About 61 miles, not including the ferry crossing.
29 May 2013
I woke up to a warmer day which was nice, even if it was cloudier. The wind had switched around to come from the north east, so I was surprised it felt warmer. My ferry back to Scratsby wasn’t until 16.30 so took my time packing up, waiting for my tent to dry off a bit. Condensation seems to build up quite badly on the inside of my tent, however this is a small price to pay for it keeping the wind out, just takes a while to dry out sometimes.
I was showered, breakfasted, devices recharged, and ready to hit the road by 10.00. I thought I’d give the Garmin helpline another try, but got the usual ‘Please hold, our lines are extremely busy at the moment’ message. Their lines are always extremely busy, indicating that they have a lot of customers calling in with issues, and that they need to get more staff. I gave up after a couple of minutes but will have to try again later, or email them when I get to a wifi hotspot. Not impressed by them at all at the moment.
I bid goodbye to Hazel and Allan, the campsite wardens, who’d been both exceedingly helpful, specifically of the bike front, and also great to have a chat with. Good luck for everything in the future Hazel and Allan, and thanks again. Thanks also to the ‘Scousers’, who I waved to on my way out.
I rode down the A964 to Ophir across fairly flat terrain and with only a light wind to contend with. My first stop was the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, a free exhibition that includes the Earl’s Bu and Round Kirk, all about Viking activity on the islands.
A lot of the sagas concerning the Vikings on Orkney appear to have been written by Norsemen from Iceland, who visited their fellows on Orkney, considering it to be more wealthy, fertile and prosperous than their homeland. They took note of the tales told and later wrote them down, compiling the sagas that were told to generations through the following centuries. With no TV, computers, or radio I can imagine how important this sort of story telling must have been, especially when you heard mention of one of your own ancestors. Apparently a lot of Norsemen (Vikings) were literate, so would have been easy for these tales to spread, but I bet they were known off by heart to many. These sagas are in pretty stark contrast to a lot of the other writings of the time, which were mostly more dull religious texts; Although it should be noted that by this time most if not all Vikings had converted to Christianity, leaving behind the old Norse gods Thor and Odin – pretty brave move if you ask me, seeing as those gods had far more of a vengeful streak, and used hammers and lightning as a matter of course. I think a lot Norsemen yearned back to their roots slightly, when they weren’t so controlled by the church.
Loving a bit of story telling I read the various information boards in the centre, and watched the film which told a few of the sagas concerning the Orkneys. There ought to be more story telling that goes these days; you can still go to evenings with professional story-tellers, who are able to relate old tales with passion and emotion, in a bardic fashion. The sagas today seemed to mostly involve Vikings called Svein, involved in various heroic exploits, and quite frequently killing each other in their bid for Earldom in Orkney. There was quite a bit of skull splitting, ale quaffing, the odd poisoned shirt, treachery, escaping, alliance switching, raiding Ireland and Scotland, and general fighting. Not much about what the womenfolk got up to, or normal life. I wonder how much is exaggerated and how much is genuine.
Apparently the Vikings mostly drank ale from shallow dishes rather than horns which came a bit later. Drinking was taken very seriously, and had to be an equal affair. If you were noticed not to be drinking as much as your companions it could arouse suspicion and cause insult. At least one Svein, a particularly notorious one much loved in the sagas, took at axe to another Svein’s forehead as a result of such activity, before escaping through a skylight.
The site also had the remains of an old round Kirk, and Feasting Hall, pretty unique buildings, dating for the 12th century and which feature in some of the sagas, where the Earl feasted his fellow kinsman.
Also interesting to read that from these Norsemen comes the line of our Royal Family, with characters such as William the Conquerer from Normandy (Norse Land) featuring, post some other Viking who was very tall and for whom a horse big enough could not be found. I forget all the names but many died unnatural deaths whilst out being a Viking, and were called Svein. So the Saga Centre is well worth a visit.
Next I took the road around to the Unstan Cairn, from a far earlier time, dating back to between 2500 and 3000 years BC. It was used in Neolithic times to bury the dead, and was in use for centuries. It must have taken a lot of effort build and was interesting to see even if it now has a modern roof to protect it; still under a grassy mound. I was able to crawl inside though a narrow passageway to get inside.
I cycled on to the standing stones at Stenness which are pretty tall, and again must have taken a fair bit of effort to erect, involving the combined effort of communities from across the island. Must have been a central site for celebrations, feasts and rituals, but no-one knows for sure. There used to be more stones until a tenant farmer decided to dynamite them in 1814 or thereabouts, destroying a few before the locals stopped him. Think he wanted to clear the land but a bit of an archaeological sin!
Next was the stone circle called the Ring of Brodgar just up the road, a large circle rivalling some of the biggest in the UK. One of the stones had been shattered by lightning – maybe Odin getting angry.
Also passed a swan nesting who obliged with some cool photos.
Continuing on my tour I rode back round Stenness Loch to Stromness, finally getting a tailwind on the last bit which was cause for celebration. Covered a total of about 27 miles, however the day was far from done as I intended to ride into the evening post the ferry trip, to try and get within range of Cape Wrath the next day. With that in mind I bought a few supplies (cheese and pitta bread, plus tiffin), and then had a meal at the Ferry Inn next to the ferry terminal; nice steak and ale pie washed down with a pint of Scapa.
