This quiet, single-track road is ideal for a short cycle excursion from the town of Golspie in Sutherland. The route provides sea views, pine forests, tranquility, abundant nature and some surprises within a relatively small area.
The road begins with a row of cottages facing the shore. I passed Golspie Pier, where there is a scattering of small boats used for lobster and crab fishing. Lobster pots were stacked all around and I noticed that most of the boats are named after a family member of the skipper.
Behind the boats looms Ben Bhraggie, the hill that dominates Golspie's skyline. The mist was shrouding the statue of the Duke of Sutherland that sits on top of the hill.
I cycled by the Golf Links Hotel and then the Golspie Golf Club where the sign proudly announces the club’s foundation in 1889. The course was ranked number 54 in Golf World’s 2015 list of Scotland’s top 100 courses.
The road carried me through pine forest where songbirds replaced the wailing seagulls of the shore. The briny smell was taken over by Heather scent.
I got off my bike and walked among the trees, noticing the trunks and branches have hairy moss and lichen thriving on them. Even the passing place sign had lichen growing on it. I put my hands on the rough bark and flaky lichen and then brought my palms to my nose to inhale the forest scent.
This forest, Balblair Wood, has an amazing secret. It is home to a rare flower, the One-flowered Wintergreen. More than 90% of the UK population of this flower is in this forest. It can be seen in mid-June, so I was too early in the year, but I did find some snowdrops and crocuses alongside Loch Fleet.
Loch Fleet is a nature reserve and home to many mammals and birds, including seals, otters, roe deer, osprey, oystercatchers, geese and redshank.
The road ends at Littleferry where people once crossed to the other side. There are dangerous currents here and this led to several ferry accidents and prompted the building of a safer crossing in 1816 at the Mound causeway. Today I could see the waters swirling around, right up to the edge of the pier. It looked frightening and I made sure that I was not going to fall in!
The water is incredibly clear and I watched a shoal of fish scrambling around like crazy. They might have been small eels because they were long and thin. Today's rain might be keeping most humans away, but there was still plenty of life and activity going on here.
When the ferry crossing was in use this had been a busy place with about 70 people living here. Some of the buildings survive from that time, including the ferryman's house, storehouse, and the intriguing Customs and Mussel Inspector Building. I never knew that such a job existed and I wondered what it was like to work as a Mussel Inspector.
Outside one of the buildings there was a hammock strung between two trees. It looked the perfect place to kick back on a sunny day.
There was heavy rain during my cycle ride and I usually find that I am the only person daft enough to be out in it. But I was surprised by how many people I came across. There were several dog walkers heading into the woods, including a woman with a long wax rain cape who said to me "it's not weather for cycling!"
One man was throwing sticks into the loch, his collie obligingly jumping in to fetch. When I cycled back towards Golspie I saw two other cyclists: a little girl on a mountain bike and then a guy with a hoodie and headphones. His bike moved gently from side to side as he swayed to the rhythm of his music. I was not the only one who did not mind being out in the rain.
Getting there and distances
The single-track road to Littleferry is only about 3 miles long and largely flat. It will not take long to pedal there and back, but you could combine your cycle with walks in the forest. You could also spend time enjoying coffee and cake in Golspie. Poppy's or The Coffee Bothy are good choices. Not far from Golspie is Dunrobin Castle.
It takes just over 2 hours to reach Golspie by train from Inverness. The road to Littleferry is right next to the station, so you can mostly avoid the busy A9 road.The A9 goes through the centre of Golspie so it is difficult to completely avoid it when cycling to and from the town, but if you have come by train you can get to Littleferry with only a tiny bit of A9 to traverse and you can always just walk on the pavement if you prefer.
Rushing water, forests, moors, snow covered mountains, a tranquil loch, no traffic to speak of and a thrilling descent are reasons to take the longer and quieter road between Golspie and Dornoch in Sutherland.
Even on a map these roads excite me. A thin white line heading into the wilderness towards a small loch. It has lots of twists and turns and no sizeable settlements marked on it. I always seek out roads like this on my map because I know that they will be perfect for cycling. There will be hardly any traffic and stunning scenery.
