The Skerray Loop and Apigill Hill

Riding along a coastline usually means crossing valleys. Between each valley is a climb, followed by a descent which gives away all of the altitude you’ve worked so hard to gain. On the north coast of Scotland, one of the toughest hills is Apigill. One hundred and fifty metres of ascent followed immediately by the same amount of descent. Before that struggle, however, was the gorgeous Skerray loop.

Although too late for well-lit photos, I was able to enjoy looking down on Coldbackie’s sandy beach and looking up to the impressive, conglomerate buttresses of Watch Hill. Jeremy Clarkson once parked a Landrover on its summit. The views from Ben Tongue and Watch Hill, out over the Rabbit Islands, are vast, which may be why these hills appealed to the Top Gear crew.

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The Skerray Loop and Apigill Hill
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Coldbackie beach
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The Black Lochan and Watch Hill from the south
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View from Watch Hill

Past Coldbackie is the turn to Skullomie, where a short walk to the abandoned crofts at Sleiteil begins. Sleiteil is an island of green in a sea of heathery bog. It must stand out to migrating birds as I have seen whoopers and dotterel here. Sleiteil offers excellent, not so wild pitches. No access for sea kayaks though because of the beach’s rocky fangs.

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Hiking to Sleiteil
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Sleiteil
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Sleiteil beach

The road to Skerray runs across moors with rocks, bogs and heather before becoming more enclosed at Modsary, as the sign spells it. Here, a small, excitable, beagle type of thing chased me with surprising speed. I stopped and the dog began looking sheepish. A no through road leads to Skerray Pier and a harbour sheltered by Neave Island. It’s a very beautiful spot and well worth deviating from the shortest route along the north coast. The ride back to the main road, past Torrisdale Beach, is arguably more scenic than the ride into Skerray.

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The road to Skerray
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Neave Island

 

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Skerray harbour
Between Coldbackie and Skerray
Skerray coastline

The coastline from Coldbackie to Invernaver is an outstanding short expedition for any backpacker prepared to explore. Some bits need care but the whole coastline is stunning and the locals are friendly.

The Skerray Loop rejoins the main road near the western entrance to the Borgie Forest. A short way down the forest road, at the first car park, is a Millennium project consisting of a spiral path which passes through a Celtic alphabet of trees. I’ve never seen anyone else appreciating it but, in my opinion, it’s worth a look.

Enough prevarication. Apigill Hill. OK, I had been taking things easily. Nevertheless, I was astonished to reach the summit with barely a trace of lactate in my leg muscles. I’ve cycled this hill more than a dozen times since retirement and this was my easiest ever ascent. It seems that pre-brekky physical jerks have improved my fitness. I certainly can’t claim to have been getting the miles in on the bike.

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View from the Bettyhill store

The Bettyhill Store provided a pie and a pint of milk as well as a chat with a delivery driver who enjoyed cycling. After that, it was a question of covering the ground and deciding where to spend the night.

An undistinguished high point provided 360 degree views of the most northerly Corbetts and Ben Hope around to Morven and on to Dunnet Head and Hoy. I could see a huge cruise ship giving passengers a close up of the Old Man and St Johns Head. At Armadale is the winner of the 2015 Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year and, if you have the time, the lighthouse at Strathy Point is worth visiting.

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Portskerra is worth a side trip

Crossing the bridge over the river at Melvich, I noticed something fishing so I stopped. Two otters were diving repeatedly and having plenty of success. After five minutes they disappeared. Maybe they had become tired of my nosiness.

My next stop and chat was at Reay Store. A young cycle tourist who had been on Orkney, a possible destination for me, praised Brown’s Hostel in Stromness but said he was holing up for two days in Tongue Youth Hostel because of forecasted 45 mph winds. Deciding home was best if the weather was going to get excessively boisterous, I headed south at Westfield past Lochs Calder, Scarmclate and Watten for a brief stop at Tesco before going home.

A 70 mile day with no trace of hunger knock, also known as hypoglycaemia. My fat metabolism must be improving. Cutting out sugary things and working out first thing in the morning is paying off. Highly recommended, as is the Skerray Loop.

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