Saturday, September 7, 2013

Looking Back - Reflections of Possible Interest To Potential LEJOGGERS


I will happily remember... – less enjoyable bits – next time I will... – to keep safe on the road, I found it useful to... – statistics – money matters – contact and a few personal details

I will happily remember.....

  • having David's company and support on the trip. After he broke his leg, he could  have justifiably called off the trip altogether. Instead, he was an excellent friend, great support and he made my daily load lighter.
  • every day, because each day had many positives, each day was a new adventure, and a pleasure even when the wind was in my face
  • the exciting sense of anticipation when I rolled onto the road each morning
  • meeting the locals all along the way. That's when I could understand their accent. And, of course, when they could interpret mine. The great majority of people are welcoming and fun to meet. Flying the New Zealand flag was a frequent conversation starter.
  • taking time to visit with friends and relations. Our evening in Bolton stands out.
  • being prepared to change the schedule when a better option appealed
  • all of Scotland, even when the rain poured down.
  • Dentdale, Devon, Glastonbury; any rail trail, especially the Granite Line; the Kyle of Tongue; the Strathnaver Trail.
  • absorbing the local history and wanting to learn more once the interest had been generated
  • the strong sense of community, especially in small towns, especially in isolated regions.
  • going to bed early and getting up and getting on the road early, when possible. On the NZ trip I was often on the road by 0630: having 40 kms on the clock by 0900 is a satisfying start to the day.
  • every meal, especially pub meals: the Prawn Salad for high tea in Lairg, Rabbit Stew in Glastonbury. I think it is vital to eat as well as you possibly can. I certainly did, but still lost 5 kgs by the end of the trip!
  • reaching the summit of big hills and gliding down the other side. On the first big descent on the New Zealand trip, I quickly zoomed up to 67 kph, then saw what holes and gravel on the road might do to me at this speed and from then on kept below 60 kmp on the downhills.
  • the daily pint of cider........ sometimes the daily two pints of cider...and a little dram

    On the cliffs above Newquay on the second day of riding.

Less enjoyable bits

  • Very few. The A 9 between the second Inverness bridge and Evanton was not much fun. I would strongly recommend keeping to the minor roads and off the busier A roads, and to keep to the roads recommended by Lonely Planet who generally do a great job of advising you on the best and most scenic and safest route.
  • Steep hills, rainy days, head winds. Well, they are all part of the deal.

    David in front of the Launceston Castle Tower.

Next time, I will......

  • take a GPS. Not essential but helpful when you are picking your way through a spider's web of roads. Asking people for directions is, though, a good conversation opener.
  • go with a riding buddy.
  • organise a charity to support. This would have several benefits – financially for the charity, as a starter for conversation with people on the road, to spread awareness of the charity....
  • take more photos of people on the road. I focussed on taking pictures of places. I should have taken more pictures of the people we met. I can get a photo of, for example, Launceston Castle off the internet easily enough. I will never again get a chance to photogragh the two feisty women in Glastonbury.
  • get a card made up with name and email and address. Lots of people said they'd like to know how we got on for the rest of the trip. Handing them a card would make it easier to keep in touch.

    A splendid private country house outside Tiverton.

To keep safe on the road, I found it useful to.....

  • watch out for suddenly-opening car doors
  • take special care on roundabouts. I was super-cautious and often wheeled my bike across busy roads. Cars can appear from all directions on busy roundabouts.
  • take great care on a dual- lane road when riding across the face of exit and on – ramps. You are a target for cars leaving or coming onto the carriage-way and they may not be expecting to see you or they may misjudge your speed.
  • put sun-cream on my ears. No joke! Somehow the sun reflects off your helmet and can burn the tops of your ears quickly and painfully
  • wear fluro so that you can be seen for miles away
  • install a flickering red rear light
  • keep as far left as possible at all times on the road
  • pull off onto the verge on narrow roads whenever the vehicles start to pile up behind you
  • check my bike daily – brake pads, chain oil, brake tension, tyre pressure ( best to use a power pump)
  • carry Deep Heat for sore muscles
  • keep in mind that I am vulnerable on the road. However much I am in the right, I will always lose in a contest with a car or truck or bus
  • drink heaps of water, even when I don't feel thirsty
  • glance behind regularly

    The best signs, anywhere, for keeping you on the best riding  route.


Total distance – 1660 kms
Total Riding Hours – 103 h 24m
Average Speed – 16.03 kph.

New Zealand (the ride I did in 2009)
Total Distance – 3460 kms
Total Riding Hours – 241h 54m
Average Speed – 14.3kph

The moors of Scotland, isolated, sparsely populated, magnificent.

