About a year ago I shared the little film ‘Beulah’ by pannier.cc and Brother cycles on my facebook page. It shows a small group of cyclists making an unsupported trip by bicycle to Cape Wrath across the wild, empty spaces of Sutherland in the north west highlands. Almost immediately I had a response from my old friend Martin in Vietnam enthusiastically suggesting that we could do this. All we would need would be a van and a crew. A plan was hatched and a couple of other mates were invited along, photography genius Steve and brewing wizard Andy! We’d all been on adventures together in the past in various combinations, camping, canoeing, cycling so we should be able to make it work.
That was a crew sorted so then we had to choose a suitable date. We had to choose between being eaten alive by midges during the proper summer months or freezing and getting soaked during early autumn. Early autumn it was then. We figured we might get lucky with a late (midge free) indian summer. A week was chosen for the end of September. This gave us plenty of time to prepare. Maps to study, gear to organise, bikes to prepare. Steve and I started a strict regime of cycling to the pub one evening a week to get ourselves ‘match fit’.
The time flew by and by late spring Martin had returned to Bristol from Vietnam for the summer, ready to cram in as much cycling and catching up as he could. I’d tooled him up with a couple of old school ebay bikes, a Claud Butler Dalesman that was almost perfect and a Dawes Discovery that needed rather more work than anticipated.
We decided a practice run would be a good idea so in August we had an overnighter to the Isle of Wight, following the Tennyson trail and the Bembridge trail with a wonderful night wild camping in amongst the gorse bushes on the top of the Downs. Everything went well, bikes behaved, sleeping arrangements were satisfactory and we felt ready, although sadly by now Andy’s brewing was so successful that he was unable to join us (but check out Abyss brewery at the Pelham Arms in Lewes if you get a chance!)
It was time to nail down the fine details. I researched the routes we could take and put a bit of a schedule together. As it came closer we realised that Steve couldn’t make the week in September so we moved it to the first week in October and by now we were starting to be a little more cautious about the kind of weather we could expect. Cautious to the extent that we rented a static caravan near to Lairg to use as a base camp should the weather be less than co-operative. This turned out to be a very wise move!
One week to go and we discovered that Cape Wrath, our intended, ultimate destination would be closed due to a massive Nato exercise! One day to go we discovered that a hurricane would be passing across the Highlands for a good chunk of our stay. On the first day of October, bikes strapped to the roof of my old Golf, we set off very early from Worthing on the south coast to almost as far north as you can drive. A 12 hour drive through the wind and the rain. The sun only came out when we were about 20 miles from Lairg.
Day 1 Up Glen Cassley and round Loch Shin. (50.3 miles)
The first day of cycling came round and the weather was really bad. Heavy rain, gale force winds and certainly not suitable for camping out. There was a suitable day trip route I fancied on the maps. It was basically a ride around Loch Shin, heading south from Lairg to Rosehill and then up Glen Cassley, over some hills and back along the loch, about 50 miles. Sounds simple enough. How wrong we were! The ride down to the Glen Cassley track was straightforward enough, a few soakings and some brisk winds as we crossed fairly bleak moorland covered with pine stumps. There is a fair bit of forestry up here, not all of it beautiful. Forestry and wind farms.
