Nairn And The Road to Tongue

Tongue CastleYesterday, we ‘did’ Nairn (on a less climactic north-facing coastline, a little to the east of Inverness) where we overnighted on the harbourside and enjoyed a cycle around the slate-grey town – which coincided with a war-time bomb undergoing a controlled explosion on the beach – a singularly less-spectacular event than it sounds, apart from the deafening bang and, according to past news reports, a fairly regular occurrence in this neck of the woods.

A brief and strangely enervating Sunday-morning sojourn at a convenient harbourside jet-wash left us £4.00 poorer, but eminently more shiny-looking than when we’d arrived – and that was just the Knumptywagen. (As I type, its occupants are currently in need of similar attentions.)

Having left Nairn’s local Co-op store bereft of boxed tissues to stem streaming noses (is that possibly just a little too much information?) we trundled north-westwards towards the small township of Lairg, which being Sunday, appeared shut and therefore unable to provide us with a heavily-anticipated and sumptuous travellers’ Sunday lunch. An in-van repast therefore ensued, overlooking the hydro-electric neck of mini-me Loch Shin, fuelling us for the next leg of the journey, heading along a clearly-mapped A-road running due north.

The A836 runs directly from Lairg to Tongue and is a remarkable road. For its entire 35-mile length, it’s single-track with passing places. And as if that leaves you slightly incredulous, get this: the road was virtually empty of any other traffic, despite already being within the bounds of the Easter holidays. So numerous were the Passing Places, we lost count of how many there were, each one diligently sporting an individual road-sign to announce its function. It must have cost a fortune to install them all – and we marvelled at the diligence and budgeting strategy of Highways Scotland, where they might instead have simply installed two instructional signs at each end of the 35 miles, and saved themselves a wad of cash.

As it was, the frequency of these passing places meant that the seven vehicles we passed throughout the entire 35 miles of the route didn’t even need to reduce speed – we just sailed past each other with acknowledging waves as either we – or they – slipped effortlessly to one side and carried on our journeys. And being considerate, snail-paced highway wallowers, we also gave way to faster traffic following on behind. Of which there was one (yes, just one) appreciative driver with whom we exchanged acknowledging toots.

And the scenery! Bleak, flat, uninterrupted moorland – cut through by a fast-flowing peat-brown river – rolled to the horizon on every side. Patches of shattering forestry-work had left swathes of ash-grey stubble across the landscape, looking like iron-filings viewed through a microscope, adding chaotic disarray to the wide open views. And we just rolled right through it – at times beginning to wonder if we were the last people ever to travel this way.

Tongue marked the end of the day’s journeyings; we slipped (geddit?) ourselves discreetly into a corner of a little public car-park, stepping out to traverse the estuary and storm Castle Varrich, a single, spirited turret espied standing sentinel on the opposite hillside.

Impressed by the recent installation of a trendy stainless-steel spiral-staircase up the middle of the stone-built tower, we reviewed the drained and muddy-looking estuary stretching towards the distant sea, then walked back feeling we’d now earned a hearty supper, which The Tongue Hotel duly provided, with hospitable welcome and enjoyably impressive food.

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