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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: When the Moin road was little more than a track

By John Davidson

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View from Cnoc Mor.
View from Cnoc Mor.

In days gone by I would quite often cycle out westward. True Highland country began beyond Reay and quiet, single-track roads, twisty with long hills, carried on from Melvich through Strathy and Armadale to Bettyhill and on over to Tongue, a very special place.

The old road over the Moin was the original narrow track dug through the peat and the Moin House was still a good shelter.

How things have changed! It will soon be Turbine Alley most of the way to Bettyhill with new wind farms going up south of Reay, Melvich, Strathy and Armadale.

The single-track roads have mostly gone, with fast, two-lane roads to Armadale and over the Moin. Much of the year the road is now thronged with camper-vans. The Moin House is just four walls with no roof, and will soon be a good place from which to watch rocket launches from the heart of once-wild country.

But the views are as good as ever, and an e-bike takes the sting out of the hills for the less fit like me.

Armadale Beach.
Armadale Beach.

On a rare fine day between weathers I took the bike on the car to the end of the fast road at Armadale. While it is always satisfying to cycle to the top of a long hill entirely under one’s own steam, it is never much fun.

Now I could actually enjoy that 500-foot climb out of Armadale towards Bettyhill, even with a headwind. It was bright and clear, with grand views of snow-streaked Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. Temperatures were around freezing but I was well dressed and the roads were quiet with no tourists on a January day.

Just before Kirtomy a little road turns off and climbs to the top of Cnoc Mor, the highest hill here at nearly 700 feet and crowned by a small telecoms mast. It’s the sort of detour an e-bike encourages, well worth it for the panorama over the north coast and across to the islands of the Kyle of Tongue.

Huge breakers were rolling into the Torrisdale sands beyond Bettyhill. There’s another big hill over to Borgie, daunting for the unassisted cyclist, but with little more effort than cycling a level road, I could enjoy the climb up the little glen above the wooded burn and across the top where there’s a sudden striking view of the mountains to the west.

Neave Island from Skerray.
Neave Island from Skerray.

On past Borgie Forest, to turn down the long moorland road leading to Modsary and Skerray.

Beside a hillside road at Strathan in sunshine out of the cold wind, I snatched a bite to eat and a quick cup of hot tea from the flask, looking across to the cliffs of Eilean nan Ron with waves rolling into the bay below. Then on to Skerray harbour for the views of Neave Island, more often I’m here with the boat but the day was definitely not one for sea-kayaking.

At Borgie Bridge I turned back towards Tongue then took the track heading south into Borgie Forest. It was many years since I’d last visited the Borgie Falls and the river had plenty of water in it.

You pedal south for some three miles down a good track, mostly through second generation spruce plantations and emerging into open moorland before the track ends at a suspension footbridge, now a little the worse for wear after recent floods.

A view to Invernaver.
A view to Invernaver.

A wet anglers’ path carries on for a short way to some very select fishing under the falls with new boardwalks under construction. Someone here has little aesthetic sense, a huge white noticeboard sits in front of the best view of the falls announcing ‘River Borgie Beat 3 Start’.

Sitting in the sun above the falls, looking at the rushing water and the mountains beyond, was a lovely spot for a late lunch, but it was too cold to linger long. Soon I was speeding back down the track to Borgie, then back up the long climb over to Bettyhill.

All the climbing and the cold weather had taken its toll on the battery, but I had the spare with me and it was good to see the projected range leap back to over 40 as it was another dozen hilly miles to the car.

Back at Armadale I cycled down the new path to the beach then walked out onto the glistening sands to watch the breakers roll in. But for once I wasn’t alone, there was a walker with a rucksack who, like me, had decided that such a fine winter day was simply too good to spend indoors.

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