…courtesy of the Seaman’s Mission in Mallaig. Unless, that is, if you are vegetarian… I catch the train to Glasgow at 10:10am.
The cycling is now complete. Just a couple of miles short of 300 along the northern coast of Scotland from Dunnet Head to Tongue (via Thurso), along to Durness (and a quick non-cycling detour to Cape Wrath), south to disappointing Scourie, to the relative metropolis that is Ullapool and then to the station at Garve to hop onto a train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, over the bridge to Skye, an overnight stop in Broadford before a final, short ride along the Sound of Sleat to Armadale and the ferry to Mallaig where I finished my Highlands cycling journey earlier today.
The weather today has finally been kind. Rather ironic that it was the day I planned to cycle just 15 miles along the southern portion of Skye from Broadford to Armadale but I was thankful nevertheless for the blue sky that was bearing down upon its near namesake this morning as I made my short way from the hostel to a café by the sea for a full, err… English. It didn’t seem appropriate but the black pudding gave it a Scottish/Yorkshire edge. Several people online had warned me about the A87 that is the backbone of the Isle of Skye but my cycle took me along the quieter A851 which was a delight. For much of the journey I played catch up with the Highlands & Islands Council Mobile Library bus. The woman driving the big yellow box would pass me, I would then pass her (as she was waiting for punters but I never saw any of them – surely they’ve all invested in Kindles or iPads, no?), and then she would overtake me once again. It was fun trying to catch her, or do I just need to get out more? I stopped at the Gaelic College, the world’s only higher and further education establishment where all tuition takes place through the medium of Gaelic. As there were no signs in English to explain what it was – I stopped as I suspected it was the place I had read about in my guidebook but wasn’t 100% sure – I asked an employee and we had a nice chat about the establishment and its work. Interesting if a little niche.
I arrived at the ferry terminal in Armadale at well before 11am, bought a ticket and then went to explore the nearby Armadale Castle, ancestral home of the Donald clan. I assume the McDonalds and MacDonalds are part of the family. The castle itself is a ruin, but it has only been so since the 1920s. Comically (although not for the man himself) the last laird of the Donalds was forced to move into the gardener’s cottage after the collapse of the kelp market. It was downhill ever since. The ancestral home is a shell – literally – of its former self. More interesting on the site is the museum that tells the story of the Donald clan and more widely the Highlands and their peoples. Many of the Donalds emigrated in the 18th and 19th centuries to North America and Australia and some of their stories are told. As I made my way from the museum back towards the entrance of the site, a coach load of Donalds had just arrived in their bus. They were from America. I chatted briefly to one of them; he wasn’t a Donald but his wife was; he seemed just a little weary of the whole ‘Scottish’ thing…
A very long break between me writing the word ‘thing’ and this sentence as I’ve just been chatting to a couple of Belgians, a Welshman, a chap from America and now two Italians have walked in to the bunkhouse here in Mallaig. Tomorrow I catch the train to Glasgow for a night in the big city before heading to Cumbria before the end of the week. Expect at least one picture of a statue with a traffic cone on his head.
There was a faint air of dryness in the air this morning as I left the youth hostel in Ullapool. The sky was just as dark and foreboding as it has been for much of the last week or so, but it was at least hinting that I might arrive at my destination not soaked to the skin. And so it turned out to be. The theme of the day was ‘changeable’. It did rain at times but the downpours were never sufficient in length so as not to make the process of drying off when it wasn’t raining completely futile. There was even one brief but much cherished half an hour or so as I was cycling along the flattish road just to the west of Dearg Beinn that summer appeared in the form of a break in the clouds and sunshine that almost (but not quite) made me remove my rain jacket. I did at least unzip it completely and it was allowed to flutter gloriously in the wind. Some heavy duty climbing was required for a few miles just before the sun decided to shine. You know you are in trouble when a sign appears saying ‘slow lorries for 2 miles’. It should have actually read ‘slow lorries and comically slow cyclists for 2 miles’. The reward was the flat section already mentioned and then the tremendously long, gradual descent towards the small cluster of buildings that calls itself Garve. For the second day running, most of the cycling was wind assisted and this put me in a state of merry pedalling for much of today’s journey.
