United Kingdom 2006

Day 05

August 23

  I'm up as usual before anyone else is stirring, so I go for a short walk outside, hoping that I will not disturb anyone else. The fog from the North Sea caresses the small farm houses with a practiced hand. I wonder how many cold, bitter winters these folks have been through, as I look past them to the open sea.  
  I round the corner and I am amazed at the variety of colors of the hedge roses. Not the sort of thing I would expect in this climate, but they seem to be flourishing well and break up the green and foggy monotony of the landscape.  
  As I walk around back of the B&B I run into the king of the manor, Mr. Cat. You can tell that he is royalty by his furry robes, arrogant air, and the brown crown on his tail. He permits me to temporarily caress his fuzzy carcass, before he is off on more important matters.  
  Keith, Ellen and I pack up the bikes after an excellent breakfast at the B&B. There's a light rain falling but that is just part of riding in this part of the world. We make our way back down the road to the John O'Groats Inn, where the others have already started lining up their bikes. This is the 'official' starting/finishing line for those who make 874 mile trek from Land's End to John O'Groats. So it just seems right for us to make it a photo op too, since most of us were at Land's End last year.  
  Just six miles west of John O'Groats on A836, we come to The Castle of Mey , built in the sixteenth century. It is the northernmost castle in the UK mainland and barely escaped destruction in 1952 when Queen Elizabeth rescued it. She used it regularly as a summer home up until her death in 2002.  
  From there, it is just another short ride up a B road to Dunnet Head, also known as "Easter Head". It has the distinction of being the "the Northerly Point of Mainland Britain". The lighthouse that stands there was built in 1831 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson - the great author of such classics as 'Treasure Island' and 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'.  
  The rain finally leaves us for a while and the skies clear into a beautiful day. As we approach the Kyle Of Tongue, it's close to tea time. There's an interesting place,Tongue Hotel, with a restaurant so we pull over to avail ourselves of their facilities.  


I go inside to find the facilities and I am amazed at how well the place is appointed. There are cast-iron fireplaces in many rooms, tongue and groove paneling in the bathrooms with marble topped washstands. I figure that's pretty decked out for a public place to me. As it turns out, at one point it was a hunting lodge belonging to the Duke of Sutherland. That sort of makes a little more sense of things for me. As Moff and I enjoy our scones and tea, we see the ruins of a castle on a distance hill. Moff, ever fascinated by history, says -

"I believe I will go see those castle ruins over there."

I tell him, "Well, I reckon I'll just go with you!"

So we finish our eating chores, mount up and head like men on a mission toward the road we believe will take us there. Unfortunately, we encounter a closed gate that basically promises unfortunate consequences to those that would violate it's private closure. A bit disappointed, we both turn our STs around and head back to join the others.


The A836 soon heads south, so we cross the Kyle of Tongue to follow A838, which leisurely accompanies the northern coastline of Scotland for quite a while. It is a rugged yet beautiful area of the country and makes for enjoyable riding. When I see the sandy beaches and the promontories, I have to remind myself that I am not on the Oregon or California coast.
This Scottish Flag fluttering proudly in the breeze reminds me that you seldom see the Union Jack being flown out in the countryside. Depending on what part of the UK you are in, you will see the flag of that area, not the national flag. It just always seems a little odd to me, but I guess it's just the way things are. In the States, most of the time the flag is Old Glory, not the state flag.
A838 changes from two lane to single track in various sections. Out here there is no enforcement that I can see so you can travel at whatever speed you deem appropriate. But it is not the place to go stupid since there are seldom any safety barriers. If you run off the road out here, they probably would just put up a sign in your memory.
The countryside is sparsely populated but beautiful in it's ruggedness. It would take a hardy breed to endure the winters and cool summers in this part of the world.

We begin to head south a bit, which takes us inland across the Parph and near Cape Wrath. Cape Wrath is one of the few truly wilderness areas left on the British Mainland. From there, you are closer to the Arctic Circle than you are to the south of England. In this area that reminds you of Norway, there stands the Kylesku Bridge, completed in 1984 across Loch a' Chairn Bhain. On the north side of the bridge we stop to read the plaque celebrating it's opening. There is also a memorial that recognizes this as a training area during WWII for 2-man miniature submarines.


