Sutherland

For much of the six months or so before starting out on my final cross-Scotland stage, I had genuine doubt whether I would ever begin it, let alone finish. But the NHS physios of east London seemed just about to have battered my achilles into submission, and buoyed by the confidence of the Peak District stage of my cross-England walk a month earlier, I set out with keen anticipation for Sutherland.

This is grand country, with no easy ways across unless you stick to a ribbon of tarmac. Throughout I followed a variant of the Cape Wrath Trail, itself not strictly a set route, but one of its pleasures, as it channels the hardy further north, is the camerarderie of meeting fellow walkers and hearing their tales. This – and an extraordinary, final, visual phenomenon – was to make the transit, for me, perhaps the most memorable walking experience of my life.

Assynt

The last Munro territory of the Cape Wrath Trail is dominated by the twins of Ben More Assynt and Conival. They are not well-placed for the through walker, even though tantalisingly near; and in any case the high pass beneath the latter gave a magnificent view over this primeval area.

Stage 31, Friday 30 May 2014: through Glen Oykel, 12 miles

A nice easy start along clear estate tracks, at least for the most part. Over a pint in the Oykel Bridge Hotel – a friendly place now, though once it had a more forbidding reputation – the landlord told me much about the steady stream of walkers he sees on the Trail, including a couple already earlier that day. To reinforce the point, in came Phil, who had been at Knockdamph bothy overnight. He set off before me, but I caught him up in a couple of miles. After the main estate track finishes, there’s a reasonable path by the fishing beats of the glen, and we found a little short cut at 318091 to snip a corner on the river. Phil would be going a different way to me tomorrow, the tough route by Gorm Loch Mor, and chose a camp site just before the river confluence at 327129; I continued a little further, to just before the gravel beds in the upper glen, with magnificent views all around.

Stage 32, Saturday 31 May 2014: upper Glen Oykel to Inchnadamph, 7 miles

slopes of Conival

On the slopes of Conival

Perhaps not a full day out, but I’d remembered that on day two last year I’d done a big day with a Munro and paid for it the next day. Anyway, there was plenty to linger over, during the slow and often trackless ascent to the 1700ft Bealach Tralgill. It’s a great spot on the principal east-west watershed of Scotland, the two Munros behind you, the remarkable Corbetts of Conival and the three-pointed Quinag in front. I remembered my brief ascent of one of the Quinag peaks nearly forty years before, bucking out of the other two due to a misplaced concern for the weather. The CWT guide book hypes up the descent from the bealach, but certainly in these benign conditions the initial rocky steps were none too difficult. And always, on the way down, Quinag to admire beyond.

Sea lochs and high passes

The next two days were the big days of this stage, with two high passes to be crossed, two sea lochs to be descended to, and much trackless terrain to be tackled. I’d planned for a bothy overnight, but changed my plans ‘on the ground’ to split the two days more evenly.

Stage 33, Sunday 1 June 2014: Inchnadamph to Maldie Burn, 15 miles

I’d expected to cover just 12 miles today, unless I picked up the Corbett of Glas Bheinn, just 500ft above the first high pass, Bealach na h-Uidhe, itself a shade over 2000ft. I’d made a promise to myself though not to take it in anything other than perfect weather, and as I made the bealach a little light rain started to fall. The further climb didn’t look that inviting either, with a deal of scree to be faced – not my favourite walking surface. So without any guilt, I started back down, on an interesting little path that wended its way cleverly downwards, though I did feel a little guilty as I disturbed a ptarmigan hen and her chicks just below the little double lochans at 279270.

The twin lochans

The twin lochans

Eventually the path starts zig-zagging quite steeply, and peters out at a burn. It’s a case then of make your own way to the valley floor, none too difficult in truth. Indeed, the valley itself is tougher – there’s a bit of a path, but it’s broken, and take care with remnants of an old wire fence. Compensation is the view of the Eas a Chual Aluinn waterfall, the highest in Britain at 658ft of drop. Reaching the sea loch of Loch Beag isn’t quite an end to the tricky stuff either, but soon I was inside Glencoul bothy for a planned break. Here two heavy-packed (25kg!) Germans soon joined me, the weight explained when one produced a tin of spam and can opener. Credit to struggling in via Gorm Loch Mor with that on their backs.

