We rose early, and while waiting for our breakfast talked with an old habitué of the hotel, who, after drawing our attention to the weather, which had now changed for the worse, told us that the building of the new pier, as he called it, at Wick had been in progress for seven or eight years, but the sea there was the stormiest in Britain, and when the wind came one way the waves washed the pier down again, so that it was now no bigger than it was two years ago. He also told us he could remember the time when there was no mail-coach in that part of the country, the letters for that neighbourhood being sent to a man, a tailor by trade, who being often very busy, sent his wife to deliver them, so that Her Majesty's mails were carried by a female!
Almost the last piece of advice given us before leaving home was, "Mind that you always get a good breakfast before starting out in a morning," and fortunately we did not neglect it on this occasion, for it proved one of the worst day's walks that we ever experienced. Helmsdale was our next stage, and a direct road led to it along the coast, a distance of sixteen miles. But my brother was a man of original ideas, and he had made up his mind that we should walk there by an inland route, and climb over the Maiden's Paps mountain on our way.
The wind had increased considerably during the night, and the rain began to fall in torrents as we left the Dunbeath Inn, our mackintoshes and leggings again coming in useful. The question now arose whether we should adhere to our original proposal, or proceed to Helmsdale by the shortest route. Our host strongly advised us to keep to the main road, but we decided, in spite of our sore feet and the raging elements, to cross over the Maiden's Paps. We therefore left the main road and followed a track which led towards the mountains and the wild moors. We had not gone very far when we met a disconsolate sportsman, accompanied by his gillies and dogs, who was retreating to the inn which he had left early in the morning. He explained to us how the rain would spoil his sport amongst the grouse, though he consoled himself by claiming that it had been one of the finest sporting seasons ever known in Caithness. As an illustration, he said that on the eighteenth day of September he had been out with a party who had shot forty-one and a half brace of grouse to each gun, besides other game. The average weight of grouse on the Scotch moors was twenty-five ounces, but those on the Caithness moors were heavier, and averaged twenty-five and a half ounces.
He was curious to know where we were going, and when we told him, he said we were attempting an impossible feat in such awful weather, and strongly advised us to return to the hotel, and try the journey on a finer day. We reflected that the fine weather had now apparently broken, and it would involve a loss of valuable time if we accepted his advice to wait for a finer day, so we pressed forwards for quite two hours across a dreary country, without a tree or a house or a human being to enliven us on our way. Fortunately the wind and rain were behind us, and we did not feel their pressure like our friend the sportsman, who was going in the opposite direction. At last we came to what might be called a village, where there were a few scattered houses and a burial-ground, but no kirk that we could see. Near here we crossed a stream known as Berriedale Water, and reached the last house, a farm, where our track practically ended. We knocked at the door, which was opened by the farmer himself, and his wife soon provided us with tea and oatmeal cake, which we enjoyed after our seven or eight-mile walk. The wind howled in the chimney and the rain rattled on the window-panes as we partook of our frugal meal, and we were inclined to exclaim with the poet whose name we knew not:
The day is cold and dark and
It rains, and the wind is never weary.
The people at the farm had come there from South Wales and did not know much about the country. All the information they could give us was that the place we had arrived at was named Braemore, and that on the other side of the hills, which they had never crossed themselves, there was a forest with no roads through it, and if we got there, we should have to make our way as best we could across the moors to Helmsdale. They showed us the best way to reach the foot of the mountain, but we found the going much worse than we anticipated, since the storm had now developed into one of great magnitude. Fortunately the wind was behind us, but the higher we ascended the stronger it became, and it fairly took our breath away even when we turned our heads towards it sideways, which made us realise how impossible it was for us to turn back, however much we might wish to do so; consequently we struggled onwards, occasionally taking advantage of the shelter of some projecting rock to recover our breathing - a very necessary proceeding, for as we approached the summit the rain became more like sleet, the wind was very cold, and the rocks were in a frozen and slippery condition.
We were in great danger of being blown over and losing our lives, and as we could no longer walk upright in safety, we knelt down, not without a prayer to heaven as we continued on our way. Thus we crawled along upon our hands and knees over the smooth wind-swept summit of the Maiden's Paps, now one immense surface of ice. The last bit was the worst of all, for here the raging elements struck us with full and uninterrupted force. We crossed this inches at a time, lying flat on the smooth rock with our faces downwards. Our feelings of thankfulness to the Almighty may be imagined when we finally reached the other side in safety.
Given a fine day we should have had a glorious view from this point, and, as it was, in spite of the rain we could see a long distance, but the prospect was far from encouraging. A great black rock, higher than that we had climbed, stood before us, with its summit hidden in the clouds, and a wide expanse of hills and moors, but not a house or tree so far as the eye could reach. This rather surprised us, as we expected the forest region to be covered with trees which would afford us some shelter on our farther way. We learned afterwards that the "forest" was but a name, the trees having disappeared ages ago from most of these forests in the northern regions of Scotland.
We were wet through to the skin and shivering with cold as we began to descend the other side of the Maiden's Paps - a descent we found both difficult and dangerous. It looked an awful place below us - a wild amphitheatre of dreary hills and moors!
