THE A9 is a narrow strip of city, some 250 miles long, a sharp discontinuity from the landscape through which it passes. Many, if not most, travellers on this long road never really leave the town or city at either end of their journey.
Their thoughts are on arrival, on the queue of traffic ahead, on the next short stretch of overtaking lane or dual carriageway. The quiet hills and moors, the forests and mountains and lochs and rivers and sea might as well not be there. But on the A9, more than on any other long road, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
It was still only half-light when I stopped at Golspie, turning into the town car park a few yards off the main road. There's nothing worse than getting up, eating breakfast and getting straight into a car! But, with over 400 miles to drive, the first 50 or so counts as little more than warming up the engine, and Ben Bhraggie always makes a change from one of my usual morning runs.
I jogged up Fountain Road and under the railway bridge, just before the early morning train crossed heading south. This little climb is just the thing to freshen up ahead of a long day's drive and immediately takes you away from that citified A9 into the real world.
I usually manage to jog as far as the forest before reverting to walking the steeper sections of the path, up to the pylon line, up the hillside to the forest fence then the last stretch of open hill to the summit. A bitter January wind rapidly cleared away the cobwebs, the upper part of the path was icy with patches of frozen snow. Below, the bright lights of Golspie faded into the dawn.
On top of the hill, as we all know, is a huge statue to the Duke of Sutherland, most notorious for his part in the Highland Clearances. The man never dreamt this proud representation of himself would instead serve as a monument to all those evicted during that dark time, as well as providing a means of introducing curious tourists to a piece of Highland history they may not be aware of.
It has been a landmark of Golspie for 150 years and most local folk hope it will remain so - a stark visual reminder of what unscrupulous powerful people once did and still do elsewhere in the world. So it is very sad some idiotic vandals are intent on damaging and demolishing the monument. A banner "Men of Scotland" had been painted on the foot of the statue. (What about the women of Scotland? Can't you even say it in Gaelic?)
Several large blocks have been prised out from the base. All these fools will manage to do is render the structure unsafe and make it necessary to fence off the summit. If they succeed in toppling the duke, the visual reminder of the clearances will be gone, no longer will coach parties be told the story of the times, and Golspie will have lost its main icon. Would you prefer a wind turbine?
A wintry blast of driving snow blew in just as I reached the top, the statue providing shelter from the blizzard before I jogged back down the icy slopes as fast as was safe, meeting at the fence a lady jogger heading upwards with a dog. "I'll see how far I get," she said when I warned her of the ice, which means of course, "I'll get to the top even if I have to crawl!"
Back in the town it was curiously mild and sheltered, with people sauntering out of the shop with newspapers.
Thoroughly awake now, back to that strip of city, a slushy Slochd and a snowy Drumochter, ready for another break 150 miles on at Dunkeld. Having got straight into your car before the crack of dawn, what can be even worse? Going into some overheated greasy spoon eating place to fall asleep even more.
I always take my own food and a flask. I turned out of the stream of traffic into the Dunkeld station car park, gulped a sandwich and a cup of sweet tea and set off jogging up Birnam Hill.
It's about the same effort as climbing Ben Bhraggie to reach the top of King's Seat above Birnam, likewise this is a popular local walk with a well-blazed trail all the way. But it once again takes you straight back into the Highlands out of that artificial A9 world.
You follow a path from the station under the railway, then up, soon steeply, into the forest. It was just what I needed after hours of driving, a fast climb, stretching the legs, the roar of traffic fading away and the valley of the Tay opening out below. The weather had cleared to one of those lovely crisp winter days of low sun, much too good to be stuck in a car.
Soon I was up to rocky outcrops and a boggy, flatter stretch before the final climb through patchy snow to a big cairn some 1100 feet above the valley. And a tremendous view from this Highland edge, south to the Ochils, north and west to the snow-covered Grampians, with the distant dots of lorries creeping along that linear city of the A9.
This was perhaps the first fine day since New Year and quite a few people had ventured up the hill. Someone had lost a dog, his shouts and whistles for the straying animal followed me all the way down. Back at the car, just an hour after setting off, I ate the second half of my lunch.
The sun was setting behind the hills by the time I reached Beattock on the M74 - and simply could not believe what is being done to the landscape here. There always used to be something special about crossing this border pass, especially when heading north, the romance of John Buchan's vast expanses of rolling border hills, of Auden's Night Mail pulling up Beattock past cotton grass and moorland boulder. No longer.
The hills have been turned into a man-made industrial estate, covered in gigantic white turning monsters totally destroying any visage of remoteness. Yes, they shout at you, man is master of nature and we mean to show it. Well, any nation which can do this to its landscape loses any right to complain about anything else anyone else does, be it rain-forest removal, strip mining, whaling, deep-sea drilling... this is environmental desecration, destruction and degradation of the worst order.
If I lived in England and saw this advert for arrogance when travelling north I would most certainly speak out in favour of Scottish independence... as in the film, "The Last Great Wilderness", where the Welcome to Scotland sign has been altered to "Scotland, you're welcome to it!"
The last light was glowing on the hills when I stopped near Keswick, with some jobs to do here before finishing my journey the next day. I can't though sleep the night under a mountain, even a gentle English one, without an early morning climb to the top!
The wind was freshening ahead of milder weather pushing in, but it was still bitterly cold at 2500 feet, the ground frozen, patches of snow, and a gale sweeping tatters of cloud across the summit. I took a ridge down towards forestry plantations on the lower slopes where a few isolated spruce had seeded themselves above the main forests.
It was January 6, officially the day for taking down Christmas decorations... and, here, high on the hillside, somebody had covered a young tree in baubles, tinsel, garlands most of which had been blown off in the storms a couple of days earlier and now littered the ground downwind. A strange sight indeed!
A few days later I headed back north, the new ugliness of Beattock now thankfully hidden by low cloud. An accident near Glasgow meant a detour, a tedious slow drive through exciting places (not) like Larkhall and Airdrie.
Tired after early headlights and traffic, my eyes started flashing with an impending migraine at Dunkeld - I'm lucky in not getting much in the way of symptoms other than the visual disturbance but, for 20 minutes, I can hardly see and just made it to Killiecrankie before driving became impossible.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I'd forgotten how lovely, even in January, are the woods above the rocky River Garry, it was mild with a low sun and the fresh morning air invigorating. After a few minutes of jogging my eyes cleared and the migraine simply vanished away. I jogged gently for a mile or two down the path through the trees by the rushing water, then returned to the car for a bite to eat and some reviving tea, ready once again to tackle the journey north.
With so many fantastic places to stop and explore, and such great country all around, the A9 is, in fact, a very special road.