Hilly heather day – Thurso to Bettyhill (50/19,518k, 660m)

(written by Dave)

We had some more rain overnight but for the third day in a row we had no rain while we were riding.  I’m not sure what the record for dry days in a row for Scotland is but we have to be getting close – we are feeling pretty lucky.  Everything was a bit wet this morning so we were slow getting out.  We had planned on treating ourselves to brekkie in the caravan park restaurant as the signs said it opened at 7am and they had pancakes on the menu but when Nancy peeked her head in the door just after 7AM, they said it would be another couple of hours before they opened.  Rats, oatmeal again.

The first notable stop of the day was supposed to be Dounreay Nuclear plant, a mothballed plant on the coast of Scotland.  We were getting close when Nancy spotted a Clydesdale and Shetland pony standing close to each other in a paddock next to the road.  We pulled up for a photo and an elderly man dressed in farm worker clothes called us in to have a look and chat.  So we met James – and he was a chatterer.  We got to pet the horses and had the added bonus of learning the entire history of Scotland, plus a few other things from James.  After a wee bit (they really say that here), James’s son Ian drove up.  If we thought James could talk, Ian was even “better”.  It got to the point where we dared not say anything as one word was all the seed that either of them needed to be off on another interesting topic.  A mere mention of the nuclear plant and we got a full rundown of Ian’s 27 year career working at the plant.  They found out we were from Sydney and we got a full recount of anyone they ever knew who had traveled there, plus a recap of Ian’s sister’s round the world trip.  She had passed through Sydney.  They were both great really but had we not made our apologies we would probably still be in the paddock listening to them.  And oh yeah, the Shetland was named Garfield and the Clydsdale was named Hamish.  The Clydsdale used to be called James but it was too confusing when the horse came along so they changed his name.  See, we learned a lot in our 30 minutes standing in a Scottish paddock.

We finally made it to the power plant and didn’t stop.  It was kind of boring looking and thanks to Ian, we knew what all of the information boards would tell us anyway.

As we were passing the plant we came upon some police blocking the road ahead.  There were three massive blades for a new wind turbine being moved to a farm up on the hillside (we know this because Ian or James had told us about the new turbines going in).  The road here is very narrow so the trucks could only move when all traffic in both directions is stopped.  It is slow progress – after we went by them they never caught up with us, even though we had to climb a hill just after we passed them.  When we were waiting, I hopped to the front of the queue of stopped cars to get some photos and found three other cyclists who were riding JOG to LE, same as us.  They were on racing bikes without bags and admitted to having a family member driving a sag vehicle.  They were not too keen when I offered to swap them bikes.  We won’t see them again on this trip for sure!

Aside from our time in the paddock, there were few sights today that merited a stop.  We rode along the coast for most of the day, North Sea on the right, rolling brown hills on the left.  All of the hills here are treeless.  There is the odd grove of trees near a stream but it is mostly just rolling hill after rolling hill.  From the distance the hills look like brown dirt or stone but they are actually nearly all covered with heather, which in some places covers layers upon layers of stone that poke out the sides.  The south facing slopes are covered with classical heather purple flowers but you have to get close to really see the flowers.  I tried to take a few photos of the purple hillsides but they didn’t come out so great.

There was one stop of merit just outside Bettyhill, our intended stop for the night.  There is an old church for the 1770s, along with the requisite cemetery.  In the cemetery there is a gravestone from 800 or 900 AD from an unknown, yet notable, local.  Or at least that’s what the signpost noted.  We did not had the chance to fact check this with Ian and James earlier in the morning.  We reached Bettyhill (no relation to Benny Hill) just past 1PM.  The campsite here is not too flash but it will do.  At least now, later in the day, some other campers have stopped so we won’t be alone.  It has turned into a gorgeous afternoon of decidedly un-Scottish standards.  I’m sitting in full sun outside the tent thinking about changing into shorts.

So yes, even though I’m getting a suntan, we are in Scotland.  Several folks have asked us if we are counting Scotland in our official country list.  Well, this is a good question that bears some clarification.  A lot depends on who you look at for official recognition of a country.  The UN recognizes the UK as a country comprised of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a few odd assorted islands (the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey).  In the Olympics, the UK was presented as “Team GB” (in case you hadn’t figured it out, GB means Great Britain).  Well, Great Britain is actually the Island which contains England, Scotland and Wales.  Northern Ireland and the previously mention islands are not part of Great Britain (though they are part of the United Kingdom) but athletes from these countries were part of Team GB.  So don’t feel bad if you didn’t know the difference between the UK and GB, some of the sporting folks from the UK don’t even know what countries are part of the Island of Great Britain or else they would have fixed their team’s name.

If the UN and Olympic bodies can’t figure this out, then we may want to look at nearly every other sporting body for advice.  Usually England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the others all compete as independent countries.  For example, the rugby and football (soccer) world cups have teams from all of the above as entrants, if they qualify.  That’s good enough for us.

So, are we counting England, Scotland and Wales (when we reach it) as separate countries?  Well, it depends on who’s asking.  Ultimately it probably won’t matter until bicycle touring becomes an Olympic sport.  I think that this may be some time off yet.  If only we would have thought to ask Ian and James their take on the subject earlier today.  No, stick that, we’d still be in the paddock.

Tomorrow we head south.  We are turning left, away from the North Sea and into the centre of Northern Scotland.  We have to go over a mountain range but it looks about as hard as today’s coastal spin.  We hope to reach Lairg – a little bit longer day than the last few – but we were mostly off the bikes since we entered Sweden and wanted to take it slow at the start of JOGLE.  Off to cook dinner now, and get the other side of my face some sun…

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