Category Archives: Scotland.

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 8. Brora to Helmsdale.

On the beach.

The route description “Sections on railway embankment are stony and narrow, overgrown vegetation and long grass make the going difficult in places, Loth Burn requires wading (could be impassable in spate conditions) ”  was not encouraging and I thought I was in for a long day.

I enjoyed a sociable breakfast with my hosts and managed that lift up the road to where I’d left off yesterday which gave me a good start. The tide was out so I was able to walk on the beach which in most places was easier than the poor track. The first stretch of sand was a joy seemingly going on for ever. Fresh boot imprints in the sand suggested I was not alone today and sure enough I caught up with a couple walking to Helmsdale. They are on their last stretch of a LEJOG pilgrimage over several years using a campervan backup. This time they have walked from the Southern Uplands and actually married in Peebles en-route. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and kept overlapping all day. These were the only ‘serious walkers’ I’d met all week and yet within an hour a couple appeared coming the other way with heavy rucksacs. They had only just started on their end to end and were not complimentary about the JO’G Trail further north which they’d found virtually impassable.

Happy honeymooners.

A long way to go for some.

 

The beach varied from sandy to rocky and from time to time I had to scramble up into the dunes adjacent to the railway, on one of these occasions I disturbed a sizeable adder which slithered off into the grass.

Adder territory.

Intermittently along the coast were groups of common seals both in the water and out on rocks. They were ‘talking’ amongst themselves or was it to me? a haunting sound. There was also an abundance of bird life but without binoculars only the commoner species were recognised.

Halfway along there was a better track in the dunes which took me past some caravans on an informal site. Outside one of these was Julie who invited me for a morning coffee. We sat in her ‘garden’ as she told me about her life there overlooking the sea. Very self-sufficient she’d slowly added to her encampment with storage vans, sheds, chairs and tables, barbeques etc. As I left she was about to start cutting up her winter wood supply, I imagine winters here can be pretty bleak.

The crossing of the burns was no problem today with all the dry weather and being on the beach. One had to take the rough with smooth as some of the beaches became extremely rocky. This added interest in itself with the variety of rocks. Many were of a conglomerate granite, probably technically breccia, almost artificial in appearance.  There were also black rocks that looked suspiciously like coal – I found out later that there was a coal mine in the past at Brora.Many bays later the route used a level crossing to climb into the hamlet of Portgower. Some nice wee cottages ideal for a quiet life. This village was just off the A9 which was crossed and then little lanes climbed into the countryside to find a quiet way into Helmsdale which was seen below with its prominent harbour. On the way in was another of those clock tower war memorials. Theres not a lot to Helmsdale once you’ve walked round the harbour and up the main street.

Portgower.

My hotel was central and characterful. The dining room something from the 60’s but with some good food and the bar had a good selection of whiskeys!  Veteran motorcyclists [their bikes not necessarily them]  were staying here on their North Coast 500 trip, a  scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, which seems to be achieving widespread popularity.

I have to return home for the weekend so I will be at the station early for a long train journey. The station apparently was an important staging post for troops on the journey up to Thurso and naval bases in both world wars. There were no facilities on the crowded trains so the WVS had a tea stall at the station. Hopefully today’s journey will be more comfortable.

 

 

I’ll return to complete the sections up to John O’Groats in the autumn when the vegetation has died back.

*****

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 7. Golspie to Brora.

A perfect walk.

Breakfast was shared with a man from France who was taking a dog and a cat over to Orkney – that is a long story. The day was perfect – fresh and clear. The trail went out of town past the houses of the former Sutherland estate with their Duke’s statue looking down on them. In the close up photo below the quarry used for stone for the base can be made out. Onto the dunes  and a path towards Dunrobin Castle the largest house in the Highlands and once owned by the notorious Duke Of Sutherland. I saw it from below and it did look impressive, I was too early for their falconry display. A bit further on and I diverted up to Dun Liath broch expecting I’d be the only one there but a mini bus pulled in and discharged a group of tourists who were mainly interested in taking selfies of themselves. After they departed I wandered round the 2000 year old ruins in peace. After regaining the shore I dropped onto the beach as the tide was out. There were some interesting rocks covered in seaweed, one reminding me of Dougal the dog from The Magic Roundabout. There were seals on the rocks and exposed sandbanks, their calls were hauntingly human. I arrived into Brora by the harbour area where a few fishing boats were preparing to go out to their lobster pots. Nearby was the old ice house used when the harbour was more prosperous. This coast was famous for its herrings which would have been smoked locally. Up the road was a clock war memorial of unusual design. I lunched in the delightful Linda’s Cafe and enquired about a taxi who could pick me up if I walked a few more miles up the coast, none was available but they suggested I would be able to catch a bus back. So off I went again over the golf course onto the perfect beach for two or three miles. A swim was needed halfway to cool me down. At the end of the golfcourse I clambered over the railway and landed on the A9 where I managed to flag down a bus back to Brora.

