Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reaching the top of Scotland

On Thursday we rode through fairly remote country on single track roads (ie, one vehicle width) from Lairg via Altnaharra, Loch Naver & Syre to Bettyhill on the northern coast of Scotland.

We had a strong headwind, along with occasional showers, for about 2/3 of the journey, then a great tailwind when we turned north after the scenic ride east alongside Loch Naver. The road then followed the River Naver to the sea at Bettyhill. We stopped for morning tea at the Altnaharra Hotel then for an ice cream at a remote caravan club location (Grummore) on the edge of the loch.

Grummore was one of a range of locations along an historical trail that focussed on the controversial ‘clearances’ in the early 1800s. This involved the forced removal of peasant farmers to improve the efficiency of rented land by using hardier breeds of sheep that required little supervision and were able to endure the harsh Scottish winter.

The following day we rode past coastal settlements that were originally established to house forcibly removed farmers, who were then expected to live off fishing.

The hilly area around Bettyhill is very scenic, with long sandy beaches, and there are lots of low key historical sites that draw visitors. While it had been very windy the afternoon we arrived, Friday morning was sunny and still. It's a long way north and the winters are challenging. We were told that last winter there was snow on the ground for 94 days, with the river mouth freezing over at one point, and that during one week the temperature didn't rise above -8C. [Thursday 7/7: distance 75 km; climbing 604 m]

.The photo above shows the Farr Bay Inn at Bettyhill, where we stayed.  It was built in 1813

On Friday we rode east along the coast to Thurso, up & down lots of hills that gave a great view of beaches. There was some pretty desolate country, although it became much less hilly and more arable as we approached Thurso. We also passed close by the Dounreay nuclear power plant, which is being decommissioned (a process that apparently takes quite a few years).

At one point we chatted with a Scottish couple from the Outer Hebrides islands off the north west coast of Scotland, who were riding their tandem to Spain and camping along the way. They have cyclecamped by tandem in Austraila, crossing from Perth to Newcastle via the Nullarbor and also going around Tasmania.

Thurso is a large town next to the sea, with a sandy beach close to the shopping centre (though the beach was deserted) and views across the harbour entrance to a ruined castle and, in the distance, to the high cliffs of Dunnet Head, which is the most northerly point in mainland Britain. [Friday 8/7: distance 48 km; climbing 617 m]

The photo above is the old well from which water was dispensed to Thurso's townspeople (the pump is preserved inside the stucture) and which was a social meeting place.  The photo below is of a truck owned by a pigeon racing club in Peterborough, near London, that was ready to release pigeons for the journey back.

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