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Ard Dorch to Oban

Ard Dorch to Talisker, to Ratagan, 70 miles

If that can't get you up and on the bike, I don't know what can.

If that can't get you up and on the bike, I don't know what can.

Following some very rough calculations with a map and a bit of paper with the scale mile marked on it, I’d deduced that it was about twelve miles further to get to Talisker from my B&B in Ard Dorch than it would have been to get to this iconic distillery from the Glenbrittle hostel. Obviously, the leg taking me from the distillery back to the mainland would be the same as planned. Today would therefore be the longest of the tour to date, and looking at my distances for the remaining weeks, the longest; period. As the above figure shows, it exceeded my projections still further.Skye 4

If there is a more perfect place or time to cycle than the Isle of Skye at around 9AM in early May, please tell me, but I doubt you can come up with one. The traffic was non-existant and the difference this made to my appreciation of the place swelled exponentially. The island felt new, undiscovered. It did not feel mine. Only after visiting Mull a few days later could I put my finger on what it is that Skye does to you. Falling in love with Skye is like Stockholm Syndrome. Skye is the most “there” place I have ever been to, it is so completely, fiercely its own place and it does not care one jot for your problems or concerns. It is aloof, it is punishing, it is capricious. It is not in any way friendly, but it captures your soul. Indeed, this is the only means by which you can truly experience it: you cannot see it or hear about it alone, and this is why the photos you see cannot hope to convey all of Skye’s personality and sorcery. My mum visited the year before at about the same time, and she said the same, although the pictures she took entirely failed to prepare me for it. With the clear, bright sun newly up, and the shoulders and caps of these great cones of ancient volcanic ire shaking off their clouds, to be cycling along at sea level beneath them was an awesome, humbling experience. I actually experienced fear: raw, thrilling fear. You can’t get to know Skye with the help of the conventional five sense. You are bullied into surrendering yourself to its spell because of how it acts on your very being. It’s the only way I can describe it. I sent a text to mum saying essentially: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to leave here.”Skye 5

A little later I simply felt joy. The weather was perfect, the views were jaw-dropping. Only the traffic jams and road works spoiled it somewhat. With these cleared, the sign to Talisker appeared all too quickly. I was having a great time: these Skye miles were simply zooming past.

After making the left turn, you pass a hotel nestled in to the junction. You will also have to stop because you will have just spotted the Cuillins. They truly are like something out of a sci-fi comic book. You wonder how they don’t puncture the earth’s atmosphere, so sharp do they appear. After collecting myself following this far-off encounter, I free-wheeled down a very long, gentle hill, sensing the envy of those passing in cars. The approach to Talisker was a hugely significant one for me, and Carbost itself is worth a visit in its own right. All white-wash and cherry trees gleaming in the spring sunshine while I was there.The Cuillins 2

The tour over I had a super burger in the Old Inn, somewhere I would recommend for sheer informality and local colour. “Very Irish,” said one of the local lasses, “the fire on and the door open.” I had a lovely cheeseburger and then there was nothing for it but to head back to the mainland.

The reverse leg was just as moving, and vanished as quickly. I bought all of the stuff I thought I’d need for Ratagan from the Broadford Co-op, and had to hang around in the car park eating or drinking all the stuff I couldn’t actually fit in my panniers. 46 miles were up, and from the looks of the map I still had a not inconsiderable distance to go.

I felt quite glum as I crossed back on to the mainland. The traffic was giving me hell, though, so I hoped a different route would alleviate those whose journeys were just so vital they had to pass you at 80mph while cars came the other way. I disagree with Iain Banks’ interpretation of the island mentality. I think people get a false sense of liberation, that there actions can’t possibly have any consequences. Well they can for cyclists.

The road to Ratagan was unbearably long. After 50 miles I accepted that 6PM was going to come and go and I’d still be on the road. Apart from the quaint splendour of Eilean Donan Castle, I mostly had to suffer trees, cliff faces and yet more irritable motorists. However, it was sunny and I wasn’t about to knock it. After about 65 miles by lower back felt as if it had lost all structural rigidity. Nevertheless, I had to press on and fuelled by shortbread I eventually came to Loch Duich and what could only be one of the Five Sisters of Kintail. ‘Ratagan’ was written on a road sign, I cried with delight and pulled up at the hostel right on the shore of the loch.

