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Ullapool - Introduction

For the summer of 1997 I planned to tour part of Norway by bicycle. I intended to cycle from Bergen to Oslo and back, a distance of between 500 and 600 miles. In preparation, I decided to cycle to Ullapool via Lairg and return to my home in Halkirk via Dingwall following a figure-of-eight route

Before I relate my cycling experiences I should perhaps give some background information. I am 42 years old and I have had diabetes since I was twenty. I have always been active but I only took up cycling in the last three or four years. I did my first cycle tour in 1995 when I cycled directly from Halkirk to Oban and then returned via the west coast and north coast, a total distance of 650 miles. In 1996, I cycled to Skye via Achnasheen and then on to N. Uist and S. Uist then to Oban by ferry and finished in Crianlarich where the traffic proved to be too heavy and the available accommodation too sparse. I then returned by car to Halkirk and booked myself on the ferry to Shetland where I spent two fantastic days cycling around Mainland. Whilst I was waiting for the ferry back to Orkney from Lerwick, I met a cyclist from Perth who had just spent two weeks cycling in Norway. I promised myself that next year I would do the same.

I spent many weeks planning my tour of the southern part of Norway and I felt that I required some training before I departed. I therefore decided to cycle to Ullapool and back to test my fitness and my new bicycle.

I have had diabetes since I was 20 years old and I must take extra care of what I eat and what I do, especially when I am alone.

My body does not produce insulin. This is a hormone produced by the pancreas that is essential for delivering energy-giving glucose to the body’s organs and muscles. I must inject two doses of insulin each day, one before breakfast and one before my evening meal.

The control of diabetes is about balancing three things: the amount of insulin injected, the quantity of food eaten and the amount of energy used by the body. For a given dose of insulin, I must eat more food if I wish to expend more energy than normal. If I know I am going to be working hard I can take less insulin. Usually when I am cycling I tend to reduce my insulin dose and increase my food intake. I can easily keep a check on how I am doing by testing the amount of sugar present in a small sample of my blood.


Day Date From To Distance
1 Monday 26th May Halkirk Lairg 74.31 miles
2 Tuesday 27th May Lairg Ullapool 46.13 miles
3 Wednesday 28th May Ullapool Dingwall 46.32 miles
4 Thursday 29th May Dingwall Helmsdale 57.10 miles
5 Friday 30th May Helmsdale Halkirk 58.34 miles


282.20 miles

Monday 26 May

Insulin dose = 22 units.

A great weather forecast. Just before I set off I tuned in to the Weather Channel and I heard the presenter confidently state that the north of Scotland is dry and sunny with the prospect of more of the same for the next three or four days. So why was it raining and blowing a gale outside? It must be an illusion.

I set off from Halkirk at 0800 in torrential drizzle. At least the wind was behind me for the first 20 miles down the Causeymire to Latheronwheel. I continued on to Latheron where I stopped for my first sandwich and a drink at 0915.

After a ten-minute stop I set off again south down the A9. It was a little brighter but still with occasional drizzle. I managed the climb out of Dunbeath without a stop, not bad with fully loaded front and rear panniers.

More drizzle. The weather always seems to be the same on the first day of my cycle tours. It could only get better.

I reached Berriedale after enjoying very wet road surfaces but at the bottom of Berriedale the road was bone dry. I managed the climb out of Berriedale without a stop. It was either the new bike or I was a lot fitter, a combination of both I think.

I bought my bike from Leisure Activities in Thurso. It is an Orbit Harrier touring bike, manufactured in Sheffield, equipped with 21 gears and an STi gear change mechanism. The gearing is suited to hill climbing but is a little slow for long downhill sections.

I arrived at Helmsdale at 1130 in dry weather with the odd appearance of the sun. I went into the town to buy delicious fresh-made sandwiches and had an early lunch at the tourist information car park. Helmsdale seems always to have several coach loads of tourists wandering around its attractive streets whenever I visit. Maybe I can spend some time here on Thursday on my return leg.

