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Around The Very Top: A Heavenly Stay To Be Followed By Ten Miles Of Hell

Published on: 2 Jun, 2015
Updated on: 2 Jun, 2015
Around The Very Top of Scotland

Around The Very Top of Scotland

Martin Giles is cycling around the top of northern Scotland with his son Tom. This is a report on the leg from Tongue to Strathy. Find other reports in the series by searching on: “Around The Very Top”.

Note: most images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

By Martin Giles

Two plump kippers from Loch Fyne are a fine way to start the day and that is the way my day started at the Tigh nan Ubhal guesthouse in Tongue.

Tongue to Strathy

Our route from Tongue to Strathy.

It had been raining but it had now stopped, for the time being at least. News at breakfast was that our American friend had knocked on the door around 10pm, despite a clear “No Vacancies” sign, seeking a bed for the night. They had taken pity on him and used a small room that they kept in reserve.

“It is not ensuite but he did not seem to mind.” said the man serving breakfast. At 10pm I was sure he hadn’t. The man from Texas had already breakfasted and gone.

I walked along to the small post office shop to get some cash to pay for our night’s stay. There was no cash machine but they could give me some cash using my debit card.

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Tongue Post Office & shop with post van/post bus parked outside. Tom is stowing our lunch supplies.

Having returned to settle up, Tom and I returned to buy a few supplies for our lunch. It emerged that the lady behind the counter had been a postie herself in these parts.

The post office vans had been passing us on our rides. I had thought that there must be a lot worse ways of making your living than driving through some great scenery every day. She agreed.

“I suppose it was not so good when it snowed?” I said.

“Och we have not had snow up here for years.”

“Really?” I replied, “You have noticed the climate changing?”

“Oh yes definitely.” We had heard similar comments elsewhere.

We were hoping for a bit of climate change too. A bit of sun would be good.

We climbed out of Tongue. I realised that I had forgotten to take any photos of the guesthouse or the hotel so Tom kindly went back. He would soon catch me up.

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A rare junction but the choice of direction was easy.

He did so by a rare road junction. Navigation on this trip could not have been easier. We have not had to consult a map once.

NCN Route 1 signHere too the choice was obvious. We wanted the road to Thurso and would be joining the National Cycle Network Route 1, a route that goes from Dover all the way to the Shetlands. I had cycled along part of the route in Northumberland last year.

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As rare as road junctions in these parts is woodland.

A few yards on and we found ourselves in woodland, a strange contrast to the wide open spaces we had experienced for most of the tour. It was a reminder that much of Scotland, like England and Wales, had once been heavily forested.

The woods were a very brief interlude and soon the first climb commenced. Once again we were in “Flow Country”. This is Europe’s largest area of blanket bogland and is on the “Tentative List” for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Back into Flow Country.

Forestry planting and associated drainage in the 1980s caused widespread damage by drying out large areas of the bogland. Nigel Lawson stopped tax relief on the associated investment which succeeded in preventing further planting.

Areas previously planted with non-native pine trees have been cleared and it is hoped they will revert back to their natural state.

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Tom was King of the Castle.

Near the top of the first hill there was a team of workmen with a digger. I imagined that they were carrying out road maintenance. A digger with caterpillar tracks slowly manoeuvred onto the road but I was able to easily overtake it. It was a rare treat to overtake anything.

Just around the bend Tom had parked up and climbed a rock face to sit as a king of the castle to survey his, rather damp, kingdom. I looked over my shoulder. The digger was still following me with one track on the verge heading straight for our bikes.

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The digger appeared to be heading straight for our bikes.

I pointed at them and gave a thumbs up to the driver meaning to communicate, “Are they alright parked there?” He smiled and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up back but kept coming.

For a horrible moment I thought he had understood me to have given permission for him to go straight over the bikes but at the last second he braked the left hand track and with a bit of squealing went off the road to a heap of rocks underneath Tom’s perch.

Soon we were surrounded by the whole team. In fact they were not maintaining the road but gathering rocks, under crofters’ grazing rights, to deploy elsewhere as an anti-erosion measure.

The driver asked us questions about our route. His gang seemed keen for the chance of any social contact. Looking around the empty landscape you could understand why.

We told them we had just been to Durness and Tongue.

“You’ve been to Durness? Och they can be wild company over there.” The other members of the team nodded in strong agreement, not in disapproval, more to encourage further talk of debauchery to confirm their belief.

