From: Golspie to Helmsdale
Distance: 18m / 28.9km
Cumulated distance: 1143m / 1839km
Percentage completed: 96.6

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I had planned for yesterday to be an 18 mile walk followed by a rest day today. But given the pesky left foot, Gus and I decided to split the long day in two and forgo the day of rest. It proved a good idea which also allowed us to take our time and keep any trudging on the A9 to a minimum. The blog for the two days however, is rolled into one as I’d originally planned.

With the luxury of time on our hands we voted to include a couple of extra-mural activities: climb nearby Ben Bragghie and take a squizz at Dunrobin Castle, just a stone’s throw from Golspie. I opted to stay in bed while Gus bagged himself the Munro. From the top he was able to see the route we’d taken the day before, spread out below him. He was also able to take a closer look at the 1st Earl of Sutherland’s statue. I was able to enjoy the view of the back of my eyelids for a while.

View from Ben Bragghie


The 1st Earl towering over the landscape

Gus was back for breakfast and after being well looked after by the lovely people at The Golspie Inn, we walked through gorgeous lime green woods to reach the fairytale castle that is Dunrobin.

Woods to Dunrobin

Unlike Skelbo from yesterday, there is nothing ruinous about this castle .. except possibly the effect it has on the maintenance budget. Not too surprisingly we discovered that the castle is the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. Although medieval in origin it was massively rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century .. the same chap who built the Houses of Parliament. With its 189 rooms and endless turrets, it wouldn’t be out of place on the Loire or even, dare I say it, Disneyland. The gardens were exquisite and the house was a joy to visit. There were paintings by Canaletto, Hoppner, Gainsborough and Reynolds and beautifully appointed rooms.

Dunrobin Castle


The manicured gardens reaching the coast


A study for Gus ..


.. a dining room for me ..


.. and a banister for any visiting kids ..

From the castle we walked down to the shore, following the intermittent white signs of the John o’Groats Trail. It was well worth the effort as the feeling of walking through woods whilst looking out over the gently lapping waves of the sea was glorious.

Gorgeous rhododendrons along the path


Trail through the woods

Not too far beyond Dunobin we saw the old ruin of Dun Liath broch. It’s a remarkably well-preserved iron-age structure which was created 2000 years ago. Brochs are drystoned hollow-walled structures which are unique to this part of the world. It’s a grim thought, having just seen the excesses of Dunrobin Castle, that the ruins of brochs were often refuges for victims of Highland Clearances.

View back to the castle


Rugged stony beach

The foreshore continued to be lovely and grassy for a while but for variety we dipped on and off the beach. There wasn’t a soul in sight. It made for very lovely walking, with herons, oyster-catchers, Arctic terns, black guillemots, cormorants, Eider ducks (I think) and gulls taking to the skies close by.

Seaside path

The most thrilling moment was spotting seals. There were dozens of them. They were either basking precariously on rocks in the shallows or swimming around, so that just their heads showed above water. We always used to think our black lab, Chuckles had a face like a seal when he swam and it was very sweet to be reminded of him. We sat for a good while, eating far too much chocolate, watching them.

Basking seals

The little town of Brora was next up on the route. Those of you who like your cashmere will know about the Brora stores around the UK. The business was the brain-child of Victoria Stapleton in the early 90s. She took grannies’ fusty old grey cashmere cardies and transformed them into exquisitely designed, joyously coloured, reasonably priced jewels of clothing and the business started, not too suprisingly, in Brora! I was so looking forward to calling in to the shop even if my pack and back would protest.

Sadly, there was no longer a Brora store in Brora. But there was a much, much better treat in store! While drinking our beer in the sun outside the Sutherland Arms, we got chatting to our neighbour on the next table. And guess what? He was also walking Land’s End to John o’Groats! Dario, aka ‘Pensioner does Land’s End to John o’Groats’, was on his 65th day .. what a hero! It was fantastic to compare notes about our routes, our kit, our highs and lows .. take a look at his blog for his experience of a similar adventure:

Dario: a fellow End to Ender

From Brora we took a taxi to Helmsdale and ended our day. We continued from exactly the same place this morning, outside the Sutherland Arms. Much like our departure from Dornoch, we started with crossing the golf course. It was a much cooler day, making for very comfortable walking. There were cows to be cleared off the fairways for the first golfers of the morning.

Cows on Brora golf course


Windless conditions


And sheep leaving of their own accord

It was a great way to start the day .. soft ground underfoot and beautiful views. We were determined that we walk as little of the A9 as possible and Gus did a fabulous job of leading us along most of the JOG Trail, with very few deviations. There was a fair amount of beach walking, not too much of the unpleasant big pebbly stuff, a few fields with concentrated patches of nettles and thistles and it was only towards the end that we were forced to walk on the A road until we could join a steep lane, to meander our way back to Helmsdale.

I agree with other bloggers who have said that persistence in following the white daubs of paint, indicating the JOG Trail, is well rewarded .. especially as it means keeping off the road. But the descriptions of the route written on the website, will give you a bit of an idea of what to expect, if you ever walk the section we followed today: ‘Narrow sections on railway embankment are stony and narrow (easier walking on the beach at low tide), overgrown vegetation and long grass make the going difficult in places, Loth Burn requires wading (could be impassable in spate conditions)’.

Gates to climb


Sand to enjoy


Outsize pebbles to negotiate .. they can hurt, really hurt!


Farmland with ‘Day of the Triffid’ sized nettles


And ravines to cross


I cannot tell you how cold that water was!


But we were ‘appy!

We took time out to sit and watch the seals further up the coast. Mid-afternoon a herd of female red deer thrilled us by racing across the next field to us. They came to an abrupt halt at the wall, inspected us from afar and then scarpered off in the opposite direction. We caught up with them a couple of fields and several nettle stings later, grazing on the other side of a deep crevice. We were able to watch them for a while unnoticed and then sadly they got spooked and headed off to scale another wall. Well, half of them managed to scale it before they knocked it over and had to find an alternate route. It was pretty magical.

Herd of deer


Mid-afternoon .. Angus wearing his nettle-defying armour

Close to Helmsdale is a beautiful sculpture of a family of four created in 2007, called ‘The Emigrants’. It reminds me of the Holman Hunt painting I posted back in Padstow, of a family emigrating from England by boat for Canada. The Sculptor, Gerald Laing, likens it more to the various renditions of the biblical expulsion from the Garden of Eden, painted by many artists such as Cranach, Masaccio and Caravaggio. There is definitely the same feeling of displacement, loss and anxiety.

‘The Emigrants’

Adjacent to the sculpture are several flags flying, belonging to the countries where the emigrants sailed to .. New Zealand, Australia and Canada. I suspect the pole without the flag would normally have the USA ensign attached. It was a sobering art work.

‘The kilted man is looking ahead into an unknown future, while beside him a boy is looking up to him for guidance or reassurance. The woman, wrapped in a shawl, is holding a baby and is looking back towards the home they have been forced to leave’. In September 2008 a matching statue, known as the Selkirk Settlers Monument, was unveiled in Winnipeg, Canada’.

We returned to our B&B in Helmsdale well in time for me to indulge my addiction to Pointless. As we looked up at the gorse-laden hills at the top of the street, I could see Gus was forging a plot to take us up high tomorrow!

Our B&B in Helmsdale


Happy campers

Black Dog Tails
Winter changed life dramatically for the Mount Gambier family. Their little boy James has autism and Winter has become his best friend.