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  • Writer's pictureJane Smith

Scotland Day 40 - Bettyhill to Melvich

Our hotel last night was quite smart, unlike most of the places I've been in. This formality meant that it wasn't a place to chat to other diners, swapping travelling stories and finding out about each other. I really missed that.

I also found it very tricky having lots of stuff again. My friends know that I am very poor at travelling light normally. I am always the one with the biggest suitcase, because I can't decide what's needed, and I always want a contingency. Therefore, I would have expected to be delighted to have a suitcase of clothes and toiletries instead of the tiny bag that I've had for the last month. Instead, I found it rather oppressive, it didn't feel necessary, and I felt stressed by having it all. I repacked a small amount of it into my dry bag, and the suitcase will stay in the car until the end of the trek. Maybe it was because I was wearing different clothes at dinner, maybe it was because I wasn't sharing my story with other people, but the overall feeling last night was that I was somehow in disguise. I think it will take a little while to return to normality.

The fund continues to grow, it has almost reached the next target of £4500, so I think I will indeed stretch it up to £5000. I was so chuffed to hear that Amanda and Chris, our friends who run the Jolly Cricketers pub in our village, are running Sunday's quiz night to raise money for the Samaritans this week. I'm really touched by this, and it will all add up. Some of the latest donations have also been extremely generous, and I know of a huge donation that is promised to me at the end too. It makes me very pleased for Chiltern Samaritans.

I had a more leisurely start today. The view from our window was spectacular, and from it we could see both the strange laying out of possibly a new road, that appears to be mainly inhabited by sheep. I could also see the bay across which I tried to take a short cut, fully underwater. It would account for the sinking nature of the sand that I encountered yesterday.

My later start was because I wanted to call in at the Strathnaver museum, which didn't open till 10 am. I called in for the ubiquitous cheese sandwich collection from the local shop en route. Choosing not to eat meat causes particular problems with sandwiches. I think I've had a cheese sandwich for lunch every day for a week. I dream of sandwiches not containing cheese.

The museum was in an old church, just outside Bettyhill. In the past, just after the Clearances, the church would sometimes take 750 people. In the 1960s though, attendance was so low that the Church of Scotland and the local council decided to take the roof off the building and let it rot. The local community weren't having that, so they bought it, and turned it into a museum. According to the curator that I spoke to, the museum was more like a junk shop. It was popular though, because every time one visited one would find some new treasure, as it was so jammed with artefacts. During Covid the museum obviously closed, and the trustees saw this as an opportunity to make a change. They applied for, and received £2.5 million in donations, and in April the brand new museum opened. It is a fantastic tribute to the life of this area, and most particularly about the Clearances. I am ashamed to admit that I didn't really know much about this terrible period of history before coming to Scotland, and I left the museum knowing far more. This area was particularly brutal in its enforcement, with nearly 40 townships emptied to free up land for large scale sheep farming. As the text told me, the Clearances left scars on the landscape and in the souls and memories of many families. The displays were imaginative and engaging, allowing you to step into the shoes of individuals as they made possible choices about their future.

There were other aspects to the museum too, with one that I particularly enjoyed being a photo of a woman knitting while carrying a creel full of peat.


And a stunning glass walkway that represents the River Naver, with the names of all the lost settlements of Strathaver. It includes a poem by Ewan Robertson, who is known as the Bard of the Clearances. I had heard about him in Tongue, where there is a memorial cairn to him. It was good to see his work as part of the display.

My curse upon the great sheep

Where now are the children of the kindly folk

Who parted from me when I was young

Before Sutherland became a desert?

Feeling very thoughtful, I went outside the church building into the graveyard, where there is another thought provoking item. The Farr Stone is a Pictish slab, beautifully carved, that dates from between 800 and 850 AD. It probably marks the grave of an important person. Other important people buried there were a large number of MacKays. This is the local clan, and it was notable how many MacKays had contributed to the fund raising for the museum.

I took the only opportunity that would occur today for a coffee in the Farr Bay Inn, just round the corner from the museum, and then properly set off for the day.


Today was a road walking day from beginning to end. There were no sensible detours or cliff paths to take, the job was to simply follow the A836. It will be the same tomorrow, probably. Whenever I feel that it would be nice to do something else, I remember how horrible the A9 was, and that this, as an alternative, is a massive improvement.


This stretch of road has a lot of sheep grazing nearby, contained by various cattle grids. They have the whole scope of the moorland to graze in, and yet they choose to hover on the sides of the road, periodically running, panic stricken, across the tarmac to the other side, before changing their minds and dashing back again. This makes it a bit stressful for the car drivers who a number of times had to make a hasty brake to avoid these daft animals. As testament to how flighty they are, a sign I saw later today warned dog owners not to bring their animals into a particular area with sheep, as they 'panic and jump off the cliffs'.

It may have been hard road under my feet, but to the sides the Flow Country continued, with the peat bog and moor stretching out for miles.


Because I was keeping my eye on the traffic, it wasn't as easy to watch the views that were developing behind me. So when I reached the Bettyhill viewpoint it was a lovely surprise. Everything on the display board was clearly visible, including my old friends Ben Royal and Ben Hope. Plus a less than brilliantly positioned green bin.