The path now climbs 700ft above the Aird da Loch peninsula. Just above the bothy, a couple of little diggers had started ‘improvements’: the estate, perhaps, looking to run a landrover track in place of the current stalker’s path. That would be a shame, for the feet have no interest in wide paths, whereas currently there’s just the right of looking about to do, with a few cairns at the path-top to help the brain too. By now I’d determined that an extra hour beyond the bothy at Glendhu, by the eponymous sea-loch, would serve me well, and I looked out for possible camp sites: I thought I could see some. At the bothy I met a Tynesider, Steve – his path and mine would cross again later. Bowling along the broad Kyelsku track from Glendhu (sometimes it’s nice to have a broad track!) I found that most of the green I had seen earlier was bracken, but just beyond the little hydro-electricity works of Maldie Burn I found a spot that only needed a little gardening. Very midgy though, the worst of the entire trip.

Stage 34, Monday 2 June 2014: Maldie Burn to Rhiconich, 16 miles

Staying at Glendhu, this would have been 19 miles; from my camp, nearly three less. But as I climbed the path to the 1300ft pass, I realised that it was much broader than the single dashed line of the OS map – perhaps it had been converted to land-rover status for the hydro works I’d seen the night before. Certainly posts warned that 33kV cables were buried beneath/beside – better than pylons, at least.

The path continued beyond the summit shieling, where I discovered a nearly-full 2l Sigg bottle whose loss would no doubt would have inconvenienced a recent traveller hugely, all the way to the forestry above Achfary. Logging operations were in progress, but beyond them the track welcomingly turned softer, and little over two hours from camp, I was down at the ‘main’ A838 (single-track). The CWT alternative to a hill-route over Ben Dreavie stays on the road for a few miles, but I split off after one, to take the alternative to the alternative, by the rough ground beneath Arkle. This is one of two great Corbetts that dominate north-west Sutherland, the other being the remarkable Foinaven – followers of jump racing will know both names, the former as one of the greatest racehorses of all time, the latter perhaps the luckiest-ever Grand National winner.

From leaving the track at Lone all the way to Rhiconich, seven miles, there’s barely 100ft of rise but scarcely a track either. It took me over four hours of walking, in contrast to the three for nine hilly miles before. But my mind was engaged throughout, unlike during the morning – or perhaps partly engaged; I descended to the shore of Loch an Nighe Leathaid when I should have stayed above it, and headed for Loch a’Garbh-Bhaid Mhor at the first branch of Allt an Riabhach and not the second. Steve, who had taken the A838 alternative, caught me at the latter loch, having found that better line, and we walked the remaining miles to Rhiconich. He pointed out the adder I had nearly stepped on. Not the only danger: note that the Garbh Allt crossing requires the respect given to it in the Cicerone guide – we were pleased to have low levels, and still had to take great care.

The final push

It’s not, by any means, all over at Rhiconich, but one is entitled to feel the end is near. Thoughts turn to the practicalities of crossing the MOD range on the peninsula, a topic of conversation between walkers ever since Oykel Bridge.

My own enquiries in early May had told me ‘no bombing in June, definately’. Phil on day one had disabused me of that, but phone calls from both Oykel Bridge and Inchnadamph only reached answerphones. Finally, I spoke to a human just before I left Rhiconich: there would be bombing on ‘my’ day, Wednesday, but it would be over by noon. Say 2pm to be on the safe side.