We had no compass to guide us, and in the absence of light from the sun we could not tell in what direction we were travelling, so with our backs towards the hills we had crossed, we made our way across the bog, now saturated with water. We could hear it gurgling under our feet at every stride, even when we could not see it, and occasionally we slipped into holes nearly knee-deep in water. After floundering in the bog for some time, and not knowing which way to turn, as we appeared to be surrounded with hills, we decided to try to walk against the wind which was blowing from the sea, for we knew that if we could reach the coast we should also reach the highway, which ran alongside it. But we soon had to give in, for we came to great rocks impossible for us to scale, so we had to abandon this direction and try another. The rain still continued, and our hands had now been bleached quite white with the rain beating on them, just like those of a washerwoman after a heavy day's washing. We knew that the night would shortly be coming on, and the terrible thought of a dark night on the moors began to haunt us. If we could only have found a track we should not have cared, but we were now really LOST.
We were giving way to despair and beginning to think it might be a question of life or death when a bright thought suddenly struck us, and we wondered why we had not thought of it before. Why not follow the water, which would be sure to be running towards the sea? This idea inspired us with hope, and seemed to give us new life; but it was astonishing what a time elapsed before we found a running stream, for the water appeared to remain where it fell. At length we came to a small stream, the sight of which gave us renewed energy, and we followed it joyfully on its downward course. Presently we saw a few small bushes; then we came to a larger stream, and afterwards to a patch of grassland which clearly at one time had been under cultivation. At last we came to trees under which we could see some deer sheltering from the storm: by this time the stream had become a raging torrent. We stood watching the deer for a moment, when suddenly three fine stags rushed past us and dashed into the surging waters of the stream, which carried them down a considerable distance before they could land on its rocky bank on the other side. It was an exciting adventure, as the stags were so near us, and with their fine antlers presented an imposing appearance.
We now crossed over some heather in order to reach a small path which we could see alongside the swollen river. How pleased we were when we knew we were out of danger! It seemed to us like an escape from a terrible fate. We remembered how Mungo Park, when alone in the very heart of Africa, and in the midst of a great wilderness, derived consolation from very much smaller sources than the few trees which now cheered us on our way. The path became broader as we passed through the grounds of Lord Galloway's hunting-box, and we soon reached the highway, where we crossed the boiling torrent rushing along with frightful rapidity on its way to the sea. The shades of night were coming on as we knocked at the door of the keeper's cottage, and judge of our surprise when we were informed that, after walking from ten o'clock in the morning to six o'clock at night, we were only about six miles from Dunbeath, whence we had started that morning, and had still about ten miles to walk before we could reach Helmsdale.
We were almost famished with hunger, but we were lucky enough to secure a splendid tea at the keeper's cottage. Fortunately for us the good lady of the house had provided a sumptuous repast for some sporting gentlemen she was expecting, but who had been prevented from coming owing to the storm. We kept no record of our gastronomical performances on this occasion, but we can safely state that of a whole rabbit very little remained, and the same remark would apply to a whole series of other delicacies which the keeper's wife had so kindly and thoughtfully provided for her more distinguished but absent guests. We took the opportunity of drying some of our wet clothing, and before we finished our tea the keeper himself came in, to whom we related our adventures. Though accustomed to the broken regions and wild solitudes we had passed through, he was simply astounded that we had come over them safely, especially on such a day.
It was pitch dark when we left the keeper's cottage, and he very kindly accompanied us until we reached the highroad in safety. The noise caused by the rushing waters of the rivers as they passed us on their way in frantic haste to the sea, now quite near us, and the roar of the sea itself as it dashed itself violently against the rocky coast, rendered conversation very difficult, but our companion gave us to understand that the road to Helmsdale was very hilly and lonely, and at one time was considered dangerous for strangers. Fortunately the surface was very good, and we found it much easier to walk upon than the wet heather we had passed over for so many miles. The black rocks which lined the road, the darkness of the night, and the noise from the sea as the great waves dashed and thundered on the rocks hundreds of feet below, might have terrified timid travellers, but they seemed nothing to us compared with our experience earlier in the day. The wind had moderated, but the rain continued to fall, and occasionally we were startled as we rounded one of the many bends in the road by coming suddenly on a burn swollen with the heavy rains, hurling itself like a cataract down the rocky sides of the hill, and rushing under the road beneath our feet in its noisy descent helter-skelter towards the sea.
We walked on as rapidly as the hilly nature of our road would permit, without seeing a house or human being, until we approached Helmsdale, when we were surprised by the sudden appearance of the stage-coach drawn by three horses and displaying its enormous red lamp in front. The driver suddenly pulled up his horses, for, as he said, he did not know "what the de'il it was coming in front": he scarcely ever met any one on that road, and particularly on such an "awful" stormy night. We asked him how far we were from the town, and were delighted to hear it was only about two miles away. It was after ten o'clock when we arrived at Helmsdale, tired and footsore, but just in time to secure lodgings for the night at the Commercial Inn.
(Distance walked thirty miles.)
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