Day 12 Monday 17th May
West side of Arkle to Strathchailleach Bothy
Walked from 06.00 to 18.00 hours
Distance 31K, Climbed 642m Bothy at NC 249 588
I quote from my daily log “Another awful night, wind changed quarter – thus hitting tent side on and by 22.00 was very fierce, slept only fitfully with tent thrashing around. Amazingly all the pegs held in the flimsy boggy surface. Rain started at 05.00 so everything got wet in packing up.”“`
It must have been about 04.30 that I awoke with a strange sensation, as I drifted into consciousness that turned out to be the clammy tent fabric pressed to my face. The single hoop design tent has an alarming habit in a side on wind to ‘collapse’ inwards, only to bounce back as the wind speed drops. Because of what happened two nights previously on Ben More I had tied pieces of cord around each of the four guys which stopped them from gradually loosening in the battering wind. I lay there putting off the evil moment but as the rain started I knew that I must get moving, so I began the routine that I had mentally rehearsed many times
Question: How do you get all your worldly goods – clothes, food, bedding etc. into your sack in as dry a condition as possible while it is raining and blowing a gale?
Answer: With great difficulty!
The procedure was made more difficult because I did most of the packing while in a sitting position – as soon as I knelt I could feel the ground giving under my knees. The sequence of events was:-
- Roll up sleeping bag and put into compression bag.
- Dress completely including boots.
- Pack everything else into respective bags.
- Deflate sleeping mat and put into its bag.
- Choose a lull in wind to open tent, get out quick, bring everything out and put on to waterproof rucksack cover and hopefully zip up tent before wind peaks again.
- Gather extraneous odds and sods which are outside tent – washing bowl, water bottle, stove, cooking pan, walking pole.
- Take down tent trying to pack outer quickly, to keep inner as dry as possible.
- Pack soaking wet tent plus about half a litre of water into its bag.
- Then it is quick job to put tent, mat and sleeping bag into bottom of sack, then everything else, close sack.
I set off an hour later at 0600hrs in steady rain which slanted across at me. The cloud was well down the watery flanks of Arkle, although at my level the visibility was pretty good. The track is a good one and it winds around the north end of Arkle before heading off to the screey slopes of Foinaven. I was heading for Rhiconich and the logical route seemed to be along the line of the two lochs which lead NNW from NC280 470 and hopefully find the path that goes the last 2 kms to the road. Once I had crossed the stream Alltan Riabhach I left the path and headed NW across very broken ground for a kilometre before reaching the shore of Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor. I had no reason to expect anything but a difficult time for the next 3kms or so but as I pushed my way through the thick heather on the NE bank of the loch I realised that I seemed to be on a path of sorts. It was not clearly defined by any means but I guess sufficiently well walked to be a great help on this heathery hillside sloping down to the water’s edge. It was a most strange sensation, for I could see far less of the path than my feet could feel. It was as if I was gliding through the heather on invisible rails.
Photo 75: Looking NNW Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor
I had set off walking without my morning cuppa and reaching the far end of the loch I determined to find somewhere to stop as the rain was fading the further I travelled away from the mountains. The river which flows into Loch a Garbh-bhaid Beag proved to be the ideal stopping place. There is a wide shingle delta on either side of the main channel which is so wide and of such considerable force that it was definitely a ‘boots off’ job. Once I gained the stony beach on the far side of the river NC268 499I got the stove going and by the time I was shod again in dry boots my tea was mashing. I sat on the biggest rock I could find and feasted on sesame snacks, chocolate and nuts ( Gad! I know how to live)
Near the little boathouse at the top end of the loch the path improves and by 08.45 I was approaching the bustling metropolis of Rhiconich. By 08.46 I had left it far behind me! Although I had intended to make the last camp of the trip near Sandwood Bay, because of my early start to the day and the less than attractive prospect of spending another night in a flapping tent on a bog, I had been pondering on the feasibility of pushing on to Cape Wrath that day. Before I could make any such decision I would have to find out the time of the last minibus from the Cape. Near the junction with the road to Kinlochbervie there is a phone box, I tried phoning the minibus operator but could not get through, so I phoned Ali instead! I think I totally confused her with what was evidently an inadequate explanation of my predicament.
I set off along what is quite a quiet road – compared to most back home! It undulates its way past several lochside communities which I guess for many generations were very dependant on fishing for their livelihood. There is still a lot of fishing in Loch Inchard but I suspect nowadays the boats operate out of Kinlochbervie. The weather was following the same pattern as previous days, much brighter on the coast but still very heavy cloud looking back to the SE over the mountains. There were occasional squalls of rain but mostly it was bright and sunny. I really enjoyed this walk even though tarmac can be unforgiving on the feet, the views more than compensated.
