Helmsdale to Balintore

The transition from home comfort to the cold confines of the kayak was a difficult step. Cast from the warmth of a train carriage I staggered laden with dry bags into a stiff northern wind. In the two days away from the boat as the storms had passed over Helmsdale I had prepared the bike for the approaching transport swap; it was now ready and most importantly I had dried out. The finish line seemed tentatively close.

Although brief my return home brought mixed blessings. Yes I had dried out, yes I had feasted on roast beef and stew, yes I had relaxed in family comfort…but it was all luxuries I had forgotten on the road; now I missed it. Throughout the kayak journey I had been plagued with a strange knowledge that should I want to I could simply give up, home was always just a few hours away. I had expected this to plague me with temptation but throughout the trip the thought of home remained just that, a thought.


Alone, I let myself into the back door of the rowing club shed. To release the kayak from the heavy sliding door however I had to enlist help from two nearby kayakers who were unloading gear from a van to paddle north. The boat had collected a surprising amount of dust for so few days on land and a spider had cast a web across the cockpit; a cockpit which for the first time in months was completely dry! I relished the feeling of dry clean kit, no sticky cold on the small of the back, no salty friction on the seams, no lingering scent of wet neoprene. To prolong the return to cold and wet I sat on the deck lit the camp stove on the harbour wall and brewed a coffee.

With a welcome push the two paddlers waved me out of the harbour. While they ventured north to enjoy the towering stacks and cliffs at Lybster I would head south to wide open sands and the town of Golspie. Bouncing between a short melee of fetch which ricocheted on the sea defences my dry clothes returned to their normal wet and salty, it had been nice while it lasted.

The rhythm behind the blades returned and thoughts of home sunk into the waves. The enjoyment cast by the sea and from across the next horizon still outweighed any urge to stop, besides I was past the fearsome tides and exposure of the north.

Leaving Helmsdale I relished the return of wide surf free sandy bays. A shoreline where I could land and stretch legs, relieve myself and explore whenever I fancied without the constraints of swell and cliff. Taking advantage of the opportunity with frequent stops slowed my progress toward Brora despite favourable conditions. Following the train line I had travelled along earlier in the morning I waved enthusiastically as commuters trundled past on the morning rush; occasionally and much to my delight a return wave could be spotted from the lit carriage windows.

The wind stiffened as I entered the open bay toward the distant town of Brora. Arms aching and fighting cold dousings of spray the short hop seemed to take forever. Small houses in the distance grew larger agonisingly slowly through fervent glances to the shore between showers of spray.

Sweating and heaving for breath I finally squelched into the soft mud lining a sheltered shorefront at Brora itself. Sitting on the hull of my boat and stretching I lingered only to eat the pulped and sandy remains of a banana I had strapped onto the deck. In mere minutes sweat turned to shivers, although tired I was very cold and needed to get back on the water.


Sneaking between the narrow channels and swirling kelp of a rocky skerry I aimed west with the hope of landing at Golspie to find safe landing for the evening. The sun emerged to graciously cast warmth through my shivering arms. The shivering stopped and I returned to taking delight in watching large flocks of gulls scatter across my bow.

The shore slowly morphed from sand to stone, huge flat rocky outcrops stretched like fingers into the sea from luscious green fields dotted with cattle. The arrival of the sun had also seen the wind had depart, my only obstacle were lone rocks submerged far off the shoreline. I hit several with a crack, scrape, curse and a laugh.

Waving at families wandering upon the shore to explore rock pools and devour picnic hampers I headed straight toward the towers of Dunrobin castle which jutted from a woodland ahead like a distant realm from fairytale and legend.  I arrived at the edge of the castle grounds to discover a small sandy tongue stretching from the woods to shore. It wasn’t the perfect landing but promised access to explore. With a gentle thud I dragged Sula onto the beach and wandered up toward the gardens.

Reaching the top of the beach I was delighted to discover a small patch of flat grass in a clearing of thick bushes. It was just outside the castle gardens but within the exterior walls. From the shore I could see gardeners vans, security gates and cameras. The determination to sneak in turned into a new mission, could I camp here?

Humming the mission impossible tune I sneakily emptied the boat and slowly ferried bags of gear to my grassy hiding place. Dressed all in yellow and with a 15ft kayak on my shoulders the illusion of “Stealth” was probably largely in my head. By 6pm my boat lay hidden in the bushes, my tent propped atop a rocky ledge on the grass and the gear drying from a washing line rigged between the trees. I was chuffed with the camp, perched in the gardens of one of Scotland’s most haunted castles…I wondered what spooky disturbances the night might bring.

