Am Bratach No. 317
March 2018

The postie’s post
by Mark Gilbert

The Crask Inn is firmly in the fabric of the folklore of the Highlands. A meeting place for friends; a halfway stopover for a drink on what are always long journeys up here; a place to start or finish long walks or bike rides in the breathtaking openness of its surroundings; a place to steam your wet clothes over the peat-burning stove after getting caught in a passing shower; a place that always gets you a blether with other visitors of seemingly endless nationalities or with the welcoming hosts.

But, the Crask Inn is also a place that is always mentioned when we have bad weather: you either hear that a car has fallen off the road in ice or snow, or that the snow plough has been through — or hasn’t. I will come back to this later.

My day, a Sunday, started when I left home at 7am for a hospital appointment at Raigmore in Inverness. Yes, a Sunday: I was really impressed with this when I made the appointment a few weeks earlier and started making my shopping list straight away, something everybody up here does when they have a trip planned to the big city.

In the intervening period we started getting some snow and then some ice and then some more snow and it looked like my trip could be “interesting”. Anyway, the forecast for the day was to be very cold first thing with a sunny day and the possibility of some snow later.
So I took a steady trip down with temperatures around -10C. I passed a gritter just before Crask and it was -9C as I went past the pub. The road was good and I just took it quite steady. I’d had thoughts of going towards the A9 at Tain but I went over the Struie because the roads were so good. I got to Raigmore at 10am and parked in the free car park and went in for my appointment at 10.30 and was back in my car and off to the shops by 10.50.

Loaded up with goodies and looking forward to getting back home to my dogs and my tea I set off at 15.45 for the approximately two and a half hour journey home. The temperature was around 1C and the weather was fine.

When I got to Struie Hill there was a thin layer of wet snow which continued all the way to Lairg. I proceeded on quite happily towards home and got a shock when I got to Scourie road end, where the A836 to Altnaharra and the A838 to Laxford Bridge meet at the beginning of the single track road. The road was closed by signs across the road saying it was closed due to snowdrifts! I sat for a minute thinking that there was still only a thin layer of wet snow on the road, that the road closed signs should have been at the junction in Lairg to save me driving the four or so miles to find the closure, and here I am with a four-wheel-drive tank of a Hilux, when I saw car lights coming towards me from the closed road. As the car got to the signs I got out to help move them and asked what state the road was in. Also in a Hilux-type vehicle, the driver said he hadn’t come all the way down the road but that there wasn’t much more snow up there. Then off he went.

I then decided to carry on towards home and drove around the signs. I had gone a number of miles and there was more snow and very high winds, but no drifts and the road was quite clear until I got to the cattle grid just before Crask where I encountered a small drift of snow across the road. I sniggered to myself and couldn’t believe the road was closed for this!

I continued on past Crask Inn, noticing a few cars parked outside and a warm glow from the lights of the inn. Approximately eighty metres later I found a small white car abandoned at an angle across the road with a metre-high snowdrift up it, completely blocking the road, although next to a passing place. I got out into a dark, wild wind and looked beyond the car and thought that if I could get past I would carry on. I thought that I recognised the number plate on the car as I checked to make sure no one was in it.

So I got out my trusty snow shovel, which I had taken out of my postie van the day before (telling Pete that if it snowed on Monday he was on his own) and started shoveling. I cleared what I thought was enough and had a go at getting past but slid too close to the car so got out and shoveled more and tried again, but the snow I was driving into was too deep even for my tank and I then had to dig myself out. At this point I heard someone shout, “Mark, you will have to shovel a lot harder than that to get out”. I turned and saw Craig Rigby, the gamekeeper from Syre Estate, and Nicholas Jeffries, the younger son of Carl and Gabby, who own the Bettyhill Hotel. I deliver mail to both of them.

Craig told me that there were three snow ploughs further up the road clearing the drifts and rescuing three cars that were stuck and they were then going to come back and dig out Nick’s car and then the road should be clear through to Altnaharra.

I got my motor back to Crask and, as Nick only had street shoes on, Craig suggested he and I get a rope on the car and drag it back to Crask to save the plough men having to do it. By this time it was snowing heavily again and the wind was driving it sideways. Being towed backwards on a short rope, with no rear vision and the snow blowing into the car and everything being a complete white out was very, well, I’ll call it exciting. It took a few attempts to get back because we couldn’t find where the road was but eventually parked it off the road without any damage.

We then went into the Crask Inn to get warm and dry our hats and gloves over the peat fire, where Craig’s wife Rachael and son Alexander were waiting and also Nick’s friend Barbie. There was a group of six Spaniards sitting at the big table and I later found out they were supposed to be going to Tongue on a hunting trip, but were now staying overnight at the inn because the snow ploughs were not going to clear the road from Altnaharra to Tongue until the early hours.

Denise and Douglas Campbell who run the inn were looking after everyone as usual and chatting away whilst we had some warming drinks. They asked if we wanted to stay, which would have been lovely, but we had dogs at home and needed to get back.

We decided that when we got the all clear we would go back along Strathnaver in convoy, just in case there were any further issues, and I would take Nick and Barbie along to Bettyhill Hotel before going home myself. After about forty minutes I went out to my motor to get my phone to let my sister on the Isle of Wight know where I was and as I got outside two snow ploughs were coming down the road with a rescued car in between them. The ploughs stopped and told us that it was atrocious weather further up the road but they had cleared it and the other plough was waiting to escort us to Altnaharra, but we had to leave now, or they would close the road off so we couldn’t go.

We packed up quickly and said our goodbyes and set off up the road, joining the plough and another car. The snow was piled up the sides of the road to about four feet on either side and we drove in convoy and driving snow to Altnaharra, where the car turned off into the big house on the left.

The plough driver got out at the turn-off for Strathnaver and we thanked him for his efforts and drove along in not quite such serious snow with startled deer jumping out in front of us and meandering sheep making the conditions even more challenging.

The Rigbys turned off to home at Syre and we continued down to Bettyhill where the conditions were much better. After dropping off Nick and Barbie I drove home to Skerray, arriving at 21.00, where my doggies were cross legged, but very pleased to see me.
It was a very exciting Dunkirk Spirit-type experience, which will make me think again when I hear anyone criticising the snow-plough boys. They certainly did a fantastic job that Sunday night and all the roads were passable by Monday morning.

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