The track beside the Cassley river started gentle and charming. Some stunning falls and a spooked young Red Deer that nearly took Steve off his bike as it shot across the road, into the bushes and headlong into a wire fence. The trees became less and less as the gradient increased and the glen opened up. The further up we rode, the stronger the wind became, right into our faces right down the glen from Ben More Assynt, glowering in the clouds ahead of us. The wind carried rain and hale that soaked us through, numbing our hands and feet and stinging our faces. It was relentless. This track was only about 15 miles long but it seemed to go on forever. For a while we sheltered in a stand of Scot’s pines to have a snack and a break from the elements before heading further up the track which was fast deteriorating. Bumpier, muddier, windier with water pouring out of the hillsides as we got into the proper high ground. At the top of the track we could see a massive white jet of water shooting out of the hill into a small, dammed loch, water captured from the hillsides and channeled down a long pipe. The good news at arriving at a hydro-electric plant was that the road surface suddenly improved to allow access to the power company’s vehicles. We had a steep meandering climb up from the plant across the side of Maovally, meeting a game keeper in a big truck with a massive dead stag in the back. Surprised to see us, he was curious as to why we would be out in such weather and where we had come from. He told us of his fondness for TV weather girls and warned us about a tricky descent on the other side of the hill and we parted ways to drop down towards Corriekinloch and the end of Loch Shin. It was an interesting descent! By now the wind was gusting at about 65 mph and the lane was covered in very slippery green moss. It was one of those descents where you have to select an appropriate gear for the effort involved in struggling to go down hill whilst trying your utmost to stay upright! We were so relieved to pass Corriekinloch and cross the top of the loch. We turned onto the main road, the wind filled our sails and pushed us the twenty miles back to Lairg, just rewards for a very exhausting morning’s riding.
Day 2, Gobernuisgach and Bearlach nam meirleach circuit. (59.6 miles)
The weather on day 2 wasn’t a lot better. We were pretty flaked out from the previous day’s ride and the long drive up from Sussex. However we were here now, to do some cycling and I had plotted another route on the map that I really wanted to try. We’d totally given up on the idea of wild camping by now as the long term forecast was pretty grim and anyhow we were perfectly placed for some good day trips.
So again we set off into the wind and rain heading north from Lairg towards Altnaharra. After 11 miles we got to the Crask Inn. Common sense got the better of Steve, the thought of another day getting exhausted and soaked in the mountains didn’t appeal. Revising our plans over a coffee by the wood burner, Steve decided to head back, with a tail wind luckily! Martin and I would push on north beyond Altnaharra to look for a track that would take us down over the Strathmore river to the Gobernuisgach hunting lodge. Before long we passed the derelict Allnabad croft sitting in it’s empty and desolate landscape and turned left down a bumpy track with Ben Hope to our right. Over the river, through a pine forest emerging amongst a group of newly refurbished buildings, catering for people fishing and hunting in the area. Here the track turned south leading to Bearlach nam meirleach (pass of the robbers!) a mountain pass that would take us back down to Loch Merkland and Loch Shin. Somehow, although we were heading in a totally different direction, the wind was still in our faces. I guess it gets channeled through the mountains and doesn’t play by the rules. The track was hard going. Lots of mud, ruts and big stones and in places it had been resurfaced with sand which was like trying to ride through porridge. The scenery was stunning but Martin and I had long since stopped telling each other this. Hardly a word was spoken, just heads down and get through to the other side. We passed three little lochs on the watershed and then had a long, exhilarating descent, only staying upright and braking to do all the way down to Loch Merkland. By the loch we finally had the wind on our backs and were soon flying back to Lairg on gently undulating, smooth tarmac.
Day 3, broken car and booze run (9.1 miles)
We decided to give the bikes a rest for the day. Steve had found some promising stone circles and standing stones on the maps to the west of us that he would like to check out and photograph. So a day of stones and moorland was planned. We took the car and tracked down a couple of these sites. Photos were taken and we were heading for a remote circle down a steeply cambered track when, oh so slowly but quite forcefully, the bottom of the car scraped against the road. Enough of a scrape to make a hole in the sump. Enough of a hole for a substantial amount of oil to come out. We were about 7 miles from the nearest village, facing the wrong way on a very bumpy narrow track. Somehow I reversed up and managed to get turned around (sorry front bumper!) and we slowly limped back to the nearest village, watching the oil light like hawks. Luckily the village garage would be able to fix it but they would have to order a sump from Inverness which would take a couple of days. This cramped our style a bit. We were planning on taking our bikes to the coast, which was a little bit too far away for day trips. Our only ride that day was to the local shop in Lairg for alcohol and chocolate to cheer up the evening’s scrabble session!
