IT’S been a month since my last walking trip, which occurred at the end of June 2018 but which I hadn’t gotten around to writing up until now. I had more success in returning to Scotland than I’d enjoyed on the previous trip, though a bus terminating unexpectedly at London Bridge due to roadworks did have me jogging across central London in the small hours of the morning in order to catch the first train out. I travelled up to Mallaig and stayed the night there, ready to take the ferry back to Armadale in the morning. Which I did.
Arrival in Armadale
The weather during June had been scorchingly sunny in southern England and it seemed that western Scotland was also getting its share of solar radiation. The sky was blue, the sun was fierce and the heat was downright oppressive as I stepped from the ferry onto the quayside. My aim was to leave Armadale almost the same moment I arrived there but I realised I’d be going nowhere if I didn’t stock up on more cold drinks than I had already stowed in my bag. Also, I needed one right then.
My cold drink drunk, I braved the heat and stomped along the road through Armadale. I quickly discovered, separated from the roadway by a hedge, a leafy path of which I’d been blissfully unaware when going the other way.
The road climbed what was a fairly gentle hill and this felt like alarmingly hard going. How, I wondered, was I going to walk 17 miles in this weather? I mean, it was nice that it was sunny — the pouring rain that had plagued my last trip had not been entirely awesome — but it was the sort of heat where you just want to flop down and not move. And that was not my plan.
Armadale Castle Gardens
The road carried me around to the old stable block (now a restaurant) of Armadale Castle and I diverted here through its gates. The castle’s ruins are surrounded by a formal garden and I chose to use them as an alternative route to retracing my steps along the road. The main driveway did make for a pleasant walking environment but, since I was using it as a through route, the entrance fee for the gardens amounted to a not inconsiderable toll.
Armadale Castle being ‘the spiritual home of Clan Donald’, its gardens also house a Museum of the Isles, which naturally focuses on Highland life, Clan Donald and the Lordship of the Isles. And why not? They have a lot of history…
The Raven’s Rock shown above is a memorial to Air Cdre Donald McDonnell of Glengarry CB, DFC (1913-1999). A pilot during the 1940 Battle of Britain, the air commodore was one of the founders of the Clan Donald Lands Trust, which now owns the castle.
A raven on a rock is the crest of Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry — a branch of Clan Donald — of which he was the 22nd clan chief.
Museum of the Isles
I forewent a quarter of an hour to wander slowly around the museum, enjoying its history almost as much as I enjoyed its relative coolness. Eventually though, I emerged into the blinding brightness of daylight and made my way through the grounds past what is left of the castle.
Built entirely for show, rather than defence, Armadale Castle was erected in 1815 and abandoned by the MacDonalds in 1925.
From the open lawn in front of the castle I could see across to the mainland or, somewhat nearer, down to the pier where I had alighted from the ferry. This was a timely reminder that, for all that I felt exhausted already and was quite soaked in sweat, I had covered no distance at all yet.
While I could have simply followed the road out of Armadale, I had elected to go through the castle grounds because I knew they hooked up with a footpath that ran through some woods on a hillside some way above the road. I liked the sound of woods, and their implicit promise of sun-dappled shade. Yes please, I thought, I’ll have some of that.
The woodland path was awesome but sadly not extensive and, all too soon, I found myself back at the roadside anyway. The road in question was the A851 but I was only on it for a matter of minutes for I took the very next turning, which cut right across the Sleat Peninsula.
C1242 Loop Road
Last time, when I walked from Isleornsay to Armadale, I took the most direct route as I had a ferry to catch. Going in reverse, with no time constraints to speak of, I was opting for a slightly more roundabout route. I was taking the back road — officially the C1242 but C-roads aren’t signposted as such — which would cross the peninsula, run up its opposite coast and then cross back. This basically doubled the distance, which had seemed like a marvellous plan before the weather went all equatorial.
Still, I could hardly complain. The Sleat Peninsula’s very name comes from the Old Norse slettr, which means ‘smooth’, so at least I’d not have hills to climb. The terrain would no doubt be as flat a pancake.
Fortunately, Skye had an excellent way in which to take my mind off climbing low hills in the such energy-sapping heat; it distracted me by throwing horseflies into the mix — huge, vicious blighters with a painful bite and taste for blood. Unlike mosquitoes, which prefer you to not know they’re dining on the red stuff until they’re safely away, horseflies evolved to feed off deer, cows and, yes horses, which can’t do much about it so they don’t care if it hurts. They’ll bite people too and seem to care not that you’re wearing insect repellent. They don’t care much about clothes either, being entirely willing to bite through a t-shirt, leaving it spotted with blood.
