When you're this close to the end of a 1111-mile walk you start looking very carefully at potential pitfalls. Back in the wetlands of Somerset and the bogs of Derbyshire the challenges came and went, but I never lost my sense of perspective; back then, each difficult walk or long slog was just one of many. Now that I've only got a handful of walking days left, each difficult bit takes on a new dimension. To fail at this stage doesn't bear thinking about, but I can't help thinking about it all the same.
I might regret saying this over the next couple of days, but it appears from the map that today was the last proper challenge of the End-to-End walk. After Dunbeath it's a long, flat slog via Wick along the A9 and the A99, but even though the unexpected can always creep up and ruin things, there's no reason to think I won't finish. It's just a case of strapping on the boots and doing the miles, but today had at least some bite to it.
I'd been well primed by those I'd spoken to. From Helmsdale the road hugs the side of the coastal hills, crossing the river valleys that spill off the flows by following the contours inland, creating hairpin bends with steep approaches that only add to the excitement of the already perilous A9. This is the Ord of Caithness, a lonely, windswept part of the world that has a fearsome reputation among cyclists, walkers and drivers of cars with lawnmower engines, and about halfway to Dunbeath the breakneck descent into Berriedale is the daddy of them all. A large number of old car enthusiasts refuse to attend rallies that tour the far northeast, simply because they are worried that they won't be able to get out of Berriedale once they've driven in. People take this place seriously.
It didn't help that I came across an unnerving story in the Helmsdale Heritage Centre about this very area. Ancient legend says that anyone walking over the Ord who sees a ghostly stagecoach trundling along the road should beware, for this is a terrible omen of impending doom. It's the ghost of a stagecoach that ran off the road and over the steep cliffs of the Ord, and to see it is extremely bad luck. Though, to be honest, the chance of being able to pick out a stagecoach through the roar of lorries and speeding cars is pretty low...
There She Blows
It was also extremely bad luck to get the birthday presents I received this morning. Today is my 33rd birthday, a fact I'm celebrating by walking through some of the most sparsely populated terrain in the country, and this morning I woke up not only to find that I've got a full-blown cold, complete with streaming nose and convulsive sneezing, but I also woke up with diarrhoea, which at least explains the gurgling stomach cramps I enjoyed last night. Perhaps my body wasn't impressed with the challenges of the Ord and fancied upping the stakes; it's probably taking revenge for all the grief I've been putting it through.
None of this was enough to stop me throwing back a quick breakfast before hitting the road, and after just a couple of hours I'd crossed the Ord without really noticing it. I didn't see any stagecoaches and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about; sure, Berriedale was yet to come, but this was easy walking, especially under the sunny skies of August. Happy to be making good time, I turned off the main road to visit the tourist attraction of Badbea and the fearsome reputation of the Ord suddenly started making more sense.
Badbea is a little ruined village at the end of a short, five-minute path just off the A9, a couple of miles short of Berriedale. There's precious little to see except for some barren, heather-clad flows tumbling down to steep cliffs, and that's the point, for this is the lonely spot where 12 families decided to create a new home way back in 1840. This was in the days of the Highland Clearances, when the Countess of Sutherland, who owned huge amounts of land round here, decided to start farming sheep on her estate, and arranged to move the local crofters off her land and to stick sheep there instead. The clearances form the inspiration for many a story of class-based cruelty, though modern academics view events as rather more subtle than the traditional myth of a rich landowner heartlessly kicking the poor out of their homes. But whatever the truth, some crofters moved south to look for work, some emigrated to New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and some found solace in the scraps of land outside the estate's boundaries. Badbea was one such settlement.
There's nothing in Badbea at all, and ending up on this desolate, windswept cliff-top with almost no possessions must have been a monumental challenge. But the families who arrived achieved a considerable amount: they built cottages out of the local stone to house over 80 people; they dug and planted small patches of oats and potatoes without the use of a plough; they farmed cattle and hens, sharing their cottages with them; they dug peat and burned it indoors, where the lack of a chimney meant the smoke had to filter out through the roof; and they scraped together some extra money by doing the odd bit of work for the estate at the rate of one shilling per day. As if that wasn't enough, the winds round here were so strong they had to tether the cattle, hens and even small children to prevent them from being blown over the cliffs. It makes the mind boggle.
A lot of the credit for their survival must go to John Sutherland, popularly known as John Badbea, who was their leader, their preacher, their doctor and the owner of the only watch in town. But it couldn't last and by 1903 all the cottages lay empty, the winds of Caithness slowly beating them into rubble. Now there's little remaining but a few piles of stones, some green patches among the heather where the crops were planted, and a memorial built in 1911 from the remains of John Badbea's cottage. The inhabitants of Badbea went their various ways and apparently their memories of life on the cliffs were extremely positive, but the story of Badbea hints at why this part of the world has such a fearsome reputation. It's the weather.
