301. Helmsdale to Golspie

October 2016

This was Monday and the 3rd day of my visit to Scotland. I had walked most of the east coast of Scotland in order but for this trip my next two walks would both require me to take a bus to Portmahomack and these buses only run on weekdays. So I had done other walks at the weekend and intended to head to Pormahomack today. However first I headed to the Tesco supermarket a short walk from my hotel. This proclaimed itself to be open “24 hours a day, 7 days a week”. It was closed. This was a surprise and on reading the notice stuck in the window I was told it was closed due to a local holiday.

This was new to me. Apparently in Scotland there are bank holidays which only apply in certain parts of Scotland rather than the whole country. In this case, it turned out that today was a local holiday in Inverness. My planned bus would begin it’s journey in Inverness (where it was a holiday) and head up into Easter Ross, where it wasn’t. Would that mean it would be running to the “Sunday and Public Holiday” timetable or the “Monday to Friday” timetable? Well I had no idea but I suspected the former, which would mean no buses on the route I planned to use (I later found out that that was the case). So instead I decided to do another walk I had planned to do on Wednesday as I could use the train for that walk. I could check via my phone that the train was still running the usual weekday timetable, as was the case, so that was good. So for that reason I ended up swapping my planned walk for today.

Being able to use the train now feels like a great luxury, now I am north of Inverness. However there is a rail line from Inverness to the towns of Wick and Thurso on the north coast of Scotland, know as the Far North Line. This probably followed the original route of the A9, going around the various Firths’ on route. In the intervening years the A9 has been improved with many new bridges built much closer to the coast, but the rail line has not been so lucky, which means it often heads along way inland. However the line does hug the coast between Golspie and Helmsdale which meant I could use the train for this walk.

The services is not frequent (4 trains per day) and wanting to get the public transport done first the timetable worked best if I took the train to Helmsdale and then walked back, rather than the other way around.

So I drove up from Inverness to Golspie. It is an easy journey on the A9 north of Inverness as traffic is light and the speed limit is mostly 60mph, in fact Golspie is the first village you actually have to pass through on the A9 (the rest having been bypassed). As a result I made good time and parked in a car park near the sea front on the right hand side of the road.

The beach at Golspie
Golspie
The beach at Golspie

The shorter than expected journey meant I had time to buy lunch from the shop next to the car park before I headed to the station.

On reaching the station, despite the sparse service on the line, some Amercian tourists were also waiting and came to speak to me as they were confused about “the schedule” and when the next train would run (despite being shown on an information display). I explained the times of the trains to them and in the end they opted to go to Wick and return on the train leaving an hour after they got there. It seemed a long journey for such a short visit (though I later found, when I got to this part of the coast that an hour in Wick is probably enough!). Still the train arrived only a couple of minutes late. I sat on the right so I could follow my route back along the coast, and it looked lovely. The tide was out and I could see cormorants basking in the sun on some of the rocks as we headed north along the coast.

Helmsdale marks the point where the railway line turns inland for a while so the station is a short distance up the valley. As I got off the train I was surprised to see another train, but it seems they are scheduled to pass each other at Helmsdale.

Helmsdale Station
Helmsdale Station

Heading down the station approach road the valley I was now in was stunning. It was a clear sunny day, with a little mist still hanging in the valley and steep hills rising in every direction ahead whilst a large graveyard was just ahead. The valley looked a worthwhile place to explore, but the coast was my destination for today.

Helmsdale
Helmsdale
Helmsdale
Helmsdale

Helmsdale is really split into three villages – West Helmsdale on this side of the valley where the station is, Old Helmsdale to the north and east of the valley and East Helmsdale near the coast. From the station I followed the access road down to the road and turned left to cross the lovely old bridge over the river Helmsdale. Rather than immediately head for the coast I decided to cross the river and turn right through the town centre. I passed the bank (open for a few hours, 1 day a week, it has since been closed entirely).

Helmsdale
Helmsdale

On reaching the A9 I turned right and follow the road over the newer bridge – this is after all the more coastal route, which gave me a lovely view back up the dale.

Helmsdale
View back up Helmsdale

However I had a problem with this route – I did not want to walk alongside the A9, the road was high over the coast (where I planned to walk along the beach) and I could not find any way back to the coast. So I headed through a car park to the right of the A9 and followed a footpath alongside the edge of the field eventually coming to steps down to the river, where I could turn left, under the A9 and back to the coast. Here I found a good quality path over short grass at the back of the beach. Things were going well.

