Day 17: Durness to Thurso – U-Boats and Uranium

Today we were on a mission. We wanted to get across the North Coast of Scotland from Durness to Thurso. This was a distance of 72 very hilly miles through remote wild country.

We had a very comfortable night at Durness SYHA cared for by Mary Ann the Hostel manager. The buildings may look a bit primitive but it is a very comfortable Hostel in a fabulous place. One I will definitely return to.

Outside Durness SYHA this morning

Outside Durness SYHA this morning

Pete joined us and we started riding at 08:00. The first 3 miles were along the coast passing the Smoo Caves and great coastal scenery.

Moorland and coast

Moorland and coast

We descended to a small cove where some people were wild camping and just as we started the climb to follow the road around Loch Eriboll, Pete had a puncture.

Pete's puncture

Pete’s puncture

We quickly changed the tube and were on our way again. Loch Eriboll is a long sea loch and is the deepest sea loch in Scotland. The road follows it a few miles inland. It is a lengthy and deep sea loch which has been used as a safe anchorage for centuries. There was a mass surrender of Nazi U boats between 10th and 25th May 1945. 33 U boat commanders surrendered in a space of 10 days on the 12 miles long loch.

U-1231 - one of the German U-Boats that surrendered

U-1231 – one of the German U-Boats that surrendered

The Western side is very barren moorland with some scattered houses forming the community at Laid. There is some local fishing activity. The road undulated and our interest was held by the Loch and scanning the moor for sightings of deer and curlew. No sign of any sheep, or indeed our cuckoo – had he slept in?Rounding the head of the Loch the valley inland was very pretty with typical highland scenery of lochans, birch copses, cliffs and lots of heather. The road rose away from the Loch and the soil was evidently different as on this side there was a lot more green and the scenery was more varied with crags and streams with waterfalls. Cuckoo joined us again at this point and didn’t shut up for several hours. Further along the landscape opened out and there was a large farm with proper grassy fields occupied by sheep and lambs, all looking quite fertile amongst the moorland scenery. The road undulated with some long steep hills.

Pete and Steve on yet another hill

Pete and Steve on yet another hill

Much of this road, the A838, was single track and there was very little traffic. Snow capped Ben Hope and Ben Loyal – with their volcanic cones dominated the scenery. We had cycled 25 hilly miles from Durness and were ready for our 2nd breakfast, but so far there had not been anywhere. We had a huge descent from the high moor which we had been travelling on at about 650′ down to the causeway at Tongue.

Tongue Causeway

Tongue Causeway

This was built in 1971 and crosses the Kyle of Tongue which is a shallow sea loch. The shop was closed, as was the garage and the cafe. This is the Sabbath! However it was possible to buy a car sticker saying ‘I Love Tongue’. The Tongue Hotel was open and they were able to provide some coffee and some rather small, extremely expensive bacon and veggie sausage rolls.

Suitably fortified we ground up the hill out of Tongue with great views over the Kyle of Tongue and out to sea. The Kyle (estuary in English) was very wide with dunes and an area of turbulence like a mini Corryvreckan.

We cycled across yet another area of open moorland with its wild, barren landscape consisting of hummocks of peat, heather and small lochans. It a pretty bleak place but interest was maintained by the rivers coming off the moor which gave us plenty more hills to go up and down.

Bettyhill was our next landmark. The clue is in the name – yet another huge hill. Pete decided that Bettyhill was his final destination and gratefully accepted a lift from his wife Kathryn. We were very grateful that the shop was open and managed to buy sufficient carbohydrate – and our daily dose of Walkers Cheese and Onion crisps (medicinal) to keep us going for the remaining 35 miles.

The North coast of Scotland that we were following has excellent scenery with offshore islands, cliffs and stacks. There are also lovely beaches at Torrisdale Bay, Armadale and Strathy. At each of these places a river comes off the high moor and, of course, we also descended off the moor – good fun – but had yet another huge climb out again. The scenery inland is rather bleak, especially now the weather had deteriorated to grey skies, strong blustery wind and the occasional light shower. We failed to ride past the pub at Portskerra and enjoyed a bowl of soup whilst warming up around the fire.

Once again up onto the desolate open moor and leaving Sutherland behind we crossed our last County border into Caithness.

Our last county border - Caithness

Our last county border – Caithness

Shortly after we had a long descent into Reay and the world changed. Reay is a proper village with houses that have gardens with flowers. There were cows in fields and even a person riding a horse. Civilisation! Soon afterwards we saw our first hedge for several days. Soon after Reay we came to Dounreay where there is a nuclear research station but most of the facilities are now being decommissioned. It has 5 nuclear reactors. Cuckoo disappeared at this point, presumably fearing for his safety.

The road went gently, but relentlessly uphill with us cycling in wind and rain for miles and miles before eventually we got to the crest and there was Thurso at last. Thurso is the most Northerly town in mainland Britain. We easily found our Hostel and were delighted to find a wall of flags in the common room and were able to clearly demonstrate that our Dorset flag is the biggest and best.

Flag - brag

Flag – brag

The GPX file for todays ride is here.

3 thoughts on “Day 17: Durness to Thurso – U-Boats and Uranium

  1. Ste

    I have enjoyed your entire blog, but this day in particular – with a friend I cycled the exact same route over thirty years ago. The youth hostel was not so welcoming then – we arrived the previous night after two days of unremitting rain, which had penetrated not just what we were wearing but also the kit in our panniers, to find that all the other hostellers were drying their clothes around the stove, leaving us just the very outer clothes line. What made this especially annoying was that we were the only ones who had not arrived by car! When we set off the next morning, our clothes were still wet through…but we enjoyed our lovely, if rather isolated, ride across the top of mainland Britain throughout the day to Thurso. Thank you for refreshing the memory – and fulsome congratulations to you and Steve, what a marvellous achievement.

    1. Barbara

      Thanks. I am glad you have enjoyed reading about our trip . We had a fantastic time. I suspect the Youth Hostel at Durness hasn’t changed much – the stove is still the only source of heating! However there were only 5 of us there and the Hostel manager (no longer Wardens) washed and dried all our clothes for us for a price of £4. A bargain!
      the ride across the North coast whilst being quite arduous was wild and we really enjoyed the remoteness and fantastic scenery. The roads are still very quiet up there.

      1. Ste

        An absolute bargain!

        You write very well – plenty of vivid descriptions, which are what really bring your account to life. Thank you again – you have inspired me to start planning my own LEJOG.

        Best of luck with your next adventure.

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