Inverness to Evanton
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
John o'Groats Trail - Day 1 - 19.6 miles - 'Bridge'
[Note that I walked the Great Glen Way as part of a longer walk from Land's End to John o'Groats, the full account of which can be found here.]
What a painfully boring walk.
You know it’s not been a good one when the moment you remember most is standing in the middle of the 1,450 metre long Cromarty Bridge as the storm I’d watched brewing half an hour earlier over the Strathfarrar and Strathconon mountains finally hit the bridge and I had to pull on waterproofs as rain blasted down the Firth and lorries thundered past.
Today’s walk was one of firsts and lasts.
It was the first day of LeJog on which I walked along roads for the entire 19 miles.
It was the first day since North Devon when I spent time by the sea.
And – most importantly of all – it was the first day on my last leg of LeJog. With all the great Scottish trails behind me the remainder of my long walk is – in theory at least – a simple plod along Scotland’s far north-east coast.
This last six-day journey of just over 125 miles is a strange one for the south–north long distance trailer.
If you’re camping the last week or so it can be the highlight of the trail. Some LeJogers head inland from Ullapool, picking a wild walk through remote glens and over mountain passes before reaching The Flow Country then heading east to John o'Groats. Others – like the father-son duo I met on the drove road south of Hawes – opt for the wilderness Cape Wrath Trail and then strike a line along the north coast. Which must be a staggeringly fun walk.
But for those of us who like a roof over our head that won’t blow away in the night there’s no choice but the east coast.
And until a few years back, that meant just one thing: a foot-punishing plod along the busy A9 then A99.
Breathing petrol fumes and dicing with death as cars tear past after a journey through some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery always struck me as a disappointing conclusion to an end-to-end adventure.
Thankfully today’s LeJoger has a second option in the shape of the John o’Groats Trail.
Despite never having walked a long distance trail before, I’ve sampled a range during LeJog.
I’ve walked the flawlessly waymarked and beautifully maintained South West Coast Path and Great Glen Way.
I’ve walked the downright bizarre (Coleridge Way I’m looking at you).
And I’ve walked trails that in hindsight I wasn’t convinced should have had Trail designation (the Monarch’s Way – off with its head!)
I have been delighted by trails, engaged by trails, frustrated by trails, and angered by trails.
So it will be fascinating to spend the next few days on a trail that's not yet a trail.
The John o’Groats Trail is a long distance footpath that has not yet been officially launched.
For now the coastal path from Inverness to John o’Groats – which is partly designed to fill the missing link for LeJogers – is a work in progress, its creators still doing all that needs doing to establish a new trail: working with landowners to secure access; applying for funding to invest in signs, stiles – even bridges; organising work parties to clear paths; and walking and refining the route over and over to nudge it ever closer to being a trail the public can enjoy.
This means some parts are easier to walk than others. And some parts have been in such a bad and/or dangerous state that LeJogers who've passed just a few weeks ahead of me have given up and resorted instead to the A9.
The different legs are currently colour-coded according to a traffic light system where green legs are accessible to all and red calls for Ray Mears’-style survival walking – climbing deer fences, crossing ravines, wandering along unfenced clifftops, fording waist-deep rivers – that kind of thing. It’s not what I’ve become accustomed to on long distance trails so far, but maybe this was what my hardship training crossing the Somerset Levels and cutting through Staffordshire thickets was all for.
Maybe there will be some divine purpose behind the Monarchs’ Way after all.
Today's walk started with a wander through Inverness's busy streets then into the industrial estates around the docks to cross the precipitously high and breezy Kessock Bridge.
On the north side of the Beauty Firth the trail drops down to North Kessock - a seaside village which is a popular spot for dolphin watchers. They're not around for me, but the salt air – much missed since I left Barnstaple six weeks ago – prompts a smile.
A second smile comes a few minutes later. Walking below the A9 there’s graffiti in the underpass. “Bloody Tourists,” says Nessie. If you want to really know what the locals think, visit the subway…
From there it’s all lanes and roads as the Way cuts across the Black Isle. Lanes through woods. Lanes through fields. Lanes through villages.
The few bits of busy road walking are unpleasant: endless verge climbing to avoid cars that mostly have no intention of slowing down.
At one stage a driver pulls over and offers me a lift.
I can’t, I say, it would be cheating.
Which mystifies him.
There’s a feel of emptiness, abandonment, and of nature reclaiming old spaces. Crofts boarded up. Stone gateways to once wealthy family homes wreathed in ivy. Empty barns. Rusting farm machinery. Even the local North Northern Scots dialect has died out with the passing of Bobby Hogg. People are hurtling along the lanes keen to be somewhere else.
After two weeks in kailyard touristville I’m entering the overlooked Black Isle. What tourists there are here either head east to the coastal fishing villages or continue north along the A9.
The wheat fields glow fire-gold against brooding skies as I head downhill to Cromarty Bridge.
I didn’t much like crossing the Kessock Bridge earlier. These long, high and exposed bridges are a nightmare to anyone who's even vaguely affected by acre (or agora) phobia. And while Kessock Bridge was just over a kilometre in length, Cromarty Bridge is just shy of a mile.
As I reach the bridge – lorries on its far side so small they're barely visible – the skies at the head of the Firth are putting on a distracting lightshow; sunbeams escaping stormclouds to backlight the distant Strathfarrar mountains. And though I realise the reason the view is getting better is because the storm's heading my way – tearing over the water as the wind rises, whipping whitehorses up on the dark waters – I can't tear myself away: Turner skyscapes like this are an ever-changing joy to photograph.
At the moment I’m equidistant from both shores the horizontal downpour begins. And while I always delay pulling on waterproofs until there’s little chance of the rain passing, within seconds I realise I've no choice. This is monsoon weather, a sea squall, cars and lorries hurtling pass in trails of surf.
After eating my sandwiches in the tenuous shelter of a chestnut tree alongside a roundabout as drivers look at me through windscreen wipers in bemusement, it’s more lanes and roads.
Lanes through more woods. Lanes through more fields. And then – at last – as the storm clouds roll out into the bay and the sun warms gold again on the wheat fields, a lane into the village of Evanton, which is to be my stopping point not only for tonight but tomorrow too, last rest day before my final stretch along either the cliffs, or – if I can't face them – the road to John o'Groats.