Valleys to the coast from Sutherland’s high wilderness
BERRIEDALE WATER Down from Knockfin Heights rushes a ribbon of blue water, snaking across the carpet of autumn-brown ferns on its way to the sea at Berriedale.
The tiny village of Whaligoe is notable for an unusual relic of the herring fishing industry that flourished in the 19th century. This is a flight of 365 steps cut into the steep cliffs and plunging to the sheltered cove below. The womenfolk of the village climbed these Whaligoe Steps with fully laden baskets of fish on the first part of their journey to carry the catch to Wick, 7 miles north.
The steps are slippery when wet, and great care should be taken when making the descent.
A single broad street runs down a gentle slope towards the sea at Lybster, which is still an active fishing community. Lybster’s harbour, situated a quarter of a mile from the village, is set amid steep cliffs facing Lybster Bay and dominated by its lighthouse. The ancient quays are a base for crab and lobster fishermen whose boats dance on the gentle swell.
From a quiet single street of cottages a steep and sharply twisting lane leads down to Latheronwheel’s small but attractive harbour. High cliffs add to the protection offered by the breakwater, and a rocky stack stands defiantly against the sea at the mouth of the tiny bay. The Burn of Latheronwheel, brown with peat brought down from the hills, meets the sea beside the breakwater.
Latheron, 1 mile north-east at a meeting place of roads, acts as a centre for the thinly scattered community. Just north of the village are two fine standing stones set up by a forgotten people who settled in this area in the Bronze Age.
The village of Dunbeath, set around the harbour, is sheltered beneath rocky cliffs, and was at one time an important centre of the herring fishing industry. A few boats still operate from Dunbeath, but most have moved to Wick.
Laidhay Caithness Croft, just north of the village, is an early 18th-century croft complex, including a stable, house and byre, fully restored to its original appearance and furnished in the style of the time. It is open daily in summer.
Dunbeath Castle, built in the 15th century, stands high on the cliffs just south of the village. One of the many strongholds of the Earls of Caithness, it was enlarged in the 19th century. It is still inhabited, and can be clearly seen from the road and the harbour, but is not open to the public.
Another castle built by the Earls of Caithness dominates the small cluster of houses at Berriedale, 5 miles south of Dunbeath. The hill slopes inland from the village are rich in brochs, cairns and other relics of prehistoric settlements.
ORD OF CAITHNESS
The coast road twists to climb the steep Ord of Caithness, a vast natural bastion of rock and heather 750 ft above sea level. From the summit, which marks the old county boundary between Sutherland and Caithness, the views of the coast in all directions are superb.
It is said to be unlucky for a Sinclair to cross the Ord on a Monday wearing green. This superstition arose in 1513 when William, Earl of Caithness, led a local force of 300 to fight for James IV at the Battle of Flodden. The soldiers were clad in green tartan, and only one survived the battle in which 10,000 Scotsmen died.
The fishing village lies at the mouth of the River Helmsdale, claimed by some to be the best salmon river in Scotland. A small harbour is used by pleasure craft and a small fleet of fishing boats, while the village itself lies above the harbour, on the northern bank of the river. Its streets are lined with neat cottages and houses, surrounded by the rocky slopes of mountains.
The climate on this stretch of coast is unexpectedly mild, and palm trees grow at Portgower, 2 miles south-west. Though the foreshore around Helmsdale is rocky, there is a sandy beach 2 miles south-west of Portgower, reached by a footpath north of Lothmore.
Helmsdale is the starting point for a long drive north-west along the Strath of Kild-onan, through some of the most glorious scenery in Sutherland. The main road is little more than a lane as it twists and climbs alongside the River Helmsdale, then past Loch an Ruathair into Strath Halladale. The route passes through open moorland and birchwootis, while all the time the mountains provide a spectacular back-drop. There are few houses or people in the Straths, and little traffic on the road which emerges, after 30 miles, on the north coast near Melvich, west of Dounreay.
Centred around a small square, the village of Brora stands astride the mouth of the River Brora. Behind the village is the Brora Muir, one of the few sizeable level stretches of land in the district, dotted with many crofts and small farms.
Two Iron Age brochs, or fortified towers, stand on the coast near Brora. Kintradwell Broch, 3 miles north of the village, is the better preserved. It measures 31 ft across within its double walls, and two headless skeletons were found there during excavations in 1880. The second broch is visible from the road 3 miles south of Brora, near the railway bridge.
There is good fishing for salmon and trout in the area, an 18-hole golf course, and a wealth of impressive scenery along the shores of Loch Brora, which reaches to within 3 miles of the village.
Beside the road 5 miles north of Brora stands the Wolf Stone, erected to commemorate the shooting of the last wild wolf in Scotland in about 1700.
One of Scotland’s oldest inhabited houses, Dunrobin Castle has been the home of the Earls, later the Dukes of Sutherland, since the 13th century. Set firmly on a natural terrace above the sea amidst beautiful gardens, the original castle was built in about 1225, possibly on the site of an earlier broch, and the massive keep dates from about this time. Modifications made around 1840 by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, and restored by Sir Robert Lorimer after a fire in 1915, give the castle its present fairy-tale pinnacles and turrets. Lorimer also designed the library, dining-rooms and drawing-rooms in 1921.
The gardens are open to the public in summer, and there is a small museum of local history in the summerhouse. The castle, which is open daily in summer, is reached by a turning off the main coast road just over 1 mile north-east of Golspie.
