Sutherland

Here is the last selection I am going make public from my book before it becomes an actual book. An old fashioned tale of cycling in Sutherland. Enjoy.

17th – 27th July 2015

In 1987, I bought a used mountain bike from a friend, one of the first in the country. This was the beginning of many adventures and expeditions into the Highlands and Islands, and the start of my fascination with bicycle mechanics. Every year until I left to live in The Netherlands, I took cycling holidays up and down the west coast of Scotland. During this period I fell in love with Sutherland, the most north westerly region of the mainland, the most sparsely populated and geographically interesting. Twenty-eight years later, I was determined once again to visit by bicycle before I died, now with the added incentive of along the way climbing the five most northerly Munros, of which four are in Sutherland.

Preparations for this expedition had been ongoing for a month or so and had to be more precise than for regular excursions, anticipating over a week of every possible eventuality. Much the same as with other cycle journeys. Although the only extra stuff I needed to carry was my boots, a daysack and a few more clothes, I realised after planning a route that I would need to carry quite a lot of food, for I wanted to avoid main roads as much as possible and to find routes I had not before followed. I would not be passing by very many places where there are still shops. When I lived in Utrecht, I took many backroads journeys. Apart from thousands of miles within the borders of The Netherlands itself, I travelled into the German Eifel and back, to Basel and back on the train, to Copenhagen and back following only tiny country roads and forest tracks. I cycled twice to Berlin, and the second time onward to Warsaw. On the northern European plain oak and pine forests mingle with maize, mixed arable and pasture, becoming progressively less managed travelling east, the only visible borders now massive meandering rivers held at bay by levees, and changes in styles of architecture and street furniture, until in Poland hedgerows and sheaves of grain drying in stooks, reminiscent of my childhood in rural Perthshire. Cycle touring remains the most intimate way of experiencing the fine details of the landscape, passing through ways of life invisible from the velocity of arterial routes, watching subtle changes to the land as it rolls past beneath wheels, powered by continuously revolving legs as a mind is free to reflect in its own space.

My trips to Warsaw and Berlin were on a fixie pulling a trailer, to Copenhagen on a racing bike pulling a different make of trailer. In Scotland, I returned to a more conventional arrangement with racks and panniers on a mountain bike frame; the same as for my trips to the Eifel, to Basel and through the Canadian Rockies and Washington Cascades. For the geeks: Ritchey 26” steel mountain bike frame; rigid steel high clearance fork and Cane Creek headset; Shimano XT eight-speed derailleurs, chain, square tapered bottom bracket, crank set with 46/36/24 Black Spire chainrings, and hubs with a custom 11/12/13/14/16/18/21/24 cassette; Shimano XT nine-speed parallel push v-brakes; Ritchey drop bars with Shimano STI shifters and frog-leg brake levers; DT spokes and Mavic rims; Time pedals, Thomson seatpost, Ritchey stem and Flite saddle; Schwalbe tyres and wide mudguards; Tubus racks, Ortlieb front and rear panniers, saddlebag, handlebar bag and stuff sack.

Packing was more straightforward than I had expected. All cycling and camping gear, all food and domestic necessities fitted easily into the panniers, with the bulk of the weight in lowriders on either side of the front hub, while the rear bags took all the bulky stuff, with a down sleeping bag pressed into a large waterproof stuff sack attached above by bungees. This turned out to be a useful flexible space, for although the sleeping bag puffed out to fit happily inside the whole size of the sack, it could be pushed down to accommodate whatever I might need to pick up along the way. It served too as a minor back support, for when I leaned back I could feel it there, almost as if the bike had become an easy chair. And it prevented the toolkit secured under the saddle from flapping about. Finally, all my personal stuff, camera, wallet, phone and charger, maps, reading, writing material and so forth fitted into the handlebar bag, on top of which was attached a waterproof map case.

I left Haymarket on the morning train with a return ticket to Dingwall, whence I planned to take the old road over Struie Hill and to stay the night with a friend who lives at the very edge of Sutherland in Ardgay. Leaving Dingwall, I followed the cycle route north up a steep hill, a sudden reminder of the effort required to carry such weight, how the heart beats faster and sweat seeps insistently from every pore. Muscles groups adapted quickly as I selected the most sensible gear and settled into the rhythm. Near the top, my partner phoned to wish me bon voyage, whereupon I remembered that talking on top of all this work uses too much oxygen. We made it nevertheless to the top still in conversation, where the road turned right out of the town along a minor road parallel to the trunk road below, rising slowly through farmland banked by thickets of heavy green trees and hedgerows, with views over the Cromarty Firth and Nigg Bay.

The road rose to a high point at about a hundred metres and undulated down to Evanton. Through the town at the industrial estate I turned north towards Struie onto what is now a minor road serving only the communities along its length. This was once the trunk road north, but since the opening of the bridge over the Dornoch Firth at Tain, traffic is directed there along the coast from Evanton, rather than over the hill to the older crossing of the narrows at Bonar Bridge. What a difference from the days when these gradients were clogged with heavy vehicles and traffic was continuous. Once, when the new bridge was constructed but not yet open, I followed the low road, on the off chance I might get to sneak my bike across, but also to avoid the chaos over Struie. Needless to say, I found no way over the bridge and had to cycle the perimeter of the Dornoch Firth, which turned out to be only a little longer and to involve the treat of cycling through the forest of Spinnigdale between Bonar Bridge and Dornoch, the most northerly remaining patch of indigenous oak forest in the country. This is a road that now too takes only local traffic.