Although still the NC500, today's bit of road wasn't as busy as yesterday, and so I could listen to my sponsors' songs. My brother Jim had suggested Talking Heads 'Once in a lifetime'. So many appropriate lyrics, but especially 'how did I get here'. It sometimes feels baffling. Then my niece Flo had suggested 'Born Slippy', thinking that it might keep my pace up. Cheeky. To keep in time I'd have had to be running. But it was encouragingly percussive and driving though. Nicki had suggested 'Walking in Rhythm'. I didn't know this one, but I don't think it could be more apposite. 'Walking in rhythm, moving in sound, humming to the music, trying to move on'. I love the fact that people have chosen songs so carefully.

Then a bit of Bruce, with 'Pay me my money down' thanks to Kristin. I didn't know this, but thought it was great, and could very much imagine Seer Green Singers taking it on. And from Janna and Liz 'You've got a friend in me' which they messaged yesterday. Thanks, you two, that was really appreciated. As was 'Climb every mountain'. I think I'm all finished with climbing mountains on this trip at least, but I get the sentiment.

My last one was from my lovely Carly. Tea for the Tillerman was a classic album when we were at school, and I chose 'On the road to find out'. It was as if Cat Stevens had an inkling of what I was up to. I could write out all of the lyrics, but I'll give you this stanza, and you get the gist.

So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out.

So much left to know, and I'm on the road to find out


I left the music there, saving one or two for tomorrow.


Cat Stevens stuck with me as I walked past another wind farm in the distance, and the emptiness of the moor. The sheep clung to the side of the road as a convoy of camper vans trundled past.

I was beginning to really think about what is going to happen when I get home, and how I can keep walking whilst returning to my life. I sat and had my lunch looking over Strathy Point, which I planned to go to later today.

After lunch the clouds lifted a little, though the wind was still taxing my hair. And sunshine fell on Armadale Bay, and on the suddenly beautiful Loch Gainmihich. And in the distance I could see the Orkneys. They're really north.

I was reminded of the MacKays at the Strathy war memorial. It was hard not to, as most of the names from both the 1st and 2nd world wars were MacKay.

Road walking is not always fun, and it's very hard on the feet. But I had decided that spending a whole day wishing I was walking somewhere different would be pointless, and so as well as enjoying the bigger views to the sides of the road I found myself looking at the details. You end up seeing the things most people don't see, whilst walking on the side of the road or on the verge. There are bits of rubbish, but fortunately not much. There is road kill. Yesterday I saw a large badger on its back, with its front paws together as if in supplication. Together with these, as an example, today I have seen the tiny embryo of a mammal, many wild flowers, a bright orange blanket, tufts of sheep's wool caught on gorse, unidentifiable bits of cars, the hind leg of a rabbit with the meat picked off but the foot still perfect, lots of sheep poo and a pair of lacy knickers.


Those of you who are my friends on social media might have seen the lovely video that Tasha made of our couple of days together. I watched it maybe a hundred times, it made me very happy. I did find it hilarious though, watching my rather stompy walking style on the film. I suppose it shows commitment. By about 13 miles of a walk though, my stomping always deteriorates into head down trudging. So imagine my delight when at that point I saw a sign speaking of ice cream and snacks. This quite put the energy back. There was an additional sign suggesting I get a tarot reading.

The cafe was just within Melvich, our stop for the night, and I thought I would go for a flavour that I've not had before. Can I report that Biscoff ice cream is disappointing? Tasted like vanilla with bits of soggy biscuit crumbs. After I'd finished and was walking the last section to the B and B I had a few wild raspberries from the side of the road. Much tastier than the ice cream.

Melvich has a lovely beach, but we didn't partake, as we wanted to go and look at the end of Strathy Point. This is famous for cetaceans, and we had hopes of seeing whales or dolphins. I got vastly overexcited and started identifying waves as whales almost immediately. Sadly none were actual, and although we stayed for a while with high hopes, we didn't see any. But the place was beautiful, in glorious sunshine, and we sat on the grass and enjoyed the view.



Coming back to the car there was a friendly coo, and also a large pile of peat bricks outside the farmhouse. Burning peat is definitely a thing round here, I've seen it in a couple of other places too. I don't know enough about the context of this to make any judgement, but it was certainly surprising.


So in the end, I covered the section of road from Strathy to Melvich three times today. Once slowly on foot, looking at the detail. And twice in the car, hardly noticing anything, looking only for the road sign that showed our turning. And of course that is how things work. The contrast just felt especially acute this afternoon.


Back to the B and B, and we were offered something I've not had in any accommodation in the whole walk from Lands End. A hot tub. With a view of the sea. Again, the environmental concerns should maybe have made us think twice, but I had very tired legs and feet, and that twenty minutes in the hot water was exactly what was needed.


And finally a thought that will stick with me into tomorrow. At dinner this evening, feeling a bit more used to normal life again, we were chatting to an Australian couple who had asked what we were doing in this part of the world. When I explained, he looked me straight in the eye and said 'and has it changed you?'


Stats

Distance travelled: 14.5 miles

Total ascent: 1500 feet

Calories burned: 2,200


Local tipple - Northern Lights from the Orkney Brewery

Dinner at the Melvich Hotel - fantastic pizza!

Mushroom olive and walnut pizza (my design, delicious!) with green salad

Sponsors' songs, thanks to Jim & Flo, Nicki, Kristin, Carly, Janna & Liz

Once in a lifetime - Talking Heads

Born Slippy - Underworld

Walking in Rhythm - The Blackbyrds

Pay me my money down - Bruce Springsteen

On the road to find out - Cat Stevens

You've got a friend in me - Randy Newman

Climb every mountain - The Sound of Music


Video of the day


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