Salmon Leap

Day 103: Crask to Tain, Scotland, Monday July 31st

We had a full Scottish cooked breakfast, said goodbye to Allen and our hosts, then climbed the hill away from the Inn. The rest of the ride was pretty much a long, slow descent to the Kyle of Sutherland, and then to Dornoch Firth.

We had light rain for the first hour, then we dried in the sun. In Lairg we ran into Allen again, but he was riding more directly south than us.

On a beautiful road following the Shin River, we came to a strange building, designed to look like a salmon. It was the Falls of Shin cafe and pavilion. The rain had stopped again, so we enjoyed the sun at a picnic table and had a snack. Then we walked down to the falls. I was just saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool to actually see salmon jumping…” when we saw the first leaping fish. We stayed for awhile, watching the salmon heading upstream to spawn, cheering on their efforts.

We had to tackle some stairs to get over the Kyle of Sutherland on a pedestrian bridge. We’re getting pretty good at this challenge, and it gave us a great view of the Carbisdale Castle. It also got us onto a very quite road for a nice stretch.

There was just a little rain left for us to wait out after we reached our campground, and the site had a nice porch around the facilities building. When it cleared we set up our tent, and rode into Tain.

I was able to get a phone signal by the Tesco, which was good, because it was my mother’s birthday. I talked to my parents for nearly half an hour.

Deb made hot water couscous, and we avoided the midges by hanging out in the laundry room, which actually wasn’t bad. Three other tents were set up after ours: a woman traveling by car, a young man cycle touring, and a couple with their big dog. Nobody seemed particularly keen to chat. There was a beautiful sunset, and we were the only ones up to see it. Probably because of the midges.

Distance: 68 km

$35

The Last Homely House

Day 102: Bettyhill to Crask, Sunday July 30th

A beautiful morning. We packed up the tent, rode (and pushed) up the hill to the only shop in town and purchased a makeshift breakfast. While we drank our instant coffee another cycle tourer arrived and we started talking. Brigitte was Swiss, and quite the traveler. We admired her custom-built bike and talked about the road. She invited us to look her up on Warmshowers if we ever tour Switzerland.

From Bettyhill it was a quick, and fun, drop to the River Naver. We spent much of the day riding on a B road next to the river. This was the Strathnaver region, which once had about forty settlements and is now nearly empty, thanks to the clearances. Along the route we stopped at a few historical plaques.

A neolithic site

After reaching Loch Naver and turning west the sky began to darken. Before we rejoined the A836 at Altnaharra we were getting some light rain.

The last stretch seemed awfully long as the rain came and went. Finally, we rolled down a long hill and into the only building in Crask: the Inn. It was raining very hard, and we arrived with me shouting angrily at a caravan driver who didn’t think he needed to give bicycles space.

I calmed down quickly when we saw the inside of the Inn. It was built in the early 1800s as a drover’s cottage, and it doesn’t face the road, because the road didn’t exist. We were warmly welcomed into the bar, where a peat fire was burning. The Inn is owned by the Scottish Episcopal Church, and they brought in a family to live there and run it on their behalf. You can tent in the garden for a donation to the church, but we, thankfully, had a room.

We met Allen, an English cycle tourer, when he came in soaking wet, asking if he could pitch his tent. We were already toasty warm, drinking tea by the fire. All three of us paid the extra £15 to join the family for dinner, and it was worth every penny. Douglas, Denise and their daughter cooked and served. Denise’s sister, and her son and daughter were also there with us riders. It was a big family meal, and we loved the food, drink and conversation.

After dinner, we riders retired to the bar for pints. Allen was a fascinating guy – a musician, and quite a cycle tourer. We talked midges, weather, gear, and a lot about the route and our travels.

Distance: 52 km

$230

North Coast 500

Day 101: Stromness to Bettyhill, Saturday July 29th

We opted for the cooked breakfast at our hotel, then made the short ride to the ferry dock. The cruise back to the Scottish mainland turned out to be full of wonderful views of cliffs and mountainous islands. It was, thankfully, a much smoother crossing than our last.

We landed at Scrabster around lunchtime and immediately climbed the hill and started heading west along the coast on the A836, which wasn’t too busy. Much of the traffic seemed to be mostly people doing the North Coast 500, though some seemed to think the beautiful scenery meant they were in an idiotic car commercial showing amazing “handling” on corners. Considering the number of sheep, and even cows, we encountered on the road, I was surprised not to see some wrecks.

There were a lot of challenging climbs and thrilling descents. The views were fantastic.

Again, we were just a little late arriving to avoid the rain, but it paused long enough for us to set up our tent at a charming little campground. The location was amazing, and we were quite happy with it, despite the fact that it had a toilet/shower block that looked, in the words of one reviewer, like it was built fifty years ago by the Dharma Initiative.

