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Day 7: Buckie to Dingwall

Motivation for my mammoth day in the saddle came from an unlikely source: Landlady’s Revenge (see Day 4). As I stared out of the window, over the Firth to the soft edges of the Black Isle waiting for breakfast, the Peruvian nose-flute cover album for 80s power ballads playing in the background switched into Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’. ‘Sharp-dressed Man’ was also a reasonably successful rendition.

Riding out of Buckie, the weather had performed a neat trick on me; the wind that had been in my face yesterday, pedalling east, was now in my face pedalling west. I couldn’t quite believe it. Scotland, as beautiful as it is, can be very cruel.

The return leg into Elgin was made significantly more challenging by the breeze, then by unclear cycle route signage, then by steep hills. Emerging into fields and single track roads, I could appreciate the turbulent weather predicted for today. Above me were two thick bands of cumulus, bulging with threat. However, on the trail to Forres life got dark and windier at times but rain never fell.

During a tactical pit-stop at the Forres Tesco I made contact with my hosts for the afternoon. A friend of mine from St Andrews had insisted I stop by her parents’ house for lunch on my way to Inverness, an invitation I had gladly accepted. With the wind, the wobbly legs and no map to Cawdor, however, I advised that I was maybe going to be late.

Crossing the swollen Findhorn, I was conscious of entering the Laich of Moray proper. Four years ago, I had been charmed by its rolling greenness and sea views. Again, the mild climate and low traffic endeared me to this part of the world. Unfortunately, I mis-remembered my signposts from 2010 and as I pedalled further and further, and the odometer ticked closer to 50 miles, I hadn’t seen a single sign for Cawdor. By the time Nairn golf club appeared on my right-hand side, I knew I needed outside assistance.

‘I’m at the Shell garage in Nairn,’ I said to Gabby. ‘Can you see a Sainsbury’s?’ she asked. ‘No.’ ‘How about a large housing estate?’ ‘No, I can see a fly-over and a sign for a cemetery’. Eventually we established which of the minor petrol stations I was broiling on the forecourt of and Gabby sent her dad to collect me.

Victor arrived soon after, the bike was slotted into the back of the estate car, I went in the front and then a potted history of the area was delivered as we surged through Nairn and out into arable, swiftly rising land. American soldiers had been billeted near the Brackla distillery, grouse moors cost a hell of a lot to maintain, there was the oldest surviving seed kiln in Scotland (we were driving parallel to the Cawdor main street by now). I was entranced.

After arriving at the Laidlaw residence, I was introduced to the family. Soon a terrific spread of cheese (Gabby works as marketing officer for the nearby Connage Highland Dairy), bread, soup, fruit and chutneys was placed on the table in the kitchen. I had a lengthy list of beverages I was urged to choose from but I insisted water was what I needed after my morning in the Moray oven. I tried not to get teary about the boundless, caring hospitality pouring my way.

By the time our delicious lunch was at an end, it was clear I had not conveyed enough detail to Gabby ahead of time. The plan had been to treat me to dinner, too, then deposit me in Inverness, assuming my bed for the night lay there. I had to admit that my B&B was in Dingwall. ‘Oh, we can drive you there,’ said Victor, ‘that’s not a problem’. A 60-mile round-trip? I couldn’t encroach on the Laidlaws to that extent, plus I needed to remain as self-sufficient as possible on my travels. ‘You’ll feel better for the rest, and arrive earlier.’ These were both immensely tempting arguments, and Gabby told me later that the parental instinct was proving unsilenceable, but I had to stick to my guns.

Shortly after 16.15, I saddled up and pedalled off, uttering the sincerest thanks I could. Rejoining the main road to Culloden Moor, I spied a rain cloud that I doubted I could be so lucky to avoid, a giant black anvil skudding low across the sky. On went the waterproof, but the storm moved more quickly than I did, and I only caught the dribbly tail as the road climbed towards Inverness. Indeed, by the time Culloden appeared, the sun was shining forcefully, and I could take this picture looking north.The descent into Inverness was one I had done before, but again the cycle route signs proved imperfect. In a city, you risk encountering signs which are really for those who have entered from the opposite direction to you. This was my misfortune as I ended up nearly back at the giant roundabout which had conveyed me in. Gnashing teeth at the wasted energy and steep hill I would have to climb back up, I eventually found the correct road down to the city centre. From here, though, it was sheer guesswork getting to the Kessock Bridge. In fact, although I could see it, I could not at first get near it.

