Helmsdale is a fishing port at the estuary of the River Helmsdale in Northern Scotland, and was once the home of one of the largest herring fleets in Europe. The river itself is still well known for its fishing. The village comprises a number of older settlements, including West Helmsdale which lies across the river from the main village above the railway station; Old Helmsdale which is immediately to the north while East Helmsdale is a settlement less than a mile to the east. The village today is a busy place, especially in the summer months, as it is one of the larger settlements on the A9 on this stretch of coast. It is also a convenient stopping place for travellers heading to/from the Orkney Ferries.
The main road through the village is the A9, which follows the coast north from Inverness to Latheron and then crosses to Thurso on the north coast. It is by far the busiest route this far north, carrying thousands of heavy lorries, tourist coaches, cars and other vehicles through Helmsdale every week. In the middle of the village, it meets the A897, which heads north to the north coast at Melvich, several miles west of Thurso, but a far inferior road, as it is single track almost throughout. It is, however, considerably quieter than the A9!
The A9 has seen a lot of improvement over the last 40 years, with the new Helmsdale Bridge spanning the sharp valley through which the river runs, and so removing the steep climbs and sharp bends of the old road built by Thomas Telford. Much more recently, the hills and bends at the Ord of Caithness to the north of the village have been improved too, see below for more detail.
The two routes meet, as noted above, near the centre of Helmsdale, with the A897 initially heading north west along Dunrobin Street. The junction was originally a crossroads, where the A9 turned out of Dunrobin Street to continue northwards. However, since the construction of the new Helmsdale Bridge, the A9 has taken a more direct route to the south of the village. The A897 has now been kinked a little to the north for the final approach to create a staggered crossroads, the old road surviving as the car park for the Belgrave Arms Hotel.
The original junction between the two routes, however, lay further west at Helmsdale Square. This was where the A9 arrived, having crossed Telfords Bridge, and then turned along Dunrobin Street. Today it is a mini roundabout, although this is a more recent addition.
|Thurso, Wick (A99|
Ord of Caithness
To the north of Helmsdale, as Sutherland gives way to Caithness, the winding nature of the A9 around the Ord had slowed traffic since the motor car first ventured this far north. However in 2008 a major new road was constructed, straightening out the old bends and providing a much faster route north. Only the most northerly of the bends survives, and even this has been widened and improved. The new road generally runs to the west of the old, with shallow cuttings and embankments carrying it across the gullys of the undulating landscape. Where the old road seemed to constantly climb, the new drops a little at first, before a gentler climb with a climbing lane at the northern end.
The old road has been partially retained, accessed via a new roundabout, as property access. After most of the houses have been passed, it is reduced to single track with passing places, eventually giving way to a narrow cycle track which connects through to the new road.