Day 4, Altnaharra and Crask Inn x 2 (46.9 miles)
As we were going to be limited to rides local to Lairgwe decided the Crask Inn warranted a further visit. We had noticed some interesting standing stones marked on the os map near to Loch Naver at Altnaharra. A there and back ride would give us the opportunity for two visits to the Inn, hot chocolate on the way up and maybe something a little stronger on the way back. The weather on the way up was a mixed bag of wind and rain again. 11 miles in we stopped for our scheduled hot chocolate break just as a particularly heavy rain shower came through. Drying out and warming up by the wood stove, we got chatting to Kai, a previous owner of the Inn who lives with her husband Michael in the adjacent bunk house. They were looking after the Inn for the current owners who were away on holiday. She told us how she born in Slaugham in West Sussex (I often ride through there!). Her father was a farmer and in 1954, family and household moved from Sussex to the Isle of Bute to take over a farm there. The move took six weeks with the assistance of a Fordson Major tractor and trailer. Imagine that journey! Kai and Michael eventually bought the Crask Inn and ran it for several years before deciding to sell. It wasn’t so easy to find a buyer and early in 2017 they gifted it to the Episcopal church, of which they are both members. They retained the bunk house and continue to farm there. The Inn is now a place of worship, albeit one that has a fine selection of single malts and local beer!
Warmed up and dried out, we continued to Altnaharra, mostly a long and beautiful descent with Ben Klibreck looming above us to the east. At Altnaharra we picked up a track along the shores of Loch Naver and then inland towards Ben Klibreck. There were plenty of stones lying about but it was difficult to pinpoint the ones we were looking for. A swollen burn didn’t help, we were pretty sure they were on the far bank. Steve trudged about with his camera a bit whilst Martin and I made a premature start on our bag of cheese and pickle sandwiches. The stones were not going to give up their secrets so easily, so mission aborted, we finished our lunch in a more sheltered spot and the thought of a wood stove and whisky were too much. A long gentle climb and we were soon back at our favourite Inn! A warm up, a lovely peaty measure of Laphroaig, a pint of Black Isle organic Blonde and a brisk tailwind and we were soon back at our favourite static caravan!
Day 5, Raven’s Gorge and Kyle of Sutherland (41.1 miles)
Today we would get the car back, or so we thought. A new sump was winging it’s way from Inverness and we had a long morning to fill. Time to squeeze in another little ride, so we decided to head south for a change towards the Kyle of Sutherland. South to Lairg and then a climb on the Invercassley road before dropping down a small wooded side road to Raven’s Gorge. We left the road and headed into the woods for a bit. It was mild and still and we met the first midges of our journey so after a brief look about we emerged again and finished dropping down to the river valley. The midges were out in force now and particularly noticeable if you came to a standstill, which we did as I got a call from the garage to say that they had the wrong sump!
We needed a plan C, Martin needed to get back to Bristol so at the Shin bridge we said our farewells and Martin headed back to Lairg to make the epic bus and train journey back south.
Steve and I resigned ourselves to the further delay and settled into full cycle tourist mode with a gentle ride to the Shin Falls visitor centre, a bit of sightseeing, and coffee and cake before reverting to see how many ancient sites we could squeeze in for our last afternoon. We managed an impressive chambered cairn, and a couple of Brochs, one of which was little more than a mound but the second, near Sallochy still had quite impressive walls and foundations. The day wasn’t wasted.
Day 6, Home
That was our week over, not quite how we’d planned but a very memorable week’s cycling nevertheless. As Martin said, ‘Sutherland must be where they keep all the weather’! It was certainly a world apart from the green lanes of Sussex.
In the afternoon we got the car back and after an epic overnight drive we finally arrived back in Worthing at 2.30am. For now it’s back to dark, wet, cold winter pub rides with Steve although I’m sure at some point the maps will be joining us, to be spread out on beer stained tables and plans for 2018 will be hatched.
Words and photos by Jeremy Sharp
If you would like to read Steve’s version of this trip please follow the link below www.landtraces.com/blog/2017/11/1/a-sutherland-cycle-tour-and-the-380-stone-circle