I tried again to ‘phone the minibus operator but still to no avail, the question was resolved however when I reached Badcall and went into the London Stores, (a certain irony in the naming of this little wayside Aladdin’s Cave, something to do with it being the most westerly shop on mainland U.K. and thus the furthest from London) for during a chat with the proprietor he told me that there is a bothy just NE of Sandwood Bay, so problem solved, a night in Strathchailleach Bothy
Photo 76: London Stores Badcall
I have to admit here a grave omission on my part, I belong to the Mountain Bothy Association and this is one of their bothies. In the preparation for the walk I went through their handbook and noted the locations of any that were near my route, how I came to miss this one I cannot think, but it certainly was very welcome piece of information. I succumbed to temptation and bought 2 packets of sandwiches, 2 apples and a packet of Eccles cakes, simple fare but so much more appealing than nuts and raisins. I sat outside the shop and consumed the packet of egg and cress sandwiches but they did not really set my taste buds a jingle – then I noticed they were the healthy low fat option – low fat, no this. no that, no taste. The moment was saved though, by 2 eccles cakes and an apple.
Photo 77: Bonny banks o’ gorse
There were some magnificent banks of gorse in many places along this road filling the warm morning air with their intoxicating scent; one of the more spectacular was at the side of the road just above Kinclochbervie. The contrast of the yellow gorse and blue of the loch was just stunning.
Photo 78: Looking W from road just above Kinlochbervie
Lunchtime approached and when I came to the little track down to Oldshoremore I decided that lunch sat on the beach looking out to sea would be just the ticket, I also needed to avail myself of the Public Conveniences there. Fifteen minutes later feeling considerably lighter and more relaxed I made my way on to the white sandy beach which was deserted and very windy. I found a sheltered spot behind some huge rocks where I could have my lunch. The trouble was it faced inland and offered a splendid view of where I had just come from.
It was mid afternoon by the time I reached Balchrick, the warm sunshine of earlier in the day had been replaced by thick hazy cloud, I was getting tired, the 06.00 start beginning to tell. Near the start of the track to Sandwood Bay quite a number of cars were parked, this being the nearest access point. During the hour and a half walk to the beach I must have seen more people than at any other similar time since leaving Fort William including those on the beach I guess 30 – 40. The 6 kms walk would be lovely on a fine clear day, but given gale force wind, grey skies and thick mantles of cloud over all the hills to the east. I have to say I found it rather a grim plod. However as I got to Druim na Buainn I looked down to Sandwood Loch and began to get glimpses of the beach and so my mood changed. The last section of the path drops down towards the beach and is truly dramatic, to ones right is Sandwood Loch with the hills behind, in front the bay. This must be about the most inaccessible large beach in the U.K. and all I had read about it had not prepared me for the exhilaration of walking across that wide expanse of sand. It is bounded at both ends by high cliffs, the western end has a rock needle equally as splendid as The Old Man of Storr on Skye, there are also several rocky islets just off the beach.
Photo 79: Looking N to Sandwood Bay
By the time I reached the beach the sun had disappeared and dark clouds were overhead, which together with the angry sea and spray laden wind only served to accentuate the loneliness of this wonderful seaside gem. I had first seen the gannets while I was still on the path down to the beach, but once on the sand, walking along near the water’s edge it was a grand sight, there seemed to be an endless flight of gannets both mature and immature together with other seabirds flying NE to SW along the line of the surf, the gannets were diving from a height of 25 to 30 metres.
Photo 80: Sandwood Bay
On another day I would have relished lingering here to explore the loch and enjoy all the views, but concern about the weather was ever present and I was anxious to find the bothy. As I walked along the beach I looked north, a view which on a clear day would have revealed the last headland about 1 km south of Cape Wrath, but on this occasion I reckoned I could only see to just beyond the Bay of Keisgaig.
Towards the NE end of the bay I splashed across the outfall river of Sandwood Loch and climbed up the rocky cliffs, which are at quite a comfortably climbable angle, trying to keep traversing the cliff and hillside above in roughly a ENE direction. The terrain here is very wet and spongy, but firm enough to not cause too much worry. I soon reached Lochan nan Sac NC240 657 and turned almost due east from the top end, shortly after that I saw in the distance the bothy, nestling on the left bank of the river.
I arrived at the, unoccupied, bothy about 17.30hrs and explored the facilities,
- Sleeping room 4 metres square most of the floor area taken up with a raised platform.
- Small kitchen no sink, no running water, just two work tops.
