The closer I get to John o'Groats, the closer the walking gets to being a hard slog. The reason isn't tiredness or a keenness to finish this walk, though they're certainly contributory factors; no, the reason is the A9.
The A9 and its friend the A99 are my faithful companions until the end of this walk, and as I get closer to the furthest tip of Britain there's less and less I can do about it. The A-road hugs the coast of northeast Scotland, sharing the edges of the country with parts of the Wick-Inverness railway line and the few scattered settlements that punctuate the shore, and as the villages get smaller and the rest of the world gets more distant, the available walking options are whittled down to just one, the A-road itself.
I've managed to avoid walking on A-roads for most of this trip. Until yesterday I could count the number of A-road miles I've walked on one hand, and although we had to follow the A9 for four miles across the Dornoch Firth yesterday, it wasn't too bad because the road was pretty wide and there was a reasonable grassy verge for most of the way. But from today the amount of road walking is highly significant and in a couple of days' time this walk turns from a pleasant tramp through the scenic parts of the country to a roadside haul along a busy, unforgiving main road. I'm under no illusion that this last section is going to be pleasant underfoot, but I'm hoping that the scenery will make up for it; today, it certainly did.
It's easy to see how golf originated in Scotland because behind the beaches of the northeast are areas of rough that are essentially natural golf courses. Sure, man has mown the fairways and flattened the greens, but when walking through what are now the Dornoch links it's easy to see how nature determined the shape of the modern golf course. Inland courses might be a bit heavy on the landscaping but links courses are based on reality, a reality that occurs naturally behind the sweeping beaches of the Scottish coast.
Dornoch's course is world-famous and since its creation in 1914 it has regularly featured in the top 20 golf courses in the world. It's all the more delightful, then, to know that anyone can wander bang through the middle of the course and all the way along the coastal path without any of the snotty idiocies that make so many golf courses socially repugnant. The Dornoch links are on common land so everyone and his dog has access, and even though the course attracts an awful lot of the trousered gentry, I felt quite at ease plodding across the fairways in my stinking T-shirt and tousled hair. It's a superb place to walk, especially after such a long time spent inland; the last time I touched sand and sea on this trip was back in Sydney Cove on my second walking day, and when the wind is benign and the sun poking out from behind a speckled cloud layer, walking the links is at least as enjoyable as playing an expensive round of golf.
Even though the golf course dies out after a couple of miles, the natural links continue on for miles, and from the little village of Embo, where static caravans congregate around the Grannies Heilan Hame pub, the path follows an old railway line into the most beautiful setting of all, Loch Fleet. This estuary of the River Fleet is awash with bird life and is particularly well stocked with oystercatchers, with their flashing black-and-white wings and red bills; I wouldn't have known which birds were which if it hadn't been for Barry waxing lyrical about them – he knows a lot about a lot, does Barry – and we sat on a bench by the loch's mouth for a good long rest, taking in the sweeping scenery and the peaceful beauty of the loch.
This was the good part of the walk because to cross the river we had to join the A9, and the A9 just isn't the same as quiet links or gentle back roads. Worse, this section of the A9 is where the grassy verge of yesterday disappears totally, leaving us to walk along the very edge of the road. Four miles never felt so long and the streetlights and pavements of the halfway town of Golspie couldn't come quickly enough.
From the pleasant seafront of Golspie things improved, with the path leaving the A-road to meander along the sea shore for three or four miles, passing right in front of Dunrobin Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Sutherland. Although there's been a house here since the 14th century, the current fairy-tale monstrosity was remodelled in 1841 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, and if you want to know where Walt Disney got his inspiration for the Disneyland castle, you need look no further. Large conical spires shoot into the sky and the sheer size of the place can't fail to impress as it towers over its gardens and the beaches below. It's decidedly showy and slightly tacky, but it's great to walk past, even if it made me aware that I'm quite literally one of the great unwashed.
Just beyond Dunrobin the path meanders past a broch, a strange type of fortified dwelling place that's unique to the far north of Scotland. There are 510 surviving brochs in the area and 100 of these are within a 50-mile radius of Helmsdale, my destination for tomorrow. Mainly built by the coast, brochs date from between 100 BC and 100 AD and nobody really knows that much about them except they were built to withstand attack. Your average broch was shaped like a stone cooling tower with walls up to 14ft thick at the base and just one narrow entrance at the bottom. Inside there would be at least two storeys of wooden flooring and in times of attack the entrance could be sealed and the people could live inside until the danger passed. It's not clear what the danger was – marauding Romans is one suggestion – but whatever the reason, brochs are thought of as precursors to modern castles and their ruined remains litter the coasts of northern Scotland.
The pleasant shoreline path didn't last for long after the broch and for the final two miles into Brora it was back onto the A9, where the heavens opened and made our arrival in town a pretty miserable affair. To make things worse, I'd managed to book into a B&B that was a good mile and a half out of town – it's not an exact science, booking B&Bs from afar – but it turned out to be a lovely place that did great food, so I couldn't complain. And at least it was away from the A9, which was a blessing...