The Cape Wrath Trail. Section 03. Assynt and NW Sutherland
May 11-May 17
Geoff and Russell, who also stayed at the Bunkhouse left first, then Patrick, a second Frenchman, and I finally left at 0830. My route took me south for 5 minutes through the forest walk to the bridge at Auchindrean. I turned north after the bridge and returned up the lane for nearly 4 km to where i descended yesterday. It was a lovely amble through the lush green fields of the very well managed Inverbroom estate. On the way I met the tenant farmer who I stayed with as a B and B guest some 7 years ago at Clachan. He must have had a good relationship with the owner of the estate as he had about 2000 mostly suffolk sheep and 100 Luing cattle in these fertile fields.
I went through the old farm buildings of Inverbroom house and passed by the main lodge of the estate. Both were in impeccable condition. I then recrossed the river on the main bridge over it and had to follow the main A835 road to Ullapool for a km. It was a fast road and I kept well to the verge, passing a tribute to a killed motorcyclist, which was also there 7 years ago.
At Inverlael I left the noisy road and headed east into the forest. It was a relief to be back on the trail again after the long diversion to the bunkhouse. This forest was mature, but was being harvested and was not that scenic. I ignored the official trail and made my own way up to Glensguaib, a ruin where there was a bridge. I crossed the bridge and headed north up steeper tracks which by chance I managed to easily negotiate a way to the official track again. En route I passed the largest bunches of yellow wild primroses I have ever seen, each a 50 cm diameter mound full of flowers.
Here I met Bob Shorter who was out to climb a Graham (over 2000 ft). He went to Norway occasionally and had read my scandinavianmountains.com website We walked together for an hour chatting until put paths diverged. I carried on NE up the track which rapidly disappeared into a wet grassy route.
It was a dull trudge over the shoulder of Beinn Bhreac. However, over my shoulder I had the Beinn Dearg, Fannich, Fisherfield and An Teallach ranges spread out in a large arc under the grey sky. Once I was over the top this all vanished from view and before me was a featureless upland valley with little interest except the Munro of Seana Bhraigh to the east.
I followed the small stream down into the valley, called Glen Douchary. It was not as bad as I expected and there were some ruins of old shielings here amongst the grassy river banks. The crofters of 150 years ago would had brought there cattle up here in the summer while their potatoes grew in lazy beds beside their croft houses on the shores of Loch Broom.
As I approached the head of Glen Achall I could look down this more interesting valley to forest, lodges and pastures which nearly stretched to Ullapool. I was going east and remembered to stay high on the east of the River Douchary to avoid the worst of gorge-like landscape where the rivers and side streams had carved steep deep slots in the the loose moraine. I still had to negotiate a few which were full of large mature birch trees. The deer would have sought shelter here in snowstorms and I passed many dead ones today who succumbed to the hard winter just past.
Soon I reached the west end of Liloch ab Diamb. I noticed Fritz and his collie dog were camped nearby but I did not disturb them. Instead I followed the shoreline of the Loch along an easy gravel riparian track. It was a wild empty lake with strong gusts of wind blowing across it. Sandpipers saw me coming and flew low out across the water.
At the end of the Loch was the Knockdamph Bothy. It looked like an old shepherds house and there were the broken walls of an old sheep fank nearby. I had planned to go further but Geoff and Russell were here and looked comfortable. I joined them for the evening during which Russell, a paramedic from Greenock, held court with his easy west coast banter and tales from the ambulance service.
We all rose early and I set off first down the featureless valley. For once the sun was out and it surprising how content it made me feel. The track gently followed the valley down into the birch trees and, just as another valley merged with it, the Old Schoolhouse at Duag Bridge.
The Old Schoolhouse was now a bothy and had been restored. A couple of old desks and wall charts remained. The fireplace however was bricked up. This was just as well as the track from Oykel Bridge was open and people were driving up. Indeed there was a couple in the bothy who would not be there unless it was drivable. Badly equipped, overweight, covered in homemade tattoos, and smoking inside, it was not probably not the type of overnighter the MBA envisaged when it restored the building.
