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Gaelic: Bun Ilidh
Helmsdale 01.jpg
Grid reference: ND025155
Location: 58°7’12"N, 3°39’36"W
Post town: Helmsdale
Postcode: KW8
Dialling code: 01431
Local Government
Council: Highland
Caithness, Sutherland
and Easter Ross

Helmsdale is a village on the east coast of Sutherland, immediately south of the border with Caithness. The place of the village and its name are ancient, but the village of today was planned and built in 1814 to resettle communities that had been removed from the surrounding valleys as part of the Highland Clearances.

Helmsdale is a fishing port at the estuary of the River Helmsdale, and was once the home of one of the largest herring fleets in Europe. The river itself is well known for its fishing. West Helmsdale lies across the river from the main village above the railway station; Old Helmsdale is immediately to the north while East Helmsdale is a settlement less than a mile to the east.

The village is on the A9, the road which winds up the coast to its very northernmost, at a junction with the A897, and it has a railway station on the Far North Line. Though a small place, Helmsdle has a youth hostel, a heritage centre, an art gallery, and an inn.

Name of the village

The name of Helmsdale is from Old Norse; the Norwegian settlers who founded their township here called the dale and village Hjalmundal, meaning Helmet's Dale", and as such it appears in the Orkneyinga Saga.

The Gaelic name for Helmsdale is from its river, known in Gaelic as the Ilidh, but the name appears to be older than the Gaelic language, for the river appears to be that which Ptolemy named as Ila in his "Geographia", and the origin of that is unknown. The Gaelic name for the village, Bun Ilidh, means Ilidh-foot.

Culture and sports

Helmsdale is known for its Highland Games which are always the 3rd Saturday in August. The best known event is the evening Marquee Dance where the village population of 700 more than doubles thanks to visitors attending the dance.

  • Bunillidh Thistle FC and Helmsdale United are the local football teams.


Helmsdale was the scene of a cruel revenge in the twelfth century, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, the tale of the Earls of Orkney. It tells that Olvir the Unruly dwelt here with his wife Frakok, who had intrigued against the Earls. Sweyn Asleifsson sought revenge on Olvir for his father's death and burst upon their homestead from the hillside at the back. Though Olvir fled across the river and to the hills, Sweyn's men burnt the house and farm and slew Frakok and everyone they found without regard to sex.[1]

Helmsdale Castle was begun in the 1460s, in what is now the Couper Park. In 1567 it was the scene of the murder of the 11th Earl of Sutherland.[2] The murder was a tragedy which echoes in the final scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and might have inspired it. Isobel Sinclair sought the earldom for her own son and invited the Earl and Countess of Sutherland and their son to dine at the castle. She poisoned their cups, but while the Earl and Countess drank the fatal draught, their son did not; Isobel's own son took it and died.

The castle was repaired in the 1600s but later fell into ruin (and its remains were demolished in the 1970s in order to build the new A9 road bridge).

In Sutherland as elsewhere, the old Highland superstition prevailed that various ills could be cured by the menfolk of the community joining together to light a fire by the action of friction alone; a force-fire. The Kirk at last managed to put this belief down but it lasted a remarkable time and one of the last force-fires was lit in Helmsdale was about 1818.

Gold rush

Two tributaries of the river experienced a gold rush in 1869. The history of Kildonan's gold started in 1818, when a single nugget of gold was found near the Suisgill and Kildonan burns.

The gold-rush was begun in 1868, when a brief announcement in a local newspaper stated that gold had been discovered at Kildonan in the county of Sutherland. The credit for the discovery goes to Robert Nelson Gilchrist, a native of Kildonan, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given the permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River and he prospected all the burns and tributaries.[3]


The first modern road up the coast through Helmsdale was forged by Thomas Telford "the Collossos of Roads". Telford threw a bridge across the dale here.[4] In the 1970s the road, by now the A9, was improved and a new bridge built over the dale, in the course of which the remains of Helmsdale Castle were demolished.

Second World War

During Second World War, the Royal Air Force built Loth Chain Home radar station at Crakaig a few miles South West of Helmsdale. There was also an RAF Chain Home Low radar station Navidale about a mile North East of Helmsdale. During the Cold War there was a Composite Signals Organisation radio monitoring station in Helmsdale itself, to feed intelligence to GCHQ.

New developments

The Highlands and Islands Council announced on 3 August 2008 plans to modernise and catalyse industry in Helmsdale and its surrounding areas. This included a £3.5 million redevelopment of the harbour and the development of two battery processing factories.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Helmsdale)


  1. Orkneyinga Saga: "They were not ware of the host before Sweyn and his men had come to a slope at the back of Frakok's homestead . . . Then there was a great slaughter of men, but Olvir he fled away up to Helmsdale water, and swam across the river and so up on to the fell, and thence he fared to Scotland's firth, and so out to the Hebrides. And he is out of the story. But when Olvir drew off, Sweyn and his men fared straight up to the house and plundered it of everything, but after that they burnt the homestead, and all those men and women who were inside it. And there Frakok lost her life. Sweyn and his men did there the greatest harm in Sutherland before they fared to their ships"
  2. Sutherland, Andrew. "A Brief History of Clan Sutherland". http://www.clansutherland.org/FrHistory.htm. Retrieved 2009-04-22. 
  3. Anon. "The Scottish Gold Rush March 1869". Official website for the village of Helmsdale. helmsdale.org. http://www.helmsdale.org/gold-rush.html. Retrieved 2009-04-22. 
  4. Colvin, Howard (2008). "Burn, George". A biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840. Yale University Press. pp. 182. ISBN 9780300125085. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CSyaO-MqYoAC&pg=PA182&lpg=PA182&dq=helmsdale+bridge+builder. Retrieved 2009-04-22.