The road rises slowly out of Evanton before plunging steeply into the gorge of the River Averon, after which it climbs and climbs past a derelict petrol station and café, and a few isolated houses until it levels out at about two hundred metres. The road drops very slightly at Strathrory then reaches its highest point before traversing a flat moorland once used for peat extraction, now flourishing with young indigenous trees and shrubs, fenced in against grazing. The road leaves the north edge of the moor following a tiny stream gathering in flat marshy ground between two steep sided low hills. The watershed is barely noticeable and after a bend to the right and a turn to the left, the road descends quickly to reach sea-level a few miles east of Ardgay. On the way down, I stopped at a viewpoint with tourists in campervans and leather clad Germans on large BMWs. It was a fine day with blue sky, warm sun and slowly moving high cloud. The Dornoch Firth below, deep blue and sparkling, rimmed by verdant growth and yellow beaches. To the northwest Bonar Bridge and the Kyle of Sutherland, where waters from the rivers Carron, Shin and Oykel gather into a slender tidal finger reaching twenty-five miles inland from the Bridge at Tain, which at is most westerly point is not much further away from the sea at Loch Broom at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, making this possibly the narrowest point of mainland Scotland.

After a most enjoyable stay with my friend, let’s call him Malcolm, I headed off hopeful that the gentle weather of the previous day would persist and the cloud that had gathered in the night would be thin enough to burn off. I followed a marked cycle route along the west side of the Kyle to Carbisdale Castle where it follows the railway line towards a bridge. Instead of continuing to follow the railway over the bridge, the path hangs beneath it, at the bottom of two flights of metal stairs. That this is regarded as appropriate for bikes is a consequence of guidelines by which pedestrian and cycle paths are constructed according to the same engineering criteria, very different from the design requirements of cycle infrastructures in The Netherlands to which I had become accustomed. It irritated me slightly, but I accepted that this is how things are done here. I went about the task of unhooking all the bags and panniers from my bike, carrying them one by one down to the bridge and putting them all together again at the bottom, to repeat the procedure on the other side where there was another flight of stairs down to the level of the road.

I was now on the way to Lairg, which is where I would have got off the train had I not wanted to visit Malcolm in Ardgay, nor enjoy the pleasures of Struie. Only a few hundred metres further, I turned left at the junction with the road to Strath Oykel, then crossed the River Shinn and followed it on the west side through dense mixed forests, passing Shinn Falls where salmon leap and anglers pay a fortune for the privilege of trying to catch them. At Lairg I stopped to snack and to put on my wet weather gear, for as I rose inland from sea-level the mist became thicker, blending into cloud and then into fine drizzle. It was not cold, but it was a bit miserable, with views restricted by a ceiling of cloud hanging at about fifteen hundred feet. I was very glad to have brought along neoprene overshoes, for when unprotected from the chill of fast moving air, wet feet become cold feet very quickly.

Although a more direct route to the first Munro of the journey runs north from Lairg, I took the road east to Rogart because I had never cycled this road before and it would lead to a new route north; there was one road in particular I wanted to travel again and several I wanted to investigate for the first time. I almost missed the turn at Rogart and had to retrace my steps to find the back road to Brora, up a gentle hill past lush thickets, rich pasture and many farms. At the highest point it seemed that the sun might come out, tantalising flashes of light garnished the forests and pastures of Strath Brora below. The cloud lifted a little as I ate lunch before the descent. I bypassed the town of Brora to the north and had no choice but briefly to follow the trunk road hugging the sea towards Thurso and Wick. After only five miles I turned north up Glen Loth along a tiny single track road, at the start of which signposts warn users that there are only limited passing places, and that it would really not be a good idea to attempt it in winter. The initial climb from the main road was very steep indeed, but it settled into a slowly rising plod, first through meadows of bracken along the edge of a narrow V shaped valley, then over a massive desolate corrie, with signs on the ground of many deserted settlements, enclosed on the east by low hills and on the west by imposing cliffs thrusting into the cloud. On the way up I noticed absolutely no passing places. Just beyond the highest point as the road begins to slant down into Strath Kildonan, I met a chap wearing tweed breeches leaning against a long pickup, surveying the surroundings through binoculars, parked and taking up the whole road, pointing in the direction I had come. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but I managed to get my bike past. What happens when vehicles meet each other on this road the man was reluctant to share, saying only that it hardly ever happens since so few tourists ever think to come this way and he is one of only a small number who ever use it.

The descent to Kildonan was initially steep and the road a bit broken up with much grass growing through the asphalt, but there were one or two places where vehicles could pass each other. It was a marvellous run down through open sheep country flanked occasionally by red pine woods. At the bottom, the road follows the railway line on the south of the River Helmsdale for a few miles before joining the road to Kinbrace at Kildonan Station. This is a most beautiful glen; had I not wanted to investigate Glen Loth I would have continued from Brora up the coast to Helmsdale and followed Strath Kildonan all the way from the sea as it rises imperceptibly towards the boggy expanses of the flow country through native forests, dense patches of gorse, flower filled pastures and smallholdings. It was now getting on in the day, and I had travelled more than ninety kilometres, nothing in comparison to the distances I consumed on the northern European plain, but respectable enough. It was time to find space for a tent on the banks of the river.

Midges are a well-known challenge for all mammals in the Scottish highlands at any time from May to September. I have a great deal of experience keeping these invisible dragons at bay and I was carrying a full complement of protection and discouragement, the most potent of which being incense-like coils, which produce a smoke from which all insects are visibly repulsed. I found a lovely patch of grass for my tent on the bank of the river under some trees next to a path used by anglers. The cloud was down again and the air still. Although it was damp it was not raining. Within seconds of stopping I was overwhelmed. It is difficult adequately to describe to anybody who has never experienced midges just how violent and insistent their presence can be. There are salves and unguents that can be smeared on skin to discourage them alighting and biting, but these are not always effective nor very pleasant on the skin and the tiny monsters usually find a way through clothing. Some people react very badly to midge bites; I only experience brief albeit intense itchiness, but the greater challenge is their crawling and swarming. And so I pitched my tent on the north bank of the River Helmsdale just before Kildonan Lodge, dancing about and running up and down like a thing possessed in order to create as much moving air as possible, in the vain hope the midges might disperse.

