‘Stay with life’ – Father Michael, Tongue.
Thibault and I awake in our separate quarters of this mostly-refurbished flat in Thurso. It’s an unloved town on Scotland’s northern coastline, and the end of the line of the railway route that runs from Inverness to the very end of the land. I stayed up late the previous night talking to my partner on Skype and then writing. The alarm wakes me up several hours too early, but it’s no good: time to get up.
We breakfast on bananas and shreaded wheat. Our warm host, John, pops back in from the other nearby flat he’s doing up, and conversation kicks us all awake. The morning’s subject is midges, a terrible scourge of the north western part of Scotland. Thibault tells us about one man he heard about who became so crazed from midge bites that he began to scratch away at his face and arms, inflicting terrible wounds, until he had to be sedated in hospital. I’m frightened for the days ahead, and John offers to give me a lift to a nearby fishing shop where there should be some kind of better protection beyond a trucker hat, flapping hands frenetically, and DEET cream.
Thibault boards a bus back to Inverness, off to continue his walking across as yet-unknown parts of the Scots hinterland. John and I drive through Thurso’s small town centre. There’s a prominent church and a small area around a few streets with some grubby shops, but much of Thurso is of an ugly dark-yellow/brown brick or of pebble-dash. Low-levelled narrow streets continue on an improbably long scale with ugly houses and shops. The town’s dirty appearance gives the impression of wearing beer and sand spattered sunglasses.
The co-op supermarket supplies food for the coming days, and John looks with wry, sincere curiosity at the odd foodstuffs that have sustained forty-five days of pushbike exploration. The angling shop is equally peculiar. Besides air guns, rubber geese and old military helmets, the friendly and helpful owners, again English folk, do their best to help me. I’m sold a Argyll-made midge net, a pair of totally waterproof trousers and, what every proud Highlander will recommend you time and time again for those bloody midges … Avon skin so soft.
‘The SAS use this’, the owner tells me, with an added air of earnest seriousness. ‘Twenty five of us went out fishing, warm day, no wind like. Only four of us stuck it out cos of the midges. I was the only one without a bite. I’d put this stuff all over my face. Me face were black wi’ em, but the things weren’t biting!’
John and the owner share more grotesque tales of campers from London running back to their cars and driving home after a midge attack. I feel a little more assured that, when the inevitable death cloud of evil vampire beings swarms around my face on some sorry afternoon, I’ll at least have well-moisturised skin when they find my remains.
This is the Scottish Highlands, therefore the BBC forecast for the next five days is torrential rain. That means, for me, buying a pair of waterproof trousers to survive the downpour, and for John, taking a day off from roofing to go fishing in the deepest nether regions of the inner northern Highlands. He points his finger over a map into some region served by neither road nor tiddling village.
‘But there’s nothing there…?’
‘I know, I love it. When I get a chance like this, I like to go out there, into the wilderness.’
He plans to camp and fish, and he and the owners discuss in esoteric terms about fishing spots and rights. They laugh when I reveal my Londoner’s naivety:
‘Surely if you can catch it, it’s yours?’
‘Hehe, oh no. You can’t fish for free.’
They tell me of the small fishing stocks, of the duty of anglers’ to replenish and throw back in stocks. I guess so. Being a vegetarian, though prone these days to eating flies and the odd kebab when drunk in Leeds, I wouldn’t know one end of the rod from the other. Am I naïve for finding their acquiescence with the lairds troubling?
The angling man wishes me good luck with a dark chuckle, and we head on. John’s packed up for his adventure, and he offers to drive me up the road to where our paths split. With rain already hitting down, the lift past the Dounreay nuclear plant is a swift pleasure. We pass cyclists carrying superb gear on superb bikes just dying out on the miserable rainy roads. Adrenaline begins to pound about my temples as he drops me off at Melvich, just past Reay, by a small church and a surrounding congregation of sheep. We leave each other with warm wishes, and I pedal out into the abyss.
Bettyhill is my destination. It’s not actually that far off, and in the rain and among the steep hills, focusing on reaching one nearby place is psychologically easier than thinking ahead some sixty or seventy miles. A heavy mist hangs over the mountains and crags that loom over the lonely and quiet road into the hills. It’s lovely then to meet Franz on the way, another German exploring the wilderness of Scotland. He’s disappointed by the road etiquette here. ‘No one waves or says hallo’. I tip him that most cyclists need to be helloed to before they hello in return. We talk a while and he shares me the link to his own travel record: www.franzauftour.de. If you can read German, take a look.
