Plotting, Planning and Plodding
Our planning break in Thurso proved to be anything but restful. A fun fair making its annual visit to the town encouraged the inevitable high-pitched screams of excitement and fear, competing with thumping music that boomed across the harbour. This nocturnal scene was completed by local tearaway drivers roaring around the town until well after midnight, as if they were competing in the Monte Carlo rally.
By day, we laid out batches of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps on the Sea Cadets’ drill deck. Complicated by many of the maps being double-sided, we gradually plotted a route for me and identified intercepting points for the Victory Van. In all, we worked our way through 46 maps, with the route seeing us to Gretna Green, close to our Scottish exit point. This detailed process is now being finalised by the Support Team (of 1) who will break the planned route into walking weeks, overlain with rest, laundry and refuelling points. Once complete, this becomes the schedule we will follow to get us to England’s border.
Walking out of Thurso I noted a road sign which read “North and West Highlands Tourist Route - 150 miles to Ullapool”. I wondered how many miles it would take before I’d walk into Ullapool. With no official coastal path I find myself interweaving between main roads, occasional tracks and taking minor roads out to remote dead-end coastal peninsulas. From sea level there have been some tough ascents into magnificent highland scenery where heather is just starting to bloom. The open moorland is often broken by numerous hill lochs and a few tracks. I briefly enjoy the hilltop views before plunging down into the next valley.
As I make my way along Scotland’s ‘roof’ I have become a familiar sight to some of the daily van and lorry drivers who work this highland route. I am now on regular waving terms with Royal Mail, The Far North Bus, Travis Perkins builders’ merchants, Highland Industrial Supplies, and Menzies Distribution who proudly state ‘Blue Vans Mean Business’!
Added to this mix of commuters are many tourists undertaking the North Coast 500 (see below) route by various means, be it in motorhomes, towing caravans, on motorbikes or by the tougher means of cycling. Some of the ‘A’ class roads are not much better than minor roads with passing places so it’s a case of keeping my ears open, eyes peeled and having to make regular hops onto roadside verges. Another class of traveller encountered this week has been salmon fishermen with their long rods carefully attached to car bonnets and trailing over vehicle roofs. Salmon fishing brings in a lot of business to this area of Scotland, although this year’s dry weather is affecting the pursuit.
Entering Sutherland’s remoter parts has also highlighted the contrasts between urban and rural life. We saw our last Tesco and LIDL supermarkets at Thurso: small communities are now serviced by local shops which serve as post office, green grocer, general store, petrol filling station and anything else it needs to be. Peat continues to be widely used as a source of fuel; I’ve passed areas where peat has been cut into blocks and left out drying in peat stacks. With communications being more problematic, red telephone boxes can still be seen scattered across the countryside, and if you are lucky the phones may still have a dialling tone.
As for my progress this week, it began with walking in thick fog and rain – not much good for taking photos! I’ve walked through Scrabster port; observed Dounreay’s decommissioning nuclear power station; re-entered Sutherland - proclaimed as Mackay country; seen the Portskerra drowning memorial; passed a house complete with naval gun from which the ex RN owner fires potatoes; ate lunchtime sandwiches overlooking a fog-bound Farr bay; met salmon fishermen at Bettyhill; observed an oyster farm being worked; marvelled at the Kyle of Tongue causeway, with Kyle Bay one side and mountains on the other; watched the sun set from Coldbackie; wandered through isolated cemeteries where headstones recall successive generations of sheperds and fishermen; visited the deserted beaches of Torrisdale and Achininver; walked both sides of Loch Eriboll, nicknamed Loch ‘orrible by British sailors and famed for the WWII German U-Boat surrender; parked overnight overlooking beautiful Loch ‘orrible before walking into Durness. Here I was surprised to find a memorial to the Liverpudlian Beatle, John Lennon.
It’s been yet another week of complete contrasts and discovering things you can’t envisage when looking at 46 OS maps!
North Coast Route 500
Launched in 2015 to showcase the Highlands, Scotland’s North Coast 500 route which starts and ends at Inverness has surpassed all tourist board expectations. So popular has this become that many locals living along this internationally recognised route, much of it single track, have become tired of NC500 and its traffic.
Having seen a convoy of 20 motorcyclists led by a tour guide, a cavalcade of 10 motorhomes negotiating the twisty roads, and many other touring caravans being pulled around unforgiving corners, I do sympathise with the Highland population. I even feel embarrassed that my working ‘Victory Van’ motorhome has joined this crocodile of transport.
But for all the locals who tolerate NC500, there are many others who have seized a business opportunity. Wayside cafes, pubs, new B & Bs, campsites, bicycle repair facilities, local shops and more have sprung up along the way.
See Photo Album Numbers 39 - North Coast 500; Plotting, Planning and Plodding;