I can honestly say that of all the places I have pitched a tent, this was the most midge infested. Secure inside, I was reluctant to venture out at all and lit coils under the flysheet at the front. Fumes filled up the space. Outside I could see them in their billions, obscuring the view downstream, lusting after my blood but maintaining a distance from the smoky tent entrance. I ate, closed up the front of the tent and fell asleep. Just after midnight I awoke in urgent need of answering nature’s call, a necessity the prospect of which I did not relish. Urination is never straightforward with prostate cancer, but doing so in the dark, swarmed by imperceptible blood sucking insects, inexorably attracted to exposed mammalian flesh does not make it any easier. In the morning I fired up the coils again and smeared myself with a mixture of olive, lavender and citronella oils, especially prepared by my partner, which I hoped would fend off insects for long enough to pack up and get back on the road.

Not far beyond where I camped, the woods thin out and the road rises into open sheep pasture then moorland. Kinbrace junction is a clump of trees, a few houses, a primary school and a railway halt. The main road carries on north through the flat expanse of the flow country and then into the agriculture of Caithness. The other turns west, rising slowly through sheep country and enclosures of grazing deer, then more steeply to an immense shallow corrie of dense bogland, desolate and isolated, passing odd shaped lochs and bridging squiggly black trout streams, gushing deep through the peat, the only habitations a settlement not far out of Kinbrace and an hotel about ten miles further on, claiming to be the most isolated in Scotland. After this, nothing but random and incongruous monoculture plantations until the hamlet of Syre at the bottom of a steep hill in Strathnaver.

The first time I passed through Strathnaver, there was a huge brown road sign pointing in the direction of a “heritage site” on the east side of the river. On the map it is still marked as a tourist attraction and is described as a “clearance village” where visitors are invited to survey the remnants and foundations of the houses of Rossal, razed to the ground in the nineteenth century by factors employed the Duke of Sutherland. The people who had hitherto eked out a precarious existence at the pleasure of his Lordship, in the fertile valley of the River Naver, on the banks of Loch Naver and in the gently wooded northern slopes of Ben Klibreck, were in possession now only of their labour power. Alienated from any connection with the land, they were forced to find work elsewhere, in the fishing villages on the north coast, in the factories of Glasgow or far off in the colonies. Two thousand people lived along this glen once, now there are no more than a few dozen, if that.

It enraged me then and in enrages me still that the word “heritage” could be used in relation to these events. That people were burned out of their houses is an indisputable fact of history, but that this might be described as “heritage” sends my mind into paroxysms of confused fury. “Heritage” signifies valued tradition, a past of which those who share it can be proud, something to show off and celebrate. I simply cannot understand how the entitled privilege of landowners deliberately burning people out of their homes, can be seen as “heritage”, least of all when the current landowners are direct descendants of the ones responsible, and who perforce continue to profit from the conduct of their ancestors. Unless of course we believe it is a good thing that they did so, that these were, according to the prevailing mythology, improvements to the land, ways of encouraging the people to better themselves by seeking gainful employment elsewhere, never doubting the absolute right of landowners to use and dispose of this property as they see fit, amongst whom the people and creatures who live on it. A degree of sense has now prevailed on signage; brown coloured signs are much smaller, referring only to “Rossal Forest Walk”, and there is a discrete wooden notice at the end of the access track pointing simply to Rossal Township. On the opposite side of the river, there is a stopping place with a more tasteful memorial, one of many along the length of the glen, where information boards recount the experiences of those burned out of their homes. I stopped here on the way up the hill to Loch Naver to pay my respects and reflect on my country’s heritage.

The weather was not looking promising for my ascent of Ben Klibreck, which would have been visible for the last twenty miles or so and now dominating the view on the other side of Loch Naver, had the cloud not been hanging only fifty feet above my head since Kinbrace. Cycling beside Loch Naver was nevertheless excellent, this is a quiet road rolling along the north shore through sparse native woodland, short cropped grass, gorse and bracken, busy with birds. On a previous journey along this road I was followed for a while by a falcon whose apparent interest in my trajectory had no doubt more to do with the birds startled in my wake. It was a grey day then too. At the junction north of Altnaharra, where the roads to Tongue and Hope cross, there was a notice declaring the latter to be closed, which rather spoiled my plans for the next day. On the way through the village, I stopped at the hotel to ask the barman what the sign meant, who without going into details assured me I would have no problem getting past with my bike. Encouraged by this, I stomped up the hill south in search of a place for my tent in the vicinity of Ben Klibreck, still obscured by dense cloud.

At the point where the road bridges the burn, not far from where people park to climb the mountain, I found an adequate piece of grassy bank beside a clump of gorse at the bottom of an embankment. Despite being more or less next to the road, it was peaceful enough inside the tent. I was tired and beginning now mentally to prepare for the ascent in the morning. Gurgling water and a slight breeze held the midges at bay, but cloud still hung over the mountain. I ate, washed up, prepared my boots and went to sleep. I awoke again at about four in the morning and could not get back to sleep, so slowly I got myself together. Cloud still hung over the mountain. After much vacillation, impatience got the better of me and at about six I headed off towards the only visible shoulder of the mountain, about a quarter of a mile away over lush moorland garnished with cotton grass and bog myrtle.

Peat lies thick and squidgy over quite a lot of Sutherland, with huge areas of blanket bog and occasional islands of mossy vegetation wobbling atop unknown depths of watery mire. There are also places that can suck a body down without warning. Where the ground is more solid, it is lumpy and covered in tussocks, which often conceal holes of black gloop. Grass grows thick during summer, further obscuring slithery dangers beneath. At the same time, greater warmth and more hours of daylight dry it all out a bit. I bounced over the ground towards the hill, dodging gullies in the peat and trying to follow a bit of a path, still hopeful that as the sun rose, cloud would burn off. Once on top of the shoulder I was inside the white gloom, only able to see about twenty metres ahead. Luckily there was a path along the spine of the mountain and I had my map at hand to check the geography as I walked past. The ascent was straightforward and pleasant, and the path reasonable. The ground remained peaty, with enormous cracked hags hanging at the edge of steep slopes of scree, as if the entire mountain had been smothered in thick chocolate sauce, which was now sliding off very, very slowly.