Money matters

David is a professional money manager and did a top job of managing our finances, including the creation of a spread-sheet summary of all our expenditure for the trip

  • Accommodation: we stayed in Bed and Breakfasts, cost ranging from 40 pounds per night for a twin room to 65 pounds per night. Two star hotels from 29 pounds up for two. Youth Hostels from 30 pounds up for the two of us.
  • Food: breakfast was usually provided in the accommodation cost and it was always a most substantial meal, cereal and fruit plus a full cooked plate-ful of eggs, sausages, tomatoes, hash-browns. Dinner – we sometimes cooked our own, but usually ate in pubs where you can get two meals from 6 pounds 50 up (for 2). I would strongly recommend making sure that you eat as well as you can afford.
  • I had the bike tuned and overhauled in Bolton, total cost of 45 pounds, including the cost of a new tyre.

    David with my nephew, also David, in Exeter, early in the trip.

Contact and a few personal details

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and formerly worked in education until 2009 when I reached retirement age. I now spend my time writing life histories, cycling, sailing and renovating rental properties.
I have cycled in New Zealand, Rarotonga, Germany, Switzerland and France and truly love life on the road
I also love sailing and life on the ocean and have done many miles of ocean sailing. In 2010 with friends, I sailed my own boat to Australia and spent the winter along the east coast. Sailing is similar to cycling in many ways. You get wet, rely on the wind for happiness and progress, carry your life necessities with you, get, at times a painful backside...... I could go on.......

If you want to ask any questions about LEJOG or about my trip in particular, please email me:

Bridgnorth, at the top of the funicular railway, looking down
 to the Severn River and the lower half of this very appealing town.

Bike and Personal Equipment I Found Useful for LEJOG

Handlebar Bag

  • Notepad and pens
  • camera and charger
  • torch
  • route maps in a plastic folder visible even when you are riding. I cut out relevant maps from “Collins Essential Road Atlas” and numbered each sheet.
  • guides. I copied the relevant pages from the "Lonely Planet Guide to Cycling in Britain"  and kept them inside a small plastic folder
  • chap-stick and sun-cream
  • snacks – I ate small and often during the day and never had a big lunch. And when I snacked, I made myself drink some water.
  • drink bottle – the other one can be in a pannier
  • I would recommend a gps
  • toilet paper
All in waterproof bags. I put all items in either dry bags, plastic bags or in light plastic containers.

I made up laminated tags with my name and address and a phone contact and attached them to each bag and myself. This was for quick identification if I had an accident.

Bike Maintenance Equipment

  • spare tyre, two tubes, 1 gear cable, 1 brake cable, small selection of nuts and bolts, light cable ties
  • tools – light crescent, screwdrivers, set of Allen keys
  • puncture repair kit, tyre levers
  • chain link and small tool to fit
  • small can of oil
  • bike lock, front and rear lights, reflectors on rear mudguard
  • Cat -eye bike computer
  • Bungy cords for strapping a rucksack on top of the carrier

Gear I wore while riding

  • two pair of cycling nicks
  • gloves. This time I had full finger padded gloves and found them good.
  • helmet
  • fluro jacket.
  • shorts
  • sunglasses and a storage bag
  • cycle sneakers, with velcro fastenings, not laces
  • socks
  • money/passport belt with credit cards, cash, lock key

    On the final hill before Edinburgh.


  • wet-gear: parka, leggings
  • thermal gear: beanie, thermal undershirts, one long and one short-sleeved, thermal longs
  • 2 pair socks, 2 long sleeved merino/synthetic shirts, two pair short sleeved. On arrival each day, shower, put on the clean clothes you will wear next day
  • one pair of long trousers, light-weight
  • two pairs of underwear
  • jandals or crocs to wear when off the bike
  • cap, maybe one posh shirt.
I preferred several layers to one thick one. If I hadn't used some article for a while, I questioned whether or not it was earning its keep.

Toiletries and medicines

  • soap ( for you and for your clothes), deodorant, toothbrush and paste, personal prescription medicines, nail file, clippers – it is vital to keep the toe nails trimmed
  • amoxycyllin
  • antihistamine cream
  • Deep Heat or similar
  • antiseptic cream
  • canesten cream for soggy toes
  • Voltaren or similar for muscular soreness
  • bum cream to ease......
  • plasters and tweezers


  • lightweight sleeping bag, silk sleeping bag liner and pillow slip
  • Thermarest sleeping mat
  • Emergency aluminium foil blanket
  • Swiss army knife
  • i-phone, mobile, tablet and chargers
  • knife,fork and spoon, light-weight dish and mug
  • spare batteries
  • spare plastic bags.
  • Food for the day or until you are know you can buy more
I laid out all the gear for a couple of weeks beforehand in my spare room, then took away bits or added till it seemed as good as I could get it

On the New Zealand trip, I carried all of the above on the bike. Total weight around 15kgs. All in two rear panniers and one rucksack strapped on the carrier and one bag on the handle bars.