Around Dounreay the land is relatively flat and featureless, but up to Bettyhill it becomes increasingly remote, exciting and dramatic. The road steeps up, flanked by great swathes of heather and toughened sheep making a meal of the patchy grass. We reach a crescendo at the the top of one great mountain where the view of the surrounding peaks and glens is as inspiring as a letter from an old friend and as tranquilising as a first beer after a long old day.
A couple stand outside their camper van inhaling the view. ‘I come here a lot. I just need it. I need to see this, it makes me feel real again.’ She’s from Thurso, a town not known for its urban sprawl or rat-race misery. I wonder what kinds of wild scapes might exist in the south-east that could bring similar solace to people reaching their limits.
Bettyhill itself is a teeny settlement, a speckled thread of dwellings across a rising glen that drops rapidly after soaring these lovely heights. There’s a small museum here in an old church that I pop in. An enthusiastic retired old fellow welcomes me in, and laughs when I ask for a student concession – ‘you’re the first we’ve had!’ There’s all manner of amateur history publications nearby printed to the standards of an Anarcho-punk zine, and I venture in, where exhibits produced by local schoolchildren from the 1970s adorn the walls, detailing the Strathnaver settlement clearances.
These follow a similar model to the Duke of Sutherland’s clearances on the eastern coast, around Brora and Helmsdale, but happened a little later. Again, English landlords took over the land and replaced people with sheep, burning out communities and forcing them to flee anywhere, often to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, or the cities to the south. These Highland people were seen as merely unproductive animals. As one factor put it,
‘Such a set of savages is not to be found in the wilds of America. If Lord and Lady Sutherland do not put it in my power to quell these banditti, we may bid adieu to all improvement.’
Improvement, modernisation, progress, the great new hope. Such terms sound promising. There’s always been a wide gulf between mere words and their meanings that today many of us are just as likely to confuse, from political promises to the real meaning of ‘threat’, ‘justice’ or ‘terror’. There’s a moving testimony from one local clearance worth reading and thinking about on this point:
‘Strong parties led by Sellars and Young commenced setting fire to the dwellings till about 300 houses were in flames, the people striving to remove the sick, the helpless before the fire should reach them. The cries of women and children – the roaring of cattle – the barking of dogs – the smoke of the fire – the soldiers, it required to be seen to be believed.’
Drones over western Pakistan, British soldiers raiding homes in Helmand, American cluster bombs over Iraq.
Curiously most of the visitors here are Australians, descendents of the McKay clan who once lived in these parts. The land was communal property and a common right, and many return here to understand some felt but ill-articulated need to understand themselves, to belong somewhere, as they once did, to this land here.
I pass more fields of sheep and crags, and heather, and gargantuan pieces of ancient rock scattered across the heather, and desolate looking moors. Along one road verge is a Johnny Cash compilation and a soiled pillow. There’s no end of surprises here. Some strange energy suffuses through me as I pass along these desolate peaks, a euphoria as strong as any good narcotic. My temples and the back of my head glow with a warm sensation of happiness and interest in the world.
The cold wraps around the body, fogs hugging the edges of the road, but the mind conjures up images of hugging another being along these desperate heights, eager to find or forge the conditions for life in these beautiful, bare abysses. There are lochs teeming with small living things, a small universe along these wild parts.
Tongue is the next settlement, a little less than a village hugging a deep descent into the sea. The post office at the top borders a nearby bar-cum-hotel, and seems the only place likely to find other human beings. One local man turns out to be a Londoner from Ruislip, but a very warm and kind one. Father Michael came up to Tongue after a trauma in his life. He was a headteacher in London for some years, then cared for his elderly mother with dementia. Eventually she passed away, and he was bereft.
‘I’ve always loved maps. I used to look at the coast, and think about places I wanted to see. Then one day, when she was gone, I thought: “that’s it”. I got the car, and came up here.’
He points me to Loch Eriboll, a little ahead of me, and tells me ‘it’s the most beautiful drive in the world.’ His sincerity is convincing, and I resolve to push on to Eriboll. He asks me about my journey, and sees in it some greater activity of life asserting itself.
‘We’ve left the young a terrible inheritance. The world, the planet, the social problems for the young. I’m really sorry…’
He appeals to me and, I guess, a wider generation of young people, to retake life and retake the possibility of creating a better future than this bleak one here. His words are as stirring as the surroundings. Some kind of personal trauma has brought him to this part of Scotland to find hope and to establish a new life. It’s becoming a common pattern in the English people I meet in these parts, and each story told is sad yet inspiring to different degrees.