The bites are typically painful for a few hours but, as I know from experience, when I get them, they remain swollen for days. This kind of balances out the fact that midges leave me alone, but I didn’t much feel like accepting insect bite karma. Instead, I mounted a determined defence, swatting away any diabolical dipteran that felt like putting me on its lunch menu.
Unfortunately, waving your arms about frenetically might fend off the horseflies for a while but it really doesn’t help with overheating, which was the other pressing threat to my health and comfort. As I windmilled my way over the crest of the hills, I was on the lookout for somewhere cool and not too horsefly-infested in which to take a quick breather.
The lochan in the photo is Loch Dhùghaill (‘Dougal’s loch’) and proved a fine place to sit, rest and drink some of the water I was carrying.
When I felt more like a functioning human being and less like a waxwork in a blast furnace, I followed the road as it in turn followed the stream from Loch Dhùghaill and thus descended to the coast.
The peninsula is said to have the best views of the Cuillin, which are themselves often described as the UK’s most dramatic mountains. Taking their name from ON kjølen (‘keel’), they formed a ridge that loomed jaggedly in distance above the roofs of Achnacloich (Achad na Cloiche, ‘field of stones’).
Achnacloich stands by a bay with a beach and it was tempting to stop there too but I feared if I did I might not go any further. Instead, I followed the road as it climbed steeply out of the clachan and around a headland to overlook the village of Tarskavaig (Tarscabhaig from ON þorskavík meaning ‘cod bay’).
Its name may derive from Old Norse but the village in its modern form dates only as far back as 1811 when it was developed as a kelping, fishing and crofting village from the tiny cattle-farming hamlet it had been.
Given the choice of staying on the same road and contouring round the edge of the village or taking a side-road through its centre, I opted for the latter even though it involved a steep descent and a climb back up at the other end and so took more effort. I figured it would be more interesting and I guess it was with its scattering of whitewashed cottages.
I was running low on water and vaguely hoped it might have a shop but it turns out that that closed down for good way back in 1975.
Thwarted, I pressed on and soon rejoined the ‘main’ road, which led me past the lochan of Loch Ghabhsgabhaig and then to the bay of Òb Ghabhsgabhaig (Gavsgavaig Bay), where I paused for another rest.
I was joined in my resting by a small, friendly and excitable dog that appeared as if from nowhere and pretty much jumped into my lap. I wasn’t expecting this and just kind of stared at it in shock while it looked up at me and happily wagged its tail. Its owner ambled into view behind it, rolling his eyes and making a noise that was about equal parts ‘come here, you daft animal’ and ‘what, this again?’ The dog went.
Moments later, it was joyfully splashing about in cool seawater, a choice I think suggests it wasn’t that daft after all. I was sorely tempted to follow its example (with respect to the sea, not jump in someone’s lap) but elected instead to press on.
Overlooking Òb Ghabhsgabhaig is what little remains of Dunscaith Castle. Its broken walls date back to about the 16th century but the castle was originally much older and belonged to the MacDonalds of Sleat until the MacLeods, with whom they had a lengthy feud, took it from them by force in the 14th century. They recaptured it in the 15th century just in time to be defeated by King James I, who felt that the de facto independent Lord of the Isles (a MacDonald) needed bringing to heel. Which he did. They were allowed to keep Dunscaith though, holding it until the 17th century, when they abandoned it.
How far back Dunscaith was originally constructed is uncertain but its name is tied up with the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, being Dun Sgathaich (‘fortress of shadows’), home of Scáthach (the Shadow), a legendary warrior-woman who taught the hero Cú Chulainn the martial arts and who gave him the Gáe Bolga, a deadly multi-barbed spear.
Given how poor my hand-eye coordination can be, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t leave Òb Ghabhsgabhaig with a mythical Spear of Certain Death. Something else I didn’t leave it with was much remaining drinking water and that was a lack I felt rather more keenly.
Resisting the urge to drain the last few mouthfuls from my bottle, I headed on up the road through the tiny hamlet of Tokavaig (Tòcabhaig, the etymology of which is uncertain — possibly ‘Tóki’s bay’ or ‘whale bay’ or ‘bay of the swell’).
The road gained some woodland accompaniment as it went, before crossing a stream (the Ord River) and making an abrupt turn right. To the left was another beach with a happy family playing in the waves. To hell with it, I thought, a random extended family and someone’s excitable dog can’t both be wrong! My footwear came off, my trouser-legs got rolled up and I splashed about in the sea for a bit, letting the water — still surprisingly cold — bring my body temperature back towards something not usually seen in fever patients. It was bliss.