For LEJOG, I carried gear in the handlebar bag (all listed above), and in one pannier, I carried: food, bike repair gear, wet gear, thermal gear. I did not carry the sleeping gear or the extra clothing as it was in the vehicle.

Rider and bike minutes after safely arriving at John o' Groats

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Final Fifty! Bettyhill to John o' Groats

Thursday 27 June, 2013
The Bonnie Prince betrayed – just like Cornwall – isolated? The Falklands really are isolated – Thurso – is this it?

The Bonnie Prince betrayed

Last night we stayed twelve miles west of Bettyhill in the small village of Tongue overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. We dined in the Tongue Hotel above the Kyle and talked about its most famous link to Scottish history: in 1746 a French ship bringing money and possibly weapons in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie was chased by an English naval frigate into the Kyle's shallow waters and went aground. After a furious exchange of cannon fire, the crew and treasure escaped, but were soon betrayed by locals loyal to the Hanover cause and not to the Prince who was defeated weeks later at Culloden.

Braemar House, another of David's truly inspired choices, sits high on the moors above Tongue with a broad vista of the rearing ridges of Ben Loyal, rolling greenery and the deep indent of the Kyle. We voted it “Best Panorama “ of the trip, this wild landscape of lonely, brooding mountains rolling down to high cliffs staring out over the curve of the horizon towards the Arctic.

The view to Ben Loyal from the moors above Tongue. To the right, out of sight, is the long inlet of the Kyle of Tongue.

Just like Cornwall

Our last day: 50 miles to JOG and the end of the ride. Of course it would be good to complete what we had started 24 days ago but I was not panting with desperation to get there. I have relished each day of this adventure and knew I would be sad when it was over. So let's get on the road, but let's enjoy every moment of this final day.

Today we are on the final stage of the long trip which began 24 days ago at Lands End.

Today the ride is 50 miles along the cliffs of the northern coast, with “ six tough climbs in 17 miles” before “ things settle down” according to our guide.

A profile of the coast of Cornwall would look a little like this one. No high hills but lots of short, steep inclines.

If this sounds familiar, it certainly is. There is symmetry between the landscapes at the start and finish of LEJOG. When I looked towards JOG from Bettyhill this morning after David had taken me back over the hills, I could have been looking north from Newquay along the coast of Cornwall. Another point of symmetry: the same Penzance-based business owns the start and finish signposts of LEJOG.

David on the cliffs at Bettyhill.. The cliffs persist almost as far as John o' Groats, 50 miles to the east.

Isolated? The Falklands really are isolated

Cool, fine, little wind and after 24 days the legs were tougher, the climbs less intimidating. At the top of the first, and biggest hill, I met an Australian couple on a leisurely tour of Scotland. I recommended Tongue and the Highlands round Lairg, mentioning how much I enjoyed their atmosphere of desolate isolation.

We know what you mean.” they replied, “but there are lonelier places: our daughter, an agronomist on assignment in the Falkland Islands, says that when she is away from Port Stanley, the town, she feels like she is a million miles from anywhere.”


Mark joined me at the top of the final hill before Thurso. He had left early that morning from Altnaharra on the final stage of a 14 day LEJOG, solo, but with plenty of encounters on the road. As always when a racy rider slowed to chat, I was a little embarrassed that he had to slow down, but, as always, I appreciated his company and kindness in wanting to talk. He had fought against the winds most of the way and had found Cornwall and Devon, when the legs are still hardening up, to be the most strenuous riding.

Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland, right on the coast, surprisingly (to me) large, with hotels and many shops.

Thurso the most northerly town on the British mainland,  1930s (?). The town retains
 the charm of these old stone buildings and  wide streets and also offers good hotels, shops and eating places.

I had stopped at a crossroads in town, puzzling over my next turning. Navigation suddenly became an issue after days of being no problem at all. I had definitely got out of practice.

Excuse me, which is the main road to John o' Groats? I can't see any sign.” I asked an older couple. With every reason to roll their eyes and say “ Hoots Mon”, they were instead very gracious and smiled only a little, turning my attention to a movie-screen-sized billboard with “JOHN O'GROATS” and a huge arrow just back down the street.

