Heading for Flow Country
With the 2016 season coming to an end the time had come to make the trip back up to the North West Highlands Geopark, to take down my work which has been exhibited over the summer in The Rock Stop at Kylesku.
As is normally the case when I need to go anywhere, I got my maps out to see what other adventures I could fit in around the journey.
We have close friends in Thurso, on the far north east coast, and a visit was long overdue, so we decided that would be our first destination. This route also meant that we could travel the 60 mile stretch of the coast from Bettyhill to Kinlochbervie, the only section of the recently named North Coast 500 route we had never been on!
Having read about an interesting project surrounding "The Flow Country" we turned off the coast road at Helmsdale through the strath to visit a new viewing point at Forsinard.
“The Flow Country” is an area of deep peat, dotted with bog pools, that forms the heart of the Caithness and Sutherland peatlands. Covering about 200,000 hectares, it’s more than twice the size of Orkney. Altogether, this corner of Scotland holds more than 400,000 hectares of blanket bog, making it the largest expanse of this remarkable, wild habitat in the world.
Blanket bog only forms in cool places with plenty of rain. The few plants that can grow here don’t rot away, but build up to form deep layers of peat. The Flow Country’s bogs have been growing for over 10,000 years, ever since the glaciers melted away at the end of the last Ice Age, and the peat is now up to 10 metres deep. (www.theflowcountry.org.uk)
'The Flows Lookout' viewing tower and boardwalk at Forsinard is an impressive structure.
Climbing the spiral staircase to the top of the tower gives you just enough height in this flat landscape, to enjoy the otherwise hidden beauty of the shapes and trails of the pool system.
Thurso to Kylesku
We set out early on the Sunday morning to embark on the 108 miles from Thurso across the north coast to Kylesku. A route which google maps says takes 3 hours, however we have travelled enough in the highlands to know it would take us much longer. Also being our first visit to the second half of the route, we wanted to have time to stop and soak in the views.
The first noticeable lumps on the landscape are the peaks of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope.
I'm surprised I don't see more photographs of these hills, Ben Loyal has such a beautifully complex profile and Ben Hope is just stunningly imposing.
Did you know that on a clear day you can see right across to these from Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain, over on the far north east?
Around 15 mins into our journey we realised, with despair, that we had forgotten to charge the battery in our camera the night before.... nothing much we could do about it here! What it did mean was that we weren't able to be as 'click-happy' as normal, and had to be very selective in what we photographed. Which is pretty hard on this road. It was quite liberating though, to just experience the views without a camera in front of your face!
Loch Eriboll - the most northerly point of the moine thrust belt. Ready to start, from here, the final section of my exploration of this geological fault. From this view point you can see the effects of the powerful earth movements quite clearly in the mountains and landscape around the loch.
The weather on this weekend was perfect. Cold and crisp with showers and stormy clouds passing through on a brisk wind.
It may not sound like the perfect weather to everyone but it meant that as we travelled around the dramatic, rugged coastline, the North Sea was being whipped in a frenzy against the cliffs and crashing white foam onto the beautiful sandy bays. It also meant that we were treated to the most gorgeous low, warm light of the sun appearing through the storm clouds, and many rainbows!
In my opinion this is the best weather in which to experience this landscape.
We made it to The Rock Stop by mid-afternoon and packed up the car with my work.
It was lovely to hear that there had been great feedback and interest from visitors about the moine-thrust-inspired pieces I had on display.
The most exciting part of my visit... I got to play in the augmented reality sandbox!!! By shaping and moving around the sand you can create topography models augmented in real time by an elevation colour map, topographic contour lines, and simulated water. I now want one for my studio!
Now, I feel I need to get this off my chest, so bear with me...
The North Coast 500 (#NC500) is a spectacular driving route around the northern highlands. The marketing and promotion has been phenomenal, not a day goes by that I don't see beautiful photographs on Instagram from people enjoying this route.
I usually plan my trips to the northern highlands out-with peak tourist seasons for many reasons, so early November is a pretty normal time for me go. Part of the reason is that, to me, one of the overwhelming attractions is the feeling of isolation and wildness. I'm not saying we never see another person but it's not far off it! What I didn't expect, on a Sunday drive from Thurso to Kylesku, was to end up in amongst a 'NC500 Cheap Car Rally', of, at a guess, thirty vehicles. Seriously. I know these guys were just having fun, but I kind of felt a bit disappointed. I expected an increased amount of people around but nothing to this scale, I dread to think what it must have been like in the summer.
It didn't ruin our trip by any means, we pulled in to let them pass (numerous times) with a smile and a wave as they did so. However when we couldn't find a parking space in Durness the situation did seem a bit mental. It made me wonder about the future effects the draw of NC500 may have. I am beyond delighted that the businesses on the route have got some much needed support and promotion, and that people are enjoying these places I love so much. I do however worry that there could be negative impacts from the increased traffic, I also wonder how much some people do enjoy the landscape with the speed they drive around at. Having spoken to some of the local people living and working here, not everyone is delighted and I'm not entirely convinced that the area was prepared for the influx of tourists. I do truly hope that tourism thrives up here but it needs further support and infrastructure to cope with it and I definitely feel visitors must be properly educated about how to drive on single track roads. The NC500 website has now added this page which will hopefully go some way to achieving this.
...end of moany bit.
We were going back to Thurso for the night and had worked out we could arrive at Durness by the time the sun was setting, so we turned around at Kylesku to head north.
The light gifted us with this double rainbow at Laxford Bridge and on looking back south to Assynt, these mind-blowing rays and layers.
At around 4pm we pulled in the the empty car park at Sango Bay, Durness. Hurrah.
The sun just dipping, casting an orange and purple glow, with more storm clouds rolling through. Standing on this empty beach in front of the roaring North Sea was quite an exhilarating experience. This is what it's all about.
Thurso to Home
The Orcadian Stone Co in Golspie had been recommended as somewhere I might enjoy.
Well, yes! With hundreds of rock samples from across the northern highlands, I was like a child in a sweetie shop. I even discovered that they built the geological strata wall at Knockan Crag, you may recall a photo of me lying on top of it!
As self-confessed caffeine addicts and coffee snobs, we spend a fair amount of time trying to find a good cup of coffee on our travels. We have had some really bad specimens in our time, but I'm pleased to say that The Coffee Bothy in Golspie came up trumps and has now been added to the official 'braw coffee in the highlands' list. Their cake was delicious too.
I was a bit excited.
We were trying to get to Loch Faskally in Pitlochry for sunset, unfortunately some roadworks meant we just caught the last glow. Still, a beautiful colourful scene.
We also made it in time to see Ellis O'Connor's exhibition 'Transience' at the John Muir Trust 'Wild Space' visitor centre in Pitlochry. Stunning photo lithographic prints, paintings and drawings all made in the North of Scotland, Iceland and Svalbard. The exhibition is on until mid January 2017, I highly recommend visiting.
Safe to say we had an amazing weekend. The fact that I get to go on these trips as part of my 'job' makes me eternally grateful.
Map of our route: