Saturday, 31 March 2012


Perched on the cliff just over a mile south of Dunbeath is an impressive whitewashed building - this is Dunbeath Castle, which once belonged to the Sinclair Clan, who replaced the original building with a four-storey tower house in 1620. The castle saw action during the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms, part of a spate of civil wars fought in England, Scotland and Ireland, when it was attacked by Royalist forces. As the castle is still occupied, it is not open to the public. However, there are some cottages and lodges within the Dunbeath Estate available for holiday lets.

Dunbeath itself is, like Berriedale, a small village nestling at the mouth of a river. The village has a heritage centre showcasing the history and wildlife of the area. The history of the village stretches back to the Iron Age, with many brochs - hollow-walled, drystone structures. There is also an early medieval monastic site. Bookworms who want to get a feel for the area should look up the author Neil Gunn, who died in 1973. He was born in Dunbeath, and many of his novels are set in Dunbeath and the surrounding area. There is a statue overlooking the harbour called Kenn And The Salmon in memory of Gunn.

Map of the area.

© 2007, Stanley Howe, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Reached by a twisty roller-coaster of a road, Berriedale is a tiny village at the base of a valley formed from two converging rivers, the Berriedale Water and the Langwell Water. Its collection of buildings of varying degrees of agedness includes the remains of a castle thought to have originated in Viking times; the Berriedale Church of Scotland, built in 1826, a grey, squat little church surrounded by a scattering of graves; the whitewashed Old Smithy, with a curious antler decoration on the outside formed from real stags' antlers; and two crenellated towers in an elevated position outside the village which were designed to act as mini lighthouses for showing fishermen where the mouth of the river was. The towers were commissioned by the Duke of Portland, hence their nickname the "Duke's Candlesticks". Last year it was reported that a row of fishermen's cottages in the village known as the Shore Cottages were to be restored with the help of funding to the tune of £600,000 from the Landmark Trust.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Bill Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 26 March 2012


The main attraction in this former fishing village at the mouth of the Helmsdale River is a visitor centre called Timespan, which puts on displays relating to Highland history and traditions. The centre currently has plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the instigation of the so-called Highland Clearances, one of the most regrettable episodes in the history of the British Government's activities in Scotland, which involved the forcible displacement and even genocide of large numbers of people in the Scottish Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries in the name of agricultural "improvements". The Emigrants Monument on the opposite side of the river mouth is a reminder of that time and offers great views as well as a poignant experience.

One reminder of Helmsdale's past which is still on display is the Ice House, operated by Historic Scotland, a specially insulated building which was used to store ice for keeping the locally caught salmon fresh. In 2009 a live electronic music concert was held at the Ice House. Helmsdale marks the start of a spectacular 38 mile drive which follows the Strath of Kildonan and Strath Halladale through the peat bogs, an area known as the "Flow Country". The Kildonan Burn was once the scene of a gold rush which started in 1818 with the discovery of a gold nugget weighing about ten pennyweights, and gold panning is still on offer as a popular family activity. There is an excellent website with old pictures, history and stories about the village.

of the area.

© 2007 Michael Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 March 2012


Brora used to have a coal-mining industry dating from the 16th century, but it ceased during the 1970s. There were also fish curing, salt pans and a lemonade factory. Nowadays one of the main products of the town is whisky, courtesy of the Clynelish Distillery, open to visitors, while the local quarry produces a white sandstone of sufficient quality that it was used in Liverpool Cathedral, London Bridge and the nearby Dunrobin Castle (see previous blog post). To the south of Brora is the Iron Age Carn Liath Broch run by Historic Scotland.

There is plenty to interest wildlife enthusiasts in Brora. South of the harbour mouth is a rocky outcrop used by gulls, gannets and basking seals. Brora has been found to be located under an important bird migration route, with different species of bird prevalent at different times of the year. In autumn it is birds such as Redwing, Fieldfare and Brambling which make their appearance. In winter Great Northern and Red-throated Divers can be found feeding offshore. In all, including migrants passing through, almost 240 species of bird have been noted in the Brora area.

Map of the area.

