The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Dad never took to classical music, in the early days of television the BBC would make much of orchestral music, well they had to do something with all those musicians in the BBC Orchestra. Something that seemed synonymous with male classical musicians, they would let their hair grow long, at a time when short back and sides was the order of the day. This led to dad calling classical music, ‘long hair music’.

My day of departure.

I had gone up the town to buy a couple of gas cylinders for my camp stove. Returning along South Street I passed the hairdressers, devoid of costumers, do I have a haircut, the first since the start of lock-down, or do I buy a fiddle? I went for the haircut. All now ready, van packed, I set off in glorious sunshine, I had picked the time of my departure well, I thought.

I filled the tank before crossing the silver Tay for Dundee, then I followed the coast out to Arbroath intending to set up camp on the promenade, there is nothing like the sound of the sea to soothe and calm the spirit, gee it’s busy here today, best move on. I set out for Brechin and then the B966 for Edzell,

The entrance to this little village is a bit special, once through the arch you are into a street twice as wide expected,

However with Edzell Castle nearby this was possible a very important and busy town in its day. And I believe stagecoaches, required a big turning area.

Edzell had other claims to fame, during the First World War an airfield was established then disbanded in 1919. During 1930 it operated as a civilian airfield, then the RAF moved in once more during the Second World War as a serving and maintenance unit. In the late 1950s I remember the airfield as a car racing circuit, and although I did not see it myself, Jim Clark, the future double GP world champion, won here in June 1959.

The Yanks then moved in, 1960 United States Navy established a global High Frequency Direction Finding, (HFDF) network. 3,000 personnel were station at what was called RAF Edzell, this was at the start of the Cold War. The station closed in October 1997. then came the bill, £4 million from the Central Fund over the next three years by Angus and Aberdeenshire Council to support Edzell and strengthen the local economy following the withdrawal of the US Navy.

I joined the B974 at Fettercairn and climbed up onto Cairn o’ Mount for the night. Tonight was a dark moon and the skies up here were magnificent, stars so close I felt I could have easily reached up and touched them. Orion’s belt shone out bright as did the Plough, called the Big Dipper in the US, and I suppose it does look much more like a big ladle than a plough.

All along the horizon to the east, a band of light from the street lights of Stonehaven and the towns and villages all the way up to Aberdeen, although the towns themselves were out of sight, still their light had found me. With clear skies there was no reflection of the cloud, restricting their light to a bangle of shining silver light. Only a few years ago this would have been bright orange, sodium light, streets lamps are mostly Led light now.

The night was warm so I decamped my fold-up camp chair outside the van and enjoyed this spectacular sky, my camp stove brewing up numerous hot cups of tea. This was most reminiscent of my day’s hillwalking in Scotland’s, big mountains, and big skies at night. A camper van pulled up into waste ground behind me and an ever so friendly dog bound up to me, much to the owners panicking calls for her to return, after a sniff around she bounded off home once more. Next day when I was leaving I saw a child buggy outside the van.

Day two,

Banchory to Bridge of Gairn, this is along the valley of the River Don, and today the river was shrouded in the morning mist, as I travelled on to Tornahaish. climbed upwards was like being in an aircraft bursting through the cloud and into the clear cold, empty skies. I stopped to take a picture of my favourite AA Box.

Dropping down to Cock Bridge once more I saw the mist lying in the valley bottom, lifting as Scots mist will, a willow the wisp at the appearance of the sun,

now you see it now you don’t.

It is a 20% climb out of Cock Bridge and all the way up onto the Lecht. The ski slopes were totally devoid of any snow. All the equipment gave an ugliness to the hillside, out of keeping with natures beauty all around.

I pulled into the little car park at the Well of Lecht, there were two camper vans already here, one still shrouded in blackouts. From the other a Shetland Collie announced my coming, barking madly until admonished by his owner.

The lead mine was established near to the Well of Lecht, between 1730 and 1738. The York Mining company established workings here, on land forfeited (Stolen) by the English government following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The ore, both ironstone and manganese ore was taken from the mine by packhorse over the hills to Culnakyle (near Nethy Bridge), there it would be smelted using a plentiful supply of timber from of woodland there. In 1840 the Duke of Richmond reopened the mine, purely as a manganese ore mine, this time the ore was sent down to Newcastle for use in the bleaching trade. At its peak, it employed 63 people, closing again in 1847 when cheap imports of manganese were coming in from Russia.