I couldn’t think of any wild goings on that we had actually witnessed although we had read of intriguing “unfortunate behaviour” at the Kinlochbervie High School Christmas Dance (they only have 44 students so presumably it would have been hard for the culprits to hide).

Rather tamely I said, “Well the ferry didn’t run on the day we got there. We heard that the ferryman had had a dram or two the night before.”

The driver, and apparently the boss, said, “Oh aye he’s a rare character. He can certainly entertain you, oh yes.” The others all nodded as if they had all witnessed a performance.

I am still not sure what form this entertainment takes but it sounds interesting. Durness seems to be regarded as the sort of Wild West of Sutherland, although I must say that most, if not all, of those we met were perfectly well behaved.

“Where are you heading?” one of the team asked.

When informed that our destination was Strathy the driver said, “Well you have a nice stretch of downhill now.”

“And then it goes up again” said his mate with a beard.

“Aye but then back down,” reassured the driver.

“And back up,” said Mr Cheerful.

“We know we have got a few hills ahead.” I interjected before I jumped on the digger myself to flatten our bikes and end the misery.

Tongue to Strathy x section

The cross section of our route from Tongue to Strtahy – a bit up and down.

A cheery farewell and any despondency was soon forgotten in a descent over a couple of miles. At the the bottom of the valley was a house or two. One had a Stagecoach bus parked opposite for all the world as if it had just arrived from Haslemere.

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A Stagecoach bus. Had it just come from Haslemere?

Of course, I know that the Stagecoach livery is common to many parts of the country but it still seemed out of place here.

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Overlooking the mouth of the River Naver.

On up the other side of the valley we were overlooking the estuary of the River Naver from Bettyhill. Around the corner was a shop. Tom went in to ask for directions to the museum that the lady in the Tongue hotel had mentioned.

He then thought to ask if they sold bungees to replace the one I had carelessly destroyed in Rhiconich. The shopkeeper said she might have some but would have to go away to check. Tom was left minding the empty shop and beckoned me in to join him.

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The shop at Bettyhill.

It was a bit of a museum piece in its own right, and very attractive and interesting because of it. I was wondering if there was anything we could ask for to which the woman would not say she, “might have one upstairs”.

“Do you have any tricorn hats?”

“Well they went out of fashion in the late 1700s but I dare say we have one or two. I’ll just check upstairs. What size were you after?”

My daydream ended when the woman returned with a choice of bungees. I selected the shorter, blue ones.

We also bought a postcard and stamp, wrote the card and posted it within minutes. Having been reassured that the Srathnaver Museum was a little further on we gave our thanks and cycled off.

Strathnaver Museum by Bettyhill. located in a restored church still exhibits are displayed under a dominating pulpit from which not only fire and brimstone sermons were given but, it is said, eviction notices during the Highland Clearances.

Strathnaver Museum by Bettyhill. located in a restored church still exhibits are displayed under a dominating pulpit from which not only fire and brimstone sermons were given but, it is said, eviction notices during the Highland Clearances.

Another half mile further on and there was the museum next door to the information centre and coffee shop. I resisted the urge to go straight into the coffee shop and we made our way over to the museum, formerly the village church.

At the door the man looked at Tom and asked me, “Is he a student?” I am still not sure why he did not think Tom capable of answering for himself. He has been quite capable of forming sentences for some months now.

Anyway having determined that Tom was a student (£1) and I was not a pensioner but simply an adult (£2) he asked me for £4.

“Er… shouldn’t that be £3?”

“What – oh yes – Mathematics has never interested me.”

Then commenced an introduction talk that ranged far and wide from the Highland Clearances, including such topics as Tolkien and the Ring Cycle, Hess and his pointless attempt to parlay with the Duke of Hamilton and the real genetic/racial make up of the British population. We had paid our entrance fee but had not been allowed to cross the threshold.

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A reconstructed crofters “cruck” dwelling where recycled boat timbers were used for the frame.

Eventually we were allowed to proceed but I felt we had been examined to see if our general historical knowledge made us worthy visitors.

The museum was interesting and I left understanding a little more about that sad, futile episode of Scottish history.

There was also a room dedicated to the history of the Mackay clan. I was interested to read that many of the displaced Mackays that had emigrated congregated in Picton, Nova Scotia.

Although I had not visited Picton itself, I had stayed for several months in Halifax during which time the influence of the Scots in building not only the province but Canada was very evident.

Having had a good look around at all the exhibits we left and had our lunch amongst the numerous Mackays in the cemetery before pushing our bikes over to the cafe for a refreshing beverage.

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Next door to the museum is this information centre and tea shop. Very good scones. Gaelic spoken (sometimes).

