IN THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, WITH NAUTICUS
Sitting at home on a winter's day, Charlie Faringdon was looking through the books he had purchased at a sale and had decided to start with a slim volume entitled “Nauticus in Scotland”. The sub-heading declared, “A tricycle journey of 2,446 miles in sixty-eight days”. As he read, he became acutely aware that there were times when he had almost followed in his tracks. Of course, the roads were in a very different condition; bridges and road detours had replaced ferries and damage to a mount would probably be sorted out a good deal more slowly today, due to the shortage of blacksmiths.
“After bowling along four miles, I passed Aulguish (sic) Inn, which appeared to have good accommodation for both man and beast but how the landlord managed to keep out of the County Court, is a puzzle to me, for I don't remember meeting more than five people between Garve and Loch Broom.” Nauticus had an eye for accommodation and kept a note of how much he paid at every refreshment and overnight stop. He was impressed by Scottish hotels, on the whole.
I'll go along with that, I thought, as I remembered two visits to the Aultguish Inn. The first, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, was for morning coffee. It was a grey morning, with flecks of rain, cold for August. The inn at that time appeared to have seen better days, though it was friendly enough. I went back again in 2008, shortly after the place had been taken on by a family from London. The rooms were clean and tidy – Nauticus liked things to be ship-shape, so would have approved – the owner, family and staff friendly, the food and drink excellent. The Aultguish Inn still stands alone on the road from Inverness to Ullapool, though it is now dominated by a dam. It is a bleak spot, but all the better for cyclists.
Nauticus must have been amongst the earliest of English cyclists in the Highlands, although we do not know exactly when he toured, the Cheylesmore Tricycle was current in the 1880s. (His tour started in Newcastle and ended in Penrith, so he toured much more than the Highlands, it was, however, that section he described in detail in his book.) As he crossed back to the mainland from Skye on the ferry, the ferryman said that, “he had once had two bicyclists on board. Nauticus noted that “apparently they were the only wheelmen who had ever visited Skye.” His tricycle attracted attention wherever he went, except when he had a serious accident and an old lady who witnessed it looked at him in amazement and walked on.
I wondered what he would make of the sweep of modern construction that now eases the crossing to Skye (unless you cycle over top Genelg from Shiel Bridge and take the ferry – a detour well-worth making, in my opinion). I expect he would have appreciated it as he seemed to have a touring cyclist’s interest in almost anything he saw.
What would he make of those such as me who see romance and adventure in any ferry crossing? He had crossed to Skye by boat at Kylerhea after a stiff climb over the Mam Ratagan pass, with immense views of Loch Duich with its famous island castle, and the Five Sisters of Kintail, followed by a glorious wheel down to the ferry. He had been told that he would not make it over Mam Ratagan and was later told that he would never make it up the hill after disembarking from the ferry boat on the other shore.
Of course, he did, but only by “grasping the backbone near the little wheel” (his Cheylesmore was front driven and rear steering, with the forty-six inch wheels paired at the front with the saddle between) “with my right hand, the frame with my left hand I put my shoulder to the saddle and hove, hove, hove, gaining about a foot at a time.” On reaching the top of the hill he was admiring the view over the Sound of Sleat when a squall nearly blew him back down again. Rain on Skye needs no comment, except that he got a lot of it; whilst I, a visitor on many occasions, have seen the jagged peaks of the Cuillins (which Nauticus saw clearly and from close-by) only from the Isle of Raasay, but have only twice been soaked.
Like Nauticus I have sought shelter in that establishment perfect for Skye weather be you a walker or cyclist: the Sliagachan Inn. Arriving at eleven o'clock at night, he “never enjoyed refreshment more”. Making an anti-clockwise circuit of the island, he had been told that it was nine miles from Dunvegan to Sliagachan, but having arrived at Dunvegan was told that it was really twenty-four miles. Sitting down to refreshment, in the company of a Yorkshireman, he decided to push on from Dunvegan when he saw the size of the bill; two shillings and sixpence for tea and sixpence for washing hands. Next morning, at Sliagachan, the landlord told him that he had been ill-advised to make the trip from Dunvegan in the dark. Nauticus admitted that he was probably right. He had thought more on “ghosts and bogies” on that night-ride than ever before.
There were more real dangers. Though the road surfaces were generally very good, with Nauticus heaping praise on the care with which the roads were maintained, surfaces varied a good deal. Many were “fresh metalled” or newly resurfaced (not Tarmaced), but even they might deteriorate into sand or rock, depending on the geology. Descents could be dangerous and he offered advice on where it was best to dismount and walk. Even so, he was full of hope that other cyclists would head into the Highlands.
