The East Coast of the HighlandsThis must have been one of my favourite days of the year, and if my mobile hadn't run our of battery at lunchtime leaving me wondering about the unfolding catastrophes at work (they had started the day before, and were sorted out in my absence), I would have stayed out later and enjoyed it even more!
Evanton & over the hillsAfter a brief shopping venture into Inverness, I headed north, wondering what I would find. I had only been north of Tain on three previous occasions - 2001 when Dave & I drove all the way to John O'Groats from Inverness before lunch, 2006 when we again flew north to catch the afternoon ferry to Orkney, and 2007 when I had gone up to Golspie while considering applying for a job there. This time, I was taking it more slowly, and so stopped at Evanton, the first village past Dingwall. True, my main aim was to get some lunch, but I also found this marvellous little building, which my book tells me is the old Secession Chapel of 1824, now a house!
Bonar BridgeNext stop was Bonar Bridge (I may not have written this link just yet), which is a pretty little town bearing a surprising link to Spean Bridge just north of Fort William. The link is Thomas Telford, and the fact that both villages owe their existence to Telford choosing the spot to build his bridge. The bridge that stands today is actually the third, but the plaques from the previous two have been preserved, and stand in a small memorial block at the norther end.
From a more interesting point of view, this was where I crossed from Ross-shire into Sutherland, the second most northerly mainland county in the UK, and the one most synonymous with the Highland Clearances. Today, however, that is but a distant memory for most people most of the year, and the village of Bonar Bridge is a pretty little place climbing up the hill to the north of the River.
The MoundThe Mound is another of Telford's wonders on his road north. Loch Fleet is the last of the notches into the coast as we head north, and provided a barrier to onward traffic. As a result, Telford instigated teh construction of a bank across the loch, with a bridge at the northern end. This has subsequently been turned into a barrage, with flood gates in the arches. It has also been replaced, with a big modern bridge easing the gradient up the hill.
It is amazing to look at a structure like this, knowing that it was built 200 years ago, by hand, without any kind of machinery and is still fulfilling its original purpose today. Furthermore, for many years last century it also carried the branch line to Dornoch.
HelmsdaleThis was my original planned destination, a small village just a mile or so from Caithness, and home to another of Telford's bridges. The wind, which had been pretty gusty all day, was now whipping the sea and lashing the harbour wall so hard that I could hardly get the car door open, but then it abated for a moment, and I went for a walk. Helmsdale is a tiny place, but in this part of the world it is still a metropolis. The grid-iron streets are dominated by the modern bridge which soars across the valley, dwarfing Telford's own bridge 200m further upstream.
I didn't stop too long, though, as I suddenly realised that I had time to head further north before I had to turn around, so I set off once more, using the new road (well the old one is now a cycle track) around the Ord of Caithness and so into that county. North, ever north I drove, down and then up the steep hills and hairpins of the Berriedale Braes (wondering why they didn't get a soaring new bridge in the 1970's too), and on to Dunbeath, where my maps ran out. Dunbeath is even smaller than Helmsdale, and has only a couple of handfuls of houses, but it too has a great new bridge dominating Telford's 200 year old predecessor. I drove over this one though, well I had no choice as I had taken the old road to get some photos! It was here that I turned back, however, heading south the way I had come and not stopping again until I reached Brora many miles later.
BroraBrora, just a few miles north of Golspie, is the last real 'town' before you reach Wick, when heading north that is. To the south, a series of large villages - Golspie, Dornoch, Tain, Invergordon and Alness - link back to Dingwall, which in turn is reasonably close to Inverness. But, when heading north, Brora is the last of them, and you then have miles and miles of stunning coast road to entertain you before the grim delights of Wick (or Thurso) appear in the windscreen.
Enough gibbering, you want to know what the place is like don't you? Well, I shall tell you. It's nowt special! There are a collection of shops, churches and public buildings strung along the A9, with lots of houses, and several new developments (I wasn't sure if they had simply packed up for the day, or if the sites had been mothballed until the economy imrpoves). The village centre is around the Bridge - Telford's old one is now the footbridge alongside the more modern road bridge - with a road leading down to the shore, where a small harbour exists. Its a pleasant enough little place, and would make a good place to stay to explore the huge vastness of Sutherland that stretches out to the north and west, but at the end of the day it's still nowt special!!!