Helmsdale is a fishing village in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, about two hours by road or rail north of Inverness. In 2011 its population was 764. The name derives from Norse Hjalmundal, the "Dale of the Helmet". The village was planned and built on a grid pattern in the early 19th century to accommodate those who were being evicted from the valleys above to make way for sheep, the infamous "Highland Clearances". There was a brief gold rush along the river in 1869.

Get in edit

Long-distance travel is usually via Inverness, which has an airport, and trains, buses and highways from the south.

Trains from Inverness run via Dingwall, Tain, Golspie (for Dunrobin Castle) and Brora to Helmsdale, taking 2 hr 30 min, with four M-Sa and one on Sunday. They continue north to Thurso (for Orkney ferries) and Wick.

1 Helmsdale railway station   is 200 yards west of the village. It's just a platform halt with no ticket office, machines or other facilities - buy your ticket on board if you start from here. There is level access to Platform One southbound but stairs over the footbridge to Platform Two northbound.

Stagecoach Highlands Bus X99 takes 2 hours from Inverness via Tain, Dornoch and Brora to Helmsdale, with four M-Sa and two on Sunday, and continues to Wick and Thurso.

Stagecoach Bus 66 runs three times a day from Lairg via Golspie and Brora to Helmsdale, 80 min. Lairg has buses to Kinlochbervie and Durness on the west coast.

Get around edit

The village is walkable but you need wheels to reach the distillery or Badbea.

See edit

  • 1 Timespan, Dunrobin Street, KW8 6JA, +44 1431 821327. Mar-Oct daily 10:00-17:00. Local history museum, covering the Clearances, and the Helmsdale gold rush of 1869. You can still pan for gold further up the valley. With café. Adult £4.
  • Helmsdale Castle was an L-plan tower house built 1488 just south of the river. In 1567 the Earl's aunt tried to poison her way to the succession. The last of the ruins were cleared away in the 1970s when A9 was re-aligned across the bridge, so all you see now is a monument by the roadside.
  • Emigrants' Statue adjacent commemorates the Scots of the diaspora to the colonies, and those dispossessed by the clearances (not quite the same thing). Completed in 2007, its sculptor was born in Helmsdale but went out to the South Africa goldfields. A matching statue was unveiled in Winnipeg in 2008, where a group from Helmsdale had been among the founder families.

South of town edit

 
Dunrobin Castle
  • 2 Lothbeg Wolf Stone records the killing of the last wolf in Scotland around 1800. The claim is possible, but 1700 is a likelier date. Wolves were hunted or trapped to extinction in England and Wales by 1500, and in Ireland by 1786. The bleak hills of Sutherland are one area proposed for their re-introduction.
  • 3 Clynelish Distillery, Brora KW9 6LR, +44 1408 623000, . Daily 10AM-5PM. Now part of Diageo, this was a twin distillery, but Clynelish A (or Brora) closed in 1983 and you visit Clynelish B. It produces a peaty single malt whisky, 95% of which goes into Johnnie Walker Red Label; see Kilmarnock#Understand for the story of this iconic brand. However a few bottles of single malt are released, and old stock from Distillery A are pricey collectors' items. Tasting £15, tour £19.    
  • 4 Carn Liath is an Iron Age broch, which looks to have been built over a Bronze Age village and burial site. It's free to access 24 hours.
  • 5 Dunrobin Castle, Golspie KW10 6SF, +44 1408 633177. Apr-Oct: daily 10AM-4:30PM. Opulent home of the Dukes of Sutherland, originally from 14th century but what you see now is mostly a grandiose Victorian chateau. Yes, lots of heads of dead animals, and the dark side is that the duchy ruthlessly evicted its tenants in the 18th and 19th centuries. With extensive gardens. Adult £13.50, conc £11.50, child £8.50.  

North of town edit

  • 6 Ousdale Broch is a substantial Iron Age tower from 2nd or 3rd century BC; it was repaired 2015-20 and the access path was improved. In 1201 it may have marked the boundary between Viking and Scots territory, as William King of Scotland faced down Harald the Elder here. Nearby are ruins of the clearance village of Borg, but those at Badbea are better.
 
