From: Helmsdale to Dunbeath
Distance: 15m / 24km
Cumulated distance: 1165m / 1875km
Percentage completed: 98.4

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Tonight’s blog will have to be a short one. I’m absolutely shattered .. can barely engage the brain .. and my son is already fast asleep and dead to the world in the bed next to mine. For the lion’s share of today we followed the John o’Groat’s Trail to the letter, walking at a max of 1mph, and getting nowhere fast.

Buried in bracken

‘I have a cunning plan, m’lady’, said Angus at breakfast. ‘Oh yeah?’, I replied with the sceptical derision of Lord Black Adder.  The idea of climbing high above the A9, forging a totally new path through impenetrable thick gorse, held no attraction for me. So, undeflated Gus instead suggested we should give the JOG Trail a go instead. Much better idea. We walked past Helmsdale’s harbour with its bobbing boats, the Salmon Nettery and Lobster Pot Cottage.

Helmsdale harbour


Salmon Nettery


Lobster pots


And a dog who clearly thought we were barking mad

At first the going was good and easy, with pleasant views across a millpond North Sea. It grew more challenging as the pebbles became larger and more difficult to negotiate. But we enjoyed the wild life and stuck in there. Once again there were seals, basking and making their mewing sounds. We started to imagine what they were saying to one another. We gave them names and very soon had a community of great aunts gossiping in the waves about their sisters .. Ethel, Gladys, Edie, Mabel and Doris. They took on the voices of Monty Python’s mother of Brian. ‘Oooh, I know .. Edie’s always been such a one for the glad rags .. and Doris, well, she doesn’t know any better .. Oooh, I know and we’ll have to do something about Ethel’s false teeth .. they’re starting to yellow’ ….

A beach start to the day


Time for skimming

As we deepened our relationship with the John o’Groats Trail, we realised that instead of being a walk it was much more of an assault course. The terrain was rich and varied .. beach, moorland, cliffs, burns, fields and acres of dense gorse and bracken, with underlying nettles ready to snaffle your ankles.

Dense bracken and Queen Anne’s Lace eating up the Trail

The path itself demanded climbs over deer fences, down ridiculously steep slopes .. and up them again, across fords and through bracken which grew high above my head. At times the signage was good; at times non-existent. It was at times frustrating and at others spectacular.

Gorse and bracken ..


High cliffs ..


Deer fences ..


Absurdly steep descents ..


And wobbly bridges

The use of Trail markers ranged from efficiently good to woefully absent. It made for a distrustful attitude among the walkers. At times we wondered if there’d just been a helicopter drop of the wee signs, scattering them randomly across the countryside.

Hidden beneath a gorse bush

There were moments for reflection .. like when we came to the deserted, ruined village of Badbea, clinging to the godforsaken cliff top .. another testimony to the Highland Clearances in the early 1800s.There wasn’t a huge amount to see today. Walls of old cottages among the gorse and heather, but seldom roofs. History records that crofters from the nearby glens of Ousdlale and Berriedale were forcibly relocated, to this place where gales and snowstorms would blast with impunity. ‘Families from several estates in the area were evicted and rehoused in Badbea’, where there was already a small community, scratching a living on dangerous cliff tops. It was ‘Langwell Estate owner Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster who began replacing families – and their rents – with more profitable sheep pasture. Sometimes there was a moral front to the relocation: the wretched poor being given apparently better quality homes in which to improve their lives away from the valleys they called home. Neither did it hurt that the landowner was able to offer the newly destitute employment in the mining or fishing industries they frequently owned or controlled.

Badbea on a good if overcast day .. God knows how inhospitable it must have become in the snow

It must have been an exceedingly harsh life, even by 18th century standards and its inhabitants were gradually forced to leave and find a new life, in places as far away as New Zealand and Australia. The last inhabitant left the village in 1911, and in that year David Sutherland, the son of the New Zealand emigrant, Alexander Robert Sutherland, erected a monument, built from the stones of John Sutherland’s home, in memory of his father and the people of Badbea. 

Badbea memorial

There is also a touching website compiled by the descendants whose ancestors were cleared to Badbea, which ‘celebrates their lives and tells some of the stories they passed down to their children and grandchildren, so that their fortitude may be remembered by future generations’.

Of course there were moments of beauty today .. why else would you torture yourself with the vagaries of the Trail. Even in the grey day it was good to appreciate the loveliness. At times the landscape reminded me of Cornwall and the early days of my journey. But the sense of desolation and the absence of pretty, well-cared for villages and hamlets along the way made it very different.

Views inland


Clouds of bog cotton


Glorious cliffs

In our desperate optimism we spotted the mirage of Berriedale village and its famed tearoom four times. It eventually materialised out of the fourth dimension and we devoured over-sized slices of chocolate and marshmallow cheesecake with very little decorum. It was a magnificent pick-me-up and just what was needed before we succumbed to the A9 for the final six miles. Gus was an absolute hero in carrying my backpack, as well as his own from Berriedale. Cranking up our speed on an uncharacteristically quiet road we made it to our warm and friendly B&B in Dunbeath by 6.55, just in time to stumble along to the Bay Owl restaurant for dinner. 

Berriedale harbour


Crossing the exceedingly wobbly bridge. Gus hasn’t suddenly developed a pot belly .. that’s my rucksack he’s carrying, as well as his own.

As we marched along the road passing abandoned vehicles and caravans, a sight to warm the cockles of my heart came into view .. not long now.

John o’Groats in the distance ..

Black Dog Tails
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