18th May – Helmsdale to Dunbeath

20190518 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

Today lived up to its billing as the toughest section of the John O’Groats Trail not helped by fog and light rain.

I left the hostel at 7.50, and walked down to the harbour and then along a beach path before the real work of the day began.

20190518 The view back towards Helmsdale
Looking back towards Helmsdale

I started to climb up onto the ridge in gorse, heather and bracken following bearings as the path was very intermittent.  This set the the scene for the rest of the day.  It started to rain when I arrived at an old lookout station, and I took advantage of being able to don wet weather gear in the dry.

20190518 The Ord of Caithness
The Ord of Caithness

I crossed the Ord Burn and the Ord of Caithness, and disturbed a herd of deer.

20190518 Deer above the trail
Deer above the trail

After flogging across some heather moor, following the Allt a Bhurg Burn, I passed another broch and arrived above the Ousdale Burn.

20190518 The Broch above Ousdale Burn
The Broch above Ousdale Burn

Nothing in the guidebook suggested a descent to the Burn being the equivalent of going down the North Face of the Eiger.  The top set of wooden steps I descended facing inwards, as they were so steep.

20190518 Looking down on Ousdale Burn
Looking down on Ousdale Burn

I stopped at Badbea, a crofting community for victims of the clearances.  I am sure it made sense to someone to move farmers, who were being encouraged to go herring fishing, to a village on a steep slope above cliffs 130m above the sea.  Unsurprisingly the village was quickly abandoned.

20190518 Taking a break at an abandoned Croft in Badbea
Lunch stop at abandoned croft at Badbea

From Badbea there was more lush vegetation before I came down to Berriedale where I arrived at 1.00 with another 6.5 miles to go. I had been getting very low on energy, so stopped for lunch and warned Alan that I would be late at our rendezvous.

20190518 Berriedale harbour
Berriedale harbour

In all honesty I was probably too tired to appreciate the magnificent scenery on this section of the trail.  The walk out of Berriedale seemed endless with difficult vegetation and no clear path.  The waterfall at Allt Na Buaidhe was non-existent and the path further on difficult to find.

20190518 Big cliffs and bad weather
Big cliffs and bad weather

The weather was not helping bringing fog and poor visibility, thus explaining the lack of photos.  The sea arch at An Dun was spectacular as was the sea stack called The Clett.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A few miles before Dunbeath I followed the trail away from the sea, through a herd of cows, to the old A9 and Dunbeath.  I met Alan at the Post Office at 4.15.

All in all a hard day in the office.  With hindsight I think I mainly brought it on myself.  I only had a small pot of porridge for breakfast, and had not got enough food with me. Tomorrow I have farther to walk, but will only have a light daysack, and that’s going to be loaded with lots of food!

20190518 Looking down a geo (zawn)
Looking down a geo (zawn)

17th May – Brora to Helmsdale

20190517 Brora harbour
Brora harbour

This was the first time that the sea was in sight for almost all of the day.  I left Brora at 8.35, and walked past the harbour and around the edge of the golf course.  At the end of the course, I entered fields adjacent to dunes where the path became indistinct.

20190517 Looking north towards Helmsdale
Looking north towards Helmsdale

Crossing the coastal fence, I walked on and almost stepped on an adder basking in the sun. Thankfully he was more alert than me, and moved to a new position.  I reached for my phone to take a photo, but he got bored and slid between the boulders.  I wasn’t about to put my hand down the hole to get him to pose again.  Moving on, an Eider Duck erupted from the undergrowth, exposing her nest and eggs.

20190517 Eider duck eggs
Eider duck nest

The next excitement came on fording the Loth Burn.  The stones were partially underwater, and slippery.  Wet socks ensued.

20190517 Hard walking on the boulder beach
Hard walking on the boulder beach

After walking through a caravan park and passing a nudist beach, the path is sandwiched between the railway and the sea.  (Geographers would recognise it as being on a rather fine wave-cut platform.)  For the best part of an hour you walk through knee high tussocks of grass, being forced onto the boulder-strewn beach every so often.  It was a relief when I could cross the railway and ascend to the pretty village of Portgower.

