A 90ish mile loop in the far north of Scotland, from near Lairg.

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Woodend Caravan Site, Achnairn, Lairg - run by the wonderful Mrs Ross.

Woodend Caravan Site, Achnairn, Lairg – run by the wonderful Mrs Ross.

Cuckoos are far from perfect role models, but as a sign of Spring they are hard to beat. In the last 20 years or so their parasitic lifestyle choice has rather backfired, halving their numbers. Spring is coming earlier by a couple of weeks or so, particularly in the South. The birds in whose nest the Cuckoo lays its eggs is turning up here a little earlier every year. Cuckoos have not quite fully grasped the situation.

Packed and ready to go.

Packed and ready to go.

Crossing the River Tirry, Sutherland.

Crossing the River Tirry, Sutherland.

Here in Scotland we are used to late Springs, and perhaps that is helping our resident birds. Spring is very late this year. We arrive just after 10pm at our campground near Lairg, in the far North of Scotland. The car gauge says 6’c, and it drops close to freezing overnight.

Heading North A836.

Heading North A836.

The River  Tirry, looking West.

The River Tirry, looking West.

It may be cold, but it is light before 4.30 up here in Sutherland, and the dawn chorus includes what may now be 20% of the UK Cuckoo population. The wind, which was blowing a gale as we drove up has dropped away to almost nothing. Amazingly, the weather is as wonderful as the optimistic BBC site said it would be. We cook porridge, put the bikes together and are off on a loop to the top of Scotland and back.

Huge areas of recent felling close to Crask.

Huge areas of recent felling close to Crask.

I am always taken by surprise at how different riding along a road in opposite directions can be. You see different things that is true. But a loop of some sorts is the ideal, if you can put one together. We are going up to Tongue, up there on the blunt head of Scotland. There is a bit of riding East, in the direction of Bettyhill, before we turn South to close the loop at Altnaharra.  A Google guess puts it at about 100 miles of riding through some of the most stunning and remote countryside in Europe. Cyclists now cringe at the use of the word epic, but I will use it here. It’s EPIC.

Near Crask, Sutherland.

Near Crask, Sutherland.

Crask and the Crask Inn.

Crask and the Crask Inn.

I should know the first bit of the ride quite well. But after hundreds of acres of clear felling it’s all a vague vista of bleached brown grass and stumps. Only when we reach Crask do things become familiar. You can tell when things become remote and the map makers are desperate to pin a name down. Here the Crask Inn is marked and named on the large scale map. You can camp on the lawn out back and many do. It is a major cycling landmark for those doing the end-to-end and a bit sad to see that it is for sale.

Ben Klibreck.

Ben Kilbreck.

Every bit of standing woodland we have passed so far has a Cuckoo, bucking the trend and calling loudly. They are desperate to find a mate, find a host bird’s nest and disappear back South. How the young work out how to get to Africa without any parental input is a wonder of bird world. We enter Mackay Country, the land of the ‘ Great white sheep ‘, the clearances,  hard lives and great poets.

House in Altnaharra.

House in Altnaharra.

Altnaharra, we go straight at the cross-roads beyond the village. It has the only school for miles in every direction and an anglers hotel. There are small fields won from the moor. A clicking sound comes from the stone walls as a small brown bird chases along the field edge. It has one very distinct feature, a flash of white from a rump of pure white feathers. Known locally as White-Arse the language was toned down and we know this sign of Spring as the Wheatear.

View West towards Assynt.

View West towards Assynt.

Outskirts of Tongue, Sutherland.

Outskirts of Tongue, Sutherland.

We climb a little and get our first views to the West and the land towards Assynt and the Flow Country. More water than solid ground, this is the largest area of blanket bog in Europe. A clear day is a rare thing, and by great good fortune, we have got one as we ride along Loch Loyal. As we near the coast, the number of small fields standing vivid green against the heather increases. We are reaching the outer limits of Tongue. It is quite a contrast, almost crowded. The ride along the coast is a typical coastal grind of short sharp hills. We have planned ahead and have the wind to our backs.

Strathnaver.

Strathnaver.

Lichens.

Lichens.

