Highland MG Owners Go Off Grid!
What do you do when your home is in the Scottish Highlands, already considered remote by many, and you want to get away from it all? Well, the Highland MGOC decided to go "off grid" at Britain's most remote hotel, the Garvault House in Sutherland.
The following is a transcript of an article which appeared in the July 2023 issue of Enjoying MG and is reproduced here by kind permission of MG Owners' Club.
Report: Richard Jenner – Photos: Richard Jenner, Tim Moore, Richard Penman
Going Off Grid
What do you do when your home is in the Scottish Highlands, already considered remote by many, and you have 3 days to get away from it all? Well, the Highland MGOC decided to go "off grid". We booked out Britain’s most remote hotel, the Garvault House in Sutherland, for 2 nights.
Creag Riabhach Wind Farm
By definition, the Garvault is not near anywhere, but you could find it if you follow the River Helmsdale up through the Strath of Kildonan (A897 single track), turning off on to the B871 (narrow single-track road) at Kinbrace for a further 7 miles. The hotel is off grid in the sense that it is not connected to the national grid or mains water and relies on a combination of solar energy, saltwater battery storage, wood & peat burning fires, with some generator back-up if required, and a gas tank for cooking. Water comes from a hill spring and wastewater goes to a reed bed. Despite all this, there is WiFi and some 4G but there are no irons, room kettles and only one hair dryer (on demand). If this paints a picture that is stark, nothing could be further from the truth, the hotel has a homely atmosphere reinforced by the warm and personal welcome you will receive from mine host, Adrian Aderyn, and his staff.
Garvault House with Tim Moore's MGC GT
We took 9 cars and as our membership is scattered over an area bigger than Belgium, some went direct to the Garvault while 5 MGs met-up on the first day (Tuesday, 25 April) at the Highland Farm Café close to Dingwall. The really fine spell of weather had inevitably broken but it was at least dry although the northerly wind was biting. After a coffee, Tim & Christine Moore in the CGT took the direct route (A9 to Helmsdale) to the Garvault as they had suggested the hotel and put together the Wednesday itinerary and wanted to be ahead of the rest of the field.
Malcolm Hope's MGA at the Struie
The other 4 MGs (Malcolm Hope in the MGA, Dawn & Dave Tennant in an MGB GT, me in my Midget 1500, and Tony Smith in his rare 85th TF) took the scenic route over the Struie to Ardgay, Bonar Bridge, the Falls of Shin, to lunch at the excellent Pier in Lairg. This is a much quieter route than the A9, which is part of the NC500, with excellent roads. After lunch we left Lairg on the A836 towards Tongue – this is a single-track road. We stopped to view the new windfarm at Creag Riabhach which will eventually have 22 turbines with a maximum tip height of 125 metres.
Richard Penman's MG TF
Opinions about onshore wind are split but there is something surreal in seeing a moving turbine tip seemingly appear from a ridge in front of you as you approach the farm. It will generate up to 72 Mw. Ben Kilbreck (962 metres) looked particularly impressive with a covering of snow around the peak. At Altnaharra (often recording the coldest winter temperatures in Britain and certainly chilly), we turned off on to the B873 to run alongside Loch Naver. The B873 is quite narrow but the surface was excellent as it benefits from forestry extraction funding. We stopped at Rosal to read about the township of more than 70 homes whose population was swept away by the clearances. At Syre, we turned on to the B871 for the final 10 miles or so to the Garvault, arriving in time for a cup of tea and homemade cake. As well as Tim & Christine, Richard & Jane Penman were ahead of us in their TF as was Margaret & Stuart Brock in their GAN5 Midget. Stuart is our treasurer, so it is always a relief when he arrives. Nick & Patsy Thompson and Nick & Jean Simpson completed our party but sadly had had to leave their MGs at home. Nick & Patsy did bring Archie though, their Scottie dog (the hotel is dog friendly).
Margret Brock's MG Midget at the Garvault House Hotel
So, fifteen of us sat down together for a 3-course dinner cooked by Ollie (from Switzerland) and served by Isobel (from Mexico) and Diego (from Columbia). Zach (from Washington State, USA PNW) was the fourth member of staff. Because of the remoteness, staff need to live in and Adrian recruits via Work Away and has a team of regulars who give him 2 hours of labour a day for their board and lodgings and are paid for the rest of their time. Dinner was followed by a quiz set by Tim & Christine – one round on cars and a second round of cryptic clues where the answers were the names of Scottish castles. It was a jovial evening.
We woke on Wednesday to cars covered in a light dusting of snow. Tim & Christine had put together the programme for the day and we set off individually to the Forsinard Flows RSPB reserve (on the A897). The visitors’ centre is in the former railway station although the line (the Far North line, Inverness to Wick) is still active, and trains still stop at Forsinard. As the RSPB explains, blanket bog is a rare type of peatland which only forms in cool places with plenty of rain and that covers the landscape like a blanket. The plants which grow do not fully rot away when they die, due to the acidic and wet conditions found, but build up deep layers of peat. Sphagnum moss is the main peat forming plant in the Flow Country. The Flow Country’s bogs have been growing for more than 10,000 years and the peat is now up to 10 metres deep in some areas.
Flow Country: Blanket Peat Bog
Peat bogs are an important defence against climate change because the dead plants in the peat contain carbon. As long as the peat remains wet this carbon stays locked up, preventing its release as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Although peatlands cover just 3 per cent of the world’s land area, they hold nearly 30 per cent of all terrestrial carbon.
The Flow Country’s blanket bogs alone store more than three times the amount of carbon found in all of Britain’s woodlands. They are also areas of international importance for biodiversity and play a key role in water regulation and water quality, and pollen preserved within the peat acts as an important record of past environments.
