Oban, Thursday, 17 August Day 110 2855 miles
Just arrived at Oban where I will spend a couple of days resting and washing clothes.
Five nights ago I stayed in an old railwayman's cottage at Glenfinnan Station and had a meal in a railway carriage which has been turned into a cafe. The station is still in operation on the West Highland Line which runs from Glasgow through Fort William to Mallaig. The booking office and waiting room have been turned into a museum, and in their shop I got the map and colouring book for you.
Since then I have been to Ardnamurchan Point which is the most westerly point on the British mainland.
Lots of love,
I awoke from a good night's sleep, snug and secure in my bunk, and would have been happy to remain there all morning. There was a damp, grey day awaiting and the wind was rattling the windows in a most uninviting manner.
After breakfast I ambled along the road to the craft village at Balnakeil. It consists of an unappetising cluster of former Military of Defence concrete prefabs which Sutherland District Council has developed into a craft centre. It houses workshops for pottery, printmaking, painting, enamelwork, woodwork, leatherwork, patchwork, knitwear and weaving. I admired the enterprise of the craftspeople who had come to live and work in this remote village to find a market for their skills. But on a wet and windy day a concrete prefab is a concrete prefab, complete with damped-stained walls and moss-filled drains. It was a Sunday and many of the workshops were closed. Business looked bad.
Inside was light and warmth and colour, and there was much that I would have enjoyed having around me in my flat in London. But I had neither the money nor the inclination, nor even the capacity to carry purchases away. I felt guilty and conspicuous. I knew the craftspeople knew that I would not buy. And that the few other visitors paddling round in their dripping waterproofs would not buy either. We were passing time.
I walked on to where the road petered out into the sands of Balnakeil Bay. A sign proclaimed that visitors were welcome at Durness Golf Club where hot drinks and snacks were available. Golf is an obsessional sport at the best of times, but to build a course here on one of the windiest spots in Britain is a sign of pure madness. Opened seven years previously it is the most northerly golf course on mainland Britain. It has only nine holes but, with two tees for each hole, you can play an eighteen hole round if you have the energy and endurance. Local knowledge is everything on this kind of course and today the locals reckoned it was barely playable.
I sat in the lounge savouring a bowl of hot soup, gazing out of the picture window over the wide expanse of the bay, watching a German pair drove off from the first tee into the teeth of the wind. It was clear that one was an expert and the other a novice. The betting was they wouldn't make it to the second green. The first hole was just over the first ridge and that's where the wind really started. We watched them lurch backwards and forwards across the fairway, gradually tacking into wind, before disappearing over the ridge. In the monochromatic light of the storm clouds it could have been a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film. A quarter of an hour later they staggered back over the horizon. The expert carried his bag of clubs with resignation, the novice dragged his clubs behind with anger and frustration etched into his face. They stumbled back to their car and drove off. Suddenly, cycling seemed easy.
Breakfast was a strange meal eating up the remains of the food I had bought for the weekend: a small tin of pear quarters, a large tin of fruit salad, and a large tin of custard! For the first time a Tourist Information Centre was unable to find me accommodation in any place I could conceivably reach today. Kate and Chas, my friends in Aberdeen, had assured me that there was always accommodation in the Highlands. Even if there was an absence of officially registered bed and breakfasts, knocking on any door would find a neighbour, or a wife's cousin, who would put me up for a night. Part neighbourly, part mercenary; a bit of extra cash and don't tell the taxman. That's how the Highlands survived. For the first time it looked as if I might be knocking on doors tonight.
Leaving Durness the weather looked promising. The sky was grey but the cloud high and the visibility good. And the rain had stopped. Even the wind had moderated. Ahead of me the road climbed steadily, visible for miles, curving gently up the side of the valley of the River Dionard. Smaller streams gushed down to the river across moors haggard from peat cutting. As the three thousand feet of Foinaven loomed above I felt as if I was climbing into the heart of the Highlands. But it was the river below me, sweeping upwards to the left of Foinaven, which sought out the high ground. The road climbed straight on past the right flank of the mountain before plunging again to the coast. As I climbed the headwind increased, channelled and accelerated by the constraining hills. Pausing at the pass to take in the exhilarating view, I checked the map. I had climbed just six hundred feet!
I descended to the head of the sea loch of Inchard where a steep spur road heads off to the village of Kinlochbervie. Standing at this junction of two empty, single-track roads in the middle of nowhere it was difficult to believe that at the end of that road lay a remote village which had become the second-busiest fishing port in the country. East coast fleets are now based in its natural harbour because the North Sea is increasingly fished-out. Presumably, these quiet roads are sometimes filled with the noise and fumes of convoys of lorries taking the fish to markets in the south.