The journey through Brora and Golspie was good with the weather improving all the way and the traffic fairly light. When I stopped for a drink of water just south of Golspie I saw large numbers of ladybirds (seven spot variety). From the roadside I could see all the way across the Moray Firth to the snow-capped Cairngorm mountains.

At The Mound I turned off the A9 to take the A839 to Lairg. There was very little traffic but there was a strong headwind. The road is uphill almost all of the way to Lairg and the going was very difficult.

After 70 miles (only four miles from Lairg) my blood sugar level dropped and I had to stop to eat. After around 15 minutes I was able to set off again and continue the hard cycling into the wind.

I arrived in Lairg at 1720. The last 10 miles took about 90 minutes. I had hoped to book in at the Sutherland Arms Hotel but it was locked up with no one to be seen. I checked in at a guest house just over the road from the hotel which, at £20 per night bed and breakfast, was good value. After a welcome shower I resisted the temptation of lying down on the bed and went across the road to have dinner at the Nip Inn. The restaurant became quite busy around nine with quite a few tourists, mainly German. I had an excellent three-course meal for £13.60 and spent the rest of the evening reading and drinking a few beers to replace the liquid I had lost during the day.

Distance cycled = 74.31miles.

Insulin dose = 22 units.

Blood sugar at 2320 = 8 (a good value, for a none diabetic the average value is between 4 and 6)

Tuesday 27 May

Blood sugar at 0800 = 3.

Insulin dose = 20 units.

I withdrew £50 from a cash machine at The Bank of Scotland. I remember the last time I was here the local people were looking forward to the installation of the first cash point in Lairg.

After stopping at a nearby Spar shop to buy sandwiches I set off to Ullapool at 0930 in great weather. It was dry with no wind and mild temperatures.

I took the A839 westwards towards Invercassley. The last time I stayed in Lairg I cycled around Loch Shin via Glen Cassley, a distance of 50 miles, in foul weather. I still enjoyed it though.

Just before Invercassley, the A839 joins the A837 at Rosehall. I stopped at the junction for a sandwich and a drink of water and also to enjoy the atmosphere. At the junction there is a war memorial which occupies a very peaceful spot. There was very little traffic and numerous trees in all directions with mountain peaks revealing themselves in the gaps between the trees. I had to stop quite often between Lairg and Ledmore Junction to fully appreciate the views and the wonderful atmosphere.

Just past Oykel Bridge, during one of my frequent stops, I saw what I am sure was a Golden Eagle. I was eating yet another sandwich when I looked down towards the Oykel River. A very large bird took off, no more than 20 yards from where I was standing, and very quickly gained height. Within two or three minutes the eagle was a speck over the hills to the northeast.

The traffic was light between Oykel Bridge and Ledmore junction, however, I did see quite a few German motorcyclists who gave me a friendly wave as I passed them in a lay-by.

Just before Ledmore, there is a very attractive loch called Loch Borralan. It has a Motel on its shore, which provides a very welcome bowl of soup for a tired cyclist. I was not that tired but I still enjoyed the soup. While I was eating my soup, a delivery van appeared from Wick airport dropping off electrical supplies at the motel.

I set off towards Ullapool via Ledmore and Elphin. The landscape changes abruptly from Ledmore, where it is predominantly moorland, to Elphin where it is very rocky, the free exhibition at Knockan shows numerous rock samples from the local area. I didn’t visit the exhibition this time but I will at the next opportunity.

I slowly cycled the next five miles to Elphin where I again stopped for soup at a very pleasant café set back from the road. The temperature was quite high now and the surroundings were so pleasant that I found it difficult to get started again.

I eventually left Elphin at about 1430 hours. I had forgotten about the hills between Elphin and Ullapool. They are fairly short but very steep. The sun made an appearance and the going became very hot. I had also forgotten how spectacular the scenery is here. My first sight of the sea reminded me that only yesterday I set off from the north coast, cycled down the east coast and now I had reached the west coast.