Notice Trail waymark.

Brora Golf Course.

Endless sands.

My airbnb was good with plenty of time for stimulating conversation with the hostesses and the Jack Russell. There was a private episode in my bedroom when becoming concerned I may have a tick attached to my derrière.  I attempted to locate it without the benefit of mirrors with no success until I came up with idea of a selfie from my phone. Eventually I focused in to the right area, a false alarm as it happens, but I hate to think what Google may have done with my images.  Now all I have to do is persuade someone to drive me back up the A9 in the morning which will make for an easier day’s walk to Helmsdale.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 6. Embo to Golspie.

Around the Fleet.

Ex-Little Ferry on the Fleet.

Crossing the Fleet today on the bridge far left.

At one time there was presumably a ferry service at the Little Ferry marked on the map but now a detour is needed to get round the estuary using the A9’s bridge.   It was refreshingly cool when I left Embo across the dunes which are apparently threatened by another golf course development. People were out dog walking and it is interesting to see how many are English who have moved up to this part of our land for peace and quiet. Everyone I met had warnings about the local tick population. Before long I’d joined the track of an abandoned railway which gave easy walking. This became tarmacked with the ruined C14 Skelbo Castle visible ahead on an outcrop above the Fleet. It was along this stretch that I also became aware of the prominent monument on Ben Bhraggie which overlooks Golspie. This is the statue to The Duke Of Sutherland who became notorious for the clearances forcing the population to resettle in favour of sheep. Apparently it is 100ft high and was erected in 1837 after the Duke’s death. The monument was a constant landmark for the next couple of days.

Railway hut and distant monument.

Typical makeshift JO’G Trail stile.

Typical cattle.

Ben Bhraggie and Sutherland Monument.

The road now followed the coast and there were ample opportunities for seal spotting as they lay up on the exposed sanbanks. These are Common Seals and have a head and tail up posture on land. They have probably just finished rearing their pups. After that pleasant interlude the trail came up against the A9 and entered woodland above the rocky shore. As it is in the making the route was very overgrown and vegetated, I stopped briefly and realised the place was teeming with ticks. I moved on quickly but became paranoid about any slight itch on my exposed skin.

Typical tick terrain.

The busy A9 had to be joined to cross a bridge over the River Fleet and was rather dangerous with a narrow verge. Looking down I was thrilled to see salmon leaping from the water. Once over I was glad to escape into a lovely wooded area on a well-marked path which if I had followed all the way would have brought me to the foot of a rock climbing venue, bolted routes on conglomerate rock. Looking back whilst I ate lunch I could see climbers in action and I regretted not having visited. I was back beside the railway line which was followed through fields to a level crossing.

Crossing The Fleet.

Missed crag.

A long narrow road headed back to the coast and into a forest park where I followed a nature trail. Another golf links was crossed on the outskirts of Golspie and then a gentle stroll along the dunes into town.

Deep in trouble.

Golspie.

My homely b and b was on a quiet backstreet and on their recommendation I walked into town to the Fish and Chip restaurant. There were queues in the street for takeaways and the restaurant was full, apparently people come from miles around and I suppose there are a lot of holidaymakers about. Not wanting to wait for ages I visited the reliable Co-op shop for some sandwiches to be eaten on a bench overlooking the harbour.   Back at my room a couple of ticks were removed from my legs.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 5. Tain to Embo.

A day of two halves.

Two halves scenically and weather wise. It drizzled in the morning but was hot and sunny for the afternoon.

Dornoch Firth.

Breakfast in The Royal was excellent and made entertaining by a group of plonkers on a nearby table. On some sort of group activity holiday the 30somethings were engrossed in laptops and tablets and ignoring the staff. Their ‘leader’ announced that they had to leave at 9am and went off to rouse a couple of late risers. After 8.30 they eventually switched off, almost, their electronic devices and put in complex orders for the cooked breakfast. Not surprisingly they started getting frustrated with the slightest of delays and complaints were put to the waitress who dealt with the little darlings with restrained Scottish aplomb and a wry smile.

