On the Road
On the Road

With an old bike ...
... by Bill McLaughlin.

   Go to Chapters ...
An Island Discovery
Not Quite Ullapool
A Dream Realised

An Island Discovery

I had fired myself up for the run to Ullapool, having been told that the bit of the road past Loch Ewe could be a nightmare for cyclists. The informer had probably never used a bike in his life.
The road was a joy, undulating; up a little bit more, then down a little bit less, each section taking me higher and higher, until it seemed to me, that I was thousands of feet above the Loch.
In reality it was only about four, maybe five hundred feet, but I had nobody to contradict me, so thousands it was!
After about five miles of this, with the road running parallel to the shore below me, and the steep drop too close for comfort, I pulled in, to simply admire the view.
From this height the sea was a deep blue. All around was bright green fern and wild flowers, and away over the opposite shore, over the land to the far side, I could make out the hazy skyline that told me I could see the Atlantic.

I reluctantly moved on, coasted across the high neck of the Greenstone Peninsula, then dropped, slowly at first, into Gruinard Bay. The village is called Little Gruinard; that is exactly what it is.
On the way down on my left, and in front, I could see a sandy shore, and was attracted - like a bee to honey! Just past the little village, was the most gorgeous beach and bay, an almost a perfect horseshoe, with sand sloping away from rocks into the bay.
Another occasion when I had to say that I had never seen anything like it. Beaches, yes - Saltcoats and Leven - but they were attached to towns, with rows of little rich people lining up facing the sea. This, this empty space, was all mine.
I dropped the bike as soon as I hit the sand, and ran up the dunes piled up in front. I tripped on the top, and rolled over and over down on to the beach proper. I ran like a mad thing, hit the waves, and was up over my waist before I knew it!
I stopped cold. Not just because the water was freezing, and turning me blue as I stood. I felt a bit silly, and looked around to see who might be watching this maddie from Glesga!
No one. Nothing! I ran out, shaking with cold, with the water squelching out of the good cycling shoes. I laughed and laughed. I was going mad!

Once the initial euphoria was over, I lay in the sun; warming up and drying out. I watched the sand glisten in funny patterns on my legs, before wiping it away.
I heard a shout, then a long whistle, and turned to find that I was being 'rounded up' by a big hairy sheepdog.
"He'll no hurt ye son. He's jist working up tae yon sheep."
A wee, wiry man came up the same way as the dog had come, but it was away by this time.
"Come by! Come by!" the wee man shouted, and the dog turned. The guy stuck his fingers in his mouth and gave various whistles: the dog turned again, lay down, got up, crouched, turned, lay down then started back; this time herding about five or six sheep at the trot.
The shepherd left him to it. Either the dog, the sheep, or maybe both, knew where they were headed. They went over the road and disappeared behind a hillock. No need for gates and fences up here.
The man lit a pipe.
"Have ye come far son? Never saw the sea before, because ye seem to be wearing it laddie!"
"It was so beautiful mister." I said, "I just wanted to jump in. Ah wisnae daen any harm."
"Mair harm tae yersel." he said, "Just be glad ye never swam oot to the island."
I asked him what he meant, because, even if I had been tempted, the little island just about half-a-mile offshore, and too far for me to even contemplate a swim.
"Yer soaking wet son! Come up tae the hoose, and Mither will make some tea, and I'll tell ye aboot it."
We both walked up the road, where his wife made me welcome. Apparently, I was 'just in time' to share their mid-day meal!
Another Mammy to add to my collection!

After we ate, the shepherd told me of how the Government had used the island as an experiment. They were early chemical-warfare experiments ... with Anthrax!
The Ministry of Defence had apparently decided this remote, beautiful place was just perfect to infect with spores of the deadly bacillus. The island was forbidden, even if you were daft enough to go near it. There were signs all around its little coast-line, with 'Skull and Crossbones' and 'Danger' warnings.
The shame of it, made me want to cry out. The shepherd was bitter, as he once used to summer-pasture his sheep on it, and now nobody could safely go near it for a hundred years.
Daft bastards! The Westminster Government had made a Scottish Nationalist out of me!
I left them, thanked them; stuffing some sandwiches in my bag that 'Mither' had thoughtfully made for me.
"What was it about me?" I was thinking. Do people think I am starving, or something!

Not Quite Ullapool

Time was getting on. If I didn't get to Ullapool before the hostel opened, I might not get a bed. Over the high plateau of ground to another sea loch - Little Loch Broom. A long downhill ride, a pretty straight road for a change, and right down until the road met the lochside. I had dallied too long and decided I wouldn't make it to the hostel in time I started to worry about where I could spend the night.
I nearly missed it! This little place on the map - Dundonnell! It has a hostel. I hadn't read anything about it, but, spotting the sign I pulled in.
The building was a converted schoolhouse. In through the iron gate, and up a gravel path. With nobody around, I parked the bike and went for a walk, to see if I could find a warden.
She found me; spotting me from her kitchen window, as I wandered along the main road. The only road!
"You stopping for the night?" she asked.
I told her about my plans to get to Ullapool, and she admonished me.
"What's wrong with Dundonnell?"
No excuses! I just shrugged.
We walked together, back to the hostel and she booked me in, showed me the facilities, then left me to it.