As evening descended I left the tent and wandered over to the garden walls. Built in the middle ages Dunrobin was remodelled in 1845, the tremendous castle towers over a manicured garden like a scene from any cliche disney movie. With pointed spires, curling sculpted balconies guarded by gargoyles and extravagant size the castle was one of the most incredible places I had visited so far. It was 7pm by the time I had found a trail to the castle gates. I found the garden had closed to the public, the gardeners had all gone home…I was alone and to my surprise the gates were unlocked!

Standing  sweaty, muddy and salty in clothes unwashed for months I suddenly felt king of the castle. Not one other soul wandered the gardens, the cameras and gargoyles sneakily nestled in the walls above stared silently and all was quiet. I stood arms on the balcony to gaze over the grounds as if inspecting my realm, I wandered through mazes and followed pristine hedgerows. There were vibrant beds of lavender, forests of Gunnera, strings of roses and strangely an entire alley of kale.

With a few kale leaves and a bushel of rosy red apples shamelessly stuffed into my pockets as the base of a luxury “green” dinner I decided to sneak back to the tent. Tip toeing past gurgling fountains and scrambling over the tall fern covered wall I escaped the grounds. But I hadn’t quite got away yet! As I landed with a thud from the top of the wall I was hit on the back of the head with something very hard and spiky- a falling conker.

Nursing an egg sized lump beneath my hair while my pasta a la kale gurgled in the little cooking pot sI sat in the fading evening light and watched the tide draw ever closer up the sand. Feeling content and happy I smiled broadly…it was good to be back to where I belonged.

Not a breath of wind creased the tent, beads of dew on the washing line glistened in the soft morning light. A small column of steam whisping into the still air from a large pot of coffee shrouded the view from my door. The sea glass calm and lapping close to the tent was pleasingly nearby; less distance to haul kit to the waters edge. It vitally important I kept to schedule. I HAD to get on the water early to paddle far offshore and reach a barely visible Tarbat ness way off in the distance. I HAD to reach Tarbat before midday.The conditions were perfect and with a brief phone call to Tain Bombing range to confirm the arrangements relayed by my father I was “Good to go!”

The routine of calling, explaining and confirming my intentions to the many M.O.D bombing ranges had become a regular and relatively painless task. Each time I called I was directed to a General or Sergeant who muttered precise and professionally accurate advice regarding safe times to cross. I often found they already knew as my dad had called far before I had thought about reaching each range.

I was surprised when the Sergeant at the Tain range cheerily announced “Yep Good to go, no worrie anyway ,its so calm we can track you on radar from Lossiemouth!” Lossiemouth was 50km away and I was skeptical at this bold statement but never the less the thought that “The man” may be watching  generated a slight paranoia during the 2.5 hour open crossing.

As morning progressed the haze started to slowly clear. At first I had been paddling on compass bearing as I was unable to see the lighthouse some 16km in the distance. Slowly and surly the pillar appeared against the empty blue haze, I could ignore the compass and paddle on sight. With my trusty radio which I had nicknamed “Crackle” strapped to my deck I paddled to the vintage tunes of radio 2 across the open empty water. Crackle struggled on for an hour before the battery died with a fizz; the silence suddenly seemed to swallow the boat and I wondered if my radio’s failure was anything to do with the Sergeants acclaimed “Super-radar.”Adjusting to the quiet I paddled on.

“CRASSHH!” A huge splash exploded right behind the boat!

My heart leapt in shock and I lurched around with little thought of balance. Forced to swing into a totally unnecessary brace to stop myself flipping over I wheeled around looking for the culprit. I was in a bombing range! Crashing sounds were the last thing I wanted!

The sea was empty behind my deck…”WHAT WAS THAT!!!” My mind reeled and heart raced….was I about to be blown up?

A few minutes I laughed as the culprit revealed itself…a curious seal. It wasn’t the first time their habit of sneaking up and splashing loudly had caught me unawares. Perhaps revenge for sneaking up on one poor sleeping seal before loudly shouting “BOO” much to my amusement several days earlier.

Each stroke brought Sula closer to shore and by 11am I had passed the halfway mark. Jets had started to appear and roared past barely 100ft above the water nearby; they were practicing line up manoeuvres for an afternoons bombing. Each plane would rocket past with deafening velocity before curling upward in a graceful arc to disappear back to the east.

I could see the red and white stripes of Tarbat ness lighthouse ahead; the last “boredom” hour crept by before finally arriving at the shore  under the sun magnified through what haze remained.  Dodging lines attached to the many fishermen balancing upon the rocks shore I rounded the headland to beach on a small bay nearby.