The Ben Loyal hotel bar is open, so I head in for some tap water and further clues. Inside I talk to Dylan, a sixteen year old from nearby Menless, by Talmine. ‘There’s nothing much here’, he says, conciliating with my apparent hard luck. The right questions are a key that open the door of a life, and I find out about someone keen to leave the area and head to Aberdeen. Dylan will soon start an apprenticeship in electro-power engineering in the oil industry, and his ambition is to work offshore, like his uncle. Like many sixteen year olds, he knows far more than people twice his age (which alas, I nearly am) and displays a verve in showing it. Conversation fires up on independence.
‘With respect, we produce and give more to the economy than we consume, and I don’t see why the south should suck it in. We make it, and all you do is sell it.’
His arguments for independence hinge on the economic advantages to Scotland, more than a commitment to democracy or a dislike of Westminster hypocrisy, though this arises too. He’s another young person with a surer sense of his own future than most I’ve met south of the border, and again I’m reminded how, despite the misinformation and reputation, the quality of life in Scotland is largely superior, on many levels, to life in an English city or town. Dylan’s arguments for independence, most well-thought through and some unique, are quite persuasive.
I leave Tongue over the causeway that crosses the kyle, and rejoin this long and wonderful road. Winds and rain thrash me all they can, but I’m as high as a kite, in love with the landscapes and awake with possibilities. Strange that such desolation can console a heart and inspire it to believe with all conviction in love and danger.
This road is like no other. There are no cyclists now, no motorists. Birds stalk the higher skies, predators roaming with a stoical glare over a bare landscape. Scattered sheep spill into the road at various points and at times need an aggressive trill of the bell to disperse them. Ruined farmhouses stalk the vicinity, the acrid remnants of bitter and infertile crofts that men and women decades ago abandoned for hopes of a better life across an ocean.
The soaring mountains that loom over lochs in the distance further chill the air. The distance they suggest in their sheer scale suggests that one is nowhere from anywhere, on a road that begins and ends in a mental state of profound breakdown and revolutionary release. They are quite unreal, like nothing I have ever known. I photograph the skies, unsure of the reality of what I see. This is truly the most beautiful ride of this escapade so far.
The rain clears by the late afternoon, and the road is curving around towards Durness. In front of me is a shepherd, a dog, and a large flock of sheep that fill the road.
Ahead of the flock is a farmer’s land-rover with two menacing-looking collies in the back. Behind the flock is this one shepherd and his small dog. Together, the sheep could very easily overwhelm either the farmer or shepherd, and make a break for their freedom. This is the thought of the younger sheep, one of which, very occasionally, makes a dash around the dog. The shepherd bangs his cane against the metal rail of the road, causing a horrible clanging sound, and shouts ‘don’t do it lamb!’ The young sheep gives in after a time, abandoning its hope of pacing past the little dog or the shepherd, and rejoins the flock. It probably would succeed, but knowing nothing of what would lie ahead, returns to the comforting security of normality.
As they move up the road, the shepherd butts his staff against the backs of the slower or weaker sheep at that back. They jerk forward, which pushes forward the remainder of the flock, albeit with discomfort and resentment. Sheep baa and maa to each other with a degree of stress, but there is no move collectively amongst them to do anything except flee these sources of fear.
Anxiety isn’t their only lot. What would freedom mean for this young sheep with thoughts of escape? Would either it, or the flock, manage to survive without the farmer and his dog, and the fields of rich green grass they drive them to, or towards the shears that will remove their thick wool and, with it, the danger of disease? Of course not. The modern sheep has been bred over generations to be entirely docile and dependent on its farmers. Its only chance of freedom is in bitterly accommodating itself with the managers of its food. I suspect the older sheep sense this. The flock continues up the road about a mile, bleating with discomfort, arguments breaking out all the while, til the farmer brings it to a halt by the next field of grass.
This bitter parable about, well, you work it out, stalks the road to Durness. The shepherd is another Englishman, and tells me that ‘if it wasn’t for the subsidies we’d be wiped out.’ Quizzing him on this point, he tells a tale like that of Eden’s in Durham, where supermarkets and low prices have caused prices of wool to plummet. ‘A good lamb, that’ll get £60. But many of these won’t.’
The discussion brings up another consequence of Scots independence: were England to have a vote about leaving the European Union, an increasingly popular feeling, the subsidies that sustain farming would be entirely lost, unless some kind of progressive and enlightened government not seen in the UK for at least fifty years were to replace them with some alternative. English farming would be annihilated. As the shepherd’s conversation reveals, at least the Scots could avoid this by becoming independent and, as a generally more liberal and politically liberal population than their southern neighbours, remaining part of the EU.