She came back later, accompanied by a boyfriend. I assumed - but didn't ask.
"We came to see if you wanted to go to the dance, up in the village."
She pointed to a notice on the wall.
"You can't come to Dundonnell, and not go to the dance!"
"I'm sorry. I've only got shorts with me; nothing for dressing up."
I had been travelling light, and never thought about the possibility of a formal social night!
"Och, Alan here has a young brother about your size. He'll have something you can wear."
No arguments! I was ushered out to an old station-wagon type car. The first stop was at Alan's house, at the top of the village - back up the road that I had just come down that day.
Alan's brother was indeed about my size, but was still in schoolboy shorts. No chance was I putting them on!
"Wait!" said Alan, turning to his young brother. "Go and get your kilt!"
"Even less chance!" I thought.
They would have none of it! I was a stranger, and had to come to the dance. I would be wearing the kilt of Alan's young brother!

We took off, back to the village, and pulled up at the village hall. There was already music playing in full swing, and we walked in: Alan, Jean (as I had now established her name) and me. They with tickets, and an explanation to the ticket taker about me. I was waved in.
"Enjoy yourself!" he shouted after me.
It was a great night. The band consisted of an accordion, fiddle, and a snare drummer. We danced like lunatics. 'The Dashing White Sergeant', 'Strip the Willow', 'Highland Schottische', 'St. Bernard Waltz'.
My time learning Highland Dancing in the Boys Brigade was not wasted after all!
I was offered a 'wee dram', and accepted, as it seemed only right. The shepherd from Gruinard was there, on stage playing the fiddle. At the break, he came over and said ...
"See ye didnae mak Ullapool then." winked, and offered me a 'wee dram', which, of course, I had to accept. The fact that I was well under age, didn't seem to matter much, and as the night wore on, mattered even less!
I had never tasted whisky before, except when I used to sneak a drop at New Year family parties, when I thought no one was looking. This was different, and so was I next morning, when I finally set out for Ullapool!

I heard a banging noise, turned over in my bunk and tried to push it away, but it persisted. Gradually, it dawned on me that the noise was from outside, being the only resident that night. I was having difficulty, pin-pointing the source, my mind wandered and sleepy, but this was more than sleepy.
Sounds of a key in a lock, then the warden burst in the room.
"You going to lie there all day?" she laughed.
"Serves you right! Pigging out on that drink last night."
So that's what whisky can do to a body!

She left, and I heard her banging about the kitchen. I dragged myself up, got washed and dressed, thend joined her. She had brought eggs and some bacon, and was frying them in a pool of grease.
"A good breakfast will get you going."
So I celebrated my first ever hangover, in a wee schoolhouse, miles from anywhere. What a start to a day!

A Dream Realised

Thankfully, Ullapool was only about 25 miles further on. No hostel chores today! My benefactor chased me on my way, wished me good luck, and gave me a tin of soup to get me by at lunchtime!

It was a fresh bright morning; almost gone by the time I had cycled the first dozen miles.
I stopped there on the high road, looking down the length of Loch Broom. The sea glittered, and made my eyes water, but the scenery was magnificent. Another couple of miles, and I came across Corrieshalloch Gorge.
Leaving the road and taking a small footpath, I discovered the suspension bridge. At this point, the gorge is about 40 feet across and the bridge, looking fairly flimsy, stretched over the 200 foot drop.
A waterfall drops almost vertically below the bridge, and I had that hypnotic feeling of being drawn toward it, when the bridge began to bounce. Surely, I had got over the previous nights revels by this time?
A notice at the entrance to the bridge warns 'No more than SIX people at any one time!'
I turned, and there were six hikers with backpacks, trudging across the bridge towards me. Each step they took, made the bridge bounce a little, and the nearer they got to me - the higher the bounce. I was getting quite nervous and plucked up the courage to shout a warning to them.
"Only six! Only six!"
They all laughed, and kept coming. One shouted ...
"Och! This is part of the fun! We've had ten on here before. Don't worry son."
I worried. I sidled gently across, gingerly stepping so as not to cause the bridge any further stress.
As they passed me, close to the centre of the bridge, the six headcases started jumping up and down, making the bridge swing and judder. I took off like a bat out of hell, with their shrieks of laughter nipping at my heels as I ran.
Safe on the far bank, I shouted.
"Bloody headcases!"
The biggest of them took a step towards me, and I took off again, grabbed the bike and headed downhill at speed!

The run down from Corrieshalloch is a gently winding road that goes down and down, only levelling out after about three miles when it catches up with the river making its way to the loch. I watched the river as I coasted, the banks disappearing making way for rocks and then a pebble outlet. The water finding its level with no banks to hold it together spread out and feebly joined the sea loch. Oyster catchers trotted among the seaweed searching for food, their bright orange beaks throwing the weed this way and that. I was entertained and decided a small patch of grass by the road was a good place to stop.

I had Dundonnell soup!

After the break, I kept getting glimpses of the village ahead; just a little house next to the water, then it would disappear as the road turned or climbed, then another glimpse, two houses this time.
I crested a hill about a mile from Ullapool, and was so taken aback, I had to stop. I was looking down on as perfect a picture I could have imagined. The village stretched along a narrow peninsula pushing out into the Loch, the main road running past and away to the north.
The village main-street, 'Shore Street', houses blindingly white in the afternoon sun, faced up the loch; its back protected by the land behind, separating it from the open loch and the sea. A jetty stuck out from the street at the far end, and a few fishing boats were tied up.
I had arrived! This was the place that had occupied me on my journey; the place others wondered if I was too daft to reach. But I had made it!
I took out my little Brownie black-and-white camera, and took several pictures to prove it!
I rolled down the hill, pleased as punch with myself.
At that point, I thought that I owned the world!

   Go to Chapters ...
An Island Discovery
Not Quite Ullapool
A Dream Realised

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Original story and material © 2005 Bill McLaughlin
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016

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