The luck of the Scottish runs out, on LEJoG Day 81
LEJoG Day 81 pre-amble
Ever since the heavy rain on the canals in August 2020, my Scottish journey had been blessed with remarkably good weather. Crucially, I felt not a drop of rain along the West Highland Way or Great Glen Way. Astonishingly, the one absolute deluge coincided with a pre-planned rest day. So I’d been very lucky for 14 consecutive days between Milngavie and Tain (a distance of over 200 miles).
The final two days of walking in 2021 were scheduled for the end of September. The sun shone for most of my long drive to Inverness (see Practicalities below). It was still around when I caught the Sunday bus to Tain.
On the morning of Monday 27 September 2021, the weather broke. Quite spectacularly. And when the weather breaks…, well you don’t weep and moan, but your best-laid plans go awry anyway.
Today saw only my second curtailment of a scheduled LEJoG stage.
LEJoG Day 81 (Monday 27 September 2021)
Tain to Dornoch (8½ miles)
Cumulative: 1,170 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 2 hours 40 minutes. Average speed: 3.19 mph. Weather: Very heavy rain a.m., easing off only an hour or so in to walk and stopping only by 1:30-2pm; cloudy, cool.
Practicalities: Well obviously I wasn’t going to take the sleeper to Inverness again… My walking group was on a long weekend in the Cairngorms from Wednesday 29th, so I decided to make a double header of it and join them after LEJoG. This meant driving to Scotland.
Made it to Glasgow on Friday and stayed at a Premier Inn overnight. Inverness via a scenic route was my target for Saturday. Fancied following some of the roads I’d seen while walking the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way. Took the M8 out of Glasgow, crossed the Erskine Bridge and then picked up the A82, using it to drive the western shore of Loch Lomond. Unfortunately the views were spoiled here by the first rain of the weekend. Continued along the A82, passing familiar names such as Crianlarich and Tyndrum, and the great climb/view near Loch Tulla. The sentimentalist in me decided to stop at the car peak near Altnafeadh, beneath Buachaille Etive Mor. Cloud was obscuring most of the mountain this afternoon, not just the summit, so look at the link if you want a good picture 🙂
Stopped again in Glencoe Village – stretched legs for a bit and picked up some drinks. Intended a late lunch but the cafe was too busy and the shop poorly stocked, so I waited until Fort William Morrison’s. The A82 continues along the course of the Great Glen Way, passing through Spean Bridge, Fort Augustus and Invermoriston, while offering great views of Loch Lochy and (of course) Loch Ness. Stopped for petrol at Drumnadrochit. Much brighter day by now. Arrival into Inverness was delayed by the very same swing bridge that kept me waiting on foot two months earlier.
Left my car at the Rose Street Multi Storey car park in Inverness until Wednesday 29th. Its overnight rates are very reasonable and I’d recommend this as a good option if you’re struggling with logistics north of Inverness. Stayed at the Black Isle Bar and Rooms. The pub and restaurant are a lot better than the accommodation, but it was cheap and convenient. Absolutely wonderful, original pizza and (local) beer menu, I have to say. The Heaven Hill Full Circle Barrel-aged Porter was sublime.
Overnight rain, but sunny and warmish when I caught the bus to Tain. Blue sky for the rest of the day too, but crossing my fingers after the weekend’s showers. Stayed at the Royal Hotel again: another good evening meal and breakfast. Picked up food and drink for tomorrow’s planned long walk to Golspie.
I heard the rain as I awoke. Looked out of the window to see it coming down hard, and obvious signs that it had been falling for hours. It didn’t ease off over breakfast. I waited until the latest possible check-out time (11:00am), but still it came.
Start: Royal Hotel Tain, 11:20am. End: Cathedral Square, Dornoch, 2:10pm.
Today’s walk can be followed entirely on OS Explorer 438 (Dornoch and Tain, linked on Day 80).
First things first – as hinted at a couple of times above, I was planning to complete two stages of the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT) today. First, Tain to Dornoch and then Dornoch to Golspie. On Tuesday I would walk from Golspie to Helmsdale. I’d booked accommodation in Golspie on Monday and Helmsdale on Tuesday. Per the JOGT site this would be about 22 miles today and 19 tomorrow. The rain-delayed start already had me questioning whether Golspie was a realistic target for the day.
I waited another 20 minutes in the hotel porch, hoping for the rain to abate. No luck. Figuring that I’d probably be on the roads for most of the way to Golspie, and bearing in mind the impact of the last 20+ mile walk, I wondered if I should cut today’s walk short. But I needed to at least make a start, and see how the first few miles treated me.