Ousdale Broch
  • 7 Badbea   (pronounced "bad-bay") is an abandoned village 5 miles north of Helmsdale along A9. There are many poignant ruins across this region whose inhabitants were evicted to make way for sheep, but Badbea is the other way round: from 1792 evicted crofters gathered in this area, and were given small plots of land (useless even for sheep) to tend and on which to build their own houses. They also found employment in herring fishing. By the late 19th century that was unprofitable, and the villagers drifted away to the cities and to the colonies. The site is freely accessible 24 hours: park on A9 and follow the soggy track south for half a mile.
  • 8 Berriedale Castle is a medieval ruin on a coastal promontory.
  • 9 Eagle Rock is a memorial on the hillside where an RAF Sunderland flying boat crashed on 25 Aug 1942. Fourteen of the 15 aboard were killed, including Prince George, Duke of Kent, the first British royal death on active service since James IV was slain at Flodden. The plane was heading through fog to Iceland, and it's thought strong winds pushed it inland from its intended course; the Duke's lurid early life prompted all sorts of alternative stories.
  • 10 Dunbeath is a village 15 miles north of Helmsdale on A9. It was the birthplace of the novelist Neil Gunn (1891-1973), best known for "The Silver Darlings". Dunbeath Heritage Museum (Tu W F 10AM-4PM) covers his work, a major component of the 20th century rebirth of Scottish literature. Dunbeath Broch half a mile upriver is an Iron Age redoubt. Dunbeath Castle teetering on the cliff edge a mile south of the village is private, no tours. Laidhay Croft Museum a mile north up A9 is a 250-year-old thatched longhouse.
  • See Wick for points north of Latheron, where A9 heads north inland to Thurso while A99 follows the coast to Wick and John o'Groats. Useful to know: "Latheron" is from the Gaelic for "muddy place".

Do edit

 
Helmsdale with the gorse in bloom
  • Football: Brora Rangers play soccer in the Highland League, Scotland's regional fifth tier. They often do well and for some years have been knocking on the door of promotion to the professional leagues, but play-off setbacks and covid have thwarted this. Their home ground is Dudgeon Park in Brora, capacity 4000.
  • Golf: Helmsdale GC is nine holes. Twice round off yellow tees is 3720 yards, par 60.
Brora GC is 18 holes, white tees 6211 yards, par 70.
  • Helmsdale Highland Games are held on Couper Park in August: parades, pipe bands, tug of war, caber-tossing, and track and field events.

Buy edit

  • No supermarkets, just convenience stores: Spar in Helmsdale (M-Sa 6AM-10PM, Su 8AM-10PM) and Co-op Food in Brora (daily 7AM-10PM).

Eat edit

 
Police band at Helmsdale Highland Games
  • Thyme and Plaice, 10 Dunrobin St KW8 6JA, +44 1431 821598. Tu-W 9AM-5PM, Th-Sa 9AM-8PM. Friendly casual place, vegan options. No alcohol but bring your own.
  • La Mirage, 7-9 Dunrobin St KW8 6JA, +44 1431 821615. Daily noon-8:30PM. Fish are the thing here.

Drink edit

  • Bannockburn Inn is on Stafford St the main road. The bar is open 4PM till late. They serve meals and have rooms.
  • Rum is only produced in a handful of places across Scotland; the micro-distillery revival of the 2010s was mostly about gin. Scots Rum is a Helmsdale-based venture to make more. Ominously, the website extols piratical traditions in the same breath as crowd-funding the planned distillery via cryptocurrency, so it's unclear when or if anyone will get to drink any rum, or reap any other return on investment.

Sleep edit

 
The Emigrants
  • Helmsdale Marina permits overnight parking of motorhomes.
  • 1 Helmsdale Hostel, Stafford St, Helmsdale KW8 6JR, +44 7971 516287, . Clean friendly well-run hostel, six rooms en suite each with four beds. Open all year but Nov-March only for group bookings. Dogs welcome by arrangemnt. Double room £70.
  • 2 Belgrave Arms Hotel, Dunrobin St, Helmsdale KW8 6JX, +44 1431 821242. Small friendly 3-star with restaurant. B&B double £95.
  • 3 Kindale House, Lilleshall St, Helmsdale KW8 6JF, +44 1431 821415. Clean central friendly B&B. B&B double £90.
  • 4 Crakaig Loth Campsite, Crakaig Farm, Helmsdale KW8 6HP, +44 1408 621972. Very basic site, friendly and clean facilities but strewn with derelict caravans. Rough access lane under railway bridge, low clearance. Pitch £20.

Connect edit

As of July 2022, Helmsdale and its approach roads have 4G from EE, O2 and Three, and a basic mobile signal from Vodafone. 5G has not reached this area.

Go next edit

 
The journey into space might start here
  • North are Wick and Thurso, in former Norse territory dotted with ancient remains.
  • John o'Groats itself is worth skipping, but nearby are Dunnet Head (true north tip of Great Britain), Castle of Mey and Duncansby Head.
  • Tain to the south has the Glenmorangie whisky distillery.
  • Inverness is the agreeable Victorian town that all north Highland routes lead back to.
  • North Coast 500 is a motoring itinerary that loops through Helmsdale.
  • Space: David Mackay, born in Helmsdale in 1957, is Chief Pilot for Virgin Galactic and has flown three sub-orbital missions to date. The journey has to start somewhere, so why not in a quiet Scottish village; Per Auchterarder Ad Astra as they say.


Routes through Helmsdale
Thurso/ Wick  NE   SW  TainInverness



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