Here we were served our coffees and scones by a local girl.

“Are you a Mackay?”

“Yes I am.”

“Sorry was that a redundant question?”

“No there are some other families here.” Not too many though judging by the gravestones, I thought.

She was a very pleasant, natural girl who told us she had not long graduated from Aberdeen university where she had studied Gaelic. It is good to hear that some of the younger generation will keep the language alive.

Amazingly she said one of her fellow Gaelic students had been a Pole. Is there anything that these Poles can’t turn their hands too, I wonder?

Opposite the coffee shop a shady verge was bedecked with primroses. It was practically June but they were in their prime and interspersed with violets.

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Primula vulgaris in profusion on a bank opposite the Strathnaver Museum accompanied by violets. No sign of the rarer blue primula Scotia though.

Almost immediately after our departure we were climbing again. I was warm. The sun was out and I decided that the time had come to shed my jacket. now that I had new bungees i could simply secure it on top of the panniers. What joy!

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The ascent after Bettyhill, time to shed my jacket.

More miles through the Flow Country and the sea came into view again to our left. Another descent and another climb which I reckoned would, hopefully, be the last of the day.

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Everything looked fresh in the sunlight.

The lochans looked incredibly blue under what was now a clear sky. Everything looked fresh and, together with the knowledge that we must be close to our next stopping point, the sunlight raised our spirits.

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I realised that Strathy Inn was just behind the trees on the left and shouted to Tom so he did not overshoot.

As we commenced another descent I realised that the Strathy Inn, our destination, was just a few hundred metres ahead. I shouted to Tom. I did not want him to overshoot and have to pedal back up the hill – not that it would have been much of a challenge to his young legs.

Strathy Inn

Strathy Inn, Strathy, Sutherland. It is rated 4.5 out of 5 on Trip Advisor. We would give it the full 5. Photo courtesy of the Strathy Inn.

We parked up and rang the bell. After a short wait a lady came to the door. She seemed to be expecting us. She had an English accent.

“You are not a local then?” I ventured.

“No I think I come from near where you live Guildford.”

“Really!” I know it is a small world but I was still surprised to find another Guildfordian at this remotest part of the UK.

“Yes, I come from Fairlands.”

“Fairlands.” I ran through those I knew from Fairlands. None rang a bell until I got to Wendy Morgan, who had complained when Cllr Bob McShee had been removed from the Local Committee.

“Oh yes, I know her,” said the lady, who introduced herself as Heather Frost (nee Dillon).

Heather Frost

Heather Frost (nee Dillon) from Fairlands, Worplesdon, now running a country Inn at the very top of the country with her husband Craig. Lamb shanks anyone? We can recommend the food here.

Our bikes safely stored in the barn, Heather showed us up to our room. Everything was spotless but homely and cosy.

Will you be eating here this evening?”

“Yes,” I replied. I was not sure if there was any real alternative but we were more than happy to stay put.

A couple of hours later we went into the small public bar, ordered two pints of bottled ale from an interesting selection and ordered our dinners: me the venison casserole; Tom the three bean chilli. They were both excellent.

We were sitting in the window seat overlooking the cows in the field opposite, with good food, good drink in a cosy pub with a landlord, Craig, who joined in the conversation in a relaxed and friendly manner without ever being intrusive. There was even an open fire.

I was conscious that I was very happy here.

Before we retired I mentioned that our next leg was westwards on to Thurso.

“Well you have got ten miles of hell followed by ten miles of not too bad,” said our landlord.

I concluded that Craig was not about to publish a volume entitled, “The Joys of Highland Cycling” anytime soon and hoped that his idea of hell was a bit different to mine. I would soon see.

Tomorrow: Strathy to Thurso. More wet underpants.

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Responses to Around The Very Top: A Heavenly Stay To Be Followed By Ten Miles Of Hell

  1. Dave Middleton Reply

    June 2, 2015 at 11:03 am

    This is a lovely series of articles Martin, well done! It’s bringing back happy memories.

    I travelled much of your route, but in the opposite direction in 2009.

    I was also on my “bicycle” although mine is made by BMW and has an 1150cc engine which made the uphill stretches a bit less of an effort!

    I also stayed at the Strathy Inn and I’m pleased that Heather and Craig are still there.

    I too would give it 5 out of 5 as a place to stay. Here’s looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. Heather Frost Reply

    June 4, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Thank you very much for your kind comments. We are glad you enjoyed your stay with us and it is always nice to have visitors from my home town.

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