For me, though, the weather was perfect, and I sat on the steps of the Badbea memorial, sunning myself under a perfect blue sky and squinting at the bright reflections off the choppy sea. There was a stiff breeze, sure enough, but it was actually rather pleasant, and I looked out over the distant oil rigs and practising jet fighters that call this part of the world home and tried to picture the place with a wind strong enough to blow children into the North Sea. I didn't entirely succeed.
Oh, and the Countess's experiment with sheep farming was an expensive failure, which no doubt caused a few long sighs on the windy cliff-tops...
Berriedale turned out to be far less scary than people would have me believe. Sure, there's a long descent into the river valley but it's hardly difficult, and the climb back out is steep but consists of just one switchback, so the last challenge of the End-to-End walk passed by without incident. To celebrate I stopped at the Berriedale Café and bought two cans of Irn-Bru to go with my sandwiches, because I like Irn-Bru, yes I do.
I'm not alone. Irn-Bru is probably the best-loved drink in Scotland after whisky, and because it's made in Scotland (by Barr, who also make Tizer) it's become the soft drink of choice for those who love their nation. The Scottish consumption of fizzy drinks is as obsessive as it is elsewhere in the world; according to the government report Health in Scotland 2002, 65.8% of 11 to 15-year-olds consume sugary fizzy drinks on a daily basis, and while the English guzzle Coke by the bucketload, in Scotland it's Irn-Bru who's the daddy of them all. It's used as a mixer in pubs, it's purported to be the best hangover cure in the world, and it tastes great. It's hard to explain the Scottish love affair with Irn-Bru, but it's easy to experience it; where English cafés and newsagents might be smothered in the red branding of Coca-Cola or the blue branding of Pepsi, Scottish establishments sport the bright orange strip of Irn-Bru. For example, the Falkirk Wheel is alive with orange table umbrellas and an entire children's playground done out in the colours of the Bru. You can't miss it; it's a nationalist statement that England can't match, at least not until dandelion and burdock or ginger beer hit the big time.
So I treated myself to a double dose of Bru as a special treat for turning 33 without becoming obese, and I happily thought back to an article I read in yesterday's Daily Record, Scotland's premier tabloid newspaper. It sums up all that is great and all that is bizarre about Scotland's obsession with Irn-Bru; judge for yourself, because here it is in all its one-sentence-per-paragraph glory:
Irn-Bru Boy Unhurt in Car Smash
A teenager carrying a can of Irn-Bru escaped unhurt when a car struck him.
The unidentified boy, aged about 15, walked straight into the path of a car in Stornoway, Lewis.
The 18-year-old driver, shop assistant Ann Marie Stewart, swerved and braked but was unable to avoid him.
He smashed into the bonnet, shattered the windscreen, rolled off the car – then walked away apparently completely uninjured.
Police are appealing for the youth to come forward to confirm that he is unharmed.
Ann Marie, whose car needs bodywork repairs, said, 'I got a big fright. I offered a few times to take him to the hospital, but he said he was fine. He was holding his can of Irn-Bru and now it's all over the car.'
Isn't it magical? It's almost as if the Irn-Bru spillage is more important that the accident, but at least the main message is clear: drink Irn-Bru and you'll be able to survive a car smash. Pass me another can!
My destination for the day, Dunbeath, is famous for being the birthplace of the author Neil M Gunn, one of Scotland's most important 20th-century fiction writers. I know this not because I'm a big fan of Mr Gunn, but because the A9 is home to a couple of massive signs that try to persuade speeding tourists to turn off for a visit. 'Welcome to Dunbeath,' they say, 'birthplace of Neil M Gunn,' as cars accelerate across the modern bridge, passing straight through Dunbeath without so much as a touch on the brakes.
It's a pretty little place, though, even if it contains precious little except a cluster of houses, a Spar, a Post Office, a hotel that was soundly asleep when I walked past, a harbour, and a pub that looks like a failed experiment in prefab petrol station architecture (but which, I'm delighted to report, is really pleasant inside). Dunbeath Castle sits on a cliff to the south, overlooking the beach, and even if it feels like the only thing missing is the tumbleweed, it's not a bad spot.
By the time I swung into Dunbeath the wind had picked up a bit, thankfully blowing from behind me and giving me a little extra push down into the village centre. I decided to head straight for my B&B on the far side of the village before the legendary winds of Caithness kicked in, but before I reached it I had to stop and stare at the Inver Guest House by the side of the A9, because it sums up this whole area rather well. The average wind speed in Caithness is twice that in London and apparently it's not only residents of Badbea who feel the effects, for the Inver Guest House has seen better days and one of its letters has fallen off. It's now, of course, the Inver Gust House. How apt.