The next 7 km down to Oykel Bridge were also unremarkable except that the birch trees were lush in the sun and the thick woods were full of birdsong. Occasionally I caught sight of the river and it looked very low as it flowed slowly from one ledge to the next. The track reached the valley and headed north path the now two Oykel Bridges to reach the hotel.
Geoff and Russell were already there having overtaken while I relaxed at the Old Schoolhouse. I also ordered food. When the chef arrived with it I recognised her as an old friend from Aberdeen University who I had not seen since 1987. There had been a lot of water under the bridge since then and we spent 10 minutes catching up.
I left the hotel, crossed the older bridge and headed up the east side of the River Oykel. After a few km I caught the others up and we walked 3 abreast up the new track. Russell had an unlimited supply of ambulance stories from 35 years service and he told these with panache.
It was very much a fisherman’s river and there were loads of huts along the beat. Indeed Allison told me the hotel was owned by a syndicate of fisherman. We stopped occasionally to pause on a sunny bench and watch the trout rise in the placid pools. After about 10 km the easy riverside track petered out and we had to negotiate the lumpy riverbank for another 3 km until we reached Loch Ailsh.
Here the dull surroundings were suddenly replaced by the splendid view of Ben More Assynt and Conival rising well beyond the end of the Loch. I felt that I was getting back to the spirit of the trail again after a couple of days detour. Ben More Lodge also sat beneath this backdrop overlooking the loch from a small knoll. It was a solid building but architecturally spartan.
We walked round the loch, past the grand austere lodge and up the track for 2 km until we got to a junction of paths and rivers. There was a grassy path at the fork with enough space for 3 tents. In fact it was quite idyllic.
We had the tents up quickly and then lay down in them to sort everything out. It was a gorgeous windstill sunny evening and the tent was beautifully hot. I cooked in the tent and ate beside the river with the others, watching small trout treading water waiting for a morsel to come downstream. I went to bed at 2000 and wrote while the stream gurgled beside me. We were all tired after the 31 km and the sun. Our paths would split first thing in the morning with me going east round Ben More Assynt and them to the west. But we calculated we should met again after a few days.
After the beautiful evening I was a little surprised and disappointed when I woke at 0500 to find mist hanging over everything. It was a dark mist too and rain seemed in the air. I got up quickly to try and take the tent down and pack up before it started. Besides I had a long day ahead. By 0600 I said my goodbyes to Geoff and Russell who were just getting up and left just as the drizzle started.
The next 5 hours were pure misery. I saw nothing, I heard nothing save the patter of rain on my jacket hood and the squelching footsteps, and I smelt nothing. My hand were cold enough to be clumsy at opening zippers or connecting buckles. I stopped once to each a morsel and despite the rain dripping of my nose it was the only joy in those five hours.
Slowly however the rain reverted back to drizzle and the mist lifted. Then by 11 the rain all but stopped. The saying “Rain at 7 finished by 11” seemed to be true today. Soon the mist was retreating up the slopes of Conical and Ben More Assynt. By the time I got to the SE end of the string of lochs in shallow valley below me the mist had risen right up to the snowfields exposing a wild corrie. An eagle flew along the ridge. It was completely still and there were no thermals so it had to beat it wings with a slow laboured beat. I am sure it was a Golden Eagle as its large wingspan was relatively slender.
The track had all but disappeared now and I was having to pick my way through difficult slow terrain and I dropped down to Gorm Loch Mor. There were a few small islands in this loch as there were on all the lochs in this shallow valley. I thought this looks a good site for divers. When I reached the loch it was windstill and the surface was glassy. I was tired. I had done about 20 km today already so found a soft damp pile of moss to sit on to lunch at. There were fish rising all over the loch.
Suddenly as if on demand I spotted two divers. They were so far away I did not have the optics (my eyes or camera) to identify them. However as I ate they slowly drifted towards me. I assumed they were Red-Throated but even with my camera zoom could not definitely see the upturned beak, a distinguishing feature. I watched them for a good half hour but they did not come closer or go to their nest which I assumed would be on one of the islands. They dived occasionally but with this lake so close to the sea I think they would rather fly the few km down to the sea at Loch Glencoul. As I left they both called in unison for about 30 seconds and then I was sure they were Red Throated Divers.
