We had a slow start to the day despite Liesel’s best efforts. She had the washing in the machine soon after 7.30 and one very long cycle later, we hung it up. Indoors. Because it was raining. I think they call it mizzle around here, a great word, somewhere between mist and drizzle.
The short drive to John O’Groats was spectacular. The views towards and over the sea are a continual reminder of what a big country this is. And of course photos, especially those taken with a phone, can never do justice to the vista.
No, this isn’t a realistic animal at all, is it, but it greeted us on arrival at John O’Groats. In the background, you can see the Orkney Islands. We’re missing them out this time, but they’re on the (growing) list of places to go back to one day.
Of course, we had to take a photo with The Sign. Just as I did 30 years ago at the end of a three-week bike ride from Lands End. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that? Yes, over 100 of us were in that group, and Liesel was delighted to see the field that we all camped in that night. The books that ‘end-to-enders’ sign are all in storage right now, but it is hoped they’ll be put on display soon, and maybe even digitised. It’ll be fun to see my 30-year old signature.
There’s a lot more here than I remembered, much more than just a hotel and a gift shop which is what I think I was expecting.
Dunnet Head is the most northerly point on the mainland of Great Britain. It’s a fabulous place for bird watching. Wild rock doves, they claim, are the wild ancestors of domestic pigeons. Well, I think the place has just been invaded by plain ordinary pigeons, they look the same to me!
There are plenty of other seabirds to choose from though, fulmars, gulls, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes but of course what everyone wants to see are the puffins. And we did! First puffins we’ve seen in the wild. We don’t know why they should be thought of as more cute than the other species, but they really are. Today for once, I did experience lens envy. The bloke with the three-foot long zoom lens undoubtedly achieved better photos than I did with my phone.
Dunnet Head lighthouse is off limits to the public, but I’m sure the view from the top would be stunning. There is a path leading to a 360° viewpoint, and you can see for miles out to sea and around the coastline.
Passing through John O’Groats for a coffee was a sad occasion. There will now be a two-paragraph silence in memory of the hat I lost in John O’Groats today.
Why do I keep losing apparel in this tiny place? The last time I was here, I managed to lose one of my cycle mitts. Anyway, we drove to Duncansby Head for another walk and a chance to see more seabirds.
It’s a very sandy place, and there are sheep living here. Just like Dunnet Head, there’s a lighthouse that we’re not allowed to visit. There’s also a trig point at both locations, without which our OS maps would be much less accurate.
The beach here looks very inviting, but nobody was taking advantage of it. Hang on, you’re thinking, I thought you lost your hat? I did. This is my number 2 hat, the waterproof one.
The path took us much closer to the nesting birds here. So close, we could smell them. A bit fishy, a bit ammoniacal, probably because of all the guano. There were a few puffins here as well, but mostly I think they’re fulmars. And pigeons. Oops, I mean wild rock doves.
We had a fun long walk here, it was nice and hilly, and you get used to the stench of wildlife after a while. We could see The Old Man of Hoy way over in the distance, another seastack. I said to Liesel, ‘Well, I can’t climb it again today, but maybe I can take its picture’. ‘You’ve climbed it?’ No, of course not. Turns out, I couldn’t take its picture today either, it was just too far away and too hazy.
Back at our place, we listened to James Taylor and Mary Hopkin while reading and writing and eating. A very nice way to end the day, thank you Liesel xx
I woke up at ten past four which was perfect. This was the time for sunrise and I was hoping to see the Sun emerge from the icy depths of the North Sea. But it rose more to the north-east, from behind a hill rather then the sea. It was still a pretty sight to see, but I think we’ll have to come back to Helmsdale in about September for optimum sunrise over the ocean opportunities.
I went back to bed of course: what a ridiculous time of day! We said goodbye to Ruth and before we left, I took down details of the place next door, which is ripe for development.
The asking price is a mere £95,000 but I suspect you’d need that much again to make it habitable.
Helmsdale harbour was all about fishing, which is why the place exists in the first, really.
We spent some time in the museum here, known as Timespan. Some folks had a hard time. Especially the women whose job it was to cut the heads off and remove guts from herrings. They could process up to 60 a minute. Yet in the census, they were just referred to as a fish-wife, the wife of a fisherman.