The beach at Helmsdale
Path south of Helmsdale

I followed this but after about 500 metres the path ended (where the was a bench) and joined a track which turned left under the A9 and the railway to head inland.

The coast south of Helmsdale
End of the path along the shore

So I decided to continue along the beach rather than turn inland. There was a little bit of sand near the shore, but it was hard work since it was also mixed in with a lot of shingle and pebbles.

The coast south of Helmsdale
The beach south of Helmsdale

Soon the beach was mostly pebbles and very hard to walk on.

The coast south of Helmsdale
The beach south of Helmsdale

At each small little bay there seemed to be lots of pebbles and then a small stretch of sand before back to shingle and pebbles. It would be very easy to twist and ankle and the hard terrain made progress slow and awkward. In around half a mile I reached a small river.

Portgower near Helmsdale
River south of Helmsdale

I could possibly climb up to the A9 to cross it but in the end it turned out it was easy to get over just stepping over a few pebbles, as the river mostly flowed under the pebbles on the beach by the time it reached the shore.

Onwards, it was more difficult walking on the pebbles of the beach. At some point an attempt had been made to put a wire fence across the beach for some reason but it was now almost all destroyed so I could continue along the beach.

Portgower near Helmsdale
South of Helmsdale

More difficult walking was ahead along the beach and soon the noisy A9 turned inland.

Portgower near Helmsdale
The beach south of Helmsdale

Now I only had the railway line to my right and this was hardly a problem for noise since there were only 4 trains a day! A few houses had to my surprised being built on the coastal side of the railway at Portgower. But this was good for me because it meant I could head up there to the road if needed, so I knew by this point I would not need to go back.

Past this village it was more tough walking over the pebbles and shingle.

The beach near Lothmore
The beach south of Helmsdale

This lasted for almost 2 miles further and so it was slow and difficult walking. But my reward was to reach this lovely sandy beach near Lothmore. It was a huge relief to be walking on sand rather than shingle and as the tide was out there was plenty of firm sand to walk on, too.

The beach near Lothmore
The beach at Lothmore
The beach near Lothmore
The beach at Lothmore
The beach near Lothmore
The beach at Lothmore
The beach near Lothmore
The beach at Lothmore

Inland too the views were wonderful with the grass and heather hills rising steeply away to my right.

The beach near Lothmore
View inland near Lothmore

There was a stream to the south of the sandy beach here which I was a bit concerned about crossing, but it caused me no difficulty as it was very shallow.

The beach near Lothmore
Stream to cross at Lothmore

Onwards the beach remained a mixture of sand and shingle until I reached the rocky headland east of Crackaig Links. I could see a caravan just to the right of the beach so sensing it might be private I continued along the beach and had to climb over a few pebbles and rocks to head around the corner into Crackaig Links.

The beach near Lothmore
Approaching Crackaig Links

However I soon found a good grassy track just above the beach which was much easier than the beach, which had briefly become shingle again. I passed another caravan, seemingly abandoned.

Caravan at Crackaig Links

As I headed along there were more caravans and I realised this was a very spread out caravan site. I presume many of the caravans are left here and only occupied for a few weeks of the year, as many had grass growing around them. Once the beach became sandy I dropped back down onto the beach to continue south (you can see the caravans along the back of the beach in the view below, looking back where I had come).

Crackaig Links
Crackaig Links

Near the south edge of the bay and past most of the caravans I stopped for lunch. Despite being October I was comfortably warm in just a T-shirt.

Crackaig Links
Crackaig Links

I rounded a few rocks at Lothbeg Point and then approached Loth Burn.

Crackaig Links
South of Crackaig Links

This was a wider stream (Loth Burn) than those I had encountered so far, in fact it was more a river.

Loth Burn
Loth Burn

Getting across and keeping dry feet would be difficult (the bridge you can see above is a railway bridge). Worse, I had an audience, a man sat on a chair and another person who seemed to be looking for something (shells?) to collect on the beach (you can see them with a carrier bag above). So having a quick look to see if I could step over the rocks I decided it was best to take my shoes off and wade through, which I did. It was cold but not too deep and at least I had not embarrassed myself by trying to keep my shoes on and getting wet feet or falling in!

Loth Burn
Having crossed Loth Burn

Beyond it I could continue along the lovely sandy beach once more.

