Orkney

John O’Groats

After a short ride in sea haar, I arrived at John O’Groats. In the same way as Land’s End, I am not quite sure why it has gained its popularity – all a bit tawdry – however the compulsory photo at the signpost was required – no professional photographers here and you’ll note the post is covered in stickers. John O’Groats harbour is rather fine though – geared for crustacean fishing in the extreme conditions of the Pentland Firth.

John O’Groats harbour

John O’Groats is named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot (John the large!) who used to run the ferry service to Orkney from here. Jan would have needed to be large to handle the fast flowing Pentland Firth tidestreams just offshore here. I took the modern ferry across – spending the whole trip on deck watching seabirds. The fog was pretty bad, nevertheless there were many auks (mostly guillemots) in the southern part of the Firth. I was very pleased to spot my first black guillemot (or tysties) – and knew at that point that Burwick on South Ronaldsay must be close; tysties really only occur very coastally. Sure enough, Orkney came out of the mist a few second later.

Tysties (black guillemots) – probably my favourite northern hemisphere seabird
The Churchill Barriers were constructed between the islands on the east of Scapa Flow, Orkney to deter further U-boat incursions to this important naval base. They will have changed the tidal flow between the North Sea and the Atlantic. To me they now make the perfect opportunity to harness tidal power if they were to be partially re-opened. Note the haar conditions that persisted on eastern Orkney all day yesterday
There should be more roadside verges like this everywhere – well done Orkney
Lunch was eaten opposite the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – constructed of red sandstone

I came to Orkney in 1983 during a slight hiatus in the work on seabirds at sea. I got a small grant initially to count black guillemots around Orkney. My friend, Pete Ewins, working in Shetland had suggested that the most reliable time to count this well-dispersed species was early morning during April. At this time the adults gather to display on or on the water just off their breeding sites. I took my bike (an earlier Dawes) and tent, along with the Seabirds at Sea Team inflatable boat and went to Orkney. Coastal sections of Mainland were counted by walking (often running) before about 0900, after which I would return to the tent, strike camp and cycle to the next section to be counted. If I could find a volunteer, we would take the inflatable and either count a longer section of coast, or visit an offshore island.

My bike (an earlier Dawes) and tent, in this case pitched without permission on an RSPB reserve
Brian Ribbands, who worked for the RSPB in Orkney, in the Seabirds at Sea Team inflatable boat. Many adventures were had in this craft!
A small concentration of tysties in Scapa Flow

It soon became pretty obvious that the nesting grounds of black guillemots were controlled by the presence or absence of rats. They would only nest where rats could not get to them. They also would not nest where other auks were nesting. This left them offshore islets, cliffs above c10 m high and certain man-made structures such as harbour jetties. Finding these charming birds in numbers considerably above those previously thought to occur, during idyllic early morning April conditions, still remains one of my favourite surveys.

Some of the thousands of seabirds that I had to count – guillemots, kittiwakes and a few razorbills here.

Later in summer 1983, I returned to Orkney to carry out what was then an annual monitoring programme of cliff-nesting seabirds. This had been established following concerns about the impact of the North Sea oil developments on seabirds. As it turned out, these concerns proved reasonably unfounded and the monitoring programme, both here and UK wide, has instead proven to be a good way of monitoring the changes in seabird populations linked to food supply, and in turn with ocean and climate change. My job in 1983 was though to visit each of five colonies ten times in the first three weeks of June. and to count pre-defined plots. There were daily time limits on this (to try to avoid known diurnal rhythms) so I would drive and hike hectically about to get the job done. One of the main colonies visited was Marwick Head, with some iconic views that contained the monitoring plots (there are at least seven plots in the main picture above).

A classic view of Orkney, wide shallow seas surrounded by farmland interspersed with farms and backed by upland moorland.
Another classic scene, with the haar rolling in over eastern hills driven by a strong south-easterly wind
The upland farmhouse of Overabist, where my friend Ruth used to live
In 1983, peat cutting was widespread in the uplands, with each house having its own bank to dig. Cutting occurred in spring, with the peat being left to dry in the wind over the summer and then brought in as winter fuel. The characteristic smell of burning peat was common in 1983. Now I could only find limited evidence that the practice continues, perhaps a good thing from the point of particulate pollution and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, but a bit sad from the tradition point of view. The cutting tool is called a Tusker – I have one!
One definition of Orcadians is that they are crofters with a boat, while Shetlanders are fishermen with a croft. I saw ample evidence to support the former on my visit (Farm with fishing gear everywhere, and an old boat parked on stilts.