The ferry was on time and I rode on board. Bikes get tied to a padded rail for the duration of the voyage. I was the only cyclist this time so lots to choose from, and I got the faithful Ridgeback a comfy spot, before making my way up to the restaurant for a second feast of chilli-con-carne, with half chips and half rice. I like the Scottish half and half option, not having seen it down south. It generally seems to mean you get more, which is handy when you’re trying to eat between 4000 and 5000 calories a day. Think I’ve still lost some weight, or redistributed it to my legs; it’s really hard to eat so much every day, but quite enjoyable, unless I imagine you get constipated or have a stomach upset, but I’ve been fortunate in both regards so far, touch wood. Bananas help.
I spent a bit of time on deck watching the Orkney’s go by, and bidding them farewell for now. Saw lots of seabirds including a Razorbill, Cormorants, terns fishing, the odd Skua, a puffin flyby, and I think a Gannet which was cool. The cliffs on Hoy were pretty amazing and must provide a home to thousands of birds.
I arrived in Scratsby about 18.30, and trundled off the boat. As I was cycling out of the port, adjusting my bar bag, my front left pannier hit the kerb throwing the bike sideways. Fortunately I was only travelling about 2 miles an hour but I still fell off and grazed my knee, in a similar fashion to how I used to graze my knees as a kid falling over on concrete or gravel. It looked worse than it actually was, with blood running down my leg, fairly superficial really. Luckily I’d already cut the knees out of my cycling bib, for physio reasons, so no damage there. With panniers reattached and knee wound staunched I pedalled on.
From Scratsby I rode along the A836 through and over the Bridge of Forres, and past the old nuclear power plant at Dounreay, which is being decommissioned by the looks of the signs – must take a long time. Dounreay was the first nuclear power station built in the UK according to my Dad, so must be true.
As the evening drew in I rode through Reay, Port Skerra, Melvick (big hill), Strathy and Past the Strathy Inn (another big hill), past Armadale and on to Bettyhilly where there’s a campsite. I stuck to the A836 with the occasional side trek to see a village, a ride of about 33.5 miles I think but I need to check this, bringing today’s total to 61, not bad considering the ferry trip and big hills along the way, or even mountains (Beinns anyway, according to the map). I also had a slight north westerly to contend with, however at least it wasn’t cold for a change!
The hills and wind paled into insignificance versus the scenery I was passing through, which just got more and more impressive. It started off as pretty standard moorland, with the odd patch of forest which was a nice change after Orkney and no trees to speak of. Some nice flowers out along the roadside too, although the daffodils are finally starting to whither now. The countryside started to get more dramatic as I entered the hillier sections, with the sun starting to go down and adding to the vistas. Truly some of the best coastline and countryside I’ve cycled through to date, and I’m not sure the photos do it justice. It was quite an emotional ride with it getting late, and having passed a small field of flowers set aside by Marie Curie Cancer Support which got me thinking about Lu and how much she would have liked it here, not the camping bit but the scenery! I had a pause at the field and took a breather to let my legs recover a bit, plus a whee dram from my hip flask, alone with my thoughts, a few sheep, and the odd red deer.
The road at this time of the evening was pretty quiet, but the drivers I did pass all gave me lots of space. I finally arrived at the campsite at about 22.10, just as he sun was disappearing. I’d seen more and more red deer, even a small herd, as I progressed. Another advantage of the bike is it’s quiet, and as I was downwind of them I could sneak up. If I’d had a rifle I could have been eating venison that evening, but could have been tricky to fit on my back rack. Sheep aren’t so tricky to sneak up on, they either peg it as soon as they see you, or just stand in the middle of the road and then bolt in front of your bike at the last minute, stupid animals, prefer pigs.
The campsite owner had just got back from trying to help a local farmer with a cow that was calfing prematurely. She must be in her seventies but I could tell she’s as tough as the mountains we were amongst. Unfortunately the calf had died; she said it had been a beautiful thing, but such is a farmer’s lot from time to time. In this sort of small community everyone must know each other and help one another out with various things, great to see, and thinking about it not unlike Norwich with my group of friends, just a smaller and closer community with different sorts of hardships. She only charged me £3 for the camp as I was late arriving and probably because I looked a bit of a state, a bargain.
The campsite is fairly rudimentary, but suited me fine with a hot shower and toilets. Bettyhilly is tucked into a valley between the hills that goes down to a cove and the sea, with a beach at the bottom, a lovely view to camp against.
So another great day done and dusted, finishing with a challenging but rewarding ride through the Beinns to Bettyhilly, leaving Caithness and passing into Sutherland. Tomorrow I planned to cycle on the Tongue and then Durness, before thinking about getting across to Cape Wrath, which would depend on the tides. Nice to have got a couple of texts and emails from friends in Norwich and Newcastle too – thanks. Reception and wifi access is getting a bit intermittent now so not sure when I’ll next be able to iPad a blog post. Will finish with some photos from the last bit of my ride. Note – still haven’t got through to a Garmin, grrrr.