Days 1 to 3…John o’Groats to Embo


Day 1… Tuesday 20th May 2008… John o’Groats to Forsinard


‘Team Campbell’, comprising, in this instance, Gus, Aimee (younger daughter), Lucy (her friend) and me, drove up from Embo to John o’Groats on the A9/A879/A836 to check it out, hoping it would be a better road than the A9/A99 coast road which we knew to be a pretty dangerous road for cyclists, there being soft-verge run-offs for lorries on the steeper descents! Never a good sign!!

Gus decided that the A897 back down from near Thurso to Helmsdale was a much safer road although considerably longer. Remembering that this venture is an endurance event rather than a sprint, we decided that would be the better choice.

Aimee and Lucy were with us because they were to meet up with Andy (second oldest son) and Michelle (his wife) and the children in Thurso, Thurso having the reputation for some of the best surfing waves in the world! In 2006, Thurso hosted the world championships.

The family wanted to check it out, hoping to catch a few like these.

surf 1        Thurso surf 2


The run up was beautiful: sunshine all the way. The gorse is in full flower just now, lending wonderful richness to the hills and lanes. And the smell! Sumptuous coconut butter!

After we had lunched all together in Thurso’s Tesco… a BIG mistake… it was dreadful: little choice and no taste, Gus and I headed for John o’Groats.

John o’Groats (Taigh Iain Ghrot in Scottish Gaelic) is a small coastal village scattered over a large area, mainly a rural farming community, and has the distinction of being the northerly end of the longest distance between two points on the British mainland. The surrounding area is windswept and unspoilt, with views across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands six miles away.

A mound near the  John o’Groat’s House Hotel marks the site where Jan de Groot, a Dutchman, who settled here in about 1489, built a house that became famous. It was octagonal in shape, being one room with eight windows and eight doors, one for each of his seven sons and himself and an eight-sided table to stop the arguements over who was to sit at the head of the table.

The present House or Hotel, was built in 1875 but fell into disrepair, being empty since the mid-1990s.

J O'G house c1895                John O'Groats House Hotel

It is now undergoing a huge renovation. The first picture is an impression of how it looked in 1875 and the second one is from about 1990 or so and is how it looked when we were there on this trip in 2008.


 25       27

No comments, please, about how we’ve changed since our Youth Hostelling days!

So, Gus set off at 3pm from John o’Groats in fine weather and good form, taking the A836 through Huna, Mey, Dunnet, Castletown to Thurso.


I followed after a little browsing in the gift shops and the pottery in J o’G, passing Gus on the road just past Dunnet Head.   Dunnet Head near John O'Groats         

puffins  with its lighthouse and its puffins, meeting up with the others in Thurso.

Unfortunately for them, it was a delightfully calm day up there… so no waves!

They seemed to have had a nice day anyway, in and around Thurso and on the beach.



Gus joined us in time to have a cuppa with us in the  surfers’ tearoom before he continued cycling the remainder of the 37 miles he was doing along the north coast of Scotland, the ‘roof’ of Britain,


past Dounreay Power station, through Reay, turning left onto the A897, heading South at last just before Melvich. Glorious weather, glorious scenery. I know because I followed him in the car, of course, but later… after the girls and I drove back to Dunnet Bay to walk on the beach,


…just down from this gorgeous, newly-built dry-stone wall with wee nooks in it and wildflowers growing in its shelter.

15     13

This was pretty too, written in rope. Clever!    11                      We even paddled in the delightfully warm water. Warm, compared to the water of the North Sea at Embo!

Meanwhile, Gus worked his way down through Strath Halladale, the river running beside him, sparkling in the sunshine, past isolated farms and cottages and the totally remote Trantlemore Cemetery, filled with chess-piece style memorial stones, incongruous in the pretty countryside.

7    6 

Eventually, Aimee, Lucy and I caught up with him, “Whoo, whoo, whooing!” loudly with the windows down. I’m sure he just loves when his back-up team do that! It must be SO encouraging!

He only had about seven or eight miles to go, but we stopped anyway to ask if he needed anything, which he claimed he didn’t, which is just as well since we’d been too busy swanning around Dunnet Head to offer much support for the most part of the day.

However, after we had continued on for a few miles, he had a change of heart and phoned, mobile to mobile, to ask us to come back with his cycling coat and warm trousers since the sun was going down and he was getting extremely cold. We did that, passing him again with a great deal more, “Whoo, whoo, whooing!”

So nice for him!

We drove on, singing along to the music we were playing rather loudly in the car while Gus had to content himself with his own, unaccompanied, singing. His progress may have been more dignified, but we reckoned ours was more fun!

It had been a day of delightful scenery, quiet roads, gentle hills and reasonable road surfaces though no cycle paths.

Finally, we all  met up at Forsinard, which was not much more than a hotel and a tiny railway station with a Society for the Protection of Birds visitor centre attached to it. Fascinating! This was our chosen destination for day one and we ensconced ourselves in the local hotel for tea and sandwiches.