After passing the Glenmorangie Distillery little estate lanes were used before dropping down to another brush with the A9 to get across the Dornoch Firth – 30 minutes of fumes and speeding cars. I was glad to clamber down a steep bank onto the shore. The track eventually swung away from the coast onto a road past farms. Bulls guarded the fields and there was some equine presence at some stables. It was along here it started drizzling, so off with my shirt and on with the waterproof. A little further the JO’G Trail was signed into Camore Woods, pine woods standing on a gravel ridge from the ice age. Within this area were several obvious mounds which are the remains of hut circles and chambered cairns 3000 yrs old. A standing stone was seen in a field on the right seemingly reflecting the steeple of Dornoch Cathedral. As an aside I noticed for the first time the sound of rain falling on different trees – almost silent on the pines but waterfall like on the larger deciduous  leaves.

Dornoch was busy with tourists, I visited the cathedral with its beautiful vaulted ceiling and then found a little cafe in the square behind for a light lunch. The rain had now stopped, the sun was out and fortified I walked down to Dornoch Royal golf course which has been used for the open in the past. The fairways were narrow between the sand dunes and the bunkers looked horrendous. The track on the edge of the course was directly above the sandy deserted beaches and I couldn’t resist a paddle which turned into a brief refreshing swim.

I was dry by the time I walked through a large camping/caravan park and into the little village of Embo. This was made up of streets of small houses presumably a fishing industry in the past. My B and B for the night was comfortable and peaceful.

 

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 4. Invergordon to Tain.

Quiet roads.

It was only in the morning as I left that I noticed all the wall murals in town depicting the history and culture of the area. There is also a distillery on the edge of town, a part of Whyte & Mackay producing grain spirit for the blending industry.

The B817 road along Nigg Bay was almost absent of cars and for some of the way I could use the beach. Oil rigs were prominent in the bay.The villages passed had no facilities so I pushed on and found even quieter lanes inland. The odd cyclist passed me with a cheery greeting [not all cyclists are odd!] A petrol station appeared and an ice cream was purchased.

The A9 was perishingly close but I was able to continue on an old road which was slowly being reclaimed by nature. At its end it was a short hop across the main road to reach the rather isolated Shandwick Arms where I rested over a Belhaven ale and sandwich. Despite being refreshed I soon ran into blocked ways and escaped to fields and barbed wire crossings. Then all was all plain sailing on little used lanes passing small crofts. I didn’t try to join up with the JO’G Trail in the forests which I had heard was difficult. So I was soon dropping into Tain a prosperous looking town just above the Dornoch Firth. It was only in the last few hundred yards that I touched the JO’G Trail. An uneventful day’s walk through very pleasant scenery.

On the outskirts of town today a Highland gathering and games were taking place. My hotel was central and the games continued into the night by the sound of it.

 

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 3. Culbokie to Invergordon.

Over and along the Cromarty Firth.

After a breakfast of fresh farm eggs I took the lane dropping down to the Cromarty. The causeway bridge carrying the A9 was plainly visible, it looked a long way across. The traffic was heavy and fast but there was an adequate footway on the verge for my 30 minute crossing. As well as the traffic hazards terns were dive bombing me at the far side. I couldn’t wait to leave the road on the other side and I probably took the wrong path which led me up to the railway but no further. I resorted to trespassing along the line, The Far North Line, for a distance until I reached the level crossing I should have been on.  These private level crossings were a frequent feature across the single line railway, there aren’t many trains per day.  My track went up to a house and then onto a quiet country lane high above the water so there were good views all morning. The only people using the lanes were cyclists, many on a LEJOG trip. Groups of them were using backup transport which meant they could travel light. The busy A9 was somewhere out of sight and sound.

I arrived in sleepy Evanton at coffee time and the Novar Arms duly obliged. The B817 road was a bit busier but immediately out of the village was a signed cycle path in the trees alongside the road so the continuation was quite pleasant. Interestingly most cyclists persisted on the fast road leaving me to enjoy their cycle route. This gave me time to take in the views and high above me on a hill was the Fyrish Monument. Built in 1782 for Sir Hector Munro lord of the area who had served in India. It represents the Gate of Negapatam, a port in Madras, which General Munro took for the British in 1781. At the time the local population was being cleared off the lands they had worked for centuries to make way for profitable forestry and sheep. Survival was a problem and it is said the folly was built to help keep the locals in labour. The view from up there must be good but no time today. Along the road were signs of the Novar Estate, Sir Hector’s home. now concentrating on tourism of the shooting and fishing variety, somewhere in there is the big house. Out of interest his two sons were both killed in India one by a tiger and the other by a shark!  His daughter married and the estate passed into new hands.

