For the last fifteen months my friend Jeremy and I have been out cycling in the evening once a week. It sort of combines our mutual obsessions; his cycling long distances and breathing in the natural world around him and mine visiting local prehistoric sites. Of course it doesn’t work so well in the Winter as all the cycling is done in the dark and, needless to say, freezing conditions. However, the long term aim was to go on a cycle tour for a week to somewhere wild and rugged, where we could express ourselves. Along with another old friend of Jeremy’s, Martin, we’d settled on travelling to Cape Wrath in the extreme North West of Scotland, cycling around 150 miles, wild camping or staying in bothies and living on nuts and berries. Real boys own adventure stuff! About a month before we were due to set off we discovered that the military ranges there were to be used for a major NATO exercise. Apparently they would be using live ammunition so despite our ‘devil may care’ attitude we sensibly switched our attention to an AirB&B caravan just outside Lairg overlooking Loch Shin (almost).
The weather forecast for our weeks adventure had started off quite favourably, but as we got nearer time-wise and geographically, it had begun to deteriorate with the tail end of an Atlantic hurricane sweeping across the Highlands and we soon realised how sensible we’d been to put our trust in AirB&B. On the Monday morning we bravely got into the most waterproof clothing we had and pedalled off into 40mph winds gusting to 60mph with stinging horizontal rain. After a couple of hours of this I was soaked to the skin and not a happy bunny. With all the strenuous effort it took just to stay upright and keeping my head down, the thought of seeking out ancient sites just went completely out the window. It just became a fight for survival as far as I was concerned, although the others didn’t seem too put out about it. After four hours we’d almost reached the top of Loch Shin and stopped off to look at a small dam and hydro-electric power station, one of several in the Lairg district, before beginning our descent to the loch itself. Even this proved cumbersome as I couldn’t remember many occasions when I’d had to pedal downhill as the wind was so fierce! Rounding the top of the loch suddenly everything seemed so different. The wind that had been our enemy was now our friend, not a ‘best’ friend obviously, more like a charming acquaintance and we hardly had to put any effort into heading home down the North Eastern side of the loch. Bliss. Having arrived back at the caravan physically and mentally fatigued I began to wonder if I’d even be brave enough to get back on my bike tomorrow, and the weather forecast was still bloody awful. I also wondered how practical it would be trying to photograph any sites we came across. I had one big heavy, but weatherproof camera and another smaller, lighter, but non-weatherproof camera. Decisions, decisions.
The next day the conditions were no better, but the proposed route towards Altnaharra and then some off-roading over a mountain track weighed in at a whopping 50+ miles compared with the previous days 40 miles. Again we set off into the biting wind and rain and by the time we’d gone 11 miles to the Crask Inn I’d decided that for me the war was over. After a warming coffee around a log burning stove we separated and I was blown all the way back to the caravan. After lunch I made a plan to seek out the more interesting sites nearby and started with a ruined broch no more than 200m from the caravan. I’d spotted it earlier that morning but realised that it was impossible to actually get to it without climbing a high wire fence so I had to be satisfied with a view across the Strath Tirry which was perhaps better as it gave it some context. A sizeable mound still stands but any traces of the stonework on top are barely visible now, most of it having been either carried off for local houses or maybe collapsed into the river. Getting back on my bike I cycled the 4 miles into Lairg and made my way to The Ord, easy to find as there’s a telecoms mast on top of it (unfortunately). It’s quite exciting to visit large cairns as it’s something I don’t do very often, as there just aren’t any in my neck of the woods. Plenty of grassy barrows, but no cairns. As you approach the top there are small information boards handily scattered about telling you what the various lumps or bumps are and the first one pointed out a ‘burnt mound’, a pile of burnt stones which may, or may not, have been associated with a prehistoric sauna. I have no problem with this but why keep using new stones to heat up each time, unless they always fractured when they were flung in the water, and so gradually became unusable? Next up were some small cairns on the way up to the big one, Ord South, a grass covered monster with five small standing stones at it’s summit. Momentarily the sun was shining and the view back up Loch Shin would have been fantastic if it hadn’t been marred by some aesthetically challenged numpty from a telecoms company! Westwards you also get a great view down on Ord North, not quite as old as Ord South and much less grassy in appearance. You could also see two very large stones which are part of the entrance to the tomb, but climbing down and getting a closer look, it was obvious that the interior of the cairn must have collapsed a long time ago and the entrance blocked by debris. It’s still a handsome pile though. After my second perambulation around the cairn I noticed that the threatening rain clouds were doing their thing and it was probably wise to get off the hill or face a second soaking of the day. Jeremy and Martin got back about an hour after I did and were pretty tired and told me that the ‘mountain track’ was mostly unridable even for the fattest of tyres and I felt vindicated in my decision to cut the journey short earlier.
