Scotland Day 37 - Altnaharra to Tongue
It was good to see Graeme and Deborah again at breakfast this morning. Graeme was off to fish another waterway, and Deborah was going to relax at the hotel with a book. She suggested that I didn't go for a walk today, but instead spent the day with her drinking wine. An appealing prospect, given I had almost 17 miles ahead, and she was lovely company, but I decided it would rather scupper the plan. As we were eating I got quiet entertainment from listening to a pair of older anglers debating the surprising topic of which of Boney M's hits would be a Pointless answer.
Altnaharra is a tiny community, with maybe 15 houses. Its church looked deserted, but there was a primary school. I wondered where the children come from to attend here, but was pleased that it still seemed to be going. Then later today I heard that it had actually closed down, after there were only three children on roll. The isolation here is formidable.
The road climbed for about four miles, pulling away from the hamlet, over the river Mudale bridge and then starting to give me views of Loch Buidhe nestling in the peat bog. Ahead of me it reminded me of the Pennine Way, with it curving up over the moor.
These last five days have been consistently spectacular walking. And to think I had worried that it would be boring, or dangerous with too many cars. I think I've seen maybe 30 in total today, plus one reclined bike. And a Rotel bus. I've never seen one of these before, and I was so surprised that I didn't get a photo, but it is essentially a bus with a big trailer. The passengers have upright bus seats during the day, and at night they sleep in pods on the trailer that are 6 foot by 6 foot and 3 foot high. There's 1 toilet on the bus and no showers. The marketing says 'But who could complain about the smell of unwashed passengers when you wake up in a new and exciting location every day?'. I could.
Mostly the vehicles have continued to be camper vans. At a particularly spectacular view I asked a kind man to take my photo. He had travelled with his extended family from Barcelona, in four separate campers. He told me he preferred the weather in Scotland to that of Barcelona.
I had planned to stop at miles 4, 7, 10, 12 and 14 today, so that I knew I was resting enough to get me through the long day. But I got distracted, and it was actually over 5 miles in when I took my first break. I stopped on a rock with a lovely view over Loch Coulside with my now pleasingly battered thermos. Sadly, it only took a few moments for all the midges to come to enjoy the view too. They dived into my tea and took up residence in my hair. I got moving pretty swiftly.
As I continued down the road a car pulled up next to me, driven by Sue. She asked if I wanted a lift. I demurred, but she was quite keen. So I explained what I was doing, and she immediately gave me a donation. She had just come from the dentist, in Lairg. Everything is such a long way away from everything else here. At the place I met her, it had taken me two and a half days to walk from her dentist.
I started today's listening. I was delighted to see that there have been over a hundred suggestions now on my sponsors' playlist. Deborah had suggested Wild Mountain Thyme. I have so many associations with this song, particularly with the choirs. I enjoyed Ronan Keating's version with the lovely whistle accompaniment, and admired the blooming heather around me at the same time. Then a couple of songs from Will, the first the very appropriate Keep on Moving, and then a new one for me - Song of Achilles by Led Zeppelin. It's so good to have the nudge to listen to genres I don't normally pick, and I found this very interesting. A bit like the rock opera-style works of the 1970s and 1980s.
A couple of repeat choices, but both very much worth a second listen. Graeme and Deborah asked for Louis Armstrong's Wonderful World. And I totally agree with the sentiment, but it would be even more wonderful without midges. Proclaimers 500 miles from Pauline is always appropriate, especially as I think that's pretty much what this Scottish leg is going to be. When planning it I thought it would be more like 450 miles, but every walk has taken at least a bit longer than planned! And then lots of reminiscence with Green Day's 'Time of your life'. This was suggested by Katie, my goddaughter, along with her husband Tom and baby Arlo. It was one of the songs that Jessie, Tasha and I did for their wedding a year ago. One of the happiest days.
The last one was Simon's suggestion, and I left it till last as I knew I would not want to follow it with anything. 'The End' is one of Tasha's songs, from when she was performing as Natasha North. I've not listened to it for ages, and I was transported back to the days of watching her perform, firstly in tiny venues and then eventually in major ones such as the O2. It was a joy to hear the song again. And then almost immediately afterwards I heard from Jessie, telling me about the new choir that she tried out for, for which she'll write out the parts by ear when she gets home . My musical girls.
So it was with a bit of a sniff that I found a place by Loch Loyal for my second break. I took off my shoes and socks to give my feet a chance to cool down, and started the excellent sandwich supplied by the hotel this morning.
