THE Facebook posting said it all.
"Big-hearted biker and axe-attack sensation John Newton saved a 20-year-old blind little hairy terrier from peril on the main road, at Tongue yesterday. Screeched to a smoky halt on his powerful 600cc Yamaha and scooped the bewildered canine geriatric up, to hand him over to grateful owners, so he did."
Newton, the self-effacing local guitar legend, was typically laconic. "All in a day’s work," he replied modestly...
It had been a strange day out, to be sure.
Four intrepid motorbikers had agreed to rendezvous in a remote West Highland location, known only as FBI, at 13.00 hours.
The plan, if there was one, provided Newton a baptismal opportunity to tag along with the renowned Caithness Cappuccino Cowboys – a motley road crew of motorised two-wheel-types who specialise in going round in ever decreasing circles.
Using only secret code words (not known to any of them) and maintaining strict radio silence they had set off from their meeting place at Latheron Hall (at the end of the Causewaymire) bound for Loch Broom port Ullapool – the gateway to the Hebrides.
The small Ross and Cromarty town with only 1300 inhabitants has a well-earned reputation as one of Scotland’s major tourist destinations. Exotic, foreign types from the four far-flung corners of the globe somehow seem to end up there. Looking invariably bewildered, they wear that stunned "what are we doing here" expression so evocative of travellers who have reached a destination that offers little other than costly, over-inflated bar meals.
You travel for miles and miles – just like everyone else – to get there only to discover someone in the Highland Council’s roads department’s gone on a bender, lashing strictly-no-parking double yellow lines all over the place.
I’d like to see a C.O.S.H.H (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) assessment for that luminous yellow glug. By my reckoning, the Great Wall of China – as seen from Outer Space – will look insignificant compared to Ullapool’s double yellow no parking lines...
Environmental degradation apart, our immediate priority was just to find somewhere – anywhere – to park (or abandon) the bikes to make that pre-determined rendezvous.
The Gaelic definition of Ulapul may be "the place that time forgot" but clearly no one in the recruitment department of the law enforcement agency is aware of this, given "the place" is crawling with traffic wardens – all of whom appear as Kojak look-alikes! Is this for real?
The FBI, we discover, is not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose online website reminds of their "mission": to "help protect you, your children, your communities, and your businesses from the most dangerous threats facing our nation – from international and domestic terrorists to spies on U.S. soil… from cyber villains to corrupt government officials… from mobsters to violent street gangs… from child predators to serial killers."
The clue is in the wording...U.S. soil...and here we are in Wester Ross – this might take some explaining. As the Caithness Cappuccino Cowboys’ resident encryption expert, I am tasked to decode the enigma...and quick.
We weren’t sure, given the frenzied text activity on our mobiles and the strange Kojak types on every street corner but it seemed like we had maybe stumbled on some inadvertent conspiracy plot.
The texts threw us a bit. "Ledmore Junction" sounded like the title of an Alastair Maclean novel... The Hill of the Red Fox seemed something straight out of a Cold War espionage plot...Didn’t Ullapool used to have all those Eastern bloc klondyke boats anchored in its bay in the old days? Maybe we had uncovered a quirky legacy of the past?
Nothing so glamorous. Turns out FBI stands for Ferry Boat Inn – a seafront pub on the village’s Shore Street. Mystery solved. We’d simply been summoned to lunch! As you were men...I shuffled awkwardly.
Still, let’s be positive, the fish and chips were brilliant!
And, in any case, we were having a fantastic day out. The dry roads provided ideal motorcycling conditions; the forecast was good so we could throttle up.
The return leg of the journey took us north via Inchnadamph, passing Ardvreck Castle. There I wondered what the ghost of the Marquis of Montrose would make of this Diamond Jubilee year of royal celebrations. If anyone knew about political intrigue and treacherous machinations, it was James Graham (the 1st Marquis of Montrose).
He was both, seemingly, a Covenanter and a Loyalist. But back in 1650, he was betrayed to the authorities by the Laird of Assynt.
Led through the streets of Edinburgh in a cart driven by his hangman he was hung, drawn and quartered. His head placed on a spike at the Tolbooth, his limbs fixed to the city gates of Glasgow, Stirling and Perth and Aberdeen. There was no messing about in those days! (I bet the FBI have a few of their own stories too.)
We climb up over Assynt – a wilderness parish noted for its outstanding landscape of "moors, mountains and water". The A894 offers a classic motorcycling alpine route. Breathtaking. A joy. And absolutely magic.
We stop briefly at the Kylesku Bridge. A roadside plaque reminds us it was here that specialist wartime forces trained with the 12th Submarine Flotilla. They manned midget submarines (known as X-craft) and torpedo submarines, preparing to undertake deadly missions against the German battleship fleet anchored in Norwegian fiords. The notorious Tirpitz fell victim to one such attack.
"The security of these top-secret operations was guarded by the local people of this district who knew so much and talked so little", the inscription revealed. As a boy I had seen wartime films about their exploits. The odds of survival were remote. Their courage commands much continuing respect.
We pass through Durness and, ironically, Loch Erribol where the "grey wolves" of the German U-boat fleet surrendered at the end of the war. If only these hills could talk. What stories they could share.
And then we had that bizarre moment when Mr Newton came into his own.
Just leaving Tongue village, we happened upon a very confused Dandie Dinmont. A cute little thing, it was wandering bizarrely all over the place. (And we thought it was just us who went in ever decreasing circles!)
Our hero of the moment leapt gallantly from his wheels and scooped up the hairy wee terrier. Just then its panic-struck owner ran up to the road and very gratefully received her wee pooch. It was 20 years old she told us, and blind.
The age and tradition of gallantry on the open roads is alive and well, it seems. Still, it was a long way to go for a plate of fish and chips!