The route here continued across rough ground past some small lochans over a small pass to enter the start of a new valley. This was more like the Assynt I was expecting; “Cnoc and Lochan” country of rocky outcrops and small lochans. I passed a bigger lochan wedged between to outcrops and then started the long descent to Glen Coul. The going was very tough with no path and plenty of rocks and bogs. The map marked the Cape Wrath Trail as climbing and then descending but I could see so point in this so followed the difficult terrain down the river.
The river and valley plunged down to a flat area before the sea water loch of Loch Glencoul and as it did the valley sides steepened. To the south a small stream tumbled down 200 meter high slabs. This was the Eas a’Chual Aluinn, and it was reputedly Britain’s highest waterfall. However I did not think it was a patch on the Falls of Glomach, and that after a mornings rain. In dry weather it will just be a smear of water down steep slabs.
The last 2 km seemed to take a while and I was tired. The path followed the north side of Loch Beag, an inner sanctum off the end of Loch Glencoul. There were some pastures where sheep and cattle would once have grazed watch over by the shepherd in the bothy I was going to. When the bothy did arrive it was great. It was on a pasture beside the sea and it seemed to be attached to a larger house which was now in disrepair. The bothy was in good condition however.
I went in it had two room, one with a fire and one with sleeping platforms. Beside the fire was some wood and there was some timbers from the attached house. I sawed up a pile and made a fire. That evening I sat in front of the fire with my boots and socks drying. I was the only one in the bothy. The sun shone on the pastures and cuckoos called. It was a great end to a day which started with hardship. When all my chores were done I snoozed in the chair in front of the fire, till well after sunset, before going to bed in the dusk.
The sun was lighting up the fields outside when I woke with just a few cumulus dotted about the sky. I went for a small wander of the area before I left and took the grassy track SW from the bothy down to the shore. Here the tide was going out exposing beds of mussels. I noticed a curious thing that still has me puzzled. There were about 20 patches of rising bubbles below the high tide mark in line 50 metres long. I went to get my lighter to see if they were inflammable, but I lingered at the bothy and by the time I returned the tide had dropped and the rising gas was indiscernible. I wondered if it was natural gas rising from the edge of an impervious band of rock below. This was a geologically rich area, so one could expect anything.
I left and followed the steep track which climbed above a newly fenced off area to allow natural regeneration of trees. The climb took me up the hillside to some magnificent views over Loch Glencoul to Kylesku and out to see beyond, and south across the loch to the Queen of Assynt, namely the three peaked mountain of Quinag. This mountain was also noteworthy for it geology
Quinag was largely composed of Torridonian sandstone in horizontal layers. However the south peak was covered in quartzite layers at an angle of 30 degrees. How can this be? Well the 800 million year old Torridonian sandstone was formed to a great depth of accumulation and then submerged into the earth’s crust and tilted 30 degrees. It was then exposed again at the surface where sand was deposited on top of it ( and also Ben More Assynt and Conival across the valley). This finer sandstone was also submerged into the earth’s crust and the whole area was tilted back the 30 degrees so the Torridonian sandstone layers were level again. A few 10’s of millions years of erosion and ice ages exposed this unconformity to what we see today.
On the way up the path I heard a couple of red throated divers calling in unison on the loch below. But I could not see them. Soon the track levelled off and I crossed over the flat crest of the ridge between Lochs Glencoul and Lochdhu. Behind me loomed the stack of Glencoul above the valley I came down yesterday with Britain’s highest waterfall. The valley looked very dramatic especially with the snowy summits of Conival and Ben More Assynt rising above.
