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U3A Writing: To Loch Ness And Beyond

Peggy MacKay pays a return visit to the village in the north of Scotland where she once lived.

In June I took a trip down Memory Lane when I went on a coach tour to the north of Scotland with my granddaughter.

Our first stop was in Jedburgh for lunch and on to Dunfermline for the first night’s stay. The following day we called at Dalahinnie and Spean Bridge Commando Memorial, then up the Great Glen along the banks of Loch Ness to Inverness for a lunch stop.

Here one of our passengers went missing, and after many trips around and notifying the police, we finally spotted him, completely lost and unable to find the coach.

On then to Thurso along the east coast, passing all the old familiar places, pointing out our house to my granddaughter.

Thurso was our destination for the next four days. Here we were greeted by the manageress and piped into the hotel by a young girl piper.

Our first trip was round the north coast and Loch Eribel to Durness, and Smoo Caves. A lovely warm sunny day and beautiful scenery, a most enjoyable day. We had an excellent evening meal and then adjourned to the lounge to get to know our companions, most of them very amenable.

We were a happy company with just one exception, a Danish lady who was a regular Contrary Mary. Her husband lived in Denmark and she lived in Newcastle, and they talked incessantly on the phone – a perfect marriage, we decided, as he probably couldn’t have stood the strain.

My nephew and wife and little boy paid us a visit and spent a couple of hours with us, which was very pleasant.

Our next day took us to John O’ Groats then across the Pentland Firth on the ferry to Orkney. We were met by a coach and taken on a tour of the islands, with a stop for lunch, visiting the Italian Chapel, Scapa Flo and Scara Brae.

Our driver was a native of the islands and an excellent courier. Even though this was my third or fourth trip to the islands, I still found it most interesting. And as it was the first for my granddaughter, it was a lovely day.

Our evenings were spent mostly chattering together, with the exception of one night when we had an accordion player and some people did dance.

The next day was supposedly a half day, but our driver offered to take people to John O’Groats and to the Castle of Mey or out to see the seals. However, we opted out and took the service bus to Helmsdale, joined by my sister-in-law in Wick.

This was the day to introduce my granddaughter to the village of her ancestors; here her mother and aunts and grandfather were born. So we visited family and friends and wandered around the village, calling at the Time Span Museum, where we left a school photograph and photograph of the Seine Net Queen and attendants, one of whom was Jeanne, my eldest daughter, when a little girl.

Our first call in Helmsdale was on Mabel, my friend and soulmate of 60 years now. Then to cousins Katie and Barrie, two doors along. There we were picked up by Francis to visit him and Dith up the hill in Navidale, overlooking our house on the Crescent below, then back to Mabel’s.

After a snack we headed for the harbour, where once 30 fishing boats were anchored – now only three and a couple of lobster boats and a jetty for visiting yachts.

Along the shore to where our little house stood, now just a patch of grass, and a shop in the rear selling souvenirs, some of which were very nice and reasonably priced.

Everything was so different. Above the Time Span Museum on the headland where once stood the ruined Castle there now stands a statue to commemorate the Highland Clearances from the Strath of Kildonan. Preceding this there was no village here, but Helmsdale was formed to take the people burnt from their homes by the Duke of Sutherland. Many left to go to Canada, America and Australia, and others stayed here and learned to be fishermen instead of crofters.

One young man, now in his late 50’s, whose father was killed in the Second World War, emigrated to Canada and made his fortune. He came back some years ago and started a fund to erect the statue now standing on the headland. It depicts a man and his son looking out to sea and his wife and baby looking back up the Strath toward the home they had been forced to leave. A reminder of the past, now history.

We wandered back through the village, calling to see Adeline. Now over 90, she was once a wonderful singer all those years ago. Her rendering of the Tears of Robbie Burns made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Still smiling and mentally alert, it was wonderful to see her.

The day passed all too quickly, and it was time to catch the bus back to Thurso, meeting a couple more cousins on the way. It had been a very pleasant day - but not enough time according to my granddaughter.

The following day was a damp foggy day, the first poor day of our trip, and we set off south to Aberdeen. We called at Dumbeath to visit the museum, and into the little café to sample the delicious home-made scones.

Our last night was to be spent in Aberdeen, and we called at Mrs. Baxter’s famous Emporium and sampled some of her delicious soup. We sat in the lovely sunshine, then back into the fog on to Aberdeen.

We left the following morning, calling in at Perth at the Caithness Glass Shop, now on longer, I’m told. We got into Leeds around 5.30 pm after a most enjoyable holiday.


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