Keen to stretch my legs after 2 and a half hours in the boat I wandered aimlessly from the bay toward the lighthouse. What little sea breeze there was blew a cold chill through the warmth of the sun. With a squint across the bay to look for a now barely visible Dunrobin castle behind the blue haze I felt reassured for having stiff legs, there was a lot of water now between the castle and I.

Returning to the boat I sprawled out amidst beautifully sculpted sandstone shelving to enjoyed the sheltered warmth; I bathed in the warm sunshine while devouring the latest kayak cuisine; todays specialty – Soggy Oatcake turned porridge a la chunk of waxy slightly mouldy cheese.

The combination of sunshine and a sense of relief  to be out of the bombing range made for a slower more relaxed pace as I headed west into the mouth of the Moray Firth. To the south I could just make out the faded outlines of the distant shoreline, in such calm conditions it was a tempting idea to set again into the open sea to cut off a considerable distance into the firth.

It was too far and I was afraid to go. Watching fishing boats, huge tanker ships loaded with cargo and tug boats speed down the channel I was more concerned with a collision than the open stretch of water. I decided instead to travel west along the northern coast of the firth to camp at the small community Balintore. I would then cross the firth the following day with rested arms and make quick progress across the shipping channel.

What little cloud and wind remained drifted across to the faint thumps of explosives landing behind the headland; the bombing had begun. Sunshine lit the water into a tranquil inviting  blue which crystal clear magnified the vibrant colour of anemones, sea urchins and kelp forests below my hull.

Pausing to watch a young otter playing with a creel buoy in Rockfield harbour I clung to a strand of kelp by a large boulder. Rockfield truly lived up to its name; I found entertainment in dodging car sized boulders submerged at random on the shingle seabed. With razor sharp edges and often only a few inches beneath the surface the rocks protruded up to 100m offshore, I was glad to be at the vantage point of a kayak; I had no difficulty in spotting the obstacles ahead. This was no place for any larger boat.

The shoreline rose in a steep shelf from crescent shaped bays. Swathed in thick grass which rippled in the gentle sea breeze the ridge above seemed to loom over the rugged coastline. It was a perfect combination of intriguing landscape and easy landing should I choose to explore.

An hour spent dodging, weaving and drifting lazily though the boulder garden brought me to the end of the steep banks. Ahead Balintore township promised easy landing and a great place to camp. Passing the small ruin of Cadboll castle whose crumbled turret was slowly being swallowed into a golden field by trees and brush marked my arrival at the Hilton of Cadboll. A small branch of homes and hotels which spread east off-shooting from Balintore itself.

I was eager to land and make good use of the sunshine; I wanted to lay in the sun and dry out. Just 500m from shore however something caught my eye from the water.I immediately turned the away from the harbour and paddled out into the open. A flick, a splash, the distant glisten of light on dark skin…not the “Mermaid of the North” from the shores of Balintore… dolphins!

Paddling as fast and as hard as I could to catch the pod I arrived beside a small fishing boat who had also stopped to enjoy the sight. Rafting together I and the young couple aboard drifted in the sun to watch an incredible display by the resident “Moray pod.”  Certainly aware of our presence they weren’t shy, the bottle-nose beasts swam across our bows to launch from the water in magnificent spirals and flips, they crashed and splashed and they flicked their tails. A young mother and calf even swam just a few meters beneath us to have a better look at their audience.

We whooped and cheered at the show, I wondered if the dolphins so obviously showing off appreciated the attention but after half an hour of play they bored and left to feed. With a smile and wave I left the couple to try and catch what fish were left and headed in to shore.

Passing the harbour I landed with a soft scrape into the wide and sandy Shandwick bay. Between dog walkers, kids with frisbees and joggers I dragged the boat to the top of the sand. By sheer chance I had landed by a small patch of grass right beside a picnic table. Still edging on the side of caution after the rock incident in Wick I debated about the site, it was very public. Looking around I could see there were no burglar alarms on the nearby houses which was always a good sign and before even stripping off the wet kit three elderly locals had approached for conversation and instilled a reassuring sense of safety. I felt welcome in town and set about making camp before sprawling out on the picnic table in the sun.

A short wander to town to collect supplies settled what little concern I had left about camp. I had been ashore barely an hour and spoken to only a handful of people so you can imagine my surprise when upon entering the local shop that I was greeted with “Ahh the kayaker’s here.” The speed and efficiency of gossip in highland towns rivals even the speediest advancements in modern communication; I felt a little embarrassed but laughed at the rapidity of my newfound celebrity status.