- Sitting room possibly 4m x 5m with a few assorted chairs and a rickety table.
- Passage way by door housing spades – for cutting peat and toilet purposes.
The unpacking of my rucksack revealed an extremely wet sleeping bag and Thermarest. In the excitement of breaking camp that morning in the wind and rain, I had put the tent inside the waterproof liner, so all the water that was on the fabric of the tent, having been squeezed out into the bottom of the liner was then soaked up by its absorbent neighbours. I rang out as much water as I could but the sleeping bag did not dry out to any significant degree. Fortunately the bags filling did not loose any of its thermal qualities by being wet.
Photo 81: Strathchailleach Bothy
One of the ‘Rules of the house’ was to maintain the stock of cut peat, so there would always be a supply of dry peat for the fire. Once I had sorted myself out I prepared for my first experience of this ancient art. Armed with spade and plastic sack I teetered across the river, a substantial flow some 5 metres wide and found the peat cutting face some 50 metres away. This is a very satisfying pastime, slicing down through the deep deposit, trying to cut brick size lumps. Fresh cut ‘bricks’ are left on the surface to begin the draining process, partially protected from the elements by strips of plastic sack. I then filled the bag with 10 kilos or so of partly dry ‘bricks’. I found it even more hazardous recrossing the river, tired legs, wet rocks, a spade and an unwieldy bag of peat was not a recipe for surefootedness.
The lumps were then stacked in the dry lean-to store of the bothy. Having done my duty I set about trying to light a peat fire, no easy task, but a reluctant form of combustion did eventually occur. Had the weather been 10 degrees colder though, I would have spent a very cold evening in front of it. The smell of burning peat is unique and I thought quite pleasant. I tried to ignore the vague recollection that peat smoke is highly carcinogenic.
I was destined to spend the night on my own, which although I am normally quite a sociable person I felt it was rather fitting, having been on such a solitary venture for 12 days, that I should not break the pattern for the last evening. There were a couple of squalls after the peat cutting episode and the wind was as fierce as ever. All of a sudden around 20.30 the gloomy interior of the bothy was lit by golden evening light, reflected from the surrounding moor. I quickly found my camera and rushed outside. What an incredible sight! The low sun appeared like molten iron ore – reminding me of a visit years ago to the steel works at Corby and seeing the Bessemer Converters discharging the liquid ore. The contrast of light, sunset red clear sky to the west, the rest of the sky a mixture of heavy rain clouds, blue patches and lighter, higher cloud. All this combined with the burning colours of the moor, deep shadows both on the stone walls of the building and also among the thick clumps of grass. I just stood out there and marvelled at its beauty, until another sudden squall sent me scuttling in once again.
This is an extremely remote location, amidst lonely bleak moors; I could only begin to imagine how conditions were in the middle of winter when any combination of snow, ice, Atlantic gales and very short hours of daylight would make this seem to be a very hostile environment. With only 2 kilometres of flattish moor between the bothy and the ocean, gale force winds of any description from the west would present a severe hazard to both body and building alike.
The bothy was occupied for a number of years by a colourful character, who having forsaken life working in the heavy industry of Glasgow came north, found the deserted building and moved in, thereafter living the life of a hermit. He would walk to the London Stores to collect any supplies he needed. With an inexhaustible supply of peat and water within 100 metres he had all that was required for a frugal lifestyle. Many of the interior walls of the building are decorated with murals that he painted, which depict a whole range of subjects. It is probably true to say that most bothies are buildings with an interesting history, but Strathchaillach must rank as being pretty unique.
I really enjoyed my evening meal; it was eat up night, thus a larger than usual portion of soup with couscous and best of all my favourite ‘Real’ meal – cod and potato in sour cream sauce, saved for the occasion. The feast was rounded off with the last two Eccles cakes. The light was fading while I wrote up my daily log and a suitably erudite entry in the bothy ‘visitor book’. My literary endeavours aided by the post-prandial delight of malt whisky and chocolate, being careful to leave just enough whisky to drink a toast on reaching Cape Wrath the next morning.
By 21.00 I was beginning to flag, it had been a long day, 30 kms. and 16 hours since being forced into action early that morning. I spent another 20 minutes enjoying a cup of Horlicks while straining my eyes reading some of the visitor book entries. A last check in the kitchen area that what meagre supplies of food I had left were stored in a plastic bag hanging from a hook – to prevent mice from taking nocturnal nibbles, a last pee (outside in the designated ‘toilet’ area) and then to bed.
Oh what luxury, lying in a warm and snug (and damp) sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep with the sounds of the wind tearing at the nearby window and whining in the eaves.