In 1983, I stayed in a static caravan in the village of Evie in north Mainland. An inspection of Google Earth revealed the caravan was no longer there, and I discovered during my visit that it had blown away during a winter storm some years ago. This did not surprise me – it was fairly rickety during gales when I was there. I had though to visit the site of the caravan to complete my mission.

My static caravan was at the end of this fence in front of the farmhouse

My friend Liz was kind enough to agree to come a photograph me finishing my mission. I had knocked on the farmhouse door to see if it would be ok to take a few pictures, but no-one was in. I wanted a few pictures taken, and we took so long that the farmer, who lives on the other side of the valley had her suspicions raised and came to see what was happening. We had a good chat and update. Needless-to-say for the small community of Orkney, she and Liz knew many people in common. After that it was a short ride, and latterly a lift, back to Liz’s for a most welcome shower, beer and barbeque.

Mission complete (Alzheimer’s Research UK version)
Mission complete (Spinal Injuries Association version)

The Far North

Today I finally saw the Atlantic again as I arrived on the north coast of Sutherland As before it was a day of two halves, split this time by haar. For those that do not know, haar is sea mist or low cloud, caused by cool moist air being dragged inland by warm conditions that causes air to rise. On coasts that suffer from haar (called fret in Yorkshire at least), this means that hot conditions quickly change to cool overcast with an onshore wind.

Inland Strathnaver this morning was stunning. I rode slowly absorbing the gorgeous scenery and hoping to see a golden eagle (no luck on that front – they are around as I saw one last time that I passed this way). The butterflies were out, flowers were blooming and birds were singing!

Altnaharra Hotel, my overnight (very comfortable) stop. Common pipistrelle flying around after dark
Altnaaharra weather station has recorded the lowest temperature in the UK at -27.2C (tied with Braemar). It was definitely not that cold this morning.
The wstern end of Loch Navar looking towards Altnaharra
I am always happy to see insectivorous plants (left is long-leaved sundew, right is common butterwort). These are abundant in the mineral deficient peatlands. I got interested in these plants when I was at school but I could find nothing very much about them, so I wrote to the then head of Kew Garden, Professor Heslop-Harrison who I had found had published something about them asking if he had further information (note the writing, no email in those days). A couple of weeks later back came a package from the professor’s wife with several scanning electron micrographs of the leaves of these two plants, a couple of papers and one of the nicest letters that I had ever got. Needless-to-say, this reinforced my interest and I have remembered the lesson ever since – if asked a question by young folk, do the best job possible in responding, it can only lead to good.
Felling of poorly placed forestry is opening up better views. This view was blocked by the forest when I was last here four years ago
Beautiful day at Loch Navar
For some reason, the road surface nearly all the way down Strathnaver was superb. It is a pleasure to be able to ride without having to look really hard in order to avoid potholes
The kirk at Syre

Eventually the idyllic ride ends as the River Naver empties itself into the Atlantic. The route at this point takes a right turn and follows the coast eastwards across a series of valleys (aka ascents).

Finally the Atlantic again
The route today with an “enjoyable” series of climbs out of valleys on the north coast of Sutherland and Caithness
Still in the Flow Country!
Looking east towards Dounraey – the haar is very evident
Caithness flag walls – easy when the rock splits like this!

My main memory of Caithness is an odd one. I was on board HMS Orkney counting birds when we came into Scrabster one weekend as an honoured visitor (not sure what the occasion was). The ship held a drinks reception at which I drank a little too much (as did most others!). Next morning I learned that I had been volunteered to go on a tour of the archaeological sites of Caithness, driven by one of the local luminaries. Three others of the ships crew had also been volunteered. We were put in a very comfortable, warm car, and set off. We visited quite a few sites, but my real difficulty was staying awake and trying to be interested. I genuinely am interested in your tumuli and standing stones (there are lots about), but my brain was consistently telling me otherwise. Never have I had to fight sleep so hard!

Not only the Romans built long straight roads (and yes, I pedalled to the horizon)
The fabulous Dunnet Bay. Anywhere else in the UK, this would be thronging
Red-throated diver on a coastal lochan
Finally I arrive at the northernmost point of Britain, Dunnet Head. Took a while to get from the Lizard to here didn’t it? Onwards to Orkney tomorrow

Statistics: 119 km today, running total: 2885 km; 1185 m ascent (lots of hills!), 28712 in total. One new live mammal when I rescued an errant hedgehog off the road from certain death under a large articulated truck heading its way.

