Dead sheep on the NC500

One recent Monday, I threw a picnic blanket and a goodly supply of pine nuts and marmalade in the car, and headed up the A9. On the way I picked up copies of the Telegraph and Guardian. The Guardian carried news of Man City’s fourth successive Premier League title, clinched the day before. 

‘We are the greatest’ proclaims Pep Guardiola.

Both papers also carried the news that the Iranian president is feared dead after a helicopter crash in the mountains.

I only ever buy newspapers for the crosswords, though.

Arriving at Embo at tea-time, I went for a stroll along the beach, mostly deserted in the early evening sunshine. A dog-walker was making her way along the top of the sand dunes. Her charge was rather more interested in a dead sheep on the beach, a few metres from the incoming tide. Given its position so close to the sea, I wondered if it had perhaps been attempting a sea swim, and the cold water shock had proved too much.

Apart from the expired sheep, the beach was stunning; a long stretch of golden sand set against the backdrop of the hills around Golspie, including Ben Bhraggie, with its giant statue of the first – and so far most unpopular – Duke of Sutherland. 

Tuesday, I woke early to a flawless blue sky. I knew from the forecast this could be my best chance of the week for a sea swim, having a strong aversion to swimming when the sun isn’t out. So I sashayed down to the beach, and waded in carefully, keen to avoid the fate of the poor sheep. Last night’s stiff easterly breeze had subsided, and it was pleasantly warm in the sunshine. I even managed a bit of post-swim sunbathing.

After a quick lunch in Dornoch, I went on the hunt for a new t-shirt, as my existing collection is wearing a little thin, in more ways than one. I was hoping to find something touristy, but not tacky. I stumbled upon Dornoch Stores, an old-fashioned hardware store kind of place, that seemed to sell everything. However, clothes-wise they only seemed to have fleeces, rain jackets, wellies and ponchos. Just the Scottish summer essentials. Not a t-shirt to be seen. Moving on, I did find a few clothes shops, but they were high end, with lots of Barbour. They didn’t have t-shirts either, only polo shirts (darling), and I couldn’t afford any of those.

I had smoked salmon for dinner, and watched Highlander, for the umpteenth time.

Wednesday, I ran barefoot along Dornoch beach. The tide was in, which left only soft sand to run on. I passed an enormous seagull, resting on the beach, leaning slightly forward as if it was very interested in the sand immediately in front of its beak. 

It was dead.

I ran on, fording the Dornoch Burn where it flows into the sea, but the soft sand and the running rustiness were taking their toll. On my return to the car park I contemplated a splash in the sea, but opted instead for the recuperative powers of a cajun cod roll from a nearby kiosk (which was outstanding), and a weak attempt at the Guardian crossword, sitting at a picnic table overlooking the beach.

Later, I finished the Telegraph crossword at the Inver Inn, on the way back from Tarbat Ness lighthouse, after an excellent fish and chips, and drove back through the steady rain to the caravan, where I watched Shell, a moving 2012 film set in the Highlands.

Thursday morning dawned grey but dry, after consistent rainfall through the night.

I picked up a Times to replace the Telegraph, and attempted the crossword in a coffee shop in Tain, with limited success.

It’s twenty-five years since I was properly up in this part of the world, and I am enamoured by the small towns and villages I’ve been in. The homogenous UK High Street, with its endless repetition of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Greggs and mobile phone shops…is not here. I haven’t seen it for days. Instead I’ve seen independent coffee shops, antiques emporia and old fashioned hardware stores. It’s refreshing. Even if they don’t sell t-shirts.

After a visit to Dunrobin Castle, once home to the aforementioned Duke of Sutherland, I made my back to the caravan for a tuna dinner and a deep dive into the Highland Clearances. I had, prior to this, only the vaguest of notions what the Clearances were all about, and my notions were all wrong, having got the Highland Clearances mixed up in my head with the government’s reaction to the Jacobite Rebellion, with the outlawing of Highland dress etc. My education – if not complete, at least partially coloured-in – I became aware of the reason for the near-complete absence in the central parts of Caithness and Sutherland of significant towns and villages.

I also finished the Guardian crossword, and opened a nice beer to celebrate both this and my first day without finding a dead creature on a beach.

