Route plan for the day’s cycling:
I woke at 6:30 and was on my way by 8:30. I cycled to Durness in very misty conditions, a tailwind and long descent speeding me quickly northwards. I considered briefly taking the ferry to Cape Wrath (the Scottish mainland’s most northwesterly point) but I thought it pointless in the still-bad weather. In Durness I stopped at a campsite to find water, but being a Sunday there were no shops open where I could buy food. Fortunately a few miles later (about 20 miles in) I found a little cafe on the western side of Loch Eriboll where I ate beans and scrambled eggs. Eager to make good progress southwards and get back to some civilisation, I asked how far it was to Inverness. The reply was “about 110 miles – two and a half hours’ drive” to which I remarked that I would do well to reach it in a day! Before I left, some kind caravanners, intrigued by my exploits, offered me some tins of food – ravioli and macaroni cheese. Although I had no way of heating the food I took it because this part of Scotland was so remote that I was unlikely to find any food before lunchtime, especially on a Sunday. I did not want to be caught out without food, risking “bonking” or “hitting the wall”.
I followed the Hope road down to Altnaharra, marking the turning point of my trip, beginning the long journey southwards back to Cheltenham. The road past Ben Hope was very pleasant with good views beside Loch Hope.
The weather was still very overcast but had brightened a little as I came across an intriguing little ruin called Dun Dornaigil Broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age dry stone tower found only in Scotland – this particular example is thought to date back to 1st century BC. It is unclear what its function was, but some theories suggest that brochs were defensive structures to safeguard farmers in times of conflict over land and livestock. Others think that they were built to exhibit wealth and status. Dun Dornaigil would originally have stood at twice its current ruined height – an impressive 14m tall – and it would have had a thatched roof.
By 2:45pm I had arrived in Altnaharra, but it was too late to have a proper meal at the only pub for miles. Despite this, I went inside and bought a drink as an excuse to ask whether I could eat my tins of food inside. Cold ravioli and cold macaroni cheese tasted absolutely revolting, but I was desparately hungry and without anywhere to buy food I had to force it down. I did not find Altnaharra at all friendly. A young woman working at the bar told me I must be “mental” to be doing the cycle tour on my own – “at least slightly mental” – especially to be eating cold tins of food. Looking back I am inclined to agree a little, but even if it was meant light-heartedly it did not come across that way. On a long, extended cycle tour, it is inevitable that there will be some less enjoyable days and it certainly takes a lot of mental energy and determination to keep going. I felt like remarking that when I was in a depressing, remote place devoid of food in gloomy weather that I did indeed start to question my sanity!
Fortunately the road southwards was a fast one and I soon arrived in Lairg, the “crossroads of the North”, where at last there was an open garage shop – the first food store that I had come across in 80 miles of cycling! It seemed I had finally reached a more civilised place. Later in my tour when I mentioned having cycled to Durness, all the people I spoke to commented on the area’s remoteness. One person said “It’s like the moon up there!” – a remark I can relate to well. Nevertheless I think northern Sutherland would be an area well worth revisiting in fairer weather (and with food!) because it boasts some astounding coastal scenery and fine mountains.
Once I had reached Lairg I was determined to get to Inverness, so I pushed on quickly stopping only to admire the view from near Bonar Bridge over the Dornoch Firth, and later to don my reflective cycling gear before joining the lethal A9 road. I arrived at Inverness by 9pm but it took forever to find the camp site!