Every year I love to return to Scotland, the land of my birth, and undertake a number of challenges. This year was no exception and taking the advice of my cousin Joyce to visit early in the year for longer and better days, I did visit in July 2011. Returning home also gives me the opportunity to visit and stay with some relatives and friends which I was also able to do.
My round journey was 1,205 miles and I needed to plan my route and at this busy time of the year also book my accommodation ahead as best I could. The first three nights I spent with my sister Anne and her husband Tam in Luncarty, near Perth, and I also stayed with them on my return journey.
Fort Augustus was my base for two days and my first challenge was to cycle the Great Glen Way cycle route. This is a Coast 2 Coast (“C2C”) Route from Fort William (Loch Linnhe) on the West Coast 2 Inverness (Moray Firth) on the North East Coast. Over the two days involved I had lovely weather which made the challenge easier if that is indeed possible? The first day saw me depart Fort Augustus at 9.30am, and pass through Invergarry, Laggan, Clunes, Gairlochy and on to Corpach, arriving at 2.10pm having done 50kms. This was a well sign posted delightful route through forest gravel roads, some minor public tarmac roads and along canal paths all with spectacular scenery. Looking on to the Ben Nevis massif from Corpach was a delight. After a light lunch it was on my bike once again and by 6.40pm I was back in Fort Augustus having done a total of 100kms. The second day saw me once again leave Fort Augustus at 9.30am and tackle the East Side of Loch Ness on my route to Inverness. The first 6kms is very steep and at Suidhe View Point you are at 400m (1,312ft) with breath taking views all around. You travel through small loch side hamlets of Foyers and Inverfarigaig before coming to Dores and then a journey into Inverness (what a delightful City) by the River Ness and I made my way to Carnac Point and the Moray Firth. It was 2pm and I had come 58.45kms. Going back I followed the Great Glen Way which took me through Drumnadrochit, Lewiston and Grotaig with some steep climbs and down hills which saw me having to walk with my bike on a few occasions. At Invermoriston I decided to take the main road back to Fort Augustus, arriving at 7pm and having travelled 115.5kms. All in all this was a hard cycling day but ever so many happy memories of what I had seen along the way. While I did look out for Nessie on both sides of Loch Ness, alas he/she was not to be seen, although having been sited by some people the day before. I had now to travel to my Cousin Joyce’s home and arrived to her kind hospitality at 9pm.
At 6am next day I was up again and with a good weather forecast I was bound for the West Coast of Scotland and the sea weedy shores of Loch Broom at Inverlael for the start of a C2C walk to Ardgay and the Dornoch Firth on the east side of the country. Joyce was my back up, driving me to Inverlael for 9.30am and was to pick me up at Ardgay in the late evening. Armed with my OS sheet and compass I set forth at 10am.
I had wanted to do this walk for a long time and I had an intimate knowledge in my head of the route I wanted to take. Looking across to Loch Broom, an enormous sea loch, I realized the enormity of the day/evening ahead of me. Stopping at Glenbeg Bothy overnight was something I did consider but alas I did not have the time as I was on a tight over all schedule for my visit to Scotland. I had to make the most of the day in this remote and beautiful wilderness and the best way to record all that I would see was to take as many photographs as possible to record this spectacular scenery that abounded all around. There would be so much to see, to stop to admire and then record, adding of course to your walking time. With so many places in the world to see I would not be doing this mainly low level walk again.
For the first kilometer or so you are on a good forest road but then you join a narrow up hill path which terminates after Lochan a’ Chnepaich. As I came out of the forest I could see Beinn Dearg’s 1,084m (3,557ft) cloud covered top a long way in the distance. The River Lael to my right was in good spate which did indicate to me that it had been wet weather and once on the open moorland, peppered with peat hags, stony outcrops, heather clumps and long grass, lots of ups and downs, I would need to be careful as to where I placed my feet as deep holes and stones are often hidden and the last thing you want to do is twist, sprain or break an ankle or leg. Thus constant vigil would be necessary all the way along the trackless section of this C2C walk.
Above Lochan a’ Chnepaich, at approximately 800m (2,625ft), you are at the highest elevation of the day. I had promised Joyce there would be no diversions to do the four main mountains on the route. This would be a day’s walking on its own. These high peaks were cloud covered at times but then clearing which made for spectacular vistas of magnificent, immense and large landscapes. I was entering a short downward valley of around three kilometers which would eventually join Gleann Beag. I tried to set a route as direct as possible but on numerous occasions I had to change my route due to stone boulders, extremely soft ground, numerous peat hags and small burns flowing down from the high ground to my left.
I was following an integrate water system (source waters) that would eventually become the River Carron with hundreds of little burns feeding into a growing river as it meandered its way through isolated valleys to eventually flow out with mystery into the Dornoch Firth. How I wished I could have stopped and fished on a number of occasions but these are private waters.
