The Far North for nostalgia, comfort, meeting the locals and, exploring settlements, coast and hinterland. And in gratitude to Ben Armine Lodge and, the Langwell and Braemore Estate.
For the first time ever, for me, visiting the big hills in remote Scotland over more than 40 years and, this time, I had only three nights car camping but the strange luxury of eight nights staying in seven hotels for bed and breakfast. Normally, only one hotel at the very end as my reward for a little energetic activity - and that only in recent years:
Loch Ericht Hotel, Dalwhinnie
Marine Hotel, Brora
Belgrave Arms Hotel, Helmsdale
Sutherland Hotel, Brora
Crask Inn, in the middle of nowhere - Caithness. Douglas the host and Scottish Episcopal lay reader. The other guests were Ian from Kirkcaldy, Fife and Lesley from Peebles in Borders Country.
Lairg Highland Hotel
Allan Ramsay Hotel, Carlops - 2 nights as the paying guest of Rosemary and Kenny. Explored the Pentland Hills in seven hours.
DISORIENTATED IN CLOUD!
12 days of cold and wind and cloud but not too much rain. The worst day saw me summit two of the remotist Grahams over 700 m, near Rogart in nine hours - see Weller the wimp, below. The second worst weather day saw me visit the two summits of one Graham twice - quite unintentionally! I took a wrong bearing from the second summit, failed to double pace and walked in a circle as I tried to correct myself and landed back where I had come from! I then took the correct N bearing, followed it with map/compass stuck out in front of me like a ship's helmsman steering by compass and, this time, I landed back where I wanted - on the first summit as part of the return walkout. It was so satisfying to get it right, at the second attempt!
WELLER THE WIMP
I am so ashamed at accepting the offer of 4x4 truck with the bike slung in the back. It was entirely my own fault for asking for help at the very end of a long, exhausting first day. I had never done that before. I simply needed a sit down on the bench by the lodge where I had propped up the bike. I would have been fine after some food, drink and a rest. This was the nine hour day in wind and rain and low cloud. Anyway, it ended with my driving the truck, fearful of meeting the promised husband who was due home with not a single passing place in 9 Kms! What would he think? I drove the truck almost all the way to the end of the private road. I did meet the young man but at one of the gates where there was a good passing place. He quite understood. I left it, as instructed, on the only patch of grass off the track with the key stuck in the sun visor. What brilliant women to trust me! Did the truck need to be returned, anyway to the end of the road, I wondered? I hope so!
LANGWELL AND BRAEMORE ESTATE were magnificent.
First, well constructed and clean estate roads for the mountain bike to zoom along. Near the beginning of the second day on the estate, I was stopped by the Head Keeper, near the grand entrance at Berriedale. Quite rightly, this old boy from urban England, was a "pain" for appearing on the very day they were out stalking to cul deer.
"I know you are free to roam and I can't force you to turn back."
"I certainly understand and don't want to spoil things. Can I walk in from the north? Would that help? I've done every Munro, every Munro Top, every Corbett and now I'm trying the Grahams and you've got Scaraben", I explained.
However he, very kindly, after looking at his digital OS map, let me continue the long cycle ride. I was to leave the bike at the fishing hut, 10 Kms from the A9 at Berriedale. He would inform the others of my presence on the hill.
BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH on Scotland's North Coast 500
I was at Ceannabeinne Bay on the 5 April 2008. What a stunning spectacle in a gale force N wind, not a soul about and, with great N Atlantic rollers crashing on to the vast expanse of white sand and rocks. Then, I had the company of one otter as I walked over the sand. Imagine my shock and horror when, on rounding the corner, the desolate beauty had been transformed into every parking place with a car or motorhome in it. A large new car park, too. There must have been about fifty children, young people and adults. The youngsters were screaming from the zip wire and free jump as they zoomed over the bay. All that was missing was the Big Dipper, the dodgems and the chiming ice cream van spewing out greenhouse gases!
For me, all this was as unwelcome as my bizarre appearance on one red mountain bike a day or two before, for the Head Keeper. I thought, "Is nothing sacred? Can there be nothing left to Nature? Do we really have to concrete, brick and tarmac over every single square Km of fertile soil and natural habitat, as we humans overrun the entire planet to eventually make it uninhabitable for even ourselves?"
And the capitalist entrepreneur has devised "North Coast 500" to bring in more business as we all rise to the challenge of driving in car or motorhome round the 500 miles of north Scottish coast. Night and day, laybys crammed with our internal combustion engines to soak up every gram of oil!
New roads and road widening schemes will soon be next, courtesy of 'The Highland Council'.
DORNOCH'S 14 SOLAR PANELS ON THE NORTH FACING ROOF!
Slightly east of true north, with 22 on the south side of a prestigious new block of apartments on the corner of Kennedy Avenue and Grange Road, Dornoch.
When resources are finite we must confine solar panels to E, W, S pitches where they can do the most good, I would have thought.
BEN STACK'S STRANGE SUMMIT
Another Graham without a date in my 'Munro's Tables'; so there it was, to be climbed straight up from the road. What an unusual summit that looked as though a giant with an axe had tried to split the mountain in two. You came first to a shortish aerial next to a low, square stone hut. The other summit, across a low steep-sided valley was the trig point at 720 m. But the map has the trig pillar at 719 m where the aerial and stone hut is!
4 NOISY WORKERS ON THEIR DAY OFF!
I heard them before I saw them as I struggled up Morven. I was expecting them to overtake me but I reached the summit, this time with glorious views and still no company. I got back to the car and found that one of them was suffering from a complaining tendon, so all of them turned back at the foot of the steep E face.
They were all ex-oil and gas platform men but now working on offshore wind turbines in the North Sea. One plied me with coffee and water bottles that was good of him and we all had a good chat. They were not impressed with my shabby appearance in my torn and ancient old waterproofs - worn because I was expecting a much muddier and puddle strewn bike ride. They had walked the full distance, so I was able to catch up with them at the car park.
ONE MAN HAS TWO FLASH SUVs
On my day exploring Brora, I came across a 78 year old who had lost his wife five years ago. However, he still keeps and maintains in pristine condition two new cars - his and hers. One is a Mercedes 4x4 and the other a BMW 4x4. He drives the one one week and the other on the other week.
Both were recent and may have been bought brand new. His job was as an electrical contractor. His enormous bungalow was immaculate and was south facing. But no solar panels to help subsidise his high living, high emission lifestyle.
THE HELMSDALE STATUE to remember the emigrants, the victims who, in their turn, sired descendants who drove the natives off their ancestral home.
Displaced off land their ancestors had lived on for centuries only for the emigrants' descendants to inflict similar misfortune on the indigenous peoples and tribes who had simply but sustainably lived off their land over very many millennia!