Heading inland, there was a clear change of scenery from bleak moorland to a more forested landscape, much (if not all) of it managed by the Forestry Commission for Scotland. I’ll come back to the ‘for Scotland’ bit in a moment by the way. Significant chunks of the forests had been felled (one had been felled and burnt to blackened ashes), presumably to be replanted. I seem to remember reading about how much of Scotland’s forests are non-native but they flourished under tax-avoidance schemes in the 1980s. I wonder if the thrust is to repopulate the land with more indigenous species? How would that be cost effective? I assume that indigenous trees are slow-growing ones. Too many questions and not enough answers!
Back to that ‘for Scotland’ thing. So many things are ‘for Scotland’. In addition to the Forestry Commission for Scotland, there’s the NHS for Scotland and then the National Trust for Scotland. OK, that’s only three bit I’m sure there are many more. Then there are all the things that are prefixed ‘Scottish'; most of the tabloids appear to have their ‘Scottish’ equivalents as does the YHA (I’m staying in the SYHA hostel in Broadford on Skye tonight). To a casual observer, independence has already taken place. If they do votes ‘yes’ next month, do all the ‘for Scotland’ references disappear? Mr Salmond we demand an answer!
Back to the cycling. Garve was, as I mentioned, at the bottom of a wonderfully long hill. I was expecting the usual steep climb just before my destination, but it never came. As with many places in these parts, the ‘village’ was so spread out so as not to have any centre and I was left scratching my head wondering where the train station might be. I eventually located it at the far end of the ‘village’/’cluster'; it was just a very functionary two platform affair. Some people were standing waiting for a train. Not surprising you might think because this was, after all, a train station. But there are only three trains a day that stop at the platform for the Kyle of Lochalsh. My train wasn’t until 2:30pm so I would be in for a long wait. Or would I? Such was the speed of my wind-assisted cycling in the morning that I had arrived in time to catch the earlier train at 11:50am. Nice!
It was a bit of a squeeze on the train with the bike – several other cyclists had got on the train in Inverness presumably – but the ever helpful Scot Rail employee, the train conductor (or whatever they are called nowadays) didn’t even consider not letting me travel on the train. Problem sorted with the removal of the panniers and a bit of shifting around of metal. However nice the joys of cycling might be, I enjoyed travelling under someone else’s steam (or diesel I suppose) for a couple of hours. A spectacular ride through dramatic and sparsely populated land. It makes you wonder why they thought it necessary to build a train line there in the first place. To the ferry to Skye I suppose… which no longer operates having now been superseded by the high bridge. Another concrete job – I suppose it must be durable building material – spanning the few hundred metres between the mainland and the island. It was another flat ride of just 9 miles along the coast to Broadford where I located first a coffee shop and then the amazing Café Sia where I tucked into a haggis baguette (yes, they exist and it was good!) washed down with a Plockton beer. Highly recommended.
The other thing of note that I did today was to purchase a train ticket from Mallaig to Glasgow via Fort William. It leaves at… Right! Slight change of plan. I’ve just checked the tickets for the time. I opted for the 16:05 train from Mallaig but the annoying woman selling me the ticket at the Kyle of Lochalsh station has actually given me a reservation for the 10:10. I say ‘annoying’ as she was somewhat off hand with me as I had the temerity to want to buy a train ticket from her. The first Scot Rail employee to have not been anything other than ‘excellent’. She knew full well that I wanted a reservation for the later train as we discussed other options at length. Stupid, stupid woman! This now means that I will have to travel back to the mainland tomorrow afternoon and stay somewhere in or near Mallaig. It will, however, mean that I arrive in Glasgow at an earlier time to sort myself out with accommodation, but that will be a Booking.com job. My end of journey treat!
I didn’t know what was in store for me when I left the campsite in Scourie. I was glad to be leaving; despite being listed in the Cool Camping Scotland book that I had bought prior to the trip, the only cool aspect of the place (and here I’m talking not just about the campsite but also the village in general) was the view to the sea which was, admittedly, spectacular. It rained off and on all night and I slept off and on all night. I know this because I had numerous dreams (none of which I can now remember of course); it was proof that despite the wind and rain battering the sides of my little home, slumber did take place.
