal fringes and encourage them to take up fishing and arable farming. One of the destination communities was the part of Dornoch now known as Littletown, which became a kind of refugee camp in 1814. Here the Highlanders built homes and "improved" the land, but were ultimately still indebted to the Sutherland estate to whom they continued to pay rent, and whose land they improved. Contemporary records claimed that this was a futile effort, and indeed today it's hard to discern any evidence of arable land use.

                One hundred years before the clearances the site of the settlement was the scene of another grizzly occurrence. The last person in the UK to be lawfully executed for witchcraft was burned at the stake here in 1727. I wonder whether the Sutherlands knew full well what they were up to, and in selecting the Littletown site were sending a not-too-subtle message to those they had evicted.

                loch-fleet.jpgSo on today's walk from Dornoch to Golspie, the Clearances were never far from my mind, particularly when looking up the verdant glens now clear of townships, cleared even of the sheep farms that replaced them and which now wait for the sporting pleasure of the wealthy.

                Notes for future walkers:

                • The Witch Stone is in the easternmost garden on Carnaig Street in Littletown (NH 801 893).
                • In Embo, walk through the caravan park past the last row of houses, then turn left towards the sports ground. The track to the disused railway begins behind the pavilion / community shop (NH 816 930).
                • We left the disused railway where the minor road from Fourpenny turns west (NH 803 947).
                • Look out for seals on the sandbanks at NH 790 957.
                • We followed the A9 from The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet to the road to Pinegrove Contact (NH 794 987). This was a bad move since the track from the cottage to Balblair Wood became difficult to follow at NH 794 981). We ended up retreating and following fields before re-entering the wood at NH 803 977. If we were to walk this leg again we'd either leave the A9 at Kirkton to access the wood at that same point, or try to find our way along the foreshore from The Mound.
                • We couldn't find the track running south on the east side of the Culmaily Burn so walked the road to Littleferry instead.
                • From Littleferry we found it easy to pick up paths and then the beach to Golspie.
                  Posted by pab at 19:47 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

                  Saturday, 22 April 2017


                  Tain → Dornoch

                  irn-bru.jpg Distance: 8.42 miles
                  Ascent: 65 metres
                  Duration: 2 hours 46 minutes

                  To the north
                  « Portmahomack | Golspie »

                  This year we're doing things differently. We've got so far north on our walk that driving all the way from home eats up two days. Instead we took the sleeper to Inverness, have hired a car and are here going to squeeze all of our coastwalking for the year into one long holiday.

                  So why haven't we picked up exactly where we left off in September? Buses. The Tarbat peninsula isn't served by buses at the weekend and in order to walk at all today and tomorrow we're leaving a small gap that we'll fill in a few days' time.

                  dornoch-bridge.jpgThis approach also means that we've been able to select an easy walk to get us back into the swing of things. Unfortunately most of it was along the road. (This may become a recurring theme of the remaining miles to John o' Groats.)

                  The obvious route from Tain is to follow the A9 across the Dornoch Firth. We were able to avoid some of the road by dropping to the foreshore between Glenmorangie Distillery and Dornoch Bridge.

                  dornoch-cathedral-windows.jpgDornoch itself is a charming small town, a cluster of distinctive buildings grouped round a small cathedral. We can heartily recommend the Carnegie Courthouse Tea Room for a post-walk cuppa.

                  Notes for future walkers:

                  • glenmorangie.jpgWalk through Glenmorangie Distillery's grounds to reach a bridge under the railway and gain access to the foreshore (NH 767 838). The beach can be readily followed all the way to Dornoch Firth Bridge where you'll have to clamber up the embankment to reach the road. We think this route should be passable at any state of the tide.
                  • At the north end of Dornoch Firth Bridge, you can escape the A9 again by scrambling down the west side of the bridge (NH 747 863) then under it to reach a track leading past a bird hide to a minor road at Cuthill (NH 749 876) which leads in to Dornoch.
                    Posted by pab at 20:40 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

                    Thursday, 13 April 2017


                    Ghost in the Shell


                    There could be an interesting story in here, but I was distracted by finding the "futuristic" visual style unconvincing. Meh.

                    Posted by pab at 21:11 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

                    Sunday, 2 April 2017


                    Over the Rhine, Cecil Sharp House


                    "Every American act is on an apology tour right now," said Karin Bergquist before continuing, "but I guess you have your own problems." Indeed. But hopeful music can heal and that's why I'll always try to catch Over the Rhine when they cross the Atlantic to play on our shores.

                    Posted by pab at 23:33 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!