© 2006 Phil Williams, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Golspie is the administrative centre of the district of Sutherland, and there is a statue of the First Duke of Sutherland, erected a year after his death in 1834, on a hill outside the village. The village's name is Norse in origin, from Gill’s-bie, the "township of the glen". Golspie Mill once served the Dunrobin estate, and is still a working mill powered by water from the Big Burn, offering high quality flours and meals. The Mill is the starting point for a wonderful woodland walk following the Big Burn trail, which leads to a waterfall. The Orcadian Stone Company workshop has displays of highland rocks and crystals. Golspie also has a harbour and sandy beaches.

The magnificent Dunrobin Castle, to the north of Golspie, with its extravagant turrets and pinnacles, has been in the hands of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century. The embellishments were added to the original keep by Sir Charles Barry, who was the architect of the Houses of Parliament. Further work was done by Sir Robert Lorimer after a fire in 1915. The castle is open to the public and its museum displays Pictish stones and Victorian mementoes. Visitors to the castle who keep their ears well tuned may hear mysterious weeping sounds. The source of the sobbing is thought to be Margaret, daughter of the 14th Earl of Sutherland, whose ill-fated love affair with a castle groom came to the attention of her irate father, who locked her up. She fell to her death while attempting to escape. Margaret's ghost is sometimes seen as well as heard, as she wanders forlornly around the base of the castle crying for her lover.

Map of the area.

'Dunrobin Castle; Golspie, Sutherland' photo (c) 2006, John Haslam - license:

Saturday, 17 March 2012


Around three miles north of Dornoch is Loch Fleet, a large, shallow estuary which is a nature reserve run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The environment around the shore of the Loch consists of pine woods, salt marsh, sand dunes and coastal heath with gorse and heather, and the creatures making their home there include two of Britain's most charming mammals, pine martens and otters. There are also seals and water voles, while for the birdwatchers the wide variety of birdlife includes pink-footed geese, skylarks, song thrushes and eider ducks. At the mouth of the Loch are the ruins of the 14th century Skelbo Castle; an earlier castle on this site was captured by Robert The Bruce.

Map of the area.

© 2007, John Allan, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


In December 2000 the world's media descended on Dornoch and the surrounding area to cover the wedding of Madonna and Guy Ritchie. The wedding took place at Skibo Castle to the west of Dornoch, but the night before the wedding Madonna's 4-month-old child Rocco was christened in Dornoch Cathedral. Star-spotters had a field day as other guests to arrive in the town for the event, braving the thick midwinter fog, included Sting, Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney. Needless to say the event caused a considerable amount of disruption to the town, with a heavy security presence and traffic restrictions, but no doubt the majority of the populace were prepared to put up with that for the chance of a rare burst of excitement in this far-flung royal burgh.

Dornoch's origins can be traced back to the 6th century, when a chapel was founded by Finbarr, or St Barr. The east end of the present cathedral churchyard is believed to be the site of the chapel. The cathedral was built in the 13th century but was damaged by fire in 1580, then subsequently restored. Opposite the cathedral is the 16th century Bishop's Palace, now a hotel. The history of the parish is told by the Historylinks Museum. Like St Andrews, another cathedral city further south, Dornoch is noted for its golf links, the Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Birdwatchers, meanwhile, should head to the sandbanks of the Dornoch Firth, which is a magnet for wintering wildfowl and wading birds. Common and grey seals can also be found there at low tide.  Dornoch has its own airport, servicing visiting light aircraft.

Map of the area.

View of the golf course and beach

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Tain is the oldest Royal Burgh in Scotland, having been granted its first royal charter in 1066. In 1966 a rose garden was planted with 900 roses to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the charter. Somewhat earlier, around the 8th or 9th century, St Duthus, or Duthac, was born there and a ruined chapel near the shore of Dornoch Firth is believed to be the site of his birth. St Duthus Collegiate Church was built in the town between 1370 and 1458 to house the Saint's shrine, and Tain became an important place of pilgrimage; visitors to the shrine included James IV. During the Second World War, there was a large military presence in the town, and in nearby Inver, which was used as as a training ground. There were once five airfields in the area, but now only RAF Tain remains, which is used for weapons training for other RAF bases.  A short distance to the north of the town is one of Scotland's best known distilleries, Glenmorangie.