Kintradwell Links
Near Lothbeg
Kintradwell Links
Near Lothbeg

Soon I heard odd noises and looking to my left I realised there were a number of seals on the rocks near the shore line, a lovely sight. Some were on rocks, some were swimming and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Seals near Kintradwell Links
Seals near Lothbeg

It was wonderful to watch them. Soon I was passed the rocks and into another lovely sandy beach, Kintradwell Links. The beach was deserted and mine the only footprints in the sand.

Kintradwell Links
Kintradwell Links
Kintradwell Links
Kintradwell Links

The railway line was again to my right but I only realised this when one of the few trains passed me.

Scotrail train near Kintradwell Links
A train passing Kintradwell Links

A few small streams on the map looked as if they might give me trouble but in fact all had enough rocks around them I could just step over, but there were some much larger bridges to carry the railway.

Kintradwell Links
Stream and bridge near Kintradwell Links

Sadly there were more sections of pebbles to battle over again here between the sandy stretches, it is odd how the coast can vary so much in such a short distance.

Kintradwell Links
Kintradwell Links

Soon though all the stones went and I reached glorious sandy beach at Glaslochan and I could follow this all the way south to Brora.

Kintradwell Links
The coast north of Brora
Kintradwell Links
The coast north of Brora
Near Glaslochan
The coast north of Brora

There were soon people on the beach ahead, a sign I was nearing civilisation again! Though it was far from crowded I think everyone was just enjoying these wonderful sandy beaches.

After a mile or two I reached the mouth of the river Brora and the village of the same name.

Approaching Brora
Approaching Brora

Here the river was certainly too wide and deep to try wading, so I could see that I would have to head up into the town to cross the road via the A9 bridge.

Brora
The RIver Brora at Brora

I began to wish I had not planned such a long walk as I was getting quite tired now, time was getting on and there was not that much day light left, but I still had a long way to go.

I found a path up steps to the edge of a golf course and then followed the track leading towards the A9, my route intermittently signed as the Brora Village trail and, oddly, signed with the logo of a brick (is that the best logo they could think of?!).

Brora
Brora

I soon passed under the railway line and could then turn left on the A9, just inland of it, to cross the river.

The River Brora
The rail bridge over the Brora river

Beyond it I passed an old grass-roofed shed which reminded me a bit of Iceland.

Grass roofed building at Brora harbour
Grass-roofed shed

Just past this there was a small harbour, the reflections were lovely in the very calm waters of the harbour.

Brora harbour
The River Brora

I followed the road along it’s south side, soon reaching the mouth of the river at the south side, looking across to where I was a short while before.

The coast south of Brora
The mouth of the river Brora

Here I came across another welcoming sign – a footpath signed to Golspie, though the less welcome news that it was still 6 miles away!

Golspie 6 miles
Golspie 6 miles

Still at least there was a proper path now. The path headed up past a track to what looked like a military site that was closed off, but it turned out to be a caravan site, which looked more like a prison and a truly awful place to stay. Whilst the grass was neatly mown and I could see electric hook up points there were no caravans there so I was not the only one to take this view! I followed a narrow path around the side of the fence and back down to the beach level again.

The coast south of Brora
Beach south of Brora

The path along the back of the beach was in the dunes, but they had eroded and in places the path had a very step camber and was really awkward. I soon gave up with it and headed back to the beach preferring to make my way between the rocks and pick out the firm sand.

The coast south of Brora
Beach south of Brora

As the beach became rocky in places I returned to the path which was now a bit better and went a bit highher on the low sandy cliffs.

The coast south of Brora
Path south of Brora

There were even a couple of small waterfalls on my right though at the point near the shore where I was there was hardly any water to step over.

The coast south of Brora
Small waterfalls down the cliffs

It was a lovely walk. I rounded the corner at Starthsteven and was now heading west.

Near Doll
Strathsteven

Ahead I had the most magnificent view, Dunrobin Castle, surrounded by trees turning yellow with autumn and looking like a French Chateaux moved to Scotland (sadly I blurred the picture)!

Approaching Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle ahead

A short distance ahead though I came to an interesting old hill fort to my right. Whilst time was getting on and I was tired I wanted to have a look around this too. I was pleased to find it freely open (once I found the gate into it) and could have a look and climb up onto the walls of the old fort, so it was nice to get a view of the coast from a little higher up (it is actually a Broch).