A minor right turn, the start of Strathnaver, the valley we will follow back South. Woodland is just forcing into life. Leaves bright green and dense carpets of Primrose. There are few people here even on this perfect day. Odd fishermen casting for Salmon or Trout their lines following perfect arcs as they cast. The rainfall figures here could be quoted in Yards or Meters per year. The air so damp and pure it has a taste. Lichens drip from every branch of the stunted roadside Birch.

Church near Syre, Sutherland.

Church near Syre, Sutherland.

Two hooded Crows are calling their harsh Corvid cry. This is the bird of Highland Land every bit as much as Eagles. We reach the village of Skail, like most around here, the name is Norse in origin. There are burial grounds and tombs. This was a populated valley before the evictions.

Remote shed.

Remote shed.

Loch Naver.

Loch Naver.

It takes a good ornithologist to call a Cuckoo in flight if you are not expecting it. Luckily we see this one call, so there is no mistake. Off it goes, flying straight and looking more like a bird of prey than a summer visitor. It calls again, and is joined by a second bird, another Cuckoo. The fine day is turning grey as clouds roll in, we are going to get wet. As the storm comes in, the wind gathers strength and rain is pushed into our faces. This is going to be grim.

Rain squall and moor.

Rain squall and moor.

Long before we close the loop my world has gone from far vistas to watching rain drops gather and fall from the peak of my cap. Rain coats are pulled up tight as we do the final 20 miles by Crask and climb some of the toughest climbs of the day. This is now Bank Holiday Grim. All contrast has now gone from the world. Still Cuckoos call.

The end of the ride.

The end of the ride.

Investing in a good rain coat in Scotland is money well spent. It is still beautiful, still there is a wonderful quality to the light. The miles and the hills are not so easy now and of course every direction we snake feels like headwind. There is the final 2 1/2 miles off the main road and back to the campground. We are now the only tent.

View to the West from our tent.

View to the West from our tent.

Just shy of 92 miles since we started in sunshine and we are back standing outside our Teepee tent soaked to the skin from the waist down. Food is going to be cooked in the tent this evening, which is a strangely appealing thing. All night rain lashes against the thin skin of the tent. Things could not have worked out better. If you are looking for a remote ride, you could do far worse than to head for Mrs Ross’s caravan site.

View to the East.

View to the East.

A bivvy night in Humbie Wood, another ‘ a sort of microadventure ‘.

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Pushing the bikes down the old track to Humbie Bridge.

Pushing the bikes down the old track to Humbie Bridge.

I would like to think that we all have animals that we are especially fond of. They can be exotic, pin-up animals like the Panda or Blue Whale, but this is a bit like supporting Manchester United rather than your local team. We both rather like Hares. It has to be Hares and not Rabbits, we are fussy like that – splitting hairs perhaps. The USA takes these Totem animals a stage further and has State Birds, something that many countries have. A few weeks ago here, an online poll began a vote for a national bird for the UK. The Robin was a strong front runner, despite many in the winter being migrants from as far away as Russia. Here in Scotland the Golden Eagle sort of acts as an unofficial national bird.

Down along the old road.

Down along the old road.

Bags off the bikes at the Humbie Water Bridge.

Bags off the bikes at the Humbie Water Bridge.

We rode out an hour or more late on Friday evening. Late enough to need a last-minute hunt for lights as we let the last of the heavy rain showers pass over. Up Carberry Hill and through the little village of Cousland ( pronounced ‘Cows-land by the locals I am told ). The views to the South open beyond the village, the hills of the Lammermuirs to the right and the coast stretching off to the left. For the winter months East Lothian had been wearing a dark Tweed jacket, but with the Spring it is on with a brightly patterned Paisley shirt of yellow blocked motifs. Farmers have gone Oilseed Rape crazy, and I am sure it blooms two weeks earlier than it did 20 years ago.

Morning at the bivvy camp.

Morning at the bivvy camp.

Half a dozen nasty little storms were chasing across the land as we dropped down the steep descent. There was every chance of getting very wet indeed, or staying dry on our short ride to Humbie. On the road ahead near West Peaston there is our first Hare. It runs along the road in front of us and then darts through a opening in the hedge to our right, but there ahead is another Hare. Richard Mabey gathered together some of the local names for Hares, ‘ the scutter, the fellow in the dew, the looker to the side, the hedge-frisker, and the one I love, the stag of the stubble’.