Flow country

Finlay was kind enough to get up from his sick bed to come out and say goodbye. Molly came along too! Thank you all for having me visit despite adversity

Today was a typical day of two halves, divided by lunchtime. The first half was to get north over the Black Isle and the southern portion of the NW Highlands to Bonar Bridge. My navigation system decided to take a morning off so I was travelling by memory (which I got right).

The scenery gets progressively wilder further north
Forestry is the major land use
View westwards up the Dornoch Firth to Bonar Bridge
Yes, these still exist – in fact I wonder if they are now listed buildings? For those living outside the UK (or much younger than me), these are a throw back to the days when a) there were no mobile phones, and b) when cars were generally more unreliable. Automobile Association members got a key to use these to call for assistance. .I did not check whether this is still the way they work
One of the main industries in the NW Highlands is salmon fishing. I lost count of the number of cars today that had rods strapped onto them – certainly dozens. I think most salmon fishing is now catch and release.

After lunch it was on to the Flow Country. This is a large expanse of Caithness and Sutherland that is typically clad in deep blanket bog (with a few mountains). It has a very special flora and fauna and holds more carbon than all the forests of the UK put together (thus is rather important in terms of climate change. It gained notoriety during the Thatcher government when tax breaks for the rich meant that just planting trees was very advantageous, whether they grew well or not. The Flow Country was regarded as wasteland, ripe for planting trees. In terms of nature conservation this was a disaster and several of my colleagues in the then Nature Conservancy Council put together a report ‘Birds, Bogs and Forestry’ exposing the damage being done – this infuriated the Scottish Conservatives (yes there were a few then) and arguably was one of the main reasons that the Nature Conservancy Council was split up into agencies for each of the four UK countries, plus the Joint Nature Conservation Committee – my subsequent employer. There were though a lot of political shenanigans going on at the time – the ‘row’ was undoubtedly more manufactured than it needed to have been from the government side. Ultimately though the folly of this tax break was realised, and considerable public and charitable funds have gone into restoring the Flow Country. That will take many years though.

I had come this way with my brother Guy when he rode from Lands End to John O’Groats a few years ago, so I was delighted that the weather was clear and warm, but with a strong north-westerly wind to push into all afternoon.

A lane into the Flow Country. The sign in the background explains how to use ‘Passing Places’ on this narrow road. Sadly many drivers cannot read, or do not care, and the verges are being trashed
This house (one of the last on the road) reminded me of ‘Skyfall’ – the fictitious home of James Bond in the eponymous film. The landscape certainly is the same!
Endless horizons
Some forests remain
In other areas, the trees have been removed, but the trashed landscapes remain
Tis appeared to be a wood-chipping operation removing the waste left after the forests had been cut down. Two large lorries were being filled from an industrial scape machine that was being loaded with brash by the claw.
Classic scenery in this part of the Flow Country
A boggy Strath
Not all the drivers in the area can read English, apparently
Loch Naver in the distance

Scots pine

My bogie with the weather on higher level routes continued with that wonderful driving soft rain typical of the highlands today. Luckily I was heading downhill from Tomintoul (I think the highest village in the UK) and across Speyside, where there are plenty of native Scots Pine forests. I called in at Loch Garten RSPB centre partly to try and see a few of the specialist birds of pine and also to shelter from the rain for a while. I managed to see a crested tit, though my efforts to point it out to others failed (also added tree creeper at point blank range, and goldcrest (I cannot hear these when riding, but much easier on foot).

Scots pine forest with a good understor
All forests ought to have lots of dead and decaying wood
Loch Garten ospreys are arguably the most famous in the world. The protection on the nest has now been running for 60 years and I know that at least one reader of this blog has taken part in protection (in “earlier” years). It is a little sad that no ospreys are nesting at Loch Garten this year due to the failure of the old female ‘EJ’ to return from migration. The staff were working hard to enthuse visitors about other aspects of the pine forest instead.
I know RSPB are trying to diversify away from birds only, but I think they may have lost the plot a bit here – a little fairy home at Loch Garten. Personally I think the organisation needs to focus rather than trying to be all things to all people.

After Loch Garten, it was on through the rain to cross the Spey (a fine river), cross the Slochd pass (405m), pass through the outskirts of Inverness, cross the Kessock Bridge and arrive at my Finlay and Linda’s house on the Black Isle. Both are ex-colleagues from JNCC, and I was sad to find Finlay a little ill, likely having eaten something bad at the weekend. Get well soon Finlay!