I had a short conversation with a cyclist who knew what he was talking about (I somehow still don’t feel that I am in a place to lecture to others about cycling, despite having twice cycled across Europe, I still consider myself to be a novice). He explained where he had been and where he had come from with an authority that should really have given him a documentary series on BBC2. I nodded as if I was at his cycling level but I clearly wasn’t. He too was heading south although had the intention of turning away from the main road to explore the Assynt peninsular at some point. After leaving Scourie, I never saw him again. He was probably following from a safe distance, taking notes for feedback later.
I was immediately delighted to feel the wind behind me rather than against me. So it was to be for perhaps 95% of the remainder of the day and turned what would otherwise have been a second day of hell into one that was, at times, heavenly. The rain stopped and started; on occasions it was torrential but I was in a much more positive mood than I had been yesterday and despite its best efforts, the rain would not be putting me off my cycling stride. I paused to admire the concrete bridge shown below (it was impressive as far as concrete bridges go). A German coach had also stopped in the small car park and after a few minutes, one of the occupants walked across to where I was standing and gave me a plastic cup of coffee. It was a nice touch. At one end of the car park was a small memorial to the men and women who had been killed during top-secret submarine experiments during the Second World War on the loch beneath the bridge. It made the gift of coffee from the German man doubly touching and it gave me hope that one day perhaps even the Israelis and the Palestinians might sort out their differences. Perhaps over a cup of hot coffee.
Much of todays’s cycling was through empty expanses of quintessentially Scottish landscapes dusted with a purple coating of heather. Just beautiful beyond description (which is a cop out as it gives me an excuse for not doing so here). At Elphin I stopped for lunch in a well positioned but remote café; hot soup, a scone and more coffee. I spent must of the half an hour I spent inside chatting to a man from Leeds who was on a motorcycle tour of the Scottish highlands. There are many such bikers and it was interesting to be able to assign a character to at least one of them. He had escaped his wife for two weeks; the trade off was that she would be ‘allowed’ to go to Spain with her friends later in the year. Perhaps it’s a biker thing.
There was a kick in the tail of the day with a sharp climb before I arrived in Ullapool. What a metropolis it is after the backwaters of northern and north-western Scotland. I booked myself in at the youth hostel on the harbour – a busy place! – and after a short walk I have settled in to a window seat at the Ferry Boat Inn (highly recommended – it serves Black Sheep beer from Masham, North Yorkshire) to write up this account and plan for the remainder of the week.
So here is the plan…
Monday: cycle from Ullapool to Garve (32 miles) then catch the 14:26 train to the Kyle of Lochalsh. Does this give me time to cycle into Skye and the youth hostel at Corry? Or should I just find somewhere near the end of the railway line?
Tuesday: cycle across southern Skye to Armadale. Catch the ferry? Probably not as there is another hostel in the town.
Wednesday: ferry to Mallaig, the end of the ‘Harry Potter’ train line to Fort William and Glasgow. Could I get as far as Glasgow where I would book into a hotel?
Thursday: explore Glasgow(?)
Friday: train to Carlisle / Penrith to meet my family and do very little for a few days.