“Far yi fae?” the elderly man asked me from the window of their van.

“St Andrews” I replied, “And no need to ask where you folks are from”.

He told me they never travel far from the door, but like to get out into the country for a bit, I knew exactly what he was saying. His wife appeared from inside and took her seat, we greeted then their goodbyes. I went on to explore on foot, the old mine, lade and the spill heaps.

Tomintoul, Last time I was up this way I had parked up at the dedicated picnic area just outside the village, I was all on my lonesome, and spent time bathing and feasting and just chilling out, today I would have had difficulty finding a place to park, where had all these camper vans come from. Some old but many brand new and belonging to hire companies, according to the lettering on their outside. More worrying was the English registration plated, Oh No! Could this be an English bank holiday.

On now to Grantown-on-Spey, where I picked up the A95 and went zooming off to Dulnain Bridge and from there I was able to cross over and pick up the A9 for Inverness.

Inverness my old hunting grounds, I parked the van out by the estuary and opposite the docks for my stay over. The bike could now be pressed into service really for the first time apart from in Arbroath when I went into town to do a bit of shopping. Inverness was busy, but there is no better way to get around the town than by bike. I was still very unsure about going into a cafe or restaurant, so just bought some vitals for cooking back at the van.

Day Three,

Up with the larks and headed off down to Drumnadrochit stopping off at Urquhart Castle for breakfast,

Time was my friend as I looked out over the still waters of Loch Ness. I continued my travels along the lochside, turning off at Invermoriston onto the A887 for Kintail, where are all these camper vans coming from? I ask not for the first time.

The A887 takes you all the way along the north side of Loch Cluanie, which is in fact a reservoir, I have never seen the water in the loch so low as today. This is a beautiful road with unrestricted views across the waters to Adnach and Sggurr An Lochain then the mighty mountains beyond. On now past the Five Sisters of Kintail, the road was unusually busy, and every place possible to park had parked vehicles on them was it simply the fine weather that had brought them out in their hundreds, all glad like me to be out of the house and FREE?

At Dornie, the car park at Eilean Donan Castle was full to overflowing with cars, camper vans and motorcycles by the dozens, I crossed the river to the centre at Ardeive, and spend some time just enjoying this superb weather, finding a public toilet that was open was a big bonus. A tour bus pulled in whilst I was there and about half a dozen geriatrics stumbled out, coronavirus has certainly affected the bus tour industry hard, but seems to have worked wonders for the camper van hire industry.

I was determinant to visit Kishorn and Bealach Na Ba so pressed on to Rassal Tornapress where I took the single track road for Bealach Na Ba. What a disaster this was, stopping at ever passing place or simply squeezing passed hire camper vans, whose drivers dare not go to close to the edge at passing places, (thinking of their lost deposit, if the van suffered damage). Rows of cars with cycle carriers had been left down at Rassal Tornapress, with their owners intent of climbing the Bealach Na Ba, mostly on road bikes whose gearing was far too high for comfort on such a climb, most were already red-faced and this was only the start.

It may help to understand why my time at Kishorn was so memorable. The country was in a bad way in the 1970s, and just when oil was discovered in The North Sea. What should have been the bonus of a lifetime for the Labour Party and kept them in power for a generation was handed to Thatcher on a plate, with a no-confidence vote. Maggie would make sure not the unions or anyone else would stop her using the power that came from the oil revenue to shape the country to her Tory ideology of a market-led economy and the devil take the hindmost.

I was lured to Kishorn, with an advert in the Construction News, offering tough men, wages of £300.00 per week (equivalent in today’s money to 2,000.00 per week) for a tough job. Yes, that is how bad wages have become, we made more per hour in 1970 than today’s worker ever will, and no matter how bad things were we did not have food banks. I was still only starting into my thirties at the time, hard work not a problem, I headed north.

It was 1975 when the 150-meter wide dry dock was constructed to build the first layer of the Ninian Central platform, a big concrete saucer-shaped of steel reinforcing and concrete. The work would continue around the clock, 24/7 and for 52 weeks a year. I was working a permanent night shift, two weeks on two weeks off, this suited me fine.

