Day 45 Mon 13-06-2005
Golspie to Helmsdale
I chatted to a man from Derbyshire over breakfast, who was touring the highlands, said good-bye to Alan (a wonderful host), donned my waterproofs, and started walking at eight.
The path at the beginning of the day was along the beach for the first few miles. Although I had been near the coast for several days, this was the first time I had walked on the beach since Cornwall. The sea was flat calm, and although the weather was damp, the beach was very colourful - all greens, golds and browns of seaweed, sand and rocks. I passed Dunrobin Castle, dating back to 1235, home to the Earls of Sutherland, one of the ancient earldoms of Scotland. Unfortunately, additions effected by Sir James Barry in the 1840ís give the Castle the overall look of Disney. The Sutherland family's role in the Scottish land clearances wasn't one to be proud of, and the subject still ensures lively debate today.
After reaching the village of Brora, the route north was along the A9, so I got my head down and pushed on. I was aiming for Helmsdale, which had a Youth Hostel. About five miles short of Helmsdale, I met Ben, walking the opposite way. We stood away from the traffic, and enquired about each other's destinations. Ben was doing Lejog - the other way! We wished each other well, and I watched him walk away, his huge back pack disappearing into the distance. I must be getting a little "road crazy", as I felt envious that he was at the start of his journey, and mine was nearly over! Part of me wanted to get home, and see my family and friends, but equally, travelling had got into my blood, now, and I was reluctant to stop.
At Helmsdale I went straight to the nearest pub, and warmed up over a pint and a sandwich. In the afternoon the weather improved, and I had time to look around this charming little town, a fishing port which once was home to over 200 herring boats. In one shop I met Vera "Granny" Andrews. Her shop sold shoes, gifts, and clothes. It was full to the brim, and Vera had a walking history to tell me. She had not merely walked Lejog, she had completed a coastal walk of the UK - over 3000 miles! Even more impressive, Vera had completed a walk, sponsored by British Gas, visiting every one of their UK showrooms, which clocked up over 7000 miles! She had raised a lot of money for charity, and looking at her slight frame, it was amazing to think of the stamina needed to cover such vast distances. I wandered up to the Youth Hostel, which was open. Maddie was running the hostel for the summer, and was very helpful. I dumped my pack, and wandered off to the harbour. There were fishing boats and lobster pots, all gleaming in the afternoon sun. There was a row of cottages, and I said hello to a man hanging out some washing. We chatted, and he invited me in for a coffee.
His name was Jimmy Mackay, and he was one of the most interesting and charming people I met on my travels. Jimmy had lived in or around Helmsdale most of his life. He looked around 60 years old, but could have been much older. When younger, Jimmy had spent time in Portsmouth, working, and seducing the young ladies of the town - or one in particular. Later, he had worked nearer to home, assembling oil rigs. During this time he had an accident, and sustained serious head injuries, which he was fortunate enough to make a complete recovery from. Later still, he had suffered a stroke; and again making a good recovery. What really made me think was Jimmy's attitude:
"You know, Richard, when I was in hospital, I said to the man in the bed next to me, "What wouldn't we give to be out in the open, in the pouring rain, working all day, rather than couped up in here, in a hospital bed. We wouldn't moan about the weather then, would we?""
It was that mindset which got Jimmy out of hospital, and to look at him you would never know he had had a days illness in his life.
Jimmy had been the subject of a television program about panning for gold. He knew all the likely spots up in the mountains, and he told me that on the day of filming, he had been lucky, and his pan had enough gold to show up on the camera. Apparently, gold prospecting was a bit like fishing, you never knew quite what you would end up with. And talking of fishing, Jimmy had had a few salmon out of the local rivers; whether legally or not, I cannot say.
Jimmy had a typical highland accent. Not at all like the guttural Glaswegian "See you, Jimmy" parodied on T.V., but soft, and similar to the Southern Irish lilt. One comment will stay with me always:
"You know, Richard, you'll always find a friend, if you're a friend."
Later in the evening, I was wandering around enjoying the sunshine, and I met a Canadian, Doug Bruce, who chatted to me. He had a friend who had walked across the USA from Mexico to Canada. This friend was woken one morning by a black bear sniffing his feet! It made my nights under canvas seem very tame...
R. I. P. Jimmy - 01 March 2015
Jimmy's sister Heather and nephew David contacted me to let me know that he has sadly passed away. My thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of one of life's true gentlemen.