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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.