If you haven’t heard of the Sutherland Trail in the far north of Scotland, established by well known backpacker and hiker Cameron McNeish, well, neither had I. But this trail inspired my great hiking friend Ali to get back out in the wild and seize the moment for freedom. Luckily for me, she decided I was her only friend crazy enough to enjoy it too, so invited me along. Our two week hike turned out to be much more than just this trail: adding a few mountains along the way, extra detours and distance, some luxury and surprises, it turned into a rich and thought provoking journey.
Our route, about 240km, shown by the black hashed line on the map, started in Ullapool, though Ali had already walked from Dingwall. We wound our way up through Assynt to Lochinver, where the designated Sutherland Trail starts. From here we mainly followed Macneish’s trail through Sutherland to Tongue, but added of Glencoul and Glendhu Lochs. Finally we headed south to Lairg, where we causght the train back to Inverness.
To avoid as much road walking as possible, we fought our way out of Ullapool, hacking through the bracken and finding our way over high deer fences. The gates installed for us mere mortals were thoughtful enough, but not made for short people! Ali managed OK, but I was still getting used to my pack weight and had to climb up the fence in order to bundle through the designated square gap. Higher up we were in the clear and enjoyed walking along the white rocky shores of the lochs catching views to the West of the beautiful Summer Isles. Our first wild camp by Lochanan Dubha (meaning little dark loch) was a breezy hillock, watching the stunning sunset over Stac Pollaidh, our exciting minature mountain to climb the next day.
Stac Pollaidh is typical of the ‘other worldly’ landscape of Assynt, the Gaelic ‘stac’ or ‘stuc’ means jagged peak, and this one is like a spiked sea monster rising abruptly from the waves below. This was to be the only time in our trip that we were walking with a number of other people. A relatively accessible and well known spot, the car park at the base was full, and we met families, singles and groups walking the well constructed path up and around the spectacular little mountain. At the top, a young couple from Korea were having the best time, grinning, laughing, taking photos, wildly enthusiastic having driven across from Inverness for the day as part of their Scottish holiday…next stop, Skye.
Ali was reading a book on Gaelic place names, and saw that our direct route to the coast would take us down a ridge called Creag Nan Dearcag, which translates as ‘hill of the little berries’. Fresh fruit sounded like a great idea, and the ridge was a delight, but alas, only a disappointing 3 bilberries were found. Of course the name was probably given over 1,000 years ago – times change.
Finding a good spot for wild camping is key. That evening we had identified a couple of likely bays, with fresh streams running into the sea, hoping for a sea view. We came across the perfect little pebble beach, well supplied with driftwood for an evening campfire. After supper we watched oystercatchers on the strand line turning over the stones with their long curved orange beaks to find dinner of their own. Their calls, the soft click-clacking of the stones as the tide went out and the crackling fire (smoke keeping the midges away) ….perfect.
Next day took us up the coast to Lochinver, a small coastal village and a first opportunity to resupply – a shop and a cafe. refreshed and re stocked with food, we continued on towards Suilven, a classic mountain, again, rising like a monster from the deep. The delightful film Edie is a must watch for a feel good experience and a close look at this spectacular peak. Meanwhile, with the rain coming in, midges still out in force and no obvious good camp spot, we headed for the bothy. On arrival a lovely couple had already settled in, and told us that there was a group of small adders living just outside in the wall of the building, a little disconcerting, to say the least. Rain and midges seemed a far more serious threat however, so we too set up happily inside, plenty of room for everyone. It’s always interesting chatting with Bothy mates – he was taking a short break from his trip cycling around Britain, and she was up a Belgian Chef patissier living in London. She cooked a mighty fancy meal on their little camp stove! We were on tasty Scotch pie. Woken at 11pm by a group of 3 men arriving who had got lost. Well, at least they were safe and bedded down on the floor. Bizarrely, this wasn’t a problem as they were carrying big canvas lilos and even had a foot pump!!!
The ascent up Suilven was on a masterpiece of a mountain path, securely constructed in steep boulders for much of the way, but very unobtrusive. A narrow ridge, a final scramble up and around a windy corner, and we were on the top, which is, as one man described very accurately, surprisingly just like a bowling green.
After another lochside beach camp, we were heading off to Ichnadamph, just a collection of houses, where, through some friends of friends, Ali had organised to send a parcel of food that we could collect on passing through. Success! Saved us carrying a good deal of unwanted weight in our packs. We’re also getting a feel of the flora now: beautiful stuff under our feet, as well as the endless purple and pink heathers, there’s masses of tiny white eye bright, fringed pink orchids, bog asphodel, the insectivorous butterwort (though not in flower at the moment) and some fabulous sundew. However, in my opinion, those butterwort and sundew aren’t working hard enough at midge munching. Ha.
Next we have an interesting encounter with the Cape Wrath Ultra Trail marshals, who are setting up tonight’s overnight camp for the ultra runners. The serried ranks of about 70 one man green tents with rows of portaloos look very odd. Of about 120 runners, 58 are still going 8 days into the race. We talk about their route, and this confirms that we can change our plans to include Britain’s highest waterfall and some more spectacular lochside walking in Glencoul and Glendhu. That night we camp by a loch high up, the only dry patch is right on the runners trail (though calling it a path would be a bit of a stretch). In the morning, after a wild, rainy night, we greet all the runners as they walk/amble/hobble through. I love the fact that some stop to take photos of the loch – it is extraordinarily beautiful. We then walk on through world renowned geological formations and THE waterfall: Eas a Chaul Aluinn to a perfect spot by Glencoul Bothy.
On the lochside beach we watch grey seals and leaping fish, perhaps salmon, we’re not sure, they look about 6” long. In the morning gulls are diving and catching smaller fry, also leaping about!