I pass the sheep and reach the area around Eriboll. A red telephone box in the most isolated of spots is littered with self-pitying Christian propaganda, surrounded again by a congregation of sheep. Further ahead, the road steeps then falls into what is one of the most beautiful of places.
The road around Loch Eriboll is not the most direct route, with good reason. Scenery and scapes this gorgeous are not to be hurried. The early evening sunlight is the most arresting of all, piercing the clouds with filtered rays that spill gold onto seas, sands, and the occasional windshield of a passing motorist. The road cups the azure loch and weaves a dreamer’s path hither and thither around the waters for some miles, threading by lush beaches, flocks of sheep and the very occasional rarity of a house. By most passing places are stickers of lovehearts, compounding the secret and beloved nature of the place.
The route is a kind of paradise, with a specific kind of radiant light beaming about that melts through a sternum frigid with cynicism and misanthropy and suffuses it with giddiness and love. Father Michael was not wrong. Just come here and see. My superlatives are wasted. Some experiences can be put into words, but only for the sake of prompting others to take a risk and investigate for themselves.
No pleasure is permanent, as lovers and psychonauts alike will know. Loch Eriboll must end somewhere, but it gives way to a beautiful set of beaches with rainbows hanging overhead, as the evening sun engorges the earlier mist and rain.
Here is Durness, a seaside village where John Lennon used to holiday as a child. There’s something quite magical about the place, and it’s not just the rainbows and sunswept lochs: the town enjoys an unparalleled glow of white light on its northern promontory. White sand beaches, deserted and unspoilt like the surrounding areas, crop in all around the place. I take a pause, and spot some local people firing guns at a distant tin can. They advise me on the better of the village’s two pubs to go to, and tell me a little about this lovely corner.
Nearby a staircase descends into Smoo cave, a deep cavern that the passer-by can wander into. There’s a waterfall inside and plenty of pigeons and midges if they take your fancy too. I venture on, and by the roadside exchange eyes with a bright and electrified young French woman I’d seen a few times on the road today. Camille has been hitching across the Scotland and laughs as she tells me how often she’s seen me pass their car during the day. My ecstasies on the bike have been accompanied by a good degree of speed. Like with all travellers, we trade our tips and tales like nerds comparing postage stamps or video game scores, but Camille’s a curio, the first traveller I’ve met hitching, albeit with a lack of success she tells me, and one of the first women I’ve met travelling alone. Her stories are marvellous, and a view of the Durness bay is a superb place to trade tales.
I ride a little on, unsure where to settle tonight. Durness is too lovely to leave, so I follow my local gunfirers’ tip and head to Sango Sands bar. Outside I get talking to the locals about passing places, the precarious arrangement for overtaking cars on single track roads round here. They’ve little good to say about cyclists, so I gently and jovially correct them on a few things, and they warmly bring me in and warn me not to visit Cape Wrath, the local tourist attraction. I laugh, order a pint of lovely Tenent’s Ember, wash it down with some delicious Dalmore and Balvenie. I sit down and, in my weary state, attempt to write up my thoughts. Keeping this website updated is becoming increasingly tough with the wild-camping and the sheer bliss of cycling all day, unconstrained by appointments to meet people or reach ferries.
Germans cheer or boo at the football whilst an Australian feller skypes a colleague for an hour, talking aloud in the bar about the personal vulnerabilities of colleagues. There’s little local of these places. The barman’s a fine chap but a Czech guy and he gives me all manner of surfing tips for the area.
I drink up and head outside, where the locals smoke, a better place to find out about life here. Lyn and Ang are pretty drunk – it’s a Friday night here after all – and between odd jokes, wry mutual piss-take and local gossip – I’m welcomed into the fold, given tips about camping. I manage to stoke up a local dispute when I ask about Cape Wrath though – whilst a few of the locals laugh and dismiss the high prices, the ferry man’s daughter is out drinking tonight and she’s rightly barbed about any condemnation of a visit to such a strange and unlikely place. A bit of Danny Dyer self-deprecating idiocy sees an escape out, and as I get the bike together, Gavin tells me about work in Durness.
‘There’s not much jobs here, but I work in fish. Salmon. Fish farming. Some days it’s pretty easy, ya just go out on the boat and feed em. Other times, like now, we’re out all day, changing the nets.’
Well, it’s something. I’m so light and giddy I cycle out and resolve to see Cape Wrath, backing up the ferryman’s daughter and to spite these lovely locals, and drift out of town. They all come out the pub and give me directions for camping by the ferry, but twelve different sets of directions are very confusing. I follow about half the route (‘MAKE SURE YOU TURN LEFT AT SPAR!’) and find a quiet spot above the road to camp. It’s been just the most delightful day, the best of all.