Seen by Many, Visited by Few
I decided the other day to travel down to Brora and walk up to Helmsdale for the afternoon train back north. That gave about five and a half hours between trains, enough time provided that the 14 or so miles were walked fairly briskly.
At 8.20 I alighted at Brora and made my way through the early-morning housing estates to a gate leading onto the golf course and so to the expansive sands of the beach. Although only the end of March, the morning was one of clear blue sky and unbroken sunshine. I soon found myself regretting that, though well equipped with warm clothes and a full set of waterproofs, I'd omitted the sunglasses and sunscreen! The sun dazzled from the side, reflecting off the sea, ahead the gleaming sands stretched for miles. Indeed, apart from a hundred yards or so of stones, I could stride out over the firm sand for some five miles to the river Loth. In the crisp morning sunlight with open views stretching for miles it was as good as stepping out over a mountain plateau - just a few pebbles, a few shells and occasional rounded black pieces of Brora sea-coal scattered the long beach.
It was a good morning for birds. Out on the sea were groups of eider ducks, black and white males with brown females, making their characteristic cooing which is heard everywhere on the Highland coasts at this time of year. Black shags perched on slabby rocks; they're often seen from the train but now I could stand and look! Wrens were singing, a buzzard mewed. A pair of brightly coloured shelduck flew off the sea and circled back, red shanks called, fulmars cackled from steep grassy slopes across the railway. There were gulls, there were a dozen or so white whooper swans on the sea, there was a heron, there were rooks in the trees.
Beyond Kintradwell the railway runs along a raised beach backed by an old line of cliffs, above which is the A9. Those steep wooded slopes sandwiched between the two transport routes provide a haven for birds and wildlife, barely noticed from the train and completely unseen from the road. Trees were still bare but here and there the first primroses gave splashes of yellow, some just inches from the rails. The northbound Sprinter rattled past and there was the occasional sound of lorries on the main road, but neither intruded into the sunlit peace of the coastal sands. I splashed through the river Loth - if it was high, one would need to make a detour via the road bridge - then picked up a grassy track leading to Lothbeg point. From here, along the next mile of sands, are strung out some 50 or so caravans, a holiday site of the traditional kind where people come to enjoy a fine beach without shops and amusements and modern developments. One wonders how long such a place can survive now everybody flies off to guaranteed hot sun in foreign resorts. There is, though, a proposal to create a nudist beach here. And why not? An entrepreneurial streak which does not seek to wreck the landscape. Perhaps even the weather will oblige, if last summer is anything to go by! Most of the caravans were unoccupied so early in the season, but a couple of families were enjoying the magnificent morning and some children were delightedly playing on the miles of empty, sunlit sands. I hope they made the most of it as the weather turned to easterly gales and cold rain later in the week. For mile after mile the easy walking continued. A large group of grey seals made for the sea as I passed, not particularly perturbed, and hundred bobbing heads watched me from the waves. Towards Portgower the sand was replaced by pebbles and rock and a grassy path led alongside the railway. Here was an old railway hut, built for the shelter of workmen. It's sadly neglected now but it would take very little work to replace the door and window, put in a little stove and make a fine shelter again. Not your usual cheap hut, this one - the roof is beautifully slated! Look out for it on the north side of the track about three miles from Helmsdale. Old graffiti on an inside wall commented "Midday, -20. Cool the dae!"
At Portgower are two delightful cottages reached by their own private level crossing. Brightly painted and with as neat a garden as I've ever seen, one of them advertises an enticing B&B. It was easy to pass between the cottages and the sea, to reach the last mile to Helmsdale. Here the beach takes the form of boulders and stones and gives much slower, rougher walking. For most of the way you can, however, take an easier route on grass right next to the railway fence. With time to spare I boulder-hopped along the seashore, stopping for a bite to eat at one of the larger, more comfortable rocks. The Safeway freight train came past, heading south, the driver giving me a friendly wave. At the Helmsdale river a path leads up into the village, under the new A9 bridge. Contractors were at work with dumper truck and digger laying a new surface to what is obviously a popular route. Helmsdale dozed in the early afternoon sun as I sat at the quiet station platform awaiting the northbound train.
Caithness and Sutherland are still unique. It is our landscapes that are priceless and, in the end, that will provide the living for future generations. There are too many people who would love to make the place just like anywhere else, who would welcome a six-lane motorway into the county and a hypermarket at Halkirk, who would be prepared to make money out of any scheme, be it trees or wind farms or superquarries. But at what cost? If we destroy what makes the Far North special, what's the point of living here? Why not just move to Glasgow instead? Unfortunately, money talks. And many dupes listen.