The cycle path ran out leaving a stretch on a boring footpath adjacent the busy but safe road into Alness. A thriving little high street on which I found the basic Cafe Picante for a cheese toastie. I got the impression that most of the staff were central European as well as many of the clients. Oh and why do all these villages have so many, mainly Turkish, barbers?

Wanting to lengthen the day I pushed on a further 3 miles or so to Invergordon. This meant leaving the route of JO’G Trail, not that there had been much evidence of signage throughout the day. Again I was lucky as there was a cycleway out of town parallel to the road. I dropped down past the renowned Dalmore Distillerry to the shores of the Cromarty which I followed pleasantly into town. Along here I passed a standing stone marked as a Symbol Stone on the map. This is the Bronze Age Thief’s Stone which has three C6th or C7th  Pictish symbols carved on it, I couldn’t make them out. Looking back up the Cromarty I’m fairly sure that is Ben Wyvis in the back ground.

The views down the water were dominated by oil rigs in for repair. They looked strange with their legs up in the air.

Invergordon was an unpretentious town with a wide high street. It was at one time an important naval base and there are masses of old fuel tanks still on the edge of the houses. Aluminium smelting works closed and the oil rig business was a saviour. As I found later when wandering down to the harbour Cruise ships now call here because of its deep waters. One was being piped out this evening on its way further north.

The Marine Hotel where I stayed benefits from the cruises by the bus drivers and guides staying here, It was basic but friendly.

What had appeared to be a day on lanes turned very pleasant and interesting.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 2. North Kessock to Culbokie.

The Black Isle lanes.

A delightful day’s rural walking.

Munlochy Bay.

The day started dull and moist but before long brightened up with ever increasing temperatures. From the tranquility of the waterside I ducked under the A9 and followed lanes up onto the Black Isle. It’s not an isle at all, just a peninsula and there doesn’t seem to be an adequate explanation of the ‘black’ bit either. Walking along I had time to award a top 5 of discarded cans in the ditches – Iron Brew, Dr. Pepper, Lucozade,  Red Bull and Tenants in that order. Wild flowers also drew my attention in a more positive way. There were wooden signposts which I wasn’t sure related to footpaths or roads. The road I was on soon became a dirt track anyway to isolated farms. At the first the farmer explained to me that the dominant crop on the Isle was potatoes, which weren’t doing well in the draught conditions, there was ample evidence where they went to.

Further on was a croft where the man expressed surprise at my presence, he proceeded to tell me how he existed in this remote place as buzzards wheeled overhead. His 4 wheel drive vehicle was backed up by several identical scrapped versions lying around – “for spares”. He proudly showed me the onward path down to the bay which he personally mows for his own route to the pub. It was therefore a pleasant stroll down to the water’s edge where I met up with the real JO’G Trail which had come through the forests. My hostess had warned me about ticks and in the high vegetation I was becoming paranoid about their presence.

Oyster catchers and Shelducks congregated on the bay. By the time I reached Munlochy village I was hot and sweaty and ready for a drink so the Allangrange Arms was irresistible. The locally brewed [Cromarty Brewery] Happy Chappy pale ale was perfect with a salmon bagel. In the village was an impressive church, unfortunately locked, with its presbytery alongside.

I followed a sign for forest footpaths, birch and pine, to the Clootie Well, a place of pilgrimage where a cloot or rag belonging to a sick person is hung in the hope of a cure. I wasn’t prepared for the vast amounts of rags deposited within a 50 yard radius of the well itself, every tree was festooned.

I used small lanes passing crofts and cattle but no traffic to take me over the hill to Culbokie, a small hamlet with a shop and a part time pub. I stocked up with salad items before going down to my evening’s B and B. This proved to be a characterful lodging with sociable hosts and dogs, lovely rooms and a view over the Cromarty Firth and distant Ben Wyvis. Whilst watching the sunset I got to sample Steve’s home brewed beers which were every bit as good as many a micro brewery.

*****