The last I saw of any sunshine was at a low bealach between the first top and the rest of the mountain, where I stood just below cloud level looking north towards Altnaharra and a patchwork of little puddles of light. Thereafter the weather became progressively worse. Far from dispersing or blowing off, the cloud seemed to be thickening, more densely enveloping the mountain. The ground gradually became rockier, the rain moved a few notches above drizzle. From where I emerged onto the first crest, the route goes a bit north of east for slightly more than a mile, before climbing another crest to turn north along a narrow ridge for about the same distance, then culminates with a steep short plod east again to the summit. By this time the weather was nasty. At the top, I took a selfie beside the ruins of a trig point, rent asunder by what forces I do not know, lying in pieces on the ground. I returned hurriedly down the way I came, confident that I would be able to follow memory back along the ridge.

All was going well until I decided, for reasons I am still unable to fathom, to descend to the east of the narrow part of the ridge, while believing that I was actually descending west back along the spine of the mountain. The ground became steeper and piled high with enormous rocks and boulders. When it flattened out, I saw the silhouettes of a stag and hind at the edge of the grey void, into which they silently merged, then noticed water glistening black under steep screes to my right. Still believing I would be now approaching a lochan on the west side of the mountain, I became utterly confused. The orientation was all wrong. I circumnavigated the lochan and crossed over its outflow before I realised where I was. Looking at the map, I knew that the only options now were either to climb back onto the ridge and more carefully return by the route I had taken, or to continue down into the glen below and follow an old drover’s path that runs southeast of the mountain from Kinbrace to the Crask Inn, only a mile or so from my tent.

Suddenly almost beneath my feet, a baby deer curled up under the heather, dappled and motionless, one eye open and focused intently upon me. I was thrilled, but sensitive to the fawn’s vulnerability, moving gently to take out a camera and record the moment. The little one’s parents were undoubtedly not far off, eyeing me carefully, ready to respond in some way were I to pose any threat. This is a moment I will always cherish. Although I was not quick enough to catch a photo of the two adult deer before they slid into the mist, it is an image burned deeply into my mind’s eye. Standing here, high up on the wrong side of an isolated mountain in the middle of the most sparsely populated wilderness in Scotland, knowing this was not my world, that I had stumbled into a private moment in another way of life, I was humbled and disarmed. I could smell the parent’s musk hanging in the dank air, feel their presence somewhere nearby and imagine their watchful eyes. I imagined their concern for their infant, their knowledge that I am one of the kind who kill them, their mistrust of my stumbling, their ability to wait it out, almost as if they were giving me the benefit of the doubt.

I backed away from the fawn and moved off towards the outflow of the lochan, to follow the water down into the glen, knowing that I would be adding at least two hours to the journey, but glowing with the magic of the moment. From here, the descent was initially gentle, but the ground was rough, with thickening heather and stunted shrubs filling gaps between enormous rocks strewn over the ground, fallen from crags and screes above. Presently the flank of the mountain steepened dramatically and I found myself descending very carefully through increasingly large boulders and dense undergrowth. At the bottom at last I found the path, well maintained by stalkers and no doubt used also by long distance walkers, it would certainly be a fantastic day out walking all the way through in either direction. Above, the cliffs and crags of the mountain tumbled into a forest of giant boulders, birch, rowan and gorse, creating many hollows and crannies. On the opposite side, something similar, with a much denser woodland, grassier slopes and a tall waterfall cascading into a secret corrie from cloud soaked hills.

From here I marched forward happily on solid flat ground to the end of the glen, where there is a steep wall to a bealach, towards which the path slants gently upwards along the flank of the mountain. Looking back down the glen, monochrome in the gloom, the subtle beauties of Loch Choire quietly smiling in the mist, solitary trees at the edge of the water proud of the land, forests almost green, watching. After the top of the path there is hardly any descent and the thick peaty moorland returns, with cracked hags pouring over the edge. The path hugs the flank of Ben Klibreck beneath crags and cliffs at the very edge of the morass, at which point I found a rock and sat down for a breather.

I became aware of birds, flying at great speed between perches on the cliffs, screeching at each other. Their size, shape and velocity could only mean peregrines, playing in the air, maybe showing young ones how. Another secret moment in the life of the mountain, another treat I would have missed had I not come off the wrong side. Sometimes the reasons we do things become clear only after their consequences have played out. I was disappointed that the gloomy conditions made it less than easy to pick out and watch grey birds flying about in grey mist or sitting on dark rock, and I was not sure if there were three of them or four. But again I have a strongly burnished image of their spectacular flight, and my ears still ring with their joyous squawking.

After this encounter, my day was made. But it was a long walk back. I was a bit anxious about having left all my stuff beside a main road for longer than I had anticipated. My bike was locked to itself and my tent zipped up, but the whole lot could be easily picked up and carried off in the back of a pickup. It can happen. I followed the path as best I could until I saw a good line over the moor to a stone on top of a slight rise in the ground, on the far side of which I reckoned I would find my camp. After a long straight plod through squelchy tussocks, I was back at the tent at about twelve thirty. No pickups had taken my stuff. I ate lunch, packed and hit road again, down the hill to Altnaharra.

As I passed the sign at the start of the road to Hope telling users it was closed, I felt a kind of freedom I had never before met; for the next fifteen miles or so I would be the only vehicle on the road and I could take up all of it by myself. There is a small estate farm at Mudale, a few miles from the junction, but nothing after that but access points to fishing breaks and killing fields. I had no idea why traffic was being diverted, but I was happy to be alone on the road in the middle of this vast tundra bordered by rocky mountains, hoping that the barman at the Altnahara Hotel had not been winding me up. The road passes lochans and little plantations following the burn to its source at Loch Meadie, then over the watershed where there is a track to Gobernuisgach Lodge, which also leads further south to Merkland on the main road connecting Lairg to Laxford. After a few miles of gentle descent, the road plunges into Strath More through bracken and gorse meadows.