Flow Country: The RSPB Viewing Tower
We walked on boards to the viewing tower which opens up a spectacular panorama of bog. Returning to the cars, most of us with convertibles dropped the hood for the next leg of the journey, the drive to Halkirk in Caithness. This involved about 5 miles of the NC500 before we turned off on to minor roads just past Reay. Orkney was visible between showers (most of which missed us) as was the famous nuclear power station at Dounreay which is being decommissioned.
John Cuthbert's Cross-flow Engine in his MGB
Halkirk claims to be Scotland’s oldest planned village. It lies on the River Thurso and the grid pattern of streets confirms the planned nature of the village. Caithness stone and slate is much in evidence in the buildings some of which are quite grand. We had booked a soup & sandwich lunch at the very smart Ulbster Arms built in 1878. John & Val Cuthbert who live locally, joined us for lunch in their impressive BGT which has an MSX (made in the USA) alloy crossflow head and twin Weber 45 DCOE carburettors. John has gas flowed the head, raised the compression ratio, and re-profiled the valves. The inlet manifolds have been matched to the ports and carburettors and the exhaust manifold is by Maniflow. He has an electronic ignition system – the one downside to the cross-flow with the big Webers is that the distributor is totally hidden. John & Val had completed the MG Liège-Brescia-Liège in July 2022; just getting to the start involved an epic journey from Caithness! Apparently, the engine never missed a beat over the 10 days of hard driving but the brake fluid boiled descending the Stelvio.
Our main purpose, though, for visiting Halkirk was to tour the Halkirk Heritage and Vintage Motor Centre. The centre opened just a year ago (the society had formed in 2006) and is in an old school building. It was the dream of the local garage owner (a Rover then MG Rover dealership), the late Edward Sutherland, who had an extensive collection of cars. We were welcomed by Chris Eyre, the society’s chairman, (and the owner of a BGT) and a group of volunteers who had opened-up especially for our visit.
MG ZB at Halkirk Heritage and Vintage Motor Centre
There is a good display over 2 rooms of cars, some pre-WW2, and with a lot of related memorabilia. MG is well represented with posters, books, signs, and a beautiful MG ZB Magnette. Nothing is cordoned off and you can get right up to the cars and even stick your nose through the windows for that indefinable old car whiff. Chris was on hand to open bonnets for those who like that sort of thing (me!).
Other rooms cover local heritage including an impressive and thought-provoking display of models and dioramas by local World War1 historian John Brotherston. If you are doing the NC500 or touring in the area, you should find the time to visit.
Following our visit to the Heritage and Vintage Motor Centre we had a 60-mile drive back to the Garvault. This involved going through Thurso to allow a refuel (E5 available at the Bridgend Filling Station) then following the NC500 route to Bettyhill where we turned off on to the B871 back to the hotel via Syre.
We all sat down again together that evening for another 3-course dinner and the craic was good although a few were flagging after a full day and much fresh air.
On our last morning we breakfasted together at the slightly later time of 08:30 am before gathering to pay our bar bills. While some had paid as they drank, Adrian runs individual bar books for his guests and had the bills, all handwritten, ready in discrete envelopes. Although the hotel does have WiFi, the signal is not strong enough to support a card machine, so Adrian takes cash or cheques, but his preferred method of payment is that you take your bill home and then BACS him the payment – trust in his guests indeed. We then headed to our homes on a wet day (the only day when my roof stayed-up) with most of us taking the Helmsdale road. This turned out not to be as direct as we hoped, and we were caught in re-surfacing which closed the single track for around 45 minutes. I passed the time listening to Long Wave on the original radio cassette in the Midget 1500, LW worked where FM would not.
Tony Smith's 85th Anniversary MG TF
Highland MG Owners’ Club (MG Owners' Club Area 0102) is a small group of around 40 family memberships. Not everyone resides in the Highlands, Tony, for example, comes from East Kilbride south of Glasgow and we even have a member from Carlisle. We run a Spring Saunter (2 nights) and an Autumn Amble (3 nights) every year as well as monthly drives to lunch from April to September (including a Drive it Day event). We also attend a few local car shows as a group. With everyone spread far and wide, our events tend to be quite small, perhaps a dozen MGs, but we like the intimacy of our small group of friends. It also means that the organizational overhead is fairly small. For our trip to the Garvault, Tim & Christine sorted out the Wednesday route, arranged lunch and the visit to the Halkirk Heritage and Vintage Motor Centre as well as the Tuesday evening quiz. Stuart sorted the accommodation payments (on a dinner, bed & breakfast rate) and the room allocation (this included a converted stable and a bothy as well as the main rooms) and I promoted the event among the membership and arranged the group drive for those who wanted it to the Garvault. We are grateful for the welcoming reception we received at the Garvault, the Ulbster Arms, the Pier, and the excellent heritage museum. We are always happy to join-up for a chat with MG owners visiting the Highlands and provide advice on routes. Our contact details can be found here.
The 85th MGTF is the 85th Anniversary Model to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the MG Car Company. The 85th anniversary model was a limited edition of 50 cars only and was launched in 2009 - which assumes 1924 as the foundation date of the company, this despite the fact that the MG Octagon logo appeared as early as 1923. It is now generally accepted that 1923 is the correct year of the original start of the company, hence this year's MG100 celebrations. Very few anniversary TFs were in the colour of Tony's car, hence it is quite a rare MG.
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- Garvault House Hotel
- Ulbster Arms Hotel
- The Pier Café, Lairg
- Halkirk Heritage & Vintage Motor Centre
This page published August 2023