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Tom's Highland Fling

by

Duncan Grimmond

When I was loading the car on Thursday I had no real idea of what was about to occur on the following six days. Up early on the Friday morning to finalise packing, read the odometer (19324), one last coffee and then off to the petrol station, fill up and onto the road at 10.00h.

The first 20 miles is the misery of A1(M) to just past Scotch Corner and that's where the fun starts.

Dere Street runs most of the way from York via Scotch Corner to Carter Bar with a couple of side-steps and squiggles and is mostly straight as determined by the Roman engineers who built its foundations to their northernmost camp at Rochester. Its "switchback" nature is exhilarating to say the least, despite the recent growth in the number of warning signs.

The sun had been out since very early in the morning and I drove in tee-shirt and shorts all the way. Stopping just north of Otterburn to make coffee I suddenly thought of Sam and wondered if he was out on the road already and could our paths coincide? He was not quite out of the door so I pressed on to Jedburgh.

A leisurely run into Edinburgh via the by-pass brought me to Tom Rae's house for about 15.00h. Don had already arrived having set off from deepest Devon at 04.30 and, following a cup of tea, it was deemed to be Pimm's o'clock.

Mike arrived next, followed by Sam shortly afterwards and our party was almost complete.

Viki made us a wonderful dinner but took the wise step of leaving us to ourselves to talk cars until bedtime.

On Saturday morning with a good breakfast under our belts we were out on the road towards Dunkeld to meet Colin, the sixth member of our party. Having crossed the Forth road bridge we took to side roads and Tom treated us to a tour of rubbish dumps and road-works in the southern part of the Kingdom of Fife. Leaving these behind we suddenly took a side turning for our first run along a single-track road through a small glen and a foretaste of what was in store for us. Arriving in Dunkeld, Colin, with Jock hanging out on the nearside, swung across our path into the hotel car-park just as we arrived, a case of perfect timing. Jock with his indefatigable hanging out on bends became a stalwart seventh member of the Highland Scorchers.

From Dunkeld we headed for Amulree and through Glen Quaich and over the hills to Kenmore on the Eastern end of Loch Tay. Up through Glen Lyon to Bridge of Balgie and then back down by Ben Lawers to Killin. These roads are narrow with passing places and tight hairpin bends following each other in quick succession with long straights leading to the next series of hairpins. Perfect Pembleton roads in that they require great concentration, precise positioning and good roadholding.

Unfortunately this combination rules out anything other than driving and in some ways it can be a little frustrating to be aware of the most beautiful scenery flashing past as you prepare for the next series of bends. Not renowned for my reticence I was continually left speechless by the constant stream of astounding natural beauty presenting itself over each successive crest and around every bend. We would stop briefly to re-group and stammer "It's it's a a amazing"

Back into the cars and heading for Glencoe (spectacular), petrol, and then straight out again to Corran and along Loch Linnhe to Fort William where we drove along the front to the by-pass and then headed out again to Spean Bridge, Invergarry and to our first night in a bunkhouse in Fort Augustus. Dinner at the local "chipper" allowed me to indulge a whim to try a macaroni pie, followed by a pint at the pub overlooking the locks that raise boats from Loch Ness into the Caledonian Canal.

The following morning was misty and we were off at 08.30 towards Inverfarigaig to climb the wonderful "Corkscrew". This is a series of 8 or 10 very tight, very steep hairpin bends at intervals of about 80 yards on a carriageway about eight feet wide with no run-off to speak of. Imagine bends tighter and steeper than the infamous Orchard Hairpin at Prescott and you're approaching an idea of what this spiral is like. To explain why I lost count, there was no time for anything other than aiming at the apex and putting your foot down while looking for the exit and the next entry point! One bend was so tight that Mike's LWB hopper had to take two bites at it.

The cars' performances on this hill-climb and the other testing roads reflects the sound nature of the design and Phil Gregory's sporting heritage.

The road at the top degenerated into a very potholed and sheep-muck scattered track which led eventually to a road leading us to Tomatin and then Grantown-on-Spey where we had bacon rolls with coffee and I tried a far better quality macaroni pie. We also met a rather fine Harley trike, rear engine into Beetle gearbox. A fine piece of work but not to my taste.

We then took back roads over Dava moor, Lochindorb and Cawdor to Inverness. We crossed the Moray Firth and the Cromarty Firth stopping for lunch at a Mill visitor centre. The queue for lunch sent us to the attached Delicatessen where we bought ingredients for a picnic lunch, taken on the rocky beach overlooking the Firth.