Not that Nauticus was not game for a tough ride, often covering impressive distances – even by much more modern standards. His ride-log ends each chapter, as do many of ours, with distances;
Strome Ferry (there was a ferry then, the road to Lochcarron via Strathcarron being made later, Ed.) to Auchnasheen (sic) 25 miles
Auchnasheen (sic) to Kinlochewe 9 ½ miles
Kinlochewe to Loch Torridon 24 miles
Total 58 ½ miles
Kinlochewe to Poolewe and back 51 miles
Kinochewe to Auchnasheen (sic) 9 ½ miles
Total 60 ½ miles
He sometimes managed these distances by making the most of the long daylight hours, though, as with his adventure from Dunvegan to Sliagachan, a long day in the saddle was not always intentional.
He planned to use hotels which were shown on the map. Even today, remote Scottish hotels can turn their hands to most things required by wet and weary travellers. Similarily, many still rely on sportsmen as well as tourists for custom. Nauticus met plenty of both and found them adept at beating him to the hotel.
On the day he rode from Kinlochewe to Poolewe he passed the Loch Maree Hotel. So impressed was by the scenery thereabouts that he resolved to return from Poolewe and take a bed there. The going was tough at times and he took lunch at the hotel in Gairloch, was slowed by steep descents near Poolewe, ate tea there and took a nap. At five o'clock he left and shortly after found the fine day deteriorating into torrential rain and the alternately clay and sandy road surface getting heavier and heavier. Typically, he decided not to go back to Poolewe being reluctant to retreat even a half-mile - well he was a Royal Navy man. On he went to Gairloch, but as he approached the hotel convinced himself that he should push on to the Loch Maree Hotel. On arrival there, at eight in the evening, he was told it was full, but that he might be found a “billet on a sofa or on the floor of the drawing-room”. Needless to say, he refused the offer. Despite being told that a large party had earlier been sent on to Kinlochewe, which he regarded as a ruse to get him to stay, on he went. With a grouse familiar to all cyclists, he comforted himself by condemning the fickle wind that had been in his face to Poolewe but had gone right about when he left. Even so, in the brief shelter of some trees, he stopped to admire a deer.
Arriving at the Kinlochewe Hotel, he found that it had been no ruse. “Perhaps we can manage to give you a shakedown somewhere,” he was told. He was not impressed, but decided to take supper there. I urged him to put up with the shakedown as I looked out of the lounge window at the pouring rain. I knew he would not. On he went for Achnasheen . He pushed up the pass as the wind blew more squalls, “by way of keeping me awake”. Good old black humour – the cyclist's resort in all travails. At the top of the pass, with mysterious crags or cold bringing occasional chills to his sturdy frame, he mounted and rode past the seemingly interminable Loch Rosque (Loch a Chroisg) to Achnasheen, nearly hurtling at full tilt a roaring burn as he went. The dark-windowed hotel was roused from its sleep by a handful of well-aimed stones. The bleary-eyed landlord rushed down, set refreshments before him, showed him his room and set the “boots” to clean and dry his clothes. Wouldn't be so sure of that today.
A wonderful day, I thought, a hard adventure on the way home, the physical challenge, the relief of hot food and drink, a bath and a warm bed. A warm feeling filled my heart. Spirits revived by the morning and ready for the off.
In fact, Nauticus wasn't ready for the off. He had planned to come to Achnasheen that day and was expecting to wait. In some ways little had changed so far; apart from the ferries, some of the hotels and road surfaces. But Achnasheen was again to be the scene of the sort of customer service that the modern-day cyclist would die for. I paused, remembering that Achnasheen is “the place of the winds” and I had once lost a neat little maroon waterproof cycling cap in the days before I adopted the helmet. I had placed it on the saddle of my tourer and moments later it had gone. Nauticus did not lose or find a hat. His troubles today would have required nothing less than a trip to Inverness or beyond.