I had barely left the shop before I was ushered into a nearby tavern on the pier by a complete stranger; with a confident handshake he introduced himself as David. He proudly presented the bar in a short tour; made out of an entire fishing boat cut in two the pumps offered a range of ales in a most appropriate decoration for the seaside watering hole. As quickly as he introduced himself David dashed off to help a friend move some wood.

Left alone in the bar I ordered a pint and sat in the corner to wait for my dad to arrive. He had agreed to drive across from Dingwall after work and deliver the hood of my tent which I had forgotten in my haste to return to the kayak 2 days prior. Paul soon arrived in a whirlwind evening visit filled with pints, dinner and gazing at maps in the bar. I felt utterly rested and restored. Bringing the news that the morning forecast was for fog and higher winds which not strong enough to be dangerous but were directly on my nose I decided to re-consider the morning paddle. The wind would make for a punishing pace across the channel and I was terrified to set out into a busy shipping channel in the fog. It seemed the perfect excuse to indulge in the hospitality of Balintore one more day and to repair the small splintered hole in Sula’s hull.

* * *

Sure enough through the night a fog rolled in and a stiff wind rattled the tent. Forced venture out of the tent just before the fog arrived to drag Sula a little higher up the sand to escape an unusually high tide I enjoyed a short wander up the beach under the silvery light of a full moon. I wandered to the rocky southern end of the bay which I had been told were called “The Kings sons.” The skerries held their name by a legendary “Rescue” mission.

Kidnapped in the night the beloved and reportedly beautiful daughter of a highland chief and Lord of Cadboll castle disappeared. It wasn’t long before her absence was noticed and by luck or chance she was spotted in the arms of her kidnapper rounding the point of Old Shandwick just beyond what now are known as “the kings sons” Furious and desperate the Chief sent his three sons out to sea in a rowing boat to stage a brave and daring rescue mission. They rowed out into a storm under the last light of day and into the night. By morning neither the daughter nor the sons had returned.  Alas the three sons were found on the rocks forever condemning the harrowing name upon them….and as for the helpless abducted daughter? …she happily married her kidnapper. 

Tales of ghosts at the point peaked my curiosity, what better time than a full moon for a paranormal adventure. All was silent but the crash of the waves on the rocks, that night my tent was haunted only by a curious mouse.

The late night stroll dodging waves along the sand ended with long sleepy rest in my sleeping bag well past the sunrise. By the time I emerged the fog had cooled the air and swept a powerful scent of salt and seaweed across the tent.

I took the morning to create a terrifically sticky mess from fibreglass and resin and enjoyed giving Sula some much needed T.L.C. With the largest holes sealed I left the kayak to dry. Sandy resin had stuck to everything I had touched including the boat,my hands, tent and that darned little itch on my nose.

Stormbound for repairs

It was 10am, the day was young and I had nothing to do but wait. I had no plan and no idea what to do – the perfect recipe for an adventure. The people of Balintore who seemingly all now knew of “That wee boy and his wee yellow boat” took the chance to make my day as interesting and varied as possible. A constant procession of intrigued onlookers wandered up to the tent to chat before I had even left to explore.

I remember when this beach was lined with 3m high barbed wire..there were flamethrowers on the harbour wall up there” croaked an elderly man who pointed out to Balintore harbour with the hand free from clutching a cane. “Those were busier times…the army used to practice for D-Day landings here” he continued with a clear sense of pride. He was in his 90’s but where age and time had weathered his appearance his memories had stayed young, “I’m still a kid at heart you know! I just miss all those young lassies that used to be in the pub” I laughed. It took me an hour to walk the kilometre from my tent to town as every few hundred meters I would meet another local with their dog to chat to.

I begun to wander the streets but barely made it past the pub on the pier when a car shuddered to a stop beside me; It was David from the previous day. “I’m on the way up to the house for tea, do you want some sandwiches?”  A quick trundle through town in the dusty seat of his pickup later and I stepped tentatively over the welcome threshold of his home.

David’s wife appeared with a tremendous plate of biscuits and perfect triangular sandwiches filled with ham, cheese and pickle. Tea, coffee and juice poured plentifully in mugs appeared shortly after as we all sat down for morning tea. We talked of my journey so far and of David’s passion in building model houses. He agreed with delight to show me how one goes about building a miniature home adding “Ive a few errands to run first” and insisted the best solution was to buy me a pint and leave me at the pub…an offer not to turn up.

As we relaxed post lunch in a soft sofa I became humbled by their unwavering hospitality, we were complete strangers to each other but within minutes they had whisked me to their house and delivered a feast fit for a king. I also became aware that I was very dirty, my clothes saturated with mud, salt and sweat. I knew that I smelled and that my hosts were far too polite to mention it, I made what effort I could to sit nearest the open window.

