A Journey into Scotland … Part 37
They hadn’t been out and out unfriendly to me in the bar of the Achnasheen Hotel. The shinty team had been loud and general with their insults. They’d throw one at a friend and then both would share a knowing glance and snigger at some unbeknown victim. It was a mean-spirited game. The inn was much the poorer for having them there. Except they were passing a good deal of money over the bar. The sniggering insults were really victimless crimes. If the fellow in an old school tie didn’t know he was being laughed at, then the laughing at rather rebounds on the laugher. The cyclist elaborately pouring tea from a leaky teapot was aware of the digs and jeers but he really didn’t give much of a hoot.
I was going to camp out on the moor and they were going to pile into a minibus for a beer and vomit smelling trip back to Dingwall. It was highly unlikely that our paths would ever cross again. And, if they did, I was the only one sober enough to remember the encounter.
But, they hadn’t been entirely friendly either. In the morning there was nobody stirring. I relieved myself copiously against the hotel wall and pedalled off into the peace and quiet of the morning. After an hour of pedalling I had completed ten miles, breathed gallons and gallons of the cleanest air I’d yet breathed, praised myself for not succumbing either to paying the price for below par accommodation and for not drinking anything stronger than tea. I had been passed, in that time, by three vehicles.
I rode alongside the River Bran. It looked tired and sluggish as it made its way through the wide U shaped valley. The journey down to the sea seemed not to motivate it. Almost better to stop up here and become a lake or a tarn. Fed by numerous tiny tributaries; almost like blood vessels rather than veins; it moved on and I traced its headwaters. Finally, just past Achanalt, where an even lonelier railway station serves an unseen commuter population, the river gets its way and becomes a series of lochs. The road which had risen gradually almost since the coast now levelled.
I was pleased. I was back to my usual slow pace rather than my enforced extra slow pace. I’d worried that constantly exercising the ankle would be bad for it. I come from the generation that have been told that rest is the answer to injury. We used to use the word convalescence. Modern day physiotherapists would be happier to see my cycling cure I’m sure.
“Just broken you ankle have you? See if you can balance on this ball. That’s it. Oh yes. It’s bound to hurt a bit at first. That’s fine. Now walk across the room to me if you would. We’ll have you back on your feet in next to no time.” (literally).
Whatever the cure I was feeling confident enough to leave the crutch of the railway behind me and turn northwest towards Ullapool. The A835 was an altogether bigger road and altogether busier. But not so busy as to make a cyclist worry. I was 32 miles from Ullapool and I was so high up in the hills that most of that journey had to be downhill. We were taken for family holidays to Ullapool when I was four. It was one of two family holidays that I can clearly remember; and I remember them both fondly.
The land is so vast and open and empty. The sheep that replaced the human population in the eighteenth century are still here. All sheep are rugged. These more than most.
I’m now following a river downwards. This time the delightfully named Black Water. And it was. The road kept up a good pretence of being a major thoroughfare until it reached the wide open stretch of cold looking water called Loch Glascarnoch. To be up here is very special and I feel the sense of privilege. For it to be largely free of other road traffic only served to make it feel all the more special. It must be exhilarating to experience uplands like this on hot sunny days when adders stir and larks ascend. Today it had a sky that was painted from a choice of greys. It felt right.
My memory clearly tells me of a delightful inn where my faith in Scottish hospitality is fully restored. I cannot find it on the map.
“Well, if you really like tea we could make you a big pot. Sit yourself down over there and have a read of the papers. Would you like some biscuits with that? Or a slice of cake?”
A china pot arrives complete with a generous milk jug. I’ve already covered as many miles as I expected. I’d been cycling comfortably along these uplands with first one, then two then whole clusters of munros appearing. This is that makes you stop and say “Wow” or sometimes something stronger when a mountain catches the light, or just touches something deep inside that makes you realise that, while we are very small and ephemeral, we are nonetheless part of this magnificence.
And then one of those deja vu moments. It seems strangely familiar but if I have been here before I was no older than four and I haven’t seen photographs or had family share their memories. I ring my father later that day to ask if we ever went to the Falls of Measach, when we were little, and he says we did. Memory is a more powerful beast than we give it credit for. Not for the only time on this journey, proximity brings back things that had lain undisturbed in a back corner of my mind for most of my life. I know there is going to be a wobbly wooden bridge high above a waterfall and when I push the bicycle down the path, there it is.
If miles of moorland and upland lochs and mountain peaks have whetted your appetite for something spectacular then this two hundred feet deep gorge comes at just the right time. The River Droma falls 150 feet over the highest of the waterfalls here. I can’t remember if I suffered from heights as a little boy but I do now. There is a sign saying no more than four people should be on the bridge at anyone time. There are three other people there and I wait for them to finish being astonished (for polite people they used an awful lot of expletives in taking in the falls, the gorge and the sheer drop from the bridge) before I take my turn. I actually do need to hold on to the sides of the bridge and it takes some overcoming of my inner cowardice before I can bring myself to look over. The photograph of the falls that I took may not be the most perfectly framed and adjusted shot I have ever taken but, for a fellow who cannot stand heights, it was one of the bravest.
Corrieshalloch Gorge is one of the best examples of a box canyon in Britain. I find it hard to believe that this river has cut through this ancient rock. The information signs let me know that the gorge was formed by melting glaciers. The sides are sheer and unreachable. They have become places where rare flora may be found. It is a place of astonishing beauty. Once again Scotland is playing its trick. You have never seen the best of this country until you have seen the best. This matches anything I have ever seen. If Sherlock Holmes was going to die in Britain, this is where it would happen.