A Journey into Scotland : Part 55
The hostel was cold and grey. A handful of faces looked up at me as I walked in with my bags. I found a bunk and then responded to a request that had all residents walking to a cold and grey pub where we found the silences growing longer. Sometimes you drop lucky with who you meet on your travels and sometimes you don’t. We haven’t stayed in touch. In the morning I pedalled away from Helmsdale a little faster than I ought to have done. In the brightness of the October sun it is an attractive little town with an eventful history.
This is where the railway line turns inland. The hairpin braes of Berriedale were too much for the engineers and they reluctantly chose the option of running the track up to Thurso and Wick across the Flow Country. (If you want to take in the beauty of that bogland then the train is the best way to travel). The village was one of many that were planned and built to accommodate crofters cleared from the hinterland. In 1814 the landowners saw greater profits in having sheep rather than people on the moors. The villagers were employed as fishermen and soon Helmsdale had a herring fleet to rival any in Britain. In 1868 a nugget of gold was found upstream of the town which sparked a rush to the Sutherland hills. Despite panning every stream no great fortunes were made.
As it progresses south the A9 slowly becomes a major road. I have little choice but to stay on it for as long as it remains safe. Once the eight o’clock travellers have found their places of work I’ve only the lorry drivers to concern me and I’ve always found professional drivers (lorry drivers are qualified, van drivers aren’t) show greater courtesy to cyclists than most other road users. The worst of the hills are behind me and the morning passes amiably enough with heathery hillsides stretching upwards on my right and occasional views out over the North Sea to my left.
Brora was one of those names that cropped up every January (of my childhood) in the football results. I always liked the first round of the cup competitions when the usual Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Stranraer were joined by the vaguely threatening; Brora Rangers, the rather lovely; Linlithgow Rose, and the downright overblown; Inverness Clachnacuddin. Many Scottish football teams sound made up: Cowdenbeath, Stenhousmuir: but these are real and fine places. Brora was very real that morning. I passed through knowing I would, from that moment on, be someone who had been there. I continue to wear that thought with pride.
The sun was shining on Golspie and a glimpse of beach tempted me to buy a paper, pop and a Mars Bar for a half hour rest with the waves lapping. It is a stunningly beautiful beach, it would have been a shame to miss it. In the paper a friend of mine from Exeter is trading stories with punk poet Attila the Stockbroker. I’ve come a long way to read banter I could have shared at home. After twenty four hours of being starved of decent conversation, it is very welcome.
I want to call in at Dornoch and should have done. This was the scene of our earliest holiday and the only one spent in a caravan. I was very young but carried fond memories of the word Dornoch for years afterwards. My only tangible memory is of thousands of blood-red jellyfish washed up upon the sands. I was captivated rather than repulsed. The more I contemplate the enquiring and curious little boy that I was, the more I like him and the more I wish to re-capture his many qualities.
Today an impressive new bridge carries the road over the Dornoch Firth. In 1987 I had to cycle the full length of the inlet and, even with my timetable drawing me south, I found this no burden at all. This is a landscape worth travelling to see, and, once you’ve put in the travelling, it would be a pity not to linger.
I’ve written before about the bicycle being the perfect way to see the countryside. You go fast enough to get to where you are going and slow enough to be able to enjoy what there is to enjoy. There is a lot to enjoy along the Dornoch Firth. The weather is warming. The sun shines through an ever changing cloudscape. Cycling can focus your thoughts better than almost any activity I know of. I cannot, after nearly thirty years, remember what my thoughts were about but I can remember the twelve miles to the head of the loch passed happily.
On the southern shore I’m given a choice. Keep to the main road or take a smaller road over the tops to the next Firth down. The main road is likely to be smoother, flatter. The smaller road is likely to be quite an incline. I’m ready for it and turn into the woods.
Some climbs take it out of your legs, and some put it back in. This was a long, long pull that continued for miles. Always a challenge and always a delight. I kept in the saddle all the way through the greenwood trees and through the conifers above and out onto the open moorland with its blaze of purple. It is for such moments that we ride bicycles. It took me perhaps forty minutes to reach the top and in that time I passed two cars. On the top I had everything to myself. It was almost a hidden world up there, a valley between two peaks. Not the towering munros of other parts. These were substantial hills rather than mountains but an eagle wouldn’t have been out of place. With blood pumping through my calves I just wanted to ride and breathe. I hadn’t expected this stretch of road. It was a sheer delight.
The southern side saw the road following the path of a stream. By the time I needed to pedal agin, the stream had become a small river. There were a scattering of houses on this side of the hill. It faces south. It makes sense. Occasional glimpses of silver among the green tell me that I’m approaching the Cromarty Firth. Smoke is blowing across and strange skeletal structures seem to be standing out in the water. The smoke is from stubble fires. In 1987 farmers were still permitted to burn off the chaff and stalks of the harvested fields before ploughing. I had no idea what the metal structures were until the whole inland sea came into view.
They were oil rigs. This isn’t an oilfield but a place where rigs are built. From where I’m riding the Firth looks shallow. The rigs give some indication that this inlet is actually one of the most important deep water anchorages in British waters. There was a mutiny here in the 1930s and after the second world war the Royal Navy moved away leaving the Firth to the merchant fleet, fisher folk and now the oilmen.
This Firth (both the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths are arms of the much larger Moray Firth which cuts off the northern section of Scotland) has been bridged. From a distance the structure looks like an over-extended clapper bridge. Maybe strong enough and wide enough for a pack horse or a laden bicycle. Surely not the main north south route. It grew and by the time I was pedalling across it felt big enough. It was certainly long enough. Not far short of a mile.
Just the fabled Black Isle lay between me and my destination. This is one of those “not really an island’ isles that can be found in different parts of the country (see Barrow Island or the Isle of Ely). It was here that the first clearances took place. Until recently it had retained its own Gaelic dialect. The last speaker was Bobby Hogg. The dialect died with him in 2012. For many years he was the only speaker and often felt that for all of his best efforts to pass on his knowledge, he might just as well have been talking to himself.
The last thirteen miles are over this ancient land in a gathering twilight. Inverness seemed busy. It was the biggest town I had been to for weeks and lots of tourists had had the same thought as me. The tourist office informed me that there was hardly a bed to be had. I couldn’t stand another night in a dormitory with people talking about under clothes which “wicked the water away”. At a small private hotel I was greeted by a man wearing a cravat. I was too tired to let this put me off and I signed in. His breath smelled heavily of whisky and that could have accounted for the unusually low price. The room was lovely though. A big bed, a bath and nobody to disturb the peace.