20190517 The headland before Helmsdale
The headland before Helmsdale

After a quick lunch, I crossed the Garbh Allt, marvelling at its deep gorge, and Helmsdale soon came into view.

20190517 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

I reached the town at 2.35, found the village shop, and bought dinner and breakfast for tomorrow.  The hostel is excellent with en-suite facilities, a comfortable lounge and big kitchen.  Definitely the best hostel I have used this trip.  It is disappointing that a charming Dutch lady is the only other person staying here.

20190517 Looking up Helmsdale from the river bridge
The view up Helmsdale from the river bridge

It looks as if the weather is finally deteriorating tomorrow, which is a shame as I am combining two sections of the trail before meeting Alan at Dunbeath.  I am promised lots of ascent and descent, combined with wet ground and wild vegetation.  Sounds like it could be fun.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sights along the trail

  • stone sculpture
  • one of many WW2 defences on the trail
  • cormorants – or shags?

15th May – Dornoch to Golspie

20190515 Dornoch cathedral
Dornoch cathedral

Dornoch turned out to be a charming little town.  I left the hotel at 8.10 and walked down past the Market Cross and Cathedral before regaining the trail.

20190515 Dornoch market cross
The ancient market cross

At last I had some coastal walking, first beside the Dornoch Golf Course, and then onto a disused railway track to the little village of Embo.  From there I followed the railway once again to reach Loch Fleet.

20190515 Path beside Dornoch golf course
Path beside Dornoch golf course

The walk around Loch Fleet was very pleasant, even if it was on a road.  I passed Skelbo Castle, and then had a nature-packed few miles.

20190515 Skelbo castle
Skelbo Castle

A stoat ran across the road a few metres in front of me, and then a seal surfaced on the loch.  As the tide was in there were few waders around, but the loch was full of Eider Duck, and hearing their mewing call was a delight.

20190515 Great place to stop for a break
Great place to stop for a break


I delayed walking along the A9 for as long as possible by using a woodland path, but was forced onto it at the causeway of The Mound in order to cross Loch Fleet.

20190515 Mountains and mist over loch fleet
Mountains and mist above Loch Fleet

From the A9 a short section in a wood led to the railway line, which I followed across fields.  Inevitably I had to cross one field of cows, calves and a large bull.  Luckily they were all quite nervous, and the bull hid behind the cows. The farmer’s sign saying “Cattle in field.  Enter at your own risk” was not very helpful when you really have no alternative.

20190515 Highland cow
Benevolent Highland cow

After a short section of road and a beautiful wood, I returned to the coast and another golf course.  Golspie was now in sight, and I arrived at the town at 2.50.

20190515 Approaching Golspie
Approaching Golspie

I managed to get some tea at a cafe, but eating tonight will be problematic.  There is very little choice, so it will probably be fish and chips.

I have a very short day tomorrow – only 10km or 6.5 miles. As I will be passing Dunrobin Castle, I am going to spend some time there before going on to Brora.

When I left Dornoch, there was a trail sign saying John O’Groats 162km.  As today’s walk was 22km, which is the same distance between John O’Groats and Dunnet Head, tomorrow I shall be less than 100 miles from the end of my trip.

20190515 Sea mist on the road around loch fleet
Sea mist on the road around Loch Fleet


14th May – Tain to Dornoch

20190514 The Memorial Church at Tain
The memorial church at Tain

I liked Tain.  As a royal burgh it has some interesting history, so I tarried a while to find out more.  The museum did not open until 10.00am.  I could therefore enjoy a lie in and a late breakfast.  I also had time to sort out some different boot inner-soles which seems to have relieved my blister.

20190514 Viking burial stones at Tain
Viking burial stones

The gentleman at the museum was very knowledgeable, and it was well worth a visit.  Tain was a pilgrimage site for Saint Duthac, and much visited by James 4th, although he often also called on his mistress who lived nearby.  The Saint’s relics, in their containers of gold and silver, disappeared during the Reformation in mysterious circumstances.  The churchyard of St Duthac’s contained three interesting Viking graves, probably of Danish pilgrims, and a fine Pictish standing stone.

