I AWOKE on the first of July with some alarm and trepidation. Not just because it heralded the second half of 2018, meaning six months had passed and I’d so far achieved almost none of the goals I’d set myself for the year but also because it was once again oppressively hot and my plan for that day would have been doubtful whatever the weather. There was a very real chance that I’d fail to achieve my goals for that day alone and it was more tempting than it should have been to sit in the shade all morning and relax and enjoy the view.
My plan, such as it was, was to try to follow the old drovers’ path to Kylerhea (Caol Reatha) that I had chosen not to attempt on my last trip on account of it being too wet. I had no doubt that even in this energy-sapping heat some of it would still be boggy, but with over a month and a half’s plant-growing time having passed, it also threatened to have become quite impenetrable. The route I’d selected may once have been used for driving cattle but those days were long past and, as far as I could ascertain, even die-hard hikers generally left it unhiked.
The Drovers’ Path
‘I don’t have to do this,’ I told myself as I walked up the A851 towards the forestry track turnoff that would be the start of the route. ‘It’s my choice.’
It all started easily enough as Kinloch Forest, through which the route initially runs, is managed by the Forestry Commission. An access track leads to a small car park, from where those tethered to their cars can explore the remains of settlements that have long been abandoned. This sounded good to me.
The actual track was quite dusty, which upped my consumption of water but I was carrying enough not to worry unduly about that. Of more pressing concern were the horseflies — also known as clegs from Old Norse kleggi — which plagued the track in large numbers and it wasn’t long before one not only avoided my wildly swatting arms but landed on one and bit me.
Horseflies lack the syringe-like adapted mouthparts that midges and mosquitoes use to suck blood, using simple mechanical brute force instead to cut into your skin and lap up the blood. Consequently, in addition to their anticoagulant saliva and possible infection prompting an immune response in the form of an angry, inflamed lump, there’s actual stab damage too.
As the bite swelled into a painful lump, I could see tiny holes her mouthparts had left in my skin. I was not pleased.
The track ended at the expected car park, where a ruined farmstead gave a foretaste of further ruins to come. The farmstead was discovered during a 1996 survey and cleared for display. Though the nearby township of Leitir Fura was long abandoned by the time of the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps (1843-1882), they still showed a sheepfold at this site.
To say that visitors flock there might be an overstatement but I wasn’t alone in the car park. Someone else was already looking over the ruins as I arrived and another carful of people turned up just as I left. As they disgorged themselves from their vehicle, I set off along the dusty, horsefly-infested track, keeping an eye out for the drovers’ path.
After a short while, a sign for the drover’s path appeared on the left and I plunged between some trees into a leafy, shaded narrow woodland path. This was a welcome respite from both the fiercely blazing sunshine and the horseflies, which prefer open air and bright sunlight to sun-dappled woodland shade.
It was also a very promising start for the drovers’ road, though I didn’t hold out all that much hope that it would continue in this vein. The path had clearly been laid and maintained by the Forestry Commission, so I fully expected that it would end at Leitir Fura.
In the meantime, it was pleasantly easy going with the sole exception of one footbridge closed for repairs, which necessitated dropping down and hopping across a small stream. The path didn’t stay shaded by a canopy of trees for long however, and soon broke out into a high coastal walk of a sort that felt comfortingly familiar.
Into the Undergrowth…
I’d walked that easy-going path for just over a mile when I came to a place where the drover’s road branched away. The path curved right, down the coastal slope towards the ruined village of Leitir Fura, while a narrower, rather more overgrown path climbed away to the left. It was still a visible path however, so that gave me hope. Optimistically, I set off along it…
If I got more than fifty metres, I’ll be surprised. It quickly went form ‘a bit overgrown’ to ‘a bank of chest-high bracken’ and for all that it soon passed underneath the trees, it seemed to be horsefly central. It wasn’t impossible to follow, just very hard work.
Now, admittedly, I didn’t know if it would all be like that for the roughly five miles to Kylerhea, or if this was one bad patch after which it’d open out. I did know that the far end was described as ‘horribly boggy’, which suggested much less bracken and more wet feet. I also knew that in the oppressive, muggy heat of that day, that I wouldn’t make it very far if I kept on. With the amount of effort it took to plunge through the bracken, I’d overheat and run out of water long before reaching Kylerhea. Heatstroke would cease to be a hyperbolic mock-complaint and become a very real possibility. I paused amid the ferns for a quick internal discussion.
On the one hand, I hate giving up, so I wanted to go on. This route had been my plan for months now and I really didn’t want to abandon it. On the other hand, to continue would be irresponsible. Also on the other hand were some new, painful bites, which is what you get for standing still in a place abuzz with horseflies. And they weren’t the only blood-sucking possibility — wading through bracken is an excellent way to pick up deer ticks, which is in turn an excellent way to get Lyme disease.
The clinching argument was my only Rule of Walking, so far as I can be said to have one — it’s meant to be fun. On that basis, forcing my way through chest-high bracken in the blistering heat, while being eaten alive by horseflies was a whole new definition of ‘fun’ that I was not ready to embrace.
I backtracked to the Forestry Commission path and followed it down to Leitir Fura.
