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Caithness News Bulletins 2003

Helmsdale Ord Road Index Caithness.org News 2002

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A9 Trunk Road
Helmsdale to Ord of Caithness Improvements

The Ord of Caithness - Described in History of Caithness by J T Calder 1887
There are several lofty headlands along the coast, but the four most celebrated are the Ord of Caithness, Holborn-Head, and the promontories of Dunnet and Duncansby. The Ord so well known as a formidable pass between Sutherland and Caithness, is situated at the eastern boundary of the two counties. According to Jamieson, the derivation of the term Ord is either from the Gaelic “ard” or the Icelandic “urd” both of which signify a steep hill or eminence. I am inclined to think it from the Icelandic, more especially as the names of most places along the Caithness coast are Norwegian. Besides, in Shetland, where the names of the places are all purely Scandinavian, there is a promontory near Lerwick called the Ord of Bressay. The Ord is the “Verubium Promontorium” of Ptolemy; and in a curious geographical fragment, entitled, “De Situ Albaniae,”* and generally ascribed to Andrew, Bishop of Caithness, who died in 1185, it is called “Mons Mound.” The Ord forms the termination of a long mountain ridge, and is, strictly speaking, the brow of a steep hill overhanging the sea, whose strand, at the lowest state of the tide, is the perpendicular face of the rock. On the Sutherland side, the headland is cleft into a huge ravine or gorge of great depth, running a long way up into the interior among the hills. The old road, the only practicable route without making a circuit of some twelve or fourteen miles, was a mere path, or rather shelf, along the outer edge of the promontory, and without any protection from the precipice, so that it could not be passed with any safety in stormy weather. This terrific path, which never failed to inspire travellers with dread, was about a mile in length. Its dangers have been alluded to by several tourists. Pennant, who was accustomed to such passes, describes it as “infinitely more high and horrible then Penmaen Mawr, in Wales.” The Rev. John Brand, in his “Description of Orkney, Shetland and Caithness,” in the year 1701, quaintly says, “ The Ord, which divideth Caithness from Sutherland is a high mountain down which our way from Caithness to Sutherland doth lie. The road is narrow and the descent steep, and if any stumble thereupon they are in danger of falling down a precipice into the sea, at the bottom of the rock, which is very terrible to behold.” Travellers in carriage or on horseback, when they came to the Ord, always alighted and crossed it on foot, leading their horses, or having them led by servants. In 1802 a Government survey of the Ord was made by Mr Charles Abercrombie, an eminent engineer, who suggested a new plan of a road, by which all danger would be avoided; and the ascent, instead of being so uncommonly steep, would not exceed one foot in thirty in any part of it. It was not, however, till1811 that the new road was constructed, and a bridge thrown across the wild yawning chasm, by which means the entrance from the one county to the other is now rendered perfectly safe and easy at any time. By the traveller from Helmsdale the old path may still be seen like a sheep track winding up the steep brow of the hill, some three or four hundred feet above the rolling surge. The scene altogether is one of that wild and savage character which would have afforded a fit subject for the pencil of Salvator Rosa.

More of Calder's History of Caithness