Also here, we saw a small, insignificant stone that was taken into space in 2019 by Scotland’s first astronaut, David MacKay.
We are now well on our way on the NC 500 tour, the 500 miles that takes visitors around the north of Scotland. The main road, the A9 goes up and down, more or less following the coast. It’s quite steep in a few places, so much so that there are emergency escape lanes. I can’t believe that 30 years ago, I was fit enough to cycle along this road, from Helmsdale to Wick. The views were stunning, on both sides: the sea and the mountains.
Dunbeath is a cute little place. We parked up by an old mill and went for a long walk by the side of a burn.
We walked across a pedestrian suspension bridge, designed by Thomas Telford. It was a bit wobbly, and it has been tethered to the banks presumably to remedy this.
The path alternated between grass and stones, some shingle, a few steep parts too, which were mostly OK, but next time, I’ll put trainers on rather than retain my sandals. Well, I didn’t think we were going to walk as far as we did! There was evidence of sheep but no rabbits, strangely. We investigated the remains of a broch, an old structure that was originally nine metres tall, with really thick walls and an entryway that you have to stoop to walk through.
We passed the remains of an old monastery too, saw a few standing stones and a now overgrown cairn. Best of all, we found a bench to sit on for a while.
It looks as though it would be too lumpy to sit on. But no. I think the time we spent here was the best half hour of the day. What could be more pleasant than spending time with the one you love, outside, on a beautiful day, in the middle of nowhere. The only sounds were small birds singing, some bees buzzing around, the leaves rustling in the trees and the water burbling and gurgling over the stones in the burn. This is what peace and serenity feels like, totally at ease with the world, away from people and everyday problems.
The walk back to the car was somehow easier and quicker Our picnic lunch today was enjoyed outside by the mill, not in the car! I was walking behind Liesel most of the time, and I stopped to make a new friend, so I was delayed.
She was very chatty and I think was protecting a chick in the bushes.
Before continuing our journey north, we stopped off at Dunbeath Harbour. The breakwater is comprised of hundreds of concrete cuboids, laid out as though it were a work of art. Another striking image was this sculpture.
Next stop: Whaligoe Steps. We didn’t know whether we’d follow in the footsteps of those hardy women who carried empty barrels down the 330+ steps, gutted herrings all day, then carried the barrels back up, now full of fish. Weights of up to 100 lb have been suggested. Well, the best laid plans of Mick and Liesel gang aft a-gley, as they say in these parts (I don’t think they do, really). The steps and the café were closed, disappointing us and several other visitors, one of whom may have jumped over the barrier when he thought nobody was watching.
We saw seabirds, gulls and possibly oystercatchers, making their homes in the cliff face. But no, we didn’t bother walking about thirty feet back to fetch the binoculars!
And so, we reached Wick, where we will stay near the airport industrial estate for a few nights. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound very inviting at first, but it’s a nice house, and the fact that the industrial estate and the council dump are close by, well that’s the yang to yesterday’s yin, the lovely view over the sea.
The place is called Wick, the coffee shop is called Wicker’s World, a play on the name of an old TV series in which Alan Whicker reported from all around the world. In Twickenham, there used to be a travel agent called Twicker’s World, so it’s a well-used pun.
Tonight, we listened to the soundtrack from the film Brave, Wynton Marsalis’s album Joe Cool’s Blues and some Scottish music from Eddi Reader, live in concert in Japan a few years ago.
Before we left home, we had a discussion about how to play the music from my phone. If we go alphabetically by artist, then we get all the Beatles songs together, for instance, and each day will be different but not very varied. We tried playing tracks in alphabetical order on a previous trip, and that ensures you hear everything, but you’ll hear, for example, four versions of Life on Mars? in a row. So, random shuffle is the best bet, you’d think. Except that it’s not totally random. Some tracks are repeated as if on heavy rotation, while others are totally ignored. The compromise so far has been to choose specific albums or artists each night. What a conundrum. As I think I said, if this is the worst problem we have to deal with, then we are very lucky people indeed.
