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A9/Ord Road

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Ord Road
Location Map ( geo)
Cameraicon.png View gallery (3)
From:  Helmsdale (ND045173)
To:  Ousdale (ND065192)
Distance:  2.5 miles (4 km)
Sutherland • Caithness

The Ord of Caithness is a massive rock bluff rising almost shear out of the North Sea a couple of miles north of Helmsdale. It is such a difficult obstacle to overcome that it has been a tribal boundary for over a thousand years, and to this day it forms the county boundary between Sutherland and Caithness. Despite this, however, it is an obstacle that had to traversed in order to reach the far north.

The first roads over The Ord were mere pathways, drovers routes and pony trails. These routes would almost certainly have changed with the seasons as the boggy ground was unable to take repeat traffic over long periods without just being churned to mud. In the summer months, inland routes would have been available, but over the winter, with snow covering the hills, it is probable that a more coastal route was sought. Needless to say, the great inconvenience of trying to cross The Ord led to various attempts at providing a permanent all weather road north from Helmsdale.

The Old Ord Road

There is some confusion in the exact history of the construction of a road over The Ord. A board near the summit names the Scottish Surveyor and Engineer, Charles Abercrombie as the constructor of a new carriage road over The Ord, completed by 1802. However, other records at the time described the road as steep with precipitous drops, and dangerous bends, but for the first time it allowed wheeled traffic to navigate The Ord without lengthy detours inland. The same board identifies Telford as the constructor of the current road, which suggests that the old road described below was built by Abercrombie a decade or more earlier.

The lookout seemingly built on the old road (seen in left foreground)

The exact starting point of the old road is uncertain. The settlement of Navidale already existed, and so it seems likely that a road of some sort connected it with Helmsdale. The road northwards from Navidale, after crossing the first Allt Briste, was the A9 until c2008 and mostly remains in use today, as far as the second Allt Briste. Here, however, an older road line can be traced dropping down the valley below the more recently abandoned loop, and passes through the bank of the modern A9. It can then be traced as a gorse covered shallow bank all the way down to a clifftop World War 2 Lookout post. Despite the possibility that this could be a road built to the lookout, it is almost certainly also the line of Abercrombie's Road. Thanks to the creation of the John o'Groats Trail, the line of the old road is relatively easy to get to and follow from it's northern end, and the trail follows the old road line around the corner into the valley of the Ord Burn.

The path takes a slightly shorter hairpin across the stream, with the old road vaguely traceable a little further up the valley, albeit with no evidence that a bridge ever stood here. It may well have been washed out after two centuries of spates, but it is more likely that a ford sufficed. The next section is the part of the route most likely described as steep and precipitous as it climbs steeply up the Ord itself, above Ord Point and across the county boundary. A hundred metres of height are gained in around half a mile, with the gradient averaging 1 in 8, but steeper in places. This is quite an experience to walk on a calm February day, but imagine it in the depths of winter with a storm blowing in from the east, and it would have been quite a frightening experience. Towards the top the road swings inland, still climbing, to cross the Allt an Fhudair and reach a summit of over 210m. Aerial photography suggests that there are a couple of tracks across this moorland hill, but on the ground the old road is very easy to follow, and is now used by the long distance footpath.

The road climbing up to the summit

After the summit, the road drops down to cross a new path from a layby down to a broch in the valley below, but the old road continues dead ahead to reach a forestry plantation before the fields around Ousdale House. Here, the old road is lost to modern land management, but presumably it somehow linked up with the line of the modern A9 nearby.

Telford's Road

The old road was in use for, at most, 30 years, before Thomas Telford started work on his own route over The Ord as part of his commission on Highland Roads and Bridges. This is the line of the old A9 which was finally bypassed in 2008, and is still largely open to walkers from Helmsdale as far as the northern Allt Briste. Even the modern engineers, however, were unable to do much about the sharp hairpin over the Ord Burn. Telford started his road north from Brora in 1811, reaching Thurso and Wick in c1818, suggesting that the road over The Ord dates from around 1812, although it is possible that the difficulties encountered here meant that progress was slow, and the road completed after sections further north.

A9/Ord Road
Related Pictures
View gallery (3)
Coastguard Lookout Post - Geograph - 6856870.jpgOrd-road1.jpgOrd-road2.jpg
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