After a mammoth plate of pasta and most of a McVities lemon sponge, I retired to my full 10-bed dorm. I have never felt such pure fatigue. It didn’t matter that the Dutch motorcyclists snored. I’d have slept in a Formula 1 pit lane.

***

Ratagan to Corpach, 61 miles

Isn't that perfect? the bike before Loch Duich and some of the Five Sisters of Kintail.

Isn't that perfect? the bike before Loch Duich and some of the Five Sisters of Kintail.

I has feared this day above all others, prior to having completed the previous day in the style that I did. No distilleries, just a solid 60 miles down the West Coast. If I completed this, I said to myself, the rest of the tour would be a doddle.

The road out of Ratagan towards Invergarry is undoubtedly spectacular. For the first few miles I kept expecting to be seized from above by a golden eagle. After the first few miles, I just felt plain tired. Hitherto, I needed to have covered about 10 miles before I stopped feeling dog tired. It was the break-in period for my legs of a morning. Well these West Coast roads expect you to be on top form from the gun. The road clung to the sides of mountains, then teased the shorelines of lochs. All the while up and down it went, and as the sun attained greater heights, out came the traffic. In the respect of the weather (painfully bright but rather cold), the maddening traffic and the sapping, never-ending road, it was not my happiest morning.

I kept eating and drinking, though, and with a little over 20 miles done I made the turn to Invergarry. It was a joy to actually encounter a junction of some description. I knew that from now on I was unlikely to be unmolested by other, motorised road users. All of the signs had the names of important towns on. The road I had just left had Inverness as its destination, and this one had Fort William at the end of it.

I had lunch half way up a seriously big hill, just in front of the sign welcoming me to Lochaber. Invergarry was still another ten miles away or so.

Another mind-boggling vista, this one near Glen Garry.

Another mind-boggling vista, this one near Glen Garry.

Despite several near-death experiences in the space of a few hundred metres: first with motorcyclists overtaking me on a cattle grid which had a whacking great pothole waiting for me at the end of it, and again when a car overtook me, the driver plainly forgetting he had a caravan hitched to the back, I made it to Invergarry. There isn’t a great deal there. Just a few houses and a hotel in which was a very pretty girl who happily served this grotty, smelly yellow creature without revealing in any way how vile it must have been for her.

Things improved slightly after that, and my ride through the Great Glen was quite spectacular. A reasonable tailwind hurled me towards Fort William. I took the minor road turning to the right, which took me over the Caledonian Canal and brought me out again at Banavie. I was staying with family friends in Corpach, and was relieved to see their road, and finally house number, materialise before me. “130 miles in two days,” I reflected over my cup of tea. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Fortunately I wouldn't be heading up these brutes.

Fortunately I wouldn't be heading up these brutes.

 

***

Corpach to Oban, 52 miles

After a rather vital rest day in Fort William, during which I updated (or to be more correct: sought to alleviate some of the backlog for) this blog like crazy, wandered around Fort William and generally unwound, it was time to be moving on; on towards the isles.

Regrettably, I could not set off as promptly as I wished. Ben Nevis distillery could not accommodate me on one of their morning tours. In fact, they couldn’t squeeze me in until 1PM. This was galling, because 50 miles to Oban is 50 miles, and when I have a distance like that looming I like to at least spread it around lunch. I wasn’t about to miss another distillery, so I booked a spot on the 1PM tour and just accepted that it would be a later night than was ideal.

As you can tell from my review of Ben Nevis, I was glad to have lingered. I bounced and swerved through Fort William onto the south-bound road full of delight at this most immersive and educational of visits, and eager to see whether I would be lucky enough to meet Jim McEwan at Bruichladdich (“If you meet Jim, cancel all plans for the rest of the day,” John warned me), and whether I would encounter Willie at Jura. I was promised that there was nothing this man didn’t know about whisky.

The panorama kept my spirits fairly high, too. Once more I was giddily fortunate with bright sunshine and heat. The views of Loch Linnhe and Argyll slowly coming into shot were magical. The further I went, the more rock could be found protruding from the energetic aquamarine. The islands had technically begun.

