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Posts from the ‘Sutherland Trail’ Category

A taste of the Kyle of Tongue



Like escapees from an unruly chess board, the march of death climbs up and over the hill. They’re grandiose tombstones in an elemental place ; oversized queens, bishops and knights heading for the shallow, sandy waters of Tongue Bay.  Next stop the Atlantic Ocean.

Our day was long and unhurried. We’d no heavy packs on our backs and no transport south until tomorrow. Misty views to the hills beyond the Kyle meant walking across the long causeway was slow, and I pitied the cars and vans their flashes of scenery while we paused every few steps to breathe in ever changing Ben Loyal. Ahead of us all the time was the stark cemetery on the hill.

No insects pestered us today but still I itched. New red blotches had burst into life. And just above my knee this morning I discovered a tick already swelling, its jaws firmly clamped in my flesh. I wielded  my new tick-tweezers and twisted then squashed the parasite, watching my blood seep out and wondering if this one carried Lyme’s Disease.


The graveyard was a haven of heather and mosses, wild flowers and a strong rusty lichen that was stark against the cool grey stone; Caloplaca marina, I think. Calos in Greek means nice, placa  is shield, so Caloplaca ‘beautiful patches’. And so they are.

Slowly the tide emptied, leaving vast sandy flats, exposing acres of seaweed and racks of farmed mussel beds. Tractors and trailers crept over the soft sand, seagulls called on them for scraps  and the clear northern light bounced against the beach.

I had just a few hours of wandering, watching and listening while, up on the hill, the tombstones maintained a much longer vigil. A hundred years, and counting…

The thin line between adventure … and a forced march


The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue. We didn’t see another soul all day.

The next eight hours looked grim.

I  had a splitting headache, nausea and 15 miles to walk across boggy, inhospitable ground and empty roads before there was any prospect of a hostel bed. Could it have been an overdose of cleg poison?

Ill as I felt, there was no alternative to walking. No cars. No houses. No people. But hey, this was an adventure, wasn’t it? I popped some pills, heaved on my pack and we set off.

I figured we could do the most isolated bit in four hours if I just kept my head down and followed Noreen’s relentless red socks all the way across the bog. And we almost did.

The first 10 miles were the worst, up and over the 1000 year old Moine Path (henceforth remembered as the Vomit Path – too much information?) a raised track across tussocky moorland between the great rocky strongholds of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. After nine miles I lay down on a stone and slept, spontaneously, and woke after 20 minutes, feeling decidedly better.

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

By the time we reached the village of Tongue on the far north coast I’d made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of the trail with an ice cream at the shop.

And life got even better when Julia, the fantastic warden of the Youth Hostel spotted our rucksacks outside the Post Office and popped in to see if we wanted a lift to our beds. We knocked her down in the rush.

I bought shampoo and had a long, blissful shower which was only marred by the revelation of considerable insect damage. We doctored our bites with antihistamine and hydrocortisone  then drank cup after cup of tea while we laughed and relived our adventure from the comfort of a soft armchair.

Finally I picked up a thriller from the hostel shelves and lost myself in someone else’s drama; so much less stressful than one’s own.


We walked towards Ben Loyal, a beacon across the moor, and were finally rewarded with a view from a different perspective


Paradise … until the wind dropped

The sun was beating down, we’d been walking for hours, I was hot and sweaty – and the sign on the tree said “Rock Pool”. Irresistible.

We dumped out packs and climbed down the steep bank to a gentle waterfall which fed in to deep pools of brown peaty water. The somersaulting clegs were an incentive to get submerged fast and it was glorious; cool and soothing for my ravaged shoulders, slippery rocks to slither over and space to stretch down to feel for footholds on the stony bottom. I was a water nymph, in my head at least!

The trail passed by the manicured grass and gravel of Gobernuisgach Lodge, a remnant of the privileged Victorian approach to the Highlands; incongruous precision in the midst of wilderness.

The track from Gober  climbed up to the remains of Dun Dornaigil broch, a fabulous example of the type of dwelling used by Scotland’s earliest settlers.We looked around then plodded on in the heat and sheltered for a while in the rare shade of a cattle shed, oblivious to the dried cow dung around us. How quickly standards drop

I'm now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they're also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they're called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as "March flies". And they're all more vicious than they look..

I’m now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they’re also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they’re called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as “March flies”. And they’re all more vicious than they look..

And later, just as we were getting tired and hungry, the idyllic camping spot came in to focus; it was beside a river, the ground was flat, the grass short, and as open to a breeze as anywhere around.

But the tents were barely up and supper cooking than the wind died and – without warning – hoards of midges descended in impenetrable clouds. We clutched our pans of half-cooked food and ran for cover.