What else has gone wrong? Nothing really, just a few more bug bites. Mick is obviously more tasty than Liesel, she hasn’t reported any bites so far, not even a tickle. It’s not nice being bitten, but it’s still sad to see so few insects around. We were talking about how, in bygone Summers, you’d arrive at your destination with a windscreen caked in dry, squished bugs. You’d have to scrape them off with a hammer and chisel.
The first exciting port of call after leaving our Inverness b&b was, wait for it… Aldi. Yes, already, we had food shopping to do. But it was nice to meet Dorothy, our host, just as we were leaving. She’s hoping for more guests later in the year as Covid restrictions are lifted.
Aldi, yes. The less said, the better, as the song goes.
We drove over a couple of bridges today that I cycled over way back in ’91. Kessock Bridge out of Inverness and Dornoch Firth Bridge. The latter was opened in 1991 by HM The Queen Mother, but two or three weeks before that, a group of us cycled over it on our way to John O’Groats from Lands End. We felt very privileged: I think it would have been a 60 mile detour without that bridge!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kessock Bridge was longer than I remembered and soon after the crossing, we stopped for a short walk. Path to North Kessock, the sign said, 100m. I hoped it was 100 metres rather than 100 miles, and so it was. Down steps. 146 of ’em, that we had to walk back up again.
While at the bottom, we had a quick chat with a couple of locals. They were saying that they used to see dolphins and seals all the time in this, the Beauly Firth. All we saw today was a man fishing. The other attraction here was a Costcutter supermarket. If only we’d known. We could have bought our shopping here instead of Aldi and lugged it all the way up 146 steps.
The first distillery we visited, Glen Ord of Singleton, was probably very interesting. We would have loved sampling the wares. But it was closed. It’s Monday. Oh well, onwards and upwards. Here’s a tip: check that places are open before you turn up unannounced.
We checked and the Glenmorangie distillery was open. And very popular. I tried one whisky and it was so smooth, we had to buy a bottle. I know, I know, we buy whisky faster than we drink it at home but, new year’s resolution: we will finish at least one bottle soon.
What is the significance of all the giraffes? There are pictures all over the place, and several models, all with extremely long necks. This distillery has the tallest stills in Scotland, which we could just see through a mesh, not ideal for taking pictures, so it’s a good job we’re not into industrial espionage.
Yes, I sampled about a quarter of a dram of whisky so of course I found it hard not to nod off in the car. The scenery is always spectacular of course, and we’re not even in the highest of highlands yet. But I’m sure I missed some beauty spots while resting my eyes. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Liesel was driving.
It wasn’t raining today, but we still ate our lunch in the car, admiring a field of barley or something like that. The seeds had spread far and wide, encroaching onto the precious space set aside for a lay-by off the A9 or wherever we were at the time.
Today’s castle was Dunrobin.
I found this one more interesting than the other two, partly helped by the fact that it was well illuminated. The Covid-inspired one-way system worked well too. Lots of stags’ heads on the walls, and lots of portraits of Dukes and Earls of Sutherland and their gorgeous wives. The portrait of Queen Victoria was I think the best I’ve ever seen of her, but not easy to take a picture of, unless you want to look up the royal nose.
The castle looks out over some well maintained gardens, and beyond those is the North Sea. We’d pay extra for an Airbnb with this view.
I’d like to say our selfie skills are improving, but this one disproves that assertion. If I lost some height or if I could persuade Liesel to wear extremely high heels, that might help. Still, we keep ourselves amused by trying.
Cups of coffee were taken here before we left for our final destination today: a cottage way up a hill, just south of Helmsdeep. No, not Helmsdeep, that was the site of a big battle in Lord of the Rings. We’re just south of Helmsdale. I was last there 30 years ago, on the same bike ride referred to earlier. We set up our tents on the beach, close to a shipwreck. In the morning, I noticed what must have been a rabbit hole between the inner and outer sheets of my tent. Do rabbits really burrow on sandy beaches?
Tonight though, after driving up the steepest road imaginable, we are indeed enjoying a beautiful view.
Over the water from left to right, there is Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland. We can only see the last one on that list of course.
After supper, I went for a quick walk. I couldn’t get much further up the hill because the vegetation was too dense. So I walked down.
The length of that shadow! And there are still three and a half hours until sunset. This is the day of the Summer Solstice, so days start getting shorter now. It’ll soon be Winter. Yeah, I know how to bring the mood down! And yes, that lump in the middle of the road is horse manure. That horse must have had 27 pints and a huge curry last night.
