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.