Leavng Golspie there is no choice but to cycle on the A9 for a short distance, about 4 miles, but I know that it will be worth it to reach the single-track road. It passed in a blur as I kept my head down and focussed on getting to the turn-off. I remember a garden carpeted in snow drops, geese gathered in a field and a sign warning of otters ahead. The highlight was crossing the bridge over Loch Fleet at the Mound where there is a fast descent and a stunning backdrop of hills.
I can tell you that I started to feel anxious. The traffic was not too bad at this time, but it still made me nervous. Those feelings disappeared immediately as soon as I turned on to the single-track road marked for Loch Buidhe. It was instant transormation and I became relaxed and calm.
It was not long until birdsong was the only sound. Even the sheep were quiet. They were well hidden within the trees, keeping a close eye on me and dashing off whenever I tried to take a photo. Sometimes I got a fright when I saw their white faces staring out from the trees.
I wondered what they found so interesting within the forest so I stepped off my bike and took a closer look. The forest floor was lush and bouncy in greenery, including clumps of moss. I bent down to take a closer look at the moss and found intricate detail, as beautiful as any wildflower.
The road ran alongside a rushing burn so this became my soundscape and I loved it. There is nothing like the sound of water making its way through the countryside to clear your head.
I love surprises on these roads and there was one waiting for me just around the corner. There was no warning. It came out of the blue. All of a sudden. There was a gushing waterfall right by the side of the road. I had no idea this was going to be here. There was no mention of it on the map or in anything I read about the area. I loved that. My secret waterfall and I had it all to myself. I stayed here for ages watching it and enjoying the noise.
The road then enters Heather covered moors. This is a more barren and wilder landscape than what I left behind me. The road is flat and mostly straight and I was able to get up a good pace.
There was no sign of life apart from the sheep. The entire time that I was on the road I saw only three cars. I took my time and stopped frequently to appreciate the peace and quiet and have a good look around at things, like this barn with its rusty-red roof and ramshackle wooden doors:
This was such a wild and isolated place that it was hard for me to image living here. But somebody was. A little white cottage with a wooden door porch sitting in the moor surrounded by sheep. These sheep did not run away. They were relaxed and on this tranquil day this looked the perfect place to be. I could easily imagine this scene on a postcard stand.
But just yards away a sign hinted at the dangers of this place in the winter:
The next treat on this route was Loch Buidhe. This is the only place marked on my road map, so in my mind this was the landmark to aim for, the reason to come here.
The loch was still with barely a ripple on the surface. I stopped to enjoy the near silence. Only songbirds and the gentle trickle from a burn could be heard.
In fact, the loudest sound was my feet crunching on the sand of the beach. I was delighted to discover that the loch has a little beach that I could take a stroll on and go right up to the shore where the water was incredibly clear and I could see straight through to pebbles of different sizes, shapes and colours.
I could easily have stayed here all day. I imagined that on a warm summer's day this little beach would be the perfect little place to soak up some rays.
The road skirts the shore of the loch so I had great views of it and the hills behind it. This section of road had moss growing down the middle, nature's white line.
There were a couple of boats resting on the shore, perhaps for fishing trips or just a spot of fun.
After the loch there was more moorland and I started to wonder if I had now passed the best of this road. I was getting a bit too used to the moors and my mind stared to wander. And then, boom! Something amazing suddenly comes into view. The horizon had snowy mountains. It was stunning and I could not take my eyes off it.
This road was full of surprises.
I reached the junction where I was to cut down to Spiningdale. I stopped to take a photo of road signs and had an amazing wildlife encounter. A pine marten, with its characteristic creamy yellow bib, was scurrying about a short distance away. I was surprised how big it was. I thought they would be smaller than this. I tried to get closer, but it disappeared. I was thrilled. I had never seen one before.
This road had even more magnificent views of the snow mountains. I kept stopping every few yards to stare at them. I just couldn't get up a good pace because the view just kept getting better and I just had to stop and take it in.
A fast descent, twisting through the forest provided the climax to this road. I just let myself go, did not stop and enjoyed the speed and smell of pine in the air. It was the perfect way to end a perfect cycle.
