Day 4. Helmsdale to Golspie. 18 miles.
What a day. It had everything, stunning views, bright sun, and genuine moments of life threatening danger. But first things first let's discuss, at tedious length, the Navidale House Hotel's breakfast. I know, I know, I said I would ease my foot off the breakfast monologue pedal but the Navidale offered up such a scrumptious example of Scottish early morning finery that I just have to go off on one.
For the 4th hot first meal of the day I was again eating solo and had quite warmed to the concept. The charming Larry showed me to a wonderfully decorated breakfast area and plopped me down by the window in the watery morning sun with a delightful coastal view. The Navidale were clearly too formidable an establishment to simply flee from the ever-present baked bean dilemma via omitting the saucy treats - they charged head on, carving out a specific bean area on the plate with barriers of bacon and turrets of fried tomato. The yolk was runny, the bacon slightly crispy and under the black pudding? A potato scone. You can't see from the work of art below, but Larry had also deep fried a hash brown and hidden it under a warming blanket of beans. You have to Respect that craftsmanship.
Phew! With my belly full of the Navidale's finest I set out, initially on my old friend (read as dire enemy) the A9. However I soon swept myself off to the coastal paths, running between a barely used train line and the North Sea. This was wild country, with strong breezes and increasingly bright sunlight - the path always seemed to bend out of sight ahead, creating a perpetual illusion of mystery which drew me onwards.
I was forced to cross a number of small rivers that fed the sea which became increasingly large as the path went on. My very rough guide warned that the Loth Burn ahead was a significant challenge, I soon came across a larger than average stream, leapt over the stones with panther-like grace, and wondered what all the fuss was about. You can imagine my chagrin when, about 20 minutes later, the Loth Burn roared into sight, carving its way through the Scottish countryside like a freshly deep-fried Mars bar through a warm pile of full fat Lurpak. I was genuinely a little scared. There was a weir, but there were warnings everywhere saying not to cross on it, presumably because it was covered in slippery moss. The water either side of this stonework churned and frothed, fresh from the Highland mountains. I gently lowered my foot into the ice cold water, using my poles for balance, and wondered if 'Burn' was Scottish for 'massive river'. The water filled my boots and went right up to my waist, the crossing itself wasn't actually too bad, but still a frightening experience overall.
Immediately after my brush with certain death? A muddy climb in sodden boots and then one of my genuine worst fears, cows. Cows everywhere with nowhere to go but through them - worse yet there were plenty of calves alongside them and a multitude of reassuring warning signs politely, but firmly, informing me that cows defending their calves can kill. Awesome. For the record I'm not joking about being scared of cows. They have that wonderful combination of being very very big, and very very stupid and can't stop very easily. Also being killed by a cow would be so embarrassing. I marched on with confidence, occasionally whimpering under my breath, and practically leapt over the stile at the end of the field when I was through the meat minefield, flicking a well deserved 'V' back at my bovine nemeses. That'll teach 'em.
'Smooth sailing after that Tom?' I hear you all asking with concern deep in your voices. Well thank you, but sadly not quite. Having bravely risked my life twice I was fairly apprehensive with each step and due to my now-superhuman levels of awareness, noticed quite a large rustling in the long grass near my left foot. Weirdly, my first thought was 'snake!' and despite having no firm evidence of this, my hackles were up. Not 10 yards further on, directly in the middle of the path lay a coiled adder, one of the UK's only genuinely venomous animals with a propensity to bite tired hikers. Like a natural born survivor my first thought was to inch closer and photograph the basilisk as it warmed itself in the sun.
I carefully stepped over the little guy and tip toed onwards to, yes you guessed it, loads more snakes. There must have been at least 10 in the space of 300 metres. Now an adder bite can kill, but only if you're 104 years young, or a small child, or I suppose if you leave a bite untreated and keep poking at it with a grubby spoon, but still a snake bite here would be a definite hike ender so I left the small grassy verge and took to the only other viable course, the boulder strewn beach - trying not to think of how many adders lay under the stones.
I eventually made it to Brora nearly 2 hours behind schedule, jumping at every twig, but seeing no more reptiles. For 2 miles I walked alongside a golf course - I'm going to take a short moment to mention how much I detest golf, so if you enjoy paying extortionate private fees to stand about a man-made affront to nature whacking non-recyclable balls into tiny holes with no regard for passers by, then travelling hundreds of pointless yards to find your ball to reap the joy of knocking it into a small hole then you should skip this sentence. Sorry if you do like golf, but I have no respect for a sport where the aim is literally to play as little of that sport as possible.
Anyway I left Brora and stumbled, 6 miles later into Golspie's Stag's Head Hotel. The fairy-tale Dunrobin Castle overlooked the town, a humorously named building considered its founders likely did pay for the masonry by pillaging. Still a lovely old home.
Golspie was nice but after such an eventful day I was too tired to explore. My room had no internet but did boast sky TV, so I was forced to sit through 'Britain's Top 25 Takeaways', a surprisingly gripping watch. With just 4 to go, fish and chips, Chinese, pizza and Indian were all still in the running. Pizza fell at the next hurdle and fish and chips understandably claimed bronze, my neighbours were angrily banging on my walls as I sat on the edge of the bed, screaming 'Come on Indian' at the top of my lungs.
Spoiler: Chinese won.
My dreams were dark that night.