The Spey in the rain
Inverness and the Black Isle are out there somewhere! – view across the edge of Colloden battlefield
The Kessock bridge – the last big bridge of this trip – separating the Moray Firth from the Beauly Firth. No bottlenose dolphins visible in the Beauly Firth today (should have worked harder in Aberdeen), but I did add common seal to the trip list

Statistics: 90.1 km with 828 m ascent. Running total: 2562 km, 24443 m ascent. 133 bird species.

Over the hill

I have now visited all but one of the places that I have lived in the UK, the last is relatively distant on the north end of Orkney mainland and it will take all week to get there. The weather forecast today was dire (including a yellow warning for excessive rain and thunderstorms) so my analysis of the weather charts early this morning indicated that I should set off at around 1030 to minimise risk of hitting torrents of rain. At around 0915, I noticed that it had stopped raining (it was not supposed to do that) and a quick recheck of the weather maps showed the forecast had changed and it would be a good idea to set off immediately. So I did. As it happened, there was light rain/drizzle/mist for much of the way, so I got wet, but no miserably so. The route was over the hills to the Don Valley and then follow the Don until the steep hill over the pass at the Lecht (the highest permanently inhabited building in Britain) and then down to Tomintoul.

The route today; the section between 35 and 65 km follows the River Don closely, showing its relatively even but rapid descent towards the North Sea. The gradients up to the Lecht from Cockbridge are extreme!
My first stop was to add Osprey to my trip list – on a dry clear day you would easily se the osprey on its nest (it is there), but it was neither dry nor clear!
A Donside lane
First crossing of the Don
Some bridges across the Don are more picturesque than others – in this case it is at Candacraig, the country house that used to be owned by the great Billy Connolly
Last look at the Don before turning right and heading over the Lecht
The views were, err, limited; on a clear day you can see miles from here. It wasn’t.
A photo for those whose memory lanes are a bit foggy

I was really hoping to bring you some stunning Scottish scenery pictures today, but no luck. I was also hoping to add mountain hare, red deer and possibly ring ousel to my trip list – no luck either. But the Hotel Square in Tomintoul excelled by noticing me arriving outside and coming out to welcome me and offer me an immediate cup of tea. All hospitality should be like that! I notice also from my window a cycle holiday support bus from a well-known company and I deduce from their website that participants are on a 22 day, 1600 km Lands End to John O’Groats run costing £3,100 (they pay for their own suppers and some lunches in addition), with all their luggage being transported in the bus. A different way from myself, but no doubt they are having fun!

Drumshalloch Croft

After yesterday’s ride from Montrose to Aberdeen, I came back to our current home near Banchory. Since I have lived here for 32 years (more than half my life), I think this house deserves a post to itself.

Yesterday’s 121 km route (running totals now 2483 km, and 24,443m climbing)

A croft is a small farm, with usually enough land attached to enable a small family to be self-sufficient with a bit of trading. Drumshalloch Croft lies on the Leys Estate associated originally with Crathes Castle and when it was crofted, had around six associated fields. Farming in the 20th century tended towards larger, more efficient farms based on an increasing use of machinery (a trend that continues) and Drumshalloch Croft ceased being a farm in the early 1970s. In 1987, Leys Estate sold the buildings to me. The croft house faces south and its downstairs rooms have high ceilings, with correspondingly low ceilings upstairs. This makes the downstairs rooms very light and was probably the one thing that attracted me most. A set of steadings (outbuildings used for cows and a diary) were also on the plot with a couple of sheds completing the buildings. The croft comes with its own water supply and septic tank.

Drumshalloch Croft as purchased in 1987
The trees and bushes have grown higher, there are roof-top solar panels and an extension has been built across the drive. The drystone dyke has been rebuilt. Drumshalloch Croft 2019
The steadings in 1987, the left hand half of these is the oldest building on the plot, probably dating back about 250 years. The right end was added around a century ago.
The steading now forms an extension to the house. The right hand end was added as part of the extension. A chimney was also added. The driveway that was here was dug out entirely by hand and has gone to form the drystone walls around the property (with some left over!). This bed is partly (naturally sown) wildflowers this year. The steading roof contains around 650 soprano pipistrelle bats that emerge each evening from the vent visible in the centre of the roof line.
A view down the driveway in 1987, well before the steading was incorporated into the house
Drumshalloch Croft in August 1973. Farming from the croft seems to have stopped by this date
Drumshalloch Croft in 1992, additions include a greenhouse (bought at auction for £20) and drystone walls taking in the house’s sewage system
Drumshalloch Croft in 2002 shortly after the extension was finished and the back garden had begun to become established.

