Helmsdale was a pleasant little town inhabited chiefly by fishermen, but a place of some importance, for it had recently become the northern terminus of the railway. A book in the hotel, which we read while waiting for breakfast, gave us some interesting information about the road we had travelled along the night before, and from it we learned that the distance between Berriedale and Helmsdale was nine and a half miles, and that about half-way between these two places it passed the Ord of Caithness at an elevation of 1,200 feet above the sea-level, an "aclivity of granite past which no railway can be carried," and the commencement of a long chain of mountains separating Caithness from Sutherland.
Formerly the road was carried along the edge of a tremendous range of precipices which overhung the sea in a fashion enough to frighten both man and beast, and was considered the most dangerous road in Scotland, so much so that when the Earl of Caithness or any other great landed proprietor travelled that way a troop of their tenants from the borders of Sutherland-shire assembled, and drew the carriage themselves across the hill, a distance of two miles, quadrupeds not being considered safe enough, as the least deviation would have resulted in a fall over the rocks into the sea below. This old road, which was too near the sea for modern traffic, was replaced by the present road in the year 1812. The old path, looked at from the neighbourhood of Helmsdale, had more the appearance of a sheep track than a road as it wound up the steep brow of the hill 300 or 400 feet above the rolling surge of the sea below, and was quite awe-inspiring even to look at, set among scenery of the most wild and savage character.
We had now cleared the county of Caithness, which, like Orkney and Shetland, was almost entirely devoid of trees. To our way of thinking a sprinkling of woods and copses would have much enhanced the wild beauty of the surroundings, but there was a difference of opinion or taste on this point as on everything else. A gentleman who had settled in America, and had had to clear away the trees from his holding, when he passed through Caithness on his way to John o' Groat's was continually ejaculating, "What a beautiful country!" "What a very beautiful country!" Some one who heard him remarked, "You can hardly call it a very beautiful country when there are no trees." "Trees," cried the Yankee; "that's all stuff Caithness, I calculate, is the finest clearing I ever saw in my life!"
We had often wondered, by the way, how the Harbour Works at Wick would be affected by the great storms, and we were afterwards greatly interested when we read in a Scotch provincial newspaper the following telegrams:
TERRIFIC GALE AT WICK
THREATENED DESTRUCTION OF THE HARBOUR WORKS
From our Wick Correspondent
Wick, Wednesday, 12:50 - A terrific storm is raging here to-day. It is a gale from the south-east, with an extraordinary surf which is making a complete break of the new Harbour Works, where a number of large stones have been dislodged and serious damage is threatened.
1:30 p.m. - The storm still continues. A large concrete block, weighing 300 tons, has been dislodged, and the whole building seems doomed unless the storm abates very soon.
These hours corresponded with the time we were crossing the Maiden's Paps mountains, and we are not likely ever to forget the great danger we were in on that occasion.
We were rather backward in making a start on our journey to-day, for our feet were very sore; but we were advised to apply common soap to our stocking feet, from which we experienced great relief. As we left the town we saw some ruins, which we assumed were those of Helmsdale Castle, and we had now the company of the railway, which, like our road, hugged the seacoast for some miles. About two miles after leaving Helmsdale we sighted the first railway train we had seen since we left Aberdeen a fortnight before. Under ordinary conditions this might have passed unnoticed, but as we had been travelling through such wild country we looked upon it as a sign that we were approaching a part of the country which had communication with civilisation, other than that afforded by sea or mail-coach.
We now walked through the Parish of Loth, where in Glen Loth we were informed the last wolf in Scotland was killed, and about half a mile before reaching Brora we climbed over a stone fence to inspect the ruins of a Pictish castle standing between our road and the railway. The ruins were circular, but some of the walls had been built in a zig-zag form, and had originally contained passages and rooms, some of which still existed, but they looked so dark that we did not care to go inside them, though we were informed that about two years before our visit excavations had been made and several human skulls were discovered. The weather continued wet, and we passed through several showers on our way from Helmsdale to Brora, where, after a walk of twelve miles, we stayed for lunch, and it was again raining as we left there for Golspie.
At Brora we heard stories of wonderful fossils which were to be found in the rocks on the shore - shells and fish-scales and remains of bigger creatures - and of a bed of real coal. Certainly the rocks seemed to change their character hereabouts, which may account for the softening of the scenery and the contrast in agricultural pursuits in this region with those farther north. Here the appearance of the country gradually improved as we approached the woods and grounds and more cultivated regions surrounding the residence of the Duke of Sutherland.
We came in sight of another Pictish castle, which we turned aside to visit; but by this time we had become quite familiar with the formation of these strange old structures, which were nearly all built after the same pattern, although some belonged to an earlier period than others, and the chambers in them were invariably dark and dismal. If these were used for the same purpose as similar ones we had seen in Shetland, where maidens of property and beauty were placed for protection from the "gallants" who roamed about the land in those days, the fair prisoners must have had a dismal time while incarcerated in these dungeon-like apartments. In these ruins, however, we saw some ancient utensils, or querns, supposed to have been used for crushing corn. They had been hollowed out in stone, and one of them had a well-worn stone inside it, but whether or no it was the remains of an ancient pestle used in crushing the corn we could not determine; it looked strangely like one.
