Scotland Day 34 - Bonar Bridge to Lairg
Tasha left after breakfast to do a tiny road trip before flying back from Inverness. It has been so lovely to have her with me, it took a little time just to get my head back into being on my own again.
I checked the weather, and realised that the long range BBC forecast now runs past the day that I'm going to be stopping this trek. The end is really coming up fast. It was interesting in looking at the photos that Tasha took that I could observe how I have physically changed. My face, hands and lower arms are weather beaten despite my factor 50 every day. I've lost an inch or so round my waist I'd guess, my trousers are looser there. But I think my legs and bum are probably bigger. All that working has made them stronger and more muscly.
Today there was going to be a bit of off road, so I stuck with my boots, saving my trainers for the days when I'm only on tarmac.
Walking out of Bonar Bridge I got the chance to see the other half of the village that runs alongside the beginning of the Kyle of Sutherland. This is a river estuary that is fed by four rivers, including the Shin. I'd be spending a lot of time with the Shin today. The long street was more attractive than the part on the other side of the bridge, but still felt a bit unloved. I enjoyed a post office that doubled up as a bike repair shop though.
Then followed a bit of road, but it wasn't crazy busy. The Balblair forest track peeled off to the right and then climbed steeply. I was towards the top of the tree line very quickly. The track was part of a network of mountain bike routes. I was on the second hardest level. Probably easier on foot. The views opened out over tte water, and the weather front was stunningly obvious, with half of the Kyle in sunshine, and a walk of cloud over the other.
I was back in bracken and heather and pine. It's so lovely.
Back downhill onto the road felt a bit of a let down, especially as I knew that it would be tarmac from now on. But all was well, as I could see a hotel at Invershin marked on the map. Perfect for coffee. Imagine the disappointment when I found it closed. I'm hoping that it was just closed for the morning, it would be a great loss to the many cyclists who come past here to lose this resource.
I'd noticed a castle in the distance from Bonar Bridge, and now it was just over the river. It was built in 1907 as part of a bad tempered divorce settlement for the Duchess of Sutherland. Before knowing the subsequent history, my hackles were rising at its opulence compared to the poverty of the crofters. I also got annoyed that there was a railway station nearby that I presumed had been commissioned by the castle owner. So I took a bit of schadenfreude at the fact that there is an enormous pylon right in front of it. However, I then discovered that the station was built some time before the castle and the building was given to the youth hostel association in the 1950s. I popped my socialist indignation back in its box. Sadly the castle was sold a few years ago and is now in private hands.
I took a side road to run alongside the river Shin for the majority of the rest of the day. I'd also be in what appears to be red squirrel area, based on the number of signs about them. Despite my keen looking, I didn't see any. Maybe it's the relentless squeaking of my rucksack that scares them away.
As I followed the Shin upstream the water changed tempo according to its widening and narrowing. It was a soothing accompaniment to my walking. I took my first break at a bench in an area used by anglers. There was what appeared to be a clubhouse in a shed nearby. Inside I could see a huge fish mounted on the wall. Clearly a prize winner, I was happy to see that it had been caught by a woman. I haven't seen many female anglers, so I was glad to see that they're around, and hauling in massive salmon.
The sun was out, so I tried to increase the extent of my sun coverage by rolling up my t shirt sleeves. As usual, they were having none of it, the Samaritans T shirts are made of very slippery material. Farmers' tan it is then.
The highlight of this leg was to be the Falls of Shin. These waterfalls are a place that is good to see salmon leaping upstream. I'd never seen that before, so I was excited. I'd also heard of the excellent visitor centre and cafe, built in 2017. Disappointment all round; the visitor centre closed down following the pandemic, and the salmon weren't leaping. However, there were portaloos in the car park, and the falls were great, jumping fish or not.
The road carried on upstream for a number of miles, passing the hamlet of Achany and its chambered cairn. In doing this walk I discover how little I know about so many things. Chambered cairns are one of these. In doing some research later I discover that this is a Neolithic burial site, and that most of the Highlands' versions of these were destroyed over the years. I could see the standing stones, and there was a mound nearby. I understand it's very imposing if you approach it from the field. I was seeing it from the road.
Some sponsors' listening before lunch. Susan suggested Eriskay Love Lilt. This was one of the first songs I ever taught to a choir, a million years ago, so it was very nostalgic. The version with the Caledonian tenors is a cracker. Then various songs from Gilly. 'And I will kiss' by Ubderwirkd featuring Evelyn Glennie. It was written for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, and is tremendously percussive, as might be expected. When walking on road, I only wear one AirPod, and my other ear caught the sound of the train in real life. The two percussive sounds got very confused. I could imagine the dancers in that fantastic ceremony during this extended piece.
