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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Pilgrimage to a place of peace in Flow Country

By Ben MacGregor

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Flow country lochs.
Flow country lochs.

I always enjoy the weather, whatever it may be doing, but admit that some days are better for some activities rather than others!

Wet and windy conditions are not good for sea-kayaking, but can be exhilarating on the hills or enjoyed on a long car journey.

Frost and ice are not ideal for cycling, but give lovely crisp conditions for a walk on normally muddy tracks. Hot sunshine is not the weather for hill-climbing but great for cycling or wild swimming.

And fine, sunny days, especially during the Caithness winter, are not ones to spend indoors unless you have absolutely no choice.

Sadly, sometimes even I can’t avoid staying in when there are commitments or articles like this to write! And I also often end up doing the wrong activity in the wrong weather, like cutting the grass in the hail or fighting a near-gale in the kayak off Dunnet Head.

Always try to get out whatever the conditions, and sometimes you’ll get it right.

The forecast was for calm sunshine after early frost. The road was a bit icy, but after years of experience of balancing bikes on skating rinks when commuting, I just took it canny down the hill to the main road.

Patches of low mist lay in hollows and over the white frosted fields. The first loch of the day was mirror-calm, the wind-farm turbines stationary and useless. The road, though badly potholed, had been gritted so there were no more worries about ice.

The destination loch, a panorama.
The destination loch, a panorama.

Towards the crest a ditch had been dug to take away the water which has always flooded here, but deep ruts in the road remained. These roads are fine for a bike which can easily avoid the holes! Or for walkers, already several people were out with dogs.

I turned onto the private road to the lodge, perfectly surfaced with smooth tarmac. Ahead, the pale blue of the next loch appeared with Morven beyond, the last patches of mist clearing from the hillsides. There was plenty of water in the river, care needed on the bridge which is made of metal plates and can be extremely slippery. I climbed up towards the woods around the lodge then turned off onto the track heading out into the moors.

It’s nearly seven miles to the end of this track, out in the heart of the Caithness flows. It must be a nightmare to maintain, but the estate do a good job.

With Unesco status pending the Flow Country is probably now safe from further destructive development like blanket forestry or massive wind farms – it was only because estates such as this one resisted the temptation to make pots of money that the land remains reasonably pristine.

Nevertheless, developers still try to bribe farmers to get rich by shoehorning schemes into little unprotected corners, such as the obscene proposal for 200-metre turbines at Forsinain or the even worse scheme at Acharole near Watten.

Views towards the long moorland track.
Views towards the long moorland track.

The track climbs and dips above the loch, passing close to ruined crofts which were inhabited till 60 years ago, then turns towards the moorland hills.

The first snow-buntings of the year flitted along ahead of me, unable or unwilling to fly off to the side. After a long steady climb the third loch of the day appeared below, a remote and peaceful place now in the safe care of the RSPB.

I stopped and plodded up to the top of the little hill above, stiff and slow, my days of running over these hills long past! But the view was as good as ever, with the fourth loch of the day in its basin surrounded by the low hills and reflecting the unbroken blue sky.

Back on the bike I carried on along the rutted track, contouring the slopes of the next hill to an old stables before another mile down a now-sandy road to the fifth loch, my destination.

The water lay calm, silent under the November sun, the only sound my clicking heart-valves. A wide stretch of sandy beach, pockmarked by deer-hooves, curved into the rolling slopes of the deep Flow Country.

An even more remote and evocative loch lies a mile further on, but I did not have the time or energy on this occasion. This would do, a place isolated and beautiful and far-removed from all the world’s troubles, yet so easily reached from home.

It had been a little pilgrimage, I’d made the most of a fine November morning.

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