Back into the cars and we set off (encountering the Harley trike coming the other way, waves all round) over the Struie to Ardgay., Culrain, Oykel Bridge, Ledmore Junction, Inchnadamph, Lochinver On this section we had a minor hold-up as Mike's rear mud-flinger started to wrap itself around his rear wheel. Don's ample tool-kit came to the rescue with a pair of snips which cut away the offending edge.

We pressed on to Inchnadamph, Lochinver and a spectacular "corniche" road around the coast leading us to Drumbeg where Tom has an A-frame house overlooking Drumbeg Loch.

We settled ourselves in while Tom and Don carried out vital surgery on a waste pipe that a previous guest had helpfully "repaired" by disconnecting it from its pipeline to the drain.

A table had been booked at the Kylescu Hotel and this meant a further nine mile drive along one of the most twisting and precipitous routes we had so far encountered. We were allowed a quick stop for a photo-opportunity looking out to sea over scattered small islands and islets in the setting sun.

As if this wasn't enough for our tired senses, the menu at the hotel was met with delight as fresh langoustines from the bay outside the window were on offer. For me there was excellent vegetarian fare and here I must take the opportunity to compliment all of the restaurants we visited on their attention to detail when it came to vegetarian food. Scotland has a reputation for a poor diet but my brief experience there puts many English restaurants to shame. Almost all of the food was locally sourced and of excellent quality.

Back in Drumbeg the single malts appeared and we spent a pleasant hour before retiring.

Monday morning saw us starting with a snatched breakfast and then back onto the tarmac, heading for Durness near Cape Wrath. A combination of more wonderful single-track roads and European funded Top Gear Test road, hard driving, until we stopped for coffee and scones in the old Naval Base which had become a Craft Village in the 1960's.

Out again and a drive along Loch Eriboll with a visit to Lotte Glob's pottery studio. Tom claimed some acquaintance from the dim and distant past and Lotte made us welcome.

We then took another tiny single-track road which had a fair amount of greenery growing along its centre-line. Of course this gave the Brooklands no trouble as it's a proper car with four wheels. We stopped by a ruined Broch and stayed until the clegs (horse-flies) and midges saw us off. We drove along through forestry land that had been clear-cut and on to Altnahara. Climbing again we breasted a hill leading to a long straight decline with a small pub halfway down it, the Crask Inn. This is the sort of road-house which was common 40 years ago but has now almost vanished. A low-ceilinged shady room with a small bar in the corner and a landlady who was almost as keen on a chat as serving us. However, she produced a large plate of "sangwiches" which we washed down with the pints of shandy.

We then headed off towards Lairg and had a re-run of part of our route through Ledmore Junction but this time, instead of going via Lochinver we headed up over towards Unapool and returned to Drumbeg

We stopped at the Drumbeg Stores to buy food for our evening meal. Colin and I returned to the house to attend to minor repairs, I needed a new condenser as the heat had cooked the plastic insulator and Colin needed to attend to a suspension squeak. This turned out to be a serious bend in his suspension rod which had to be straightened. The bend had created a worn section that needed building up to full diameter with the help of an arc welder belonging to a neighbour but all was soon put right.

As we were working on the cars, a Dutch family pulled up outside the gate and asked if they could take some photos. They had seen us in various places over the preceding days but hadn't had a chance to get close. They came in and spent half-an-hour or so chatting and inspecting the cars. This was typical of many reactions from the folk we encountered.

Don cooked up a fine dinner of baked vegetables with chops followed by banana cake and then the single malts re-appeared.

Tuesday saw us clearing up, hoovering and tidying the house for the next visitors and then we headed for Lochinver and Ullapool where we stopped for fuel. Colin seemed to fill with a contaminated batch and after 20 miles or so we had to stop by the side of Little Loch Broom where he fitted a new fuel pump, courtesy of Don's Pembleton Spares Inc. I made coffee and some claim to have seen an otter. In my photos, they were seals on them there rocks.

Up and running again we made Gairloch for lunch and headed for Applecross via Kinlochewe and Torridon. We took the northern route into Applecross which was another stretch of roller-coaster road and exhilarating in the extreme. As we entered Applecross we were saluted by the driver of an MX5 who doffed his cap to each of us as we went by.

As we had to get to Skye and our bunkhouse in Carbost we left Applecross and descended the most astounding hill-climb over

Bealach Na Ba that seemed to go on forever. Half way down we spotted a nicely restored Jawa with single-wheel trailer with the owner taking photos of the climb. We later discovered that it had been taken there on the back of a camper. Having reached the bottom I really wanted to do it again upwards but we had a tight schedule to meet. Along our way to a quick stop for an ice-cream in Plockton we met the only adverse road surface. It had been "tar spray and chipped" and was responsible for a few side slips. The signs actually meant 20mph. We covered the short stretch to Kyle of Lochalsh and then over the Skye bridge and on to our bunkhouse at the Old Inn. Good food, good cheer and good company followed by the hottest room in the north. We were instructed not to open the windows as the midges would eat us alive but the lack of ventilation was almost unbearable.