The first (or last) building by the road in Strath More is a ruined broch, then there is a whitewashed one-storey lodge with some outbuildings, beside a gap in the road where once a burn flowed through culverts beneath. Here was the reason for the road closure, it had quite simply been washed away. Fording places had been constructed through piles of gravel and broken bits of culvert. Getting my bike over was indeed no problem. On the other side, the road was intermittently scattered with gravel and much detritus, with evidence on the hillside above of a great deal of water having flowed down every tiny gully, turning them all into furious torrents. In several places the road surface had been badly eroded. At Muiseal, where the path up Ben Hope begins, more shattered road, rocky detritus, culvert parts and temporary fords. Up the hill too, signs that the burn had been pushed beyond its capacity by terrifying quantities of water and tumbling boulders. Although the damage here was more extensive, repairs were further along, with shiny new culvert tubes waiting in a pile and a very shallow ford to allow access from the north to visitors to Ben Hope.

The grassy riverbanks upon which I had expected to be able to pitch my tent had been obliterated. The weather was not wonderful and it had been a long day. I stood for a while in the lee of a cattle shed contemplating my condition and waiting for a sudden shower to pass. I was a bit low. At length I plumped for the pasture at the start of the path up Ben Hope, sharing the grass with several highland cattle who regarded me with complete indifference. After which, the sun looked as if it might come out, but it was windy, and the top of the mountain was still covered in cloud. I went about making supper and settled in for the night, undisturbed by passing vehicles.

I kick myself that I climbed Ben Hope when I did. The best time would have been the evening I arrived, for the sun did indeed come out for a while and cloud dispersed; or at the end of the next day, which turned out to be glorious; but certainly not the next morning, when I did actually climb it. It is a short sharp yomp to the summit and back that took me little over three hours, but the weather was absolutely appalling. After a reasonable night’s sleep, I was awakened early by my bowels for the first time on the journey, and had to obey their insistent call, among a pile of rocks brought down by the floods nestling in a dense crop of gorse. After breakfast, I lay in my tent, watching cattle graze, reflecting on the journey so far and waiting for the right moment. Light rain dusted the tent, midges were kept at bay by breezes and chemical attrition, cattle munched mindfully, enigmatically looking upon their landscape from behind thick ginger fronds.

At about nine-thirty, vehicles began parking behind me and people walking past, some passing the time of day, others clearly ill-equipped to be going up a mountain in such weather. There was a couple of couples, then a church group, one of those passing announced, eighteen in total and a wee dog. When I observed conversationally that some appeared ill-equipped for bad weather, he said that not all were aiming for the summit and asked if I was also going up. I told him I had not yet made up my mind. The people spread out along the path up the hill, their unnaturally coloured clothing contrasting with intense wet browns and greens of the land. I really should have sat it out some more, waiting for the weather to improve, but I was bored and my ego got the better of me – if this ill-equipped crocodile of Christians could climb the mountain, then so could I. So I booted up.

It is a rough path over rough ground made more difficult by recent erosions. It follows the course of one of only two burns that take water from the west and south slopes of the mountain, the other further back at the broken road near the broch. Looking at the map to see how the contours work, it was no surprise at all that the road had been washed away at these two places. It seemed also quite strange that it does not happen more often, for a very large area of mountainside drains into burns that have only two channels available to flow over a cliff, which runs for several miles along the west of the mountain, all the way to its summit, in addition to which all the water that bounces off the northern summit precipice joins the flow into the burn I was now following, its banks expanded and broken, littered with stones and gravel. Above, I could see places where new channels over the cliff had been created, adding to the carnage.

Quickly, I caught up with one of the couples, who were clearly not going any further, were not enjoying the terrain and did not speak a great deal of English. Further up I met three of the eighteen church group with the wee dog, now separate and contemplating returning. The path slithers over peat before finding a way through a gully onto the gentle south flank of the mountain, after which the ground was solid and easy and the path well-trodden. Now in the midst of thick cloud, with rain driving heavily into my side on a stiff south westerly, I met another ten of the eighteen, who were still not sure if they would be going to the summit. I asked if they all knew how many were in each group and told them I had already passed by three. They said that there was a group of five up ahead, equipped for the conditions and determined to get to the summit. I carried on, wishing them well.

In good weather, this would be a marvellous ascent, the path is well defined and not steep, and there would be spectacular views of both the flow country to the east and Sutherland’s stony mountains to the south and west. But alas, all I saw was the ground beneath my feet, and water. The second couple passed by on the way back down, and a little later the last five Christians. They had all just touched the summit and immediately turned round. I did the same, deciding that I would have to return on a better day. Back at my tent, as I was packing up, more vehicles arrived full of eager walkers, the wind died down and the sun came out. I almost climbed back up the hill, but I decided instead just to let it go, and to use this lovely weather to enjoy cycling for the rest of the day, north past Loch Hope and round the coast to Durness.

The road north from here is wonderful. Before it reaches Loch Hope it is straight and flat, then it winds and undulates through a dense native woodland, predominantly birch, but also rowan, alder and sporadic oak, undergrown with bracken and gorse, alive with little birds. The road is very narrow and the trees sometimes overhang to create verdant tunnels; there are grassy picnic places, paths to fishing breaks and boathouses. Rowing boats moored among fluffy green reedbeds on the loch echo the forms of the mountains in the background, which were for the first time visible in all their glory. Ben Hope too, northern buttresses resplendent, pointy summit standing higher than the rest, reminding me one day to return. At Hope there is a junction, a lodge, a few cottages, and a bridge over the almost shortest river in Scotland, all nestled in lush deciduous woodland reaching down the edge of a geo, almost to the sea. I turned left up a familiar hill, a pleasant plod of about three miles at the top of which views open out over Loch Eribol.