I will worry about getting back to Reading once all that is done. That’s the plan, kind of. Here are today’s pictures…
Grim. One word sums up quite well the experience of cycling today from Durness on the north coast of Scotland to Scourie on the west coast. When I woke (ha! Woke?) this morning, the campsite in Durness had been transformed overnight from one of Scotland’s most stunning to one of Scotland’s most weather beaten. I had specifically chosen to pitch my tent at the top of the cliff for obvious reasons if you look at yesterday’s pictures. Alas that also put me in a very exposed spot and dismantling and packing away the tent in strong wind and horizontal rain probably looked quite comical. I actually did a pretty good job by leaving the four corner pegs in the ground until the very last stage of folding and then rolling the tent. It was of course sodden but that was the least of my worries; cycling in the same conditions to those battering the campsite would be no fun. But at least, I reckoned after consulting the detailed Ordnance Survey map on the wall of the campsite reception, the cycle would be a flattish one. Well, yes, there were no excessively steep gradients but there was a considerable number of contours to cross, albeit gradually. In the first 10 miles I experienced some of the worst if not the worst cycling conditions I have ever had the misfortune to battle through. The wind was fierce and heading north (I was heading south of course), the rain almost constant. The saving grace was the temperature; it was never cold although only very fleetingly warm when, on one or two occasions, there was a break in the cloud and the sun shone. Was I not being passed every couple of minutes by a car or a camper van, I might have been worried. As it was, should I have been blown off the bike, my rescuers would have been on the spot quite quickly. At one point, only perhaps 5 miles from Durness, I did stop and shelter next to a van parked beside an isolated house. Should I hitch? If the person in the house came out, should I offer to pay for a lift to Scourie, my destination? Should I turn back and sit out the weather in Durness? After a few minutes, the rain stopped momentarily and the sun made one of its brief appearances. I set off up the long gradual climb once again…
The single track road had its challenges; the drivers would usually use the frequent passing places to wait and let me pass. Others seemed to have little comprehension of the effect that strong wind might have on a cyclist laden with four pannier bags on a narrow road and pushed past regardless. Fucking morons. One prime candidate for highland village idiot of the year approached me at speed in his red Peugeot 205 – I was expecting a 20 year old behind the wheel – so I indicated with a gradual hand movement that he should slow down as he approached. He did, slightly, but was clearly annoyed that he had to do so as when he did pass me, he stuck two fingers in my direction. At least my hand gesture had been polite. He was in his 60s.
The total distance of the ride was only 25 miles but it took me over four hours. Probably nearer five. The downhill stretches were almost as difficult as the uphill ones as the wind was such that it would have been suicide to attempt them at any kind of speed. I arrived in Scourie at around 2pm and found the campsite very quickly; there isn’t much here to make locating anything too problematic. I quickly erected the sodden tent so that it would dry and headed off to the warmth and dryness of the bar/restaurant. Another two cyclists were already tucking into their food. The older guy was chirpy beyond reasonableness and invited me to sit with them. His son – just 10 years old – was reading his Kindle avidly (just like many of you no doubt although I didn’t think he was reading up about my adventures along the Mediterranean…) and said little. They had already cycled 25 miles heading north and they planned to continue as far as Durness by the end of the day. They did have the wind assisting them but they put me to shame.
My journey south will continue tomorrow despite the predicted weather conditions. The silver lining is that I have just seen that there is a radical change in direction of the wind; it will be blowing from the north. Alas that will bring with it some decidedly lower temperatures. Courage!
Quick catch up: yesterday was a remote cycle from Tongue over the headland to, and then around, Loch Eriboll (or, as the café owner from Pontefract preferred to call it, Loch ‘Oribal which was strange as it wasn’t and it had made him stay there for the last 40 years of his life) to Durness. Having been impressed by the hostel in Tongue, it was hardly surprising that as soon as I passed the sign for the youth hostel in Durness, I did a quick u-turn and signed in. They had space… But only for one night. Pity as my intention was to spend the day – today – in Durness and make the trip to Cape Wrath. Could I put my tent on their lawn for Friday night? That wouldn’t be a problem. Setting off for the ferry to Cape Wrath this morning, that was still my intention but when I walked past the campsite at Oasis Sands I was beginning in got regret not having continued cycling last night and stayed there for two nights instead. Could there be a more beautiful location to pitch your tent? More of that in a second.
I suspected that the ferry would be quite small – it was – and I suspected that the number of people who wanted to make the crossing might be quite large – my suspicions were well placed – so my decision to walk the two miles to the pier at the crack of dawn was a good one. I was there first and my place was guaranteed! At 9:30am along with ten other early birds and a couple of drivers, we crossed the estuary – the Kyle of Durness – and set off in a mini-bus for the Cape itself. An hour later after a rather rickety ride along a road that hadn’t been resurfaced since the 1950s (according to the driver who was trying to entertain everyone with his facts/witticisms, many of which were half truths to say the least) we arrived at the lighthouse to explore – see the pictures. The return journey was what I have just described in reverse (with a smattering of different jokes from the driver).
I returned to the youth hostel, picked up my affairs and of course my bike, cycled to Oasis Sands campsite which is where I now am. How could the charms of a youth hostel lawn, even one as pretty as the one here in Durness (see the pictures posted yesterday) compete? They couldn’t, so I moved. Tonight I cook for myself and eat al fresco!