My husband’s family on his father’s side lived and worked in Helmsdale, Sutherland, Scotland, going back at least three generations, and a family tradition is to holiday there each August together with other relatives. Some years it was difficult to find a place to stay that was big enough to accommodate everyone, so in 2012 we decided as a family to buy a holiday home in the village called Valhalla, https://www.valhallarental.co.uk. This house proved ideal as it has four double bedrooms and was the first police station in the village dating back to 1867.
As time has gone on, we have had some wonderful holidays there and have made it not only into a comfortable, spacious home from home for our family’s holidays, but we have also built a successful self-catering business, sharing the experience with other visitors holidaying in the Highlands.
In the last few years, we have especially enjoyed staying in this spacious second home with our children and grandchildren. We don't have the luxury of living close to our grandchildren so it is a joy to be able to spend a few days with them in the comfort of our holiday home in the Highlands of Scotland making some really special memories.
Helmsdale and the surrounding highlands offer so much for the grown-ups as a holiday destination, but it is an especially ideal place for children and teenagers to come and forget the modern world and experience the wonder of nature; walking, swimming, playing, exploring in the wonderful outdoors, visiting the various towns and villages with their eccentricities and delightful, breath-taking vistas that are so synonymous with Scotland.
We have four grandsons! They range in age from 5 to 13 years old, and are typically boisterous, energetic, inquisitive, and constantly on the go. When they’re not at school, out participating in various sports and after-school clubs, their main source of recreation and entertainment in a modern world seems to be gaming platforms in some shape or form. So, coming to Scotland to spend a holiday with the extended family (the olds!) may not be the ideal choice for them, but, and it is a big but, I find it truly magical to watch these young boys shed some of the activities of the modern world free from their screens and enjoy the simple fun of the outdoors.
Watch those claws! 🦀🎣
We start at Helmsdale Harbour, where they can’t wait to go down onto the pontoons with their gear, fishing for crabs; fishing lines are loaded with bacon bits and lowered into the water, and then the mayhem begins!
Ha! squeals of delight as each line is slowly brought up with a wriggling, claw clanking crab to deposit in their buckets, crabs usually grabbed by Nana! My heart is in my mouth most of the time as they all hang perilously over the edge of the pontoon, looking like they might fall in head first any minute, but they just love it!!
Then, after a couple of hours (yes, hours), we all troop off to Timespan Museum and Arts Centre, https://timespan.org.uk/ , for refreshments in the River Café; toasties are a favourite. Then a look around the museum that tells of the local and social history of the parish and people of Helmsdale and surrounds, taking you on a journey from the sea and river mouth, upstream and inland, to the Strath of Kildonan. They also have a youth library, a gift shop representing the thriving arts and craft industries in the Highlands, and local handcrafted ceramics, textiles, jewellery, and prints. Timespan is a very interesting place to visit and has so much more to offer than your usual tourist attraction. The boys love it.
Beaches, sand, and sea! 🌊🩴
Last summer 2023, we had all four grandsons up to visit, and it was so wonderful seeing them enjoying the good weather, especially at Loth Beach. There, we picnicked in the dunes with at least four generations of our extended family.
The boys spent most of the time on the beach, swimming in the sea, building sand castles, playing ball games, and exploring. Nana, once again, on hand to take them “around the corner" (their words), where the best rock pools can be found. I watched in wonder at the simple joy of being a child, free from the modern world, breathing in the pure air of the highlands on a summer’s day, discovering the fun of climbing up the rocks that edge the beach here, then sliding down the sand dunes—more heart-thumping moments for Nana!
Are we there yet? And swooping owls! 🥾🦉
Another unforgettable morning was spent climbing up to Ben Bhraggie (or Beinn a'Bhragaidh to give it its proper Gaelic name): https://sobt.co.uk/walk-ben-bhraggie/ behind the village of Golspie.
Although the path is very walkable, both for adults and kids, it is a little steep in places but well rewarded at the top by excellent views over the coastline and inland hills. On a clear day, both coasts of Scotland can be seen. The massive Duke of Sutherland monument, locally known as 'The Mannie', marks the top from where this circuit takes a gentler route down on forest tracks initially.
Our youngest boys, 5 and 8, both managed it with a little coaxing. When our 8 year old was starting to falter I asked him to make up a story on the way to distract him: he did this magnificently by inventing a wicked old man who lived on the hills and stole the tourists' picnic food as they walked up to the monument! Amazingly, our 5-year-old got all the way to the top without too much bother and a few piggybacks, and was delighted with the views and picnic at the top.
