Norm’s Overseas Odyssey 2005 – 2006 Episode Twenty-three

Monday 20th February 2006

The weather for the drive up to Inverness this morning was very mixed in that it seemed to be trying to demonstrate that you can have all the seasons in one day – something I’m told is not too uncommon in Scotland. I had considered visiting Elgin Cathedral (ruins) on the way, but in the end gave it a miss partly because the only available parking was some distance away and it was pouring!
As I may be in and around Inverness for a few days it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to get back there anyway. No progress on the car front as yet as, despite letting Sabre know where I was, the Assessor wanted to inspect the vehicle in Manchester where he thought it should be. I’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday 21st February 2006

The Assessor – based in Aberdeen, would you believe – rang this morning. I am now to meet him at the repairers on the other side of Inverness from where I am staying to determine what can be done, having regard to my wish to continue my Highlands touring and the repairers disinclination to provide a courtesy car for anything other than local travel. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.

With the intention of making best use of the day I headed back to Elgin to visit that Cathedral. Parking was a little easier even if it was half a mile away, but as I think I’ve indicated the exercise will do me no harm at all.
I was not long there when the heavens opened up, but fortunately I was under cover climbing to the viewing platform on the South Tower and only had to wait 10 minutes or so before I was able to venture out and take in the view. It really was something – though the better photographs turned out to be those I took at ground level after the sun had come out again.

The first church was built in the early 13th century and enlarged later in the same century, but most of what we see today is what survives of the repairs and rebuilding done after it was burned by the “Wolf of Badenoch”, the Earl of Buchan, in 1390 in revenge for his excommunication. From what does survive – including an almost completely intact Chapter House and most of both towers – it’s clear it must have been a magnificent church. I’m glad I made the effort to go back to see it.

Elgin Cathedral, Moray
21 February 2006

Photos: My visit to Elgin Cathedral, Moray – 21st February 2006

Wednesday 22nd February 2006

Another frosty and very foggy morning, which meant driving across Inverness to reach the assessor at the “body shop” (for the car rather than me), was a challenge! I was only too pleased to arrive there in one piece, given the number of drivers who passed me doing 60 mph without lights in that level of “invisibility”.

It appears that the cosmetic surgery necessary to improve my LRC’s ugly mug will take at least a week, but the good news is that I have the use of a courtesy vehicle for as long as the repair takes AND can continue touring. It’s possible that I may have to pay a small premium for the additional mileage that touring involves and for the use of a rare automatic, but I’m happy to live with that rather than have to pay for accommodation in Inverness while I waited out the repair period.
Because the only “automatic” to be had is in Sutherlandshire (3 hours north) and cannot be brought back until tomorrow morning, the car exchange won’t now be made until late morning. As this will mean starting later than I’d hoped, my first stop will be at Dornoch, only 50 miles north, but will give me a head start for the far north the following day. Let’s hope the weather holds. The fog is a pain if you have to be out and about early but once the fog has cleared, it’s just perfect – coldish, but perfect!

Having made less than complimentary noises about hotel chain food, I have to eat my words – at least as far as tonight’s dinner at Marriott Inverness was concerned. The entrée of traditional haggis with clapshot, Arran mustard and white onion essence was delicious; the poached salmon in mussel broth (with ten or so mussels) delicious-er, and the Drambuie parfait with berries delicious-est!
All in all a meal close to what I’ve come to regard as rosette class. Clapshot? Well, I’m told it is an alternative to the traditional accompaniment to haggis of “tatties and neeps”, being a mash of potato, turnip, onion and chives. It is said to originate in the Orkney Islands, which winter weather permitting, I may just get to.

Thursday 23rd February 2006

The combination of weather and traffic meant that the body shop driver’s trip back from furthest Sutherlandshire took longer than expected and, as a result, our vehicle exchange didn’t take place until after 2:00 pm. It took a while, including would you believe dipping into the Handbook, to find out what was what, and a further little while, once on the move, to get used to the idiosyncrasies of the car – in this case a Vauxhall Corsa. It was just as well I hadn’t planned to be in John O’ Groats this evening.

In any event, after a few lay-by halts to re-adjust the seat, mirrors and so on, I was booked into my simple twin-bedded room at the “Eagle Hotel” soon after 4:00 pm. The colour, age and condition of the carpet (?) brought back memories of my B&B in Kew in September, but the en-suite would be luxurious by Kew standards.
The Eagle is a main street pub with rooms in the Royal Burgh of Dornoch and, from the outside, nothing like the highly recommended Restaurant with Rooms called the “2Quail” two or three doors down the street. I had tried to book there, but unfortunately for me, it doesn’t re-open until March or April.
So tonight will be a “bar food” dinner in the bar of the “local” – which could well provide an interesting contrast with last night’s fare. We shall see – and you may hear. But there again, you may not! What’s that expression “Least said, soonest mended”!

Friday 24th February 2006

A leisurely drive up the coast to Forss, 10 minutes drive east of Thurso, which is to be my base for the next three nights. Although sleet and snow and the freezing conditions that go with those are being experienced in the south of England, it really was quite mild in the Highlands – a balmy 6°! That’s not to say it was fine – it wasn’t, but the misty rain that made photography of some great coastline views just a dream, did add atmosphere to both the sea and landscape. More as a reconnaissance mission than anything else I drove around via Wick and John O’ Groats rather than the more direct route to Thurso and on to Forss. John O’ Groats, aesthetically, must be the northern equivalent of Land’s End,  “Yuk”, probably covers it!
From the size of the car park I assume it must be a busy place in the summer – today it was deserted with all but one forlorn looking gift/coffee shop closed for the winter.