I thanked them and talked about my plans to visit, after the ride, the Orkney Islands now excitingly visible just off the coast. Since infancy I had heard stories of my ancestors who had come from the Orkneys, settled in Invercargill, New Zealand and started a whole Brass dynasty there.

Panorama from the Thurso shore. To the right, Dunnett Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain. Faintly on the horizon, the Orkney Islands.

Is this it?

The twenty miles from Thurso are only moderatly undulating but I felt each one of these miles. Sore backside, neck, back and wrists, the discomfort increased by each thump and crunch on the patchy, uneven, pot-holed surface. But it was more than that. Here's my cunning theory: my feeble subconscious knew that my body could have a rest after today and was allowing fatigue, suppressed until now, to make itself felt.

The couple in Thurso had recommended several places along my route – Dunnett Head, Castle Mey, but I rode on without diversion. Next time!

At the top of the last hill before JOG, I stopped to gaze across the bay and the little town towards the rise which was John o' Groats.

Nearly there! John o' Groats is beyond the little town of  Huna on the far side of the bay. 

I swept down the hill, through the town and was feted by shouts of “Well done”, applause, bows. It was David, pretending to be a huge crowd. Very nice of him, actually, probably making up for driving past me a few minutes earlier and shouting out the window, widely grinning: “ bloody cyclists, shouldn't be allowed on the road!!”

Just turn left at the hotel at the top of the road” were his final instructions. I turned left, tottered down the hill into a car-park. I was finished. John o'Groats? I was, very sorry to say, underwhelmed. Now I understand better why Lonely Planet calls it “ a seedy tourist trap” and why in 2010 JOG was given the Carbuncle Award because it is “Scotland's Most Dismal Town.”

Imagine, then what the place was like in 1496 when Jan de Groote arrived from Holland to establish a ferry across the 6 miles to the Orkney Islands. The fare was 4 pence. Gone up a bit since then. We paid 61 pounds each for the return trip.

The best - dressed Scotsmen we met all trip. Oh, they weren't actually Scots, they were Dutch, members of a whisky-tasting club from Amsterdam: we met them on the jetty at John o ' Groats. They were no relation to Jan de Groote.

We were sitting outside a cafe when a young woman on an upright old-fashioned bicycle with a basket on the handlebars rode in. Sandra had ridden from Altnaharra today , the final day of a 16 day LEJOG. Her joy in finishing was a delight, a perfect reminder of why John 0'Groats is a special name, a memory permanent and positive for so many who have come the distance.

We had ridden 1670 kms ( 1050 miles) from Lands End, and had come 12,850 miles (20, 680 kms) from New Zealand to do this trip. It was worth every mile (kilometre)

I wasn't quite finished. After a coffee and photos – we didn't use the signpost, it costs 7 pounds 50 – I rode pannier-less up to the Seaview Hotel to bolt back on all the weighty items I had removed from my bike, attached a big notice and put it in the hotel shed for shipping back to Lands End Cycle Hire in Penzance. Thank you, faithful steed.

I looked down the main road. Wick is only15 miles away. And it's south. That's downhill isn't it?

I know I haven't done with cycling in this part of the world.

I will be back!

David in front of the JOG Fish and Chip shop. we were too mean to pay the seven pounds fifty to get an official photo taken. The Orkney Islands are barely visible to the left of David's head.

Distance Today Average Speed Max Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer
80.66 16 58.3 5h 1m 1660.7

A happy rider outside the gallery at John o' Groats on the afternoon of 27 June, 2013.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Barren Moors, Vicious Evictions, Landfall on Britain's North Coast. Lairg to Bettyhill

Wednesday the 26 June, 2013

58 north – one lane through the Highlands – Altnaharra Inn, still serving whiskey after 193 years – down the Naver to Bettyhill – wretched cries, affrighted cattle, yelling dogs, burning houses - Bloodyhill

58 north

It never got properly dark last night. David had gone with Chris, our hostess, to a village concert and I remember waking up at 11 when he came home and wondering why there was still soft light through the window. Chris had invited us both to the concert . David went. I didn't, and regretted it immediately. There were pipes, accordions, choirs and dancing, but most of all, David said he loved mixing with a close community.

Lairg is 58 degrees north and at this midsummer season, there are 18 hours between the rising and setting of the sun. The evenings are long and the light gentle.

Winters are harsh and long. On the shortest day you get only 6 hours of daylight, and it gets unbelievably cold - minus 21 degrees Celsius in December 2010. That's nippy!

The last two days of riding - from Lairg to Bettyhill, then to John o'Groats.

And the profile of today's ride.

