|Location Map ( geo)
|37.1 miles (59.7 km)
|A9, B871, A836
|Route outline (key)
The A897 is a long and winding road running through a vast area of wilderness in the Scottish Highlands, so therefore it must be a stunning drive mustn't it? Unfortunately not. Running through the border country between Caithness and Sutherland, the road has far more of the character of the former county, mostly running through a low moorland landscape with only distant views of the mountains to the south west. Whilst it is a very important route for the scattered communities that lie along it, tourists would be better advised to look further west for a real taste of the Highlands!
Helmsdale - Kinbrace
The road starts on the A9 in Helmsdale, having been very slightly extended along Dunrobin Street when the A9 was rerouted along the semi-bypass. Helmsdale's street names are connected to the Dukes of Sutherland which explain why some of them seem quite out-of-place: we start on Stafford Street then cross Trentham Street and Lilleshall Street, places much further south but either subsidiary titles of the dukes or part of their once-vast estates. At the end of Dunrobin Street a mini roundabout marks the original junction at the southern end of the A897, and the road then quickly heads out of town along Golf Road, dropping to single-track just past the golf course. For the next 8 miles, the road climbs very gently through the Strath of Kildonan, rarely far from the River Helmsdale. The valley floor is wide and cut up into small fields between dry stone walls, a scattering of cottages and farms are passed, interspersed with small patches of woodland. The hills to the south are the highest along the whole road, rising undramatically past 600m.
Just before the village of Kildonan the road turns northwards, climbing steeply away from the valley floor, over the Kildonan Burn and into the tiny settlement. Here, a left turn crosses the hills to the south, before descending through Glen Loth to the A9. The A897, meanwhile, has returned to the now wooded riverbank. Still heading north or north west. One of the more picturesque spots on the road is reached at the bypassed bridge over the Suisgill Burn. Half a dozen miles further on, the village of Kinbrace is reached, not quite half way along. Those seeking more excitement should turn left here onto the B871 for Strathnaver, a much more scenic route.
Kinbrace - Melvich
With the only two noticeable junctions on its route behind us, the A897 can get down to the real business of being a really boring road! The railway, which has lain on the far side of the river since Helmsdale, crossed over just before Kinbrace and now lies alongside the road, deviating only slightly as the road reaches the summit at 196m. A little further on, half a dozen miles from Kinbrace, Forsinard Station is reached, with a level crossing. The railway then disappears eastwards into the Caithness wilderness, while the road continues northwards. This is perhaps the least exciting stretch of the road. Even on a sunny day, this low, undulating moorland cannot be described in particularly favourable terms. The greens and browns of the bracken give way here and there to small lochs, while low rounded hills rise gently in the distance, some cloaked in large forestry plantations.
The road loses quite a bit of altitude as it passes through Forsinard, before the gradient eases as it drops into Strath Halladale, another long gentle descent to the sea, much as the Strath of Kildonan is when heading south. The map shows the contours tightening up, but this less noticeable from the road, where the landscape appears as a wide shallow valley, with some occasional lumps and bumps. The road crosses the Halladale River at Forsinain Bridge, after which a couple of left turns give access to village roads on the other side of the river, including the small settlements of Trantlemore / Trantlebeg, Craigtown and Achiemore, amongst others.
With just three miles to go beyond Achiemore, the end is at last in sight. The strath narrows a little, and the road is squeezed between the river and hillside around a couple of bends, before opening up once more. Improvements have been made at this end to allow lorries to reach windfarms and forestry, but it is still not a full S2 width. Some longer straights lead past Golval, then a tighter bend over the Akran Burn, before the final run down to the A836 at Halladale Bridge. The A836 may not be the best driver's road in Scotland, but with the regular glimpses of stunning coastlines it is infinitely more enjoyable than the long haul of the A897. 37 miles, perhaps an hour to drive - unless you live along it the only reason to drive it is to tick it off on the list!
As its high number suggests, the A897 was one of the last of the A8xx series to be allocated, certainly in the early 1930s and possibly not even being used until the mass renumbering of 1935. It does not appear on the 1932 OS 10 mile map, but is shown on the 1936 edition. Before that, the route had carried the B872 number.
The road was almost certainly built by Joseph Mitchell in the 1820s during his time as county surveyor for Sutherland. Many of the old bridges along the road are to the designs of Thomas Telford, which Mitchell, as a former apprentice of Telford, continued to use through the 1820s and 30s. A couple of the bridges have since been bypassed, but apart from some online widening to accommodate timber traffic, the road is much as was built nearly 200 years ago.