John O'Groats, Monday 17 July Day 79 1955 miles
Well I've finally arrived at the end of the country, about one third of the way round. Hooray!
Had some good cycling the last couple of weeks zig-zagging up and down the Firths on the east coast. After weeks of not seeing any British cyclists (lots of Dutch and Germans), as soon as I got north of Inverness I started meeting Brits converging on (or diverging from) John O'Groats.
Tomorrow a boat trip to the Orkneys (if the weather's fine), then off along the north coast for several days, before turning south for several thousand miles!
Lots of love,
Samantha, a small red tabby, and Muffin, a large ginger ex-tomcat, were notable by their absence for the first couple of days I stayed with Kate and Chas. They preferred to skulk outside rather than risk my presence signifying a return to the refuge from whence they came. On the third morning I found them curled up together in an armchair where they remained for the rest of the day. They had decided I was harmless after all. I settled down in another armchair to finish the first of several articles I was writing about my journey for The Moultoneer, the magazine of the Moulton Bicycle Club.
I had already got up to date with my washing, and given the bike a clean and a service. Degreasing the chain and sprockets with paraffin was the usual messy business but ensured the transmission ran quietly again and, after a few further adjustments, smoothed out the clunky gearchanging which had persisted ever since the chain broke at Falkland.
I spent a day driving Kate's car round a few of the many stone circles in the area and paid a visit to Drum Castle. The keep of Drum was built before 1290 and extended into a Jacobean manor house in 1619. Despite being sacked twice it continued as the Irvine family home from 1323 until they bequeathed in to the National Trust for Scotland in 1976. It is a gem of a place, spoilt only by the replacement of the 1970s kitchen equipment by completely spurious Victorian fittings in the interests of heritage appeal. What an astonishing thing for a conservation organisation to do. Did they not realise how much future generations would enjoy seeing the kitchen exactly as it was last used by the Irvine family?
Fortunately, the disorientation I experienced in driving Kate's car did not prevent me committing myself happily to the care of somebody else's driving. Just as well, as we spent the weekend hurtling at high speed around the Grampian mountains in Chas's Japanese jeep. It was a new insight to his personality. He is from the sleepy west coast where they have a relaxed view of life - slow moving, slow talking, almost a manana culture. Kate is the opposite. We'd met trekking in Nepal and kept in touch. She is east coast - small, bustling, talkative, always on the go. Proud of her Buchan ancestry and its dialect, replete with words from the defunct Doric language. She had previously been a midwife, and now used her wit and wisdom to the full in teaching youngsters about health education and contraception using carrots and other visual aids . . .
Not that Chas is any slouch. He runs a small electronics company with major corporate clients; technically successful, but forever chasing the more elusive financial success. Fortunately, his driving skills were up to the Friday night frustrations as we rattled along, he and I in the front, Kate wedged into a bean-bag in the back surrounded by camping and radio gear. We were heading for the top of a mountain pass from where Chas would control radio communications for tomorrow's biathlon known as the Corrieyairack Challenge.
We drove through Cock Bridge and over the Lecht to Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey where we picked up the main road following the Spey upstream to Kingussie. At Laggan we turned off onto the side road which still follows the Spey, gently climbing up the valley to Garva Bridge where the metalled road finishes at a locked gate. Fording the river the serious climbing started up the remains of what was once the military road over the Corrieyairack Pass to Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness.
The Pass was part of the network of roads and bridges built by General Wade in the first half of the eighteenth century to control the turbulent Scots after the early Jacobite rebellions. How Wade must have fumed when Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Clans later used this route to speed their march from Glenfinnan to capture Edinburgh from the government forces. To say the road was in a state of disrepair would be a gross understatement. Even to walk along the broken and boulder-strewn surface in broad daylight would have required careful concentration. And here we were motoring up in darkness. It was bad enough in the front where I could pick out the shape of the road in the headlights, but in the back poor Kate and her bean bag were being hurled around at random. Several times Chas had to stop and back off for two or three attempts to avoid rocks obstructing the steeper corners. We were at the very limit of what was possible in such a vehicle.
We finally reached the 2300 foot pass at midnight. There was still sufficient light in the clear, midsummer sky to enable us to put up the tents and enjoy a companionable glass of whisky before turning in for the night.
Next morning we awoke to a panoramic view over the mountains to the north, their flanks glistening in the bright sunshine where lingering patches of snow defied the encroaching summer. After breakfast a Mountain Rescue Land Rover arrived followed by an ex-army forward-control one-ton Land Rover bringing a water supply for the runners and walkers. At noon the first walkers arrived having covered ten miles and climbed 2000 ft in 2 hours from Fort Augustus. The first runners, who started ninety minutes after the walkers, arrived just fourteen minutes later. After gulping the proffered water, they plunged down the track to Garva Bridge where they would pick up their bikes for fifteen miles of cycling to Newtonmore. It was a welcome change to be able to relax in the hot sunshine with a cold glass of beer and watch other people stretch themselves to the limit.