One lane through the Highlands

Chris served us porridge for breakfast but I will remember this meal best for her chatty and warmly friendly company. Chris had been a teacher for 20 years in Thurso, the most northerly British mainland town, and had settled in Lairg to be near her family. She asked thoughtful questions about our trip, asked to keep in touch and told us we would be going through a part of Scotland infamous for the 'Clearances' when many families were bullied from their cottages and left to starve, emigrate or die. The most vilified name associated with the Clearances was the Duchess of Sutherland, not Mary Caroline but her ancestor two generations back. The title must have gone to their heads.

The road to Bettyhill is narrow, but provided with passing bays every couple of hundred metres. The traffic was moderate, cautious and exceptionally considerate. I got many waves, flicking lights, cars pulling over to let me past, encouraging comments, more than I had received all trip. Maybe it was the isolation. I loved the attention! Thanks, everyone!

Altnaharra Inn, still serving whisky after 193 years!

We climbed without effort onto the moors, scruffy with the jumbled debris of cut logs and stumps, the distant hills spotted with snow through haze. Past Crask Inn, the overnight stop for the Australian cyclists I had seen at the Shin Falls, then downhill to Loch Naver and the Altnaharra Inn where I met David for coffee. These two inns are the only two feeding stops on the whole stretch before Bettyhill. This is a lonely and exposed landscape and, ominously, the wind, my friend since.....Worcester(?) had moved to the north.

The village of Altnaharra, where temperatures up to minus 27 C have been recorded,
The Inn is out of sight on the other side of the road.

Crask Inn, one of only two villages between Lairg and Bettyhill.
The Inn provides meals and accommodation and is a popular overnight for cyclists.

Watch out for the midges in Scotland!” was just one of the many pieces of advice offered by kind locals. ( “ You must try a single malt” “ Scottish women can be very direct” “ the hills of Scotland are not as bad as the uphills in Cornwall.” were others).

The midges, little black flies with irritating powers of persistence, caught me up on the shores round Loch Naver beside Altnaharra. So annoying were they that I had to cram my blueberry muffin into my gob and get prematurely on the way. I never saw them from then on. Just in that little glade, half-way along the Loch. Make sure you don't stop there or you'll risk an unwanted blood transfusion.

Loch Naver, looking back to Altnaharra at the far end of the lake.
 Hundreds of families were thrown off their land in this region  during the Clearances.

The ride round the Loch is only slightly up and down but is sinuous and it is simply greatly enjoyable to zoom round the bends with the moors high on your left, the loch on the right and the midges left far in your wake.

Down the Naver to Bettyhill

Bye bye to the Loch and now, only a few miles ahead is the north coast of Britain. Yay! This ride alone would have made for a happy day but there was a bonus this afternoon. The road is called the Strathnaver Trail and a clever and considerate person ( sorry I don't know who you are) has brought the history of the area alive by erecting a series of illustrated signs describing what happened here in the past. I took hours on this part of the ride. It was a treasure hunt. And perfect for riders. Some of the signs were on narrow corners and in a car it would be tempting to pass them by.

This afternoon I was in the a region where the Clearances hit most cruelly. Rossal was a lively nearby town. It was obliterated between 1811-1820

Wretched cries, affrighted cattle, yelling dogs, burning houses

For centuries, the Highlanders had farmed cattle and harvested kelp to make their living. In the late 1700s, the price of cattle meat fell and the price of wool rose.

Many landlords decided that they could make more money by replacing the farmers with shepherds and the cattle with sheep.

The way this was carried out has been called the worst-ever brutality forced on the Scottish people.

One shepherd could look after sheep and land that up to now, had supported up to 16 families( 5 people per family). So the families were superfluous and were evicted, often at night, often in winter, usually with no place to go.

The ruins of a crofter's cottage. The walls are low, made of stone. On top of the stone, peat is piled to provide head-room inside. The roof was bracken or heather. The family lived down one end and the animals at the other end.

The cries of women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted by yelling dogs amid smoke and fire, presented a scene that baffles description. I counted 250 blazing houses from where I stood.”
  • Donald McLeod, tenant farmer and victim of the Clearances, author of “Gloomy Memories” .

    A contemporary representation of the misery inflicted on the Highlanders during the clearances.

Some of the 170,000 victims froze to death, others starved, some were sent to the coast to become fishermen, many emigrated, to Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

The Duchess of Sutherland (Elizabeth) after whom Bettyhill is named, was vicious

They require little to sustain them. Scotch people do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.” she sniffed as she sent women and children to their deaths.


Not because of the Duchess, but so-named by cyclists because of the 2 km climb to the little village of Bettyhill from sea level. The strong head wind for the last ten miles was trying but this afternoon will remain a strong memory because of the drama of the Strathnaver Trail.