On the crest of the ridge the rocks became reddish and gently inclined sheets of rock were exposed. I was walking on top of a thrust sheet of rock. While above me was the great buttress, like the bow of a ship which was the exposed slab of another thrust sheet. These thrust sheets made up what is part of the Moine Thrust in which huge slabs of rock were shunted westwards in the Caledonian Orogeny when Scandinavia bumped into Greenland (of which NW Scotland was part of) 420 million years ago. The rock slabs where stacked as if playing cards laid flat on a table were pushed together. It is a very significant geological display.
It was a easy walk down to Lochdhu on a faint path with the last section going through birch woods, now in full leaf. Cuckoos sounded everywhere. At the loch the tide was out exposing tidal grasses which small flocks of Greylag geese came to graze.
I stopped at the very nice bothy of Glendu which had two nice sleeping rooms upstairs above the room with the fireplaces. The track from here was a very good access track. It was too small for a 4 by 4 but large enough for an argocat. It went through woods around buttresses on the hillside with a steep shoreline. A parapet gave the illusion of safety before the steep drop down the wood to the shore. Occasionally the track crossed flatter areas of alivian fans between the buttresses and here gorse thrived, its bright flowers smelling like coconut oil.
Halfway down the loch I came to a waterfall tumbling down a gorge. Here two small hydro power stations which were being built during my West Scotland walk in 2011 were now finished and generating power. The construction was returning to its heather and grass clad state and unless one knew it was difficult to see where the pipeline went. As far as intrusion into the landscape these micro hydro power systems were vastly preferable to the violent wind farm projects.
My legs felt leaden as I reached the loch at the top of the waterfalls. I rested at a fisherman’s hut and decided to take the longer but more interesting way in a few km when I approached Ben Stack. I had already been been down the track to Achfary and on to Lone bothy.
When the turn off came by a stone ruin just before the descent to Achfary, I turned and headed west up the slopes of Ben Dreavie. As hoped, I got some great views especially at the top when I could look over the northern part of the Minch. It looked like vast sheet of grey velvet. Below me the Islands of Badcall Bay sat on it like lumps of coal, further off dark fingers extended into it at Stoer Point and Reiff and just visible in the overcast skies was the northern part of the Isle of Lewis. I could see the inlets of Loch Laxford and Loch Inchard, where I was going tomorrow.
The top of this hill was covered in pebbles. These smooth round pebbles were embedded in the Torridonian sandstone here. The sand had been eroded and washed away leaving a sea of pebbles. I noticed the same on Ben More Coigach a few years earlier.
With tired legs I descended the pathless west ridge. However eager to get to the bottom I was tempted off the ridge too early and ended up going down the steep north flank between crags and into boggy ground. Eventually I picked up the track heading north round the west side of the very craggy Ben Stack. It was a welcome relief and easy walking.
I passes some lochans with Islets and looked for divers but saw none. Perhaps the lochans were too small. On a beach by the last loch before the descent I passed some campers, the first people I had seen all day. It was 2000 hrs now and I felt like a long distance hiker now, eager to get a few extra evening hours in while the sun was returning, and strategically planning for the future days.
On the descent I spotted the lovely Loch Stack Lodge on the edge of Loch Stack. It was surrounded by tempting lawns. I decided if it were unoccupied I would camp on this smooth sheltered green carpet.
I reached the turn off where there was a post drop box for the lodge. There were two letters with the postmark in April, 3 weeks ago. It was decided. I filled my water from the river and noticed the first biting female midges of the year. They swarmed me as I filled the bottles. I then made for the copse on the lawn. It was a beautifully protected spot just 30 metres from the front door of the lodge, which I guessed was owned by the Duke of Westminster, as he owns everything in this area on his 90,000 acres of adjoining.estates. I slept like a log.
When I woke there were patches of blue sky but the clouds were returning. There was a bench at the front door of the lodge and I wandered over to have my granola there. Halfway way through a van approached, past me and someone went into the back door of the lodge. I finished my breakfast, half expecting a reprimand but it never came.
I packed and headed NE to reach a string of Lochs which must have run along a fault line from the south of Ben Arkle down to Loch Inchard, past Kinlochbervie and out to sea. As I started down the first Loch the track petered out and I was left to follow deer tracks along the edge. By the time I got to the ruined boathouse on the second loch it had reappeared again.
