The distant cackle of a grouse from the hill greeted me as I opened the door on a clear and frosty February morning; the sun would soon be warming the air for another spring-like day.
Up on the hill there was a sound so familiar that I didn’t notice it for a while – the first larks of the year were singing. Eastward, low fog blanketed the county. It would be a grey and murky day in Wick and also in Kirkwall. The distant top of Wideford Hill, across the Pentland Firth, just projected out of a sea of fog which lapped westward halfway up the cliffs of Hoy.
A few patches of mist drifted over Dunnet Bay. Only the previous afternoon in the windless conditions I’d been out in the kayak – a thing I’d never expected so early in the year. Last November, after capsizing twice while attempting to launch in a big swell, I’d given up and stowed the boat away in the garage for the winter. In the sunshine I was actually too hot ensconced in my wetsuit, paddling across the bay from Castletown in a gentle one-metre swell to admire the yellow cliffs of Dwarwick Head glowing in the setting sun. Fulmars were already staking out ledges; a few circled overhead and the odd guillemot and shag bobbed in the water. Large rafts of red algae were a surprise at this time of year – another sign of a warming climate?
It’s been an unusual month. I’m not used to setting out in February and encountering much better weather than expected. A couple of weeks ago, driving west, I was tempted by the fine dawn to carry on as far as Borgie Forest before unloading the bike from the roof of the car. There was still some ice about but I wasn’t in any hurry, just intending to have a gentle day’s potter. It’s so easy from here to get to wonderful places, and the loop of road through Skerray makes a lovely ride on a fine day. I detoured to the harbour for the view across to the cliffs of Neave Island and Eilean nan Ròn, then carried on along the hilly moorland road with fine views of snowy Ben Loyal ahead. Then on through Coldbackie – just catching its first sun after the permanently shadowed months of midwinter – with breakers coming in along the channel between the mainland and the low Rabbit Islands. Down the steep hill through the woods to the kyle side, across the causeway (always remembering how a pedal once broke off when climbing the Moine – that trip ended with a taxi home from Bettyhill!) and then left past the highly obtrusive council depot to take the old road round the head of the kyle.
The Tongue area, as I’ve often said, is one of the most special parts of Scotland, and the view of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope from the causeway is one of the finest anywhere. The road round the kyle makes a good (if hilly) bike route, and at this time of year you probably won’t meet a single car. A strong headwind had now got up, increasing to near gale as I approached Kinloch, but there were no deadlines, no long mileages to do, and I could just take my time enjoying the increasingly fine views of the snow-streaked mountains above the retreating tides and sand-flats of the Kyle of Tongue. Once past Kinloch the wind blew me up the hill and past Lochan Hakel. There are a few new houses in the midgey, boggy hollows at Rhian, just before entering Tongue – a strange place to build when there are such amazing views to be had from higher up. Indeed I detoured into the gale up onto the Lairg road to see the view from Braetongue. Those folk who live up here and look out over the kyle to Ben Hope and Ben Loyal have one of the best vistas in the world from their windows.
Back at Borgie, there was still plenty of time to potter two or three miles down the forest road to the south and walk up to the waterfall. With the river high, the path was very wet – but worth taking to reach a spot with a real atmosphere of the high, remote hills on a winter afternoon. Much of Borgie Forest is now being felled but already new trees are growing well. By the car park is Gaelic poetry writ large in the form of the short “spiral” walk which takes you round groves of native trees (planted in 2000) such as alder, aspen, rowan, birch and holly. Little stone carvings and snippets of Gaelic poems add to what is an inspired feature. I must go back in a couple of months, as the trees are already tall enough to be lovely in the spring when the leaves come out.
Another morning a week later, I was heading south for a potter up Dunbeath Strath but was again surprised by a beautifully clear and frosty dawn. The higher hills looked too enticing, so I kept going to Braemore before unloading the bike, to cycle up the sandy six-mile track leading to Gobernuisgeach bothy. So near home – and such a lovely ride up over the high flow country on a frosty, sunny morning in early February. Ruts in the track demanded some care but I managed to stay on the bike till just before the bothy… and just escaped landing face down in a ditch full of water and green moss. Little over an hour later, having crossed the bare quartzite top of Small Mount, I was nearing the top of Morven. There was very little snow for the time of year, and the air at this altitude was unseasonably warm. In these “inversion” conditions, cold air lies in valleys and the summit of Cairngorm has been much warmer than Aviemore, some 10C above normal.
Every summit in the Highlands was clear and sunlit, though a haze restricted the views to a mere 50 miles. Ben Armine bore large white streaks and patches, but Ben Loyal and Ben Hope were now almost bare. Southwards the distant snow-streaked Deargs and Fannichs made the skyline above Ullapool, with the knobbly Assynt hills far to the west beyond Ben More Assynt. The conical shadow of my peak projected north across the valley of the Berriedale Water, with reddish moors scattered with pale blue loch and lochans stretching far beyond.
Sadly, the views east and north are becoming increasingly industrialised with no fewer than four groups of wind turbines – Bilbster, Forss, Causewaymire and Latheron – irritating the eyes. That north of Latheron, with its geometric layout, is the most obtrusive; if the Dunbeath wind farm comes to pass, around the Braemore road, the desecration will be far worse. The destruction of one of the few remaining unspoilt landscapes in the world for the sake of a little very expensive electricity (while China opens one new coal-fired power station every week) should not even be contemplated, here or anywhere else in Caithness and the Highlands.
It’s a shame to be distracted onto such things on a beautiful early February day on top of Morven. Back at the bothy I ate my lunch in the sunshine at a picnic bench provided, in appreciation of the place, by the Wick Boys’ Brigade. Utter peace, the running river, sun on the high hills, the moors around, the nearest road six miles away. In our increasingly frantic and fragmented world, such places are priceless. Rather than trying to turn our landscapes into industrial sites for profit we should be preserving the Highlands as a place where stressed-out and overworked folk can come and find peace and beauty and refreshment. The grouse on the hill, the larks and wild geese and buzzards and eagles and big skies and vast empty moors and mountains are worth far more in real terms, as well as in potential income from tourism, than anything any short-sighted development such as industrial wind farms can provide.
20 February 2008
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