Half-way up "Bloodyhill" on the outskirts of Bettyhill, a village founded to house the survivors of the clearances who had been evicted from their farms and who were now expected to make their living by fishing.

For the first time, ever, I looked out over the cliffs and inlets to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. I had ridden on all four coasts of Britain. John o'Groats was one day's riding along the top of Scotland.

Just wait to see where I've booked us for tonight.” David, who was waiting for me in Bettyhill, was about to reveal another of his top-quality choices of board and lodging.

David on the coast at Bettyhill, reminiscent of the coast of Cornwall at the beginning of our trip.

Distance Today Average Speed Max Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer.
73.45 15.8 41.2 4h 37m 1580.1

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cycling Serenity on the road to Castle Spite. Tain to Lairg.

Tuesday the 25th of June, 2013

A recipe for cycling serenity – the Edderton Cross-Slab – Castle Spite – up the Shin to Lairg – the salmon of the Shin

A recipe for cycling serenity

You'd have loved this day on the road from Tain to Lairg, especially if you:
  • relish the cycling life
  • take pleasure in delving into stories of past lives in the places you travel through
  • enjoy variation in your terrain, particularly if it includes forest, rivers, sea and high surrounding hills
  • prefer clear, warm, conditions with little wind
  • want a journey of around 40 kms
  • are keen to meet people who are go out of their way to engage with you

    From Inverness, bottom right, to Lairg, top centre, alongside the Moray Firth, the Beauly Firth, Cromarty Fitth and Dornoch Firth. Our route in pink.
    Only one thing jarred today. I had been riding for an hour through tranquil, leafy glades when I heard a screech like two metal plates in violent collision, louder, louder, then an explosion of thunder. An Air Force jet, at ridge height, flickering through branches. Intimidating, brutal. I could just begin to imagine what it might feel like to be attacked by these screaming bullies intent on causing you serious mayhem.

The Edderton Cross-Slab

I left Tain on the A 9, the early morning quiet and tame. Three kilometres on a generous verge, then I turned left alongside the Dornoch Firth, leaving the A9 to cross the Firth on its way north to Thurso. Pretty well good riddance, actually. There were certainly no tears.

My journey today was brief so I took time to linger.

In the Edderton Churchyard, I found the Cross-Slab,: a reddish 2 metre-tall stone, carved with the outline of three horsemen, probably Pict heroes who had fought in a 9th century battle against the Danes. Three riders who did brave things 1200 years ago and are remembered today because someone bothered to chisel their profile in stone. Thanks!

The Edderton Cross-Slab, chiselled 1200 years ago
 to honour the exploits of three horsemen.

Up the Shin to Lairg

Looking north up the Dornoch Firth towards Bonar Bridge.
Along the Firth, its mud mirror-shiny on my right, over the Bonar Bridge, and through the village of the same name, a dour pedestrian scowling and muttering in Gaelic (?) at me for riding on his footpath, along the Kyle of Sutherland to Invershin, where I stopped beside the road under a rail bridge supported by squatting stone buttresses.

A sign told a little of the story of a stone chateau across the river. Except it wasn't a chateau, it was a castle. Carbisdale Castle, the last one built in Scotland. I decided to bring David back to have a closer look.

Now only a few miles to Lairg, up a winding bushy one-lane road beside the Shin River.

One bizarre encounter: I stopped for an apple/chocolate/water break in a passing bay; a car pulled in to let traffic pass; I was a foot away from the passenger; she fixedly stared straight ahead; I waved, a little facetiously, perhaps; no response even after a couple of minutes. I remember this as her response was so different from the usual reaction of the lovely Scots.

Lairg at one. I nearly missed it. The main road by-passes the town centre, so, unless you stop and explore, you might think Lairg is a town of one cafe and four houses. I met David in the Pier Cafe and asked him if he would like to revisit Carbisdale. We checked in to Carnbren B and B, met Chris, the charming owner, then drove back south.

Castle Spite

We stopped again under the rail bridge, met a Scotswoman and her German husband, he wielding a camera with a telescopic lens the size of a small cannon. She, enthusiastic, warm-hearted and funny, told us a little of the castle and of the castle's builder, the Duchess of Sutherland who, some suspected, caused the premature deaths of her first husband and of the first wife of the Duke. We crossed the river on the walkway and trekked the two kms to Carbisdale, now a Youth Hostel but today, closed for repairs. In fact, it may never re-open as a YH, the cost of repairs probably beyond the bank account of the association.

