The most isolated pub in the UK
Beyond Lairg we can't avoid the main road north any longer because that's the only road there is. But that's ok because here the main road becomes a single track with passing places, and it basically has the character of the back roads anyway. The few cars and lorries drive faster here, so we have to use all our skills to decide when to stop in the passing places, when to expect the cars to stop and wait for us, and when we can slip by each other in the limited available space.
The scene is one of wide vistas across brown moors to distant mountain ranges topped with fresh snow. It is somewhat reminiscent of the American west, and even more like the south part of the Yukon territory that Kathy and I passed through on the way to Alaska many years ago. One key difference from all those places, though, are the straight cuts, making short ditches perpendicular to the road, where peat has been harvested. Sometimes, chunks of peat can be seen still drying beside the ditches.
The area is thick with sheep, as it has been since the Sutherlands and other landowners removed the peaceful
The Bettyhill Museum
Our volunteer guide is posing in front of a reconstructed crofter house
Gaelic-speaking crofters over two centuries ago because sheep grazing was more profitable and efficient for the landlords than having tenants sustainably work the land. The open space that overwhelms us is in part a result of the changes wrought by the conversion to sheep grazing. Because no one in Britain is proud of those events, known as the Clearances, much of the human and ecological history of that time has been suppressed and is just now starting to be understood. The wonderful small museum in Bettyhill was a great place to learn about it. When I asked the volunteer docent to recommend a good book covering the ecological and human history of the Clearances, he said that the book telling the correct story "hasn't been written yet." If someone could record this gentleman and then rearrange his words into a coherent narrative, they would be a long ways towards completing that book.
The open places are cut through by beautiful salmon rivers, culminating in the River Naver, or Strathnaver as it is known locally. Along the Strathnaver route into Bettyhill we saw anglers in mid-river making beautiful casts with fly rods below georgeous riffles at a river bend just
Anglers in the Strathnaver
Viewed from one of our best picnic lunch spots one the whole trip
above the mouth, or Invernaver, on the north coast. They were accompanied by a young ghillie, i.e. fishing guide, who carried on his back a large landing net, which represented the hope that one of his clients would hook into a 30 pound salmon. We spoke to the anglers and the ghillie, and they seemed to be unconcerned that they hadn't encountered any fish today. They were enjoying the experience of the river as much as we were, although we heard rumors that they have to pay up to 1000 pounds per day for the privilege of doing it their way. Later, the rumor was confirmed by our B&B hostess in Bettyhill, who grumbled that the fishermen are "a bunch of millionaires" and it's the same people fishing every year.
Simple geography dictates that nearly all End-to-End cyclists must pass through here no matter how convoluted or direct the rest of their paths are. So we start to regularly see others for the first time.
Two-thirds of the way from Lairg to Altnaharra, near the top of a long steady climb, is the Crask Inn, a small collection of buildings surrounded by this vast expanse. The Crask Inn
shows up on many maps simply because it's the only thing with a name for many miles in any direction. All we knew about it a few days ago was that it's a pub and that many of the writeups and online forums on the End-to-End ride say that "you should stop at the Crask for a pint" on your way by. We had planned to do no more than that until finding that the limited accommodations at Altnaharra were full. Jim phoned the Crask a few days ahead to inquire if they had rooms. Kai Geldard, the female half of the ownership team, said yes, they did have a few rooms in the pub building, but all were booked. However, she assured Jim that we could have four beds in the upper level of the bunkhouse, whatever that was. A couple days later, when the realization that we would not have a choice of dinner options in this area sank in, Karen called back, and spoke with Mike Geldard, the other owner. Mike assured Karen that yes, they know they are the only thing around, and that yes, they would take good care of us for dinner and breakfast.
Mike at his bar
The draft beers are from the Black Isle brewery, north of Inverness. Jim and I had the red kite ale, which was very good and a reminder of the two red kites we had seen on Black isle the day before
So, we arrived mid-afternoon, propelled along by a southerly tailwind. Kai was there dispensing pints to a few other travelers, and Jim announced that this would be a two-pint day (a very rare thing for us) . That sounded good to me, so for our afternoon pint we both ordered the Red Kite ale from the Black Isle brewery, which, although probably 40 miles away, was undoubtedly the closest brewery and thus very local. Also, we had seen two red kites, birds that is, on Black Isle the day before when we were headed north from Inverness. The beer was good, too.
The "bunkhouse" was a ramshackle building across the highway from the pub. There were bunks in separate rooms and odd corners, including one just under the dart board in the common room. But we had the two loft rooms, with plenty of extra warm blankets and even a heating system, which started to warm the place after Mike and Kai turned it on at our arrival. We had a shower with actual hot water, good walls to block the constant wind, and even a shed next door with straw on the floor ("There were sheep in
here just a few days ago," said Mike) to keep our bikes out of the wind and rain for the night.
Back up at the pub just before the dinner hour we assembled with the rest of the night's group. There were three other end-to-end cyclists, bragging about their long daily mileages over their pints. "My best was 80 a few days ago," said one, topping his companion by 5 or so miles, much as a fishermn would do when talking of fish lengths. "Well, our 'best' was 9.5 miles, from Grosmont to Whitby," said Kathy to us, "should I tell them that?" No, we decided, our trip was of a different kind and there was no point entering into that conversation.
However, Dave Luckhurst, from the Scottish Borders, joined us at our table. Although his ride is very different form ours, it interested us greatly. He's on a mountain bike and doing the entire end-to-end route using as many overland trails as possible. He's working out his route with his GPS unit as he goes, and he expects his total journey will be around 1500 miles, about 200 miles longer than ours. While we thought our arrival
Crask. Pub on the right; bunkhouse on the left; single track main highway in the middle.
The description of it at http://www.thegoodpubguide.co.uk/pub/view/Crask-Inn-IV27-4AB is better than mine. definitely "worth a visit."
at the Crask Inn over the remote single track highway was pretty wild, Dave's was really wild, over the hills to the east that he pointed out to me on leaving the bar. I asked him where he was headed the next day and he said he would go about a mile down the highway the way we had come from and then head off into the woods to the west. Dave turned out to be the only other person in the bunkhouse with us that night occupying one of the downstairs rooms.
Other Crask Inn patrons that night included an odd triplet of men from the London area on a jaunt to Scotland, united by their shared passion for birdwatching. There was also a youg couple from Germany.
Mike and Kai run the Crask Inn completely by themselves. After making sure we all had the drinks we needed in the bar (I had a Glenmorangie whisky from Tain instead of my second pint), they served us dinner in the adjacent dining room. There were three courses, with three choices for each one. Not only had they prepared this meal but the two of them took our individual
orders, served each of us, cleaned up afterwards, and did everything else necessary to keep the place going. Oh yes, and they raise sheep and cattle too on part of the vast emptiness. Mike told us he had just acquired a bull who was "over there," pointing to the west. He thought it was about time for him to get to know the cows, "over there," pointing to the east.
In the morning we found that Mike had driven Kai to the early morning train, about 20 miles away, so she could go to another town, 40 miles distant, for a day of swimming and socializing. So, he cooked and served us all the full Scottish breakfast by himself. Afterwards he told us that he'd tried to move the cows to the bull early in the morning, but the bull got the idea first and went over to the cows. So he left it that way. When we headed north after breakfast, the bull and cows were quietly grazing in the pasture east of the road. Whatever else went on, we don't know.
[Posted from Stromness, Orkney Islands, 29 May. We made it to John
o'Groats today, which you will read about soon.]]
Tot: 3.025s; Tpl: 0.049s; cc: 26; qc: 92; dbt: 0.0366s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb