Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Tain to Dornoch

We had spent much of the previous day – notionally a rest day – taking John Poulter to Inverness Airport, hanging around there, and collecting Richard and Niki Dale from their easyJet flight. On the way back to Tain we showed them the dolphins at Chanonry point (an excellent display, with many salmon consumed) and some of the Black Isle.

Myself, Niki and Richard Dale - ready for the off
from the Carnegie Lodge Hotel
This was the first of the three days Richard and Niki were to accompany me. It was not a promising start: the forecast was for showers and generally low temperatures. It wasn’t actually raining as we started, but it certainly felt as if it might soon.

The initial stretch was down the minor road that runs past the hotel, and then a short length of the A9 as it bypasses Tain itself. The previous day I had noticed a sign pointing towards the Pictish Way, which seemed actually to indicate the beginnings of a path. But the Pictish Way is actually a tour of various Pictish stones, not a walking trail, and what had seemed the beginnings of a trail was in fact a defunct bit if old road. So we had to retrace our steps. 

The next approach to A9 avoidance was to see whether we could get down to the shoreline of the Dornoch Firth. This too proved fruitless: no way to cross the railway, and some new structure jutting out into the Firth from the Glenmorangie distillery half a mile to the West.

The omnipresent A9 before crossing Dornoch Firth
So the A9 it had to be, at least for a while. But there was a minor road off it to the South, and the map seemed to show a series of connecting tracks that should get us back to the A9 just before the Dornoch Firth bridge. And so it proved. Getting away from the A9 was a great relief: it wasn’t as busy as it had been the previous day with bank holiday traffic, but it was still a daunting prospect to walk along it for any length of time. Even worse, you can hardly hear one another over the noise of the traffic.

Our alternative took us past a few scattered houses, then what increasingly appeared to be the driveway of a large house. This proved to be the case – Tarlogie House, according to the map, with well-maintained lawns. Just as we had that sinking feeling that we’d have to retrace our steps and find some other way through we were lucky enough to find a well-established footpath, not marked on the map, but going exactly where we needed. After that it was an easy gravel road down to the roundabout where the A9 turns North to cross the Dornoch Firth.

The worst is over: looking back at
the Dornoch Firth bridge on the A9
This was the truly horrible part of the walk. The road doesn’t have any proper footpath, just a white line a yard or so from the edge which is supposed to indicate a cycle track, and then a couple of feet of granite chippings on the causeway before the bridge, which becomes a narrow raised pavement where the bridge itself starts. The traffic is approaching at 50 mph or more, and anything larger than a car produces a real shock wave of air. And just as we started the 1 km or so of the bridge itself the rain started – driven rain on half a gale of wind. The only minor redeeming feature was that we were on the East side of the bridge, facing oncoming traffic, and the wind was from the West – i.e. from across the road, blowing us against the railings, rather than the other way around.

Reaching the other side was a huge relief. We were able to clamber down the steep bank at the end of the causeway on the North side of the bridge, and follow a track for parallel to the road until we reached the minor back road in to Dornoch. This was through the burnt skeletons of old gorse with new growth beneath in vivid flower, and areas of heather. Just before the road itself there were plantings of new broadleaf trees as well. And just as a final reward the rain and wind abated. It was almost as if their earlier intensity had been a test.

The bank along the minor road into Dornoch
The last bit was a straight walk of about 5 km in to the centre of Dornoch. All very level, just a foot or two above the level of the sands in the Firth, and really rather attractive. Banks of gorse; lots of bluebells; larch and pine woods; horses and sheep, some with and some without their (mint sauced?) lambs; occasional houses; a series of fishing lakes; a driving range. The banks on the inland side of the road were extensive, an about 6 or 7 metres high. They looked man-made, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to build them. They were hardly continuous enough to be sea defences, and in places seemed to head off inland. Very strange.

Dornoch Castle
We were slightly delayed by Richard and Niki having to tackle issues at home: a painter turning up at their temporary home a week before the appointed time. I think it slightly spoiled their day to have to make a number of phone calls instead of enjoying the last bit of the walk.

We arrived at the Castle Hotel before 1:30, so it was a late lunch before R&R in the afternoon.

Cloudy, cold, with occasional rain and even more occasional brief glimpses of blue sky and sunshine. 9 to 14C. 14.14 km, largely level – only 55 m of ascents and 112 m of descents. Some on A9 verges, some on tracks, but mostly on minor roads.

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