Once a busy Herring Port, the small harbour town of Helmsdale sits on the Moray Firth, at the mouth of the River Helmsdale where it reaches the North Sea. There is evidence of extensive prehistoric settlement in the area, and the modern name Helmsdale is derived from the Norse word Hjalmundsair (the valley of Hjalmund), which is mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas as a Viking settlement.
In the early medieval period a refuge was built for pilgrims on the long journey to the shrine at St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney and the Earls of Sutherland built a hunting lodge at West Helmsdale in 1488, which was rebuilt as a castle in 1615.
Nothing now remains of these early structures which were all demolished or buried under the modern town plan. Today’s town is a planned settlement with its regular street layout built in the early 1800s for crofters who had been evicted from the inland straths or valleys as part of the highland clearances. The river mouth was bridged for the first time in 1811 by Thomas Telford and the Old Bridge still survives, though it is now bypassed by the modern A9 road.
The town developed as a staging post for travellers with several inns and hotels, and as a centre for herring fishing through the 19th century based on the Old Harbour where a Customs House, curing yards and ice-house were built. The ice-house was built in 1824 and is probably the best surviving example in northern Scotland. Today Helmsdale is a small town with many historic building and much to explore from it’s industrial past with a Helmsdale Heritage Trail starting at the local Timespan Museum. Helmsdale is also excellently place for exploring the historic sites and monuments of northern Sutherland and into Caithness where the remains of over 600 years of human activity are still scattered around the landscape.
- The village includes shops, bank, train station, a small harbour and the award-winning Timespan Visitor Centre (open daily Easter to October).
- ‘The Emigrants’ statue in Couper Park was commissioned by Clearances Centre Ltd to commemorate the Highland Clearances.
- The Helmsdale Highland Games take place in August in Couper Park (tel: 01431 821666).
- The Helmsdale Tackle Company Ltd shop in Dunrobin Street has all you could possibly need to go fishing. Tel: 01431 821372.
Nine miles west of Helmsdale is Kildonan Burn, the site of the Great Sutherland Gold Rush of 1869. Today you have more chance of finding fossils and gemstones on the shoreline than gold in the hills – but you can always try your luck! Make sure you have checked the Suisgill Estate rules before you head off gold panning. Equipment is available from the Strath Ullie Crafts & Visitor Information in Helmsdale.
Things to do around Helmsdale:
- Gold panning
- Fossil hunting in Helmsdale
- Helmsdale circular walk
- Dunrobin Castle
- Clynelish Distillery at Brora
- Dunbeath Heritage Centre
- Waterlines exhibition centre at Lybster harbour
- Clan Gunn Heritage Centre at Latheron
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
- Caithness Broch Centre