Just here I saw to hikers coming towards me with a strange gait. I knew they were German because they started in Cape Wrath (to avoid uncertainty with the ferry and military operations) and they had enormous rucksacks. We chatted and they were charming and well informed and had been to Scotland a few times hiking.
After we parted the rain started. Initially a drizzle but as I walked down the last part of the Rhiconich River it got heavier. I was going to drop in here for lunch but it was closed and opened in 2 hours at 1500. It also looked very scruffy and haphazard with piles of junk stacked against many of the windows. I had to walk on 7 km to Kinlochbervie.
I never like roadwalks and this one in the rain was no exception. The saving grace was Loch Inchard on my left with the ordered crofts on the south side of the Loch. All their croft land was divided on an egalitarian basis with their 5 acres or so all starting at the shore and then heading up through rush covered pastures to the community road, along which the houses stood each 150 metres from the next. Above the houses the crofts continued in strips with pasture giving way to heather. Above this was the head wall where all the crofts ended and beyond which was common grazing for the whole community of 25 crofts. Of course all this is probably owned by the Duke of Westminster and 150 years ago he could have, and others did, clear the crofters and export them to the colonies so he could put sheep on the land and reap more profit than the peppercorn rents the crofters paid. Now off course the law has changed and the crofters can buy their landlord out for a small sum, but by doing so would lose many economic subsidies.
Cars passed me and I was pleased that nearly all of the 100 or so which did gave me a wide berth and waved. The pace of life is different here to our urban suburbs. Most houses were quaint with well tended gardens but one or two seemed to be scrap merchants, collecting old cars and lorries just in case a part might be needed.
As I neared Kinlochbervie the rain intensified and the wind increased. I ploughed on with the end in sight. My goal was the tranquil and comfortable sanctuary of the Kinlochbervie Hotel. Dripping wet I arrived, received my final resupply box, and was being ushered into a very good value for money room with bath and a view out to sea. The rain continued but it mattered not, as I was in a bath washing clothes. In the evening the sun returned and according to the forecast will remain until then the end of the trip in 3 days.
I slept well and had a good breakfast, but could not but help notice the current owners were running the place into the ground with very little maintenance. The weather was great with horizon to horizon sunshine. I set off up the road to Oldshoremore which was much quieter than road to Kinlochbervie yesterday. There were great views to the south over the occasional beach and across the sea to Handa Island.
After 5 km I reached Blairmore where I left the tarmac road for the 7 km track to Sandwood Bay with its renowned beach. I had been a few times before and had the place to myself but now with the North Coast 500 route and a general rise in Scottish tourism there was trickle of people heading up the track. I past a couple of freshwater lochs, both fringed by a peach coloured beach. The colour of the beach was due to the colour of the sand in the Torridonian sandstone.
I chatted with a few folk who overtook me as I photographed or observed the lochs, but generally I walked alone until suddenly i rounded a rise and the whole beach unfolded before me. The waves were not huge, but were breaking once, reforming and breaking again so there was ranks of white surf along the length of the beach. There were huge sand dunes, mostly covered in marram grass but other areas were bare and free to drift in the wind.
I walked down across the dunes to the beach. Huge tendrils of marram grass roots were being exposed where the drifts were eroding. Down near the beach the roar of surf drowned out all other sounds. I walked up the peach coloured sands to the north end passing a couple of outcrops protruding through the beach sand. It was a good km long, perhaps even 2 end to end. At the south end was Am Buachaille ( The Shepherd) a tiered pillar of sandstone reaching 60 – 80 metres. This famous sea stack was once a favourite for climbers and claimed the life of Scotland’s leading climber in the 1960’s.
At the north end of the beach I headed up some crags onto machair, a sandy grassland rich in flowers and good grazing. Rabbits burrowed here and the pastures were covered in the white 8 petalled Mountain Avens flowers. Amongst them a pair of Golden Plover nervously scampered waiting to distract me away from their “scrape” nest should i approach. I saw my first Great Skua overhead- a thug of a bird.