The narrow coastal strip on which the village of Golspie stands seems almost overwhelmed by the mountains looming behind it. The mountain directly behind the village is 1,293 ft Beinn a’ Bhragaidh; and on its summit, clearly visible for miles around, stands a massive statue by the English sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey of the First Duke of Sutherland, the man whose clearances of people from the area in favour of sheep has left a lasting mark on the Highlands and on folk memory. A memorial to an earlier member of the Sutherland family is the fine Sutherland Loft of 1737, in the 17th-century church at the northern end of the main street. A relic of the 3rd Duke is the private railway station, near Dunrobin Castle. At one time the duke also had his own private carriages and locomotive.
Golspie is a good base for walks and drives inland. A track leads in 2 ½ miles to the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh, from which there are fine views over Loch Fleet and Dornoch Firth. A car park off the main road just north of Golspie is the starting point for a nature trail alongside the Golspie Burn; it leads after 1 mile to a waterfall, beyond which the burn can be followed for another 3 miles.
There is good fishing off Golspie, for a variety of species.
The waters of Loch Fleet are sheltered and calm, the natural breakwaters at the eastern end leaving only a narrow passage to the sea. A ferry used to cross this passage until 1815, when it was replaced by a causeway, built by Thomas Telford in the area known as The Mound, at the head of the loch.
Guarding the entrance to the loch, on the southern shore, are the crumbling ruins of the 14th-century Skelbo Castle, now the haunt of jackdaws but not open to the public. In the nearby Skelbo Wood the Forestry Commission has laid out several forest trails; they start from a car park reached by a lane turning east from the A9 just under a mile north of its junction with the B9168 from Dornoch.
CROFTING: A WAY OF
LIFE THAT MEANS TOIL
ON LAND AND SEA
Crofting, or small farming, is one of the few means of making a living from the land in the Highlands and Islands. It is not a lucrative living; the soil is poor, and of the 18,000 or so registered crofters, most make more than half their income by spending part of the year with the fishing fleet, the merchant service or the oil rigs, and by catering for holiday-makers. But the raising of a few lambs and calves for later fattening in the Lowlands does give the crofter a stake in the land. However hard the life, it rescues him from the spectre that his forebears dreaded: exile to the big cities or overseas.
Crofting began with the breakdown of the clan system, deliberately fostered by the Government in the years following the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. Until then, clan territory and all the creatures upon it were common property, and the chiefs were no more than nominal landlords. An Act of Parliament, however, made them landlords in the English sense, and turned their people into a property-less peasantry. With game barred to them, and lacking the means to buy livestock, the only livelihood open to them was subsistence fishing and farming. The staple crop was the potato, but in the 1840s the crop was devastated by blight and the people were rendered destitute. To the morality of the day, eviction and enforced emigration – the infamous Clearances -seemed the only solution, for the land could not support the people.
For the crofters that remained, life was as harsh as ever, and the threat of dispossession for failing to pay the rent constant. But after a series of protests their plight was recognised, and in 1886 the Crofters’ Act was passed, followed later by the founding of the Crofters’ Commission. Today, crofters have security of tenure, government grants and the right to buy their crofts. Their contribution to British agriculture is not large, but it has helped to ensure that the Highlands and Islands are not peopled only by memories and legends.
PAST AND PRESENT The ril tiled Clvft house by Loch Obe on the island of linrra tells a pitiful mid silent story, for Barm was one of Hie islands worst hit by the Clearances. In 1857 the majority of the island’s crofters were evicted by Colonel John Gordon. In South Uist, too, almost 2,000 crofters were driven from their homes. But today there are still many scattered crofts on the island, like the one below, perched beside Loch Bee.
THE TOILERS Crofters and their wives have always worked side by side on the laud. In Skye in 1885 the men used foot ploughs, called ‘caschroms’, to dig the rows for planting potatoes while the women spread seaweed from the shore as fertiliser. Potatoes were a staple food both for the crofting family and for their livestock during winter. Peat was cut as fuel for -winter fires; the back-breaking task of carrying the cut peat back to the house was also performed by the womenfolk, using huge wicker baskets, called ‘kishies’, held by a rope or strap across the shoulders.
NIMBLE FINGERS The islands of Shetland are noted for their knitwear, hand knitted in home-spun wool from the small Shetland sheep whose wool is particularly light and warm. This knitter sits in a typical high-hacked chair. The lace shawls, made to patterns handed down from generation to generation, are so fine that they can easily be drawn through a wedding ring. in the 19th century these shawls were in great demand, but the craft is dying and there are now only a few people -who can do such delicate work.
THE HIGHLAND CLEARANCES, WHEN SHEEP WERE WORTH MORE THAN MEN
Towards the end of the 18th century, Scottish landowners made the discovery that there was more profit in sheep than in men. Prices for wool and mutton were high, whereas the crofters, struggling to scratch a living from the soil, were barely able to pay their rents. The failure of the potato crop in the 1840s aggravated the situation. Some chiefs and landlords beggared themselves to aid their tenants, but a large number did not. Instead they initiated the most callous stage of the Highland Clearances, when landowners, often with ruthless disregard for the suffering caused, carried out large-scale evictions of the crofters and their families to make room for sheep. All over the Highlands and Islands people were driven from their homes, which were then put to the torch, while in Westminster an uncaring Government stood idly by. Many roofless crofts scattered through the area still bear witness to the extent of the Clearances. In some areas crofters were resettled on poor land near the coast, but thousands more left their homeland crowded into leaky emigrant ships.
Cheviot sheep, able to survive the hard
Highland winters, replaced the evicted crofters and were tended by shepherds brought in from the Lozolands.
A monument to the First Duke of Sutherland, by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantreh, stands on a mountain top near Golspie. Known as ‘The Leviathan of Wealth’, the Duke evicted some 15,000 tenants between 1810 and 1820, often with violence, and grassed their fields to raise sheep.