With no contributors to the Journal this week, Alex asked me to write a post on a recent break to the north of Scotland.
It’s been pretty hectic since joining FINDRA in March and it was good to finally get some sea and mountains and what was initially planned as a relaxing break, ended up as a bit of a road trip with a couple of days spent in Applecross, followed by time in the van before heading to the north coast to stay in Talmine near Tongue. The trip finished with a visit to see family in the eastern Cairngorms on the way south.
Torridon is one of my favourite places where some of the oldest rocks in the world meet the Atlantic Ocean along a rugged coastline with a multitude of islands big and small. I’ve tramped most of the mountains and trails here, but this time we mostly stuck to bikes with the classic loop around the Applecross peninsula that takes in the famous climb over the Bealach na Bá. The weather was just about perfect with a crisp northerly breeze and clear skies resulting in stunning views over the Torridon hills and a coastal view to Skye with welcome tailwind back to Torridon.
I’ve ridden the route a few times now and always been curious about the old coffin road path that’s signposted from Kenmore in the north of the peninsula which would have originally been the most direct route on foot (and horse) to Applecross before the advent of motor vehicles. With good weather and chunky tyres on the cross bike I thought I’d give this a go the next day and discovered lovely single track that was surprisingly ridable across the bleak moor of the peninsula. There were a couple of bits of hike-a-bike for no more than a few minutes that would totally have been rideable on a mountain bike, but on the cross bike made a nice loop from Applecross.
On leaving Applecross we were keen to avoid the North Coast 500 route that has become packed with visitors and seems busier than ever with lots of people avoiding overseas holidays due to CV19. Instead we were keen to head inland towards Invercassley and explore the head of Glen Cassley that the Highland Trail 500 passes through. On the way we stopped at Sheildaig where Lucy made an attempt and succeeded at a very cold swim around the island in the bay, then in the afternoon in the much warmer and mirror flat bay of Loch Canaird just north of Ullapool. By the time we got to Invercassley it was getting late so we only had a few hours to explore the Glen by bike before dark and it was yet another beautiful evening sunset with still cool air and clouds of midgies – resulting in finely choreographed entry and exit from the van to avoid an uncomfortable night.
Next day I thought about riding up the Glen and over the pass to meet Lucy at the north of Loch Shin, but instead we decided on heading to Talmine and take a hike up Ben Hope, the most northerly of the Munros. The forecast for the day was to be mostly clear so it made sense to make the most of it on higher ground. The views from the top were magnificent and we could see clearly to the isles of Orkney in the north east and across the wilderness of Sutherland and the Flow Country to the south.
I’ve not been up to Caithness and Sutherland very often, but my main memory is from a cycle tour 30-odd years ago along the north west coast from Thurso to Inverness, out of season, on an overloaded and trusty purple Rockhopper. Since then there’s been more development with new housing springing up and an influx of tourism making it feel a slightly more hectic place, but there’s still plenty of remote areas to be explored away from the main tourist routes.
As the weather was to break a couple of days after arriving in Talmine, it again made sense to get a ride in the next day and I was keen to explore Strathnaver and Loch Naver as a loop from Tongue to Syre, Altnaharra and then back along the edge of Ben Loyal and the shores of Loch Loyal. It turned out to be an extremely windy day, but it stayed clear and dry and I think I’d rate it as one of my top road rides in Scotland. Strathnaver was a delightful glen leading the exposed and bleak loch at its southern end and you could feel the history of highland clearances and the eviction of some 200 plus families 200 years ago. Disappointment was had at Altnaharra as the hotel was closed (no coffee and cake), but reward was instead a tail wind making short work of the ride back to the coast over the high ground – along with a bottle of wine collected from the Tongue stores for the evening.
Taking time to look over maps, there’s lots of access roads to the more remote parts and I’m pretty keen to come back to explore more off-road by bike. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the Highland Trail 550 comes this far north and I think I’ll return before winter to check out the northern loop (and test some kit). I’ve never much fancied the race (or route) as I’ve always thought there’s too much hike-a-bike, but as I’ve ridden more and more parts of it I’ve realised it’s more ridable than I thought and might be tempted to give it a go.
Heading home, we drove back through Flow Country through Forsinard to Helmsdale and this only reinforced my resolve to explore further. Looking west from Forsinard there appears to be a great trail toward Loch Shin via Loch Choire that looks extremely remote and wild and crying out to be ridden at some point. On the way to Crathie, I was dropped in Grantown-on-Spey to get another ride over the snow roads, then next day did a quick loop around Kinloch Rannoch from Blair Athol in the early autumn sunshine surrounded by the most purple I’ve ever seen the heather.
All-in-all a good break and would thoroughly recommend an explore around Caithness and Sutherland if you ever get the chance.
MUSIC OF THE WEEK
I don’t have a specific tune that ties in the trip, so just picked the last one purchased on my phone which is a 1968 track called Dandelion Seeds by psychedelic band July.
July – Dandilion Seeds
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Riding over the Cock bridge Tomintoul road with views south to the Cairngorm hills made me think of Nan Shepherds book The Living Mountian. It’s a delightful book about her stravaigs in the Cairngorm written in 1940’s, but not published till the late 70’s.