Monday, October 26, 2015

Our Wee Trip to the UK, Chapter 3

===Monday, 21 September to 
Friday, 25 September===

Unfortunately, that Sunday was the only real day of sun we had in our bothy on Balnakeil Beach. I was on my Northern Lights mission all week, leaving Denis sleeping peacefully in bed while I was up roaming around at strange hours to see if the sky was clear enough for us to see them. No luck. It didn't help knowing that the lights are cyclical and won't be seen for another decade.

Around 9AM Monday morning while Denis and I were sitting at the table, drinking big mugs of tea, watching the waves roll in, and keeping an ear on the news,  the sound of a fast-moving, low-flying jet could be heard-- followed by a very loud explosion out to sea on that little bump of an island I told you about in chapter two. When Denis drove to the Spar shop in Durness (think 7-Eleven or AM PM Mini-Mart without the gas pumps) he learned that the RAF (Royal Air Force) used that poor bit of rock as a bombing range! I wondered if we were going to be blessed with 2-4 explosions every morning, but as it turned out, it only happened on Monday and Tuesday.

The day I learned about that soft Scottish rain....

We'd only planned two driving trips the entire week. One back to Inverness because I wanted to visit a large craft shop to buy yarn, and the other to Thurso, a town on the north coast to the east of Durness about 80 miles or so. Since so much traveling would have to be done on single-track (one lane) roads, it made much more sense to spend the vast majority of our time at the bothy.

What's the big deal about single-track roads? It's exhausting for the driver. You have to keep very focused on what's up ahead. The roads are only one lane wide, with spots to pull over about every 200 feet or so. You have to be aware of the traffic ahead of you, how far they're ahead, how fast they're moving, and where those "passing places" are located. And if you're not acquainted with the roads or the normal traffic patterns, they take much longer to travel than their multi-laned counterparts.

The weather wasn't promising on Tuesday, but we decided to see if it cleared once we got on the road to Thurso. It didn't. It got worse, and poor visibility on those little roads just wasn't a good idea. Through veils of mist and rain, we could see the breathtaking coastline-- barely-- but we turned around and came back to the bothy. That's when I learned about something I'd only read about: that "soft" Scottish rain. Some of you know what it is. I thought I did just by reading about it, but I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong! In the very short period of time it took me to get out of the car, walk across the gravel parking area and into the house, I was almost completely drenched-- without realizing it! The rain was like an all-enveloping mist, covering me completely, and so softly that I didn't even feel it until I felt the water begin to run off me in widening streams.

The afternoon was filled with reading, a nap, knitting, and watching telly... er... television. You wouldn't believe how much "Britspeak" I have to backspace over when I type up posts like this. Over the years, I've read hundreds of books by British authors. I watch a boatload of British television. I'm married to an Englishman. When the plane I'm on crosses the Atlantic, my brain shifts into British English. Not the accent. Just the terminology. It's an unconscious thing that takes weeks to go away once I'm back here in the desert.

The rain came down in sheets, and the wind was fierce during the wee hours of the morning. I was up for good at 4 AM, reading a book in our cozy bothy. When it began to get light, I immediately started raising the blinds so I wouldn't miss the morning visit by our resident pine marten. What I saw had me grabbing my camera and throwing open the front door. Then coming back inside to shake Denis awake before I quick-stepped back outside. You'll see why---

Double rainbow over Balnakeil House!

I've always loved rainbows.

Denis, too!

Since the weather had cleared, it didn't take Denis and I long to be back on the road to Thurso.

Yes, this is the main road!

The road wound along the absolutely stunning coast for awhile before cutting across country. We occasionally passed by isolated crofts (farms) or crofting (farming) villages-- like Laid, where a hand-painted sign announcing "Fresh 'Laid' Eggs for Sale" made me smile. 

The road then took us around a large sea loch-- Loch Eriboll-- and I saw what appeared to be a tiny island on the other side. Once we'd made our way around, I could see that it wasn't an island, but attached to the shore by an umbilical cord of shingle and sand. The buildings on it were fascinating, and I made a mental note to see what i could find out about them.

Ard Neakie out on Loch Eriboll

That "almost island" is Ard Neakie, and the house on it used to be the terminus for the Heilam Ferry which ceased running when the road we were traveling was completed in the 1890s. 

(L) Lime kilns and quarry. (R) Heilam Ferry house.