Carbisdale Castle , sadly closed for repairs the day we visited. The clocks have been removed. Originally the clock facing the railway line was blank as the Duchess didn't want to give the time of day to the Sutherlands.

Its future is uncertain. Its past is captivating.

In the early 1880s, Mary Blair and her husband worked for the Duke of Sutherland in northern Scotland.

Mary Caroline, Duchess of Sutherland: voluptuous, imperious, strongly determined, vengeful.

Mary was a resolute and comely woman who fell in love with the Duke and he with her. Captain Blair was devastated by the relationship and died in a hunting accident in 1883. Some swear it was suicide, the result of his despair at his wife's cooling ardour for him.

The affair continued, scandalously, as the Duchess of Sutherland was alive and daily witness to her husband's blatant unfaithfulness.

Within 4 months of the Duke's wife's death in 1889, Mary became the Duchess of Sutherland.

In 1892, her husband, 20 years her senior, died, leaving her in total control of the estate. His will was contested by his son. The judiciary intervened and found that Mary had destroyed documents relating to the estate. She was imprisoned for 6 weeks.

The bitterness continued for years until a degree of agreement was arrived at. The Duchess, Mary Caroline, was given money, an annual settlement and permission to build a house as long as it was outside the boundaries of Sutherland territory.

So in 1906 she began to build Carbisdale Castle though she didn't live to see its completion in 1917.

It soon became famous as Castle Spite. Here's why:

  • she made sure that the castle was built in full view of the main road and railway line from the Sutherland estate south so that they couldn't miss it every time they travelled past.
  • the castle was carefully designed with one room more than the Sutherland family castle
  • She had built a clock tower, clocks on three sides, none on the side that faced the road and rail line as she didn't want to give the Sutherlands the time of day.
The Sutherland clan  could do little else but grind their teeth and make sure that the blinds on the carriages of their private train were pulled down when it passed Castle Spite.

Moral? Never mess with feisty women, especially in Scotland.

Carbisdale on the hill beyond the railway bridge over the Shin River. The castle was deliberately located in clear view of the railway and the road which runs along the river to the right of the bridge.

The salmon of the Shin

On the way back up the valley to Lairg, we stopped to watch salmon try, time and again, to leap up thunderous water-falls below shallows where they could lay their eggs. A group of Australian riders on their way to JOG shouted 'YES' when a salmon leapt to the first pool, then groaned when it was swatted back. In half an hour we saw not one fish make the shallows above the falls.
The falls on the River Shin which provide such an obstacle to salmon
 trying to swim upriver to spawn. The lookout can just be seen to the left of the falls.

Distance Today Average Speed Max Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer
42.14 17.3 35.5 2h 25m 1506.6

I apologise for not taking photos of the people I met today. Instead, all I can offer is this sheep in the grounds of Carbisdale Castle, either stuck on this bush or else rubbing its stomach on the branches. Probably a little of both, one local told us. We shooed the sheep away from the bush and it was most grateful to us.

Friday, August 30, 2013

" Savage Clans and Roving Barbarians"? Inverness to Tain

Monday 24 June, 2013

Get back on your own side of the road! -to the head of the Firth -  a horrible experience - Tain 

Get back on your own side of the road!!

We woke in a bedroom as festooned with washing as an overworked laundry. And the clothing was dry! Gloves, shorts, shirts from which we had washed grimy sludge last night were warm and fresh. Thank you, Waterview Hotel for installing chunky radiators with the drying capacity of a blow torch.

Today we're going to Tain. The guide-book suggests a much longer distance, to Lairg but we want to draw out the pleasure of exploring this raw and enticing country and have planned four more days riding to John O Groats, only 192 kms distant by the shortest route but this on A roads, likely narrow and snarling with traffic.

The last few days of the trip. Tain, our destination today is half way between Inverness and Lairg.
The first two kilometres today took me along the banks of the Ness towards the shore of the Beauly Firth. My navigation was disgraceful. The road was narrow, the river on one side, cars packed solidly on the other. The traffic hogged the middle of the road, forcing me to the side. I saw pitying, head-shaking looks from some drivers. Then I understood why. I was riding the wrong way along a one way street. I apologise to the motorists of Inverness for my stupidity. I do love your city, though, so please don't take this matter further with the local traffic authorities.

To the head of the Firth

I stopped at the edge of town, beside the eastern entrance to the Caledonian Canal, to calm my agitation and because I love canals. And this canal is a beauty, running 60 miles from the bridge on which I was standing to Fort William on the west coast and allowing smaller craft to avoid the, at times, nasty sail round the north of Scotland. Lots of this 60 miles is through lochs, including Loch Ness, so it is scenic, too. I hung around, wanting to see two yachts flying German flags traverse the locks but it was still early and the crews were in the cockpit eating their bratwurst.

