The car ferry to the Scottish mainland leaves at 11.30am about half a mile from where we stayed in St Margaret’s Hope, so it was a relatively easy start to the day. I had scrambled eggs with salmon for breakfast and I think they gave me almost the whole fish! The smooth crossing took an hour and there was just time to chat to some of the other people on board. I thought my undertaking was a bit mad; but we met a couple who are aiming to perform a Scottish country dance in all of the places named in the titles of individual dances. This particular trip involved many locations around Orkney; but since there are literally thousands of dances, it is an ambition that may never be entirely fulfilled. Providing the music has become easier since the invention of Bluetooth, however. Before that, a car battery had to be taken to each dance location, some of which are on the top of mountains!
The ferry sailed through the southern entrance to Scapa Flow and out into the notoriously treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth. Today it was pretty calm as we sailed alongside the island of Stroma, with its deserted buildings. The island’s population peaked in 1901 at 375; but had fallen by 1961 to just 12, when it was abandoned. It is now used to graze sheep by the descendent of a former resident. You could see the chapel and the roofless cottages, and couldn’t help feeling a little sad.
We disembarked a few miles west of John O’Groats and cycled there into the wind. On my only previous visit, during our Land’s End to Orkney cancer fundraising ride in 2008, the place was a drab anti-climax for somewhere with such symbolic importance. But the last 14 years have changed all that and it now feels like a destination. The old buildings have been spruced up and new colourful additions have appeared, along with modern luxury accommodation and big scale public art. A nice lady in a cafe allowed us to stow our luggage under a table while we made the 4 mile round trip up to Duncansby Head, mainland Britain’s most north-easterly outpost, complete with obligatory lighthouse. I took a quick selfie while Jenni had an argument with a cattle grid, resulting in a flat rear tyre. She walked back to the main road while I went all the way to get the bags and we met at a handily placed hotel for a hasty lunch and change of inner tube. I was able to carry that out in a warm spacious porch, so it could have been much worse.
Until now, we had failed to quite escape the nether regions of OS map 7; but, a couple of miles later, we left the official sequential map ride and began the not inconsiderable task of getting to OS map 8. I’m not going to pretend that I fell in love with Caithness. The weather probably didn’t help. We had a stiff easterly wind coming in from the North Sea all afternoon, and from about 3pm it was joined by light but persistent rain. This began just as the main cycle of our day took us 19 miles from John O’Groats to Wick. But even in better weather, this is a flat, featureless landscape that struggles to impress. They do have some rather fetching field boundaries here that you don’t get elsewhere: kind of stone fences made of slate-thin, waist-high squares of the local grey stone, arranged in long lines stretching away in all directions. But when that, and the odd decent bit of coastline, is the highlight, perhaps the less said the better. It does seem to be very popular with camper vans, though. We lost count as we ground out the miles on long, straight, wet roads.
Out of sight on a drab industrial estate next to Wick Airport we found an unlikely garage that is the region’s only Hertz representative. Luckily they were expecting us and had a big white van waiting for us to hire for 4 days, capable of holding 2 bikes laid on their sides! Getting from here over to map 8 on the Isle of Lewis, at the top of the Outer Hebrides, was never going to be straightforward. The one useful ferry port, Ullapool, is about 114 tortuous miles away from Wick, and also 67 hilly miles from the top left hand corner of mainland Scotland and map 9. Tricky places to connect together, and no viable public transport options if you have a bike with you. But with a van, and a willing wife to drive it back to Inverness afterwards, I sensed opportunity. The van also made a very useful changing room to get out of wet cycling gear and into warm, dry clothes for the rest of the evening. We drove out from Wick across the seemingly endless farmland in drizzle, until we hit the north coast at the point where the hills begin and the real scenery kicks in. And there, in the remote village of Strathy, was our small hotel for the night, and a couple more delicious pints of Dark Island, since Orkney is where the day began!
Tomorrow is entirely a transport day, with a little fun along the way, hopefully, in what should be a stunning drive along the north and west coasts. We will barely ride our bikes, and that feels about right after the week’s exertions. Jenni has done wonderfully so far; but she is tired each evening. A rest will be welcome.