The rain was still heavy, but the B-road between the hotel and A9 made for a decent start. Good pavement, not much traffic. However, the brief stretch of the A9 was depressing in spite of a generous verge. Even in full waterproofs head to toe, getting splashed by passing cars isn’t much fun. Fortunately, you can turn left along a tarmac lane after just 10 minutes of this. The lane takes you past Morangie Lodge and Tarlogle Farm. In better weather and with more time available, the nearby Glenmorangie Distillery might have been worth a detour.
The hope of better conditions away from the A9 didn’t really materialise. The rain was at its heaviest, tarmac soon gave way to wet grass then an uneven stone path, and there was the knowledge that I’d shortly be back on the road anyway. However, at least there was another attractive bridge crossing, the first since Cromarty Firth on Day 79. This was Dornoch Firth, and I’d be heading south to north via the A9 bridge.
First view of the Dornoch Firth Bridge, from near Tarlogle Farm
For those who know their traditional Scottish counties (I don’t, as I was brought up on the 1974 versions which called this entire area ‘Highland’) the bridge also marks the crossing from Ross-shire into Sutherland. This is the penultimate county of LEJoG, with only Caithness to come. At some point I must establish all the English and Welsh (ceremonial) and Scottish counties I’ve passed through, he said idly…
Zoomed in view of Dornoch Firth Bridge from same spot
The crossing was actually more pleasant than the 10-minute stretch of A-road earlier. Obviously the weather hadn’t improved, so it didn’t really compare to the Cromarty or Kessock Bridges for enjoyment. It’s a little higher than the former and much lower than the latter, which helped sustain interest. Also I was facing the traffic, which is preferable.
Looking east from Dornoch Firth Bridge, towards the SE tip of Sutherland (sky still grim)
And – perhaps most importantly – almost straight after crossing the bridge, you can escape the road via a quick descent of the embankment, to the shore of Cuthill Sands. I don’t have the photo to shatter your illusions, but a beach this is not. So it’s no great hardship when you head inland again, through gorse and tall grass, and over a small mound. Now the path heads directly for a minor road heading east, which will take you all the way to the edge of Dornoch (county town of Sutherland).
By now, having reached the road, it was 1pm. The rain was easing. I hadn’t made my decision about trying to reach Golspie, and took a 10-minute break to review the route. The section of JOGT from Dornoch to Golspie didn’t look very direct, and I could easily imagine it being longer than the quoted 13.8 miles. I was guessing at a 7pm finish, with no guarantee that the rain wouldn’t bucket down again. So that was that – don’t punish yourself, just accept that you may have to take more days than expected to reach John o’Groats.
The next task was to check bus times and ensure I could reach Golspie by public transport without enduring an inordinately long wait in Dornoch. This was ok – the wait would be around an hour. The Tuesday morning timetable was less friendly, and meant a late start back at Dornoch. But that was the price of doing business. Furthermore, an earlier start would have meant a longer wait for the bus to my hotel in Helmsdale, so,,, swings and roundabouts. The last time I’d curtailed a walk, in Chew Magna, my parents were there to bail me out. Here it was public transport or failure.
With that sorted, the rest of the walk was a soggy, uneventful trudge along a minor road similar to the one from Alness to Tain. Again, the actual JOGT route takes you into the woods but I just couldn’t be arsed with anything even slightly indirect. Shortly after arriving at the bus stop in Dornoch, I was stopped by a woman who recognised me from my walk across the bridge earlier (she’d been in a car). Of course she guessed it was part of a LEJoG walk. It was a nice moment, the spoonful of sugar which helped the medicine go down.
After the walk
Took some photos (below), walked around Dornoch, did a little recce for the start of tomorrow’s route.
Dornoch Castle Hotel
Arrived at Golspie Inn shortly after 4pm, had free coffee. Good couple of hours in warm room before treating myself to a slightly more expensive evening meal than I may have had in easier circumstances.
Sign welcoming you to the Golspie Inn (next to a handy mile post)
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
I haven’t mentioned yet that I discovered Peep Show on Netflix this summer (I know, shockingly late). After running through the whole lot in a few weeks during July and August, I started again, this time alongside Podcast Secrets of the Pharaohs. I was between series and listened to some bonus episodes during the drive to Glasgow, and some more today: interviews with Robert Webb (Jez), Dobby Club and Liam Noble (Big Mad Andy).
Picture (27 September 2021) shows a retrospective view of Dornoch Firth Bridge, after descending the embankment. Morangie Forest in the background.
Next: Day 82 (28 September 2021)… in which I’m on the clock.