The Frightfull Hills of Berrydale: Pococke’s Tour Part 1

In the summer of 1760 inveterate traveller Bishop Richard Pococke passed down the east coast of Sutherland and Ross-shire. He was particularly interested in geology, fossils and archaeology. For brevity I have removed some of the detailed descriptions of the various brochs and other archaeological remains that he investigated, but you can read them – and his account of the rest of his tour – for yourself on archive.org. https://archive.org/details/toursinscotland00pocogoog/mode/2up

Pococke was one of the early travellers who published his account and it is written in the format of letters to his sister. We join him as he sits in Dunrobin Castle, recollecting his ascent of the Berriedale Braes, an experience familiar to all locals!

Dunrobin, 17th July 1760,

On the 16th the Sheriff and Mr. Sinclair accompanied me, and we travelled to the south mostly over heaths, diversified here and there with several spots of corn. We passed by the remains of a Picts house in which part of the circular wall remains, and in it an entrance stopped up. We came to a beautifull romantic vale, through which a rivulet runs that is formed a little higher by two branches which pass through such vales. They are called Berrydale … We soon reached the foot of those hills, out of which all the rivers rise that run to the east, north, and west.

This famous pass is called the Ord; and Berrydale river is difficult to pass in winter, when the torrent has brought down great stones, which are moved away in the summer to make an easy passage across that stream. The ascent to the Ord is steep, and the road over the steep hill is frightfull to those who have not been used to such kind of roads; but is not in the least difficult, only it is more pleasant to walk rather than ride over some parts of it …

Pococke then approaches what is today the fishing village of Helmsdale. It was then too, but it was not the herring port that we know which was created some decades after this account in order to promote commercial fishing and support the removal of the residents of the Strath of Kildonan.

The castle, destroyed to make way for today’s bridge, would still have been in evidence, and even this stone bridge woud not yet have been built. None of the fine stone houses would have been there. Most likely there was a cluster of stone-built, thatched houses near the river and the shoreline, plus also houses built of less substantial materials like wattle, sticks and clay. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Having passed the principal heights we came to a rivulet called Navidale, which is the bounds between Cathness and Sutherland. We soon after got to Hemsdale, where there is a salmon fishery. Here the tyde being in, we crossed in a coble in the shape of a boat cut in two, and our horses forded over half a mile higher. By this dale there is a pretty good road towards Mowdale, which we passed in the way to Durness.

Mudale is pretty much one house today, however at the time Pococke was visiting it was an important location, home to an influential MacKay tacksman and at various points the poet Rob Donn (b.1714) and John MacKay (b.1690), a well-known hymn writer. What today are not terribly well maintained single-track roads were key routes connecting the south-east of the county with the north-west.

To be continued…