Saturday, 3 December 2016

Sutherland

Lairg has an excellent tweed shop which used to have a fine window display. This has now, sadly, been replaced by photographs. Inside you need plenty of money if you want to shop. I suspect my tweed-clad benefactor of the previous evening had been shopping there. Sutherland is full of large hunting, shooting and fishing estates where rich folk from the south come to spend their money on killing things and buying tweed. Last time I was here the camp-site proprietor told me that I could enjoy a good day out, and see how the other half lives, by riding on the post bus for the day while it delivered to all the shooting-lodges and great estates.

Looking west over Loch Shin

It rained heavily in the night but stopped considerately at 8.00. I dried the tent off and packed up under a sky full of black cloud. Then some blue sky appeared as I set off into a fresh north-west breeze. There were wide views over Loch Shin, but the mountains were still covered in cloud as I cycled up the long ascent to the Crask Inn over open moorland scarred by the devastation of felled spruce forest. The ugliness of it is everywhere, even where the stumpy ruins are being repopulated by willowherb and ragwort, scabious and buttercup and heather.

Heading for Crask

I stopped for coffee at the Crask Inn, an isolated pub and bunkhouse which has been up for sale for a couple of years now, with its 2000 acres of grazing. It's a very friendly place and I sat listening to the owner, a retired primary school teacher, discussing teaching with a man who was his wife's backup team while she cycled from Land's End to John o'Groats. He had dodgy knees so he drove the camper van, waving her off from the campsite in the morning then catching her up - as now - for coffee, then whiling away the morning before catching her again for lunch. He didn't seem to be regretting things too much!

I carried on over the pass to Altnaharra. Ben Klibreck was invisible under dark cloud and the Altnaharra hotel was closed up and deserted, so I carried on down Strathnaver. The official route doesn't go this way, preferring to go via Tongue, but the deserted Clearance villages in Strathnaver and the excellent information boards here make this a great alternative. It's also shorter, though you do miss the views of Ben Loyal from the Kyle of Tongue.

Loch Naver

All along the shores of the River Naver beyond the flat, fertile green fields of the valley bottom, black 4x4s were parked, servicing their salmon fishing clients. The road follows the river and finally the sea appears at Torrisdale Bay; sandbars and dunes and cliffs beyond.

Torrisdale Bay
I spent the night in a bed and breakfast in the village of Farr and looked out of the window in the morning to see Ben Hope and Ben Loyal under the ragged clouds of clearing rain. I was back on the official route now, and the road along the north coast swept up and down over big rocky hills until, at Reay, I was suddenly in farmland again with low hills, sheep and hayfields, but always with lonely mountains visible in the distance, and with glimpses of sea, cliffs, headlands and finally the Orkney islands away to the north.

Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
First view of Orkney

The campsite in Thurso was in end of season mode. It was surrounded by a beautiful wall made of Caithness flagstones, which are used for fences everywhere in this part of the country. Between the flagstones and the beach was a path used by dog walkers and townsfolk. Nearby there was a large Lidl where I found my friend Stefan buying provisions. He had run out of time on his trip and was planning to find a farmer to store his bike in a barn for the winter so he could return next year.

Signpost
Thurso Bay
Campsite 
Orkney at dusk

In the morning I got up at 6.00. It was cold, and it was still cold as I cycled round to the ferry terminal at 8.00, but then the sun came out and lit up the cliffs of Hoy in the distance.

I got on the ferry and watched the mainland recede.

Maps:  to Bettyhill;  to Thurso

Tips:

  • The route through Strathnaver from Altnaharra to Bettyhill is slightly less scenic than going through Tongue, but gives a great insight into the history of the area.

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