5    4  

On the way back to Embo we passed this cute little blue house and literally hundreds of wild deer by the side of the road. Apparently, there are herds of them, numbering about 500 in all, roaming the area. They come down in the evenings to graze by the river, which runs beside the road.

3    102


Total cycling mileage for the day… 50 miles.

Total so far from John o’Groats…   50 miles.


Day 2… Thursday 22nd May 2008

Forsinard to Golspie


We drove back up to Forsinard with Kenny, our third oldest son, fourth out of five in the family foodchain, to take up the next stage of the challenge, pausing to Ooh! and Aah! at some wee lambs we passed on the way.

 May 22nd 2008 003      May 22nd 2008 004 

 As I mentioned yesterday, Forsinard is a tiny place, not even a village, just a few houses, a hotel, a very interesting little RSPB nature reserve centre with all the information you could want relating to the surrounding area and Forsinard Flows, its wildflowers, like sundew and butterwort, and birds. Listed below are some of the birds you might be fortunate enough to observe, according to the RSPB website.


Look along the rocky stream for dippers’ weird and wonderful behaviour. As their name suggests, they plunge underwater looking for insect food and fish fry before bobbing to the surface like a cork.

Dipper - adult


Watch out for breeding-plumaged dunlins with black bellies during spring.

Dunlin - breeding plumage (illustration)

Golden plover

In their breeding plumage, golden plovers look very smart with black undersides and spangled golden backs.

Golden plover - in breeding plumage


Greenshanks are very elegant wading birds. In most parts of the UK, they only stop briefly on their migration, but in this part of Scotland, they stay to breed in the boggier areas.

Greenshank - breeding plumage

Hen harrier

Hen harriers can be seen at any time of year at Forsinard. You may be lucky enough to see one hunting close to the road – a car makes an excellent hide.

Forsinard Flows

Kenny was going to give Gus some company today, but he wasn’t too worried about this leg of the journey.

May 22nd 2008 006     May 22nd 2008 009

He was more worried about allowing his bib-top cycling shorts to be on public display while he changed, so he did his Clark Kent thing…

May 22nd 2008 008      May 22nd 2008 014 and, Hey Presto! Team Campbell were ready for day two.

May 22nd 2008 012 

It was cold and blustery when they set off down the A897, but bright and sunny too.

May 22nd 2008 015      May 22nd 2008 016

Unfortunately, the wind was fierce and set itself against them all the way, so they tell me it was hard work. Personally, I found it rather pleasant: driving through bonnie glens, beside gurgling streams. At one point, I strolled along the river bank looking for wild flowers. I identified ten or twelve different species.

May 22nd 2008 017      May 22nd 2008 019

This was the day when Gus realised just how unsuitable his mountain bike is for such a trip. While Kenny, on his road bike, got the benefit of freewheeling downhill, Gus was still having to peddle!!

The way I look at it is, it’s a bit like when runners or boxers train with weights strapped to them. They feel so much lighter and fitter when they’re removed. Gus is going to fly when he gets on a road bike!

The boys cycled to Helmsdale (Scots: Helmsdal,Scottish Gaelic: Bun Ilidh). Norse settlers called the strath Hjalmundal, meaning Dale of the Helmet, from which the modern village name Helmsdale is derived. It is on the east coast, in the Highland council area of Scotland. The modern village was planned in 1814 to resettle communities that had been removed from the surrounding straths as part of the Highland Clearances. In the early 19th Century almost all of the inland settlements in the area were cleared of their inhabitants in order to make way for more profitable residents: sheep. Clearances took place right across the Highlands and Islands, but those perpetrated by the first Duke of Sutherland in this area were amongst the most notorious.

Some of those cleared were resettled in Helmsdale, as an alternative to being shipped to the colonies or to North America. The aim was to create a community able to live from both fishing and farming, and, in particular to take advantage of the herring boom then in full swing. 

One of my all-time favourite novels is set in and around Helmsdale at the time of the clearances: The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn. A must-read for those interested in that particular area or time in Scottish history.

Helmsdale 1    Helmsdale 2

Two tributaries of the Helmsdale River experienced a gold rush in 1869. The history of Kildonan’s gold started in 1818, when a single nugget of gold was found near the Suisgill and Kildonan burns. Scotland ensured its place in the history books late in 1868, when a brief announcement in a local newspaper stated that gold had been discovered at Kildonan in the county of Sutherland. The credit for the discovery goes to Robert Nelson Gilchrist, a native of Kildonan, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River, its burns and tributaries. 

The gravels and sediments of the Kildonan Burn are  salted with small concentrations of gold in the form of tiny granular flecks, and the very occasional little nuggets sometimes combined with quartz. If you want to try your hand and spend a day in the countryside panning for gold, you can do that at Baile-An-Or, free of charge, by kind permission of the owners of Suisgill Estate. 