The entrance to the Caledonian Canal at Inverness. From here, the canal
 runs right across Scotland to Fort William on the west coast.

Here's a summary of the morning's ride.

  • Busy traffic along the Firth. Flat riding beside a muddy, shallow body of water, the tide low to uncover a rocky bottom snagged with long filaments of green seaweed.

    Looking back to the Inverness Bridge over the Firth of Beauly.
    Many cyclists cross the bridge and take the short route north along the very busy A 9.

  • After 8 kms, the road swung to the south, and I had to stop to check my route, fearing a missed sign. All well. Be patient and the right turn will turn you 120 degrees, taking you north and bringing the wind behind. Aaah!
  • I passed over the river Beauly, through Beauly, Muir of Ord, Connon without stopping. Lots of new housing and an industrial air. New 3 bedroom houses starting from 149 thousand pounds. One or two lovely old buildings, not more.

    Cromarty Firth outside Dingwall. Today we rode along the shores of three firths. The bridge from Inverness is behind the bushes on the bank behind the little row-boat.

  • Late morning after easy, level riding, I stop in Dingwall, more traditional, take a detour down to the Cromarty Firth ( shallow, tidal) then back into town where I am directed by a tourist.

    Me: “ But this looks like a one way street!”
    English tourist: “ Oh sorry, I put you wrong.”

    I didn't tell him about my foolishness earlier that morning.
A horrible experience

As I ride along the peaceful shore, I see a huge bridge ahead and on my right, teeming with traffic taking the direct route from Inverness. Five kms from Dingwall, I merge with the traffic from the bridge and immediately the mood of the day changes. Calm to anxiety.

This route, the main highway north, is the A9. It is narrow, streaming with traffic in both directions and, worst of all, on my left side, there is a concrete lip which means that I am forced to ride on the carriage-way, there being no verge. I hated it. Cars and buses and trucks brushed close. I kept as close to the left as possible but had a gruesome vision of hitting the concrete raised verge, capsizing and being thrown onto the roadway to be minced under a bus.

Worst 4 kms of the trip. Then, relief – a sign offering a diversion to Evanton. I turned  off the highway from hell and the traffic disappeared. So did the tension.


Lunch in Evanton, a village unruffled in spite of the roar of the motorway down the hill: stone buildings and little evidence of the dolls-house modern construction I had already seen on the road from Inverness.

I got talking to Mary, Evanton resident for 20 years and a recent convert to cycling. Her son had bought her a bike and today she was on her second-ever ride. She rode with me on off-road tracks towards Alness, pointing out the hill climb which shortened by half the distance to Lairg, cutting a corner and avoiding Tain. It's a route taken by riders in a hurry. I wasn't.

For the next couple of hours into Tain, I climbed gently along a lane of roadside flowers, mansions discreetly concealed behind woodlands and distant views of the oil rigs and cruise ships in the Cromarty Firth. And, of course, the droning procession of impatience on the A9 closer to the water.

Distant view of the Cromarty Firth from the quiet road to Tain. Just visible are oil rigs in for repair and cruise ships. The exceptionally traffic-laden A9 is between me and the water.

Tain is a hill town overlooking the Dornoch Firth, larger than the little village I had imagined it to be. For many whisky enthusiasts, Tain is most vital as the home of the Glen Morangie Distillery.
The Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain.

Whisky-flavoured condoms. The Scots love their whisky however it is served up.

We settled in at the Heatherdale B and B on the north end of town. I got talking to Duncan, a genial man until I mentioned that I had spent time walking on Culloden. Duncan's face paled, his eyes gleamed.

I'm a peaceable man but some of the things the English have done to the Scots..... Do you know about the Clearances? Shameful. They've always looked down on us.”

He suggested I read “No Great Mischief” about the Scots moving overseas where opportunities seemed brighter. The book quotes Doctor Samuel Johnson who described his northern neighbours as “savage clans and roving barbarians” so it's little wonder so many Scots them took their chances in Canada, Australia, New Zealand. And the title is a quote by General Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec who sent Highlanders to storm the cliffs leading up to Quebec, saying: “'tis no great mischief if they fall.”

Weather – mostly fine with occasional spits of rain. Wind ahead at first till we changed direction.

Distance Today Average Speed Max Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer
77.93 16.9 40.2 4h 20m 1464

Later in the afternoon, David drove us out to the coast east of Tain. This lighthouse was designed by the grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson who often accompanied his grandfather on visits to lighthouses all round Britain.

David on the coast near Tain.