Friday morning, I bumped into some of my mum’s friends in a Dornoch coffee shop. They brought news of a submerged Edinburgh, where it had rained solidly for forty-eight hours. I began to feel better about my holiday weather, which had been grey and drizzly since its sunny beginnings.

Deciding to explore further up the coast, I headed up the A9, as it dramatically zig-zags its way up and down cliffs beyond Golspie, with gravel pit run-offs on a couple of the steeper downhill bends, I guess for trucks whose brakes are experiencing a spot of vertigo. I remember noticing these in 1999. I still haven’t seen anything similar anywhere else in the world.

On through Brora, Helmsdale, climbing into the clouds thick enough to warrant a rear fog light at times, and down again, into Wick, where I parked at the harbour and walked along the High Street for a quite terrible cup of coffee.

Having never made it as far north as Wick before, I decided that this would be the day to go even further north, and so I pushed on along the east coast of Caithness, the weather brightening, past what looked like a stunning beach at Keiss, and on to John O’Groats, and Duncansby Head. It’s a place that feels like it should be one of the windiest on earth, but it was a still day, and I was surprised by how close Orkney is, or at least how close it appeared to be.

Missing out on the famous John O’Groats signpost due to resurfacing roadworks, I drove along the north coast, stumbling upon a fabulous bay at Dunnet Head, and an enterprising ‘cafe’ called Scone with the Wind, which looked like a bus shelter in someone’s front garden, kitted out with tables and chairs, a view of the North Atlantic, some help-yourself scones and an honesty box. 

The road surfaces in this part of Scotland, it must be said, were bad enough to inspire misty-eyed reminiscences of Edinburgh. 

I rejoined the A9 south at Thurso, cutting left at Georgemas so as to take in the Whaligoe Steps on my way back to my Airbnb at Golspie.

In the evening, I went out for a posh dinner at Royal Dornoch. Expensive as these meals are, the food is always exquisite, and – speaking as a solo-travelling man of a certain age – perhaps worth it just for the non-suspicious human interaction, which is always more than one gets at a normal restaurant. Even if the conversation consists mainly of a description of which ocean bed the scallops were retrieved from, or what kind of oven the bread is baked in.

I was initially served the world’s tiniest pancake with some sort of mousse on the top, four minuscule drops of ginger gel and some herbs from the garden. Perched on top of some pebbles, as you might expect. 

Then came the bread, two different types, I lost track of all the details but did hear the words “Marmite”, “sourdough” and “honey butter”.

The starter was the aforementioned scallops, hand dived in Orkney, presented on an actual shell. Which was perched on top of some pebbles, as you might expect. 

Thereafter there was steak, and chocolate mousse, and petits fours. And coffee. It was all very delicious.

Saturday morning was getaway day, and the sun came out in force, as it always seems to do on the day of departure, so I managed a sea swim at Dornoch on my way South, without encountering any more dead animals.

The long circuitous route from Inverness, westwards cross-country to Lochcarron, Applecross, and then all the way up the north west coast, round to John O’Groats and then south down the A9 back to the Black Isle, has – in recent years – been branded and marketed as the North Coast 500, it being a fraction over 500 miles long. I was sceptical of this, being largely resistant towards marketing and branding in general, and seeing it as something of a gimmick. But a few days in Caithness and Sutherland have reminded me of the hidden gems that are tucked away in that part of the world, and if the NC500 branding brings more visitors, and helps businesses to thrive in a remote part of the UK, then I’m all for it.

The Prematurely Ageing Process

‘I think you’re a bit younger than me,’ said my client, as I was inspecting her ear canals for wax.

‘I think I am a little younger,’ I said. She was seventy-eight.

‘Probably late fifties, early sixties?’ she suggested.

I tried not to burst into tears.

After she had departed, I marched up to the reception in the surgery where I work.

‘Louise,’ I said. That lady said I looked late fifties/early sixties! Help me here!’

She adopted her kindest expression. ‘What are you?’ she asked gently, ‘mid-fifties?’

I popped out at lunch-time to get some Oil of Olay.


My Sydney-based Second Cousin Once Removed, or Phil, as I tend to call him, a compulsive Parkrunner, has made noises about adding the Portobello Parkrun to his list of conquests next year. And he wants me to join him.