On one section of single track we meet a large petrol truck, and he ain't slowing down. Fortunately we can all find various places to move over so with a bit of a wiggle and breath holding, he roars by us. It seems that the locals are not expecting to see much oncoming traffic today. I top a hill and see a rather large SUV (by British standards) coming right down the the facing hill at a full clip. That does not bother me much until we start getting closer to each other. There's no pull off and this driver is squarely in the middle of the single track. I say to myself,

"Surely he's going to move over just a little bit so I can squeeze by."

As we proceed toward each other, I keep thinking -

"He's gonna move over a little bit. Surely he's gonna move over a little bit...."

But he doesn't seem to get it, so just before I become a hood ornament, I grab a handful of binders and come to a complete stop about 6 inches from his front bumper as he panic stops dead center of the road. I'm looking him dead in the eyes and I wish I could get my camera out for a shot. His eyes and the eyes of his wife beside him are as big as saucers. I make a hand signal to communicate that I do need a little bit of road to get by, so he finally recovers from his shock and edges his vehicle over. I shoot past him and just put it down to the fact that he is probably a tourist on holiday and got a bad case of target fixation.

As we continue on toward Lochinver on a favorite loop of Dave's, the scenery is just exquisite. The combination of the green hills and the deep blue water give a unsurpassed backdrop to a small ship plying it's way into a sheltered cove.
As we pass through some rugged fields, I see a Hielan Coo, also know as Highland cattle. They are rugged and lean, with long hair to protect them from the fierce weather of the Highlands and long horns in case anybody wants to mess with them. They just look like a animal with an attitude that I would not like to be in the same field with.
The road just sort of meanders along the the water, clinging to the hillside as best it can. It makes for interesting riding, knowing that a little bobble and you could be over that low rock wall and in deep trouble quickly.
As we pass an old abandoned church with it's adjoining graveyard, I can't help but wonder just how long has the voices of the worshippers been absent. How many of those buried in it's shadow, once graced it's pews? It was probably a thriving place of community worship at one point and I am sure that if the walls could speak, there would be interesting stories to hear.
Off to the right are the ancient ruins of an old castle which once stood as a powerful guard to this glen. One can only wonder what clan once proudly claimed this as their own and were willing to die to defend their sacred ground, now sadly abandoned.
  Once we reach A835, we crank up the wick a bit. There's little traffic and nobody out here so it makes for some real spirited riding. When we finally reach Ullapool, we have reservations at the Arch Inn that Keith kindly has prearranged. It is right on the ocean front and we can park the bikes right across the narrow lane that separates the inn from the water.  
  From the window in my room, I can look out over Loch Broom that runs out to the sea between the surrounding hills. Until I came to Scotland, I never realized how much the sea was interwoven with their history.  
  Moff and I decide to walk around a bit and get some fish and chips for supper. After a short walk, he finds a 'takeaway' - SeaFresh Foods - which really lives up to it's name. The fish are incredibly fresh for good reason - they are caught right here. We find a nice place to sit out near the water's edge and soon we have company. Mr. Gull is determined that no other gull comes near his 'friends' or should I say 'prospects'. He is very vocal in his intentions that we are his, and his alone. And if we look away for even a moment, his little pointy beak is poking around in our fish and chips to insure that they are properly prepared. Such fond devotion from a complete stranger is quite touching - or something like that.  
  Dave and Moff and I go down closer to the water to engage in a stone skipping contest. The rocks are little thicker than I am used to, but I am able to hold my own, getting a few five or six skippers. As the sun starts to set, most of the working boats come in and are moored for the evening, ready for the next day's work.  
  It's only been about 200 miles for the day covered, but a lot of it has been on single tracks with lots of twisties and incredible scenery. With my belly now full, I am ready for a good night's sleep. It does not take me long to find it after I return to my room.