Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

. (page 8 of 66)
Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 8 of 66)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

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_.)

_Thursday, September 21st._

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

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


_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.

[Illustration: DUNROBIN CASTLE. "It was the finest building we had
seen, not at all like the gloomy-looking castles, being more like a
palace, with a fine display of oriel windows, battlements, steeples, and

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 ch√Ґteau, 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

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_.)

_Friday, September 22nd._

We rose at seven o'clock, and left Golspie at eight _en route_ for Bonar
Bridge. As we passed the railway station we saw a huge traction engine,
which we were informed belonged to the Duke of Sutherland, and was
employed by him to draw wood and stone to the railway. About a mile
after leaving the town we observed the first field of wheat since we had
left John o' Groat's. The morning had turned out wet, so there was no
one at work among the corn, but several machines there showed that
agriculture received much attention. We met some children carrying milk,
who in reply to our inquiry told us that the cows were milked three
times each day - at six o'clock in the morning, one o'clock at noon, and
eight o'clock at night - with the exception of the small Highland cows,
which were only milked twice. As we were looking over the fields in the
direction of the railway, we observed an engine with only one carriage
attached proceeding along the line, which we thought must be the mail
van, but we were told that it was the duke's private train, and that he
was driving the engine himself, the engine being named after his castle,
"Dunrobin." We learned that the whole railway belonged to him for many
miles, and that he was quite an expert at engine driving.

About five miles after leaving Golspie we crossed what was known as "The
Mound," a bank thrown across what looked like an arm of the sea. It was
upwards of half a mile long, and under the road were six arches to admit
the passage of the tide as it ebbed and flowed. Here we turned off to
the right along the hill road to Bonar Bridge, and visited what had been
once a mansion, but was now nearly all fallen to the ground, very little
remaining to tell of its former glory. What attracted us most was the
site of the garden behind the house, where stood four great yew trees
which must have been growing hundreds of years. They were growing in
pairs, and in a position which suggested that the road had formerly
passed between them.

Presently our way passed through a beautiful and romantic glen, with a
fine stream swollen by the recent rains running alongside it. Had the
weather been more favourable, we should have had a charming walk. The
hills did not rise to any great elevation, but were nicely wooded down
to the very edge of the stream, and the torrent, with its innumerable
rapids and little falls, that met us as we travelled on our upward way,
showed to the best advantage. In a few miles we came to a beautiful
waterfall facing our road, and we climbed up the rocks to get a near
view of it from a rustic bridge placed there for the purpose. A large
projecting rock split the fall into the shape of a two-pronged fork, so
that it appeared like a double waterfall, and looked very pretty.
Another stream entered the river near the foot of the waterfall, but the
fall of this appeared to have been artificially broken thirty or forty
times on its downward course, forming the same number of small lochs, or
ponds. We had a grand sight of these miniature lakes as they overflowed
one into another until their waters joined the stream below.

We now left the trees behind us and, emerging into the open country,
travelled many miles across the moors alongside Loch Buidhee, our only
company being the sheep and the grouse. As we approached Bonar Bridge we
observed a party of sportsmen on the moors. From the frequency of their
fire we supposed they were having good sport; a horse with panniers on
its back, which were fast being ladened with the fallen game, was
following them at a respectful distance. Then we came to a few small
houses, near which were large stacks of peat or turf, which was being
carted away in three carts. We asked the driver of the first cart we
overtook how far it was to Bonar Bridge, and he replied two miles. We
made the same inquiry from the second, who said three miles, and the
reply of the third was two and a half miles. As the distance between the
first and the third drivers was only one hundred yards, their replies
rather amused us. Still we found it quite far enough, for we passed
through shower after shower.

Our eighteen-mile walk had given us a good idea of "Caledonia stern and
wild," and at the same time had developed in us an enormous appetite
when by two o'clock we entered the hotel facing Bonar Bridge for our
dinner. The bridge was a fine substantial iron structure of about 150
feet span, having a stone arching at either end, and was of great
importance, as it connected main roads and did away with the ferry which
once existed there. As we crossed the bridge we noticed two vessels from
Sunderland discharging coals, and some fallen fir-trees lying on the
side of the water apparently waiting shipment for colliery purposes, apt
illustrations of the interchange of productions. There were many fine
plantations of fir-trees near Bonar Bridge, and as we passed the railway
station we saw a rather substantial building across the water which we
were informed was the "Puirshoose," or "Poor House."

Observing a village school to the left of our road, we looked through
the open door; but the room was empty, so we called at the residence of
the schoolmaster adjoining to get some reliable information about our
further way, We found him playing on a piano and very civil and
obliging, and he advised us to stay for the night at what was known as
the Half-way House, which we should find on the hill road to Dingwall,
and so named because it was halfway between Bonar and Alness, and nine
miles from Bonar. Our road for the first two miles was close along
Dornoch Firth, and the fine plantations of trees afforded us some

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 8 of 66)