Damn, it makes me feel so full of yearning seeing the bike all loaded up like that before those landscapes.

Damn, it makes me feel so full of yearning seeing the bike all loaded up like that before those landscapes.

During my time in Fort William spring had definitely been making unsubtle hints as to its entrance. Now, the trees were in fresh-out-of-the-box leaf, and green was assiduously establishing itself. The best place to have appreciated this reawakening of nature may have been the cycle path, which I would spy running in parallel every so often. I only used it over a couple of stretches, however, because every time it looked as if I could join it from the road, it appeared to head of in the opposite direction to that indicated by the nearest road sign. 

Either way, I arrived in Oban shortly after 7PM. I was struck first of all by its location, within the hills and above the sea, secondly by the amount of people around. Fort William had been busy, too, but I had walked amoungst them. Now I was on a bike again and it was all rather overwhelming. I made it to my B&B by 7.30PM, unhappily discovering that it was some way out of town.

Once again, I had made it to a significant check point. I was in Oban now, so I could not fail to catch that once-a-week sailing from Oban to Port Askaig. Again, I could breathe a sigh of something like relief.

***

Oban to Tobermory and back, 45 miles

With no small amount of trepidation, I headed down to the harbour. I had spied out the ferry terminal the night before and let’s just say it was in impressive contrast to John o’Groats. It looked like a mini airport! I wasn’t at all sure of the protocols involved in getting me and my bike on to the ferry and how much it would cost. In a very short time indeed I was waiting at the head of a queue of cars to board, having paid half the John o’Groats to Orkney fare.

Awaiting the ferry in Oban.

Awaiting the ferry in Oban.

In the passenger lounges, there was a large contingent of Americans, Texans to be precise. I wondered if it was a school trip or a holiday. I suppose for the same reason we head over there they come here: a change of scale.

On Mull I allowed all of the ferry traffic to precede me on to the island and this was a very smart move. If I could recommend an island to cycle on, it would be Mull. Between Craignure and Tobermory there is essentially no traffic at all and until you get to the one seriously malignant hill it is relatively flat and well-surfaced. Much like on Skye, miles flashed past without me really registering them. I found the whole place charming: you could see the mainland at all times and this suggested a fraternity existed between it and Mull. Once you are on Skye heading north, the island seems to turn its back on mainland Scotland, shoving lots of other islands in between.

Mull is a friendly place, and even after the rather nasty hills which begin once you are through Salem, the island seems eager to reward you with views which are nothing less than perfect.

A view into the Sound of Mull, from the top of the only hill you really need to worry about (cyclists and motorists alike) between Craignure and Tobermory.

A view into the Sound of Mull, from the top of the only hill you really need to worry about (cyclists and motorists alike) between Craignure and Tobermory.

Tobermory is quite divine, too. Again, because it is a “proper” island in a transport sense, demanding a b-o-a-t to get there, you sense that it is more preserved than it might be if there were an easy road link nearby. It had everything I needed: a distillery, a superb cafe selling fabulously rich cakes and a Co-op for my day to day nurtrition. I was sad to leave, and didn’t overstrain myself to get back to Craignure in time for the 5PM sailing back to Oban. I made it back anyway, just as the last cars were shuffling down on to the car deck. 

Looking back to Mull.

Looking back to Mull.

I elected to eat the food I had bought in anticipation of having to wait for the 7PM ferry on the rear viewing deck and quite marvellous it was, too. It was hear that I took the picture you can see above. My early return to Oban made dinner arrangements a lot simpler and hassle-free. I ate at a little restaurant called Cuan Mor on the harbour front. So impressed and inspired had I been by the unashamedly, committedly peaty flavours of Ledaig that I asked the waitress for one. They didn’t have it, incredibly, so I had a Caol Ila instead, in anticipation for the following day and its profoundly significant destination.

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Talisker

 

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

Carbost, Isle of Skye, Inverness-shire, IV47 8SR, 01478 614308. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/talisker/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      I’ve said it before, but this is the ultimate place to put a distillery. That famous shot which is in lots of whisky books shows the loch, the hills and then the Cuillins behind with the distillery tucked into the middle ground. From the distillery itself, you cannot see the set of Medieval surgical appliances which class as moutains, but on the road to Talisker they cannot be missed. Be prepared to stop, because it is safer doing that than ploughing on into oncoming vehicles because you have forgotten you are in charge of a car.