In an effort to look like I know what I’m doing, especially as he’s coming all the way from Australia, not to mention having been encouraged back into running by a recent episode on the way to work, which involved me simply sitting down and my belt buckle exploding, I joined the growing crowd in Figgate Park at an unearthly hour on Saturday morning. I found a hi-vis-clad volunteer and confessed this was my first venture into the world of parkrunning. He was very reassuring. And so I set off on the leaves-covered path, three times around Figgate Park and a dash to the finish. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be all that dashing at the finish.

Halfway round the second lap I found myself tucked in behind a female runner. She was wearing a t-shirt with “Speed of Light” printed on the back. I never got to see what was printed on the front, and it was only a little while later that I couldn’t make out what was on the back either, as she receded into the middle distance. It was around this time that the proper runners started lapping me, calling out unnecessary and unhelpful encouragements as they wound up for a sprint finish.

I struggled on and finished the course in 132nd place, out of a total field of 221, which I consider to be reassuringly mid-table. I was also 10th in my age category, which – to avoid any misunderstanding and confusion – is the 40-49 category. For a few months longer.

Skye, the Scottish mainland, Sunday

Sunday morning I drive down through Skye, on proper two-lane roads, through the towering Cuillins, as the rain begins to fall, and join a swelling logjam of coaches and camper vans. Sunday, I guess, is getaway day. 

I stop for coffee in Broadford, and the queue is out the door. After the calm and quiet of Lewis, it feels like a seething mass of humanity.

Then on a tip from a friend, cutting right onto the road less traveled, a narrow single-track road which wends and twists its way up, up, up and over, yielding spectacular views at the top, even on a grey day.

Down eventually to a ferry terminal, which is a hut beside a slipway. The ferry is on the far side of the loch, loading cars. It’s just me and the midges on the Skye side, as I discover when I get out of the car to take in the view.

It has a rustic feel, this ferry. It berths alongside the jetty, whereupon a wild-looking mountain man manually wheels the turntable containing the cars (three in this case, it can take six) until it diagonally overhangs the slipway, the ramps are thrown down, and the cars exit.

I drive on, a big Mercedes SUV follows me. The crew disappear into the wheelhouse and stay there for some time. I begin to worry that they won’t sail without a minimum of three cars, but in due course they reappear, the boat sets off, and Mountain Man swings the whole turntable round so that we’re facing the shore. 

Then he appears at my window. He’s standing on the edge of the boat, outside the safety railings, and takes my payment with an iPad in one hand and a wireless card reader in the other. Nothing, one feels, could go wrong in this scenario.

The road on the mainland is very reminiscent of its counterpart on Skye, single track, but with a better surface. It climbs dramatically and then descends, affording breathtaking viewpoints along the way, with many pauses in the journey forced by procrastinating sheep on the road.

They feel reassuringly familiar – the single track, and the sheep – but eventually I turn right onto the A87, rejoining the great Sunday caravan southwards, where the roads are sensible, and the sheep are safely behind wire fences. 

Onwards through Glen Shiel, Glen Garry, and Glen Roy, where I clock up the 1000th mile of the trip. By the time I reach Edinburgh I’ve notched up over 1,100 miles, and – it turns out – put on a couple of extra kilos to boot.

The forty minutes of extra daylight I gained by going north are suddenly lost again, and Edinburgh feels dark, and cold. And so… back to normal, back to busyness, back to work. Back to having to lock my car again.

Until the next time.

See you again, Isle of Lewis.

Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Skye, Saturday

Am up before the dawn to make an 0825 ferry from Leverburgh, on the southern tip of Harris. When booking the ferries for this trip months ago, I hadn’t appreciated the distances involved, and the non-directness of the roads.

Still, the roads were quiet, apart from the promised deer, who were out in force, along with the ubiquitous sheep, and plenty of rabbits.

Just as I officially cross over into Harris, the sun climbs above the hills, and mist rises from lochs and burns. It’s a beautiful sunny morning, and breathtakingly still.

The ferry from Leverburgh weaves through multiple little islands on its way to Berneray. On arrival I refuel with coffee and coffee cake, before driving over to the west beach, parking and walking across the machair and through the dunes.

The west beach is predictably stunning, and stretches all the way up the west side of the island.