Once everyone made it safely back down Ben Bhraggie we trooped off to Dunrobin Castle to watch the wonderful birds of prey display in the grounds and explore this picturesque castle and museum dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland. https://www.dunrobincastle.co.uk/
Treasures on the beach! 🌊🪙
Another memorable trip was to Berriedale Beach, the secluded pebbly bay by the mouth of Berriedale Water, an exquisite spot well worth seeking out just 9 miles north of Helmsdale. Here you will find a whitewashed row of houses and a tumbling burn overlooked by ruined Berriedale Castle on the cliffs above. https://sobt.co.uk/berriedale-beach/
A quirky feature of this spot is crossing the wobbly suspension bridge over Berriedale water, to the pebble beach where the detritus washed up by the sea is suddenly a treasure trove of goodies that must be investigated. The waves wash up the most spectacular-coloured pebbles and shells, glinting and glittering in the sunshine, convincing the younger boys they have found gold and silver nuggets.
Along the beach, the boys spot a cave and are off to explore its depths, only for the younger ones to run out again, shrieking, afraid of its dark depths. Then they all start climbing on the rocks; of course they do, and I manage to get them to stand still for a photo while shouting for them to be careful! My poor heart!
Time for lunch, yum! With the beach explored and treasures emptied from their bulging pockets (I managed to convince them to just take one or two home), we go back over the bridge and across the road to the River Bothy Café. This is such a great treat—one of the best cafés we have had the pleasure to eat in. They offer the most amazing soups and sandwiches; delicious cakes; and their breakfasts are amazing! And don’t get me started on their afternoon teas! https://www.theriverbothy.co.uk/ Not to be missed!
Slippery steps to the sea! 🦈🪜
If you have the energy after that, you can travel further up the A9 to the Whaligoe Steps (not for the faint-hearted), 365 steps that descend to what was a naturally formed harbour between two sea cliffs. These were originally created by Captain David Brodie, who also built the harbour and village of Sarclet some 3 miles north of the steps. The Steps were once a landing place for fishing boats loaded with herring known as silver darlings. Local women transported baskets of the fish up the steps to gut and take to market for sale. We didn’t make it on this trip, but it’s definitely on the list for the boys next visit.
There is gold in them that burns! 🔍🏴☠️
A very exciting trip for the boys was panning for gold in the river at Baile An Or, at the site of the Great Sutherland Gold Rush of 1869, situated on Suisgill Estate, near Suisgill Burn. This was just kids’ heaven: water, rocks, a rushing river—what more could you want? They had a great time negotiating the rocks and digging around in the river looking for gold. http://www.suisgill.co.uk/home/baile-an-or/ Perfect! What a fun day they had.
And finally … there were lots of other times when all we did was go for a walk, especially along the river Helmsdale, just 5 minutes from Valhalla. This is a favourite of mine, as I often enjoy walking Roxie (my daughter’s beautiful spaniel) and will take along any of the kids that can be persuaded. It’s funny how 5 minutes into the walk they suddenly forget it’s a chore and enjoy finding sticks and battering down the nettles and weeds at the side of the track or looking for fish in the shallows. The walk takes you along the river Helmsdale for about half a mile, and then you reach a stile and some steps up to the main road. You can cross this road and walk around Helmsdale Golf Course (https://www.golfpass.com/travel-advisor/courses/17327-helmsdale-golf-club) or walk back along the road to home, which is probably a 45-minute round trip.
I have a very fond memory of one year on this walk when the two older boys spent a very happy hour rolling down one of the grassy fairways, laughing and giggling at each other’s antics, thoroughly lost in the joy of being young, free and agile, ha! ha! priceless! It made us late for tea though, oops. And that’s what it’s all about: making memories with our family that last forever.
I feel truly blessed to be able to go on these holidays with my grandchildren, to be able to watch them play, see the older ones helping the younger ones, hear their laughter, and see them grow and experience life in the best way. Day-to-day life can be so busy, with work, school runs, after-school activities, and the relentless pull of getting stuff done!
Well, I know a place where you can relax, unwind, and spend precious time with your family, making lifetime memories that will last forever: Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, my favourite holiday destination. Please visit our website, book your holiday, and experience the joys of the Highlands for yourself and your family and friends. https://www.valhallarental.co.uk/
Faith Chelton (Nana) 💜