Talisker

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Talisker Distillery Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below. Children between 8 and 17 gain entrance for £3.

Talisker Tasting Tour’: £20. Lasting 2 hours, this is a more in-depth Talisker experience with access to areas which are normally “off-limits”, a taste of five different Taliskers and a free nosing glass to take away with you. The man I met on the tour at Benromach had been on this one and thoroughly recommended it. If you think what five Taliskers means: that’s the 10YO and 18YO at least from the standard range, and he said he received the 57N, the 25YO and the 30YO. You would, wouldn’t you? Phone up the distillery to book, and make certain of which days they are offering this experience.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 07/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      We were told as we bought our tickets that there was a chance we might not see the stillroom due to mainenance taking place. As it was, we did see the still room, and they are quite magnificent. All of the ornamentation is on the wash stills: the boil-ball ad the U-shaped lyne arm. The spirit stills are squat and plain by comparison. As we entered the warehouses one of the German motorcyclists turned to me, smiled and went “Mmmm.” I took this to mean that he liked the smell and whilst it was, indeed, divine, I could detect no seaweed or spicy, smoky sweetness. Obviously that isn’t how things work for peated whiskies. We were behind a a sealed viewing window, so that might have filtered out the local maritime air, but Michael, our guide, insisted that the “salty, seaweedy air” was being sucked into the cask to replace the volume lost in alcohol and water. The oldest cask was from 1979, and Michael gave the very exact estimate of how much of the cask’s original volume they expect to find in it: only 38%. Just over a third full. That is why your older whiskies cost so much. Casks are used as many as three times, and must be filled with grain spirit before they house Talisker. The malt used to be triple distilled, but it isn’t now.

GENEROSITY:        (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENT:      A good tour, don’t get me wrong, but not a sparkling one. Michael knew his stuff and more besides, but there wasn’t a great deal more to see than you could find in Diageo distilleries closer to home. The views as you walked around the site of the ever-improving day, however, were singularly wonderful. The trademark smell of Talisker was subtle thoughout the production areas, and I got a stronger whiff of peat from the Benromach mash tun than this one. It was covered, though. The smell outside as I locked up the bike was gorgeous: super sweet and creamy. As I say, I would have loved to have raved about how the sea and the seaweed had permeated the warehouse atmosphere, but I just couldn’t detect anything beyond old stone and wood. A bone to pick, though: why don’t Diageo have a universal glass that they use? Some of their distilleries use the Glencairn, some an oddly shaped stylised Sherry glass. Well at Talisker do you know what they give you in which to savour one of the best 10YOs in the world? One of those appalling tumblers they give you in really rustic, cheap pubs. It’s like going to Chateau Neuf Du Pape and receiving one of their prime vintages in a Styrofoam cup. Why do it?!

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

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John o’Groats to Skye

John o’Groats to Kirkwall, 27 miles

It is an early-ish start to be sure of catching the first ferry of the day, the 9 o’clock. The weather is as forecast: grey and rather damp. When I actually get out in it, though, it hardly detracts from the beauty of the place, merely renders it in a different palette.

There is some confusion with the ticket-buying. I thought you could simply saunter on and pay your fare but No, the man in the quite hideously tacky waiting shack tells me, You have to buy them from the ferry office. £28 for a green piece of paper which will bring me back again. I don’t have a great deal of choice as t0 when precisely that will be, however. I can catch the 9.45AM crossing back to the mianland, or the 5PM. Those are off-season ferry services in the north of Scotland for you.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

The crossing is fairly popular, but I only spot two other people even vaguely close to my own age. The remaining passengers are all Australian, their tans quite incongruous in this murk and tepid conditions. There are buses waiting to take them to Kirkwall from the ferry terminal in Burwick. I have to get myself there.

Once everyone else has done the decent thing and buggered off, the only sounds are the winds and the skylarks. It’s captivating. Very quickly it’s wet, too. It doesn’t pour down, but it is a breed of mist that gets you just as soaking. I will encounter it the next day, and a couple more times on the West Coast.