The country hereabouts was of the most charming description, hilly and undulating rather than rugged, and we left the highway to walk along the seashore, where we passed the rifle and artillery ranges of the volunteers. We also saw the duke's private pier extending towards the open sea, and from this point we had a fine view of Dunrobin Castle, the duke's residence, which was the finest building we had seen, and not at all like the other gloomy-looking castles, being more like a palace. It is a happy blending of the German Schloss, the French château, and Scottish baronial architecture, with a fine display of oriel windows, battlements, turrets, and steeples, the great tower rising to a height of 135 feet above the garden terrace below. A vista of mountains and forests lay before any one privileged to ascend the tower.
The view from the seashore was simply splendid, as from this point we could see, showing to great advantage, the lovely gardens, filled with beautiful shrubs and flowers of luxuriant growth, sloping upwards towards the castle, and the hills behind them, with their lower slopes covered with thousands of healthy-looking firs, pines, and some deciduous trees, while the bare moorland above formed a fine background. On the hill "Beinn-a-Bhragidh," at a point 1,300 feet above sea-level, standing as if looking down on all, was a colossal monument erected to the memory of the duke's grandfather, which could be seen many miles away. The duke must have been one of the largest landowners in Britain, as, in addition to other possessions, he owned the entire county of Sutherland, measuring about sixty miles long and fifty-six miles broad, so that when at home he could safely exclaim with Robinson Crusoe, "I am monarch of all I survey."
The castle had an ancient foundation, for it was in 1097 the dun, or stronghold, of the second Robert of Sutherland, and the gardens have been famous from time immemorial. An extract from an old book written in 1630 reads, "The Erle of Sutherland made Dunrobin his speciall residence it being a house well-seated upon a mole hard by the sea, with fair orchards wher ther be pleasant gardens, planted with all kinds of froots, hearbs and flours used in this kingdom, and abundance of good saphorn, tobacco and rosemarie, the froot being excellent and cheeflie the pears and cherries."
A most pleasing feature to our minds was the fact that the gardens were open to all comers, but as we heard that the duke was entertaining a distinguished company, including Lord Delamere of Vale Royal from our own county of Cheshire, we did not apply for permission to enter the grounds, and thus missed seeing the great Scotch thistle, the finest in all Scotland. This thistle was of the ordinary variety, but of colossal proportions, full seven feet high, or, as we afterwards saw it described, "a beautiful emblem of a war-like nation with his radious crown of rubies full seven feet high." We had always looked upon the thistle as an inferior plant, and in Cheshire destroyed it in thousands, regarding it as only fit for food for donkeys, of which very few were kept in that county; but any one seeing this fine plant must have been greatly impressed by its appearance.
The thistle has been the emblem of Scotland from very early times, and is supposed to have been adopted by the Scots after a victorious battle with the Danes, who on a dark night tried to attack them unawares. The Danes were creeping towards them silently, when one of them placed his bare foot on a thistle, which caused him to yell out with pain. This served as an alarm to the Scots, who at once fell upon the Danes and defeated them with great slaughter, and ever afterwards the thistle appeared as their national emblem, with the motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, or, "No one hurts me with impunity."
Golspie was only a short distance away from the castle, and we were anxious to get there, as we expected letters from home, so we called at the post office first and got what letters had arrived, but another mail was expected. We asked where we could get a cup of coffee, and were directed to a fine reading-room opposite, where we adjourned to read our letters and reply to them with the accompaniment of coffee and light refreshments. The building had been erected by the Sutherland family, and was well patronised, and we wished that we might meet with similar places in other towns where we happened to call. Such as we found farther south did not appear to be appreciated by the class of people for whom they were chiefly intended. This may be accounted for by the fact that the working-class Scots were decidedly more highly educated than the English. We were not short of company, and we heard a lot of gossip, chiefly about what was going on at the castle.
On inquiring about our next stage, we were told that it involved a twenty-five-mile walk through an uninhabited country, without a village and with scarcely a house on the road. The distance we found afterwards had been exaggerated, but as it was still raining and the shades of evening were coming on, with our recent adventures still fresh in our minds and the letter my brother expected not having yet arrived, we agreed to spend the night at Golspie, resolving to make an early start on the following morning. We therefore went into the town to select suitable lodgings, again calling at the post office and leaving our address in the event of any letters coming by the expected mail, which the officials kindly consented to send to us, and after making a few purchases we retired to rest. We were just dozing off to sleep, when we were aroused by a knock at our chamber door, and a voice from without informed us that our further letters and a newspaper had arrived. We jumped out of bed, glad to receive additional news from the "old folks at home," and our sleep was no less peaceful on that account.
(Distance walked eighteen miles.)
|To Next Part|