Once the saucer was constructed it would be floated out into the deep waters of the loch, for when completed Ninian would weigh in at 600,000 tonnes and would stand 200 metres tall, but as the structure gained in weight and high it sunk below the water, so only a small part was ever above water. I remember when the saucer was about to be floated out, no one believed it would float, but when the gate was opened to the sea it did floated fine, and was towed out to the deep sheltered waters of the loch. Or 16-hour shift would now start and finish with a half-hour ferry ride.

In the picture you will see a collar around the top of the structure being constructed, that was a moving shutter. The shutter moved constantly and once the pore had started it could not be stopped for anything. And there were times when we had to stay on a few extra days at the end of our two weeks stint, for this reason. So many stories can be told during my eight years spent at Kishorn. We worked hard in all conditions and were well paid for that. It has always stuck in my head if you pay people well they will get the job done. Money has always been made round to go round if you give money to workers s/he will spend that money in the economy, and help the country by giving a big bite of their hard-earned cash to the government by way of taxation. A great economy starts with good wages, alas since Maggie Thatcher all that changed to her market-driven economy, trickle-down economy and the Tory ideology of ‘work old horse and you’ll get corn’ but only in the quantity we begrudgingly give you.

I tried to get into the Dry Dock at Kishorn, just for old time sake, but only managed as far as the gatehouse, ho-hum. Still climbing the Bealach Na Ba, I was able to stop and looking down snapped off a couple of pictures of part of a rig being dismantled in the dry dock. My photographs are not the best, my camera does not do long-distance shots.

This was crazy the amount of traffic going up and down this road. At the top, I stopped made lunch and when there was a lull in the traffic made my escape back down to Rassal Tornapress. From here I travelled up Glen Torridon, passing the mighty Beinn Eighe. At Kinlochewe I had intended to head up the beautiful Loch Maree, but nothing could persuade me to spend another minute in this traffic jam, with an ever conceivable place to park, even the smallest car of the van, now taken up by tourists to the area today. Is this the start of England’s most recent invasion of Scotland? I headed East once more and parked up by the Cromarty Firth, I freed myself from the driving seat and prepared food. How to time the perfect boiled eggs, simply put on a Roberta Flack CD and listen to her “killing me softly with his song”. After egg and salad, I headed out on the bike for a bit of exercise, thankful for a bit of peace and quiet.

Homeward Bound

It was looking as if there might a change in the weather but still very warm for the time of the year, very much an Indian Summer. After breakfast I tided up, which is difficult in such a confined space, dismantling the camp bed did help and tucked it away for another day. Made everything secure and hit the A9 for Perth, two hours away. Off at J9 and onto Aberargi and Abernethy and all the way into Cupar and home.

The trip was not the one I had planned, I had not expected the traffic that was on the roads, and still have no idea if it was an English bank holiday or just that so many people having been cooped up for so long, had taken advantage of the fine weather, they like I, just wanted to get away, and now that travelling abroad was a no-no, they had all decided to come to Wester Ross.

I can only imagine how bad it must have been in Skye. Maybe Oor Nicola should reimpose the bridge toll (at around £50) for all but inhabitants and deliveries to the island, it it did not curtail the flow, at least it might pay for the damage the tourists are doing.

The trip was a strain and tiring for me, I pushed on where at another time I would have dilly-dallied, simply because of all the tourists. But for all that, when I returned home, showered, shaved, made myself a proper cooked meal, I felt refreshed. I was now able to catch up with the news, which had not changed much since I went off, other than things are not getting any better.

I think the Tories will hang it all around the neck of Boris Johnston, like an Albatross, and try telling the public it was all the fault of an incompetent leader, but all is now well, ‘Under New Management’ with the band playing ‘Believe it if you like’.

Strange when I lay in bed that first night back it felt like I had just returned from a sea trip, I was still in motion. I slept sound until 10 am the following day and felt so good the next morning, refreshed and reinvigorated. I believe I had been suffering a little from the isolation during the pandemic in that I was frightened to go out of the building, other than on my own with my bike, I have always worn a mask outside the building from the earliest days of lockdown, even if only going up the street to the shops. Shopping was always early before the shop officially opened (Aldi lets us oldies in half an hour before opening time, gives us a chance to wander around, wondering what we came in for). Sadly I see no hope of this pandemic coming under control anytime soon. So many people out in crowded streets, in close proximity to one another, no attempt at social distancing and no mask-wearing in evidence. Someone is going to have to get a grip of the situation or this is going to spread like wildfire once more, the country in lock-down by default.

It’s all the fault of themessempee, the Unionists will cry.

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