Retracing my steps, I found – and decided to trust – a little blue marker. This took me through dockyards and round the back of office blocks but it did deposit me at the base of the Bridge. From up there, the view towards Strathpeffer and the Beauly Firth was jaw-dropping. All the cloud cover contributed to dynamic chiaroscuro effects, but due to all the broken glass on the bike path alongside the main road, I couldn’t gawp westward too much.Descending to the Black Isle, a sign read 13 miles to Dingwall. It was by now about 6PM with gorgeous evening sunshine. How hard could that be? The cycle route led me under, over and alongside the A9 but eventually I broke free into country lanes. The landscape was rolling but not excessive. My legs, however, were beginning to lose their zip after 70 miles and the final decisive turn off to Dingwall brought me beneath another – and this time fully-primed – rain cloud.With full waterproof kit hastily donned, I squelched into Dingwall. The B&B was not immediately obvious, and a final call provided directions. Over the railway track I had last taken four years previously on my way to Kyle of Lochalsh, and there it was. 78 miles, and I didn’t feel too bad. The bike required minimal attention, my stomach accommodated a 16-inch pizza, and despite a TV that didn’t work, I was passably occupied. However, the seeds of doubt were being sown, and my powers of recovery were being stretched, as I would discover the next day.

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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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Tomatin 18-year-old

A month or so ago, I finally dropped in to Tomatin. Not having a bicycle in tow, I cannot count it as an official visit, but in the half-light of a November afternoon I could cast an appraising eye over the sprawling heathland situation. At first, however, I really badly needed to use their facilities, not see their stillhouse, having made a hasty get-away from the Balblair Brand Home opening on the other side of Inverness. Cover was provided by Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Joel from Cask Strength who charmed the lady behind the desk to such an extent that I received a dram of the 12yo on my re-emergence, to replace some vital fluids.

Back in the car, bouncing over the speed bumps by the enormous warehouses to rejoin the A9, Joel commented that their recent Decades bottling had been a favourite at Cask Strength Towers (indeed, it was shortlisted for their Best in Glass Awards). In the summer, I too had encountered the class of this distillery with half of a miniature of their 18yo, an expression barely recognisable as from the same stock as the fudgy, oaky mess that had comprised the 12yo.

Yesterday, I polished off said miniature and here are my thoughts on it.

Tomatin 18yo 46% (non-chillfiltered, finished in Oloroso sherry casks)

Colour – Rich glossy gold. Quality Street caramel.

Nose – Fresh and quite light at first. The nutty praline squeeze of Sherry oak appears but the insistent sweet spiciness makes me wonder if these aren’t American oak butts. Soft apple and, there it is though it is much improved, fudge. Nose further into the glass, you find the most incredibly juicy barley: bold and firm with a bit of syrupy lemon and star fruit. Heathery, grassy. There is a bit of earthy peat smoke there, too. Liquorice and quite ‘green’, fresh oak. A bit more time reveals Papaya, demerara sugar and apple peelings.

Water reveals the gentle maturity of this whisky as lots of silky though boldly citrussy malt sugars descend. Buttery, floral and fruity with apple and peach. Melted Werthers Original toffees. Apple pie and double cream. Strawberries crushed into toasted oak. Again, more time highlights the crisp sweetness of that malt, but also an alluring depth of honey.

Palate – Nutty and darkly peaty with blackcurrant. Oak to the fore with some incense and dark dried fruits: prune and date. Baileys coffee. Quite strange, somehow.

Water (possibly I added too much) reveals peach and vanilla at first, with a building lavendar-scented maltiness. Sweet oat flakes appear, too, with earthy smoke blending heather and pine flavours. Quite light.

Finish – Blackberry and toffee. Sweetly spicy. Hazelnut and almond. A bit disappointingly disjointed.

Water adds perhaps a fraction more cohesion, with pear and pineapple up first, then fizzy, sugary malt. Olive oil appears on time, with saltiness and deep heather honey.

This is that rarest of beasts: one that can show its years but then, like Ryan Giggs with ball and space, roll back those years to stunning effect. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping this Tomatin, and trying to discover more shades of complex sweetness and richness, and that lovely fragrant earthiness. Recommended.

