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A Journey into Scotland : Part 54

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet*

I made two phone calls on my evening in Thurso. One to my father where he found he had more to say than he thought, and rang me back. It was as well I’d found a quiet phone box or there would have been quite a queue. He wished he could be with me and his reminiscences gave me a map and a plan for the morrow. The second call was my daily report back home. On these I’d catch up with events and state my new location. By the time I got back home a large scale Shell Road Map of Britain, hanging in the hallway, was adorned with coloured pins marking out my route.

On this occasion there was some extra news. The theatre company who had commissioned music from me had confirmed a contract and wanted to meet up. The beeps sounded** and, amid the hasty goodbyes, she remembers that a lecturer from the university had called and was also keen to talk to me. I’d been away for a fortnight and I couldn’t afford another two weeks. The ride had been to find a state of mind that would help me make the right decision about taking a job in teaching. A greater part of me wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life doing what I was doing now. But doing what I was doing, though not extravagant, cost money and I wasn’t earning any. My university colleagues were now banking first pay cheques. I had the offer from the theatre company and a good chance of more of these to come. But these were for smaller amounts, came sporadically and couldn’t guarantee to supply the needs of a growing family.

I’d come to journey’s end. Now was time to turn around and get back home as quickly as I could. All the same time I was aware that there was a lot of countryside to see, a lot of mind clearing miles to pedal, and , once I got back to England, a number of old home towns to cycle around. Just because the need to earn some money was looming up didn’t mean that the adventure had lost a single jot of its importance to me. It did result in some hard-hearted decisions in order to be back in Devon (and Yorkshire) in time to attend those meetings. Some of those decisions I now believe I got wrong. And the first of these was not to cycle out to John O’ Groats and to follow the coast down through Wick. Both these places held strong memories for me: both would have been worth a short detour.

The bonus was that I got to cycle across the interior of Caithness. Not many would regard Caithness as the most beautiful of our counties but then, not that many, relatively speaking, have been there. It is a different sort of beauty. An austere sort of beauty. Perhaps the last genuine wilderness in the British Isles.

But first I had to drag myself away from Thurso. I’d cycled over five hundred miles to reach this town. I’d waited nearly a quarter of a century to get here and I was in no rush to leave. I walked out to the castle and along the beach. Memories of coming here with my mother as a three year old came flooding back. My entire time in Thurso had been like a Proustian recollection. Everything I saw or touched brought memories and those memories inspired further memories. I wandered the old town and the estates with a constant smile on my lips and a steady tear in my eye.

The rain fell steadily and a stiff breeze blew in from the south west. I took a seat in a café and, over a cup of coffee that tasted of the early sixties, read my first newspaper since leaving Exeter. I glanced over the football results and fell into conversation with a lorry driver.

The sea had kept me company for much of the journey and now I was turning inland. The road was all I could have wished for; well paved, slick, flat and empty. After five hundred miles of hills I had finally found a flat bit of Scotland. If the wind wasn’t slanting cold rain into my face I think I would have been perfectly happy.

The town disappeared almost as soon as I was over the bridge. The Thurso River is rather beautiful. Upstream it is prized for its salmon. The road largely follows the line of the river, though rarely within sight. As you’d expect, the Caithness on either side of this main route is more cultivated, but even here it is tough pasture and occasional crops. Further out it quickly reverts to wetland. Caithness is the home to the Flow Country; the largest area of blanket bog in Europe; some 1500 square miles of it. A wonderful wilderness and home to many species of birds and insects. At the time I was cycling a terrible period of exploitation was coming to an end. Once again the conifer was the culprit. Or, more to the point, those who saw the profit in planting millions of non native trees in this country were to blame. The results here were catastrophic. The wetlands were ploughed and planted and the trees simply sucked up the water and dried out the bogs. Vast fortunes were being made. Many a pop star and light entertainer was offered tax breaks to invest. The damage soon became apparent. So much so that Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, scrapped the forestry tax reliefs and the devastation slowed. In recent years the RSPB has acquired a large area of the damaged land. The young trees have been felled and left to rot in their furrows. The hope is that the protected land will revert to its natural state. I hope so. This is a place of wonder.

A road sign, just before Halkirk, maps out my journey for the next two days. There is only one road I can take and everywhere on the sign is a place I will visit; Latheron, Helmsdale, Brora and, the lure at the end of the line, Inverness. My schedule said I could be in the capital of the Highlands by teatime tomorrow.

The wind and rain were more at home over these bleak and lovely lands than I was. I got into a rhythm and pedalled and pedalled. Two weeks of good exercise were firmly in my legs. There is an exhilaration in churning out the miles and I began to smell the sea air once more. I knew I was getting close to Sutherland; the hills had returned. Scotland had given me my thirty flat miles and was now going to show me what ups and downs really meant. I’d been told about Berriedale by the lorry driver in the Thurso café.

“Aye, it’s all flat enough until you reach the sea and then…” he sucked in his cheeks and let his non verbal skills intimate an ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ mien. He seemed to take the same time as anyone else in saying the word ‘Berriedale’ but he managed to get the ‘rr’s rolling like a pneumatic hammer.

“It’s nae so bad these days, though by that I mean it is merely difficult. Difficult in a car, never mind on a bicycle.” He was enjoying laying on the  doom that awaited me. “In the old days the hairpin bends made it like an alpine mountain. They’ve widened it now and eased out some of those bends. Lorries used to get stuck on there every winter.”

In the old days the Berriedale Braes had been a formidable obstacle. The railway line had been taken inland (over the Flow Country) to avoid them. I’d been so warned of the dangers that when I merely found a severe downhill, with bends and vertical drops, followed by  a half hour of pushing the bicycle up the opposite slope, I almost felt disappointed. I’d been led to expect the entrance into the valley of the shadow of death and got a spectacular piece of coast road instead.

Between Berriedale and Helmsdale the road continues to go up and down. I hadn’t covered a huge number of miles but I’d blown myself out. Helmsdale had a youth hostel and I welcomed the chance to dry out and rest. The rain hadn’t stopped and neither had I. I hadn’t taken a single photograph.


In lieu of photographs I’ve found this short film on Youtube. I’ve made every effort to contact the film-maker to ask permission to include it but the addresses seem to be out of date. It’s a lovely film and one that I am sure he would be happy to share (he has put it on Youtube after all).

* from Inversnaid by Gerard Manly Hopkins

** beeps sounded about ten seconds before your money ran out and the line went dead on public pay phones.