In the campground we met a riding couple from Holland who had some advice for us regarding our route. Strangely, it seemed that every rider was going in the opposite direction to us.

Up the hill, into town, we found the home of the elderly woman who collects the fees for the campsite. It’s pretty much an honour system, as she was not likely to be hiking down to count the tents. We had a nice chat with her about the unseasonably cool weather and she helped us find the pub where we went for dinner.

 

Distance: 53 km (ride)

$

Skara Brae, Skull Splitter, and Brodgar

Day 100: Stromness (tour of West Mainland), Friday July 28th

We enjoyed an unencumbered ride, heading north from Stromness to Skaill, visiting Skara Brae, the remains of a neolithic village that has been called the “Scottish Pompeii”.

Re-creation of a neolithic house

The real thing

Included in the price of admission to the neolithic exhibit and village was a self-guided tour of Skaill House, an impressive 17th century manor with an 1950’s interior.

Just a little farther north we found the Orkney Brewery, where we both purchased samples. They make some very good beer, including Skull Splitter.

Next we hit the Ring of Brodgar, with menacing clouds adding to the moody atmosphere.

Perhaps we lingered just a little too long at stones, because just as we were completing our circuit, riding back into Stromness, the rain hit. We got drenched.

In the evening, when we were dry again, we went back to the Ferry Inn for a pint. We wore rather bizarre footwear, as our shoes were still wet.

Distance: 38 km

$

Long Strider

Day 99: Kirkwall to Stromness, Thursday July 27th

I read quietly after waking, and when I finally did drop out of my bunk I tried very hard to be silent. Then Deb got up and pointed out that we were the only people still in the room. Those were some seriously soft-footed hostelers!

We hurried to pack up the bikes before the (according to numerous signs) strict checkout time of 10 am. The manager told Deb we could use the facilities for breakfast, so we were able to fuel up.

The weather was perfect. We lingered in Kirkwall only long enough to look at St. Magnus Cathedral and the ruins next to it.

National Cycle Route 1 is on a not too busy “A” road at first. We took a hobbit stop at Waulkmill Bay, and were pleased to find a set of those great public toilets Scotland puts all over the place. I’m not being ironic; we’ve found that only Scotland (and to a lesser extent, Sweden) have had adequate public toilets along the cycle routes.

The cycle route used some really great smaller roads after that, and we ended up at a scenic lookout over the Lochs of Stenness and Harray where we ate our lunch. In the distance we could just make out the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar.

Back on the A road, we took a short detour to see the Standing Stones of Stenness. These massive rocks were part of one of the earliest stone circles in Britain (3100 BC), but only four stones remain, so they seem to have been overshadowed by the nearby Ring of Brodgar. Google Maps has the site listed as a bus stop.

When we got there, there were three tour buses parked, and the place was busy. Then, like magic, everybody disappeared, and we had the stones to ourselves.

We climbed the last hill and cruised down into Stromness. After checking in at the Orca Hotel, we explored. We saw the old well where Cook’s ships and countless HBC vessels took on water. We saw the statue of John Rae, a favourite explorer of Deb’s. I love that the Inuit named him, Aglooka, Long Strider.

I guess because of its location, Stromness seems to be a town full of adventurers. In addition to John Rae, and countless other HBC men, we saw plaques on the homes of many amazing people. We learned of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked in Australia (and is apparently rather infamous) who lived here, and Isabel Gunn, who disguised herself as a man in order to join the HBC.

Next to the statue was a shop where we purchased Orkney ice cream. Toffee fudge, so good!

The Ferry Inn had cask ales from the Orkney Brewery to cap off an excellent day.

Distance: 35 km

$

On the Mysterious Lack of Ponies

Day 98: Lerwick to Kirkwall (via ferry), Wednesday July 26th

Our B&B graciously allowed us to leave all our gear in their breakfast room while we did the tourist thing.

The Shetland museum in Lerwick is very impressive. We easily filled a few rainy hours checking out the displays. My favourite exhibit involved folklore, and Deb really liked the recordings of people telling stories and talking about life in the Shetlands.

I thought it interesting that there was so little about the oil industry: just a single alcove with an old video. Fishing and knitwear are more romantic, but the Shetland Charitable Trust, which is funded by oil taxes, is all over modern Shetland, including the great museum.

There was also nothing about ponies. Baffling!

Upstairs, there is a nice cafe with views of the harbour, but, as they were out of scones (!) we simply had a pot of tea.

It was finally time to board the ferry to the Orkneys. We loaded and rode in the pouring rain. I stupidly didn’t use my wet-weather footwear and my shoes soaked through.

We watched as we sailed away from the islands, passing the Knab, then we bought bowls of hot leek soup to warm up.

