History of Helmsdale

Once a busy herring port, the small harbour sits on the Moray Firth at the mouth of the River Helmsdale. 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 on 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 village plan. Today’s village 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 during 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 village developed as a staging post for travellers with several inns and hotels and as a centre for herring fishing through the 19th century. The surviving ice-house in Helmsdale was built in 1824 and is probably the best surviving example in northern Scotland.