Assynt, an area in Sutherland in the north-west of Scotland, is a wild, remote landscape of mountains, lochs and a stunning coastline. I cycled around there in June 2011.
I took a train with my bike to Lairg on the Inverness to Thurso line. Booking your bike is essential on the three-coach train as it only has spaces for three bikes. From Lairg, which is on Loch Shinn on the eastern side of Sutherland, I cycled north-west along Loch Shinn, Loch More and Loch Stack along the A838 to Laxford Bridge. Much of it is single-track road and fairly quiet with marvellous views of Ben Stack (721m and conical), Arkle (a massive 787m pile of granite stained with scree) and behind it in the clouds Foinaven (914m).
At Laxford Bridge, I turned south to Scourie on the A894, taking a detour to the charming hamlet of Tarbet, with the Shorehouse fish restaurant and a fast rigid-inflatable boat service to Handa Island for bird watchers. Getting back to the main road required pushing up rather than riding up the 15% road but once at the top there was the reward of a view of the other side of Ben Stack before me.
Scourie is a charming little village and I stayed at the Scourie Guest House, which lived up to its TripAdvisor reviews, especially the freshly-prepared fruit salad at breakfast. In the bar in the Scourie Hotel I ate the freshest Haddock (in beer batter) I have ever tasted. Lairg to Scourie was 50 miles.
From Scourie, I cycled south to Lochinver via Loch Assynt along the main A837 road rather than taking the single-track Drumbeg Loop with my heavy load. Even the main road is challenging in parts with a long freewheeling descents and bottom-gear ascents to Kylesku followed by a four mile climb up the flank of Quinag (809m) in bottom gear. The freewheel descent to Loch Assynt was exhilarating although the all too frequent encounter with a flock of sheep in the middle of the road as I came round a bend was scary (the flock scattered, leaving one lamb in the middle of the road; which side was Mother? I aimed left and the lamb ran to the right; one cyclist, one bike and one lamb saved, the lamb for the time being). Scourie to Lochinver was 38 miles but took me longer than the previous day’s ride from Lairg to Scourie.
I stayed three nights in Lochinver at the Tigh Na Sith Guesthouse, which fully lived up to its top ranking on TripAdvisor. Lochinver is a busy fishing port that during the day appears very quiet. I discovered from my B&B owner that with many of the workers, including him, in the fish processing sheds having other day jobs, the port comes to life late in the evening as the fishing boats come in, the refrigerated lorries from England, France and Spain begin arriving and backing up the ramps behind the sheds and the catches are unloaded and sorted. By 5am, the boats are back out to sea, the lorries on their way south to Ullapool and thence to Europe, the port returns to tranquillity and the harbour seals come out to play.
While in Lochinver, I dropped my pannier bags and on the first day tackled the Drumbeg Loop to the north of Lochinver (reputedly the most challenging ride in the UK, with a twisty narrow road that hugs the landscape in a series of steep descents and ascents with very restricted sight lines, this time with the risk of sheep and cars appearing unexpectedly around the next corner). The return to Lochinver had the magnificent mountains of Suilven (731m), Canisp (847m) and Cul Mor (849m) as a backdrop. An exhausting ride (35 miles with an average speed of less than 8mph) but energy expended was replaced with a great meal of fish-of-the-day (roasted Halibut) at the Caberfiedh Restaurant - see the TripAdvisor review.
The next day I cycled to Rubha Mor to the south west and then to Achiltibuie via the Inverpoly Forest. A 44-mile round trip on roads similar to the Drumbeg loop but less challenging in topography and risks. At the highest point on Rubha Mor, I could see south to An Teallach (1062m) on the mainland, the western tip of the Isle of Skye and across to Lewis and Harris on the Western Isles. Behind me, the constantly changing profiles of Cul Mor, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Ben Mor Coigach formed a towering backdrop. As with the previous day, the weather was sunny with puffy clouds in brilliant blue skies, the beaches white and the seas turquoise. It felt like being on top of a world that was all mine.
On my final evening, as a portend of the next day’s weather, Suilven and Cul Mor were capped with cloud.
From Lochinver, I cycled 52 miles back to Lairg on the A837 into a strong headwind and stinging rain. Quite a slog but I made it to the train station with an hour to spare. On the train ride home I sat with a policeman from Country Durham in England who had just ridden from Land’s End to John O’Groats (about 850 miles) in six days. My total distance over five days was 220 miles but he was younger than me so that was OK.