Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

By Klibreck and Altnaharra

Have you ever listened to the words of a song and had them so completely resonate within you that you think the song was written for you? I guess most of us will have heard some love song that reflected our feelings, but for me, there's another. It's a song about a book and the song tells of the feelings of the songwriter upon reading that book. The song and the book are both called The Summer Walkers. The book, by Timothy Neat, is about the hawkers, tinsmiths and other travelling workers who would gather themselves up each year and journey into Wester Ross and Sutherland. The song, by Runrig,  is so evocative that I bought the book and delved into it. Upon reading it, I found I was resurrecting old, long-buried memories of my own, of times when, as a child, I'd travel with my family through the highlands. I remembered we'd often see the travellers with their horses and carts on the narrow, single-track roads that were all that existed in the 1960's. My mum always called them the Tinkers. She'd look down her nose at them a bit - even though we weren't exactly what you'd call middle class. She'd call them "dirty" and make occasional references to them being somewhat less than trustworthy. 

Ironically, we were camping and travelling too and sometimes we'd spend a night or two at a quiet, unofficial campsite. My dad used to call some of these "common land". From reading The Summer Walkers I now realise that many of them were stances once used by the travelling people. The book highlights a lost culture. Although told mainly in the word of the travellers, the author had only the last remaining elderly folk to talk to and the practice has now disappeared with the customs and language almost completely lost. What we are left with today is the spectacle of "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding", nothing more than a gross distortion of what was a fine tradition.


But this is a biking blog and you're thinking "get on with it!" So, here I was with a couple of days free and a plan to make the most of the remaining longer days. I figured this would be my last opportunity to get right up north so I'd planned a nice circular route which would also be my first "century" (100 mile) ride this year. From Lairg, I'd head up to the north coast, then back down. My choice of direction was largely dictated by the prevailing wind, being an easterly. I recalled riding along the north coast last year into this same easterly and how tiring it had been, For this reason, I'd do the loop anti-clockwise.

The ride started well. Away at 9am there was little traffic. The views out to the West were hidden behind a blanket of grey cloud but a little watery sunshine was splashing my shadow onto the tarmac. It's a fairly steady climb from Lairg until past the Crask Inn where the munro of Ben Klibreck appears and then another fairly steady descent to the Inn at Altnaharra. The crosswind was strong but not overly so, but I knew I was up against it a little when I turned due East alongside Loch Naver. At least the road made some semblance of melding into the landscape so I'd get an occasional calm spell. Turning North made it slightly easier again and when I saw the end of the loch, I knew that I was at least trending downhill now to the coast.

One thing to be very careful of up this way is the lack of facilities - don't be expecting to stop for a coffee every few miles - so just before reaching my turn West I loaded up with a little food. This was just as well. Although I now had the wind behind me, the road did that great coastal thing of just climbing and descending every few miles. It was with some relief that I realised I was just a few miles from Tongue, whereupon the first heavy rain of the day hit me. I guess I should have thought myself lucky. After all, I seemed to have missed all the showers thundering through, but getting drenched just before my planned lunch stop seemed so unfair.

The bar in the Tongue Hotel was warm and cosy, with a proper fire going and I was glad to get in for a hot drink and a warm meal. The chicken pasta was great - although the portion was fairly prodigious. However, I knew that the shorter days and my lack of big rides this year meant I really had to get back on the road. I did have a slightly shorter return option available by heading down past Loch Loyal but I figured I'd stick to the original plan and headed out for Hope. This was another big climb and the wind seemed to have turned more south easterly so it wasn't helping me as mush as I'd have liked. The steep descent into Hope killed off most of the climbing effort with little reward and I then turned south onto the little unclassified road along Loch Hope. 

I'd been along here a couple of times in the past, though never to this very end of the road. The last time was for the lovely annular eclipse of May 2003 when a few mates and I had climbed Ben Hope to get the best possible view of the already-eclipsed sun as it rose. 


Annular Eclipse - 31st May 2003

That day had also seen me do me second ascent of Ben Klibreck and I recall it felt a bit novel to be on my second munro of the day and it still be breakfast time. 

Now, I was heading against an increasingly strong headwind, weaving my way across the best bits of tarmac and avoiding the often grassy strip down the centre of the road. On the way, I passed the broch at Dun Dornaigil and took a couple of photos under the very curious gaze of one of the local cows. 


Dun Dornaigil and the cloud streaming off Ben Hope


A couple of miles - and quite a bit of climbing - further on is the track leading to Gobernuisgach Lodge. This track cuts right across country and is on my "to do" list for 2013. Turning east again, I battled my way back towards Altnaharra, to be confronted by another downpour just as I reached the Inn. Without any second bidding I was indoors and drinking another coffee for a bit of warmth, passing some time with the locals and some visiting anglers. By the sounds of it, my day had at least been more successful than theirs. 

All that remained was the last big climb up past Klibreck again and then the long, steady 13 mile downhill almost all the way to Lairg where I encouraged my legs to spin a bit faster to get my days average speed up a bit. 


A long, hard day then. the wind had turned against me and my legs seemed a bit surprised at the amount of effort. However, the route was fabulous with the Sutherland landscape in the very first throes of Autumn and the roads almost deserted. On the way round my 104 mile loop, I'd passed so many of the place names contained in the song The Summer Walkers, though the "long winding shores of Loch Maree" will have to wait for another day!



Sometimes when you journey
Through the pages of a book
You're taken places beyond words
You let them speak the truth
Today I've opened treasures
That my eyes could scarce believe
They're the words of confirmation
Everything that makes me sing

Summer comes to Sutherland
And you bend the hazel bow
You harness up the ponies
And you head out on the road
By Kilbreck and Altnaharra
You journey to your rest
With the guiding might of Suliven
For the campsites of the West

And it's up by the Shin
And up by the 'Naver
And the long winding shores
Of Loch Maree
By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
By Stack and by Arkle
The road reaches far
Now the summer is here

Now your words are not of sentiment
Shallow or untrue
But wells of living water
And from their clear deep sides we drew
The songs, the tin, the horses
This country's great and ancient wilds
Your faith in God and man and nature
And the keenness of your guile

So have you stood out on Coldbackie
At the time the sun goes down
Or up on the king of campsites
In the hills about Brae Tongue
That's when music filled your evenings
It's all so different now, this world
For you were the summer walkers
And the fishers of the pearl.

So as we close another chapter
That we label Archive Gold
Still the Conon flows each morning
And the dew falls from the sloe
But today you took me walking
Through a land that we have lost
While our children sit at websites
With no access to the cost

And it's up by the Shin
And up by the 'Naver
And the long winding shores
Of Loch Maree
By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
By Stack and by Arkle
The road reaches far
Now the summer is here