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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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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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Dufftown to Nairn

Dufftown to Rothes, Via Elgin: 45 miles

Having had my faith in humanity, and myself, reaffirmed by my weekend in Dufftown, I was ready to move on again. The weather could not have been better. Distinctly breezy, but bright and warm.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

On the road out towards Craigellachie, I spotted what I had missed on the way in to Dufftown on the Thursday and consequently since in my walks around the town: the sign to Balvenie. I thought I’d better take a look, and at least cycle round the place if I couldn’t tour. It is quite a site, I must say, and bouncing along the road between Glenfiddich and Balvenie revealed some warehouse damage to the former which was being repaired with many vehicles and red plastic fencing. They were kilning the malt at the time as I returned to the main road. This made me rather more excited than really it ought to but it was stupendous to see those wraiths of peat smoke waft out of the pagoda roof to be snatched and stolen away by the Speyside wind.

Past the cooperage and Craigellachie distillery, over the Spey and then up the hill back past Macallan. The wind would be in my face for the next 7 miles or so but the scenery was so damn gorgeous I really didn’t care. I was relieved, though, when two pagoda rooves lifted their chins above the outline of a ploughed field. See my review of the Cardhu tour below – and my rave about their Highland cattle!

I had the benefit of the wind’s assistance on the reverse leg to Rothes and this ensured it was only a little after 2PM when I made it to my hotel. I phoned up Moray Cycles in Elgin to announce that I would be seeing them that very afternoon and headed off again.

I had by now grown used to the insane levels of traffic on these Speyside roads but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. That said, pagoda rooves appeared everywhere and at one stage, just before a quick descent towards Elgin, I fancied I spotted the outline of the Moray Firth and the Highlands bordering the sea.

The man in the bike shop put my mind at ease. The noise I had been hearing from the front wheel was merely a combination of a slight buckling which wasn’t at all serious and spokes rubbing against each other. It was worth the 18-mile detour for peace of mind.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

On the return journey, with the sun so omnipresent, I stopped off at Benriach - it being practically on the road, and took my mission statement very literally: I cycled round the distillery. It had an inviting feel about it, too, and I would like to arrange a tour. I did the same with Longmorn – visible just a little way further into the glen. It was a privilege – a secret indulgence – to pedal round when no-one else was there.

I returned to my hotel, showered, did a mass of laundry and enjoyed a meal that owed more to chance and improvisation than management. Good fun, though, and my tour was once embued with momentum.

***

Rothes to Forres: 28 miles

Rain. Lots of rain. It isn’t how I prefer to be woken up, and everywhere looks a bit oppressed when it has that watery sheen to it. I had less than a mile to cover to Glen Grant, however, and it ceased on the way.

The route to Glen Moray involved retracing my tyre tracks from the day before. The sun even appeared. Swishing past my privately toured distilleries of yesterday, I made good time into Elgin where I was rewarded by the equally magnificent aroma of cooking shortbread from the Walkers factory. I just caught the 12.30 tour.

A hot chocolate and much food later, I went in search of Forres. I was not going to use the A96, however, and had planned a route of quiet B roads. Miltonduff and Pluscarden Abbey slipped by and I was thoroughly enjoying the warmth and glorious cherry trees. It couldn’t last, though.

The rain made an encore appearance and I had to adopt rain gear. The temperature meant I could do without overshoes and hood but I just got wetter as I passed through Forres – my B&B lying on the northern outskirts. I arrived to find no-one at home. I was quite chilly by this time, pondering how I was supposed to find my dinner and stay reasonably dry. My landlady returned from her walk and everything was accommodated for: a shed for the bike, rags to clean it, a washing machine for my filthy things and an exceedingly comfortable room.

If you like to put away 3000 calories over the course of your evening meal, go to Chapter One in Forres. My burger with all its trimmings was enormous. I left not a speck on the plate, however; much to the amazement of the couple dining next to me. I should have left it there, but the dessert menu looked too good. I ordered the meringue nest, thinking it would be maybe the size of an orange. It wasn’t. It was the size of a rustic country bread loaf. It beat me, it humiliated me. I could only eat a third of it, and regretted forcing in that much. As I waited for the bill, passing in and out of consciousness, a wondered how anyone could manage two courses, if even a touring cyclist couldn’t manage them. Great grub, though.

***

Forres to Nairn: 26 miles

I spun this day out a little. The initial distance suggested less than 20 miles and that would leave me with far too much time on my hands. I wanted to see the sea, in any case, and headed to Findhorn Bay. It is a profoundly beautiful place, and the whole of the landscapes over the last few days had begun to acquire more rugged, wild demeanours. This was no exception. I think I could retire to Findhorn Bay, with Forres nearby for my bowls and Tesco.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

Benromach is a very stylish little distillery and offers one of the best smells from the outside. See my review below.

After I bought my lunch from the above supermarket giant, I had little to do but make my way to Nairn in my own time. I ate the purchased sandwiches on the cycle path beside the Findhorn river.

Nairn arrived a little slower than planned, but I was glad when it did. I had been climbing along single track roads for quite some distance, duking it out with motorists and insects, when the hedges of gorse fell away on my right and there was the Moray Firth. A more dramatic stretch of coastline I had hitherto not encountered. It was jaw-dropping.

I bought a book, an apple turnover and a cup of tea in Nairn, then watched some more snooker. Unlucky, Steve Davis.

Before the football came on I made my way to the beach as the clouds and the setting sun exercised their artistic characters over the sea and the coast which I followed to the horizon with my eyes, knowing that Orkney was at the end of it. Internazionale v. Barcelona evolved into a bit of a damp squib in the first half so I watched Monty Halls in the Uists and went to bed. The Highlands proper demanded my full attention.

Moray Firth at Nairn

 

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