I emerged from the forest into the village of Spinningdale where I managed to simultaneously freak out a pheasant and a large tabby cat. The former shrieked in horror and stumbled against a farm gate as it made haste. The latter scampered along a stone wall and into some bushes.
On leaving the village there is an uphill climb on the A949 that gives fantastic views over the Dornoch Firth and what I thought was a ruined castle. It is actually a cotton mill that was constructed in the 1790s and damaged by fire in 1806. The factory process of cotton-spinning gave the village its name and the cottages here were originally built to house the factory workers.
There is a standing stone alongside this road. The wall of the adjacent field carefully planned around it. There is nowhere for a car to stop here or nearby, but with a bicycle it was easy for me to take a closer look.
It is impossible to avoid the A9. On this route there is a total of 6 miles on the A9. This is a busy road and not recommended for inexperienced cyclists. Some parts of it are nice and wide with good lines of sight and provide plenty of room for overtaking vehicles. Other parts are much narrower.
A little further east of Golspie you can visit Carn Liath Broch, well worth the 3 miles there and back.
Dunrobin, home to the Dukes of Sutherland, is one of Scotland's best castles to visit. Here are 10 reasons why you should visit:
1. It looks like a fairytale castle
'Fairytale' is a word often applied to Scotland's castles, but in the case of Dunrobin it couldn't be more appropriate. Slender turrets and pink stone make it look like something from a storybook.
2. A cup of tea next to a roaring fireplace
If there is a chill in the air nothing beats walking into the castle and warming up next to one of the fires. Try to get a table next to the fireplace in the tearoom.
3. Falconry displays
Take a seat and watch a Peregrine Falcon soar inches from your head. Falconry displays take place twice a day in the castle gardens and give you a chance to learn about some magnificent birds of prey.
4. The location
The castle is perched above a walled garden, overlooking the shore of the North Sea. Behind the castle there are forests and majestic hills.
5. The Connection with the Houses of Parliament
Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament in London, designed the gardens and the Victorian extension of Dunrobin Castle.
6. A library of 10,000 books
The sycamore lined library with its portrait of Duchess Eileen is one of the magnificent rooms that you can see on a self-guided tour of the castle.
7. Meet the man in red tights
The castle is home to an impressive art and furniture collection. Look out for the portrait of Hugh O'Neil, 2nd Earl of Tyrone in the music room. I challenge you to find a man with tights as impressive as these ones.
8. Stroke the castle cat
A friendly black cat likes to spend time in the castle grounds and you are bound to come across it during your visit.
9. A museum of hunting trophies
A stark reminder that it was once acceptable to shoot magnificent creatures for sport, the museum in the castle grounds is full of taxidermy. It also has a collection of Pictish carved stones and other interesting curiosities.
10. The castle train station
Dunrobin Castle has its own train station with a curious English Arts and Crafts architecture. Trains still call at the station and there is a collection of railway memorabilia inside.
Read more about the station in my blog
How to get to Dunrobin Castle
The castle is 50 miles north of Inverness on the A9. You can also get there by train. The castle station is a 5 minute wallk from the entrance to the castle and trains from Inverness take about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
For cycling to the castle read my travel feature
Looking for inspiration about what to see and where to go in Scotland? Look no further than this little book. It is crammed full of stunning photographs of landscapes, castles and towns. There are plenty of ideas of where to go on your next trip. It is a joy to leaf through this book and dream about visiting all these wonderful places.
The book is all about the photography with fabulous colour shots, some of them are full spread:
There is also a paragraph of text about each of the photos. The writing has a poetic quality and provides the perfect inspirational accompaniment to the picture. The writing contains interesting historical facts, so that you will also learn something about the places.
The book is divided into chapters that group the photos into geographical areas, such as Western Isles, Northern Highlands, Inner Islands, Central Scotland and Borders.
The book is in the style of a coffee table book, but much smaller. It packs the same punch as the much larger photography books on Scotland, but the smaller size means it is much handier to store and carry around.
If you are looking for a book to inspire you to visit Scotland or to give you ideas about new places that you have not yet been to then this is perfect.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.