Then another one I didn't know, 'The Yellow Brick Road Song' by Iyeoka. The lyrics for this really struck a chord:
I know how possible we are
We can go and achieve the inconceivable
I know just how possible we are
We can follow our own yellow brick road
Last August I had thought it inconceivable that my leg would be mended enough to do this journey, yet here I was following my own yellow brick road. It made me very reflective about where that road is going to take me afterwards.
Another break for lunch by the river, feeling again that time is ticking, and that I won't have many more lunchtime scenarios like this.
There was a good view of the river bend, and then I had moorland to my left and forest to the right. The road was great, barely more than a track, and although there was the odd vehicle they were considerate.
My last songs were two more from Gilly. Firstly Jacob Collier's version of 'The Flintstones'. This man is a genius, especially with his skill at turning an audience into a choir. This song was more a bravura exhibition of his singing and production skill. Quite different to what Fred and Wilma would recognise. And finally 'You'll never walk alone'. Timeless and classic, and I enjoyed the sentiment.
Down by the river I saw a boat and a sign. It was a wire hand ferry to cross over the river, and it appeared to be free to use. I was so very tempted. I've never done that before. But then I looked at the speed and height of the water, and thought how stupid it would be to have a boating accident when on my own. Another time.
The last section of road was accompanied by my sponsors' playlist on shuffle. This was a great period, with instant reminiscence of the people who've been kind enough to support the charity. The fund is doing so well that I've increased the target to £3000. Wouldn't it be great if I got to that.
Lairg station is a mile or two outside the village, and it is accessed from this side of the river by a fantastically bouncy bridge. I didn't need to cross it, but I loved the view, and also the idea of using this for a commute to Glasgow.
I passed the Loch Shin dam, and later could see Lairg in the distance. The dam was built in the 1950s, and it raised the level of Loch Shin by 11 metres.
On the outskirts of the village there is the excellent Ferrycroft visitor centre where I had a drink and a rest before having a look at the very thorough exhibition. It is a story that is repeated over the Highlands, of the development of big estates, clearances of the workers from the land, the desperate hardship of crofting, the decline of services, shops and schools during the last century. But there are still crofters here. The display board said:
the income from crofts, although small, is vital in retaining the rural population in areas where there is very little employment, and much of that is seasonal. Also, in comparison to the intensive farming of lowland farms, the traditional mixed farming of the crofting areas provides a rich variety of habitats for wildlife.
It went on to say that the larger towns have taken away much of the trade from local businesses, and the area depends on crofting, tourism and forestry.
It was a thought provoking account. There was also a large section of maps of the area. I'm definitely getting near the top, and my route was clearly marked here.
Walking into the village around the loch, I looked twice at something in the water. It was a tiny house, with a seagull squawking on the top.
Next to it was one of the quirkiest information boards I've read. I wish I could reprint it in its entirety - one excellent line was 'Jock grew into a fine strong lad, though he had a liking for whisky' but it told of illegal whisky making , drunkenness, marital affairs, and the building of a house in the loch. Before the dam, there was room for a whole house on an island in the middle of the loch. Now with the water level risen so high, there is just a little one. i couldn't decide how much of the board was true, and how much was the Highland sense of humour. It is clearly a treasured part of the village, my hotel's windows are decorated with children's drawings of the 'wee hoose'.
I have a very remote walk tomorrow, and so spent some time hunting down food to carry with me. Having done that it was good to chat to Scott and Helen, Aussies who are cycling LEJOG. They will be doing 45 miles tomorrow and will finish in 3 days or so. I'll be doing the same route as them, but somewhat slower.
Distance travelled : 12 miles
Total ascent: 806 feet
Calories burned: 1680
Local tipple - half of Blonde from Black Isle Brewery
Dinner at The Pier - fantastic
Seafood salad with prawns, hot and cold smoked salmon, herring, salad and oatcakes
Sponsors' songs, thanks to Susan and Gilly
Eriskay Love Lilt - The Caledonian tenors
And I will kiss - Underworld, feat. Evelyn Glennie
The Yellow Brick Road Song - Iyoaka
Flintstones - Jacob Collier
You'll never walk alone - Jerry and the Pacemakers