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

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