Lapidary enthusiasts can also find small garnets, in good quantity but usually well travelled and fractured, however occasionally one can be found which is of facetable quality. Other associated minerals are quartz, hematite {magnetic black sand}, granite, mica schist, pyrites and marble.

The views along the “Strath Road”, as it is locally known are particularly beautiful with rugged heather strewn moor and gentle rolling hills partially covered in forestry. Sheep and lambs roam freely over unfenced roads so I really had to take my time and drive with care, in order to avoid the sheep and enjoy the views. Deer also are a common sight and often cross the road on their way down to the river, although we didn’t see any today.

 At the junction where the A897 joins the A9, just outside the village proper, we  met up with Lisa, Lucas and Mya, whereupon Kenny rejoined his family, as planned, and Gus continued on to Golspie, a day’s run of 40 miles. He would have cycled the rest of the way to Embo but we’d started out later than intended in the morning and he ran out of time… not steam! We were booked into ‘The Oystercatcher’ in Portmahomack for some posh nosh with some friends and we didn’t want to be late.

I had gone ahead after Helmsdale so that I could get showered and changed and Andy kindly went back up to Golspie to rendezvous with Gus. The bike was hoisted onto the back of the car and they drove the last ten miles to the caravan for Gus to get showered too. I think he needed it more than I did! (Just saying he worked harder, that’s all.)  The meal was fabulous: great fresh seafood of every variety.

Another good day.


Forsinard to Golspie…………….. 40 miles

Total so far from John O’Groats… 90 miles.


 I have to thank various web pages and history books for some of the information and images about Forsinard and Helmsdale. The rest I observed and photographed.


Day 3… Wednesday 23rd May 2008

Golspie to Embo


Team Campbell today comprised Andy and Gus cycling, starting out from Golspie on the A9 to Embo, with Michelle, Emma, Zoe and me as back-up team. As you can see, warm gear was the order of the day, the wind being pretty fierce and cold, the sky overcast… and Andy up to his old tricks…

IMG_2044    IMG_2045  

‘Get up you stupid boy!’

‘Don’t worry, Michelle, he’s only broken one ankle!’

This is a family joke. As a boy, Andy was rather prone to play the ‘drama card’. If he fell, it was always ‘serious’: he was always certain he had broken something and yelled commensurately. It was a classic case of ‘crying wolf’ because when he did hurt himself, we never believed him. Today, he played the joker.

We were never worried.

 IMG_2047    IMG_2048 

We knew he’d get his act together and get on the bike in the end and make it out of Golspie carpark. 

Golspie (Scottish Gaelic: Goillspidh) is a village in Sutherland, Highland, Scotland, which lies on the North Sea coast in the shadow of Ben Bhraggie (394m). It has a population of around 1,650.

GolspieThe name derives from the Norse for ‘gully village’.

Originally a small fishing hamlet, Golspie was, like many villages on the east Sutherland coast, expanded in the early nineteenth century to house some of those evicted from the inland straths and glens during the clearances. Fishing was the main industry, but the opening of the railway in 1868 brought the first tourists to the area.

Around Golspie there are opportunities for walking, bird watching and botany study, fossil-hunting and gorges and waterfalls. There is loch and sea angling, as well as sailing and yachting in the bay and mountain bike trails on the slopes of Ben Bhraggie. DunrobinCastle, the seat of Clan Sutherland, is nearby and has falconry displays.

Three miles south of Golspie, is Loch Fleet with its National Nature Reserve. The boys cycled past wading birds, wildfowl and seals basking on the sandbanks. Osprey, terns and swallows frequent the loch in summer and rare wild flowers and plants can be seen in nearby Balblair Wood.

Andy, being always up for an adventure, decided later that he’d swim out to the sandbank to get a closer look at the seals. The seals were not so sure. As soon as he set foot in the water, their heads came up. 


A few steps further and they slid into the water and were off.


But, I digress… Back to the cycling. While Michelle and the children followed the boys by car, I stayed on in Golspie long enough to check out the charity shop and find the only valuable bargain in the place… a ‘Mint Sauce’ cycling top for Kenny! Wish I’d thought to take a photo of it for inclusion here to let you see it in its splendour, though I do have afeeling a photograph exists somewhere. If so, I’ll add it here once I’ve located it and scanned it in. Meantime,  for those of you who are unfamiliar with  ‘Mint Sauce’…and, even more, for those of you who are…here is the link you need.

Andy had borrowed Kenny’s road bike, and, once again, the truth of what Kenny had been telling him for months was brought home to Gus… his mountain bike is too heavy for this kind of journey. Even Andy, after his pre-start ‘injury’, could freewheel downhill while Gus had to peddle.

However it didn’t take them long to reach Embo and Grannie’s Heilan Hame, the caravan park where we had been vacationing.


So, Day 3, a short one, only 10 miles cycled, bringing the accumulated total:

John O’Groats to Embo… 100 miles.



4 thoughts on “Days 1 to 3…John o’Groats to Embo”

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