Stage 35, Tuesday 3 June 2014: Rhiconich to Sandwood Bay, 12 miles

A very easy day, seven miles on quiet road, five on easy track. The dreich conditions of Sunday and Monday had gone too, so this was a day for lingering. On the way into Kinlochbervie I met three Edinburgh students walking the CWT from Ullapool as part of their degree (!) – there were more like them, they said. No sign though of Steve, or the Germans (who I’d heard had taken a bus from Kyelsku after Glendhu), or the two Frenchmen also walking north; Phil I know was on a quicker schedule than I. At a little rise above the port I turned to scan the mountains once more, Canisp and Quinag, Conival, Ben More Assynt, and Glas Bheinn, Arkle and Foinaven: a wonderful vista, but land I was leaving.

Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack from the Blairmore road

Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack from the Blairmore road

Sandwood Bay: sunset

Sandwood Bay: sunset

The track from Blairmore, though wide, is soft and a joy to walk, with soon a tantalising short glimpse of the lighthouse-top at the Cape. Many day walkers, and even a runner, were enjoying the recreation. The walk between dunes and on the beach of Sandwood Bay in no way failed to betray my eager anticipation – it really is a gem of a setting, the better for not a single building in sight. In the Med it would be a holiday complex, renamed Sandwood Euro Resort or some such. I pitched tent and enjoyed a long paddle in the sun. When I came back, the students – now 11, mostly Americans, mid 20s to 30s I’d guess – had pitched just along from me, and we had a nice chat. Later I watched the sunset that I had dreamt about, and looked forward to the culmination tomorrow.

Stage 36, Wednesday 4 June 2014: Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath, 8 miles (and on to Kearvaig bothy, 13 miles)

My plan was to linger at Sandwood a while, hang around at Strathchailleach bothy for a bit, and cross the MOD boundary at 2ish when hopefully any red flags would have gone. It’s certainly not difficult to while away a couple of hours at Strathchailleach, the last house in Britain to be without any mains services, imaging the life of its last inhabitant Sandy McRory-Smith, and making a trip up to the peat bank that sustained him with fuel.

And so up the little rise between the bothy’s burn and the River Keisgaig. It was 2ish, and I heard the jets. A delayed last run, I thought? But over the little rise, incontrovertably, was a red flag. I run through the rehearsed options one more time: retreat, hang around, risk it; probably hang around, then retreat, and try tomorrow. But as I walked towards the fence, a spotter on the hill moved to the flag, and … TOOK IT DOWN! If he had been closer, he would have been embraced. But at the fence, I saw another flag, so I walked towards it and the spotter … and he jumped on his quad bike and TOOK THAT DOWN TOO! He watched me crossing the fence, then beetled off.

This is a full-on moorland stage, never above 500ft, but no respite from tussocky grass and bog until the track just over a mile from the lighthouse. It felt, on this breezy sunny day, an empty wildreness, particularly apposite for my last few miles across the nation of Scotland. It took for ever, it took too long, and it did not take long enough. On the track, around a couple of bends, and the lighthouse at the Cape came into view.

After years of thought and effort, this is not a place to rush away from. The last tourist minibus back down to the ferry passed me just before the end, but I would not have taken it even if I could. After a tour of the Cape and a chat with John at the cafe – it seems I was the day’s only finsiher – I wandered back along the track and continued to the wonderful bothy at Kearvaig.

This is nearly a good a bay as Sandwood, if not better for being a little more intimate. I clambered a little way on the rocks for a view of the puffin colony John had told me about. After dinner, I went out to see the sunset, not quite as spectacular as Sandwood, but still pretty good. The sun dipped one last time on my Scottish walk.

I went back to the bothy, had a brew, and 20 minutes later came back for the twilight colourations. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. The sun was back in the sky. It had set at the exact same time as at Sandwood, to seconds, and now it had returned! How this must have spooked the ancients, or supernatural believers now. It was, I guess, some sort of refraction of the set sun through the atmosphere, or its reflection on the sea and projection onto cloud. Whatever the explanation, it was a transfixing experience for my night on the Wrath peninsula, and an end to my walk.