From there we drove north through Inverness to camp on the Black Isle at the water's edge of the Beauly Firth. We got soaked in a cloudburst as we packed up the tents next morning then steamed gently as we drove over to Bogallan to see a man about a cow. Bob is an ex-RAF officer who came up from England twenty years ago to breed Highland cattle and his wife runs a successful company designing and making clothes. Bob was negotiating for the use of the pasture on the croft which Chas had inherited from his father. I trailed behind them as they walked around the property, a process known as walking the policies, discussing the making good of the boundary fences and the elimination of the rampant thistles spreading in from neighbouring properties.
We headed eastward from Inverness along the Moray Firth before heading south to the Glenfiddich Distillery at Dufftown. William Grant's family have distilled Glenfiddich here since 1887 in traditional copper stills built by their own coppersmiths. It is the only Highland malt whisky bottled where it is made. More importantly, the distillery can be visited on a Sunday and is one of the few which still runs free visits. Of course, it was no longer free by the time I had bought a bottle of malt for Kate and Chas. But Kate did deserve a present for looking after me for five days. And arriving back at Fintray Chas certainly needed a restorative after 350 miles of furious driving.
Kate and Chas wanted me to stay longer but I was anxious to get back on the road. Refreshed by my stay I surged back down to Bridge of Don along the hills I had climbed so wearily five days before. Despite the dull and overcast day I felt exuberant and knew I would have to restrain myself to get comfortably through what would be my longest day so far. I was heading for a farm near Fraserburgh to stay with Kate's father.
At Balmedie I turned off the main road and followed the duckboarding which winds through the massive barriers of dunes to take holidaymakers from the car park to the beach. It was July, there were fifteen miles of beach, and not a single person in sight.
As I turned back onto the main road the heavens opened. I struggled into my waterproofs as lorries splashed by but I was soaked by the time I got them on. Ten minutes later the rain stopped. After lunch at Collieston, where St. Catherine's Dub guards the northern end of the sands, I pressed on slowly to Peterhead. As the country's largest fishing port I had expected to find a scene of bustling activity. True, the harbour was packed with fishing boats moored stern-on to the harbour wall. Scores of them, all neatly lined up as if in a car park, but not a single seaman in sight. The dockside was empty and silent. Eerie.
I stopped for a solitary coffee at the war memorial in the village of Crimond whose name was given to the tune for the 23rd psalm written by Jessie Seymour Irvine, daughter of the local vicar.
In Fraserburgh I wolfed down a large helping of fish and chips whilst chatting to the friendly chippie-man, and then headed south the last few miles to the farm at Easter Cardno. I had cycled sixty-two miles. My quiet day was over. Like his daughter, Duncan Campbell is small, solid, cheery, with a great enthusiasm for life. And talkative! After a quick cup of tea he whisked me out in the car to see the area whilst keeping up a rapid-fire running commentary. We drove around Mormond Hill which dominates the view south from the farm. A white horse and a white deer had been cut through the turf on the slope of the hill, but any thought that it might have been the site of a long-lost culture was spoilt by the rash of NATO dishes and aerials clustered on the summit.
Suddenly I realised I knew some of the names in this area through the words of an old whaling song,
Farewell to Tarwathie, adieu
And the dear land of Crimond I bid thee farewell.
For I'm bound out for Greenland and ready to sail
In the hopes to find riches hunting the whale.
This song delighted Duncan because it turned out that Tarwathie was the name of a neighbouring farm which was currently up for sale.
Back at the farm I was treated to a blow by blow account of dozens of farm implements which Duncan had built himself over the years. If I hadn't been so tired it would have been fascinating. But it was a struggle to keep up with the relentless pace of his speech, heavily laden with Buchan dialect and the characteristic diminutives sprinkled throughout, such as wifie, housie, and one made up by Duncan himself, heathie - meaning something which is a bit Heath Robinson.
But one piece of machinery, not home made, really did intrigue me. I had often wondered how farmers managed to cram their silage into those large plastic bags which you see piled up in fields. In fact what happens is that the machine gyrates the bale fourteen times whilst wrapping it all over with two layers of a continuous strip of plastic. After I had watched a video of bale-wrapping, of the barn roofs blowing off in the 1990 hurricane, and we had moved on to a video of Duncan's 70th birthday, I had to plead exhaustion and staggered off to bed at midnight, my ears as worn-out as my legs.