It pays not to pat yourself too heavily on the back after a steep hill climb.
Sitting outside the charming Café Bothy in the small town of Golspie on Scotland's distant north-east coast, I could look up at the summit of Ben Bhraggie, climbed and bagged that morning. By my reckoning, the climb was the calorific equivalent to the large slice of cake I'd just ordered.
Then a sprightly couple, both in their late 70s, walked by, asking if I knew the afternoon's weather forecast. They were off to the summit, but Ben Bhraggie was a mere leg stretcher for events that evening, when they were to take part in a ballroom dancing competition. "We hope to get to the semis at least," said the woman, with a twinkle in her eye that suggested, intriguingly, that she might be something more than a dancing partner.
They must have some stamina. Ben Bhraggie is not high – it's just 397 metres, but you do climb it from sea level in barely three kilometres, so it has some kick. It's also a wonderful hike, combining broadleaf woodland, Caledonian pine, and a mesmerising, watery descent through an overlooked burn.
The path from Golspie drilled invitingly north, past a church and ornate fountain, and under a railway arch for trains headed north to Wick and Thurso, winding through woodland and glorious lichen-encrusted tree stumps. A brief stretch of open ground preceded a steep climb to the summit. You'll also find the name written and pronounced as "vragghie", said to be a corruption of the original Gaelic name Beinn a'Bhragaidh.
You're not alone up here. Even from the shoreline, the 30m-high statue that stands on the shoulder of the mountain is conspicuous. The first Duke of Sutherland is the man honoured in stone, though it's an understatement to say he's an ambiguous figure in these parts. He was responsible for some of the most notorious and cruel clearances in all the Highlands and Islands, and calls to tear the monument down occasionally bubble back to life.
Look at the map to see Sutherland's place in relation to the rest of the universe and you'd conclude this was the wilds of the north, particularly if you've packed some southern preconceptions in your backpack. But not only is Golspie a charming town, but the surrounding countryside manages both to be rugged and delectably pretty at the same time. North-east from the summit was Dunrobin Castle, peeking out of the firs and looking a little like the Disney castle, which is still the seat of the Dukes of Sutherland. Close by, to the south-east was Loch Fleet, the most northerly estuary in Britain, rectangular in shape and semi-enclosed on the seaward side by a vast spit and sandbar. Beyond, you could just catch glimpses of the sandy beaches of the Dornoch Firth, along with a hardy caravan site. Further out to sea was Cromarty, of Shipping Forecast lore, and the oil rigs positioned in the Cromarty Firth, while binoculars picked out the southern coastline of the Moray Firth, lined by fishing communities.
It was time to pull myself away, following a route that initially headed west towards the interior – step further back into these hills and you'll find Iron Age brochs and mournful remnants of houses abandoned since those clearances at the end of the 19th century. Soon enough, the path swept back around Ben Bhraggie, winding around it like a helter-skelter, and made a dart for the coast, with tremendous valley views of heather moorland and a newly planted windfarm as a backdrop.
Upon reaching the tree line – an odd mix of silver birch, rhododendron and Scots pine – I picked up a path that descended to Golspie Burn and a truly magical conclusion to the walk. The shaded canopy allowed the sun to throw golden specks on the dark, cold river; where the granite rocks refused to budge, miniature wooden bridges zig-zagged back and forward across the water. I lost count of the waterfalls, though one, emerging unexpectedly overhead, like a monsoon shower, lingers in the memory. At the bottom, you pass by Golspie Mill, restored in the 1990s and known for milling bere, a rare kind of barely that dates back to Neolithic times and which is argued by some to have given us the word "beer", which can of course be brewed from the grain. Turning right along the road back to Golspie I passed a stone sign declaring it was 777 miles to Land's End. Golspie is firmly on the trail between Land's End and John O'Groats. For this walker it all seemed impossibly distant. At this point, even a stint on the local dance floor would have been beyond me.
How to get there
Mark Rowe stayed at Sleeperzzz at Rogart Station, in Pittentrail (01408 641 343; sleeperzzz.com). Prices start from £15 per person, per night. Golspie is a short train ride from Rogart Station.
Time: Three hours.
Distance: Six miles.
OS Map: Explorer 441, Lairg, Bonar Bridge and Golspie.
Start at Fountain Road car park, Golspie. Head up the road, under railway arch. Pass the car park on the right and a farm on left. Pass through farm gates and follow footpath signs for Ben Bhraggie (also written as "BB"). Pass through metal deer gate and after 100 metres take the path right, uphill, and cross the forestry road and path and follow another "BB" sign to the right. After a grove of pines, follow the path under pylons and across another forestry road to the summit. Follow the path west, heading round and downhill. Pass through a large metal deer gate, cross the road, and go through woodland following a stone wall. At a small gate under pylons, bear left to follow a bike path down to Golspie Burn. Turn right and follow the riverside paths to the main road. Turn right for Golspie town centre.
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