The yellow of the gorse was very nearly surpassed by the purple and the white foxgloves.
Our evening music was provided by Wings, the London Town album, and by Martha Tilston, as many albums as we can fit in before bedtime. We haven’t turned the TV on anywhere except briefly so we could listen to BBC 6 Music. I finished my book last night, a detective story that was good but, I think, a bit long, just one too many false leads being followed. But we’re in Scotland now and I am looking forward to reading Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair, a depiction of more historical Scottish events that we don’t learn about in school. I loved her previous novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, so I know I’m going to enjoy this one, even if the use of the Scots language slows me down a bit!
Our host Ruth has left us these treats. Well, it would be rude not to. Cheers! Slàinte Mhath!
Yesterday I expressed a desire to see a red squirrel. That wish didn’t come true, but we did see a blue one.
We saw this chap just down the road, here in Inverness, one of a series known as The Go Nuts Art Trail, raising funds for the Highlands Hospice. This one’s design is based on Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Today we were tourists. Our first destination was Brodie Castle, named after the anti-hero from the American TV drama series Homeland. We saw a plume of smoke as we approached Inverness Airport and hoped it wasn’t another terrible incident on the road. No, just a harmless factory of some sort.
But nicer than that is the fact that the runways at Inverness Airport are configured to look like a snowflake when viewed from a suitable height.
Brodie Castle looks alright, so we thought we’d ruin the view by standing in front of it.
Each room had its own guide, and they spoke for up to ten minutes. The tour groups were kept separate of course. But it was quite dark inside. Actually, it was pretty dismal outside too. The library was probably fascinating: I would love to have studied the children’s books in case there were any that I remembered from my own childhood, but there just wasn’t enough light.
What could beat seeing a blue squirrel? Seeing the biggest white rabbit in the whole of Scotland, of course.
The sign said to download an app that would animate this large rodent, but I couldn’t get it to work. The playgrounds on the castle site are fantastic, it would be a great place to bring children, or grandchildren, one day.
We had a nice walk around the grounds but while wandering around inside the castle itself, it started to rain. What a shame. Also, we were too late in the year to see the daffodil collection, put together by Ian Brodie after his awful experiences in the Boer and First World Wars left him with what we now know as PTSD. But if we can’t see thousands of golden daffodils, we can enjoy seeing the biggest monkey puzzle tree we’ve ever seen.
It is a truth universally acknowedged that when Mick and Liesel go travelling in the UK, it is likely to rain. It used to rain when Mick and Sarah bed and breakfasted around the country too. We’ve enjoyed so many picnic lunches inside a car, watching the rain cascade down the windscreen while the windows fog up inside. Oh well, we tell ourselves, while chewing sandwiches in a car, in a car park, again, all this rain is what makes Scotland so beautiful.
According to William Shakepeare, Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, resided at Cawdor Castle. Not in real life he didn’t, because the castle wasn’t built until 300 years after Macbeth died.
This isn’t the sort of caravan we anticipated seeing a lot of in Scotland. And no, nor is it our accommodation on this occasion. It’s outside Cawdor Castle, which was the next stop on our tour.
I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, as usual, but I did have a waterproof(-ish) jacket on too. The guide in the castle accused me of being dressed inappropriately. I pointed out that I was dressed correctly, it was the weather that was behaving badly.
For a moment, I thought we’d entered an American house.
Too many firearms for one wall. This castle is occupied by one lady for half the year, and the rest of the time, it’s open to us visitors. Again, lots of historic artefacts. But again, I think I enjoyed walking around the gardens more, despite the weather.
There’s a maze in the gardens, but we’re not allowed to enter it. Maybe they’ve lost too many visitors to the minotaur in the centre. We think it’s a minotaur, but we didn’t bring our binoculars with us today. Although they would have been useful as we watched some birds from a distance, finding something tasty on the path nearby. We saw a thrush, some chaffinches and a yellow thing that was too fast to identify.
What a brilliant work of art. From this angle, the sculpture is of a Mum and her baby having a cuddle, but from the other direction, it’s a pair of hands supporting them both. Very clever.
Another record breaker was this iris.