Prevailing winds blow northeast along Loch Eribol and there will always be both following and headwinds going round it. On the east side there is a substantial climb and a long descent; on the west it is predominately flat. I have cycled both ways round the loch in fierce winds, on the east side unable to freewheel on the descent and on the west struggling to maintain a speed much more than walking, while conversely being blown up the same hill on the east and hitting forty on the west. Today the air was calm. Intermittent summer showers intensified the light over the deep blue of Loch Eribol, wetting slabs and cliffs on surrounding mountains, creating sparkling jewels and mirrors for the sun. Rainbows came and went and came again. From the first sight of Loch Eribol at the top of the hill, until I stopped for a seat by the first beach on the north coast at Rispond, I was entirely in the moment. I circumnavigated the loch at a leisurely pace, enjoying the space and the clean fresh air. Despite the showers, all traces of the previous day’s damp and gloom had vanished. The air was warm and dry. I was on the road to the northern ocean, to the most isolated community in the country, one of my favourite places.

From Rispond the road rises and falls for only a few miles, clinging to the northern ocean past cliffs, coves and crystal blue waves crashing up sandy beaches, before it passes by the cave at Smoo and arrives at Durness. I checked in to the campsite and pitched my tent on firm turf at the edge of the cliff, looking over open sea. Apart from Iceland and the Faroes, there is no land north of here until the coast of Russia at the other side of the pole. The Orkney Islands are clearly visible to the northeast. On the afternoon of my arrival, as I explored clifftops, beaches and verdant dunes, the wind got up. In the evening I treated myself to a meal at the splendid Sango Sands Oasis. During the night a storm arrived, and in the morning it persuaded me to stay for another night, rather than attempt a journey south into its teeth. I lay in my tent all day resting and reading, battered by wind and rain. The storm blew itself out towards the end of the day, the next morning was calm and clear, perfect cycling weather. I stocked up with fresh vegetables at the general store and set off towards the next Munros on my list.

Leaving Durness is always a return. There is only one road through the village, one way in and another out. They both eventually return to the start of the journey. The road south follows the shore of the Kyle of Durness then gradually rises along the flank of a hill with views over Strath Dionard to impressive peaks, several of which only just fail to reach the magic three thousand feet for inclusion in Munro’s tables. About half way up the hill, I had to wait by the roadside as a large flock of sheep was shepherded off the moor to be sheared and dipped. Dogs ran about fastidiously obeying whistles and calls, men on quads bounced over the ground while a fleet of pickups took up the rear. An odour of sheep shit and lanolin hung in the air long after the throng had passed.

The road reaches a high point at Gualin House, after which the geography changes again; the architecture of rivers carving glens north between stony mountains from blanket bog to the open ocean is replaced by the chaos of fjords, islands and peninsulas of the west coast. The road now weaves a way through tiny lochans full of lilies, short rivers and lumpy ground, reaching sea level again at Riconich at the end of Loch Inchard, where the road turns off to Kinlochbervie, still one of the busiest fishing ports on the Atlantic coast. When I first came along this road, it was unimproved and followed the contours of the land. It has since been rebuilt and widened to accommodate lorries taking the catch from Kinlochbervie to markets in the south, cutting straight through or bridging obstacles rather than finding a way past, which although creating more space for cyclists, channels the wind in ways that do not always make progress easy. The road rises south again until the top of Laxford Brae, a short steep decent back to sea level on the shore of Loch Laxford, like Loch Inchard another fjord filled with tiny islands and lined with thick kelp, gravelly beaches and chained up rowing boats.

At Laxford Bridge, I turned right towards Scobhairigh, along the south shore of Loch Laxford, gradually climbing inland. From the highest point looking back over the loch, the multitude of tiny islands scattered over the sea mirroring the myriad tiny lochans garnishing the land. A few miles out of Scobhairigh there is a steep descent followed by a challenging plod by the side of a loch, in a narrow cleft that always has a fierce wind blowing through it. I carried on through the village without stopping, on one side there is a small harbour and a large camp site, and on the other a bowl of rich pasture protected by rocky outcrops and dense underbrush from which it gets the name. The climb out of Scourie is long and gradually reveals the beauties of Eradichils Bay, another fjord filled with many islands shimmering under the low summer sun. The following miles are a series of ascents and descents cutting direct lines from one squiggly inlet of the Atlantic to the next, with no flat sections at all until the bridge at Kylesku, after which there is a mammoth ascent past the multiple peaks of the Quinag, another Sutherland mountain that fails by not that much to reach Munro’s magic altitude. And then a long peaceful descent to the road along Loch Assynt that connects to Lochinver. Here the geography changes again. The influence of the sea is gone, the banks of the loch are grassy pasture and there is much less peat. On the far side of the loch there is plantation and behind it, the first view of the best known and most photographed mountains of Assynt, Suilven and Canisp, protruding strangely from the surrounding moorland.

At the Inchnadamph Hotel there is a track east through pastures clustered with clumps of gorse and bracken, leading towards paths to limestone caves and to the next Munros on my list, Ben More Assynt and Conival. The change from tarmac to gravel took my legs by surprise, after so many miles smooth turning, suddenly there were lumps and bumps and very good reason always to look very carefully ahead and choose the right line. I dropped the chain onto the smallest ring in preparation for some technical climbing. After little more than a kilometre I came upon a narrow bridge on the other side of which there was an respectable spot for a tent. A little further away from the burn, traces of old buildings with rowans growing from the ruins. I took my bike down a slope of boggy bracken to the bridge, unpacked it and took it over piece by piece. There was a bit of a wind to keep off the midges and a blue sky with fluffy white clouds flitting by at about Munro height. I pitched my tent, made supper and settled in. I felt this immediately to be a comfortable place. I was relaxed and ready for the challenge of the next day.

In the morning the weather was much the same, warm blue sky with clouds blowing gently over from the ocean and gathering around the tops of the mountains. Maybe today would be the day I sit on a summit with a view of more than the wet ground beneath me. I set off through meadows of bracken, gorse and short cropped grass. After passing by an old farm building and through a gate, the ground changed to deep heather and thickening peat, randomly protruded by sharp rocks of many sizes. The path became more challenging as it rose; although there were views opening up towards the Assynt peaks and the coastline beyond, my eyes were focused entirely on ensuring that forthcoming footfalls would be safe. About half way up, in the middle of the path, a great big lump of white quartzite, emblazoned with the unmistakeable outline of a fish skeleton. There was no doubt it was a fossil and I really wanted to take it with me, but it was far too big and heavy so I took photos and walked on.

