Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Dornoch to Golspie

Dramatis Personae: Richard, Niki and me. We planned to catch the 3:17 bus back from Golspie to Dornoch, but Susan was available to pick us up if we weren’t there in time. Our strategy for the day: maximum A9 avoidance.

Is it the 12th or the 14th best golf course in the world?
Different commentators say different things
The start was straight towards the sea, across the golf course. This is the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, apparently voted the fourteenth best in the world. The walk along the paths between the golf courses and the sea was glorious. The golf course itself was immaculate; the gorse everywhere in full bloom; the sea just beginning to retreat from full tide and leave the sands exposed. The golf course occupies a long strip of land between the coast and a bluff, which looks as if it might have been an earlier coastline of dunes. It lasts two thirds of the way to Embo, after which there is a rough track across grassland before reaching the caravan site near the town itself.

This is the largest caravan site I’ve ever encountered – several hundred mobile homes on hard standings, and a number of touring caravans as well. At this time of year only ten percent or so seemed to be occupied (based on the number of cars parked by them), but the whole area was neatly mown ahead of the summer influx.

Some of the newer houses in Embo
Embo itself is a small village, perfectly rectangular in layout, with parallel rows of small cottages at right angles to the coast. It was originally a fishing village, although there’s no harbour, so boats must have been hauled across the shingle and sand to get to the sea. That’s all long gone: nowadays it’s largely holiday cottages, although a few seemed to have year-round residents.

After Embo it was along, sweeping path to the Southern shore of Loch Fleet. There were big dunes covered in silvery grass on the shoreline, and then an area of clear felled wood with pools of water among the whitening stumps. 

More gorse along the old railway line
On the later stages of this walk it became obvious that this was a disused railway line, though there was no obvious evidence that it went on to Embo or Dornoch. This was easy going, with plenty of wildlife: herons flying off as we approached; ducklings with their mother in a pool beneath willow trees; a couple of deer fleeing from us.

Clear fell area before Loch Fleet
The lie of the land is such that it’s only a mile or so before you reach it that Loch Fleet comes into view. We found it with the tide almost at full ebb. There were sandbanks exposed in the middle of the Loch, and large areas of exposed bladderwrack and other seaweed nearer the shore. Here the wildlife was seals on the sandbanks, oystercatchers probing the seaweed, and groups of mainly drake eiders on the water. Plus plenty of seagulls, of course. It made for a wonderful sight as we stopped briefly for refreshments.

After this it was a couple of miles or so along the minor road on the south shore of Loch Fleet: very picturesque as we approached the A9. We would have to go along this to cross the bridge at the head of the Loch, but I was keen to avoid joining it any earlier than absolutely necessary. So it was down onto the sand instead.

The top end of Loch Fleet at low tide -
with our footprints showing our route across the sands
This proved a much better option. We had been apprehensive about it being soft or muddy, but there was evidence that some kind of tracked vehicle had been on it not more than a few days ago. It proved easy going, and there was evidence of previous walkers – not humans, but deer and otter footprints. The last stretch was along the sand below the causeway that leads to the bridge itself. This was covered in gorse and other vegetation. And it’s obviously ideal eider duck nesting habitat: we put up a dozen or so eider females that came rocketing out as we approached. It seemed rather inappropriate behaviour. It would have been much better for them just to sit tight and not alert us to their nests.

After clambering up to the level of the road we had less than 100m to go to the bridge, and after crossing it and walking a further 400m along the A9 or so we followed a man who had parked on the opposite side of the road and taken a footpath in to the woods on our right. So we had managed to restrict our A9 walking to little more than half a kilometre. Richard had read someone’s blog saying that it was impossible to avoid walking along the A9 on the stretch between Golspie and Dornoch, so we felt rather superior.

Creag Bheag - a bouldering site on Loch Fleet
The path was a pleasant woodland interlude. And eventually we found the chap we had followed at the foot of a cliff, which according to the map is called Creag Bheag. He said he was bouldering – rock climbing without ropes or harnesses. Not my idea of fun, particularly if you are all by your own and miles from anywhere. But I can report is that his car was no longer where he had parked it when we drove back past later in the day, so presumably he had survived.

At any rate, he confirmed our position, and told us that we were essentially on the right track, so we resumed our walk with renewed confidence. We found a place where we could cross the railway line relatively easily, and where there was a conveniently placed bridge across the burn on the other side. 

Balblair Wood and Loch Fleet
Then we saw a footpath marker at the edge of the main part of Balblair Wood, which occupies more than half of the area between Loch Fleet and the A9. A quick check of the compass (the first time I had used it this year!) to see that we were walking in the right direction, and then two miles or so through the wood. This is all scots pine, at various stages of maturity, and easy going on forest tracks. It’s all part of the National Nature Reserve, and there are areas which have been quite recently fenced off to protect something or other. The chicken wire extends only a couple of feet above ground level so it’s difficult to imagine what is being kept out – or in. Presumably not foxes or rabbits. Research required! At the end of the forest stretch there were notices telling us more about the wood – Scottish crossbills mentioned, but no explanation of the fencing we’d seen.

A chainsawed welcome to Golspie
We now had a final mile and a half on a minor road in to Golspie. It began to rain. We had been lucky thus far, as showers had been suggested, but this was the real thing, and it got progressively heavier as we walked along the pavement beside the road and golf course.
It was a good half hour too late for the bus, so I called Susan to request a lift. Richard (whose anorak is reaching the end of its waterproof days) and Niki managed to find shelter in the local community centre, but I had to stay out of doors to make sure Sue knew where to stop. And by the time she arrived it was really pelting down.

It had been an excellent day’s walk, even if a little too long, so that we were flagging by the end, and if it had been a little shorter we wouldn’t have got the soaking. But there had been plenty of variety, great scenery, and a certain amount of unanticipated adventure. And not too much of the A9!

Cloudy, getting slightly warmer. Rain mid-afternoon, becoming heavy as we reached our destination 11 to 16C. 23.85 km, largely level. 83m of ascents and 85m of descents. Track across golf course; grassy path; tarmac through campsite and Embo; then more grassy paths, followed by old railway line. Minor road along S shore of Loch Fleet; across sand (low tide) to A9 just before bridge; A9 across bridge and for a further 500m, then path through woods down to N shore of Loch Fleet. Into pine woods with forest tracks, and final mile and a half on minor road.

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