Calling it a horror movie doesn’t do it justice.  I lay in the stifling heat, listening to them lunging themselves at the mesh fabric and the outer tent walls, and staring at the thick mass of miniature wings that filled every inch of the “porch”.

I had no water. I needed the loo. And I wanted to brush my teeth. But if I unzipped the flap millions of tormentors would invade.  So I fell asleep instead and woke at midnight. This time I knew I had no choice.

I prepared as well as I could, but they were thick and heavy on my face, I breathed them in and choked on them, spluttering and coughing. I had the most uncomfortable pee of my life then ran back to the tent, threw myself in and zipped it up again then almost cried when the beam of my torch showed I had thousands of them for company.

My swollen cleg bites were painful. I was thirsty. Midge bites itched in new, unbearable places. A few metres away I could hear Noreen snoring gently in her tent. But for me it was going to be a long night.

Insect Endurance on the Sutherland Trail

We pitched our tents in the lonely Pass of the Thieves, the Bealach nam Meirleach.

It’s a bit off piste of the “official” trail because erudite Donald-who-drives-the-Durness-minibus told us when we jumped aboard it was the better route in to Gobernuisgach, the remote shooting lodge we were headed for, five miles away in the hills. And the old lady sitting beside him in the front nodded knowledgeably in agreement as the bus sped up the single track road. We took their advice and somewhere in the wilderness of Sutherland’s lochs and hills he pulled up in a layby, unloaded our packs and pointed out the track through the heather.

“Good luck with the clegs,” were his last words as he revved the engine and quickly rolled up his window.

The first of the legions of insects had silently settled on my forearm even before his van had turned the bend, but I didn’t notice until I felt the needle prick my skin. It was a foretaste of the carnage that was to follow.

I’d forgotten about clegs (or horse flies). I certainly didn’t know they’d be able to penetrate my thin clothing, or that they’d be impervious to the thick later of insecticide I’d plastered over every exposed inch of skin. They’re lazy, sneaky insects with a heavy-duty impact – as my red and swelling wrist was demonstrating.

P1040220We ducked, swatted and swiped our way along the old drove route that had been used by generations of farmers to walk their cattle to market hundreds of miles away in the south. Their long journey to Falkirk or Perth from Sutherland took weeks, and on one occasion when the men returned with their annual earnings, they were ambushed and robbed in this isolated place. The gaelic name, Bealach nam Meirleach guarantees the crime will never be forgotten.

The walking was flat, easy and (once the clegs retreated) lazily slow in the burning sunshine. We dawdled, stopped to rest, fill bottles and drink from sparkling waterfalls then by early evening, when the lochs spread out along the strath before us, we set up camp, ate and settled down in our sleeping bags.

A stiff breeze flapped my tent and I lay gazing out at faraway Ben Loyal, listening to the persistent gurgle of water through the rocks below. There were no ruins here, no signs of previous habitation, no stone walls or broken down fences.

As my eyes closed I relished the thought that I was likely to be the first person ever to lay my head down and sleep on this few square feet of remote earth.


Getting back on the trail (Sutherland cont.)


Sutherland, the far empty corner of the northwest, is Scotland at it’s most remote.

It’s wild, bare and beautiful but in mid summer it can also be catastrophically itchy because it’s home to the meanest, most prolific midges on the planet. And for the next few days we’re going to run the gauntlet.

It’s been 15 months since we had to pull out of the long-distance Sutherland Trail just half way through when the weather closed in with rain, snow and sleet – and the prospect of another three or four days in the hills with no shelter was just too grim.

We’ll be taking the train tomorrow from Inverness back to Lairg then transferring to a minibus to the tiny village of Achfary to pick up where we left off,  wild camping on the isolated tracks through glens and hillsides that should be starting to turn purple with heather in full bloom. The only niggling worry is that it’s peak season for the notorious midges so, unless there’s a wind to keep them at bay, we’ll be in trouble.

This adventure has been a long time in the planning but my rucksack is packed (and ominously heavy) for four days of walking, my new boots are about to face their first serious test and the weather is looking good.

All we need now is a strong Sutherland breeze to keep the beasties at bay.

Sutherland Trail: Camping at Lone Bothy


When you welcome the sight of an open-sided agricultural shed  spattered with wet hen dung as though it’s a four-star hotel you know you’re in trouble.

It had been a long day and Lone Bothy was locked (and uninhabitable anyway), the rain was bucketing down, a gale was howling and we were chilled and hungry. Options were somewhat limited. So we brewed up some soup in the shed and debated what to do. My main objection to sleeping there was the strutting cockered who P1030837was  proclaiming his presence and would do so again, repeatedly, from around 4am. I also figured the tent could only be warmer.

The stalker turned up in his truck and we chatted about deer numbers on the high hills while we cooked our dinner in his shed. He described the growing pressure from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to cull ever higher numbers of hinds to protect vegetation – something he was reluctant to do.