Am dog-tired from my early start and the ‘mild’ winds robbing me of sleep the other night. I find a little hollow in the dunes sheltered from the cooling breeze, and catch forty winks in the sunshine. 

From there I drive down into North Uist, finding a food van on the west side, which serves me an epic scallops and Stornoway black pudding roll. Plus a traybake. I sit outside with a view across to islands I cannot name, and a crossword that I cannot finish.

After a brief diversion down into Benbecula, I drive to Lochmaddy, and a 1645 ferry to Uig, Skye. Arriving slightly early, I have tea and coffee cake at a nearby cafe before boarding.

I have to nap on the ferry due to the excessive cake-eating.

On arrival into Uig, I find a pub showing the Ireland v Tonga game. The pub smells strongly of wet dog. Watching games in pubs is fun when there’s a large crowd engaged in watching. When you’re almost the only person interested in the game, and have to crane your neck every so often as someone playing pool is blocking your view of the screen, it’s less involving.

Sometime during the first half I retreat back to my Airbnb and watch the rest of the game on a smaller screen. Ireland run out comfortable winners, but there are sterner challenges to come, with South Africa and Scotland due up in the next few weeks.

Lewis & Harris, Friday

It’s a lovely, sunny morning. I decide to head back to Reef Beach, once again passing Cliff on the way, where there’s a decent swell and quite a few surfers in the water.

The water at Reef is once again turquoise, and feels a very similar temperature as it did on Tuesday at Luskentyre. I am the only one in the water. I float on my back, and drink in the view to the north where there is the beginnings of a rainbow rising out of the water and disappearing into a dark cloud, just to the west of the island of Pabaigh Mòr. Just then it feels like stingy seaweed wraps itself around my right forearm. I fling it away. Realise it was the tentacle of a jellyfish. It isn’t particularly sore and am not quite sure what to do but I don’t want to continue swimming so I leave the water and get changed.

I take a couple of antihistamines, and some medicinal hot chocolate from my Isle of Harris flask. Great hot chocolate is, I reckon, more about the context than the contents. The best hot chocolates of my life have been at the top of a snowy mountain towards the end of a great ski day, and from a flask after a swim in the sea.

After a visit to a pharmacy in Stornoway, where I am assured that antihistamines will take care of the jellyfish sting, I carry on up to the the Butt of Lewis, which features a Stevenson Lighthouse. The Butt of Lewis is the most northerly point in Lewis, and reputed to be the windiest place in the U.K., but there’s not a breath of wind today.

After a nap back at the Pod, I drive to Crust, a shipping container in a field near Leurbost which has been converted into an excellent pizza kitchen, with a fabulous view of the Harris hills.

Tosh and Ged come out to meet me to say goodbye on my return, as I have an early start in the morning. “Watch out for deer,” they warn.

Lewis & Harris, Thursday

The wind remains high all morning. Tosh invites me in for a coffee, and brushes away my suggestions that the wind was strong last night.

“The Pod has survived much worse than that,” she assures me.

I head over to Callinish to see the standing stones, and do a walk around all three sites. Wind still very strong (by my standards), and at a point in the walk when it’s at my back, a rain shower blows in, and thoroughly drenches the back of my legs. Otherwise I remain dry.

I make another attempt to find the Bothy. It takes me three or four passes along the cliffs, but eventually I manage it. The wind is still incredibly blustery, but it’s blowing off the sea, so if anything it’s keeping me more safe. The waves pounding and crashing into the sea stacks, exploding into spray, is a spectacular sight. 

The Bothy is a very special, near-magical place, beautifully-designed and built on a shelf in the cliffs. It has three windows, one with views westward across the sea, one of the cliffs and sea stacks to the north, and one in the roof. It would be a dramatic place to spend the night.

In the evening I have dinner at Uig Sands, a fine dining restaurant with an even finer view through floor-to-ceiling windows across the beach at Uig. My server brings me plate after plate with very small amounts of food on them, but what’s there is deliciously tasty.

I drive back to the Pod in the twilight, with the lochs shining light blue against the darkened hills.

Lewis & Harris, Wednesday

The forecast is for rain to come in the early afternoon.

