Sunday, 27 April 2008

What a difference a day makes

How well I remembered Helmsdale in 2007. With an hour to spare before catching the bus back to Dornoch, I'd mooched around the village looking for, well , for want of a better word, life! But this was a village in a 50's time warp, Wednesday afternoon meant half day closing and the only place open was the weird, wacky and tacky "La Mirage" restaurant. A favourite haunt of Barbara Cartlands. Photo's of her (and her look-a-like friend, the owner) adorned the walls. But what was more interesting were the strange collection of artefact's around the room. Sipping my tea, looking at a stuffed bear, holding a fish, was indeed a bizarre experience.
And here I was again, eating my fish & chips, under the watchful gaze of the bear. The photo's had gone (sadly, the owner had died last year) but the bear, the pink frilly lampshade and the full size model of Elvis in the window remained. Under new management, I for one, was nostalgically glad that some things hadn't changed.
The next morning, with time to kill before the Dunbeath bus arrived, I took the Helmsdale Town Trail. Yesterday, I'd just had time to snuck into the excellent "Time Span" museum before it closed, and armed with my map, on a beautiful sunny morning, Helmsdale took on a completely different persona. It's amazing what a difference a day makes. I discovered places I'd never noticed last year. The only disappointing discovery was that the "Spar" had closed down. Last year it had enticed me in with it's sandwich board offering all sorts of goods, and "Lot's Lot's more" except, of course, it was closed, being a Wednesday afternoon.
I took in the harbour, the old church and the "Telford Bridge" before meandering through the streets to the bus stop.
Visiting the museum had given me a sense of what life must have been like for these hard working Caithness folk. I hadn't quite realised the extent of the Herring fishing industry. Villages all along the east coast were trawling in bucket loads of fish , Wick being the Daddy of them all, landing up to a staggering 25 million herring a day. It was a tough life, especially for the women. Not only did they have to carry their men to the boats (so they didn't get wet, poor things) they then carried creels weighing up to 112lbs for up to 30 miles to the nearest market. The fishermen, meanwhile, job done, descended on the local hostelries to drink copious amounts of whisky. Not surprisingly, the fishwives were tough fearsome creatures, prone to smoking and swearing,and yet, perversely, extremely moral. So pity the drunken fisherman, staggering home from the pub, facing the wrath of the wife.
Anyway, all of this preamble puts my "challenging walk" with a 15lb pack on my back into perspective.
For today, at least, the rucksack had a day off, as I, the stick, the orange hat and the daysack jumped off the bus in Dunbeath, ready for an easier 15 mile trek back to Helmsdale. With no pressure of keeping to bus timetables, and fired up with a renewed interest in history, I trekked off the road to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. Yet another closed door, and annoyingly, they should have been open. "April to September" said the sign. Next to the sign was a poster advertising a "gig" A young "Gunn" was performing in a club in Wick. "An eclectic mix of traditional Scottish folk music...rap, reggae, and rock. Sounds interesting, perhaps I should have stayed in Wick after all.
Anyway, no point hanging around with regrets, I had to gear up for the challenge of the "Berriedale Switchback" the Highland drivers equivalent of "Nemesis" at Thorpe Park. The approach looks really scary, but the reality is, it's just a stretch of road that steeply goes up and down, has sharp bends, oh, and teeters on the edge of a cliff. So no, I wouldn't want to be in a car. Walking, as long as your careful not to lean too far over the edge taking stunning photo's, your safely up the other side before you know it.
I was looking forward to the next, and only other, highlight on the road to Helmsdale. "The Badbea Village" (or the remains of) I'd given it a miss last year, but in this years "History Fest" quest I had to go and see just what it was all about. Or did I?
To say the weather is changeable up here is a gross understatement. By the time I got there, a gale force wind was saying "don't go" so I didn't and I'll tell you why.
The Countess of Sutherland who owned all the land around here, decided that sheep farming was the way forward. "Orf my land" she said to all the locals, and with scant regard to their homes and livelihood, "The infamous "Clearances" began. One group of die hards, headed by John Badbea, decided to brave out a living on the cliffs edge. With winds so strong, they not only had to tie down the cattle, but small children as well.
Just imagine the scene...Crofters wife eagerly awaits husband return from a hard days work with exciting news... "Darling, guess what, little Jocasta has just taken her first steps, and she's only 9 months! Quite clearly an early sign of intelligence don't you think?" "That may well be" he replies with a sigh, "but you know what that means don't you? We'll have to tie her down for the next five years. Pour me a large whisky will you, and then I'll go and look for the wooden stakes and some rope"... It was indeed a struggle, and it couldn't last.
By 1903 they gave up and moved out, and now all that remains is a pile of stones and a memorial . Either of which, I didn't see, having been warned by the sign on the A99, if the winds are high, beware! So I did, and stuck to the road.