Scotland Day 31 - Inverness to Culbokie
There isn't a set route to get from Lands End to John O'Groats, which is part of what I like about it. There are some paths that are taken by many, such as the SW coastal path, the Pennine Way and the two Scottish ones I've just completed. But then things are up for grabs. For instance I went east of Birmingham so that I could do the Cotswold Way and Heart of England. Others do Offa's Dyke (which I've got my sights on, just saying...) to do a bit of Wales.
This section north of Inverness has got various options. All have advantages, all have definite disadvantages too. The hardcore route is to do tte Cape Wrath trail which is widely thought to be the toughest UK trail and involves wild camping and carrying in all supplies. The traditional route is to walk up the east coast on the very busy A9 for a number of days. Another route is the John O'Groats trail, which is a new path that follows the coast line from Inverness. A couple of years ago this was described to me as a very frightening walk, as the space allowed for the path on the cliff edges is very small. It also requires climbing barbed wire fences and fording 5 foot wide rivers.
So none of these are what I would think of as ideal scenarios. The alternate approach is to essentially head north from Inverness, and then follow the north coast eastwards. The problem with this is that it's longer than the east coast route. It also involves a lot of road walking. Road walking is very tiring, not just because of concentrating on not being run over, but also because the surface is tough on feet and legs.
I spent many months weighing up what I felt was right for me, and have gone with the last option. It's not a perfect one, but as my priest friend Peter said to me yesterday, if your body is telling you to do something then you must listen to it.
But to get cracking on the northern journey, one has to get away from Inverness. I found that very hard to do this morning. I had a bit of admin to sort out, sending home more stuff from my rucksack and buying a few supplies. A Marks and Spencer sandwich for one, extreme luxury! Then I thought I'd check out the cathedral before I left. All in all I was prevaricating, I really like this city, and wanted to spend more time in it. There is something to look at on every corner: lovely architecture, the water, great places to eat, poetry engraved into the walls. It helped that today was an absolute cracker too, the best weather since coming into Scotland. Everything was sparkling.
But move on I had to, and I'd decided to follow the very beginning of the John O'Groats trail to see how it was. Each day of the route is graded green, amber or red, and this was a confident green. No problem.
It's been a while since I've walked out of a city, and gone through the strange hinterland between the parts that are on show and the countryside. Between the beginning of one underpass and the end I went from beautiful riverside town to gritty industrial workhorse. The oil refinery has a big presence, both visually and olfactorily. I have been breathing clean air since Glasgow, and I could really smell the pollution here. Then it was the odour from the pulping and bark unit, and finally the smell of the sea. For at the end of this dreary highway is the Kessock Bridge, that crosses the Beauly Firth, linking Inverness to the Black Isle.
I obviously knew there was going to be a bridge from the map, but I'd not really understood just how bridgey it was going to be. It's enormous. The idea of walking along it suddenly became a bit much. I retreated to have a coffee in the very friendly marina whilst I girded my loins.
Reading about the bridge didn't help. There were references to how high it is, and how cautious walkers might find it intimidating. This cautious walker was definitely feeling that. But I had to cross the water, unless I wanted an extremely long diversion. So I made a wobbly phone call for support, and started to cross. It was very high, and it's very long. But there is a separate lane for cyclists and pedestrians, meaning at least I wasn't feeling in danger of being run over. I wouldn't say it was my favourite thing to do, but the views were amazing. Dolphins are often seen in the waters round here. I didn't spot any, but the clarity of the sky meant that I could see landscapes from many miles away, and I enjoyed watching a ferry chugging into Inverness.
I also saw two Samaritans posters, suggesting 'talk to us if things are getting to you'. Last year this bridge was closed 200 times because of concern for people. It drove home to me just how much the charity's work is needed, and made me even more pleased that I have reached my second fundraising target. If you wish to donate, the link is at the top of this page.
My planned walk was going to be almost 13 miles today. I had already done a bit extra in Inverness, and if I was going to follow the trail then that would add at least a couple more. I stood at the bottom of a hill next to the two path options, debating what I preferred. I could do a shorter and less interesting walk, or I could increase the miles but have the chance of great views. The sun was shining, so views and tired feet it was.