This is the deepest purple iris we’ve ever seen, and it looks spectacular with a few drops of rain water.
On the way back to our b&b, we stopped at Culloden Battlefield. We’d been before, with Liesel’s Mom and Dad, and the place has lost none of its sense of eeriness. We know the terrible story, how many lives were lost senselessly. The grey clouds were perfectly matched the feeling of foreboding.
I went for a walk around the site, trying to avoid the other visitors. To be fair, they probably weren’t that keen on me, either. I found a couple of the memorial stones that we’d missed last time.
This headstone marks the traditional site of a grave locally believed to be the resting place of the MacDonalds who fell in action during the battle. This stone was erected by members of the Clan Donald Society ‘to honour all MacDonalds killed at Culloden and in battle elsewhere’. A sad but salutory reminder of how lucky I am that I’ve never been involved in any conflict.
A very different day today, just pootling around rather than driving a long way to reach a destination. There’s plenty of that still to come of course.
So what’s gone wrong so far? My first injury was incurred yesterday when I was bitten on the ankle by some bug or other. I’d forgotten all about it until this morning after my shower when I noticed the wound was bleeding. The second injury was caused by hard furniture. My shin detected the coffee table in our lounge. It didn’t break the skin but there is a contusion, which, given we’re in Scotland, I’m naming Robert. Robert the Bruise.
As I write, we’re listening to the golden voice of Eddi Reader, but earlier we re-played my radio show from January, the one with Scotland as its theme. The one in which my microphone wasn’t working for a long time. Lots of fabulous Scottish music, but also an embarrassing amount of dead air.
When you’re packing, for the first time in well over a year, for a trip away from home, what’s the best possible interruption? Why, a visit from a grandson of course, with his Mummy. And if he were to put on a puppet show as well, that would be terrific!
This passed a few minutes in our little car park, which is a good venue too for a quick game of ‘tag’ (without actually touching, of course) and hide & seek, even though the only places to hide really are behind the big oak tree and behind a couple of parked vehicles. The visit was prompted by the fact that Sunday is Fathers’ Day, which had totally escaped my attention this year. The card that Jenny gave me was designed and hand-drawn by William, so it is now taking pride of place on our book shelves.
We don’t think we’ve forgotten anything important. So far. The car was packed, mostly with food that we’ll eat over the next few days. Liesel said she’d packed more stuff for this couple of weeks than she did when we went travelling for ten months!
You may be wondering where we were going. Well, the title of this post is a clue. But the first picture I took, from the car, was of a hill close to the Lake District.
We’re off to sunny Scotland for a bit of a tour. It was good to be on a motorway again. We haven’t been on one since yesterday. We stopped at Tebay Services on the M6 as we always do when this far north, because their selection of vegetarian scotch eggs is lovely. That was the basis for our evening meal on this, the first evening away from home since March 1st last year.
On this day, England were playing Scotland in the first round of a European football competition. I know there’s a lot of rivalry between supporters of these two national teams, so I told Liesel to do all the talking: her American accent is perfectly neutral.
Our first stop on this trip was Dumbarton. The local council is West Dunbartonshire. Dum and Dun. That could be confusing. I went for a quick walk in the evening, and yes, many houses were flying the flag of St Andrew. The views were great: climbing up the hill was worth it: a novelty after the flatlands of home.
The view from the cemetery was especially nice. In fact, the cemetery itself, well laid-out and tidy, was a joy to walk around.
Premier Inn will probably send a questionnaire soon asking how was our stay? Did we sleep alright? Well, I had a nightmare, but I can’t really blame them for that. But the loud man next door who turned up in the middle of the night didn’t have to shout into his phone: that sort of thing went out of fashion a long time ago when mobile phones became ubiquitous, and you no longer had to announce to everyone in the same town or train carriage that you were in possession of such a modern device. Also, I’d advise the good people of Premier Inn to give this particular guest a bigger bucket the next time he checks in, in case he needs to chunder as much as he did first thing this morning. It wouldn’t surprise me if his entrails were all over the floor.