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Knockdhu Miscellanea

Knockdhu

Spurring each of us on through the miserable murk and drizzle which had clung to us since Tain were each of the green signs sited along the A96, my favourite thoroughfare as you all know, indicating a diminution of mileage twixt us and Knock, and Knockdhu distillery – or anCnoc single malt. Perhaps it was on account of this multiple personality disorder that we were put off the scent of the place somewhat. Whether it was the emissions of the many mash tuns located all around us, or simply the character of late autumn afternoons, but darkness fell in cahoots with a thick gleaming mist. Under these aerial conditions, the hill from which our sought distillery takes its name was indeed black. They were moody, broody conditions, under which anyone, when they have been driving a pack of spirited whisky bloggers around the north and east of Scotland for a day and a half, could be forgiven for doubting their internal GPS.

Halfway down a gravel-strewn farm track, Cathy had a slight crisis of confidence as to our direction. Carrying on, as it turned out, was easier than three-point-turning the minibus, and so proceeding, while hoping for a hint of a main road, what should appear first but the dinky, charming, buildings of Knockdhu distillery, the smallest in the Inver House group. Cathy’s instincts had been right.

It was to be a very speedy tour of the place, and this was a crying shame for the idiosyncratic neuks and crannies of the distillery, together with those of manager Gordon Bruce’s irrepressible personality, could easily have satisfied the rest of the evening and night. Gordon maintained the impossibly high standards of hospitality and good humour set by Malcolm and John; prompting a specific mention in a later email of mine to Cathy after the bloggers had disbanded remarking upon how fortunate Inver House are to have secured the services of such engaging and passionate people.Knockdhu tun and view to spirit safe.

The two-day tour was obviously co-ordinated in an attempt to disseminate the Inver House single malt brands more widely throughout the ether, but what I take away from it, and wish to pass on to the readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog, is a reaffirmation of the calibre of folk making the whisky you drink on one level, but in so doing also making the whisky experience to be had at their distilleries, and throughout the sector as a whole, such an intriguing and rewarding one. Once again, I was struck by the incomparable, unique and privileged insight into a distillery and distilling that one can only gain from being shown around by those who actually carry out the process first-hand, and have done for many years. Like Robert at Bunnahabhain, Gordon simply belonged in his distillery, and while sharing his company the feeling was that we had been inducted beneath the skin of single malt.

At the now cold and dark kiln fires, Gordon explained that distillers were suckers for hoarding things, the mysterious objects secreted here and there – none more inexplicable than the pair of Wellies dangling from a grains chute above our heads – a testament to this. The complex engineering credentials of his new malt intake machine and state of the art de-stoner (‘like the starship Enterprise’) pleased Gordon to such an extent his grin, as he explained the various modifcations and functions to us, was wider than the Pulteney washbacks had been and he could not suppress a little Highland jig. Plainly this is someone who cares about the How and the Why: substance and functionality over faddish style – the DIY distillery clock is a case-in-point.

Gordon with Knockdhu's only 'computer'.

Gordon with Knockdhu's only 'computer'.

Upstairs we were encouraged to wander about the floor of the mothballed kiln, Gordon jumping enthusiastically up and down on the metal mesh in order to dispel any doubts we may have had as to the resilience of its contruction. I stood near the entrance door, leading back into the distillery -not, I must stress, because I doubted his confidence - but because this allowed me to fully appreciate the remarkable properties of the pagoda roof and chimney design. Air was being forcibly sucked from over my left shoulder directly upwards into the dark. This is how peat smoke would have been efficiently drawn through the barley in the past at Knockdhu, and how it still operates for Bowmore, Highland Park, Springbank et al.

Elsewhere I learnt that Gordon considers spirit drawn from the stills in winter to be of better quality, the distillery being much easier to manage; that too much raking in the mash tun will create a cloudier wort and so inhibit the cultivation of certain esters in the washbacks, and that for the peated anCnoc spirit, produced for a few weeks a year, the boundaries at which the middle cut is taken sinks somewhat.

Time was getting on and we hadn’t the chance to explore one of the warehouses. The impossibly hard winter had claimed the three dunnage structures which formerly stood adjacent to the distillery: too much snow and no wind had left the warehouses covered for more than a third of the year. Without such freak conditions, they would have provided safe service for many more years. Rubble is all that remains of them, although Gordon promised that they would be rebuilt to their former specification. Inver House’s wealth of warehousing space ensures that there will be no need to erect racked facilities instead which are, to Gordon’s way of thinking: ‘horrible, soulless, godless places.’ I’m inclined to agree.Knockdhu stills

Our gang clustered round a table in the office spaces of the distillery, and I’m afraid far too many expressions of anCnoc were circulating at any one time and I failed to keep up. Every one that passed my nose and lips, though, was either clean, fruity and fresh with lots of sweet hay and barley sugar; or richer and spicier with more buttery notes. Never having tasted the single malt from Knockdhu distillery (not to be confused with KnockANdo) before, I was suitably impressed. I shall certainly take the opportunity, should it come again, to hunt out some of the vintage releases.

