The two-car train rattled and squeaked its way out of Golspie, heading northeast to Brora along the outer edge of the Moray Firth. The woods and fields of the Sutherland coast flickered past the windows in bright morning sunshine, the winter sun casting a silver track across a sea as thick and slow-wrinkling as oil.
Setting off to walk back from Brora’s neat little station, we passed the village’s barrel-roofed icehouse, and the tiny fishing pier laden with crabbing creels. Down on the shore we headed southwest along a pebbly strand that soon turned rocky, with slabs of pale ochre sandstone moulded into sculptural shapes by the sea. A pair of black-tailed godwits with bills like slender broadswords stalked the tideline and a flight of oystercatchers took off in a scrabble of piping and wailing.
The pebbles of the shore were wonderfully coloured — orange and jet, speckly grey and jade green. Among them our boots scraped and tinkled, the noise drawing the round-eyed stares of a coven of grey seals. They lay fat and glistening, their hind flippers twitched up like blue-tit tails, waiting out the falling tide, each on its chosen slab of rock.
We crossed a skein of fords below Sputie, whose double waterfall cascaded down the cliff into a smoking pool. Beyond the fall the coast took a more westerly curve, opening up a handsome prospect of snowy mountains beyond the long east-trending arm of the lower Moray coast.
Above the shore stood a thick circle of stone walls, the remnant of the 2,000-year-old broch, or Pictish tower, known as Carn Liath, “the grey stone-heap”. Beyond again, the roofs and turrets of Dunrobin Castle rose above the treetops, a fairytale castle fit for a sleeping princess. This classic Scottish baronial mansion was once home to the 1st Duke of Sutherland. The Duke gained notoriety for the harshness with which his orders of eviction were carried out on the hill herders and subsistence farmers of his enormous estates early in the 19th century.
Many of those clearance victims ended up on the coast at Golspie, forced to adopt new lives as fisherfolk. The 1st Duke stands in gigantic statue form at the summit of Ben Bhraggie behind the village, still dominant over the coasts and hills he once controlled with an iron hand.
Getting there Rail to Brora. Bus: service X99 (Inverness-Thurso). Road: Brora is on A9 between Golspie and Helmsdale
Walk 8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 441. From Brora station, left along A9; 2nd left down Harbour Road. In 300m, bear left and follow “Back Shore & Beach Car Park” to slipway down to shore (909035). Right along shore for 3¼ miles to Carn Liath broch (870014). Continue along shore for 1¼ miles. Opposite Dunrobin Castle walled garden, right inland (852006) up inclined road. Near top, opposite castle, left (850008, waymark post) on path through castle woodlands (occasional “village” signs) for ¾ mile to cross Golspie Burn footbridge by Tower Lodge (839002). Left along shore path for 1 mile; 200m beyond pier, right inland up roadway (828995) to Ferry Road (825996). In 200m, left at B&B sign up lane; right to Golspie station (824998). Return to Brora by train.
Conditions Best done on a falling tide; some slippery rocks on shore