Almost immediately there was overgrown bracken and gorse over the route, which made me realise how long it is since I've had to fight my way through a path. The WHW and the GGW are so well walked that there is almost never any doubt about where you're going. With this one there were many occasions where I could have done with a machete. However, the signage was good, and the accompanying descriptions on the trail website were very accurate. One section described the space between the horse bushes and the barbed wire fence as 'rather confined'. They weren't wrong. But the alternative was a big herd of cows. I'd rather risk ticks from the bracken and scratches from the gorse than those cows.
I had gorse bushes to go through, a large gate that had to be lifted because the hinges had broken, a fallen tree that required me to crawl underneath it, a fence to be climbed over (with a convenient bit of signage just pointing to the other side), acres of bracken and some very squelchy bits underfoot too.
It was a hassle, fighting my way through, but the views definitely compensated. However, it made me very glad that I'm not doing any more days on this young footpath. If this is a green level then I'm interested in what amber is like. At least I didn't have the path underwater, which can happen if the tide is high.
I stopped for lunch looking over Munlochy Bay with a buzzard for company calling down to me. Perhaps he fancied my sandwich. I was properly alone, in a way I've not been for a while. I didn't see any other walkers on this stretch.
It's been a day for birds of prey. I used the Bird Net app to identify something calling, and it said that there was an osprey nearby. I couldn't see that, but later there was a massive bird that annoyingly wouldn't come for a proper photo. I think it was probably a red kite. He was a whopper.
It was good to call in briefly to the pub in Murlochy for a drink before doing a slog of road walking. I was feeling it in my feet, and was glad that a lot of the morning had been more varied terrain for my legs' sake. And astonishingly, I was hot too. The first time I've cracked open the extremely stylish hat, sunglasses and sun cream combo for a while.
I did a bit of listening. Some old favourites, some new to me. Laurence's Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis is probably more what I'd choose to reflect English countryside, but I found it spoke to me just as well with Scottish landscapes. A completely different musical environment with Cantares by Miguel Rios. Thanks to Andrea, this was a song and an artist I'd never heard before. And continuing that was Ron and Gina's choice of 'Tennessee Whiskey' by Chris Stapleton, and Kathy and Don's choice of 'Ahead by a Century' by the brilliantly named The Tragically Hip.
I enjoyed all of these in different ways, and again have been delighted with this aspect of the walk, having the chance to find new music.
The last song wasn't new, but I'd not heard it for years. 'Donald where's your trousers'. I need say nothing more, except thanks, Pam. It made me laugh.
A final short diversion to the Munlochy Clootie Well. At this, the tradition is that a rag, or 'clootie' is dipped in the sacred water and then is tied to a nearby tree. As the cloth degrades, so the ailment that the believer suffers from evaporates. Instead of finding it a thoughtful, spiritual place, I was a bit saddened by it. It was hard not to see the rags as litter, however much I know that it's a centuries old tradition.
The Black Isle has been glorious today, with every view a delight. I even finally saw some Highland cattle.
However, I was keen to stop walking for the day, and was pleased to get into Culbokie where I am staying. Tonight I'm in a little hut. It is cosy, with everything I need, and has one of the most spectacular views I've ever had from any accommodation. I washed some clothes, hung them to dry in the sunshine, ate a locally made oatcake and felt very lucky. And Tasha will be with me tomorrow morning!
Distance travelled: 16.5 miles
Total ascent: 1620 feet
Calories burned: 2395
Local tipple - Happy Chappy from Cromarty brewery
Dinner at Culbokie Inn - excellent
Deep fried Camembert with chilli jam
Haddock and chips - best F and C I've had for years.
Sponsors' music, thanks to Laurence, Pam, Andrea, Ron & Gina, Kathy & Don
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis
Andy Stewart - Donald where's your troosers?
Miguel Rios - Cantares
Chris Stapleton - Tennessee Whiskey
The Tragically Hip - Ahead by a Century
Video of the day