Edwyn Collins is a renowned musician, producer and record label owner from Edinburgh, widely known for his 1994 song "A Girl Like You". He formed the musical group Nu-Sonics in 1976, which later became Orange Juice, and has pursued a solo career since 1985.
Generations of his family have lived in Helmsdale and Edwyn, with his wife and fellow blog-contributor Grace Maxwell, moved there in recent years. They have made Helmsdale their home and are currently building a new state of the art studio overlooking the straths of Edwyn's childhood adventures. Look out for new music, gigs, events, and AED releases at www.edwyncollins.com
My grandfather’s home village, and where I live now, is Helmsdale and just north of here is the Ord of Caithness. This important border between Sutherland and Caithness has featured heavily in my memories of my childhood walks with my family, especially with my grandpa and sister. As a boy, these were his hunting grounds and he would show us where he would roam with his gun, looking for a hare or occasionally a deer. His favourite burn for brown trout, Ousdale, is just over the Ord and on from there to Badbea, where he could tell us about distant family who were part of that wild and windy settlement on top of the cliffs. It was a relatively short lived settlement as succeeding generations found the life unendurably hard, especially in winter, and I can’t blame them. My grandpa’s preferred route was to walk the stony beach from Helmsdale and then climb up to a flat outgrowth, called the Green Table. On the far side we walked the beach again to a route up the cliffs called the Clet. I don’t even know if that’s how you spell it. I gave him a fright when I nearly fell off it’s steep sides when I disturbed a fulmar’s nest as I searched for a handhold. I was ten and was surprised to see him ashen-faced, very rare. He was a great daredevil and expected us to keep up, which my sister Petra and I learned to do, whilst my poor mum fretted until we came home safe and sound. And no moaning allowed on our epic treks!
Because my grandpa didn’t drive much, we cycled to our destinations and then began the walks. Or just walked. He would do an annual pilgrimage to Morven, the highest hill in Caithness, but start it by walking up the back of our house at Navidale and trek the peat bogs to get there more or less as the crow flies, about ten miles, I guess. The hill was easy compared to the strength sapping sphagnum moss trudged over to get there. I’ve only done that twice and a while back, but he did it last in his seventies. When my wife Grace was first introduced to Helmsdale in 1985, he was in his eighties and still left her standing.
He was an amazing man who achieved many things in a long life - he was the Director of Education for Aberdeenshire and then Glasgow. He had a successful rugby career, capped sixteen times for Scotland and picked for the Barbarians. But it was Sutherland and Caithness that made him happiest. He was so proud of his village, of the people who lived here, of the education it gave him and of the history. But he was really at his happiest walking the hill or the shore, in conversation, or listening to my sister and I making up elaborate stories and nonsense to carry us on our way. He always lit a fire and made tea and had kindling stashed all over the place for the next visit. We liked to picnic by a broch if we were near one, for shelter and for the feeling of the ghosts of the Picts who used to live there. At a place called Alt na Tubhadair (I’ve had to look this up, I’ve got a funny pronunciation of it in my head) he had a the sole of an old shoe hidden under a stone. It had come loose on a walk when he was a young man and he’d placed it there. We called it Grandpa’s museum!
He was a fine historian and wrote many articles about Sutherland’s history. He knew every corner of the far north, there was no hill he hadn’t climbed or harbour he hadn’t investigated and he was haunted by the stories of the lives of the people who once lived here in much greater numbers until they were forced to seek new lives overseas. He really felt keenly how their hearts must have been broken with thoughts of home. There was nowhere on earth could beat the far north.
I agree with him. He gave me Helmsdale, which satisfied my boyhood passions for birds, animals, rock pools and even geology, in a modest way. I could never have imagined I’d end up as the custodian of the old house and be able to bring my work here. I’ve built a recording studio and will live in Helmsdale for good. Since I had a stroke in 2005 I’ve surprised myself at the places I’ve been able to get access to and the drive to see familiar things in nature has helped me tap into the old daredevil in me.
Although the vast solitude of the far north is wonderful, I always want to share it, to show it off, to see the reactions on the faces of friends who experience it for the first time. My grandfather was the soul of Highland hospitality and this wonderful place has the capacity to welcome one and all.
Edwyn Collins, April 2016.
This blog has been published as part of the Venture North Discovery series.
Discover more reasons to Venture North at www.venture-north.co.uk/discovery