Wednesday offered a slight respite from the ongoing rainfall and the wind had dropped slightly as well. We decided that we’d have a non-cycling day today (possibly we were all slightly relieved though being English couldn’t easily admit it). We set off to find Achinduich stone circle which according to the OS map was just off the A836 south of Lairg. Parking in a handy lay-by we walked up the hill scanning the horizon for stones and eventually found a slightly disappointing arc of five reasonable sized stones and three smaller inner-arc stones. It looked to me like it must once have been a quite a sweet, diminutive, concentric circle with a possible out-lier a little way back down the hill. As with The Ord, the view across the Strath Shin valley would have been splendid if a huge pylon hadn’t been placed behind it. Do they do this sort of thing on purpose? Was there some disgruntled Scottish Power person who really hated the countryside and had been thwarted in their efforts to study archaeology earlier in life who deliberately placed unbecoming masts and pylons next to ancient monuments in beautiful environments? Well at least there was more than one viewpoint. Stumbling back down to the car we decided to make a visit to Cnoc An Liath-Bhaid stone circle further North East, stopping off at Achnagarron standing stones on the way. Achnagarron turned out to be a shambolic farm, though we couldn’t blame the disgruntled Scottish Power employee for that, with a couple of nice standing stones nearby (maybe that’s what achnagarron means, ‘delightful standing stones and crappy farm’). Their placement on a slight, flat-topped knoll, along with a lot of recumbent stones, suggested that it may have been a ruined circle.
A few minutes later we were slowly making our way down a steep, highly cambered track about a mile and a half from Cnoc An Liath-Bhaid when we heard a slight scraping noise beneath the car. We got out to check that everything was alright beneath only to find oil leaking from the sump. Bad news. In trying to turn the car around on the narrow track Jeremy then knocked off a sizeable piece of the bumper, but he succeeded in getting the car to roll almost five miles back to Rogart where luckily there was a garage. A quick inspection at the garage revealed that there was no further damage and that the sump part would have to be ordered from Inverness, 50 miles South from there and would be about £120, hopefully ready by Friday. A young lad from the garage kindly drove us back to our caravan in Lairg where the atmosphere was a little dampened by the days events, and to think we’d been so close.
