Helmsdale, 68 miles north of Inverness, makes a good starting point for cycling journeys through the remote Strath of Kildonan. It is a pretty village, located next to a river and the sea, with hills of Gorse that turn bright yellow in the spring. A bronze statue commemorating the Highland Clearances, a coastal walk and fascinating museum with superb cafe are among the things to see and do in the village.
1. The Emigrants Statue
Look at the faces on this sculpture. They tell a story, they capture the emotion of people forced to leave their homes and make a new life overseas. The Highland Clearances resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of people from the land to make space for more profitable sheep farming.
The 10 foot tall, bronze statue, features a father heading towards the sea. He has a determined look on his face, knowing he has to go. His son looks up at him, looking frightened. The mother is facing the opposite direction, towards the hills, symbolically where there home was. She has a baby wrapped in her shawl. I imagine she is hesitant and wondering if leaving is the right thing to do for her child.
2. Cross the Thomas Telford bridge
Thomas Telford, the famous Scottish engineer, built the bridge that crosses the River Helmsdale into the village. The A9 road used to run this way until a modern crossing was built in 1970, which also resulted in the destruction of the ruins of Helmsdale Castle. On a positive note this does mean that the Telford bridge offers a tranquil entry into the village. If you arrive by train you will walk or cycle into the village by crossing this bridge. You don't need to worry about traffic here and can enjoy the view in peace.
3. Listen to the Clock Tower
The clock tower has a gentler version of the Big Ben chimes. Helmsdale is so peaceful that the chimes can be the only sound of human existence, particulary in the evening. The clock faces are lit at night, creating a magical atmosphere with the backdrop of dark, brooding hills.
The tower sits on a hillside that gives superb views over the village. It was built in 1924 to serve as both a landmark for the fishing boats and as a war memorial. It is quite moving to think that the war dead are honoured each time that the chimes are sounded.
In this short video I love that you can hear sheep and birds between the chimes, evocative of the peacefulness of Helmsdale.
4. Sit in the First Class Waiting Room
The 1871 train station was restored in 2013 after being boarded up for many years. You can go inside the original first class waiting room where there is a fireplace, antique railway desk and information about the station. There is even a self-serve book exchange. You can stay in the station as the rest of the building is self-catering accommodation. If there is nobody home you might be able to peek through the window and see the comfortable living room with wood burning stove.
5. Coastal walk to Navidale
This is one of those walks where you want to keep going and see what is around the next headland. Behind you is a hill that is a chorus of songbirds. In front of you is the sea and the occasional squeal of an oystercatcher. During my visit the sea was incredibly still, with barely a ripple. The pebbles on the beach have enormous variety of colours and patterns. I exchanged greetings with a local man carrying driftwood, perhaps to decorate his cottage with. The walk begins to the east of the harbour and if you go all the way to Navidale the distances is about 1.5 miles.
This museum explores the the history of Helmsdale with displays and objects, including a recreated croft house, shop and blacksmith's forge. There is a strong focus on the Highland Clearances. In 1791 Kildonan Parish was home to 1365 people and 5040 sheep, by 1840 there were 18,000 sheep and only 257 people living there. For me the most poignant object in the museum is a broken bowl, found on the cobbled floor of a collapsed longhouse in 2013. The fact that the shards of the bowl had not been cleared away is indicative that it could have been broken during the upheaval of the family's removal from their home.
7. The River Cafe at Timespan
The cafe's windows look onto the gardens, the River Helmsdale and the Thomas Telford bridge. There is no trendy shabby chic decor in here. The focus is on the food. A card explains that everything is sourced locally, such as crab and salmon from a Helmsdale fisherman. The herbs come from the garden. During my visit the blackboard at the entrance stated the soup of the day was "viking turnip", so I gave it a try. I never knew you could make a turnip taste this delicious until I had this heavenly soup.
8. Walk to Saint John's Well
It is only a short walk, 200m, along the river bank to this well. It is a pleasant path through the trees. The well is dedicated to St John the Baptist and inside it there is a curious collection of pebbles with painted faces.
9. Go Back to the 1970s at La Mirage Restaurant
The interior of this restaurant is deliberately kept in 1970s style in honour of the original owner, Nancy Sinclair, who was a good friend of Dame Barbara Cartland. Cartland, famous for her flamboyant style, was a romantic novelist who wrote about 700 books and took holidays in Helmsdale.
This is essentially a fish and chip shop, but a very good one that has received many accolades and worldwide recognition. I ordered the 'special fish tea' and my jaw dropped at the appearance of two pieces of fish, peas, a separate bowl of chips, bread and butter and a pot of tea. It was delicious, but there was no way I could finish it.
10. The Harbour
Helmsdale was a product of the Highland Clearances. It was created to provide alternative employment, mainly fishing, for people evicted from the land. The harbour still has a fishing fleet, but nothing like the heydays of 1816-1821 when the herring fleet grew from 20 boats to 200. It is hard now to imagine the street lined with the hustle and bustle of cooperages and fish gutting yards. This is now a pleasant place for a stroll, looking at the boats, the lobster pots and row of colourful houses on Shore Street.