Carn Liath Broch
Broch near Dunrobin Castle
Carn Liath Broch
Broch near Dunrobin Castle

Beyond this I returned to the grassy path at the back of the beach which was fairly easy to follow again. I knew that Dunrobin Castle was open to the public, so I wondered how much of the grounds was open to walk through without paying and if I would have to divert inland around it. As I approached the woodland, the answer became clear. The coast path continued alongside a stone wall right at the waters edge and with wonderful views of the castle.

The beach near Dunrobin Castle
The coast near Dunrobin Castle

I suspected if I turned right through one of the stone arches I would be in the gardens of the castle, but not having paid I didn’t want to push my luck. Instead I admired the view of the beautiful castle perched on the hill with it’s gardens below. What a place – and a shame I did not have more time since I would like to visit, but it was already closed for today.

Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle

As I passed the castle I could glimpse back and see the last few rays of the now very low sun reflecting off the castle, it was lovely.

Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle

Heading through woodland again I was soon out of sight of the castle but back on a good grassy path just above the beach. In places there was still sand.

The beach at Dunrobin Castle
The coast near Golspie
Dunrobin Castle
Last view back to Dunrobin Castle

The sun was setting now, making shadwos of the footprints on the sand.

Near Dunrobin Castle
Near Golspie

Goslpie was now only a short distance ahead. I continued along the grassy path to reach Golspie. Here there was another little river (Golspie Burn) to cross. The road was a ford, but thankfully there was also a pedestrian footbridge so I could cross and keep dry feet.

Crossing Golspie Burn
Crossing the Golspie Burn

I now followed the track ahead which soon became the end of the road. It was initially quiet but I was soon back alongside the still busy A9.

Golspie
Gosplie
Golspie
Golspie

Rather than try to find along the beach I stuck to the main A9 road through the village, stopping only to use the toilet before returning to my car. Earlier in the day when I left, a man had been sitting on a seat in the car park, which looked far too cold. When I got back, many hours later he was still there! Most odd, and he must have been frozen since I have found that at this time of year the temperature quickly drops come around 4pm, and I was now needing to wear a coat.

This was a long but really fantastic walk. Everywhere I had been on this walk had been utterly beautiful. The tough first few miles were soon compensated for by the beautiful sandy beaches that I had ahead, backed by the pretty hills. The villages I had passed through had been nice to and Dunrobin Castle was a wonderful end to the day. A great walked, helped by perfect weather!

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-

Scotrail Far North Line / North Highlands Line : Inverness – Beauly – Muir of Ord – Conon Bridge – Dingwall – Alness – Invergordon – Feam – Tain – Ardgay – Culrain (request stop) – Invershin (request stop) – Lairg – Rogart (request stop) – Golspie – Dunrobin Castle (request stop, open summer only) – Brora – Helmsdale – Kildonan (request stop) – Kinbrace (request stop) – Forsinaird – Altnabreac (request stop) – Scotscalder (request stop) – Georgemas Junction – Thurso – Georgemas Junction – Wick. 4 trains run per day Monday – Saturday and a single train runs on Sundays. It takes approximately 25 minutes to travel between Golspie and Helmsdale.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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7 Responses to 301. Helmsdale to Golspie

  1. Well done for finding a way along the shore and persevering over difficult shingle. Looks absolutely stunning. And that castle… what a fairytale place!

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks yes I was pleased to find that route as it would have been much harder if it wasn’t possible to get along the shore. As to the castle it is wonderful and I did go back to visit it.

  2. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, I think I must have followed in your exact same footprints some 3 years later! The weather I had was certainly a lot more miserable than what you enjoyed, but it was a nice walk though.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes just re-read your report and indeed I think we both went the exact same way the whole way but sadly yes I see you didn’t have as good weather as I had. Still a nice walk though.

  3. Once again, beautiful beaches. Have only been in these parts once that I remember, on our way home from the north coast. We visited a distillery in Brora and had lunch in Helmsdale. The pub had memorabilia about Barbara Cartland who used to holiday nearby, and when I said something less than flattering about her to John I was overheard and put in my place! Apparently she did a lot of good in the area and was well respected. I was in the wrong – but I still think her books were rubbish!

    • jcombe says:

      Yes got to be careful of local “sensitivities” I guess. I don’t know much about Barbara Cartland, romantic novels are not something I’m keen on either! Didn’t know there was a distillery in Brora, sounds like it was worth a visit.

  4. Pingback: Dunrobin Dawdle | Round the Island

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