It isn’t until I see a sign for St Margaret’s Hope that I realise that I must have got off the ferry somewhere else. And I’ve already gone 6 miles. It seems the Gill’s Bay vehicle ferry gets in at St Margaret’s Hope; the John o’Groats pedestrian ferry pulls in to Burwick. This upsets me, because all of my mileage forecasts for my Orkney stages have just been flushed down the toilet. This means that it is 20 miles from my hostel to the ferry. If I want to catch this first ferry tomorrow I shan’t be able to dawdle.

I’m desperately disappointed that I can’t see more of the islands I’m passing through. The mist restricts my viewing to the point where I cannot see any coast at all and wouldn’t know I was on an island unless I really thought about the likely provenance of the mist in the first place. There is a gradual reprieve, however, as I island-hop using the neat little causeways which warn of wave action and high winds and that drivers cross at their own risk. Again, the cyclist and his concerns is not mentioned. The clouds lift in parts, and I see golden sands, aquamarine bays and purply-brown hills rising out of the sea on the horizon. It is spine-tingling.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

What idiot said Orkney is flat? I’m sure a couple of people made such a hopelessly false claim during the earlier part of my trip. It isn’t flat, and I have proof: latterly, all of the road signs, which I could just read despite the sweat in my eyes, warned of “blind summits”. To have a summit implies synclines and anticlines: up and down. Being an island, when you got up one hill you had the opportunity to career down the next, but unfortunately the flat section preceeding your next slog of a hill was just long enough to sap all momentum gained from your descent. The arduous, exhausting nature of the terrain was worsened by a really strong sun blasting away some of the clouds between it and me, and turning to vapour the deposits of water on the road and vegetation. It was like sauna on the approach to Kirkwall and when I finally arrived at Highland Park, it rained again. With all my wet weather gear on, body temperature soars. Therefore, I’m soaked by my own fluids instead of those coming from the heavans. When you stop, those dripping garments you couldn’t find a radiator for cool very quickly and walking around cold, wet stone buildings with these on is a further challenge to the initial effort and overheating of actually battling the elements on the bike.

After a late, and enormous, lunch, I peaked into a few windows on the Kirkwall highstreet, reflected that the whole place felt rather similar to most important Scottish towns I’d been in and that it hadn’t really what I had anticipated to find as befits an “island feel”. It is telling that those living in the Orkneys refer to the bit with Kirkwall on it as “the mainland”. With its Lidl, Tesco and Co-op, all on the one street, you can see what they mean.

I find the hostel with its supreme view of Highland Park on top of the facing hill. It has the air (the hostel, that is) of a WWII bunker. It was clean and warm inside, though, and populated by few others. I shared with Michael, a giant, spindly Lancastrian who had just done a tour of Shetland and told me horror stories of the austerity to be found in some of the more basic accommodation options available on those even more remote islands. he was such a nice and interesting chap, though, and we talked about tourinf cyclist things: clothing, other road users, equipment trails; and also other things: the perception of exercise, ambition and some other very profound topics. 

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

***

Kirwall to Wick, 39 miles

I had the time of 9.30 in my head as when I really needed to be in Burwick. I wanted to give myself two hours to cover the 20 miles, nice and easy. That meant leaving at 7.30. ‘Oh, if I set my alarm for 6.30 that should be plenty of time.’ I don’t know how, or where the time went when I was preparing to depart in the mornings, but one hour was not long enough for all the little tasks that had to be completed and checked. It was 7.50 when I eventually bounced out of the hostel. An hour and forty minutes to do 20 miles. Now I’m stressed. The thick mist was back and so I would not be spurred on by Orkney in her finery, either.

The hills, obviously in reverse for this leg, were even more infuriating on this run. I had my knee warmers and skull cap on: the over trousers and hood would have made me too hot and sacrificed speed. I didn’t notice the billions of little water droplets sticking to my bare calves and shins on the way up hills, but I couldn’t, after 10 miles or so, ignore the sensation of cold after a long descent. I kept having to towel them off, shocked by the degree to which numbness had set in without my noticing. Whenever I looked down to check my speed or grap a bidon, water cascaded off my helmet into my groin. Incredibly, I kept forgetting that head movement bore this result.