Making porridge.

Making porridge.

Brewing a tea on the Evernew stove.

Brewing a tea on the Evernew stove.

I have a place in mind for the bivvy, but I am anxious that we are so late as I have only looked at it on a map. We go by the road for Humbie church and take a left. I have often noticed a track leading down to the left and away from this road. It always looked inviting, but I have never had the chance to go exploring. It is obvious from its size that it has some history to it, that it was once an important route. Tonight we will find out where it goes.

Camp tidying.

Camp tidying.

The Badger run - obviouse in the light.

The Badger run – obvious in the light.

We turn onto the track and get off to push the bikes. After a hundred meters it becomes more grass meadow than track as all farm traffic has turned off into the fields beyond here. Down it goes cutting deep into the land, to be fringed by Beech trees. There are remnants of a surface from a time when this was a more important route possibly the way to church. We reach the stone bridge over the Humbie Water and now need to make a choice. I hope there is somewhere close to camp a little away from the large houses here. A small gate gives us an option and we lift the bikes over it and push up the track. In just a short way it opens into Church Wood, which is a gem.

Wood Sorrel - aka Shamrock.

Wood Sorrel – aka Shamrock.

We could not be more lucky. Even in what is now just half light, it is a vivid almost glowing fluorescent green. There are two tracks and we go left a short way and find that someone has built a bushcraft bothie. This is good enough, we start to unpack the bags and set up camp. Already bats are flying through the trees around us. It is dark enough to be doing things by feel and muscle memory and a very good job that we have done this before. I put the stove together, make a tea, and we stand listening to the bird song and the sounds of the woodland.

Porridge is ready.

Porridge is ready.

Church Wood, Humbie.

Church Wood, Humbie.

A second tea and we sit and eat sandwiches in the final blue light of the day. With just 13 miles of biking, we are in another parallel world. Time to clean our teeth, just after 10 and things have now dropped silent for the night. But then even over the sound of our brushing there is crashing and snapping of branches quite near us. It must be a deer. This is a woodland where it is impossible to move without snapping a twig. There are two ghostly grey shapes, small and close to the ground and they are running at speed towards us. Dogs, so where is the owner? They keep on coming, running fast, they have not seen us, too busy chasing and being chased.

Beech Ttrees above the Humbie Water.

Beech trees above the Humbie Water.

Badgers! two Badgers, are they dangerous? They will see us, smell us, swerve off. They run right at us through our camp just a foot or two from us and head off into the woodland behind. How amazing. I have never seen anything like that before. We get things together with a few thoughts about just how careful we need to be with our food now that we know there are Badgers about.

Beech trees Humbie Wood/ Church Wood.

Beech trees Humbie Wood/ Church Wood.

The night air become still and rather cold by 3.00am. Strangely, there are very few Owls calling. Rain, heavy enough at times to force us down into the bivvy bags and to draw the mouth closed. It is warm, too warm after the cool of the open night air. It smells of cycling, of effort and dampness. I guess I would turn to compost in under a year.

Pushing the bikes out of the wood in the morning.

Pushing the bikes out of the wood in the morning.

More squalls blow in, but there are times of total calm and stillness as well. Tree branches groan as they rub against each other. The Badgers stay away, but there is a smell of them close by, a strong smell, musky but not like a Fox. Daylight, and a wall of noise from the dawn chorus even before 4.00am. Robins come down close to check us out. I have read that they do this thinking we are pigs. When you garden there will always be a Robin close at hand and they have learned to do this from benefitting from following wild pigs. It is now part of their genetics now, their deep strategy for life and survival.

Leaving the wood.

Leaving the wood.

We get up. It is always hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag into the cold of morning. Time to get the stove going. A tea first then porridge followed by more tea. It is obvious why the Badgers ran through our camp last night, we are right in the middle of a run that is worn smooth in the vegetation. I follow it from where it comes in under the boundary fence, right through our camp and on down towards the river. Like most creatures of the night, Badgers keep to well worn routes that they can navigate at speed if they need.

