Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.
The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.
Our route skirted Loch Eriboll, a sea loch whose name intrigued me when I first came across it in politician Alan Clark’s diaries in the 1990s. (Clark had a holiday home here.) Clark told his television biographer Michael Cockerell, ‘Everything in politics is so instant, but here in the Highlands you can realise that we are all just grains of sand’. So true.
This was the Eriboll sight that truly took my breath away, just before we tackled the steep ascent away from the loch. On a cloudless, warm morning it looked positively Mediterranean, complete with yacht moored on the blue water. The almost-island is Ard Neakie, which was the departure point for a ferry across the loch until the road around Eriboll was built in the 1890s. Ard Neakie also houses four large lime kilns, which you can see in this photo. The German u-boat fleet surrendered here in 1945.
Eriboll had been a fine companion, but it was time to say goodbye. After the climb away from the loch, we had a few more hills to conquer before turning off the coast road (and the route of the North Coast 500) to take a stunning road south along Loch Hope.
We had a long morning as the lunch stop was after 48 miles at the Crask Inn. Peak Tours arranged two brew stops this morning to keep us fuelled and the first had a stunning vista over Loch Hope.
Richard marked the Queen’s Platinum jubilee (70 years on the throne) by attaching a union flag to his backpack today. Here, Derek helps unfurl it at the brew stop.
This was the intriguing sight that greeted us later that morning: a 2,300 year old drystone roundhouse know as a broch. Dùn Dornaigil is one of around 500 such structures in Scotland. No one knows exactly what they were used for, but some think they served multiple functions ranging from day to day habitation to defence. This broch commands a strategic position on the slopes above Strath More so it’s easy to imagine a military purpose. Dùn Dornaigil’s stonework is in remarkable condition for a structure that has endured over two millennia of Scottish storms.
Not long after admiring the broch, we were climbing away from Strath More onto the plateau. This ruined house caught my eye. What kind of lives did its former residents lead in this lonely spot? When was it abandoned?
Later, Angela caught me up (or was it the other way round) and asked me how far it was to the second morning brew stop. “A couple of miles,” I declared, before being contradicted within minutes by the sight of fellow cyclists enjoying their drinks and snacks. Either my Garmin was playing up, or the day’s route notes were mistaken!
It was a special moment when we joined the Tongue to Lairg road at Altnaharra. This was familiar territory for me, having cycled along it twice on my Land’s End to John O’Groats rides in 2002 and 2019. But this time I was heading south. I told Angela that it was an easy ride to the Crask Inn based on the fast ride on the last day of LEJOG in 2019. But my confidence was misplaced. Heading south there was a steady climb for much of the way. No wonder I was fast in 2019 – it was downhill most of the way in the opposite direction! Incidentally, Altnaharra often features as the coldest place in Britain during the winter (as low as minus 27.2C in 1995) so it was nice to ride through on a hot day in June.
Lunch at the Crask Inn was a welcome break after a long but lovely morning. The Peak Tours guides Julie, Simon and Wendy arranged a group shot in our Highland 500 jerseys. This made sense as it was the last time the group was together on the road. (We were split between Lairg and Invershin accommodation tonight and all finish at different times tomorrow at Inverness.) It brought back happy memories of the start of the last day on LEJOG here in 2019.
The last section to Lairg was just 13 miles and largely flat or downhill, but the headwind made it less enjoyable. I was pleased to get to familiar Lairg, a village on Loch Shin. I noticed a few desultory Platinum jubilee banners at the lakeside car park where we had a rainy brew stop in 2019.
I was staying at the Highland hotel again, which seemed to have been improved since my last stay three years ago. As I got to my room, I noticed that my arms had gone a shade of red – I’d obviously not slopped on enough sunscreen during the day! I stopped at the right time – I’d have burnt had I continued for the extra seven miles to Invershin.
We had an enjoyable dinner at the Highland hotel. I was fascinated to hear guide Simon – who I got to know on LEJOG19 – explain that he used to be managing director of a division of the Kier construction and services company. Simon and Julie also told us more about their next adventure, cycling across Canada later this month. I then walked down to the loch to take not-quite-twilight photos of the ‘wee hoose’ on a small island. According to legend, it dates back to 1824 when a poacher was given the land in return for teaching a local laird how to make whisky. Sadly the real story is more mundane: the house was a float in the Lairg gala that was then given a permanent home on the small island!
The day’s stats
61 miles, 2,927 feet climbing, 5 hrs 11 mins cycling, 11.8 mph average speed