Mechanical trouble had begun almost as soon as he crossed the Highland Line. The tyres and the driving gear played up badly. However, he had already ordered a new Cheylesmore tricycle, “of the ordinary weight”. His original strengthened machine had proved too heavy for the trip. He had managed to carry out repairs for a fortnight, but on arriving at Strome Ferry, on Loch Carron, he decided that enough was enough. As he stowed the stricken machine in the stable, the surprised ostler remarked that there was another such machine at the station. Nauticus rushed to see if it were truly his new machine and returned to the hotel with a spring in his step. It was. Next morning he found that he needed the services of the railway blacksmith to make some adjustments and make some spacers and washers. All ship-shape, he and the new tricycle were rowed across Loch Carron and off he sped. So happily did he go that he lost control, much to the amazement of a passing woman who wandered away as new tricycle and rider plunged into the dense undergrowth. Fortunately, the bushes halted them both, preventing a tumble into a ravine. The right wheel was gruesomely twisted. Resourcefully, he removed it and headed back to Strome Ferry. The wheel was replaced with one form the old tricycle and another trip across the loch took him back to the battered trike. It would not fit. Thus, the whole was trundled back to Strome Ferry in search of the railway blacksmith who, after a day on the tracks, happily worked on it until ten at night, while Nauticus cleaned the bearings and sent a telegram to Coventry for a new wheel. It was this new wheel that he found at Achnasheen (sic) station. Whilst he continued to have mechanical difficulties for the rest of his journey he was always able to deal with these using his wit, a small toolkit and the equipment of numerous blacksmiths. The benefits of relatively primitive technology in a challenging environment.
From Achnasheen he headed to Garve, where he was compelled to stay in a cottage, as the hotels were full. Once again, we all know that often this turns out to be a blessing. It was. This was a real home from home. He felt that he would willingly have paid the bill were it five time higher, but resisted this rash impulse. Nauticus, like many cycle tourers had an eye for value for money: far from ungenerous, but careful to eke out his days and spend as many in the saddle as he could afford.
I was once told, by a friend of a similar experience when riding tired and dirty into a village only to find that hostel, hotel and B&B full. Directed to a cottage he was taken in by a lady who showed him a delightful room, gave him high-tea, drove him to, and picked him up, from the pub, washed his cycling gear, even ironing his shorts, served a hearty breakfast, and asked for a sum so small as to make him choke on his bacon. Asked if it were too much, he replied that he thought it rather the opposite. “Well, I expect you'll tell other people about me,” which the lady regarded as sufficient reward. He left and, I am ashamed to say, felt that he would keep this secret to himself. He often went back that way and always stayed at the same cottage.
There are few parts of the Highlands better for cycling than, in my opinion, the far north. Nauticus headed into this paradise via Ullapool, Ledmore, Inchnadamph, and onto Durness, including riding the trike out to Cape Wrath. There he found tea and a tour of the lighthouse. I've never ridden there, though I have walked and wild-camped. No tea, though there was talk of the old buildings becoming a hostel. I believe that shortage of water and money prevented this becoming more than a dream.
The children of the lighthouse keeper were especially pleased to see a new face and one belonging to a man borne on such an unusual contraption as a tricycle must have been particularly fascinating. Of course, he attracted attention throughout his trip. Sometimes this was simple amazement at other times it was a desire to have a go on the Cheylesmore. The latter was generally refused, “Nauticus” being convinced that damage had resulted when he allowed an on-looker to have a ride.
He was given plenty of advice, especially by those who were not cyclists – more familiar perils of the solo tourer. I was once asked by a fellow holiday-maker, as I paused to have an ice-cream in Durness, how I had got there? I decided to ignore the biological and meta-physical aspects of the question and looked at my bike. I explained that I had ridden. Of course, these conversations are a good opportunity to introduce people to the joys of cycling.
Nauticus was, I suppose regarded as a sportsman by the fishing and shooting parties he encountered along the way and attempted to beat to the next hotel. He enjoyed their company when dining. Most hotels seemed to have had guests who were able to advise him on the best scenery, the finest cliffs, the local geology. Equally, there were more serendipitous meetings with interesting folk. Early in his tour he entered a building and asked for tea, becoming less than pleased to be told it would be half an hour. It was not an hotel, but a private house. How like a touring cyclist it was that he still got his tea. Pretty daughters of the house were also to be met in some of the cottages where he took refreshment, no doubt impressed by the strapping tricyclist-naval officer. Nauticus was, at least once, disappointed to find that he had not the Gaelic and she had not the English, causing recourse to the “language of the eyes.”
The journal of this epic tour ends in Wick, “imposing” but with “dirty streets filled with the reek of herrings.”
There are books one puts down with genuine regret. My acquaintance with Charles Edward Reade, Nauticus, could happily have been longer. I had pedalled not one mile, but had seen Loch Ness, Loch Linnhe, Braemar, and shared my favourite landscapes with a kindred spirit.