I sped through Burray after a few more causeways (which, at least, were flat) and stopped at a public loo. In here I held my skull cap under the hand-dryer and this blow-dry worked a treat.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

Another causeway negotiated, I rasped past St Margaret’s Hope. Looking back on my time trial, it seemed to go very quickly indeed. However, as I began to recognise roads and houses from the beginnings of my ride on Orkney the day before, the miles seemed to pass more slowly than ever. A bus roared past me, bound for the port. I had time, obviously, and after a few more turns I could even see the ferry terminal. I could not believe I was home and dry, though (a figure of speech only), and was still pushing it at 20 mph into the car park. One of the bus drivers said that the ferry wasn’t in yet, that I had about fifteen minutes to wait. I’d done it. I’d covered what turned into 21 miles in under an hour and a half. I was paying for it, though. I felt sick and wheezy, and suddenly very cold. I hadn’t had time to eat on the way so was essentially empty. All of my clothing was either wet with mist or wet with me. The waiting room was colder than outside, but there was a radiator which I switched on and, disobeying its instructions, put my gloves on top of it. I then stripped semi-naked to get off my jersey, socks and base layer, which amused a fellow passenger. I donned all my dry clothes and waited for the next shipment of tourists to shuffle on to this magical island which had tested me in ways I had not expected it to.

On the ferry I commandeered all of the three radiators on board. This act arguably saved me, for while my jersey wasn’t entirely dry by John o’Groats, I would have been in serious trouble had I now other option than to stuff it in a pannier.

I had a cup of tea in John o’Groats and watched with a degree of loathing as people photographed themselves by the marker post. I can’t help but feel that it is for all those who set out from Lands End, either on foot, by bike, by unicycle, whatever: what does it mean to those who got in their car and got here. What have they achieved. I was an angry young man at this point, because I took offence at the busloads of OAPs, buses which I had been traumatised by for the last week and whose occupants would simply get off the coach, wander around for fifteen mintes, have a cup of tea, use the loo, get back on the coach and head off somewhere else. This way of spending your time made me irrationally furious.

I delighted in taking things as easily as possible for the first half of my ride back to Wick. Even the return of the mist/rain wasn’t too severe an issue. However, just as I was due to rejoin the main road south into Wick, the rain decided it wasn’t going to mess around anymore. It was that fine, heavy rain that drenches you within seconds, yet seems to take longer to moisten the tarmac. Well, soon enough that too was awash. Arriving back at Netherby B&B (stay there, if you are ever up in the area. Alison is one of the nicest ladies you could ever have the good fortune to meet, particularly if you are approaching a laundry crisis), I have got out of swimming pools in a drier state. I wrenched everything off and simply walked  into the shower.

***

Wick to Ard Dorch, 17 miles

I may not have cycled a great deal on this particular day, but somehow I ended up in a different world again. I had to be up by 4.40AM to give myself time to get everything together and eat breakfast. Alison, saint that she is, made me a cooked breakfast at 5.30 in the morning!

The 6.20AM from Wick to Dingwall is a quiet service. Rain fell thinly as I cycled to the station and persisted until we headed in-land. Dingwall was the seventeenth stop on the route before Inverness.

It was only slightly dispiriting taking only four hours to return to a town that I had left via pedal power almost a week ago but there you are. Having passed in front of my youth hostel at Carbisdale and been confronted again by the white, steaming facade of Clynelish (it was open on that day) we also passed at high speed Balblair, Glenmorangie and Invergordon. I had just over an hour to buy some lunch (I’d had no food or water on the train from Wick) and await the train taking me to the west.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