Gordon’s commitments switched from us and his distillery to his daughter, who needed ferrying to a parents’ evening. We all signed the guestbook, exchanged cards, shook hands and dolefully left Knockdhu behind. If you are in the area, do not be put off by the lack of an official visitor centre. In Gordon’s own words, ‘no-one is turned away’ so phone ahead and treat yourself to a first class education in Scotch.Knockdhu range

Our route to Aberdeen airport persisted with the ‘horrible, soulless and godless’ A96. I was delighted, however, that it furnished me with the opportunity to contextualise for my fellow bloggers what that singular day in April had entailed and how it had affected me. I was also doubly contemplative of just how that day, half a year away, had made my previous two possible. Distillery personnel on that occasion had fortified my spirit and urged me on, and Malcolm, John and Gordon had simply upheld the glorious traditions of fine treatment I seem to have been fortunate to receive in distilleries.

Mine, then, was a humble and obsequiously grateful countenance for the remainder of the drive back to Dundee, where I was to be dropped off. I was enormously thankful for Lukasz’s invitation and the many hours of creative stress that must have been required of both he and Cathy to have made the tour the triumph it was. In the process of working backwards, I offered yet another vote of appreciation to Fiona and Jane, superlative emissaries of the wonderful whisky characters I met during the tour, and I thanked George Smith for having established The Glenlivet distillery almost two hundred years ago so that I could wander into it on the 25 October 2007 and get the journey underway.

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Nairn to John o’Groats

Nairn to Strathpeffer: 48 miles

The morning’s riding is characterised by cool, wet winds. It isn’t serious enough to warrant putting on anything waterproof but they are quite challenging conditions. There is some degree of trepidation ahead of this ride. It is the first longer effort I have had to make in a wee while.

Inverness nears. I pass Culloden battlefield as I engage with my enemy: the weather and most other road users.

I hadn’t expected the capital of the Highlands to be quite so busy. It is a proper city! I make my way through the Central Business District, underneath the huge shopping centre. I misread the sign for my desired road. I wanted the same number but with an ‘A’ in front of it. I follow the ‘B’ version for some distance until I realise that I’m not going in the right direction at all.

I hammer back in to Inverness, then cross the river and make for those signs with ‘Dingwall’ on them. Every place name confirms that I am no longer in tidy, cosy Speyside anymore.

I stop at the Bunchrew Hotel on the banks of the Beauly Firth. I have my lunch down by the water’s edge and look over to the misty mountains on my left and the road bridge on my right. There’s something not quite right with the pedal as I pull away. I think the Allen key bolt has worn itself loose again.

I adopt what will become the standard mode for following lochside roads which aren’t entirely flat: head down, swear and try and ignore the lactic acid. I’m lucky that the weather is truly superb by this stage, and everywhere looks divine. Beauly is no exception and this is where I manage to find a garage with a little Allen key. I tighten the hell out of my pedal, and as I totter around the forecourt testing it out I think I’ve sorted it. Back on the road, however, it is patently clear I haven’t.

Muir of Ord arrives at long last and after arrowing through the centre I come to its industrial outskirts. Technically, it is only a pair of buildings that qualify for this, but one is the Glen Ord maltings. And it’s huge. All that romance the tour guides try and sell you when it comes to the malting process? True in the mists of time, but that isn’t how they malt barley now. No pagoda rooves, just multiple storeys of industrial blandness. Inside are enormous drums for turning and drying the barley. Floors and kilns are just too expensive. I later learn on the distillery tour that the Glen Ord maltings provides all the malt for Talisker.

While sitting with my dram of Glen Ord 12YO (see review below) I realise it is my ‘new’ cleat which has come loose, not the pedal spring. I borrow a screwdriver and the whole issue is resolved.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

The setting for the remainder of my ride is very much Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The gradations of colour and light are astonishing, and the outlines of the mountains themselves are majestically aggressive.