I didn’t stop in either Wick or Thurso mainly to avoid getting wet and arrived at “Forss House Hotel” to the warmest of Highland welcomes – and a really huge room. It’s tastefully furnished with a very comfortable two-seater lounge to go with the king-sized bed and still leave room for a table-tennis table if there’d been one available. I’m in the “Tarron” room, which is right next door to the “Cairnmore” room – information which, in the interests of full and unbiased reporting I felt sure you’d want to know. Whatever its name, it’s really is very comfortable.

As chance would have it in the entry hall of the hotel was another display of Sheila Fleet’s work. I mentioned to Anne McKenzie, who managed the hotel, my interest in the jewellery and she said, “You’re in luck, her husband, Rick, will be in for dinner tomorrow evening and I’ll introduce you”.  She also said that he would not only be able to tell me more about Sheia’s jewellery but, as I was planning to visit Orkney, also give me some good local advice on what to see, where to stay and how long I should spend there.

The welcoming drive into Forss House Hotel, Thurso, Scottish Highlands
24 February 2006

I had been warned that for tonight only, no dinner would be available, but as I indicated to Anne, the soup and sandwich on offer will do me no harm at all. As it turned out, the soup was home-made broccoli and stilton served in what I suspect was a tureen rather than a bowl accompanied by rare roast beef and horseradish and leg ham and English mustard sandwiches.
It may not have been rosette cuisine, but eaten in the lounge – I’m the only guest tonight – with a background of Mozart Adagios and a glass or two of white, it couldn’t have been much better – or more relaxing!

Saturday 25th February 2006

So much for the forecast. It was supposed to be colder, greyer and wetter than yesterday. Fortunately, whilst it wasn’t a bright spring day, there were patches of blue sky and it was dry! As such, it was a great day for a drive into the Highlands. My route took me west from Forss, south to Kinbrace, west again via Syre to Altnaharra; north to Tongue and then eastward back to Forss. Along the way I had great views of Lochs an Ruathair, Badanloch, nan Clair and Rimsdale, and closer ones of Lochs Never and Loyal where the road followed the shoreline.

Being winter, I had the area pretty much to myself and didn’t have to battle over “passing places” on the single-lane roads. It was a relatively long drive more by reason of my leisurely pace than its 120 mile length, but for the same reason we re-read favourite books or re-play favourite CDs, I’d happily do it all again tomorrow. Why? In part, I think, to enjoy the splendid scenery again – but perhaps more, to experience again the sense of peace that I feel in those timeless remote surroundings.

On reviewing the photographs I took I was again disappointed at my inability to capture what I’ve just been on about. I think it has something to do with not being able to cope with the sheer scale of the landscape, but I’m not altogether happy with the colours either. But with that proviso here are a couple:

Loch an Ruathair, Scottish Highlands
25 February 2006
Kyle of Tongue, Sutherland
25 February 2006

And lest you think that food won’t get a mention, how about this? An entrée of fresh brown shrimps with apple and smoked paprika mayonnaise, very good; and a main of lightly roasted Scottish salmon with creamed potato purée and mussel & saffron broth, “to die for”!
I thought the salmon at Marriott Inverness was pretty good; this was just brilliant, and well into AA rosette territory! Roll on Sunday dinner.

As promised,  Anne introduced me to Rick Fleet after dinner.  While he, lives on Orkney and has done so for thirty years he also maintains a cottage next to the hotel which he uses as a base on the mainland for his work  as a professional photographer.
We spent a very pleasant evening together, helped by a warming dram or two. Rick was happy to give me the good advice that Anne said he would and more.  As a result, I’m booked on the ferry leaving Scrabster (10 minutes or so up the road) for Stromness at 8:45 am on Monday, and will spend two full days on the main island before returning here on Thursday. Where I go then will depend as much as anything on when I have to go back to Inverness to pick up my LRC, but I’ve got a couple of alternate routes in mind.

And, as you might have guessed, the plan for my two days in Orkney did include a visit to Sheila’s Gallery and Workshop, a 10 minutes’ drive from the Kirkwall Hotel where I would be staying.

Over our drams, Rick also asked me what I had planned for the next day, Sunday. As he was on his own, he offered to show me some of the less as well as more-visited places, if I drove and he navigated. How could I refuse?  And didn’t!

Sunday 26th February 2006

We were away soon after 10:30 and visited Dunnet Head, Duncansby Head, the “Hill o’ Many Stanes”, Latheron (where I got what I hope was an image of the now unused arched bridge that will reflect the beauty of its symmetry), Dunbeath harbour (another photo, more of rocks than anything else), Berriedale Water (a photo of nothing more than a moss-covered tree that appealed to me) to Helmsdale and then up along the banks of the Helmsdale River to the coast and back to Forss.

Arched Bridge – Latheron, Caithness
26 February 2006
Dunbeath Harbour, Caithness
26 February 2006
Moss-covered tree at Berriedale Water, Caithness
26 February 2006

The day was such that the views from Dunnet Head and of the Duncansby Stacks were, at best, hazy and whilst not successfully photographable, beautiful nonetheless. We got back just before 5:00 pm – which will give you some idea of how enjoyable a day it was.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the contribution that Rick made to that, and one I was happy to recognise by having him join me for dinner. We both had natural oysters (leaping out of their shells, so to speak) as an entrée; and a delicious main of braised breast of guinea fowl with winter bean cassoulet and crisp pancetta. A great way to finish a great day.