Thursday, September 25, 2008

Walk 200 -- Tain, via Dornoch, to Littleferry

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 140 days. Rosemary was 63 years and 283 days.
Weather: ‘Fair-weather’ cloud. Quite warm. No wind.
Location: Tain, via Dornoch, to Littleferry.
Distance: 14 miles.
Total distance: 1770 miles.
Terrain: Much road-walking, some on main roads and some on very quiet roads. Down steps from the big bridge and over a fence. Some grassy tracks. A lovely section of firm sandy beach. Rough path through overgrown dunes where we got lost. Found track, but that deteriorated to nothing. ‘Escaped’ to road through two gates. Pot-holed lane to ‘ferry’.
Tide: Going out.
Rivers: No.149, a massive bridge over Dornoch Firth. No.150, the entrance to Loch Fleet at Littleferry.
Ferries: No.15 across the entrance to Loch Fleet — though we really cheated over this one because there hasn’t been a ferry there for very many years! So we made up a new rule to cover ourselves.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.166 where we exited a track on to a minor road soon after the bridge.
Pubs: The ‘Castle Hotel’ in Dornoch where we enjoyed ‘Nimbus’ and Three Sisters’, both from the Atlas brewery.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We were staying in a holiday flat in the countryside about three miles from Dingwall. This morning we got up early, put Colin’s bike on the back of the car, and drove to Dornoch where Colin dropped me off. I had a wander round this very interesting little town while Colin drove on to the end of a lane opposite Littleferry and cycled back. He was in good time for us to catch a bus soon after nine to Tain. There we bought our pasties in a local shop (and discovered the toilets were free for pensioners and children, 20p for everyone else!) before walking down to the park where we finished the Walk yesterday.
At the end, we finished at the car. We had our tea and rich-tasting caramel squares, and returned to Dornoch to pick up the bike. We drove back to Dingwall — it’s an awful long way now, and quite dark by the time we got to the flat.

We ate our pasties in the park before we started the Walk. We had only just bought them in the town, but they weren’t very good — far too much pastry and too little filling.  The first three miles of today’s Walk were very dull. We walked up through town and left it on the main road to the west. On the outskirts we passed a Lidl store, and Colin couldn’t resist popping in to buy some more caramel shortcake! 
Soon we came to the bypass, the main A9, and from thereon our tedium was only relieved by views of the Tain Bridge ahead. A train rattled past between us and the Firth, and further on we passed the Glenmorangie Distillery.
And so we came to the Tain Bridge. A plaque told us it was opened by the Queen Mother on 27th August 1991. Also, at 890m, it is one of the longest bridges in Europe to be built by the cast-push method, whatever that is. Was there a ferry before 1991, or did everyone have to drive approximately twelve miles up to Bonar Bridge to cross the Firth, then a similar distance back the other side? We were just glad we didn’t have to walk it!
It felt good striding across a big bridge like that, also quite breezy! When we got to the other side we could see the track we wanted to be on running through the bridge beneath us, but we couldn’t see a way down to it. So we went down some steps leading to maintenance sheds sited underneath the bridge, scrabbled down a steep bank and then climbed over a fence (not barbed wire, thank goodness!) to get on to this track. 
Under the bridge we came across two abandoned bicycles. One was lying on the stones beneath one of the pillars, and the other — missing it’s front wheel — was hung on the fence next to a gate we had to go through. 

Neither of them looked in too bad a state, apart from the missing wheel, and we wondered how they got there — and why?

The track followed the shore for a little way, then went inland to meet up with a tarmacked lane. Four miles of this took us into Dornoch. Being an estuary, we guessed the “sands” were really mud. With a stoney shore we didn’t think it was walker/friendly, so we plumped for the lane. On our way across the marsh to it we were plagued by flies — it was most unpleasant.
We passed a cottage that had a garden full of toys! Full-size scarecrows, toy sheep ‘grazing’ on the lawn, a wire bird on top of a bird-box, etc. It was delightful!

We sat down near a forest notice to eat our sandwiches. Colin’s knee is still being a problem — it is not in the kneecap itself he gets the pain, it is at the side of his knee. He couldn’t make up his mind whether the knee support was helping it or not. In the end he removed it and took some painkillers.
We carried on. We kept passing a postwoman delivering the mail, then she would get in her van and drive to the next group of cottages where we would catch up with her again. She was very cheery, and waved to us every time we passed each other. It was a bit like the hare and the tortoise! When we caught up with her for about the fourth time, I asked, “Do you get the feeling you’re being followed?” She laughed and replied, “Only as far as the post office, then I’m finished for the day!”
We could see the water through some teasels.
We passed some honeysuckle in the hedge which smelt very sweet.
Then we came across the most perfect fly agaric we have ever seen! (We looked around for the fairies, but didn’t see any!)

And so we came to Dornoch. We made straight for the pub! I had had a good look round Dornoch while I was waiting for Colin this morning. I had been to Scotland’s smallest cathedral where, in 2000, the pop singer Madonna had famously had her baby son christened the day before her wedding to Guy Ritchie at nearby Skibo Castle. The door was locked today, so I couldn’t see inside.
The cathedral was built in the 13th century by Bishop Gilbert of Caithness. He also built himself a palace, now the Castle Hotel in which we were at present relaxing over a drink! But I’ll give it to that old bishop — he used local stone for both buildings, therefore presumably using local labour, and he paid for it all out of his own pocket. A bit more honest and magnanimous than some of our present-day businesses and MPs!
Next to the graveyard I came across the medieval market cross. Weekly markets and county fairs took place in Dornoch for many centuries. Over the wall, in the graveyard itself, is the a plaiden ell. This stone was used as a fixed measure for plaid or tartan cloth, and the punishment for selling short measure was a spell in the stocks — there was no excuse for dishonesty!