The crossing was pretty rough. We had to move out of one lounge because the sound of a man being violently ill was having a deleterious effect on my stomach.

We arrived safely in a blissfully calm and clear Kirkwall at about 11 pm with just a bit of light still in the west. We rode on silent streets to our hostel for the night and took the last two bunks in a pitch black six bunk room. I used the illumination of my phone screen to find my way around.

Knab

Day 97: Lerwick, Tuesday July 25th

We really savoured our last breakfast at Da Broch B&B, and our hosts Brian and Zoja let us linger. Sadly, they were booked far in advance for this night, and as the ferry only runs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we had to move to new digs for a last night in Lerwick.

The weather was fine, and Solheim Guesthouse was only 2 km away, in a more central location. Our new room was very nice, which made the transition easier.

After the hassle of packing/loading/unloading was done we went out to explore the Clickimin Broch, which we had passed every day but not visited.

Then into town. We bought postcards and walked a trail up to the “Knab” for some impressive views.

Back in the room, Deb worked hard trying to find us places to stay in the Highlands (tricky, because there are few places, and they’re often out of our budget range).

Later, we went back out to check out the live music at the Douglas Arms. The place was packed and the music never stopped. There were at least six fiddle players, plus a bass, a guitar or two, and a mandolin. We got there far too late to get a seat, but found room next to the bar.

Distance: 2 km

$137

Puffin Stuff

Day 96: Lerwick to Sumburgh Head and back (by bus), July 24th

For our next day in the Shetlands we did a little research and decided to take a local bus to the southern tip of the main island. Much of the bus trip was the same road we biked on the day before (there just aren’t a lot of roads here) but it was nice to see the views again from a warm seat.

The bus has to cross one of the airport’s runways, then it drops you close to the lonely Sumburgh hotel. Right next to that is Jarlshof, an amazing site where we walked around ruins from a staggering range of time. We got an excellent audio tour and spent over an hour exploring.

From Jarlshof there is a footpath up to the Sumburgh Head lighthouse. We walked next to some rather scary cliffs overlooking crashing waves. At one point Deb spotted our first seal of the day, bobbing in the water and staring at us.

Father up we started to see puffins, and other seabirds that nest in the cliffs. At some points near the lighthouse you’re very close to the birds and we got some good pictures. The lighthouse was interesting as well – built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather – and there was a radar installation up there that played a pivotal role in WWII.

We hiked back over a sheep-covered hill, spotting yet another inquisitive seal as we approached the hotel. We had a pint in their bar before catching the bus back to Lerwick.

Distance: 0

$192

Tombolo

Day 95: Lerwick to St Ninians Isle and back, July 23rd

After a big breakfast we went for a tour with only water and food. Even with so little baggage the hill out of town was a chore.

The Shetland Islands are a strange, otherworldly landscape. There are no trees, just endless green and rocky vistas, and a new view of either the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean around every bend.

There are few roads, so we spent much of the day riding on the busy A970. Cycle Route 1, which goes right up through the islands, did take us down into little villages when it could. There we rode on single lane roads, with excellent surfaces and only a few cars.

St Ninians lived up to its reputation, and a couple of local girls added to the effect by riding their horses up and down the tombolo (known locally as an ayre) which connects the main island to St Ninians.

Our host, Brian, told Deb that only a little farther south there was a cove where we might see seals. It cost us a few more hills, but he was right, it was covered in dozens of sunbathing sea beasts.

We started to ride back, and now we had a strong wind in our faces. The hills suddenly felt twice as high (and they were big to begin with). It took a lot longer to get back to Lerwick than it did to get out, and we were exhausted when we finally locked the bikes up at the Airbnb.

Worth it.

Distance: 65 km

$131

Shetland

Day 94: Lerwick, July 22nd

I didn’t sleep very well in my “pod”. I know I slept some because I had a dream, but the dream was about a flight attendant (cruise attendant?) who walked around the room waking people up to prevent snoring. Deb was more successful.

Our Airbnb hosts said it would be fine for us to check in as soon as we arrived, so it wasn’t long before we were getting comfortable in our digs for the next three nights. I’m writing this in the dining room with a fridge, microwave and a TV that we have all to ourselves. There are five cats. We get amazing breakfasts. It’s stretching our budget, but not destroying it. We were lucky to get this place, Deb hunted the web for days trying to get us accommodations. As it is, we have to move across town for our last night before we catch the ferry to the Orkneys.

Low on energy, but feeling much better after a shower and some porridge our host whipped up, Deb and I walked into Lerwick. We went to the Visitor Centre, which was a bit of a bust, but we met some very helpful locals at a bar. They offered lots of advice on what to see and how to see it.

We also saw a guy walking his goat.

Distance: 3 km (from ferry to Airbnb)

$162