Thursday bought a change in the weather and the wind and rain had abated with just a slight chance of showers later. Things were looking up! It would be a day of further stoney exploration around the Southern bank of Loch Naver some 20 miles North of Lairg. We set off into a light wind with occasional bursts of sunshine which brought forth multitudes of Scots revelling in the unexpectedness of very bright light and after a couple of hours arrived in Altnaharra. According to the map there were numerous hut circles just a bit further East along the edge of the loch with standing stones and cup-marked stones. We got as close as possible on our cycles and then I pushed mine through squelching bogs for 20 minutes as I was the only one wearing waterproof boots and the others wanted to eat their sandwiches. I found the hut circles which turned out to be rectangular, so possibly they weren’t quite as old as I’d led myself to believe, maybe just the remains of crofts after the Highland Clearances from 250 years ago or less. Certainly a nice aspect though with the loch below and the formidable Ben Klibreck behind. Arriving at a river the map indicated that the standing stones were just the other side and that there was a ford. Unfortunately the rains had swollen the river and had made the ford unfordable, besides which the stones couldn’t have been very large as I could see nothing across the way. It was at that moment I noticed, almost literally beneath my feet, what might be cup marks in the large rock I was using as a vantage point. Well I’ll be. Of course this is unsubstantiated and in the wrong place, but who knows, maybe I’m the first person to notice them in thousands of years. After basking in my personal reverie of glory for a few minutes I remember that Jeremy and Martin are probably wondering where I’d got to, or were bemoaning the insubstantial supply of sandwiches, so I began to make my way back. Rejoining them we decided to start our journey back to Lairg as the threat of rain was with us again and the sunshine that had been raking the hillsides had decided to go off and rake elsewhere. On the pleasant wind-driven journey South we stopped off once more at the Crask Inn, this time for our first and only drop of whiskey and had a very nice chat with the lady who, with her husband, used to run the Inn, but now lived across the road and was just looking after it while the new owners were away on holiday.
Friday was going to have to be a shortish cycle as we were expecting a call from the garage to say when the car would be ready to pick up. Around lunchtime the call came through only to say that the wrong part had been delivered and that the garage owner would personally drive down to Inverness on Saturday morning, exchange the part, drive back, fit it and have the car ready around 2.00ish. Oh dear. That changed everything. We were originally going to start home at 6.00am on the Saturday, dropping Martin off in Warwick. Martin, in a slight panic, decided that he needed to leave straight away and would take his chances by taking any form of transport from Inverness as he had to return to Vietnam early next week. We waved goodbye as he disappeared up the Shin Valley back to Lairg to gather his possessions while we contemplated marrying into the local community and growing old in the Highlands. We were never going to leave. We arrived at the Falls of Shin Visitor Centre, a swanky bit of modern architecture with a waterfall attached and consoled ourselves with coffee and cake. We decided that we’d just have to hope the car was ready Saturday afternoon, drive like maniacs and get back down to the South Coast in the early hours of Sunday morning. In the meantime we could call in at the Achany chambered cairn a few miles further up Strath Shin on the way to Lairg. This turned out to be the most accessible monument hereabouts as it stands right next to the road. It’s quite a substantial thing with a sort of facade of large stones about halfway along and a cist set into the top. At the other end is a smaller sub-cairn (I think) possibly for their dog or some slightly less prominent relative. We set off again and decided to investigate the Ferry Wood Broch which is located at the foot of Loch Shin and just below The Ord. This however proves to be disappointing as, like the Tirryside Broch near the caravan, there was just a mound, a few lumps of stone and a slew of freshly slaughtered pine trees providing a slightly Somme-like appearance. Again we consulted the map and worked out that Sallachy Broch was about ten minutes away around Loch Shin as the crow flies and about an hour away as the cycle pedals. Surely there had to be one broch worth visiting in the area and an hour later we weren’t disappointed as we slipped and slided down the hill of the South West loch side. There’s a lot to see here with a good sized mound overlooking the water, stonework in excess of two metres in places and that old double skin thing quite evident still. A reasonably well defined entrance was still there with a Westward view over the loch, but no lintel and most of the interior choked with fallen stones from the walls and a couple of small trees growing in their midst. Peaceful, quietly forgotten, faded majesty with a slight melancholy air and overtones of moss and lichen. A good rounding off to our weeks stay.
Saturday lunchtime brings a helpful call from the garage to say the car was now ready and the young lad came to pick us up about two o’clock. The bill for the repairs came in at just under £380 as you always forget that it’s about £60/hour labour charges, a full oil change and the iniquitous VAT on top of all that. Cnoc An Liath-Bhaid had proved to be a very expensive stone circle and, worse still, we hadn’t even got to see it in the end, though I’d still like to.