The path becomes progressively rockier as it rises. Near the top there is a slight scramble up a little cliff after which a small corrie strewn with fallen boulders and scattered with pools of clear water. The path becomes more difficult to find but there is only one way onto the ridge, which soon leads to the summit of Conival. Here clouds were moving slowly past about ten metres above my head, so I got a view of more than wet ground, but the underside of the cloud, as well as lower clouds in the distance obscured any panoramas. The ridge to Ben More Assynt beckoned, very rocky and flanked by precipitous scree slopes. The path, such as I could discern it, looked challenging. Initially there was a difficult drop over a tumble of sharp boulders to a flatter section, where the going did not get easier. Although it took me only three quarters of an hour to reach the summit of Ben More Assynt, it felt like much longer; at no point was I able to walk without concentrating on every step and balancing carefully between a plethora of sharp randomly sized rocks, so despite not being in cloud I did not any enjoy views, unless I stopped, and even then I could only see downwards over precipitous cliffs and screes to flourishing green moorland studded with shiny rocks and lochans. Throughout the traverse, the final ten metres of Ben More Assynt’s highest crags stubbornly held onto a clump of cloud, and so no views were available when I arrived at the summit.

Disappointed again to have been standing on a Munro without a view, but nevertheless pleased with myself to have ticked off another, I returned back along the ridge to Conival, which was no less challenging in this direction. The summit of Conival was still free of cloud, while the summit of Ben More Assynt still held onto its little bit of weather. On the way down, I was not able to find the fossil fish again; I wanted to convince myself that it really would be too heavy to take away. As the path flattened out I met two students of geology from a London university who were surveying the rocks. This little valley is much visited by geologists, for it forms part of a fissure of limestone that runs from a little further south at Knockan to Smoo Caven by Durness. I told one about the fossil fish and he became quite excited, asking for specific directions to its location. I was able to provide him with only a vague description; smack bang in the middle of the path towards Conival, at an altitude of maybe five hundred metres. I also mentioned that he would probably need some sort of barrow to transport it off the mountain, and crowbars to prise it from the pile of boulders that surrounded it. So apart from returning here one day in order to get a better view from the tops of the mountains, I would be interested to discover if the fossil is still there, although if I could not find it, I daresay it would be impossible to know whether this was because inundations had tumbled it further down the path and covered it over, or because geology students from a London university had taken it away. One seemed very keen to try.

Back at the tent I ate and packed. I was on the road again before four, turning left at Inchnadamph towards Ledmore Junction and then straight on, back inland, over a flat watershed of marshes, where I stopped only to admire the rear view of Suilven, resembling from this angle an enormous receding lizard, lumbering back to the sea, pinnacles for a tail. Apart from the views, this is wonderful road for cycling, in either direction, the gradient is gentle, dropping from less than seven hundred feet, undulating through forests along the upper edges of Strath Oykel to sea level in a bit less than twenty miles. At Oykel Bridge, I turned right into the village in search of the entrance to Strath Mulzie. At the start of a gravel track into a dense woodland I paused to consult the map and confirm that this was the road to where I was heading. The midges were suddenly voracious, spurring me forward.

A kilometre further on, the track crosses a bridge and out of Sutherland, then flanks the southern edge of Glen Einig to Duag Bridge. I stopped here briefly at the old Schoolhouse, now used as an open bothy, before following the track left, steeply up and south into high pasture and sporadic birches, firstly above the narrow gully of the Duag Water then along the banks of the Corriemulzie River. At a plantation there is a sign indicating the end of the public road, beyond which only authorised vehicles may proceed. A little further on I proceeded through the yard of Corriemulzie Lodge, believing that I was not a vehicle and that my passage would not be affected by authorisation. Less than a kilometre further I found the perfect spot for my tent, high on the bank of the river at a bend where floods have piled up gravel, at the edge of a well-drained meadow of thistles and tiny yellow flowers. I felt that this was now the whole point of the journey. To get to this place. It was about seven, the sky was clearing, opening out into pure blue; there was a gentle breeze, the sun was dipping down, painting orange shadows. The ground was flat and comfortable, the tent pitched well. I settled into a familiar routine, laid out all my stuff, fluffed up my sleeping bag on top of a self-inflating mat. I prepared and ate supper, looking through my portable window on the world; a drystane sheepfold on the other side of the river, with steps of moraine further upstream, the lowest end of a narrow plantation of pine, behind which one of the most remote mountains in the country, the enigmatic Seana Bhraigh.

In most guides to climbing Munros, Seana Bhraigh is included in the Beinn Dearg cluster, which is approached from Inverlael on the shore of Loch Broom, from which the mountain appears as high points on a row of round hills fronted by shallow boggy corries. From the boat between Ullapool and Stornoway it is the last high point on the north edge of the hills round Loch Broom. This is a classic escarpment. Looking at the map it becomes fairly obvious that the line of craggy cliffs on the far side of these round hills would be completely invisible from the Beinn Dearg side. From the upper reaches of Strath Mulzie on the other hand, where I had pitched my tent, the mountain is magnificent. Two peaks are visible at the top of a line of precipitous cliffs and deep corries; the lower and most prominent Creag an Duine, a sharp tooth protruding from the main line of cliffs, with many crags and slabs on the way to its top; and Seana Bhraigh, rounder with a gentle route to the summit. The obvious way of climbing these would be to clamber up the pointy one, the SMC guidebook mentions a path requiring only basic clambering skills, then to skirt round the horseshoe above the cliffs while looking south over round boggy hills towards Beinn Dearg, eventually to reach the summit and the final Munro of the expedition.