The town's long history, which included the burning of the church during a clan feud, the capture of Robert the Bruce's family by the English and the presence of Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops in the area, is explained in the District Museum, which also houses the Clan Ross Centre. The town's turretted Tollbooth, built between 1706 and 1733, makes an impressive sight; it was built as a prison and to safeguard the town's charters and arms. Tain is noted for its crafts, which include silverware and pottery. Tain Golf Club offers lovely views over the Dornoch Firth. Every year at the end of June/beginning of July, the town holds a gala which includes air displays, pipe bands and other "fun for all the family" events. In August it is the turn of the Tain Highland Gathering, whose games events include the enigmatically named Heavies during which competitors vie for the British Championship Medals for Light and Heavy Hammers. This video gives an idea of the jollities on offer, which also include highland dancing.

Map of the area.

© 2010 Postdlf, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 8 March 2012


Tarbat Ness is a narrow strip of land which sticks out into the sea like a human finger making a rude sign. The headland is topped off with the third tallest lighthouse in Britain at 174 feet, a slender, red-and-white striped affair built by Robert Stevenson in 1830. The headland is an important landfall area for birds migrating from Scandinavia. There is a cliff nearby known as Creag nan Eun, or the Cliff of Birds, where breeding seabirds can be observed in the Spring. To the south-west of the Ness, the ruins of the 16th century Ballone Castle stand on a clifftop overlooking the Moray Firth.

Portmahomack is a fishing village on the landward side of the peninsula where the main economic activity consists of catching prawns, lobsters and scallops. The village is home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre museum, which includes a lot of information about the Picts.  In 1989 a writer of Victorian detective stories called Anne Perry moved to the village, later followed by her mother, and the two women came to be respected members of the community. It was not until later that the villagers discovered that Anne had a past: her real name was Juliet Hulme, and she had been convicted of murder in New Zealand after she and a friend had conspired to kill her friend's mother. When the word got out among the villagers, rather than ostracising Anne, they lavished her with kindness, recognising that she was truly sorry for what she had done. Anne's story was immortalised in a 1994 film called Heavenly Creatures.

Map of the area.

Monday, 5 March 2012


Just to the south of Balintore, the tiny village of Shandwick is most notable for a beautiful carved Pictish cross-slab which stands nearby called Clach a'Charridh. The stone's carvings depict angels, warriors, hunting men and animals, and it has been encased in glass to protect it. The name of the village is an indication that the Picts were displaced by Vikings, having as its origin the Norse sand-vik or sand bay.

Balintore's harbour was built in the late 19th century; up to that time boats were pulled up onto the beach. A walk over the cliff tops towards Nigg can offer the possibility of spotting the local dolphins as well as enjoying wonderful views of the Moray Firth. A walk in the other direction will take you to the Mermaid of the North, a nod to the more famous Copenhagen one.  Another notable Pictish carved stone is the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, originally located at the village of the same name near Balintore next to an ancient chapel called Our Lady's Chapel. However, this one has been removed for safekeeping at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Stanley Howe, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 2 March 2012


Nigg lies on Nigg Bay near the mouth of the Cromarty Firth. The village faces Cromarty and there is a ferry linking the two during the summer which carries 4 cars and 50 passengers. The village is most notable for a 9th century carved Pictish stone called the Nigg Stone, housed in Nigg Old Church, which, though dating from the 18th century, stands on a site going back to at least the 8th century. The stone is considered to be one of Scotland's greatest art treasures. The bay, which is an RSPB reserve, consists of mudflats, salt marsh and wet grassland. Springtime is the time to come for pink-footed geese and skylarks, while summer brings large numbers of breeding birds such as lapwings and redshanks. From the reserve it is possible to walk over the cliffs to North Sutor, where what remains of the 12th century Dunskeath Castle can be found a mile to the east of Nigg Ferry. Starting out as a motte castle, it was fortified by King William the Lion in 1179. The castle, as well as recalling countless conflicts from the far past, has a reminder of a more recent conflict in the form of a gun emplacement from the Second World War.

Map of the area.