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  • Writer's pictureJane Smith

Scotland Day 39 - Tongue to Bettyhill

For those reading this looking forward to blue skies and breathtaking scenery, sadly you'll be disappointed today. It's been very grey and extremely wet. However, there are some dancing selfies which will hopefully compensate.

Syllke and I were looking ruefully at the rain crossing the garden in sheets this morning, but agreed that we'd rather have rain than midges. My waterproofs are really good, they keep me pretty dry inside even when the water is running off me in torrents. So it's more about the lack of views and the noise of the hood over my ears that's a pain. Still better than midges in my hair.

I was sent off with a fantastic breakfast - fresh peaches and strawberries, skyr, porridge with cream and local honey, eggs together with an amazing vegan black pudding thing made of oats combined with sonething unknown that made it luscious and delicious. Syllke also made me a packed lunch and wouldn't take payment. What with that and the warm embrace of Michel and Nicoletta the Dutch bikers as I left, I felt like I was leaving friends.

The difference in the views from yesterday was notable. The castle was barely emerging from the mist and the causeway led into grey. I took the upper road out of Tongue, passing the NC500 road sign telling me that I'd be on a busier road today. It also showed me the way to John O'Groats. Which was fortunately the way I was heading.

The one remaining food provider in Tongue that I hadn't tried was the Norse Cafe. It is a couple of miles outside the village, which is a bit early for a stop normally. But my legs felt a bit sluggish after the rest day. Or maybe it was the extensive breakfast. Whichever, it felt a good idea to have a coffee. I arrived ten minutes before it opened, but was happy to sit outside in the drizzle. However, the lovely owner invited me in and made me an excellent flat white. They are a local business with Italian heritage, and the focaccias just out of the oven to use for lunch sandwiches looked amazing. She talked to me about options for the walk today, and I went out into the rain with a spring in my step.

It was dreek. The Highland cattle were motionless, maybe willing the drizzle away.

But the road wasn't too busy, certainly not the busy highway I'd feared. It cut a swathe through bog and moorland, and was mainly single track with passing places.

Yesterday I'd seen the sea in the distance, today I was getting up close. The first proper view was of Coldbackie Sands. I could mentally superimpose blues and golds into the shades of grey. And whatever the colour, it was the sea! There are many things I enjoy about the Scottish information boards. One is the regular use of children's poetry to describe the place. I really loved the yearning of Chrisanne McCulloch's poem:

I want the sea

I want to be the sea

Going to Australia, everywhere

I want to be the shore, looking at the sea

Playing with the sea

I want to be the shore

The Coldbackie shore.

I had four possible routes for today, the shortest being just on the road, and the longest following the coast. The lady at the cafe had strongly advised me against the latter, saying that the ground was very difficult going with bog, and that the possibility of turning an ankle in the tussocks was high. Maybe if it had been a glorious day I would have ignored her advice, but in this murk it seemed like asking for trouble. So I followed the road inland for a section.

I was struck by the sign to the Poorhouse. This building, in the hamlet of Strathtongue was one of a network of buildings to shelter paupers. Unlike the English workhouses, the residents of a Scottish poor house did not need to labour in return for accommodation, and they also received medical care. This building had been converted into a 6 berth micro hostel, but sadly has now closed down.

Although I was in my very comfortable trainers for this road walking section, I began to notice a hot spot on my foot where I had had a giant blister last year. This was annoying, as it was raining so heavily that keeping my foot dry whilst trying to tape it would be difficult. I was weighing up whether I should stop or not when, as if by magic there appeared a covered bus stop. With a bench. Not the most scenic of views, but one of the most welcome. I had a proper break, taped up the offending heel, and had a cuppa, all in the dry. It reminded me of a bus stop interlude last year where Carly and I had lunch in a similar downpour.

Up the hill, past Lochan Dubh (how do we pronounce that? Doo? Dub?) and through the moor, with the mist hanging like a blanket above the ground. It was wet, it was windy and I could see almost nothing of my surroundings. But there was nothing I'd rather have been doing more. Earlier, I'd passed a house which had a sign outside that just said 'YES'. Then, a van stopped beside me whilst waiting for a car to pass. It had a sticker on the window, right next to me, saying 'one life, live it'. It's hard not to find a message in these things.

One of the few points of interest that I could see in the murk were a couple of cattle grids. I'm used to these, and generally cautiously step over them as opposed to faffing with the stiff bolts on the gates. The two this morning had an interesting addition in that they both had large numbers of Tennants beer cans in the bottom. Like maybe 40 or 50 cans. Are they party venues? Do the youth round here say 'see you at the cattle grid'?And why only Tennants? So many unanswered questions.

I decided to take an alternate route from the NC500. This didn't involve hazardous walking, but it did give me some quieter road, and would give me a chance to properly see the sea. An additional bonus was that I'd pass the Borgie Lodge Hotel, about which a couple of signs had excitably told me of many attractions, including coffee and lunch. I didn't need lunch, but I could certainly do with a sit down in the dry.