Photo 1 Ardmair

I reached Ardmair after a fairly difficult stretch but the wonderful views made it worthwhile. The road to Ullapool was steep but I was encouraged, at the top of a steep hill just north of Ullapool, by a young girl cyclist travelling in the opposite direction who stopped in a lay-by and told me that she cycles between Ardmair and Ullapool each day, well done.

Throughout the day the traffic was light. One or two drivers even sounded their horns and waved encouragement when I climbed the steep hills; it made me try harder. No hill was too hard and I felt good.

I arrived in Ullapool at 1600 and booked into the Brae Guesthouse overlooking Loch Broom. I paid £22.50 b&b for a very small double room with a miniature television. The demand for accommodation in Ullapool is very high even this early in the season. My blood sugar was quite low when I checked in so I had some chocolate before I walked around the town.

There were quite a few tourists in the town with the campsite quite full. Most of the restaurants and pubs/bars were also quite full

I had a three course evening meal at the Brae Guesthouse for £10.30. After the meal I walked around the town, bought a book and had a few beers. Usually in the evenings I feel a great sense of achievement. I like to review my journey with a map and remember the sights I have seen. I also like to go over my route for the next day and imagine the sights I expect to see.

My face and hands were very red from exposure to the elements.

Distance cycled = 46.13 miles.

Insulin dose (before evening meal) = 22 units.

Blood sugar at 2300 = 4 but had extra food before bed.

Wednesday 28 May

Blood sugar at 0800 = 6. I judged it right.

Insulin dose = 20 units.

A cloudy start but the weather became sunnier and hotter as the day progressed.

I set off at 0915 in wonderful conditions heading for Dingwall. The traffic was light and I noticed many forest trails starting around Leckmelm with good picnic areas catering for motorists but they are also ideal stopping places for cyclists. I stopped at one area for a sandwich and a drink in quite idyllic conditions. Just across the road I watched a young rider putting a horse through its paces over a few jumps.

Loch Broom penetrates into the land like a Norwegian fjord. The mountains, with their snow patches, also reminded me of how I imagine Norway will look when I visit in July.

I headed towards Corrieshalloch Gorge but I first had to negotiate a very steep climb. In a car park at the top of the hill I met an American tourist, a member of a coach party, who took an interest in my bike. He told me that he was on a tour of GB and yesterday he had visited John o’ Groats then stayed at the St Clair Hotel in Thurso. They were then driven along the north coast and down the west coast to Ullapool. I had travelled the same distance by bicycle in the same time.

Up to now, most of the route was familiar to me but this was the first time I had cycled between Corrieshalloch and Dingwall.

Just past Corrieshalloch Gorge I saw a large group of cyclists at the side of the road preparing for a journey. We exchanged a wave and a friendly greeting and I redoubled my efforts to show them that I wasn’t really exhausted or ready to collapse at the side of the road.

From Corrieshalloch the climb is easy to the highest point at about 1000 feet above sea level. Loch Glascarnoch is very picturesque with high mountains all around. Looking east I could see a very large mountain in the distance which must have been Ben Wyvis.

At the halfway point I stopped at Aultguish Inn for lunch. The road was now downhill for about 12 miles, which I covered in around 25 minutes, even with a headwind.

Just north of Garve there is a junction with the A832 to Achnasheen, which was part of my cycle tour last year. When I reached Contin the temperature was well into the seventies with a cloudless sky.

I arrived in Dingwall after cycling 46 miles in just over three hours. I found a very pleasant guesthouse (The Croft) which charged £20 B&B for a very spacious treble room. Compared to Ullapool this was terrific.

In the evening I had dinner in a town-centre restaurant which had only two other customers. I did some shopping for provisions at a late opening supermarket with very unhelpful staff, then retired early.

During the day Dingwall has a bustling centre but at night it is a cemetery.

Distance cycled = 46.32 miles.

Insulin dose (before evening meal) = 20 units.

Blood sugar at 2300 = 3 but had extra food before bed.

Thursday 29 May

Blood sugar at 0800 = 12 a bit high but good for the hard cycling ahead.

Insulin dose = 22 units.