He seemed pretty relaxed about us using his Argocat as a clothes drying horse and makeshift P1030840sitting room then he looked out at his hills, cheerfully forecast more snow, wished us luck and headed off to a cosy house somewhere down the glen. We looked at one another and laughed but the tent ended up doing a great job and we were warm and dry in the morning.

We didn’t take time to search for fresh eggs for breakfast (although he said we were welcome to them if we could find them) but the cockerel and his small harem tucked in to our leftovers.

We looked around and considered. The weather was closing in and we would have no more shelter for another two days so reluctantly we decided to pull out and complete the route another time.

There would be one bus passing through Achfary at 9.30am which would take us to Lairg and from there we could catch a train to Inverness.

I left the glen reluctantly, looking wistfully up to Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven. And vowed I’d be back.

Sutherland Trail: Over the hill from Kylesku to Achfary

P1030824We saw little wildlife or even farm stock during our four days on the hills. There were a few red deer and some oystercatchers and when we got down to croft land there were plenty Cheviot ewes, many of them leading their lambs astray onto roads.

It was too early for midges but there were ticks, and one took a firm hold of my forearm. I’ve encountered them plenty of times in the past and always used to soak a tissue in whisky and twirl the tick round until it dropped out – drunk! – but that method has been discredited these days in favour of a tool which cost £5 but P1030853didn’t work for me. It’s unnerving having an insect’s jaw fixed in your flesh, but it’s finally out now.

The day began with us retracing our steps of the night before, past Kylesku and over the modern curved bridge to Kylestrome, via the monument to the submariners and “human torpedoes” who trained in these deep waters during the Second World War.

P1030800The stone at Kylestrome is engraved : “The security of these top secret operations was guarded by the local people who knew so much and talked so little.” Quite a tribute.

A hydro electric plant is being built at the foot of the waterfalls which tumble down the  Maldie Burn out of Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and a road is being bulldozed all the way over the top to Achfary. It made walking easy but was leaving a scar and felt incongruous in such a remote place. There were several men working on “landscaping” in the freezing conditions, attempting to soften the edges and minimise erosion but I wonder how successful that will be in such a climate. A couple of landrovers carrying equipment trundled past as we toiled up the hill to the snow line where we stopped to boil soup and noodles, only to discover a workmen’s hut just a couple of hundred yards further on. Bad planning!

P1030820It was remote up here yet we often saw the ruins of ancient settlements  and sheilings, even at the top of the Achfary Forest, opposite Ben Stack. And here my map, bought just two weeks ago, was already out of date because most of the trees have been felled recently and the new road ploughs steeply down the hill to the village which is the headquarters of  Reay Forest estate.

There’s a plaque on a wall here which has an obsequious feel to it in this land where so many poor people were cleared by absentee P1030850landowners to make way for sheep and I find it hard to believe all the Duke’s “servants” were so “grateful” to him – or that they would want to list his vast collection of properties “with the angling attached”! It’s interesting that his descendants still find it necessary to feature such feudalism so prominently.

I walked on in the rain, pondering the words and their contrast with the stone I had admired earlier in the day to the men who had given their lives for their country and who hadn’t been recognised at all until just 20 years ago.

In the Duke’s case “He understood so little and boasted so much” would be a more appropriate monument.

Sutherland Trail: Ancient rocks, old ruins and walking the Marble Road

P1030771The Inchnadamph Hotel is host these days to walkers, fishermen and tourists but in the 1880s two men stayed here overnight and their work in the Assynt area was to change the understanding of the earth’s internal structure for ever. They were the celebrated nineteenth century geologists Ben Peach and John Horne whose signatures in the visitors book are proudly displayed in the hotel.

Such is the importance of the ancient rocks in these hills the area will always be a magnet for geologists. There were a few in the bar in the evening but breakfast was shared with other walkers and fishermen who were, like us, excited about their plans for the day. We daundered up the road, stopping to look round Assynt Church and its graves, poking about the MacKenzie stronghold IMG_1309of Calda House then out to the stark ruins of Ardvreck Castle, the 15th century seat of the MacLeods of Assynt.

Finally we tore ourselves away from the crumbling walls and set out across the old Marble Road over the hill towards Unapool and Kylesku, a route that was used to transport marble quarried nearby in the early 1800s. Our alternative route delving deeper inland to a waterfall looked wild and magnificent on the map but the rain had started and we knew we would see little of the scenery in such conditions.