On the road, first thing in the morning.

On the road, first thing in the morning.

The bioethanol stove is working well and we have enough hot water for a bit of a clean up before we pack. It is bright, the best weather that we have had all week and we go for a bit of an explore around the wood. How amazing to just get out, go such a short way and have an adventure that costs almost nothing and a bit of time looking at a map.

View towards the Lammermuir hills.

View towards the Lammermuir hills.

There is a short way along a track, through the wood and out onto the road to Gilchriston. It is such a beautiful morning that we start our Saturday with a ride to the cafe in Gifford. The weekend has hardly begun and already we have had an adventure, seen amazing things and had a meeting with two Badgers. You really should go and sleep in a wood.

The old Smithy East Saltoun.

The old Smithy East Saltoun.

In search of summer in Scotland.

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Caravan at  Mossburn, near Jedburgh.

Caravan at Mossburn, near Jedburgh.

” There are two seasons in Scotland : June and winter ” – Billy Connolly. It was all going so very well, with hints of summer days as far back as mid April. The Swifts were back, the Swallows were here as well, which was the very day that it snowed. Back on went the heating and on went the winter layers for any bike ride.

Cherry Tree blossom Musselburgh.

Cherry Tree blossom Musselburgh.

We packed for trips that were cancelled at the last-minute. We even went on trips where the bikes stayed in the back of the car as unexpected storms rolled in and dropped a month of rain in a single night. I actually had a tan, a home grown Scottish tan before the end of April. Now it is more wind burn exfoliation.

Testing our new tent.

Testing our new tent.

To cope with the imperfect climate, we have bought another tent. A large and very sturdy one this time, a teepee tent that sleeps 4. Just big enough to stand up in and certainly with enough room to sit around in, make food and shelter from the weather. It is what we call a ‘ car camping tent ‘. During the research, I came across people who were buying this for bike touring, ” It’s got such a lot of room and I like to have somewhere for my bike “. They are of course quite mad. It weighs 4.5 Kg, which is at least 3.5Kg more than you would want.

Old Smithy at Cousland.

Old Smithy at Cousland.

Climbing towards Redstone Rig, East Lothian.

Climbing towards Redstone Rig, East Lothian.

B6355 above Garvald.

B6355 above Garvald.

It was a very reasonable price, from those nice people on the WWW. at backpackinglight. Just £200, which got me thinking about the first serious tent I ever bought back in about 1979, which I think was about the same price. That was a king’s ransom back then and just shows how reasonable outdoor stuff is priced now. I know it is all made in China, but the stuff has never been lighter or cheaper.

Above Whiteadder Water.

Above Whiteadder Water.

View to the coast of East Lothian and the Firth of Forth.

View to the coast of East Lothian and the Firth of Forth.

When budgies were first introduced to Europe they cost the same as an average house. A fact that I came across a couple of weeks ago in the same program that I learned that there are just 6,000 nuns in the UK. Which got me wondering if there are now less nuns than professional footballers. Certainly tents and bicycles have never been cheaper, which perhaps is more to the point.

A Borders ride, behind the Eildon Hills.

A Borders ride, behind the Eildon Hills.

Kelso on the banks of the River Tweed.

Kelso on the banks of the River Tweed.

The ruins of Roxburgh Castle.

The ruins of Roxburgh Castle.

When ever we want to get a feeling of just how fit we are, how things are shaping up, how the season is going or as cyclists say ‘ do we have the legs ‘. We head for the hills just south of Gifford. The route from here has caught the eye of who ever has planned this years Tour of Britain. From home here, in Musselburgh, we and the tour route link together a series of short and nasty hills that lead you and your already tired legs to the start of REDSTONE RIG.

Sheep being crotched at Roxburgh Mill.

Sheep being crotched at Roxburgh Mill.

View of the Cheviot hills.

View of the Cheviot hills.

Into the village of Nisbet.

Into the village of Nisbet.

The signs say 17%, which it may be as an average. The steep bits are more, much more, and there is of course a false summit. The pros may still be in their big chain ring when they go up it later in the year. I was in my smallest, easiest spinning gears and I still had to get off and walk. I can not remember the last time I had to get off and walk the Rig, but I had to do just that.