The ferry house was built in the 1830s, and the lime quarry and kilns were constructed in 1870. Loch Eriboll is the most northerly and largest sea loch  in the UK and was an important anchorage for the Royal Navy through much of the twentieth century. In fact, over forty German U-Boats entered Loch Eriboll to surrender at the end of World War II.

During that war, the service men stationed there called it "Loch 'orrible" because of its foul weather, and Denis and I could attest to a bit of it as we drove in and out of rainstorms.

Loch Eriboll

The photo above is definitely best seen full size. Just left click on it (or any of the others), and a new window will open automatically so you can see them all in their original sizes.

One of the things I love about the Highlands is that the light can be so dramatic; often piercing through clouds with laser-like brilliance to spotlight  an area of a loch or mountainside.

We crossed the bridge at the Kyle of Tongue. A "kyle" is a narrow channel of water between two islands or an island and the mainland, and is usually a place to ford from one side to the other, or a handy place for a ferry. Denis and I are quite familiar with Kyle of Lochalsh-- the narrow channel between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Skye. We were getting closer to Thurso.

Even out in the middle of nowhere....

And it just goes to show that nowhere is too remote for road construction!

Thurso was a busy little town, and after making a mental note of where we'd seen a gas station (they aren't as brightly marked and lighted as ones in the US), we parked the car. It was time for a little exploration in this town that has a history dating back to the Vikings. It used to be known as the Gateway to Scotland.

Thurso--across from where we parked the car.


Tall Tales Bookshop, Thurso

And wouldn't you know that Denis discovered a bookshop! (Although it calls itself a music shop.) The slate between the two windows is in local dialect: "Scorries cowrin for a pucklie rain" roughly means "Seagulls crying for a little rain." I didn't know they did that, did you?

The weather was so uncertain that we didn't stay for long and returned on the same route to our bothy on Balnakeil Beach. The journey which had seemed interminable on the way to Thurso was over in the blink of an eye on the return trip. I'd love to know how that happens!

Outside of the yarn trip to Inverness, the rest of the week was spent in and around the bothy. It also rained on that yarn trip, but on the drive back to the bothy, I was constantly entertained by a succession of rainbows and waterfalls. If only my knees loved all this damp! 

On Saturday we had to leave bright and early for the drive to Inverness so we could catch our trains to Durham. We'd be traveling first class!


  1. What a wonderful trip, despite the train. Those rainbows are fantastic! I've never seen a double rainbow and very few rainbows make their way to the Big Apple.

    Interesting about the one-lane roads. I've always wondered how they were navigated. Didn't know about the areas where a driver could pull in to let another car pass.

    Didn't you want to go to Durness, site of women protesting those dreadful landowners' clearances? That is such a terrific part of Scottish and women's history.

    1. The bothy is only a mile or two outside Durness. We were in town several times. Besides, this wasn't our first trip there. :-)

  2. Ah, the 'rock mystery' solved! My goodness, you had rainy weather, Cathy! Still, you were so well rewarded with that gorgeous double rainbow - wow! I'm glad you made it to Thurso and Inverness. But even if you hadn't, the bothy seems like such a lovely place to stay. Oh, and about 'Britspeak?' I had the same thing happen to me when I came back from Australia and New Zealand the times I've been there.

  3. Oh do we know what you mean about single track road and the Brits fly down them, scare the b'Jesus out of us. My husband does the driving when we're there, but I do the navigating and it wears both of us out.

    1. Yes, the passenger does become a spotter for oncoming traffic. If we were to travel on them all our lives, we'd undoubtedly fly down them, too!

  4. So fun to read this, Cathy! Feel like you took us along on your trip. I'd never be able to drive on those roads. Would be a nervous wreck. However, how clever of you to plan for taking along your 'professional'. And also how clever of him to find a bookshop in the little town. LOL

    1. He does come in handy once in a while... who am I kidding? He comes in handy ALL the time! LOL

  5. I forgot to say that I was quite impressed that Thurso has a bookstore. What a find. Di you find any books to purchase while there?

    1. I managed to spend almost two weeks in the UK and not buy one single solitary book. I did, however, come home with a dozen skeins of yarn!

  6. And nobody thought to warn you that there might be bombing going on while you were there? LOL! How negligent.

    I tend to be the navigator while my husband drives, so I can imagine how tense one could become on those roads, watching for oncoming traffic.

    1. It's just a part of life there, although I would imagine that we weren't the first tourists to jump outta our chairs when that first bomb exploded! LOL

      I can't say that I'm the navigator because Mr. Gizmo puts his trust into his GPS, but I do pay attention because... you know... those GPS thingies have *never* been wrong....


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