Road signs have begun to be displayed in English and Gaelic. It turns out I’m only 50 miles from Ullapool. It’s a steep climb up to Strathpeffer and an even steeper one to my B&B. I get off and push up the 50 metre ramp. I just can’t be bothered.

During dinner in the excellent Red Poppy I had noticed some guys head up the hill with tennis rackets. As part of my post-prandial walk, I spectated on the tennis for a little while. For the first time I felt homesick for my friends and our own unusual games.

***

Strathpeffer to Culrain: 52 miles

This was one of my better days, for all it started moistly. I’m pleased to report that it was just a shower and I had the company of the sun for the remainder of the day.

After a food stop in Dingwall (I hoard bananas, you see) I followed the coast overlooking the Black Isle. What a spectacular part of the world this is. Every so often the trees would cease and I could spy back to the spine of Scotland. It was still raining there, alright.

The Dalmore was so eagerly anticipated, and I almost missed it! I was where I didn’t want to be, on a busy road out of Alness, and the sign pointing to the distillery was just concealed.

I followed the main road into Invergordon, desiring a peek at the grain distillery. It didn’t look quite as huge or ungainly as I had been led to believe grain distilleries were. It wasn’t until I passed on the train a few days later that I saw the scale of the warehousing. It’s colossal.

I took the cycle routes to Tain, although I flirted again with the A9. Those roads really aren’t for cyclists. The location of Glenmorangie and the tour more than made up for it, and I only had maybe a mile to survive before I could turn off this horror of a highway and gently waft to Culrain. Err… not quite.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

It was a quieter road, but I was beginning to develop out-of-body tendencies. I ate and ate and ate, but could not summon any real attentiveness. I realised that I had never visited more than one distillery on a day of more than 50 miles duration. Maybe that had something to do with it. What didn’t help was the highways authority’s loathing of telling you how far away you are from anywhere. Distance markers are so incredibly rare and so I was guessing how much further I had to go.

It wasn’t until Ardgay, after some awesome scenery, that I discovered I had only four miles to go. I had estimated seven, so was rather pleased.

Getting to the Youth Hostel involved more breathtaking roads; principally for the landscapes, but latterly for the hills. The track leading to the hostel forecourt was needlessly steep for someone in my condition.

Carbisdale Castle looks like any other Scottish castle from the outside. Inside, it is a youth hostel, but retains statues, rugs, libraries and ancient works of art. It’s unbelievable. Even more baffling is how long it took me to find my room and consequently complete my errands with dorm, reception, laundry room and dining room at opposite ends of the castle. I needed an energy drink just to get from the main entrance to my room. The views over the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge were captivating, and largely made up for it.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

The hostel also offers evening meals. I paid for three courses and I’m well aware I was no prize picture whilst eating them. feeding had, by that stage, become a primal activity. I practically drank my soup and drummed my fingers on the table in anticipation of my chili, wishing for a big portion. This was quickly despatched. Pudding wasn’t quite the right amount of stodge for me, but at least I began to feel a little more human.

I was rooming with a fellow cyclist and he put it rather well: “You get fitter, but that doesn’t mean you get any less tired.”

***

Culrain to Helmsdale: 42 miles

The scale of the hostel made amassing my things and preparing for the off difficult. I was expecting to read some time in the afternoon on my bike computer when I eventually made it to the entrance with all my bags but in fact it was still before 10AM.

Whilst stocking up in Bonar Bridge, a stranger is compelled to voice his approval of my mode of transport. He was once a cyclist, too, and commends my style. He doesn’t care for these mountain bikers and their fat knobbly tyres, only interested in going down hill. He recommended an alternative route to the main road, and he did promise that it had a lot of ascending. Maybe he was using me to advocate the noble art of suffering on a road bike, thus contrasting me with the muddier sort of cyclist. I have nothing against mountain bikers. It just annoys me when the estate carts zoom past me with them tied to the back, that’s all.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

The man also assured me that it was a wild road. After continuing over a junction, which turned out to be the last one for a very long time, I began to appreciate what he was getting at. It was freezing when I eventually reached the top and the barreness of the hillsides, together with the chilly-looking lochs made me feel very much on the edge of civilisation. Munching on some shortbread by the side of the road as two cars in convoy passed spoilt the image somewhat.

