Round Britain: Tarbat to Wick


On Monday we awoke to a wet and dull day. It was too wet for the forest walks in the hills above Tain, so we decided to explore the Tarbat Peninsula. A minor road from Tain passes a disused airfield and a moor which is still designated a military bombing site. During World War Two, many of the villagers of Portmahomack were evacuated so that landing exercises in preparation for D Day could be carried out. The village was quiet when we reached it. Its name means the Port of St Colman, an early Christian saint.

The Discovery Centre is based in the old church and covers the area history from the Picts to more recent events. Many of the local archaeological finds are displayed. The church is dedicated to 7th century St Colman and has had many incarnations from the earliest monastery and Pictish church to the Church of Scotland. In 1948 it ceased to operate as a church.

In the old churchyard is a baptismal well. It is said to have been sanctified by St Rule on his way to St Andrews and is still used to baptise the eldest son of the Earls of Cromartie to this day.

A statue entitled ‘The Pictish Queen’ sculpted by Leonie Gibbs sits near the church.

Quite a few of the local towns have a cast iron fountain dating from the second half of the 19th century when piped water reached the community. Portmahomack also has an old streetlamp dating from 1900. It is one of the first erected which used paraffin. They were extinguished during the First World War but electric light did not arrive until 1949.

Before we left the village I noticed a house on the shore. I have seen gardens with gnomes in before but these were all ensconced inside.

Three miles beyond Portmahomack is Tarbat Ness with its lighthouse. There is a walk from the village I had found on the Walkhighlands website and might have done it in better weather. The area on the Ness is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is visited by birds migrating from Scandinavia. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1840 and at 40 metres, is the third tallest in Scotland.

When we arrived, a robot was mowing the lawn: some modernity in the midst of all the history.

The path continues to the end of the peninsula

and we saw one seal briefly. The stone stackers have also been here at some point. Returning to Tain, we joined the A9, crossed the Dornoch Firth

and entered Sutherland. Before reaching Dornoch we also crossed the River Evelix. Dornoch Cathedral is Scotland’s smallest and was built by Gilbert de Moravia who became bishop, beginning in 1224. Two hundred years later, a Bishop’s Palace or Castle was built and is now a hotel. There is a crowd-funded distillery start-up there. We could not see inside the cathedral as a funeral was in progress.

However, we did have a browse in the nearby independent bookshop:

Afterwards we took a minor road north out of town and then along the south shore of Loch Fleet which is a National Nature Reserve. We paused just after the ruins of Skelbo Castle

spotting a grey heron and a curlew in the distance.


Back on the A9 the cloud was low. Near to The Mound, there was a ‘Caution Otters’ sign and hordes of people were down by the bridge looking for them, so we carried on passing through Golspie and Brora. We had previously visited Dunrobin Castle and Clynelish Distillery so pressed on to our destination for the night: Helmsdale. The rain had eased when we arrive there so we had a short walk around up to the Telford Bridge and the old harbour. The town has been a port since 1527 but the first harbour was not constructed until 1818. In 1832 a fishing boat brought cholera to the town but it was rescued from decline when other fleets brought herring in.

Timespan is the heritage and arts centre.

Before dinner we walked down to the modern harbour where sea birds were lined up on a wall as the tide came in.


The following day we were back on the A9, entering Caithness north of Helmsdale. A little further along is the site of the abandoned village of Badbea. People were moved during the clearances in the early 1800s when landowners decided that the glens where most people lived would be better places for sheep farms. Some people were living at Badbea in 1793 but most arrived in 1802 when Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster decided that Ousedale, a fertile glen on his Langdale Estate required clearing for sheep farming. He tried to encourage people to engage in the coastal industries. At least twelve families lived at Badbea. It is said that the winds on the cliffs were so strong that animals and even children had to be roped together to prevent them from being blown over the cliffs. Eventually it became impossible to continue and people left; the last resident departing in 1911. The short walk from the carpark leads to a memorial and the remains of a few homes.


After coffee at the River Bothy in Berriedale (where the mobile library was parked up outside) it was time to head north. The next stop was Dunbeath. Very little remains of the monastery which once sat slightly upriver from the village. It was washed away in the 18th century. There is a heritage trail which goes along the river and up a hill to a broch and some old stones.

The village street was constructed between 1840 and 1850. One of my friends from Aberdeen University told me that her grandfather worked at the mill by the old bridge. Just outside it we met an elderly man who remembered him.

Neil Gunn the author was born in Dunbeath in 1891. I read his books many years ago. There is a memorial sculpture down at the harbour.

Looking across the water there is a cave accessible at low tide and the castle which is not open to the public.

Back on the A9 we took the A99 to Wick at Latheron passing through Lybster, Ulbster and Thrumpster. The coast is littered with ancient remains of brochs, castles, cairns and standing stones. There are also the ruins of abandoned crofts and large wind farms stand offshore. Soon we were settled into our riverside campsite.