It was a short 2 km across the top of the machair and then moorland, much of it soggy, to reach Strathchailleach bothy. I had been before and remembered the roaring peat fire. It was still the same but the fireplace was rebuilt and smaller but there was much dry peat in the shed still. I took the wheelbarrow and went to get more where the river had undercut a peat bank some 400 metres away. It was already dry and just needed to be transported back to the shed. As I finished Geoff and Russell arrived and they got another barrowfull.
It was good to see them again. We compared notes over the last 3 days over tea with Russell’s easy banter enlivening the chat. I laboriously got the fire going with peat which took a good hour of nursing. After that it was a roaring blaze pumping out heat so our bare flesh felt hot and our trousers became crisp. It was a cracking fire and we kept it roaring until 2200 when we went to bed.
Strathchailleach bothy has an interesting history with James MacRory-Smith, aka Sandy. A recluse who lived here for 32 years until 1996, when he became too old. While some newspapers dubbed him “Britain’s Toughest Pensioner” and others poked fun at his simple and basic lifestyle, but it was great personal tragedy which drove Sandy here. Once here, he discovered the peat bank of dry peat and this kept him warm through the lonely bleak winters. A book on Sandy’s life has been written by James Carron and is called “A ceiling of Stars”.
I started off before Geoff and Russell, crossed the river, and headed north for 2 km to Loch a’Gheodha Ruaidh. Here I saw a couple of Red-Throated Divers. There were on the other side and barely discernible. I waited in vain to see if they might approach. Then I remembered I had their call on my phone. I played it a couple of times and to my astonishment they started to approach. I kept playing it and they came from 500 metres to 30 metres. I kept playing and could see their curiosity. It was a marvelous photo opportunity even for my modest 3 times zoom. I photographed and watched them for a good hour at close quarters.
When I left I saw Brian, the fireman, from a week ago walk past with his wife. He was doing Scotland’s National Trail, a 6-week,470-mile walk from one end of Scotland to the other. He had the finishing line in sight. We walked together for an hour then I went ahead to allow him and his wife to enjoy the last miles together.
I veered towards the coast to see some of the architecture here. This area north of Loch Inchard and west of the Kyle of Durness is a peninsula called The Parph. It is also made up of Torridonian sandstone with some harder erosion resistant intrusions. About 300 deer live on its meagre sustenance.
I skirted along the tops of the cliffs for while after the Bay of Kesgaig watching the surf explode on the base of the cliffs below. I was now in the military firing range area but there was to be no more activity this summer.
After the clifftop excursion I had to go inland on pathless terrain to avoid a ravine and at the end of it reached the rough tarmac lane to Cape Wrath. I then turned NW and followed the lane across moorland to reach the gleaming white lighthouse and the end of the journey.
Neither Geoff and Russell or Brain and his wife were here so I wandered round the outside of the enclosure. To the west I saw sea eagle sitting on a cliff watching the tide ebb south. On the northside was a ridge of three storm lashed towers, one with an arch which was the edge of the peninsula. Gannets flew low over the water here on a mission to fish or return home to some far flung rocky outpost in the Atlantic. To the east was a great view down the coast to Durness village. This coast boasted the supremely dramatic Kearvaig bay with its beach and sea stacks and just beyond Clo Mor- the highest sea cliffs on mainland Britain at 200 metres. I had kayaked all this a few years ago on an epic day from Durness to Kinlochbervie.
By the time I returned to the lighthouse cafe the others had arrived. There was much handshaking and congratulations. Initially I had wanted to go to Kearvaig bothy with Geoff and Russell but now decided to get to Durness and take the early bus to Edinburgh tomorrow.
So reluctantly I stepped into the minibus to begin the home leg. The carefree existence had come to its conclusion again and the real world waited. After the slow 15 km journey to the ferry back to civilization. The tide was very low and the boatman was worried we would get stuck on the sand bar, bur we cleared it.
I got a lift with people who had been in the minibus to Rhiconich where I stayed at the scruffy hotel. Everything else was full. It was convenient for the bus tomorrow at 0900 to the nearest train station at Lairg.