Unsurprisingly the midges were alerted by the smell. Of my feet probably. A hasty decamp was required, with the biggest swarm over my rucksack where some Smidge has leaked, which seemed perverse. Walking disperses them fortunately, if I walk faster than 2.5 miles an hour then they’re gone. Some definitely hitched a ride in my hair though.
This area is called the Flow Country, and is one of the UK's defences against climate change. It is the most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world. The mosses that have formed the peat over 11,000 years holds nearly three times the amount of carbon as all the British woodlands out together. It is the largest carbon sink in Europe. Once seen, never forgotten. I have never been to a place like it.
Continuing on mile after mile, I thought I'd have another go at a rest. I saw a footpath off to the loch, with a little beach. I finished my sandwich, and looked at the clear water. I couldn't resist. The cold was lovely on my hot feet and legs, and so what if I was out in public in just a T shirt and pants? Unconventional, but decent. Maybe that's my strap line.
The midges gave me time to get my feet dry, and then a couple of midge scouts called all their midgy friends to say hello. Yet again I struck out at speed.
I saw the evidence of the geese well before I saw the birds. Lots of guano on the road, and a number of mostly eaten carcasses. I don't know what the predator is round here, but it enjoys a goose supper.
I always get tired between 12 and 13 miles. I could see the road snaking upwards of me and thought maybe it was time for a third midge party. I had time to admire the silhouette of the fishing boat out on Loch Craggie, and also to check my phone. I was astonished to see how much my fund has gone up. The lovely family who I met cycling yesterday had put in an extremely generous donation, and some who were anonymous had too. And my lovely Mum and Dad had put in a lot as well. I was so grateful, and pleased for the charity, and proud too. The target is now £4,000.
Setting off again, I was rubbing sun cream into my arms and face (sorry to all who are suffering awful weather, it's been lovely again here!) when a car stopped a little way in front of me. The driver got out, and was looking down the hill towards me. He then opened his boot and got something out. I was a little wary. He came towards me with an object in his hand. I smiled at him. He said that he had seen me with the midges earlier, and wanted to give me this. And handed over a brand new midge helmet. I was so surprised and grateful. I explained that walking keeps them away., and that I already had one, and he nodded, and said 'I just didn't want you to get bitten'. There are some really lovely people out there.
Feeling buoyed up, I zoomed up the remainder of the hill. The road swept round a bend, and suddenly the vista was completely different. The craggy outline of Ben Loyal reared up, with many other mountains in the distance.
And then around another bend and the Kyle of Tongue was in front of me, all blue and golden sand. I know I've often said that I have gasped with pleasure at what I've seen. That's because it's the only reaction I've got to something so beautiful.
I could have gone down into Tongue on a shorter footpath, but to the side was a slightly longer road, which had a bench and an info board. It was sunny, a bit of a breeze so no midges, and I could see the mountains on one side and the water below. The bench was in commemoration of Fiona Stewart who loved this place. She died in 2019, when she was almost exactly the age I am now. I toasted her with my last bit of tea and a kitkat. Here’s to you, Fiona. I'm so sorry that you didn't get to see this beautiful view for more years.
And then finally down into the village of Tongue, greeted enthusiastically by a cow, and to my absolutely wonderful B and B.
I can see the Kyle from where I'm writing this in my bedroom, with the castle on the horizon. My landlady talked me through different walking routes, said I could have a late breakfast and took my washing. And the house has a garden to enjoy the sunshine and amazing sunsets. I've not had a rest day for two weeks, I'm delighted that Tongue is where I've chosen for the last one before John O'Groats. Only a week to go.
Distance travelled: 16.7 miles
Total ascent: 796 feet (felt like more!)
Calories burned: 2281
Local tipple: Black Isle Blonde (not very local, frankly)
Dinner at Tongue Hotel - very good
Vegetable tempura with Asian slaw and hoisin dipping sauce
Cod and mussel curry with pineapple salsa
Sponsors' songs - thanks to Deborah, Will, Graeme & Deborah, Pauline, Katie &Tom & Arlo, Simon
Wild Mountain Thyme - Ronan Keating
Keep on Movin' - Soul to Soul
Achilles' Last Stand - Led Zeppelin
Wonderful World - Louis Armstrong
500 miles - The Proclaimers
Good Riddance (Time of your life) - Green Day
The End - Natasha North
Video of the day