After a very good breakfast, I set off at 0930 in unbroken sunshine and warm temperatures.

The traffic was light to the A9 roundabout but became heavy on the A9, so I took the parallel road to and through Evanton. I took the road over the Struy in quite hot conditions with a strengthening headwind. I intended to stop for lunch at the Altnamain Inn but found it was closed. I continued a short distance then took a minor road down to Edderton. It was strange to see all the schools full of children while I was off work enjoying myself.

I crossed the bridge over the Dornoch Firth and did the long climb up to the Trentham Hotel against a strong, hot and dry headwind. I could see a cyclist behind me struggling against the wind but he/she/it soon fell back.

I stopped for lunch at the Trentham Hotel. I usually stay here on the first night of my cycling expeditions. The restaurant is very popular at lunchtimes and most evenings and is a good stopping point for people travelling to Caithness. There were several people from Thurso enjoying lunch today.

The drop down to The Mound was welcome. I reached the Lairg turnoff at around 1430 hours then on through Golspie in hot sunshine and warm headwinds. In Brora, I stopped at Capaldi’s for a welcome ice cream and a long rest in the sunshine.

The last eleven miles to Helmsdale were a long hard slog but I arrived at 1700 hours. I checked in at The Bridge Hotel and had a good soak in the bath. This hotel is quite basic but has a pleasant atmosphere and helpful staff. I can’t remember what I paid for a single room but it was worth it.

In the evening I went to La Mirage for fish and chips where I saw an unpleasant individual dressed as Barbara Cartland.

Distance cycled = 57.1 miles.

Insulin dose at 1900 = 22 units.

Blood sugar at 2300 = 9

Friday 30 May

Blood sugar at 0800 = 13.

Insulin dose = 22 units.

I left Helmsdale in thick fog but it cleared only half a mile inland. The ride was very pleasant but the temperature quickly climbed. The distance to Melvich is 40 miles with few water stops on the way. A northerly breeze developed which made the going quite difficult at times. The air was very clear and the visibility was excellent. At Kildonan Lodge, amongst the trees, I felt I was in another country. The surrounding land was sun baked, the sky was a deep blue, there were numerous butterflies and I was knackered. I wasn’t really.

It was a gentle climb for the first sixteen miles to Kinbrace. The traffic was light with only a few tourists. At regular intervals there were vehicles parked, seemingly abandoned, with their windows wide open to keep cool. They must have belonged to anglers after salmon from the Helmsdale River and later the Halladale River.

I reached the highest point of the road between Helmsdale and Melvich (643 feet above sea level) at the 24-mile mark. The Helmsdale River, flowing south, veers off at Kinbrace, the Halladale River, flowing north, rises near Forsinard.

Some of the settlements along the road are very picturesque, especially in this weather. I saw many deer, mainly hinds and young in large groups, but also young stags in ones and twos. The hinds were very nervous and ran away as soon as they could see me but the stags stood their ground and boldly watched me. I also saw a dead adder on the road. I always thought snakes were circular in cross-section but this one was flat.

I stopped at the Forsinard Hotel for lunch. It seemed deserted but after about ten minutes I was attended to. I had soup and a roll and a refill of my two water bottles. The hotel caters primarily for fishing parties. It seems quite large and fairly basic but it does have an atmosphere in common with so many Scottish hotels.

Photo 2 Looking Towards Melvich

After a one-hour rest I set off on the gently downhill stretch to Melvich. Throughout this tour I saw very many wild flowers, none of which I could identify, but I did appreciate them. During a recent trip to the south of England in early May, I noticed that the trees were in full leaf and other vegetation was growing vigorously. Up here, almost a month later, the growth was new and not fully developed. It was like stepping back in time.

I reached the north coast road at around 1500 hours and made the climb over Druim Holliston feeling quite tired. The last 10 miles or so are always the hardest. The stretch from Isauld to Shebster was very hard; it seemed like crossing a desert, very hot and dry. I arrived home just after 1700 quite sunburned.

Distance cycled = 58.34 miles.

Total distance travelled = 282.2 miles.

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