The otter, crouching under a peaty bank beside the burn, didn’t see me appearing over a moorland crest.
My digital camera was in my pocket but the batteries had just run out and I was going to change them before my next photo… but they might do for just one more.
The otter slid into the water and obligingly started swimming gracefully downstream, almost directly below me. The camera (only three years old but now just about obsolete) has a delay on the shutter; I panned it round to keep the animal in view until it clicked, which was a mistake. The otter now noticed me and made off rather more smartly.
The result? A very blurry image of what probably was an otter swimming but then might have been a dog. My wildlife photography has some way yet to go…
It was mid-afternoon and nearly sunset on a stormy day in mid-December in one of the remoter parts of Sutherland, near the loch at the headwaters of the River Strathy. I’d planned to be somewhere even remoter, at the back of Ben Armine, but had chickened out because of a diabolical but, in the end, exaggerated weather forecast. The showers had flickers of lightning and rumbles of thunder, but stayed mostly to the west. The wind, while strong, was by no means a severe gale. I’d imagined trying to cycle west from Kinbrace then struggling across Ben Armine in a force ten gale of sleet with all the rivers in spate… and so decided to leave the train at Forsinard instead, giving me much easier route to the bothy just south of Loch Strathy.
“We are now approaching Forsinard. Forsinard next stop,” announced the guard. I wheeled the bike out onto the dark platform. The warm train disappeared towards the distant city lights. There was just a glimmer of dawn, and a bitter wind from the south-west was roaring in the bare trees above. I packed up and set off down the strath, glad to have the wind behind me for a few miles past Forsinain. In the half-light I turned off onto the Dyke track, a long climb up to the forest skyline then a few more miles past the ruin of Dyke cottage to the end of the track. Now in daylight, I shouldered my rucksack and set off to slosh across the moors to the valley of the Strathy.
The remote plantations some 10 miles south of Strathy village are now dominated by a couple of tall anemometer masts; there are few places in the Far North where you can get away from the threat of wind farms, big or small. There are currently 20 wind farms going through the planning process in Caithness and north Sutherland. Enjoy these wild places while you can: if the turbines go up, yet another of our landscapes will be tamed and industrialised. I had to walk right under one of the masts to gain the main Strathy track; the bothy, much appreciated by those who like really out-of-the-way spots, will be in the heart of the proposed wind farms. But as of now it is still as quiet and secluded a place as any. At night there is just untamed wind and starlight, and you are at least four miles from the nearest other person. Rattling showers passed, leaving clear starry skies. I enjoyed a candlelit fireside meal and had an early night. The strong westerlies should give me an easy ride home on the morrow!
Yet the wind seemed to have died away by morning, and when I looked out the moon was just faintly visible through a sheet of high cloud. By the time I set off to walk back to the bike, the sky was lowering and threatening, and a breeze was starting to pick up from the south. Of course, in a week of westerlies I was going to have a strong south-easterly headwind for most of the way home.
The river was high at the ford; I walked through with bare feet in boots, balancing with a walking pole I’d brought for the purpose. The morning kept getting darker, and before I reached the bike heavy, sleety rain set in. I was well equipped with waterproofs but was certainly going to need them.
After a few miles the track came out again at the edge of the forest, high above the strath and exposed to the cold, driving rain. A couple of people had just finished loading the last Christmas trees onto a trailer and were preparing to head back to more sheltered parts; I don’t what they thought on such a day at seeing a laden cyclist emerging from the forest road which didn’t lead anywhere. I’d planned to take the moorland crossing to Altnabreac but, rather than turn into the wind, let it blow me down Strath Halladale, the valley quiet and grey, the river high, the trees bare, a few lights from the crofts making me think longingly of warm rooms and fires. From Melvich I couldn’t escape the headwind. A long slog back into the driving rain, over Drum Hollistan to Reay, then by Broubster and Brawlbin.
It must have been one of the darkest days of the year, and only as I neared home at dusk had the rain turned a bit more gentle and the temperature risen. But I’ve seen much worse. I’ll never forget once taking five hours to cycle home from Bettyhill with the south-east wind gusting to force nine, accompanied by rain driving into the eyes so that, by the time I eventually got home, every light had a blurry circle around it. I then had to immediately get ready for cycling back to Dounreay next morning!
What a difference a few days make. Suddenly settled, calm weather ““ a morning of hard frost and the thermometer reading minus 7C, the car encased in ice. A change of plans; just the weather for a quick wander up Scaraben and hopefully a few photos of low sun on snow-dusted hills. I’d take my favourite route in, after driving gingerly up the icy Braemore road to the highest point. Not that I’ll be coming this way in the future if the whole area is polluted with giant windmills, as the few want who stand to make loads of money out of the things. The eyesore of Buolfruich, with its turbines rotating at a speed which makes the whole farm look, from a distance, like a migraine attack, generates on average a paltry four megawatts.
The experimental Dounreay Fast Reactor did better than that in the 1950s. If these things were going to solve global warming we might put up with them but all they do is generate money for the landowner, the developers and those paid off not to object. It will only be a few years before we have much more efficient ways of generating electricity from waves, tidal currents and solar. On this calm, cold, frosty morning when the whole UK would be turning up its heating the wind farms wouldn’t be producing a watt, and indeed would actually be using up power to keep the blades turning over slowly and prevent the bearings from warping.
After just 24 hours’ frost the moors were already quite well frozen. I jogged along the quad-bike track over the still-pristine moor (but with the ubiquitous anemometer mast behind) and down the steep slopes to the bridge, suspended 30 feet above the Berriedale Water in its rocky gorge. This must have presented an amazing sight had one been able to get here during the October floods. You could see that the river had been only a few feet below the bridge; the entire gorge must have been a mass of roaring water some 25 feet above its normal level.
Once up on the ridge the wind was bitter but the air clear, and the higher slopes had an inch or two of snow ““ a rare commodity this year. In the low sun I could see as far as the mountains above the Great Glen and even distant Lochaber, the Cairngorms hazy across the Moray Firth, white Ben Wyvis and the Deargs and the Fannichs and the Sutherland peaks, just a hint of cloud rolling in over Foinaven.
Rafts of cloud dappled the light across the Caithness moors and coastal plains. From these hills you see the entire county ““ and those wretched wind farms, that at Buolfruich with its regular grid layout especially prominent. But maybe, if we have any sense, there’ll be no more in Caithness, and we’ll again be able to enjoy climbing these fine hills from Dunbeath and the views back over the moors to that sunlit coastal land of white crofts and scattered houses stretching up the coast to Lybster and beyond.
As I drove back down towards Dunbeath in the late morning, several people were out walking up the road towards Braemore, just enjoying the crisp calm air of a few days before Christmas. This is indeed a unique, and priceless, part of the world, and we should steward it well.
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