It all looked so promising, a country house hotel style building. Just off the drive there was a large shed that was divided in two, with one half labelled Motorbike Shed, and the other half intriguingly titled Adventure Shed. I didn't need another adventure, so pressed on for a drink instead. The hotel was entirely closed up. I optimistically tried the bar, the main entrance, even the restaurant, but no. So instead of my lovely hot drink and the use of their facilities, I ate my lunch on a bench outside the front door, next to a classy sculpture that I took to mean to make myself at home here if nowhere else. I wondered whether all the staff were in the shed having adventures.

Going up this quieter B road meant that I could put my music on. With the noise of the rain I'd not been able to listen on the busier road, as I needed to concentrate on the traffic. Sophie had suggested 'Ease on down the road', and had flagged up that there's a bit of an annoying bit at the beginning. That is many times compensated for by the (as she described it) 'stompin' section later. She had said that she expected some stompin' moves. I supplied them. Full dancing, in the rain, with twirls and a bit of pole percussion. I tried to photograph the essence of it, but selfies cannot fully capture my excellent choreography and stylish shapes.

Then another bit of Diana Ross, with Sue's 'Waiting in the Wings'. What a smooth song this is. What a legend.

Michel had suggested 'Laat Me' by Ramses Shaffy. He had shown me a video of him performing it at a party a few weeks ago, with some excellent harmonica playing and passionate singing. This version was similar in its intensity. It's a brilliant song from the 1970s, about wanting to go your own way. I strongly recommend it. And then from those two songs I had not heard before, to two of my favourites from Liz. 'Both Sides Now', the second Joni Mitchell on the sponsors' list, was one that I used to play and sing to myself as a child on our old black upright piano whilst mum made our tea. I probably really didn't know life at all then, aged 9 or 10. But I was transported back, and could feel the keys under my fingers. And then Viva la Vida. This is a great song, and forget Coldplay, Village Voices did the best performance of it.

Apologies to those who've sent me songs that I haven't listened to yet. I've got a long list for tomorrow!

Once I took the headphones out, the first sound I heard was the sea. I was approaching the dunes by Torrisdale Bay. Here it really was, the northern section of the Atlantic, with all its crashing loveliness, just like it is in Cornwall and Devon.

The dunes path took me high above it, so that I could see the whole beach. It also took me past an enormous and wonderful rock. I took three pictures, from different angles, in case my geologist friend Pete can tell me what it is.

My route took me straight from the dunes back to the road, but that meant I didn't actually get to the water. That wouldn't do. So I took a detour, and being cautious not to let the sea go into all the holes in my boots, I put my tiny feet in the sea, over twelve hundred miles of walking away from where I first did that, on day 1. I was joyful again. There's been a lot of joy today.

Less joyful though heading back round the headland to get back to the path. I saw the footprints clinging to the side of the dunes, and thought I might as well do a short cut across the central patch of sand instead of going round the perimeter. That was hastily changed once I realised that this sand was so soft that my feet went down deep enough for my boots to be covered. Another possible way of having to end the walk that I would rather not happen - being sucked into quicksand. That's not one I'd considered before though.

Coming back along the dunes I went past the pier that is all that remains of the fishing station that was part of Bettyhill. As with much of the Highlands, Bettyhill has a history that is tied up with the clearances in the early nineteenth century. The Countess of Sutherland owned a 1.5 million acre estate, from which 15,000 people were cleared between 1811 and 1821. In an unusual move for the time, the countess had a resettlement village built on the east side of the mouth of the River Naver. The countess's first name was Betty.

Looking at the pier, I could see my hotel straight above it. If I'd fancied a swim in my rucksack I'd have been able to climb the hill there. But instead, I had a two or three mile diversion around the dunes. I stopped in a strangely rocky area which was described on the OS map as 'settlement'. It certainly felt like the remains of an ancient village, but there is no further reference to it as far as I could see. I used a bit of it as shelter as I ate the rest of my lunch, and got my head around the changes to come.

For, when I got to the hotel, to the sound of a curlew calling, there waving out of the window was David. He is now going to be with me until the end of the trek, although probably not walking. It was so good to see him, but it also marks the end of my completely solo travelling.


Distance travelled: 14.5 miles

Total ascent: 990 feet

Calories burned: 1941

Local tipple - Sea Glass gin with Mediterranean tonic - celebration!

Dinner at Bettyhill Hotel - excellent

Halloumi fries with sweet chilli mayo

Monkfish with pesto mash, carrot spaghetti, sun dried tomato and saffron cream

Sponsors' songs - thanks to Sophie, Sue, Michel and Liz

Ease on Down the road - Diana Ross & Michael Jackson

Laat Me - Ramses Shaffy

Both Sides Now - Joni Mitchell

Viva La Vida - Coldplay

Video of the day

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