On reaching the start of Gleann Beag I decided to cross the river where a herd of red deer, I had earlier startled, had crossed the river and I did follow their tracks, one hundred or so feet up from the river but often very wet in places and once again strewn with peat hags and in places dense reeds. I knew I was not far from Glenbeg Bothy and this would be a welcoming sight and perhaps other walkers staying there. At 2.30pm I reached the isolated Glenbeg Bothy. There was alas nobody here, with the last entry in the visitors’ book being two days before by a lone gentleman. In bad weather this bothy is a very welcomed refuge to walkers. From here there is no path and I made my way for the Weir marked on the map approximately two and a half kilometers further on and arriving there at 3.30pm but having a short twenty minute break for lunch. I am now on what I would describe as a service road for the Weir and what appeared to be water storage systems around it. The road has an excellent surface. I am coming to the end of the U shaped glacial valley of Gleann Beag which I so enjoyed and in the distance I could see the narrow entrance into Gleann Mor which again is U shaped and very steep on both sides. The unfolding vista before me just got better and better and Deanich Lodge suddenly came into view, giving me so much comfort that I was indeed on the right route. At 4.30pm I am outside Deanich Lodge. What a beautiful valley and location but total silence and wild red deer, small frogs and one herd of highland cattle have so far been my only company. By 7pm I have reached Alladale Lodge, nine kilometers on and the Lodge, not visible from the track, but the high quality of this Estate and its grounds would indicate the Lodge will be a very nice place. It is not long before I am on tarmac road and some houses are seen for the first time and at 8pm I am on the bridge at The Craigs and the start of lengthy Strath Carron. This is a long Glen with houses mainly to the left hand side of the single track road with passing places as you make your way to Ardgay. Not long after this I got my first mobile signal and I was able to communicate with Joyce to let her know I was alive, well and doing nicely after having a great but hard day’s walking. At 11pm I arrived at Ardgay, head torch on and with a red flashing rear warning light; locals must have thought that an UFO had arrived from outer space!!
I got my walking boots off and Joyce had a bottle of beer for me – sheer nectar after a hard lonely walk. Yes at last this C2C had been done – what an achievement. I wondered to myself could this be the shortest C2C in mainland UK and Europe? I have read that the distance is 53kms/33miles from Inverlael to Ardgay which I need to accept but the route I took did feel a little longer. OS Landranger Map Sheet 20, essential to take on the walk, takes you to the start of Strath Carron but alas not all the way to Ardgay so I have so far not been able to accurately measure the length of the walk.
From Joyce’s at Hill of Fearn I travelled on to Kinlochbervie to stay with my Cousin Rhoda and here my challenges were to walk/climb three mountains, Ben Hee 873m (2,864ft), Cranstackie 800m (2,625ft) and Beinn Spionnaidh 772m (2,533ft) thus completing all the high mountains in Sutherland.
On a dull morning with low cloud on the mountain tops I left my car at Karbrek at 10am and set of to climb Cranstackie firstly. I had studied the route I was to take carefully as there are no well defined paths. By 1pm I had reached the steep rocky top as the cloud was lifting and sunshine was taking over. At 1.45pm I was back down to the coll (I am in Scotland so I should say Bealach) between Cranstackie and Beinn Spionnaidh and I had a short lunch break by a rock boulder in lovely warm sunshine. Sky larks sang sweetly above me. By 2.24pm I was on the top of Beinn Spionnaidh with splendid views all around. I made my decent down to Rhigolter Hill Farm and then using the access road, crossing the River Dionard, and I was back to my car at 4.15pm. Another two of Sutherland’s lovely mountains had been captured. Being so near Durness I popped in to give a surprise visit to my Cousin Barbara and her husband John.
Ben Hee at 873m is the highest summit amongst a group of rounded hills in this empty and lonely part of Sutherland. Having walked throughout this wonderful former County of Sutherland when I use the word “empty” I must stress that there are no people living or communities in these remote locations. People would have lived in these parts once and there is evidence in the form of various former habitations to confirm this. The Highland Clearances during the 18th and 19th centuries (the Sutherland Clearances were the most notorious of these, taking place in the early years of the 19th century) were forced displacements of the population of the Scottish Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. They led to mass emigration to the sea coast, the Scottish Lowlands and in particular to the North American colonies where these poor hard working and honest people had to start a new life which they successfully did.
Tenants were evicted in favor of sheep runs. Otherwise you have every thing else; wonderful scenery , influenced by the ever changing weather of the day, you see different animals, birds and plants, constant changing sweeping landscapes, the lovely noise of running water with different levels of sound at times and unique smells.
I worked out that the best way to climb the mountain would be from West Merkland on the A838 road to Lairg and firstly up the gravel road that links Merkland with Hope. A kilometer or so up this road there is a cairn of stones on the right by a small river (Allt Coir’ a’ Chruiteir) which marks the path you take. It is a lovely hot sunny morning as I make my way by the south side of this delightful river (erosion has taken away parts of the path) and gradually gaining height. I left my car in a parking area at the west edge of Loch Merkland at 10.15am and I am at the top at 1pm. The views all around are staggering of what is a mountain panorama, and in particular as you look north to Ben Hope 927m a Munro I had climbed three years ago, seeing absolutely nothing due to low cloud and yes, very wet rain and stags roaring – yes it was the rut. What a beautiful mountain with lots of others to look across to. I remained on the top for half an hour taking in the unique ambiance of being on top of this special and lonely mountain. Such clarity prevailed that I could see for miles in all directions. Rather than take the same route again I traversed along the top of the ridge and then coming steeply down to join the gravel road I had used in the morning. Being attacked by hungry clegs I was back at my car by 3.30pm. This was a good time to get back as I wanted to do a spot of sea fishing before I went back to Rhoda’s kind hospitality and I was pleased to take back a good sized mackerel with me!! Weather wise it was the best day I had spent in Scotland mountains for many a year.
My adventure to Scotland had been short but very successful and enjoyable. Roll on my next trip to this very special area of the UK.
8th August 2011