Our constant companion now, dominating the views to the west, was the multi-topped topsy-turvy mountain of Quinag with its fresh snow covering. Then, as we walked along the main road, our focus changed to Loch Glencoul and the famous “Glencoul Thrust” on the hillside across the loch. It’s a stunning example of “young”  540 million year old quartzite sandwiched between two layers of Lewisian gneiss which is 3000 million years old. I quote the figures we read on the info board but struggle to understand the forces that shuffled the P1030754rocks below the ground to create such a feature and have no comprehension whatsoever of what 3000 million years (or even a million years) might look like! But it’s still awesome information so I stared across at the rock for a long time trying to imagine the excitement of Peach and Horne as they made their discovery then their struggle to change established opinion. Younger rocks below older ones? No wonder Assynt has played host to international geologists ever since.

We were drenched when we reached our B&B late in the afternoon but soon ready to venture back out into the night for the mile-long walk to the Kylesku Hotel’s restaurant for some delicious fish and chips. And then it was back on with the boots, waterproof jackets, leggings, hoods and out into the pouring rain, up the road to bed.


Sutherland Trail: Bogs, rivers, lochs and rain


If only I had been able to lift my eyes from my feet I’d have spent the whole long day gazing at views of Suilven and Canisp. But the track was rough, boggy, difficult to find and often masquerading as a river-course after the previous 12 hours of heavy rain so every step had to be carefully negotiated.

That meant I had to stop a lot, to stand and stare at the silhouettes of the hills which changed so starkly from every angle. On our walk in to Suilven, Caisteal Liath, the true peak, dominated the horizon. And while it is just 8 metres higher than Meall Meadhonach, it reared magnificently. Now though the “pointed” end appeared to soar  stark and elegantly beautiful above its dumpier twin.

Meanwhile sleeker, elongated Canisp  became our neighbour. Its extra 100 metres of height had attracted a fresh covering of snow overnight and we walked the whole length of its long southern flank past more than a dozen streams tumbling down the hill, all overflowing with water. Finally we stopped for a rest and lunch near the end of P1030721Lochan Fada, the long narrow loch. We found a spot that was down near the river and as sheltered as could be but it was windy so we struggled to light a stove. Finally though the water boiled and we had sustenance: soup, hot chocolate and Alpen bars.

The recommended route from here was to cut across country, over the shoulder of Canisp to hit the main A837 road and walk towards Inchnadamph but we figured the much longer “track” would be better when the ground was so boggy. Hmmm. I doubt if the open hillside could have been any worse than the route we chose, which was often a real struggle to locate at all.  We ploutered on  and eventually (with some imaginative orienteering) reached the shore of the rugged Cam Loch which would have made a fantastic camping spot. But time was short so we headed on, hugging the shore, and finally made it out over an awful last section, through a gate and on the road between Elphin and Ledmore.

Inchnadamph was still a 6-7 mile walk from here along the main road and we were getting weary after two heavy days. A car sped past ignoring my outstretched arm. And then – oh the excitement! – a school bus pulled up. The kids looked aghast and held their noses as we heaved our wet packs aboard and sank down in seats near the front. Assynt sped by from the window,  Canisp passed in a flash and  quickly, effortlessly we were deposited outside the Inchnadamph Hotel. Yes, of course the plan had been to camp, but we were drenched and bodies and feet were aching. The prospect of soaking in a bath of hot bubbles was just too enticing.

Richard at the hotel was great. He collected our sodden boots and clothes in baskets outside our rooms and had them clean and dry for us in the morning. He also provided sound advice, the best weather forecasts and the use of his laptop during the course of the evening as we lounged at an open fire over a couple of drams and some good hot food.P1030706

Tomorrow would be wet, windy and cold but I couldn’t wait to get back on the trail in the morning.

Sutherland Trail: Suileag Bothy

Back in the bothy we were shivering. The air was damp and our bags had been too heavy to carry  fuel for the fireplace. Yet our timing had been only slightly out as I’d met people on the hill who’d had a great roaring coal fire and company the previous evening. But we were alone with only matches and a few kindlers to burn. It was barely enough.

We boiled water, made soup and pasta then at 8pm, wearing every piece of warm clothing in our rucksacks, we crawled into sleeping bags to drink hot chocolate. It was bedtime in the bothy.

P1030680Just before midnight I woke up. A full howling storm was battering our tiny stone house, torrents of rain pelting down on the noisy metal roof and rattling windows which looked out to the dark hulk of mountain. I lay and listened, absorbing the full might of the weather and idly pondering (as you do through the night) how the modern roof was attached to the ancient walls and just how secure it might be. Occasionally there would be a respite and then the wind whirled around us, sucking up enough energy to batter and blast with wave after relentless wave of fury. Rain soaked in under the shaking doorway and somewhere at the far end of the bothy another door banged all through the night.

How fortunate that we had retraced our steps and not camped as originally planned. It would mean an extra few kilometres walking in the morning but for now we were safe and dry. And finally warm.