Most of the happy splashing family wisely stayed clear of the paddling stranger but its eldest member felt the need to say hello. They were holidaying, staying in a house in Ord (An t-Òrd ‘the rounded hill’), a village right next to the beach. In the village, he told me, was a standalone water tap connected to a potable water supply. Y’know, in case I should need to refill my water bottle.
I received this news with a level of gratitude bordering on dizzy euphoria. Or that might have just been heatstroke and dehydration. Despite buying extra drinks in Armadale I had woefully underestimated just how oppressively, walk-inhibitingly hot it actually was. I splashed back up the beach, retrieved my hiking shoes and set off to find this mythical water tap of wonder….
It was, of course, in the last part of the village that I looked in. I mean, of course it was — I tend to stop looking when I’ve found the thing I was trying to find — but you know what I meant.
I gratefully filled up whatever containers I had in my bag and turned about to leave. I had got maybe twenty places when I fund myself hailed by a man photographing his house who felt a pressing need to comment on the weather. It having been the most pressing thing on my mind for some hours, I embraced the conversation with enthusiasm. He was photographing his house because he was letting it to holidaymakers, or so I think I understood, or possibly he had holidaymakers staying as guests. Or rather would do, when they arrived.
In the course of our conversation, which turned at some point to my hike for the day, I drank all the water I’d just collected from the tap. Mr Photographer insisted on fetching me a new bottle of water from inside and, though I went through the obligatory ‘there’s no need, really’ motions, I was actually only too happy to accept. A short while later, fully rehydrated and water bottle still in hand, I wended my way back to the road.
The valley of the Ord River may have been lushly green but it was also abuzz with horseflies and another determined episode of swatting quickly developed. One of the little blighters, more brazen than the rest, landed on my thumb mid-swat and was just about to stab her mouthparts into my flesh when I felt the tickle and brushed her away with my other hand.
I had been lucky so far but I was in the unenviable position occupied by security system designers and anti-terrorist agencies — I had to be successful every time to stay unbitten, while each of my opponents only needed to be successful once. I realised then that there was absolutely no way I could possibly maintain my defence successfully across all six days of this trip. What I could do, I decided, was stave off my inevitable defeat for as long as it was humanly possible. I would go down fighting…
The Open Moor
The road, by contrast, climbed slowly upwards as it crossed the Sleat Peninsula. It rose up the valley of the Ord River and into open moorland revealing, a mile or so ahead, a large patch of woodland — Braigh an Uird Forest. On the far side of that lay the A851.
As the road drew closer to the edge of the wood, it turned so as to cut through it right along its southern edge. Immediately before it plunged into the trees it passed Loch Meadal (‘narrow dale loch’ from ON mjó dalr).
Mr Toad on the Road
Not far from the lake I saw something that made me smile. I had seen a number of dead toads during the day, victims of their own notoriously poor road sense. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mr Toad drives like a maniac, going flat out in his car. Most of the toads I’d seen that day had gone flat under somebody else’s.
This is Bufo bufo, the common toad — a voracious predator of invertebrates and even, for larger specimens, small mice. I was sorely tempted to take it with me and let it wreak havoc on any horseflies that came within tongue-flicking distance. But then I’d probably end up with bufotoxin all over my fingers and then I’d no doubt poison myself.
It probably wouldn’t kill me — although if I tried to eat the whole toad I’d potentially get a fatal dose — but absent-mindedly licking bufotoxin off my fingers could bring about heart murmurs, vomiting and seizures, all of which would be even worse than the nuisance of insect bites. I let the toad be and continued on my way.
Braigh an Uird Forest
The road cut through the edge of the wood as expected, emerging after about a mile to meet the A851.
Back on the A-Road
Loch nan Dùbhrachan
The Loop Road re-joined the A-road more-or-less opposite Loch nan Dùbhrachan (‘loch of gloom’), long said to be home to a murderous kelpie but which wasn’t at home when they dredged it in 1870.
I was going to sit beside the loch for a bit but a couple had already gone one further and were swimming in its waters. I felt it would be a bit odd to sit there and watch them, so I started my trek along the A-road, turning back only to take this pic:
On Familiar Ground
I had about a mile and three quarters to go on the A-road, a fairly unremarkable trudge my enjoyment of which was diminished partly by being hot and tired but mostly because I’d already done it, only going in the opposite direction.
Still, it didn’t take long and soon enough I was taking the turning for Isleornsay. Mere minutes later, I was in the hotel, checking in and then heading for the bar. I sat outside with a long cold drink and enjoyed the spectacular views.
Horsefly Bite Tally
This time: 0 bites
Total this trip: 0 bites
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,377 miles