I could avoid it no longer, though: the A9 was back. I emerged from my track to the past beneath the Mound, an incredible edifice. The motorcyclists greeted me with screaming engines. The camper vans were well represented. What followed were 20 very miserable miles.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

The problem is that Scotland is a small, sparsely-populated country. When you get north of the Central Belt, what towns there are are hugely significant for the people living within their catchment and there are only a few roads connecting them all up. Factor in tourism, and cyclists have a pretty rough deal. I find it incredible, though, and actually nothing short of derisory, that there is no cycle lane connected to the A9. It’s on the Lands End to John o’Groats route, for goodness sake! I and the other cyclists I saw, together with walkers, all had to huddle into the verge as closely as they could while buses, vans lorries and cars hurtled past with soul-destroying speed and disdain. When I got to Golspie it started to rain, and the picture of dejection was complete. 

They were 10 wet and slow miles to Brora. Finding Clynelish shut was almost the final straw. Still rather wet, I decided not to head backwards to the centre of Brora but push on to Helmsdale. It was only 11 miles. And it was along the coast, too. It must be flat. Oh no, it wasn’t.

Helmsdale hardly endeared itself to me. The hotels were pricy and the cafes were not to my taste. The hostel was fully booked and there was only the one shower and toilet between a dorm containing nine beds.

I knew that all I needed was some gooey, calorific loveliness to pull round and I found it in the cafe on the A9 bridge, just out of Helmsdale. I had some gorgeous ginger loaf, a big mug of tea, and felt infinitely better. A phone call to Ross, who had spent three months in Uganda and Rwanda at the end of last year and so knows a thing or two about being alone and miserable, helped immeasurably.

***

Helmsdale to Wick: 36 miles

I don’t know if you have ever shared a room with a man with irritable bowel syndrome? I did that night and whilst I won’t go into details (I’m desperately trying to repress the memory), I will say that I had a broken night’s sleep. He woke me up just after seven when he cracked open a can of Tennent’s lager. I made my breakfast and escaped. On the road by 9AM. I ought to have been proud of myself.

The hills got worse between Helmsdale and Wick: one really long though gradual one, and one

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

nastily steep one. Two guys I’d met the night before, and who were one day in to their attempt for Lands End, had warned me about the latter, promising I wouldn’t get up. They had admitted earlier that they had done very little training, and for someone who has been up Cairn o’ Mount and the Devil’s Elbow already this trip, it wasn’t much more than unpleasant. My gears did all the hard work for me.

The weather was changeable, but the landscape was unwaveringly beautiful. The pictures will communicate it best but it is utterly unique. I live by the North Sea, but this was different.

I got to Wick in good time: 12.30! It was no surprise that my B&B proprietors were elsewhere. I took the bike into the middle of Wick, having spied out Pulteney and sat in Morag’s Cafe for an hour or so. Her chocolate cake and mugs of tea revived me perfectly.

Back at the B&B, I tended to my bike, watched some snooker, and fell into a coma.

***

Wick to John o’Groats: 20 miles

As I have mentioned below, my tour of Pulteney left a lot to be desired.

My quest for groceries was similarly frustrating. Lidl would only sell me gargantuan portions of everything, and the Co-op which was said to be at the other end of town I haven’t found yet. The supermarket I did use was perfect, though. I had my sauce, I had my pasta, I had my meat, and I had my bread. It wouldn’t be gastro, but this would be the first night of cooking and I didn’t want to complicate anything by poisoning myself.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

Into the wind, it was a long 20 miles to John o’Groats. I had no clue as to where the village was until I had toiled up the last hill and there were the islands. I was dumbstruck. A little board told me what everything was. Stroma, Hoy, South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Skerries. Orkney was not qyite visible. A gleaming white ferry was heading towards it as I watched, though. That must be from Gill’s Bay.

I could free-wheel into John o’Groats now. It is an odd place, though. It isn’t a village at all, really. I would say it is more a scattering of houses and two mouldering hotels. Unlike anywhere else so far, though, I sensed that here was somewhere a little bit different to what I had come from, with an entirely different relationship to its surroundings. These last were incomparable, it must be said.

In the bright sun and perishing wind, I arrived at the hostel. It was closed until 5PM. I could have gone for a little ride around, but the wind offered strong discouragement and so I pulled up an abandoned chair and read my book until the nice young man who had been trying to fix a bleeping in the building passed on the message that I could go in.

I found two Geordie ladies on the desk. When they asked what I was up to and saw where I was from one asked, “wasn’t there an article about you in the Northumberland Gazette?” Here I am in the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain and I’m famous!  

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