The morning was cloudless. I ate my usual breakfast: hot turmeric, lemon and honey; prunes, apricots, raisins and goji berries soaked overnight; and porridge sweetened slightly with agave syrup. Mist poured over the escarpment, tinted pink by the rising sun, gathering in the lee of Creag an Duine. This is one of those moments that will last forever. Mist continued pouring, evidently produced by a temperature inversion at the coast, boiling clouds slowly burning off into puffs of white nothing, hanging over the summits as the sun rose to warm the day. I booted up and was on my way at about eight. Even from this advanced basecamp in Strath Mulzie it is a long walk to the first slopes. The route described by the SMC guide up the front of Creag an Duine was not making itself evident, even as I climbed the path into Coire Mhor, where there is a very well maintained bothy, which I investigated briefly on the way past. Round the end of the loch, having rejected any effort to find the alleged path up the front of the mountain, I ploughtered over some peat hags, then through an ancient forest of bogwood towards what looked like the start of a grassy ascent to the left of the crags and all the way up. It was long and steep, but it took me up to the end of the ridge.

When I reached the top, I freaked out completely. Lost the place in a fit of terror. Suddenly I was standing on a series of flat slabs with a great deal of air underneath. There was a bit of a path coming up from the void behind the crag to the right, in front of me was a bench of flat rock, on the other side of which was a sheer precipice of about a thousand feet to a mess of broken boulders in the corrie below. The path to the main plateau of the mountain was blocked by an enormous blunt pinnacle with no way round on either side, and no way over the top that made me feel comfortable. Perhaps if I had stopped to take stock properly of the situation, I might have plucked up the courage to traverse the pinnacle, for there were shiny places on the rock where boots had gone before, but at that moment I could not even contemplate such a thing. Motivated entirely by panic, I retraced my route down the grassy slope and then round the underside of the summit pinnacle looking for a way to traverse an increasingly complex arrangement of cliffs, badly angled slabs and outcrops, until I found a gravelly gully up and onto the plateau. I do not remember much of this, except for moments when I thought I was stuck, with no way forward and no way back. Evidently though I overcame them.

I walked back towards the pinnacle of Creag an Duine for a quick look at what I had missed by not coming over the top, and was glad I had missed it. Thereafter the rest of the day was easy, with lovely soft flat ground all the way round a perfect corrie to the summit of Seana Bhraigh, and panoramic views to Assynt, Beinn Dearg, the Fannichs, Fisherfield and beyond. North too over the reaches of Sutherland. I sat at the summit for a while, eating and soaking up the heat of the sun, contemplating the landscape, my eyes drawn inevitably to the sheer cliffs, crags and pinnacles of Creag an Duine at the other side of the corrie, trying not to beat myself up for wimping out.

The descent to the track was over easy ground, but it was a long way back. I was very glad of my comfortable camping place, where I could immediately rest, then eat and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the journey home. I did not know whether this would be the last place I pitched my tent by bike, but I was happy that if it were, it was here among these summer flowers.

The morning was grey. I was expected again at Ardgay later in the afternoon. From here it would be a journey of no more than two hours, downhill for most of the way. So I decided to extend it a bit by meandering along the south shore of the Kyle of Sutherland from Inveroykel, the highest reach of tidal waters, and investigating the ends of the roads at the end of Glen Carron, places where there are tracks into the hills as good as the road to Strath Mulzie, routes west with access to the rear of the Beinn Dearg cluster. Maybe in the next life.

After another enjoyable visit with Malcolm in Ardgay, I cycled back over Struie, stopping once or twice along the way to shelter from increasingly inclement weather. By the time I got to Dingwall, rain was falling heavily. At Inverness, I had to wait for several hours for a train that would accept my bike, so I found a sheltered place in the park by the River Ness, my head still on the road, in the vast reaches of Sutherland, walking along beaches at Durness, sitting in the sun on Seana Bhraigh, meeting a fawn in the mist on Ben Klibreck, clambering over broken rocks between Conival and Ben More Assynt, cycling round Loch Eribol, along Loch Naver, Strath Kildonan, Glen Loth. All these beautiful places holding back the reality of the future, of what was going to happen when I got off the train.

At the beginning of the journey the blood marker for the disease had risen quite quickly to a level considered by oncologists to be a cause for concern. After not much more than a year, the effect of the radiotherapy had worn off. Rogue prostate cells were proliferating again. I was also beginning to feel slightly cancerous; a sickly feeling of unwellness like the edge of flu, a diffuse sense of discomfort that flips into acute foreboding, an emptiness deep in the pit of the stomach, an inexplicable and insatiable hunger. After which realisation and consciousness, the awareness of its significance, of what the disease means, the terrors of metastasis and fears of dying, the regrets of a life squandered, the desperate hope that medication will assuage some of it.

For the duration of the journey, I had been swallowing a pill every morning containing a female hormone analogue of testosterone designed to slot into testosterone receptors, thereby neutralising all cells dependent on testosterone, in particular rapidly proliferating prostate cells and testicular cells responsible for producing testosterone. This was in preparation for the injection of an artificial hormone designed to shut down the regulation of all hormone production, deep inside my brain. Stark reality was impending again; I had an incurably aggressive, exponentially malignant cancer and I was returning home to be chemically castrated.

It is hardly surprising really that I wanted to show myself what I could still do, despite the disease and this imminent treatment. Over five hundred cycling kilometres, five Munros, eight nights sleeping on the ground. Now approaching the third anniversary of being told I would live no longer than three years, still unwilling to believe in my imminent death, stubbornly alive. Yet still, by accepting the medication, deferring always to the deterministic logic used by medical science to conceptualise both disease in general and this disease in particular, believing still that no matter what, it would one day kill me, that the only hope was to slow it down for a while. The day after I arrived home, I visited the surgery for the injection of Decapeptyl, in my backside. For another two weeks I continued with the daily Bicalutamide tablets, at the end of which I had developed little breasts. Two weeks after that I was neutered; all masculine bodily functions now switched off, my libido died and I became impotent, my beard stopped growing and my body hair began to fall out, my emotions became volatile and my motivation harder to engage, I broke out every two hours in hot flushes and cold prickly sweats, my muscle to fat ratio altered in favour of fat, I became weaker, more quickly fatigued and irritable, permanently deprived of sleep.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, Dutch translator.

One thought on “Sutherland”

Leave a Reply to Shona Campbell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.