Ancrum Art weekend.

Ancrum Art weekend.

The end of the loop.

The end of the loop.

There comes a point when you have so little forward speed that balance is an issue. You could probably plot them out on a graph. There comes a point where you just might not make it, where your forward speed is zero or close to it. Now the thing is you had better be clipped out of those pedals before you get that slow or you are not going to get out.

Making a brew in the Teepee tent.

Making a brew in the Teepee tent.

Breakfast after the storm.

Breakfast after the storm.

I got in a panic, clipped out and walked. It is a sod of a hill, and now my confidence is shattered. The internet is full of bike related stuff about the climb, one of which is of me pushing a touring bike. It gets a world ranking of 8913 and is ranked 24 in Scotland. That is fine, but this time I was on my second lightest bike and I still pushed.

The coast above Cove, East Lothian.

The coast above Cove, East Lothian.

It is another world up in the moorland above the Rig. Colder, much windier, about 3 weeks behind in the flow of the seasons. The reward for the climb is one of the most terrifying white knuckle descents over some of the poorest surface and cattle grids that the most incompetent road engineer could put together.

Waves at Cove.

Waves at Cove.

Fishermans cottages, Cove.

fisherman’s cottages, Cove.

We take a left towards Garvald on the B6355. Up on the moor to our left there are two stone circles: Crow Stones and Nine Stones. The surface is better than it used to be, but still rubbish, and there are holes and gravel run offs just where you want a bit of grip and confidence in the surface. It throws impossibly steep short climbs at you that will get your back wheel spinning if you throw your weight to far forward.

The harbour at Cove.

The harbour at Cove.

In the valley down to the left the Whiteadder Water is running fast and there are Curlews, the bird of upland and open moor. Down you drop, trying to find a line through the potholes and mud. The road leaps about changing direction. It is heart in your mouth stuff.

The views open up and they are stunning. Down to the East Lothian coast, fringed with golf courses and the Yellow of Rape fields catching the sun. Even in the dry you can not let your bike have its head, you keep on scrubbing off the speed and it still feels too fast, too out of control.

Cottages at Cove.

Cottages at Cove.

Garvald, we are in the cleft in the hills into which the village sinks. There are weeks in winter when the village holds onto the frost, never once warmed by even the weak winter sun. The run back home through Gifford is warm after the chill up on the moor. In 20 minutes of cycling we have gone forward a calendar month.

We got out to the Borders to do one of our standard loop rides from Lauder. Down to turn at Kelso and run along the River Tweed to Nisbet before turning beyond Ancrum to head into the hills and back to Lauder. Once again we feel at home there in the Borders.

Mantelpiece inside Ben's Cottage.

Mantelpiece inside Ben’s Cottage.

The next weekend we planned a night of camping in our new teepee tent with a circular ride into the Cheviot hills and the Border Country. The forecast was for light rain overnight 12’c the next morning and brightening later. Temperatures dropped to just above freezing and a storm flooded road and rivers. The bikes stayed in the back of the car and we had a slow breakfast cooked in the tent. The stream behind us had turned to a frothing torrent the colour of your mum’s gravy. Enough was enough and we packed and went for a coffee and cake.

Nice bits of Titanium equipment turn up every so often. All part of our quest for the ultimate light weight touring kit. The best bits came all the way from Japan – a cooking system from Evernew. I am running it on Bioethanol, but it can convert to small sticks if you have got the patience of a saint. The burner is just perfect. Light powerful and a joy to use. As a bit of a bonus I have found that you can light Bioethanol with a spark from the fire steel. We are on to a winner.

There are plans for the weekend. But there is also a severe weather warning for gales. You keep the equipment ready, it all sits there in a box ready to go, the maps close at hand. People in London are in shirt sleeves and I am in our flat writing this in a fleece. We could not live anywhere else though. Scotland is a beautiful country and it will be sunny again and stop blowing a gale. We can hang out the washing and go off on our bikes some time soon.

Portrait of Ben, Cove harbour East Lothian.

Portrait of Ben, Cove harbour East Lothian.

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