The sun comes out the next day and by the time we reach Kylesku we are at our most tired. We’ve booked dinner in the very swish Kylescu hotel, so we look for a spot to wild camp nearby. This is always harder nearer habitation, though Kylesku is again, just a small collection of houses and the one hotel. And a spectacular bridge, providing a crucial transport link with a fascinating history of turntable ferries and swimming cattle. We find a heathery hillside, and after some debate, decide we are unlikely to be struck by lightning, despite being just below the high point with the TV mast – no storms forecast tonight!, Now I understand the references to the comfort of heather beds: when I get into my precariously pitched tent it is as if the mountainside is giving me a big hug.
The Kylesku Hotel is amazing.Ali ate half a lobster and was delighted at the ultra low food miles: we had walked past the lobster pots that very afternoon. I was outfaced by a giant crab, but that’s another story. I would love to come back here to stay, superb. as it was, we lingered over a marvellous breakfast and finally set off at 10.00 the next day.
Exit from Kylesku was not without incident – our planned shortcut ended in a high wall surrounding a good deal of very smart property. Our only way forward was to scale the wall and let ourselves out of the large gate with the big green button. In full view of the house. No sooner were we over the wall than an authoritative but friendly gentleman was there to push the big green button for us.
Our walk form here too us over Bealach Nan Fiann (Finns pass), where there’s a deserted old sheiling, Legend abound of Finn the Giant, striding around the water from Scotland to Ireland (built the causeway so he didn’t have to get his feet wet, apparently). We are truly in the empty heart of the Highlands now, hills and bog for miles and miles. We camp in appropriately named ‘Lone” next to a lovely river beach and the shut up Lone Bothy. All alone.
Next comes the traverse of a vast swathe of bog in the Highland Flow Country – one of the largest blanket bogs in the world (4,000 sq km) .
We use the Moine Path, an old path about 18km long, built centuries ago as a more direct route from A to B, and it still stands solidly today keeping you above the bog, yet totally at one with it, all covered with heather and moss, small bridges no longer visible as nature has incorporated them.
Nine consecutive nights wild camping is a stretch in Scotland, even for me. The Scottish midges were just as ferocious and horrible as I feared. Despite every precaution, I was the one who was quickly covered in midge bites, itchy as hell. Sometimes we had to retreat to our tents to sit out the siege. One evening it was like being in my own little medieval castle: I had to ‘lower the drawbridge’ pop outside, then they charged in to the inner bailey (the porch of my tiny tent), I escaped into the fully sealed ‘keep’ (inner tent), zipped up tight, but a few even got in there. Luckily they are not too clever, and I managed to kill most of them before they got me again. Murder and mayhem. However, most evenings were midge free, kept away by the windy weather or a handy camp fire, so we only had to resort to full siege tactics on a couple of occasions.
Thus, on arrival at Tongue, with the help of the friendly lady in the village shop, we were booked in to the welcoming Taigh Nan Ubhal Guesthouse (House of the Apple Tree – yes, it was still there). All our washing was scooped up and delivered clean later that evening, a restaurant table booked for us, boots on the warm boiler. Joy! Our day off was spent drinking coffee again in the village shop, a wander down to the Kyle of Tongue campsite and pier, and a meander through the churchyard, looking at all the headstones of the MacKays. We are in the heart of MacKay country here, and Ali is Ali McKay. Tongue is another village where the Highland people were ‘cleared’ to, in the dark days of the early 1800s, and the earliest graves date from that time. We talk a lot about the forced migration, as tragic as ever, having just heard about the current crisis in Afghanistan.
We turn South and homeward, but we have two spectacular mountains to climb on the way: Ben Loyal, the queen of the Scottish mountains comes first. With it’s castellated shape of many pointy summits, it is indeed like a crown.The weather holds for us, giving fine views all over the north coast and out to Orkney. We choose a site to camp on a windy little ridge and realise our camp spot choices are now ever influenced by catching the wind, not sheltering from it, to avoid the midges. This time we had gone too far, and had to move down the hill a little to save a total flattening. There is still no one about. No sign of the deer stalkers either, though we know they are about early each morning as the post office lady’s husband turns out to be the head stalker for this area.
We move on the Altnaharra Hotel, another potential oasis of luxury, and indeed it turns out to be a great find, if not quite what we expected. It’s an old fishing lodge, and the Ghillies bar is indeed full of the fishermen talking fish: I watched the stories of casting all day (his shoulder ached) and the size of fish caught, and the chat about maggot factories…a different world to ours. Ali lounged on the chaise longue, we sat in the ‘library’, we ate well, I had a bath.
Finally, the ascent of our only Munro of the trip, Ben Klibreck, the forecast was for poor visibility and some rain, but we couldn’t bear to miss it out, and though the summit stayed in mist, as we descended along the spectacular long ridge with it’s own worthy summits, we got below the cloud bases and could gaze across the highlands in every direction. We just had one more big bit of bog to cross… a couple of ‘over the ankle moments did occur…but our day finished happily at the Crask Inn. At Crask there is just the Inn and one house. The Inn was gifted to the Church and is another wonderful oasis. We were the only guests that night, and camped on the beautifully mown lawn, making a donation to the church fund.
If you’ve read this far – well done, and thank you! It’s one of the longest blogs I’ve written, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
Memories will linger on of this wonderful, empty, unspoilt place, and my feelings of being totally relaxed in Ali’s company. Ali – thanks for being a superb trekking pal and inviting me along. Thank you for coming to my rescue when I fell off the path and did a first class impression of a squashed beetle, totally unable to move, face down under the weight of my pack. That’s what good friends are for. They lift you up when you‘re down.