20190514 Ardjachie Pictish Stone
Ardjachie Pictish Stone

The museum has an extensive collection of Tain cutlery and silverware, which is much sought after by collectors as it bears no hallmark.  Amongst the other exhibits was information about the Highland Clearances, which were still taking place in the area as late as 1845.

20190514 The quiet lane to Dornoch
The quiet lane to Dornoch

I finally left Tain at 11.20, anticipating another day of road walking to cross the Dornoch Firth from Ross and Cromarty into Sutherland.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that the miles slipped by quite quickly, and the countryside was more interesting.

20190514 Looking down on Dornoch
Looking down on Dornoch

Leaving Tain along a road which led to the A9, I almost immediately turned along quiet lanes and paths and approached Dornoch Bridge.

20190514 Dornoch bridge
Dornoch Bridge

Crossing the bridge was made easier by both a pavement and a cycle path, so the traffic was less intrusive and intimidating.  Immediately after crossing the bridge, the trail made its way through a gorse-covered coastal fringe, before more road walking led to Camore Wood.

20190514 The path by the shore below Dornoch Bridge
Path by the shore below Dornoch bridge

I stopped at a convenient picnic table for lunch, and then continued through the wood.  Although predominantly pine, the trees had been selectively thinned, which let in more light, so that other plants could flourish.  This made this walk much more enjoyable, rather than passing through another sterile plantation.  The remains of a Bronze Age Round House could be seen at a path junction.

20190514 Remains of a Bronze Age Round House in Camore Woods
Remains of Bronze Age roundhouse

Leaving the wood along a track, with a solitary standing stone in an adjacent field, I reached the road to Dornoch and continued to the centre of the town, arriving at 2.50.

20190514 A solitary standing stone near Dornoch
Standing stone near Dornoch

My accommodation was a little way outside of the town with a fine view over the golf course, but I hope to see more of Dornoch tomorrow on my way to Golspie.

20190514 Dornoch Castle - now a hotel
Dornoch Castle – now a hotel

13th May – Evanton to Tain

20190513 Typical section of road walking near Tain
The sheer joy of road walking again

Today I crossed the Easter Ross peninsula, which entailed 19 miles of almost entirely road walking.

I left Evanton at 8.00 with a blister on one foot and a hot spot on the other.  This was totally down to my own stupidity in leaving my boot inner soles at Braemar.  I had replaced them in Inverness but obviously something was not right.

20190513 Rich agricultural land above Alness
Rich agricultural land above Alness

The best thing seemed to be to get the day completed as soon as possible.  The 7k to Alness disappeared in 95 minutes, so I had a short break.  More road walking took me to Newmore which had some beautiful gardens.

20190513 Beautiful flowers at Newmore
Beautiful floral displays at Newmore

Finally after 13k of roads, I moved onto a forest track and stopped for another rest.  I decided that some music would help pass the time.  Quick look at the guide map.  Follow the path to a road, turn left, get to a T junction, turn right, take the second road on the left.  Right, off we go.

20190513 Back in the forest
Back in the forest

An hour later I suddenly thought, “This left turn is taking a long time to appear.”  A closer inspection of the guide revealed that it was not a road, but the entrance to a farm that I had passed about a mile back.  As the trail only ran parallel with the road I was on, I chose to continue.

Around 1.15, I was less than 3 miles from Tain, when Stuart, my son, rang me.  When we had finished, and as I had stopped, I had lunch by the side of the road – getting some strange looks from the locals.

Entering Tain I paused at a very impressive building, to discover that it had been the Easter Ross Poorhouse.  Closer examination of the information board revealed that the large building was in fact the warden’s house, and what seemed to be a barn was the women’s quarters.

20190513 Easter Ross Workhouse
Easter Ross Poorhouse

I arrived at my accommodation in Tain at 2.45, after a day with little memorable about it.

Tain seems an interesting town, and I am planning to visit the museum before heading off to Dornoch.  I only have 14k to cover tomorrow, so for the first time I will indulge in some sight-seeing.