Back at the pub I had barely finished my pint before being whisked once more on another mystery whirlwind tour. This time driving out of town I was escorted up a quiet back road and into an abandoned airfield. Slowly crunching across loose tar the truck rolled to a stop in-front of a battered aircraft hanger. The crumbled concrete walls and rusting tin roof didn’t seem the sort of place someone might build houses and I suddenly felt aware that we were somewhere very quiet and remote.

A little nervously I let the truck and stepped inside the hangar. A spade propped against the door next to a pile of soil didn’t help my imagination which spiralled into a world of murder mysteries. Of course it was just my imagination, inside there was no sense of impending doom, instead was a hangar filled with a wonderful collection of oddities. A piano stacked in the corner, a punch bag hanging from the beams, stacks of wood and old wooden frames, mirrors propped in the corner. Everything was covered in dust. At the forefront of the organised chaos was a small table and atop that a half built model house.

“I do it for fun, but it certainly helps learn patience” David smiled. He showed how he carefully carved each individual brick from stone or concrete before applying a tiny layer of mortar to stack each wall. He built each home with wooden beams, real stone and even tiny glass windows each project took months to build and was totally unique. They truly resembled a real building and were often replicas of real houses each the size of an extravagant dolls house. {As a child I harboured a slight distaste for miniature houses after becoming trapped inside a dolls house whilst inside the bottom a sleeping bag. Somehow I had managed this in my sleep…my parents had the house bouncing around the room shouting for help much to their amusement i’m sure}. The sheer craftsmanship in David’s creations inspired a fresh look at miniature homes, I looked at them with nothing but respect and admiration.

The finished products were beautiful, weighing over 20kg at least they were propped on a lifting trolley. There was a miniature bridge and even a thatched roof cottage sitting amidst the dusty garage. Offering to build your home by way of commission the buildings were worth their weight and helped David to fund his hobby, of course he did it for passion and not profit.

Relieved not to be buried in the airfield and inspired to spend more time tinkering in the garage once my trip was complete I returned with David back to the pub by the pier. It seemed that the bar was held as the central pivot of the Balintore community. Before leaving David introduced me to the local legend that was George.

In every small town there is always one person to which the town revolves, their status often directly related with how hardy and weathered the key person is. With a weathered face tanned deep brown by the sun to hold a thousand tales in a single look, a tough hand hardy from a life of hard graft and a firm grasp upon a wooden cane polished through years of use it was obvious for Balintore George was this person.

Over several pints we chatted across the boat shaped bar. A keen and fit hiker George paced with an effortless stride up and down the bar while we drank. He talked of his new boat and invited me as crew on a future voyage; it would grow to become the subject of many a daydream in the days ahead, certainly sailing would be an easier option to paddling.

Insisting on buying a full roast pork dinner for the both of us and refusing to let me contribute George and I sat down to eat in the bar before he left to run his evening errands. I was sure we would see each other again before I left.

* * *

As the clock struck 9pm behind the bar I started to gather my things and think about returning to the tent. It was getting dark and I wanted to check the resin had set before bed. But as I wandered to the door George returned. “Theres someone you must meet, she lives just up the road and is a kayaker” he beamed eagerly before adding “She’s also delightfully pretty.” Spurred on the seemingly endless energy held by George I found myself yet again following someone I had just met down an unknown road to somewhere I had never been, I could start sense a theme here.

A small river kayak in the garden signalled our arrival, knocking on the door George lead the way into the house to the call of “Come in” and introduced me to Debbie. George was true to his word Debbie was indeed very pretty, she radiated the same instant sense of welcoming hospitality I been growing to expect as standard in Balintore.

Over steaming cups of tea and delicious home baked raisin cookies George explained that Debbie worked for the NHS. To my surprise Debbie and I had shared the same university which fuelled the conversation most of the evening between tales of our own adventures past. A comfortable sofa, a cup of tea, cookies in hand and with company of both an attractive young woman AND a local legend! I couldn’t  have been happier. It was well into the small hours before we finally called it a night.

I left the house with a promise by Debbie of porridge and more cookies to be delivered to my tent in the morning. Delighted at the prospect I beamed even more when she asked “Oh, do you want jam, sugar or honey in your porridge?”

Back on the beach I checked the kayak under head-torch, it was ready to get back on the sea and so was I. The fog had cleared so I slept with the door flapping open in the breeze to gaze at the stars.

Drifting into sleep I felt my faith in the hospitality of the east coast had been completely and utterly restored.


One Comment on “Helmsdale to Balintore

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