When I moved to Drumshalloch Croft in 1987, Banchory village was about 2 km away and the little valley it is set within was totally dark at night. Banchory has been expanded, basically as a dormitory town for Aberdeen (though the planners claim otherwise) and nearly all the addition has been on “our” side of the village. The dark was lost in the valley about 15 years ago, and within the next two years it is likely that houses will be built up to about 100m from the croft. Sadly I doubt that we will stay much after that occurs – the peace will be gone too.

Aberdeen

In Autumn 1979, I moved to Aberdeen to start work on a new project mapping seabirds at sea. Aberdeen was booming due to the North Sea oil industry, and an amazing amount of offshore construction was also occurring. The concern about the effects of offshore oil spills had generated my job. The pedal north from Montrose was fast as it was partly on the main road that bought all the materials and personnel northwards in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now far less used. Aberdeen was also a major fishing port with a daily fish market. There are more or less no fishing vessels working from Aberdeen these days.

Aberdeen had a large fishing fleet in 1980
Stonehaven on the way to Aberdeen
Possibly Stonehaven’s greatest recent export….!

In 1979, our team of four working on seabirds at sea were allocated a basement in the Nature Conservancy Council office. I spent a lot of time at sea, but on land I initially shared a flat in Colville Place with Tim, a friend of mine from Hedon who was studying at Aberdeen University. Shortly after we moved in, I went to a party of one of Tim’s friends at the University and met Anne. A very good introduction, that has lasted!

My desk in the Aberdeen basement in the early 1980s. This was a heavy, well-built post war civil service issue desk that survived until we moved to a “standard open plan office in 2012. I liked it! Note lack of computer, the dial-up phone, the card indices, film canister, large amounts of paper etc
1 Colville Place in 2019
My green Morris 1000 van parked in Colville Place, December 1979
Anne, December 1979

In the early 1980s, I moved into Anne’s flat in Nigg Kirk Road. My main memory of that time was trying to produce maps of our seabird observations using Aberdeen University’s mainframe computer. I had written a long Fortran computer program to do this, but it needed all of the resources of Aberdeen University’s computer to run, and thus had to be run at the dead of night. I had to use a dial-up modem with a telephone coupler on a portable terminal that used thermal paper (no screen) lying on Anne’s living room floor. I could not see the results until the next day when I would pedal across to the University computer centre and collect the maps. Of course I made many mistakes, which meant yet more work in the middle of the night.

Nigg Kirk Road flats – no change!

After a while, Anne brought a house in Abbey Road, while I moved to a house to the north-west of Aberdeen – Hillhead of Clinterty. This was owned by an Aberdonian Heather, who was an art lecturer in Manchester. John (who I visited in Silverdale) had a link to Manchester and we could rent the house for most of the year, except the summer holidays when Heather would use it. It was a very fine location, but could be very cold.

John outside Hillhead of Clinterty in the early 1980s
Hillhead of Clinterty through the trees
The view from Hillhead of Clinterty towards Aberdeen Airport and the North Sea
Hillhead of Clinterty now – the inhabitants did not respond to my letter so I could not get closer/see around, but it has been considerably extended both in front and to the back – the surrounding fields appear to have been taken into its grounds and there was plenty of evidence of horses.
Another view of Hillhead of Clinterty now, 100% more tarmac than was there in the 1980s!

In summer time I would either stay with Anne in Abbey Road, Torry or for one year in a flat owned by my friend Hew also in Abbey Road, but for much of the time I was away at sea.

Hew’s flat upstairs in Abbey Road, Torry
The cream coloured, 66 Abbey Road, Torry. This was Anne’s house. While we renovating upstairs, someone broke in (while neither of us was there) and set fire to the house. The fire damage, coupled with that of the water used by the fire brigade to put the fire out, destroyed many of our possessions. The house was rebuilt better than it was before.

Just around the corner from Abbey Road lies the current JNCC Aberdeen office in Inverdee House. Being the middle of the seabird counting season (and a Friday), only a few staff were in when I called by – luckily one was my friend Sonia. We had a tea and lunch together.

Saying hello to Sonia outside Inverdee House

Regrettably I could not stay long because, as I was entering Aberdeen, I had hit a pothole very badly (I could not swerve to avoid it due to traffic). That pothole broke my rear wheel (two spokes pulled right through the rim), and I was keen to try to get it replaced while I was in Aberdeen. After two “we are too busy” phone responses, Holburn Cycles said that they could probably help – and help they did. John, the mechanic there, found a second-hand perfect replacement rear wheel in his workshop and within 20 minutes of arrival I was back on my way again. Exemplary service once again from the cycle shops of Britain. Holburn Cycles are going to get more trade from me!

Detail of a wrecked rear wheel before it went in the bin