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.

No comments:

Post a Comment