A good breakfast the following morning and we were off to the north and round to Portree where we were provided with coffee outside a parade of shops, courtesy of the Skye Batik shop. We went on to finish our round tour of Skye to take the ferry to Mallaig.

Waiting for the ferry a driver in an MX5 turned out to be the same saluting driver of the previous day and by outrageous coincidence, it turned out that the driver's wife, Mary, and Tom had played together as neighbours in their childhood!

In the ferry queue our cars again proved to be a talking point causing much interest and obvious pleasure. Throughout the week at virtually every passing place where we met traffic, or parking spot by a viewpoint or café, the smiles and waves from the public were almost constant.

All this admiration and praise for our cars from the interested public simply adds to our convictions that we have made a sensible decision in building them and I cannot think of a more appropriate "proving run" than some serious driving on the roads we were taking.

Via Fort William and Spean Bridge we arrived at our bunkhouse just beyond Laggan on the road to Newtonmore. On arrival the place was deserted and eventually Tom contacted our hostess who was in Kingussie having forgotten about our booking. We repaired to the Monarch Hotel and Auld Kirk restaurant on foot taking our Pembleton umbrellas which we had to deploy in a sudden rainstorm.

Another first class dinner went down rather well accompanied by the Scots Pimm's, (Crabbies alcoholic ginger beer over ice).Jock was allowed in the porch and was rewarded with his now statutory scraps from plates and we then returned to the bunkhouse to finish the single malts and hit the hay.

Thursday was an early start in mist with breakfast planned at a truck-stop near Newtonmore. After breakfast we drove on through Aviemore to Tomintoul, then through Glenlivet to Glass where we visited an old school friend of Tom's who has a fine collection of cars which he has rallied in Kenya, Central America and Australia. There was also a Citroen TA heavy 15 which had completed the Paris-Peking rally and some other interesting motoring and sailing paraphernalia. We were entertained with coffee and biscuits and left our hosts with a Pembleton umbrella as a memento. Word of our visit had obviously found its way onto the local grapevine and a couple of other car enthusiasts were there to see us off on our route back through Dufftown to Tomintoul. We were now on the final stage of our rally tour and headed over the Lecht south to Cock Bridge and Ballater and the South Deeside road to Banchory where, in view of the weather rolling over the tops we stopped to put on wet weather gear for our climb over Cairn O' Mount to Fettercairn and thence taking backroads to Kirriemuir and finally to Colin's at Coupar Angus. Colin and Sue's house is a masterpiece of contemporary ecological design built for minimum energy input and high insulation value standard. With heat exchanger and solar panels incorporated and an underfloor heating system I'm green with envy!

Sue provided an excellent dinner including home-grown vegetables from the extensive gardens behind the house.

We had an early start on Friday as this was the home run for all except Don who planned a stop in Bristol on his way back to Barnstaple. Mike headed off toward Stirling from Coupar Angus and Don peeled off just after Scone.

Sam and I left Tom in Branton where we turned onto the Edinburgh by-pass, heading towards the A68 and home. We were approaching Lauder when I spotted a road sign for a double bend and, having sailed around it I was left thinking "Call that a double bend?"

We stopped for petrol, coffee and cake in Jedburgh and were back on the road to Carter Bar by 11.30. By perfect chance we found the road to be almost empty and we enjoyed the huge sweeping bends up to the summit and the border, the downward run being clear except for a single lorry which we easily passed and were left with a surprisingly empty road as far as we could see. Bowling along I was suddenly aware that Sam had disappeared from my mirror so I slowed and then stopped. After a few more minutes I telephoned him to find that his flywheel had parted company with the crankshaft, a real disaster requiring a recovery truck. I turned round and went back to find him in a forestry road where we pushed the car to a more advantageous position. All I could do was leave him to await the truck and so I pressed on along Dere Street again towards home.

Fortunately the breakdown happened within 50 miles of Sam's home on the way back from what was a brilliant week.

The weather could not have been better, we seemed to spent the entire week in tee-shirt and shorts with only the occasional addition of a jumper.

Good cars, good roads, good company, good cheer. I don't think I've had as much fun for years.

My end mileage reading was 20843 giving an indicated 1519 miles door to door. Adding 10% to allow for the under-reading of the speedo gives a total of 1671. Allowing 210 each way to and from Tom's house I covered approximately 1250 miles in 5 days of driving. This daily average of 250 miles may explain why we actually saw Scotland at an average speed of about 30 mph.


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