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JOG Trail, Brora to Helmsdale

JOG Trail, Brora to Helmsdale

Postby Alba Bhoy » Mon Feb 26, 2024 2:27 pm

Route description: John o'Groats Trail: Brora to Helmsdale

Date walked: 23/02/2024

Time taken: 4.4 hours

Distance: 20.5 km

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Did the 13 miles or so of the Brora to Helmsdale portion of the JOG trail on Friday 23rd February 2024.
Left Brora at 0820, reached Helmsdale at 1300. Time taken 4 hours 40 minutes.
Dry with blue skies bar for one shower about 1130. By the time I unpacked my backpack, found my waterproofs and put them on it was time to take them off again.
I found this to be by far the most challenging portion of the JOG trail to date. Inverness to Brora is relatively straightforward; decent paths, minor country roads, nothing too demanding. Today, once I got beyond the north end of Brora golf course I felt the walking got more difficult. Navigation seems simple; Moray Firth to your right, railway to your left and with a spring in your step, head north. Oh, if only it were so easy! A combination of heavy rain and a high tide would make this section very challenging; the lower the tide and drier the weather, the easier this section will be.
The first instalment of today's walk was simplicity itself, a gentle introduction to what lay ahead. A simple stroll on the path running between Brora golf course and the sea. And it was a beautiful morning for walking; overnight frost had left the fairways white but the sky was blue so lovely conditions to start today's stroll.
Early morning view north over Brora golf course

Reached the far end of the golf course at 0855. Crossing the narrow burn at the north end of the golf course was no problem this morning, water level was quite low, stepping stones made life dry and easy.
Once over the burn the good path disappeared! You are hemmed in between the railway to your left and the sea to your right, not a lot of room to manoeuvre. Path is narrow and at low tide I'd guess it would be easier walking along the shore. Although the tide was on its way in, there was enough shoreline available to allow me to spend the next 20 minutes walking along that narrow portion of the shore that was still above the water. Seemed easier than trying to follow the 'path'.
Was past this narrow section about 0915 then, when the railway heads slightly inland, you come to a gate. The gate had a lovely welcoming sign, and I quote, 'Keep outside fence March-April. Calving season, cows may kill to protect their calves.' No exemption for Vegetarians or Vegans.
There were no cows visible in the field so I went through the gate and continued to meander north. If there are cattle in the field and you wish to adopt a safety first approach then there appeared to be plenty space on the seaward side of the fence that you could stroll along keeping the fence between you and any belligerent cattle.
This field led to another field which had sheep in it. No problems getting by them. Through a double set of gates on a track that was a tad muddy, churned up by animals and farming vehicles, and into the next field which did have cattle in. Decided that discretion was the better part of valour so I crossed over the fence and continued on the seaward side of the fence. Path on the seaward side, such as it was, was rough but seemed a better option than potentially upsetting the 4 legged natives.
About 0950 i reached another gate at the north end of these fields. It had the same message as the gate at the south end, ''Keep outside fence March-April. Calving season, cows may kill to protect their calves.' Thankfully the seaward side of the fence running alongside these fields is fairly wide so an alternative route does exist.
Through the gate at the north end and you soon come to another very narrow section. Thankfully the tide was not fully in so i was able to wander along the rough shore. There is a short section of seawall running alongside the railway but the tide was still far enough out that I could walk below this on the sand. If the tide is in then, unless you wish to paddle through the seawater, you may have no option other than to walk along the seawall.
Things then begin to open out but before you can relax you come to the next challenge, getting over the Loth Burn. This could be a formidable obstacle in heavy rain, or if there has been recent heavy rain. The burn is several metres wide. In summer, during a dry spell, crossing the burn might seem quite pleasant, crossing should be easy and your feet might appreciate the soothing effect of the water. I got there about an hour before high tide so crossing where the burn meets the salt water was ruled out. Thankfully the previous few days had seen little rain so it was off with the socks and shoes, trousers well rolled up, put on the flip flops and using my walking pole for support I was soon over. Water levels might have been fairly low but as you might expect at the end of February the water was a tad chilly. Respect to all you cold water swimmers, you're way tougher than me!
Before you start this section, you might want to check A) the weather forecast and find out how much rain has fallen in recent days and B) the tide times. If it's heavy rain and a high tide, I'd suggest you take an alternative route. Problem is if you get to the Loth Burn and decide it's too dangerous to cross then you either have to retrace your steps back to Brora or you have to cross the railway and head west to the A9. Or you can choose to break the law and use the railway bridge to cross the burn. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Anyway by 1015 I was over, feet dried off, and continued along the coast heading towards the caravan park. Beyond Lothbeg Point the track heads up and meets another track just to the south of the railway, caravans below you to your right. Keep on this track, passing by the caravan park and you eventually reach a gate. Over the gate into the field. Field had cattle in it so I headed down towards the fence and crossed over that to stay on the seaward side of the fence.
Next obstacle was the crossing of the Kilmote Burn. The Walkhighlands notes say there is a footbridge over the Kilmote burn. I couldn't see any sign of a footbridge, only bridge I could see was the railway bridge. (NB, I've been advised that the bridge was washed away in Storm Isha but they hope to erect a new one in the next few months) Kilmote Burn is a lot narrower than the Loth Burn so crossing it is not such a challenge. After a long dry spell and at low tide you could probably cross this without breaking stride. Just the seaward side of the railway bridge it looked like someone had placed stones in the burn to enable you to get over without getting your feet wet. So using my walking pole for support I crossed here, just a few metres below the railway bridge. I'm not as athletic as I used to be and my right foot hit water before it hit dry land. Ho hum, all character building! I guess if every walker places a couple of stones/pebbles at this spot, apart from when the burn is in spate, you will soon be able to cross here and keep your feet dry.
I was over the Kilmote Burn at 1100 and then it was a simple matter of continuing north on the seaward side of the railway. From here to the level crossing where you turn off to get to Portgower, i mainly walked along the shore. The shore was the path, the path was the shore. High tide was just after 1100 but that didn't hinder me today. Had to cross another couple of small burns but unlike Loth and Kilmote they were no obstacle.
Looking back just before turning off for Portgower. The path was the shore, the shore was the path.

Reached the level crossing at 12 noon, crossed the railway here and headed up the grassy track the short distance to Portgower. Through Portgower and started heading up the track next to the rockfall sign at 1215. Steep 10 minute uphill walk from here to the end of this narrow tarmac road where JOG trail signs point you in the right direction. Track is wide and a bit muddy in places but the JOG trail signs make it easy to follow the route. Some good views down to Helmsdale.
View down to Helmsdale

Continue along the track and you eventually drop down some steps to the A9, just south of the bridge over the Helmsdale river. Emigrant statue above to your left, cross the bridge and that was me in Helmsdale at 1300.
I was getting the 1339 X99 express bus from Helmsdale back to Inverness so had time to grab a well earned coffee and lovely freshly baked scone in Thyme and Plaice on Dunrobin Street.
Another section completed. More than halfway there now but today was a reminder that the 'toughest' sections of the JOG trail lie ahead. Bring them on!
Alba Bhoy
Posts: 70
Joined: May 12, 2013

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