Helmsdale to Dunbeath
Updated: Jan 27
John o'Groats Trail - Day 5 - 16.5 miles - 'Clearance'
I'm up at 5.30 and out the door by 8.
I'd vowed to get earlier starts on my final leg of LeJog. Not only does it mean more time to relax in the evening, the first hour of the day is also my favourite time to walk. The added benefit on the A9 is there's barely anyone about; the lorries and coaches are few and far between and most sensible holidaymakers are still in bed.
Once again it’s a perfectly still morning, The visibility’s good too; you can see the distant Morayshire coast due south, and oil platforms and wind farms in the mirror-flat North Sea.
My distant memory of the A9 as it reaches this far north is of a flat coast road. but it’s not the case as it enters Caithness – my final county of LeJog.
Here it's a mountain road, winding through cuttings, pine forests and heather moors, snow poles at the road sides and avalanche breaks on the hills above.
Not only are cars stepping down a gear to make the ascents, I'm knuckling down too as the A9 makes a big rising arc to climb above the Ord of Caithness.
The reason for the climb is not only the higher ground inland; it's also the rising cliffs seaward. For the first time on this northeast coast there are cliffs worthy of the name – which is part of my reason for starting out on the road. This section of the John o'Groats Trail is remote, rough and potentially dangerous – solo walkers are advised to avoid it. I've decided therefore to use the A9 until I can cut back to the sea and the coast path at Badbea, where the going apparently improves.
Badbea is a ruined village on the inhospitable cliffs between Helmsdale and Berriedale.
There's not much to see. Rocky outlines of old cottages among the gorse and heather. Some are better preserved than others; a lintel here, a headstone there.
It's all that's left of one of the infamous Clearance Villages.
Here, in the early 1800s crofters from the nearby inland glens of Ousdale and Berriedale were forcibly relocated as Langwell Estate owner Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster 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.
As the fertile, sheltered inland glens were surrendered to sheep, and the homes left behind to ruin, settlements like Badbea sprung up along the coast.
Here, on this godforsaken clifftop, blasted by the North Sea winds and snows, and with ground that yielded little but grass and heather, 12 families settled, their stone houses sheltering both people and livestock. So windy was it on the cliff that cows, sheep, hens and children were tethered to stop them tumbling into the sea below.
The population records show how short-lived the reckless relocation was. The 1841 population of Badbea was 61. By 1871 it was half that. By 1912 there was no one left at all.
The residents are not forgotten though. In the midst of the ruins is a monument erected by David Sutherland, son of Badbea emigrant Alexander Robert Sutherland, built from the stones of one of the cottages. It is dedicated to the memory of his father and the people of Badbea.
Meanwhile the sheep still wander the silent, once fertile inland glens.
From Badbea the going on the John o'Groats Trail is similar to yesterday, albeit on different terrain. Instead of rocky foreshore this is wild moorland. Sometimes you're knee deep in grass and heather, sometimes you’re bounding along easy farm tracks.
The waymarking is mixed too: some stages are clear – white posts with the official logo at 100ft internals, even a few JoG Trail stiles – while on others you’re left to fend for yourself, though with the sea on your right and A9 your left you can never go too far wrong.
Before long the path winds down into Berriedale: a treasure trove of a village with its wide river, sheltered cove, big cliffs and immaculate whitewashed cottages. It's amazing there aren't more tourists around.
But it’s all change as I leave the cemetery above Berriedale and within half a mile find myself on a clifftop shoulder-deep in bracken and virtually unable to proceed.
This section of the JoG Trail is labeled as ‘orange’ by the Trail's traffic light system, where green indicates easy walking; orange a tougher proposition; and red the kind of walk Ray Mears probably does for fun.
Orange is the same grading as yesterday's amiable walk along the Sutherland foreshore, but this dense undergrowth assault – with no sign of a path – is in a different league.
I continue through the fern jungle for another few hundred yards, then I give up and head uphill to rejoin the A9.
Never was a walker more pleased to reach tarmac.
Fortunately the A9 isn't too busy, and while I'd normally choose a coast path over a road, this section of the JoG Trail is no normal coast path. Indeed it's no path at all. And while there was the occasional tantalisisng glimpse of seaside rock scenery from the road I can’t say I was tempted to rejoin the perennial gamble that is the JoG Trail.
Surrendering to the bracken also allowed me to make a decision I'd been putting off for too long.
Before that point I’d still not finalised a plan for my final days. My preference had been to split the 45 or so miles into three days in which to explore the coast. But not only would this means completing – and travelling home – on the weekend, with limited and expensive travel options, but finding accommodation in the smaller villages of Thrumster and Keiss (which would have allowed a three day schedule) was proving impossible. Abandoning the coast path was the final push I needed.
This means that tomorrow night I will stay in Wick, then – fingers crossed – I will reach John o’Groats on Friday. It will mean more road walking than I’d like – though if time, weather and energy permit I'll return to the cliffs for easier sections of the JoG Trail.
But my ultimate goal is john o'Groats, not the brackened cliffs of the Caithness coast. For the LeJoger it is the big picture that has to come first.
Just shy of Newport I break for water: the cloud's burned away now and it's a hot summer's day.
Even though I’ve already clocked up ten of the day’s 16 miles, the remaining six really start to drag.
Part of it is the A9.
But part of it is the surroundings. There’s an austere bleakness to the landscape here, even under perfect blue skies. A feel of abandonment – the countryside dotted with stone-built crofts, cottages and farm houses, many of which are boarded up and abandoned. Every hamlet has a few For Sale signs.
If this was Yorkshire or the Lake District these cottages would be rebuilt and sold as holiday lets or second homes.
But not here. This is rough, wild country. You can see it in the wind-bent trees. In the miles of inland marsh. But most of all in the scrubby fields, with their rusting wire fences, untended stone walls and harvests of bracken, thistle and couch grass.
No one’s farming most of this land.
The clearances are not over yet.
And so to Dunbeth, birthplace of Neil M. Gunn, where for the first time in days there’s no fuss about dinner. My B&B host advises me to book into the Bay Owl restaurant.
It’s a strange place – a 1970s-style motorway service station perched on the cliff, and the ugliest building in the village by a margin.
It's good too: a big veggie curry that I eat as the grassy cliffs mellow in the evening light, and as breakers start forming on the sea below for the first time in days.