The markets reached their peak of popularity in the 18th century. But there were complaints that roaming pigs were digging up the graves, so causing disturbance and distress. In the early 19th century the town council built a wall to keep them out. Unfortunately this wall, still there today, cut the market place in half and it just wasn’t the same anymore. The markets declined in size and frequency, and today just a farmer’s market is held twice a month.
I also had a look at a 19th century monument to Kenneth Murray who was Provost of Tain. (Why was his monument put up in Dornoch then?) It was paid for by public subscription because of his “estimable character and public usefulness”! I expect he was a jolly good chap, don’t you? Surely the money could have been better spent relieving the plight of the poor?

Finally, we were amused by this notice from the local funeral directors, pleading with everybody to “keep clear at all times”. Nobody had better die while they are digging up the road!
We noted Colin’s bike was still there, locked to some railings in the square. Then we left Dornoch on a road going south towards a caravan park. This part of town is called Littletown, and the row of cottages here have an interesting history. During the Highland Clearances, families were cruelly turned out of the homes they had lived in for generations and sent towards the coast. A few families ended up on the beach here and built turf huts for shelter. Gradually they replaced this temporary accommodation with stone hovels which they built themselves. As soon as they had turned the buildings into cottages that were anything like decent to live in, their former landlord, the Duke of Sutherland, came and demanded rent because they were still living on his land!
Today Littletown is a pleasant row of modern cottages, probably owned individually by the people who live in them.

We decided not to go down to Dornoch Point because all the paths which led down there were dead ends — that was our excuse anyway! So we came out on the beach at the caravan park and turned north. It was lovely to walk along a firm sandy beach again (the tide had just uncovered it), even though it was only for a little while.
Soon rocks sent us back on to the inevitable golf course where we were able to walk along grassy paths for the next couple of miles, all the way to Embo. There we came across a seat, so we stopped to eat our chocolate.
We wondered if Embo was also a ‘Clearance’ village, with its neat rows of houses and all by itself on the coast. But a pipeline is also marked on the map, so it may have had something to do with that. It certainly isn’t a fishing village. We were soon through the hamlet as it is very contained, and started on the path northwards across the grassy dunes.
We thought the last two miles of today’s Walk would be easy because the paths were well marked on the map. But we were wrong — this is, after all, Scotland! Footpaths marked on OS maps and actual footpaths that exist in the field only bear a vague resemblance to each other, if any at all. We were about to enter a navigator’s nightmare!
First of all the path petered out. As we bumbled on, the bumps, thorns and holes got bigger, more frequent and distinctly menacing. It was practically impossible to get to a high place in order to get a ‘fix’ on a landmark and work out where we were. The potholes hidden in the undergrowth were increasingly treacherous, the ground got steeper, the thistles got spikier, the nettles got stingier and we had to admit that we were completely lost! We even saw some sika deer, but they were no help in leading us out of this maze of overgrown dunes.
Colin kept whooping with delight every time he saw a hairy caterpillar, but I just wanted to get to the car and eat my caramel shortcake! Our compasses were of little help because we knew we were making our way north, and they didn’t tell us where the path was. We tried to make our way towards a small copse which we knew we had to pass on a track, but that was easier said than done. As soon as we went down into the next dip we lost sight of the trees, and our wiggly route to avoid humps, prickles and hollows had the effect of completely disorientating us. We were also very tired of course — this has been a long Walk, and a long two weeks of walking.
After what seemed an age (it was actually an hour), we suddenly came across a decent track — the track we should have been on all the while! This track was so good we suspected it was the route of an old railway line. So we couldn’t believe it when this, too, petered out about a mile further on! Were we ever going to reach the car?
Eventually we rounded a number of fearsome gorse bushes and escaped to the road by climbing over a couple of gates. This meant we had to go a long way round in order to get to the derelict jetty opposite Littleferry where Colin had parked the car this morning. But that was preferable to trying to find the ‘short-cut’ across the dunes which was marked on the map.
We turned off to walk down a pot-holed lane, with water-filled hollows so frequent it had required an act of great skill for Colin to drive along there this morning! Yet there were caravans down there — families doing a bit of wild camping in a very lovely place. For the views across Loch Fleet were surreal in the evening light. The entrance to the loch from the sea is very narrow, only about a hundred yards across, and the houses of Littleferry on the other side were beautifully reflected in the water.
The pot-holed lane was three quarters of a mile long, but in our weary state it seemed much further. At last we arrived at the derelict wooden jetty, for the ferry at Littleferry stopped functioning a very long time ago. But it seemed ridiculous to us that we should have to walk ten miles around Loch Fleet for the sake a hundred yard stretch of water. So we made up a new rule — that we could count it as a functioning ferry because it had the word “ferry” in the name of the hamlet on the other side!

That ended Walk no.200, we shall pick up Walk no.201 next time on the slipway at Littleferry, the other side of the entrance to Loch Fleet. It was quarter past six, so the Walk had taken eight hours. The tide was coming in fast through the narrow entrance to the loch. While we were drinking our tea, there was a lot of splashing in the water between us and Littleferry. This continued way up the loch until whatever it was swam out of sight. They moved too quickly and the light was too poor by then to see exactly what had swum past, but we reckoned it was either otters or seals. There were lots of herons and some cormorants on the loch too. 
We drove carefully up the potholed lane, returned to Dornoch to pick up the bike, and then drove back to Dingwall — it’s forty miles now, and it was quite dark by the time we got to the flat.

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