I head towards Reef beach. Driving on the island has presented me with a difficult choice. On the one hand, the roads are frequently single-track, and demand caution when going round blind corners. On the other, the surfaces are very good, and the roads wind, weave and bend up hills and through valleys, which – in a small car which holds the road well – makes it great fun to open the throttle and let rip.

Taking the second approach this morning, I fly round a blind corner and slam on the anchors upon suddenly finding myself in a three-car traffic jam. A couple of workmen are repairing a pothole in one of the passing places, and while neither of them thumps a staff on the ground and screams “You shall not pass!” … they might as well have. And so we wait, and watch.

On my way to Reef I stumble across Cliff beach, where the waves look epic, and may have only recently become so, as there are a number of surfers suddenly suiting up and running across the sand towards the surf.

I agonise over going in (for a swim). I reckon the rain’s not far away, and so decide against it. I drive on to Reef beach, which is also beautiful, and calmer. The clouds arrive shortly, and put an end to my swim plans.

I circle round the peninsula via Reef village, and back to Uig, coming across the very same workmen fixing another pothole.

Ordering a toastie in the Uig Community Cafe, I look up to see that nothing whatsoever can be seen through the windows. The weather has officially closed in.

I write some postcards (postcards, I am delighted to discover, are alive and well on the Isle of Lewis), and visit the local museum, learning a lot about the area’s Norse history, the Highland Clearances, and the Lewis Chessmen.

It’s a thunderously windy night, and the Pod creaks and groans. I am convinced the whole thing will lift off the ground at any moment and deposit me in a nearby loch. This doesn’t happen, and I eventually get to sleep around 5am.

Lewis & Harris, Tuesday

Having no breakfast materials, I am up sharp and at the only shop for miles in time for its 9am opening to get bread, butter and milk.

It’s an amazing shop, very well stocked with all manner of foodstuffs and other things. Sadly they have no flasks, as I was hoping, having realised at some too-late point on the A9 that I had left mine at home. I pick up a hat instead, which I accept is not technically a good substitute for a flask, but one can never have too many hats.

The sun is out. My hat is not even needed. I decided to head south to Harris and maybe Luskentyre for a swim. Am wary of going in for a swim alone, and the beaches here are renowned for being deserted, but Luskentyre is, I understand, pretty famous, so I can be sure of a few folk floating around. Perhaps literally.

The drive south proves to be epic in the September sunshine, with gorgeous vistas at every turn as the road climbs through the hills.

Luskentyre beach, I discover, is at the end of three miles of properly single track road, which takes a certain amount of navigating, and proves to be reasonably busy, in that there were about fifteen people there.

The beach is gorgeous, with turquoise water framed by the hills of Taransay beyond. I swim for about twenty minutes, no wetsuit required. I like to think I spoiled a reasonable number of Instagram shots.

I stop at a beach hut on the way back out, pick up an Isle of Harris-branded flask and have a cup of tea on a bench with a stunning view over to Seilebost.

Back at the Pod, I make dinner with some locally-smoked salmon, and walk back to the Mangersta Cliffs, hoping to find the famous Mangersta Bothy which my elusive friend had alerted me to, but I fail in my quest. Instead I unexpectedly find a bull, who gives me a baleful look, and I beat a hasty retreat back to the Pod.

Tonight it’s a clear night, the sky is packed with stars, and maybe even a slight aurora on the northern horizon.

Lewis & Harris, Monday

On Monday, I catch a ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway, for my first proper trip to the Isle of Lewis.

Following a lovely lunch and a sunny clifftop walk with an elusive friend (known for four years but never met) on Point, I head south out of Stornoway, turning right at Leurbost and all the way over to Mangersta on the west of the island. It’s an amazingly scenic drive, vast swathes of machair punctuated by lochs, rocks and hills, and the sun in a bright blue and white sky over the bigger hills of Harris to the south.

The two-lane highway on which I started quickly gives way to a single track road with passing places, curves and dips.

I check in at the Mangersta Pod, and meet Tosh and Ged – my Airbnb hosts. Tosh is from Lancashire originally, but moved to Lewis over fifty years ago. The Pod has a small hob, microwave, fridge, shower room, and – mercifully as I have zero 4G reception from anywhere west of Uig – wifi.

After a quick dinner, I embark on my second clifftop walk of the day, encountering numerous sheep but no humans as I tramp through marshy fields to the edge of the cliffs, spectacular sea stacks, and over and down to Mangersta beach. The beach is stunning. Sadly it’s not safe for swimming.

A squall comes out of nowhere, and I take emergency shelter in the lee of a rock.

The rain passed, I watch the sun go down over the Atlantic. It occurs to me that – coming this far north – I’ve gained twenty minutes of evening light.

I walk back to the Pod through the gloaming. As I settle in for the night it’s astonishingly quiet and very, very dark.

Footballers saying sweet F.A.

Scotland, like the rest of the UK, and – I assume – Europe, is in the grip of a cold snap. We had a moderate fall of snow in Porty a week ago today, and although that (and the snow that fell two days later) has now melted, temperatures have mostly remained below zero. I can’t remember such a sustained spell of freezing weather here. No doubt this is due to global warming, which seems ironic. 

It saddens me greatly to read of glaciers melting and shrinking. If it’s any consolation, I found some small glaciers had formed on the inside of my living room windows a few mornings ago, although I suspect they won’t go any way to offsetting the damage being done in the Alps and elsewhere.

A few months ago, I began leaving the butter out of the fridge, so that it would be more spreadable on my toast of a morning. Now I’m considering putting it back in the fridge, to soften it up a little.

While Britain freezes, meanwhile, we’re watching a World Cup played in (mostly) high temperatures in Qatar, a tournament dogged by controversy and allegations of corruption, which seems par for the course. It was, after all, organised by FIFA.

But this year there’s been a fair bit of bleating from various ‘progressive’ nations about Qatar’s various human rights violations, with respect to immigrant workers and treatment of the LGBTQIA+ (I may not be up to date with with acronym, and so will use ‘LGBT’ from here) community.

I fully expect (having not read up on it fully) that Qatar is indeed guilty of many crimes in these regards, and abhor any such human rights abuses. But I find the responses of the various FAs and the players themselves distinctly underwhelming.

If they (the FAs) were so upset about Qatar being chosen as the venue for this World Cup, they could have boycotted it. Not turned up. That would have sent a serious message to FIFA, and to Qatar. Would they have been financially sanctioned by FIFA? Probably (I don’t know).  Would they have lost out massively, financially? I’m sure they would. Would some players have lost their only opportunity to play at the highest stage (if indeed it is the highest stage in football, these days)? Almost certainly.

Too high a price to pay? Maybe. 

While Qatar are no doubt guilty of various crimes as alluded to above, I don’t remember anyone complaining about the World Cup being held in the USA in 1994. The USA, perhaps, can’t be placed in the same category as Qatar, but are likely responsible for variously bad behaviour both within and without the borders of their own nation. So, I imagine, are all countries, really. If the World Cup was ever held in England or the UK, the finger could be pointed at us for various misdemeanours. Especially if history is taken into account.

So if we’re going to hold a World Cup in an actual country on earth, and not on a neutral venue such as the moon, then let’s expect that the host country probably isn’t a shining light, morally-speaking. It seems a safe assumption. And if the nation in question really has ‘crossed the line’, then have the strength of your convictions and boycott the thing. Although the question remains for me – who gets to define where the ‘line’ is? If we – as humans – have taken it upon ourselves to decide what is right and what is wrong, then which of us gets the final say on what is and what isn’t?

At the start of the tournament, several captains of European nations announced their intention to wear armbands supporting the LGBT cause. Until, that is, they were threatened with the sanction of…being booked. Would this have hurt them (the captains) personally, and harmed their teams’ chances? Of course. But how much do they care about these causes they purport to support, if they aren’t prepared to make even the smallest sacrifice to make the point? It all looks like shallow posturing.

In 2003, Zimbabwe’s Henry Olonga and Andy Flower wore black armbands in a match in the Cricket World Cup, being held in South Africa. They publicly stated why – to “mourn the death of democracy” under the Robert Mugabe regime. Were they sanctioned? Olonga received death threats, never played for Zimbabwe again, despite being only 26 and in his prime, and was forced to live in exile.

Footballers, if you want to show support for a cause you believe in, please do so. If you will only do this if it’s convenient and doesn’t cost you anything, please don’t bother.

Stay warm, Britons. And Happy Christmas, if I don’t write before then (as seems likely…!)