Helmsdale To Dornoch By Lairg And Ardgay
ROUTE LENGTH: 59 MILES
Take A897, then A9, from Helmsdale to Brora. Continue along A9 to Dunrobin Castle and then Golspie. Turn right onto A839 to Lairg, then turn left at Lairg onto A836 past the Falls of Shin to Bonar Bridge. Turn left onto A836, turn right onto road to Croick. After this return to Bonar Bridge, and follow A949 to Dornoch via Skibo.
From A9, turn left onto Dunrobin Street, and then left onto Lillehall Street, taking you to Timespan.
By Public Transport
You can take the train from Helmsdale to Brora, or carry on using the X99. The 906 goes from Brora, via Golspie, to Lairg. The 900 goes direct from Lairg to Ardgay. The route from Ardgay to Dornoch is via south of the Dornoch Firth, continuing with the 900 to Tain, then taking the 25X north to Dornoch.
As if to demonstrate that we have truly passed out of Caithness back into Sutherland, Helmsdale commands our route and points us towards another of the great straths. The Timespan exhibition in Helmsdale by the Telford Bridge is an excellent interpretative resource, but it is well worth going up at least part of the Strath, which would lead eventually into Strath Halladale, and then returning by the same road. There is a fine clearance memorial in Helmsdale of a family looking out to sea, which jars somewhat with the gigantic statue of the Duke of Sutherland, the great clearer, on the hillside above Golspie. The close connection between the landowners and the ministers of the Church of Scotland led to great disillusion in these parts with the ‘Auld Kirk’ and a profusion of dissenting and free churches, as evident in Helmsdale. This was another way, along with the land leagues and direct action such as land raids, in which the crofters gradually fought back against the unrestrained despotic power of wealth. In doing so they appealed to the ancient Celtic belief that ‘The earth is the Lords and all the fullness thereof’- the gifts of creation were for everyone, and not to be dispensed in the private interests of a few, which made even poaching something of a religious duty.
Proceeding by Brora, with its now unworked coal reserves and a modern Roman Catholic Church of Christ the King, we reach Dunrobin Castle, headquarters of the Sutherlands, who are still one of the largest landowners in Britain. The museum here has many historical treasures from all over Sutherland that are well worth seeing, not least the carved stones, though the castle itself is somewhat overblown and over-decorated. Next is Golspie, an attractive village and visitor centre, with the aforementioned statue of the Duke above. Beyond Golspie turn right into Strath Fleet for Lairg to sample some of the area we neglected by keeping far to the west coast on the road north. Maelrubha set up an early church at Lairg of which nothing survives. From Lairg roads fan out- north to Altnaharra, northwest by Loch Shin to Laxford Bridge, and west into Strath Oykel. We go south to Bonar Bridge.
The bridge is over the Dornoch Firth but the village is on the east side. This is another area saturated with prehistoric remains. A fine parish church is on the hillside above at Creich with an older church site and burial ground nearby. The early dedication here was to St Devenic. Across the firth at Ardgay are more traditional Highland churches, some now in disuse. But our route goes northwest into Starthcarron all the way up to Croick. Here in 1845 the people of nearby Glen Calvie were huddling for shelter, having been cleared from their homes in favour of sheep. About eighty people of all ages were huddled underneath a temporary shelter, considering it irreverent to shelter in the church itself. However some scratched their names and messages on the east window: ‘Glen Calvie is a wilderness under sheep……Glen Calvie people was in the churchyard here…..Glen Calvie people the wicked generation …resided in the churchyard May 24th 1845.’ From embers such as these the struggle for public ownership of Scotland’s land was reignited and continues to burn.
Returning down Strathcarron there are roads north and south of the river. Cross back at Bonar Bridge to proceed east by Skibo to Dornoch. Everything here owes its origins to first the Celtic Chapel of St Barr at the east end of the churchyard, and then the medieval Cathedral. The town was originally the clustered manses of the cathedral clergy and the Bishop’s modest Palace, now a hotel. Despite various vicissitudes the present day cathedral retains intact much of its original design and scale; by cathedral standards it is small and perfectly formed. This reflects its purpose as a fitting headquarters for the Diocese of Caithness- which included most of Sutherland. From here the good Bishops could keep in touch by land and sea with their far flung churches, while also being able to travel south to the power centres of the Scottish kingdom. That said this was no ecclesiastical sinecure with bishops often caught in the crossfire of inter-clan and aristocratic rivalries. One was roasted alive. Modern times have been kinder to the cathedral which possesses some fine modern windows and other ornament.
Dornoch also enjoys a superb coastal location, with easy access to Tain and Portmohomack at the northern end of St Columba’s Pilgrim Journey. They are also well worth a visit if not already reached. Altogether this is a sunny seagirt place to end the northern coastal pilgrimage, back amidst the landfalls of Columba, Barr, Maelrubha, Moluag and the rest.
In remote places we slow to the rhythms
Of land and sea, of tides and seasons.
Like Maelrubha we have struggled with the elements
Like Finbarr we have found places of refuge by the sands
Like Columba we have confronted violence and oppression.
Now we pause and take stock, breathing quiet air.
We rest a while to tell a story or sing a song-
For tomorrow the road will carry us on.