Leitir Fura basically means ‘oak ridge’ and took its name from one particularly large oak tree close by it, which was inevitably known as Fura Mòr (‘great oak’). The Fura Mòr was accidentally burnt down by some children towards the end of the 19th century, after they lit a fire too close to its trunk. As accidents go, that’s kinda hard to explain your way out of and it got their parents evicted from the village.
The residents of Leitir Fura were MacInneses, whose clan had been dispossessed of its lands in Morvern in the late 15th century. Their landlords were the MacDonalds of Sleat, who didn’t make things easy for their tenants. The MacDonalds owned Kinloch Forest and guarded its assets jealously, forbidding the villagers from felling trees or grazing their animals within it. Woodkeepers were employed to see that these rules were obeyed and to build walls to physically keep their livestock out.
Abandoned Not Cleared
The villagers mostly subsisted by farming, with a profitable sideline in rum-smuggling. Their village was well-placed while the drove road was in regular use but, as that traffic dwindled, they became a tiny subsistence village in an out-of-the way place. Unlike many Highland villages, Leitir Fura wasn’t forcibly cleared by its landlord — however fraught the relations between MacDonald and MacInnes may have been — but was voluntarily abandoned as its residents drifted away in search of better prospects.
By the late 19th century, it lay empty and the 1st edition OS map shows just two unroofed buildings. There had been fourteen houses with associated outbuildings.
The surfaced part of the drover’s path and the forestry access track together form a loop between the car park and Leitir Fura and, rather than retrace my steps, I opted to return by the other route, following the track.
I found, however, that it had also been extended further along the coast (as logging operations had moved) and I wondered how far it went and if I might discover another route to Kylerhea. I’d probably not, I realised, but it was worth a try.
A Dead End
As expected, it only went so far — maybe half a mile — before ending in an area where tree-felling had clearly occurred.
I started to climb a nearby open hillside but this had also been felled and the ground underfoot was all twigs and woodchips. It was hard going and I quickly concluded that this was a non-starter also. Had it been a cool and overcast day, I reckon going off-piste like that would have been fine. But it was the sort of heat where just walking about feels like a questionable activity.
I looked up the hill and I looked at how much water I had left. Shoulders hunched in defeat, I turned around and made my way back to the A851.
En route the horseflies managed to bite me again.
Frustratingly, by the time I regained the A-road, the horseflies had stopped flying and the temperature had dropped as the clouds visible in that last photo had grown to blanket the whole sky.
As the heat diminished, it quickly reached a level at which I’d have been just fine about trying to head on from the end of that forestry track. But that was now at least three miles behind me and I wasn’t about to yo-yo back and forth between the A-road and the track end. Besides, if I did, what were the chances the sun would come right out again? No, I had to resign myself to accepting this alternative route.
Old A-Road Alignment
Retracing My Steps
The place where the track met the A-road was very close to the place where the old road alignment ran out when I walked to Isleornsay from Kyle of Lochalsh. I now availed myself of the old road in reverse, following it north towards Broadford. This was by no means unpleasant but it wasn’t the walk I had wanted to do and I couldn’t help but let that colour my enjoyment of it.
It really was very green. Everything was. The month and a half that had passed since my last trip had seen the yellows and browns of Sleat’s moorland turn to vibrant, verdant hues.
The difference would have been all the more striking in bright sunlight but the cloud cover thickened and light levels dropped as I went. Since this made it pleasantly cool and had grounded all the horseflies, I was in no way complaining about this development. Besides, it seemed oddly appropriate.
Last time, when I walked it north to south, the day started rainy and ended with bright sunshine. Now that I was walking south to north, the opposite seemed set to occur. Would it actually rain before I reached Broadford?
It was indeed lightly spitting as I reached Broadford.
Upon arrival, I immediately made a beeline for the sandwich place I went to last time, determined to give myself a delicious consolation prize in the form a crayfish and mango sandwich. But the universe was on a roll with tormenting me and made sure that they ran out just before I placed my order.
I was already damp, fly-bitten, sunburnt and disappointed at my route. Now I was denied my dream sandwich too? My disappointment must have shown on my face as they gave me a free drink while I chose something else.
Broadford Community Garden
Substitute sandwich, consumed I went to locate my hotel and drop my bag off before going for a wander about Broadford. Last time, I made a fleeting lunchtime visit, but now I had time to examine all that it had on offer.
Broadford isn’t large, so that wasn’t very much, but it did have a Co-op where I could restock with hiking snacks and water. There was also a small public garden overlooking the sea.
James Ross Memorial Fountain
Standing in the garden was a memorial fountain to James Ross (1845-1902) the local hotelier who formulated the recipe for Drambuie. Allegedly he based it on a recipe originating with Bonnie Prince Charlie though the former version used brandy, not whisky, as a base.
I was rather enjoying the cool dampness of the rain after the blistering heat that preceded it, so I wandered some more, following a short path up the coast to MacKinnon’s Pier.
The path I was following had once been the alignment of the Skye Marble Railway, a narrow-gauge quarry line that operated for just five short years from 1908 to 1913. The line ran out to the pierhead from where marble was shipped elsewhere.
I would be following that railway line out of Broadford in the morning but for now I contented myself with a view of Broadford from its pierhead before I returned to my hotel.
Horsefly Bite Tally
This time: 5 bites
Total this trip: 5 bites
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,392 miles