I pressed on across a barren wasteland pock-marked with dozens of tiny lochens. Lunch was an unsatisfactory affair sheltering from the wind on the side road to Tarbet. It wasn't really warm enough to lie down for a sleep. And in any case midges had appeared for the first time. Not yet a real problem, but annoying enough to have to pace up and down to keep the midges at bay whilst I ate my sandwiches. Two groups of three cyclists passed me going my way. One group I recognised as German campers I had seen wandering around Durness. The second group, an American and two Germans, I overtook later photographing a herd of Highland cattle at Scourie. The sun was starting to show an interest in the afternoon, lighting up the long, ginger hair of the cattle as they munched their way through the thick grass by the side of the blue loch. The cows were suspicious of our attention and determined to stand protectively in front of their calves, presenting us with a view of their backsides. A solitary white cow stood out amongst the ginger. It was a picturesque scene but not a picture postcard view.
I met up with the group again at the viewing point looking across the sea loch to Quinag and the other mountains of the Assynt. From there a glorious descent led steeply down to where the Kylescu Bridge curves gracefully over the loch, replacing the old Kylestrom ferry. I say gracefully, but opinions are divided. This modern concrete bridge, built in 1984, certainly is graceful of its kind, but to my mind looks too boldly white and out of place in this wilderness. But what made it look particularly strange was that there was no traffic to use it. It was the end of July and the bridge simply stood there, empty. It was difficult to believe the little ferry could not have coped with the traffic.
A group of houses, scarcely a village, clustered above the slipway on the south side of the loch. I called at the first two houses with bed and breakfast signs but was rejected. They were not booked up but had family rooms they hoped to fill that evening. At the third, I would have been refused again for the same reason. But when she realised the others wouldn't take me, and she could think of nowhere else for miles around, the landlady relented and let me have a family room quite cheaply.
After washing and changing, I went out to stretch my legs by the water's edge. I bumped into the other cyclists again as they came out of the pub. They were spending four months cycling through Norway, Orkney, Scotland, Holland, and then back to Germany. Like me they had come from Durness where they had camped. But the wonderful forty mile run from Durness was not enough for them; they were intent on pressing on for another twenty-five hilly miles to the youth hostel at Achmelvich. As it turned out, they never stayed at the hostel and must have camped somewhere along the way.
At Kylescu the sea loch, called Loch a Chairn Bhain, divides into Loch Glendu and Loch Glencoul. At the slipway a sign advertised boat trips up Glencoul to see seals sporting on the rocks, eagles wheeling over the crags, and a view of the 650 foot drop of the Eas a Chual Aluinn waterfalls. I just missed the last trip of the day.
In truth the view from the lochside was fine enough to satisfy any tired traveller. The waters of the loch were enclosed by a full circle of mountains. The wind had dropped completely and the surface of the water was flat and still, broken only by the occasional silent, oily head of a seal and the plop-plop, heard but never seen, of a fish jumping. The last boat of the day emerged silently from the hidden mouth of Glencoul into the wide expanse of Glendu. The boat's hull was mirrored perfectly in the surface, the wake stretching out like two taut lines to the shoreline. The geometry was so perfect the boat seemed not to touch the water but hover above it. As the boat approached the slipway the image slowly dissolved as the puttering of the engine and the excited chattering of the passengers broke the silence, and the soundless wake became a swell breaking on the shore.
I was awake early for some reason and lay drifting on the edge of sleep, unwilling to get up and face the day. But outside the sunshine beckoned. After a colossal fried breakfast with two of everything and four of most, I was on the road shortly after nine. The day was already hot and the road went straight into a steep hill, a strenuous beginning to a difficult day.
It might sound feeble to describe it as a difficult day when I covered only twenty-five miles and barely climbed above 600 feet. But I had to get off and walk five times, so steeply did the road plunge up and down through the knobbly terrain. Round sea lochs, between rocky outcrops, across heathland punctuated by freshwater lochens. Many of the lochens were half-covered with water lillies, their white flowers peeping out shyly on the point of bursting into full bloom. As I pushed the bike slowly up the hills huge dragonflies shimmered by on iridescent wings.
I spent a lazy hour at Drumbeg
overlooking Eddrachilis Bay spattered with islands. In the foreground
Oldany Island and, ten miles away in the distance, the bird sanctuary
of Handa Island. An hour doing nothing much but watch the world
go by. But nothing except time did go by.