Sunset at Kearvaig

Sunset at Kearvaig …

The second sun

… and the second sun

Postscript: leaving the cape, Thursday 5 June 2014

The weather gods paid me back for the double sunset with steady rain the next morning. It’s a short mile back up the track to the junction, where John had said wait for half an hour or so and one of the two tourist buses will pick you up. Half hour in the rain, desolate spot, nothing. What to do? Perhaps there were no tourists in the rain, perhaps no ferry either. Two choices: five miles back to Cape Wrath, or eight miles to the ferry. I didn’t want an anti-climax. Off on the lonely miles to the ferry.

After a mile or so a truck comes up the path. It’s driven by Fiona, an MOD contractor whose job it was to take down the remaining red flags after yesterday’s exercise (including one at Kearvaig); her colleague Roberta (so wrong sex guessed yesterday) had spotted me yesterday, bless her. Fiona is happy to take me up to the Cape, and back to the ferry later if needed. Then we meet both the minibuses going down, in short order; the first is full but the second has Steve, and another walker in green waterproofs, plus a few tourists. Within yards we meet the two Germans coming off the hill. It’s agreed that we’ll go back to the Cape and wait for them, then take them off, it being likely that there will be no other buses for a while. While waiting at the Cape I show off yesterday’s photographs – I get applause!

The Germans arrive, we set off, then the two French walkers come off the hill. It’s a repeat, the Cape a third time for me! This time it’s the last. The ferry shuttle splits us up a bit, but Steve, the two French, green waterproof man and me are together on the ‘mainland’ for the two miles to Durness. Green waterproof man, it transpires, is none other than Peter Lincoln, fresh off 1,200 miles direct from Land’s End, and celebrated for epic walks including the first-ever continuous round of Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, nearly a year in 1997-8. This certainly put my modest plod in perspective. I’m the only one for Durness bunkhouse – Peter and Steve take the afternoon bus – but there I meet the bulk of the American party, also finished today – total CWT finishers today in the rain 16, just me in the sun yesterday! No others wanted to risk the bombing; I’m so glad I had.

Back to Kintail and Wester Ross

Accommodation

Three wild camps, two B&Bs, one bunkhouse: a nice mix, I thought, especially when the first and last camps were in such wonderful spots. Not so good at Maldie Burn, but at least I found a reasonably stone- and bracken-free spot without too much searching, just beside the track and with a lovely view across Kylesku.

I’d planned to use the bunkhouse at Inchnadamph, but it was block-booked, and they put me on to The Byre, just round the corner. This is sometimes let as self-catering so it comes with fridge and breakfast essentials as well as tea and coffee etc – very helpful. It seems that many CWT walkers stay at the Rhiconich Hotel for a last chance of ‘facilities’ before the final push – a friendly place, but I could have done with a wardrobe to hang damp things! Finally, the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse in Durness is a classic of its type and more or less obligatory for a last night.

Map

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Glen Oykel

Ben More Assynt (and Phil) in Glen Oykel

Glen Oykel pitch

Glen Oykel pitch

Bealach Tralgill

Bealach Tralgill

Looking back to Conival

Looking back to Conival

Inchnadamph

Inchnadamph

Eas a Chual Aluinn

Eas a Chual Aluinn

Glendhu

Glendhu

Quinag

Quinag from Maldie Burn

Arkle

Arkle from above Achfary

Loch a'Gharbh-bhaid Beag

Descending to Loch a’Gharbh-bhaid Beag

Sandwood Bay: beach

Sandwood Bay: beach

Sandwood Bay: rocks

Sandwood Bay: rocks

Looking back to Sandwood Bay

Looking back to Sandwood Bay

Strathchailleach bothy

Inside Strathchailleach bothy

Moorland before the Cape

Moorland before the Cape

Kearvaig bothy

Kearvaig bothy, with flag

Kearvaig road-end

Kearvaig road-end bus stop

The Keoldale ferry

The Keoldale ferry