Those sound effects didn’t put us off a nice big breakfast though, before setting off for Geilston Garden, not too far from where we stayed. Geilston, pronounced like the end of ‘congeals’, not the same as The J Geils Band, whose big hit was Centerfold, a long time ago. And, Geilston wasn’t named after the Mr Geils who once owned the place. On the contrary, he bought it because it very nearly shared his name. And we agreed that we’d probably do the same too, if we could afford it. Mick and Liesel’s Big House? Yep, we’ll have that.
The garden was nice and peaceful, the flowers were gorgeous, there’s a walled garden too, a burn to walk beside, and a house that is no longer occupied except by wee beasties, spiders and mice.
We were close to the magnificent River Clyde, and yes, I sang the song, but Liesel wasn’t impressed. Oh the river Clyde, the wonderful Clyde, the name of it thrills me and fills me with pride.
We had the pleasure of driving beside Loch Lomond and already, we’re planning our next visit. We’ll spend more time by this loch and around The Trossachs.
The drive to Inverness was long and interesting. Mostly, the road surface was a delight to drive on. But there were patches that could have been imported from Surrey County Council. And some of the potholes were of Mancunian proportions. Some of the roads were narrow, with passing places, but that’s what makes Scotland so fantastic.
We passed through one small village and were greeted by a life-size cardboard cut-out policeman holding a camera. If this encourages people to slow down a bit, then that’s fine by us! We saw a sign warning of the presence of red squirrels, but we would much rather have seen an actual red squirrel.
Every day is a learning experience. The gorse is out in force right now, the yellow colour is almost day-glo. It’s known as Scotch broom in Oregon. But it’s still not the bush to fall into when you come off your bicycle.
We passed by numerous places today that we could have visited. We were within 33 miles of Stirling Castle, probably my favourite castle in the whole world. I tried not to feel guilty about missing it out on this trip. The sign to Perth caused me to recall that that was the very first town I ever bed-and-breakfasted in, in Scotland, thank you, Mrs Gourlay.
We also drove by Loch Tay, which reminded me of a Geography lesson at school for some reason.
We listened to Nation Radio. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I often announce to Liesel that ‘I played this song last week on my show’ or ‘I played this one recently’ or ‘I’m playing this one soon’. In the old days, I would tell Liesel ‘I’ve cycled here’ when appropriate. Well, there was a bit of that today too. As we drove north along the A9 towards Inverness, we were close to the cycle path on which I incurred my most serious cycle related injury. I fell off on the approach to Newtonmore, on a cycle path that could only be described as rubbish. I never managed to complete my second Lands End to John o’Groats bike ride because of that incident, very nearly 20 years ago now, and it still upsets me.
It’s funny how your perception changes in a short amount of time. Even a couple of days ago, a drive of 100 miles would have seemed enormous. Today, when we were still 100 miles from Inverness, I was thinking, ‘we’re nearly there, then’.
We followed these two in their really, really old Sunbeam for a while. But at least here the road was wide enough to paint white lines in the middle.
Here’s Liesel on the old Tummel Bridge, built in 1730. You can walk over it, but vehicles have to use the new, ugly bridge right next to it. Here, we were close to Loch Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch, where we’d stayed in about 1997. Again, close, but we didn’t make the detour.
One place we did re-visit though was Dalwhinnie Distillery, which we’d taken Liesel’s Mom and Dad to on their visit all those years ago. Yes, maybe one reason it appealed was that it would have clean toilets, but we did buy a nice bottle of the hard stuff.
The sight of snow was unexpected, although we knew we were getting high . In altitude, that is, not on drugs, that would be irresponsible while driving such long distances. Only small patches of snow, but still.
Something else that we saw wasn’t so pleasant. Plumes of smoke ahead on the road, and traffic at a standstill. We hoped it was just a case of a car catching fire, but later we saw ambulances rushing to the scene.
Fortunately, it was easy enough for us to turn round and make a detour. But this incident wasn’t mentioned on traffic reports on Radio 2, nor at any of the online traffic reporting sites.
We found our accommodation in Inverness easily enough, a nice flat and the host, Dorothy, has left us so many treats: crisps, fudge, shortbread, fruit, yogurts, and this is all on top of what we’d brought with us! Sorry to report, the fudge was all gone by the time I’d finished writing this.
After dinner, rice and beans since you ask, we went for a quick walk down by the River Ness. We felt a few spots of rain but it was really pleasant.