I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.
A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?
The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.
A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.
Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.
What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.
Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.
Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.
Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.
From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.
Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.
The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.
The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.
Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.
The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.
‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.
Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.