At 11.20 it duly pulled up and the amount of bikes and rucksacks squeezed on signalled quite clearly that I was going somewhere where a lot of people got red-faced and sweaty. I thought I’d fit in rather well. I had intended to update the notes on my progress which I tried to keep up with as little details simply vanished from my memory. Failing that, a sleep or some reading would be nice. The landscape was much too stunning to be ignored, however. Almost instantly after leaving Dingwall, the panorama altered. It looked vaguely Midi-Pyrenean in places, as it happened. Mountains swelled, then reared again, lochs formed, clouds spiralled and bulged. Everything became very dramatic indeed. But something wasn’t right. I felt guilty, and indeed very disrespectful, for travelling thus. During my first stage on the rails, I had wondered to what extent my taking a train was cheating. I talked myself round from that with the valid argument that I’m still touring, just by a different means, and that to have gone from Wick to the West by bike would have taken five days and cost maybe as much as £300 extra. My qualm on this train was how wrong it felt to so passively streak past these magnificent natural structures. I felt disconnected from the landscape for the first time. Hitherto, a mountain or a glen had taken as long as hours to materialise in front of me, and my suffering through and over them had been a valuable way of experiencing them, for the difficulty of each pedal stroke and the myriad atmospheric factors acting on me at any one time had given me unique insights into the landscape around me. I felt I knew it. Sealed in this clattering human tube, I felt as though I was instead showing contempt for my surroundings: these views were nothing more than a speed date, a visual goosing of beauty as opposed to considerately and progressively developing a relationship with it all. I got off the train in Kyle disorientated as a result, and not just because it was gloriously sunny and very warm.

How do you write a caption for that?!

How do you write a caption for that?!

After initially heading in the wrong direction for the road bridge, I changed on a footpath, shielded from the main road by a lot of gorse bushes. Then I went in search of Skye. I found it more or less instantly after breaking free of the blasted earth resulting from when they built the carriageway. I had to stop. I was speechless. I was moved. The view before me was of the sea between Skye and the mainland to the north of the bridge, with great chunks of rock rupturing out of a fast, choppy tide. The pictures I shall upload will not, cannot, put across the extraordinary beauty – a savage, allof beauty - and scale of Skye in the spring sunshine.

I continued onto the bridge and it is quite preposterously steep, especially with the winds as strong as they were. A bump, a sign in Gaelic and I’m on an island, apparently. There is only a tiny spit of sea between it and the mainland where the bridge is built, and so the construction of the latter was perhaps inevitable. However, it does rather take away the impact of arriving on an island. With Orkney, the act of catching a ferry conditioned the mind. The large roads of Skye with all the traffic robbed me of that. I also believe that it has a lot to answer for, on the subject of traffic. Islands, because of their relative inaccessibility and ferry requirements, demand a commitment of a motorist. On Skye, you can pop across like you would the Forth or the Clyde. Throughout my trip, no island was as treacherous for us two-wheeled pedallers as Skye. Cars, trucks, buses, a never-ending stream of snarling motorbikes all made the actual cycling a complete pain in the arse because there was no deterent: “Feel like a drive to Skye, darling?” “Oh, alright.” And it’s a shame, because the roads are mostly well-surfaced and there are no serious hills. If you want to go to Skye, then (and you really ought to), just take a car like everyone else.

On the way to Broadford.

On the way to Broadford.

The wind and the traffic were not having the desired effect on my equanimity. Neither, when I saw a road sign saying 8 miles to Broadford, was the location of my night’s accommodation. In Rothes, I had asked my mother to find alternative lodgings on Skye for me. I didn’t like the idea, at that time, of getting off my train at 1.30PM, still with 40 miles to go to reach my hostel in Glenbrittle which is what the SYHA call “rustic”. In short, miles from anywhere and demanding me to make my own dinner. I didn’t really want to do that. I had scrapped the idea of staying in Broadford when I first began organising this trip because the distance to Talisker and back to the mainland from Broadford was impossible, or so I’d thought. I now couldn’t remember if the B&B mum had found was in Broadford or further on. Looking at the address I’d scribbled down, I was relieved to see it was north, closer to Talisker. However, it was still to be a short day, so how much longer had I made tomorrow?

I skidded down the drive to the Picture House B&B and I didn’t care. It was right on the sea shore, over looking the tiny island of Scalpay, which was still enormous and filled my bedroom window with its quiet, bleak bulk. Tomorrow would be what tomorrow would be. I was here in this unbelievable place and on the West Coast. The second part of my odyssey was in full swing.

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

I dined with a group of retired folk, 80% of whom were photographers. If you are a photographer, a stay at the Picture House is a must. Gill and Steve run the B&B together with their own gallery, being professional photographers themselves, and their work decorates the bedrooms. They can recommend the best places to shoot, the times to go, and who else to talk to.

I returned to my room to catch up on the unfolding election. Jeremy Vine’s paving stones were a bit much for me, though, and I drifted off just as the ballot boxes from Sunderland were being tossed in to the counting stations.

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