MY PLAN for day four of my 2018 June/July trip was thrown into doubt before I even went to bed the previous night. I had originally had a lengthy, roundabout route in mind but was considering making it longer by including a part of the day before’s walk I’d cut out. Further complications were added when breakfast, which I didn’t want to skip — the days being way too hot to eat any kind of substantial lunch — was announced to be at a later hour than I’d hoped for. As it was, the announcement turned out to be a blatant lie; breakfast wouldn’t appear until much, much later than that.
A Late Start
By the time I’d eaten breakfast and then paid, I found myself setting off well into the morning. This threatened to be challenging for my original route choice, let alone if I made it worse by adding in stuff from the previous day. To add to the challenge, it promised to be even hotter than the energy-sapping, sweat-soaking, skin-burning weather that I’d mostly experienced thus far.
I set off through the scattered village of Elgol, still undecided as to my route for the day…
My B&B had been at the far end of the village from Elgol’s harbour and the mile or so that separated them mostly involved going downhill. And it wasn’t the sort of downhill that allowed for doubt. A sign at the top warned of a 25% incline, which I think is the steepest I’ve ever seen signposted on a public road.
Footpath of Fear
An altogether different type of sign, partway down, tried to lure me off to the right along the coast path to Camasunary (Camas Fhionnairigh, ‘white shieling bay’). This should have been more tempting than it was — Camasunary was most definitely on my itinerary — but I resisted its charms. I had read of that particular section of coast path that its sheer drops required a head for heights and some poor chap had fallen from it to his death as recently as May.
I do not have a head for heights; frankly, they terrify me. And while I could have brazened it out and forced my way through one vertiginous section, I understood it to have several. Thus, it offered the possibility of forcing myself into a position where I could run out of courage between two such places and essentially trap myself, which didn’t exactly sound like a bundle of laughs.
Alternatively, I could backtrack up the B8083 to just short of Kilmarie and take a different path to Camasunary, one without acrophobic terrors. It wasn’t too hard a choice.
My descent to Elgol Harbour was prompted by two considerations:
Firstly, I’d been told that it was really pretty, and the view from it was certainly lovely enough.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for my general wellbeing, it offered me the opportunity to stock up on cold drinks and the like. It was clear that I was going to need a lot of water to cope with the heat. In fact, I was probably going to need more than I could comfortably carry, which would probably mean risking a refill from a mountain stream later. For now though, I could simply load myself up.
Suitably encumbered, I began the laborious climb up that hill but then took the first offered escape route. Specifically, this was a back road to Glasnakille, a satellite hamlet to Elgol. It was also part of the route I’d skipped the evening before, so I guess I must have decided to include it. To begin with, it was characterised mainly by three things, two of which were immediately obvious:
Less obvious, until several sudden stabs of pain announced it with a vengeance, was the presence of horseflies. The little bastards were clearly piqued at having not been initially noticed as they made damned sure that I knew they were there several times. I thus devoted far too much of my attention to the insects and not nearly enough to the vista of sea and Sleat Peninsula opposite as I made my way to Glasnakille, following a narrow road built sometime around the 1920s.
Old Coast Road
Glasnakille (Glas na Cille, ‘green [field] of the church’) turned out to be a small but perfectly pleasant linear village arrayed along a coastal road. The coastal road was older than the one I’d come in on, dating back to at least the Ordnance Survey 1st edition (1843-1882) and probably before.
I followed it north until the public road ended at a gate, with only a track continuing thereafter. I had guessed, when consulting my modern OS map, that the sequence of alternating end-on road and footpath sections just meant that it once been a single coast road with sections now abandoned for public vehicular use. This supposition, which was later confirmed by the earlier OS maps, was also reinforced by conditions on the ground. I knew what I was seeing.
The ex-road carried me across the Allt na Cille (‘stream of the church’) and onwards towards the tiny hamlet of Drinan, approaching which it became modern roadway again. I knew that if I kept following it, it would turn back into an off-road track before eventually joining a third bit of modern roadway at Old Kilmarie. This was tempting because it was all rather pleasant, but I knew the bit I’d just reached must clearly connect with the B-road and that that would take me directly to the track to Camasunary.
As I slowly plodded up the tarmac beneath a baking blue sky, I discovered that my water had become unrefreshingly tepid.
On rejoining the B-road, I found it bereft of bees but amply supplied with plentiful horseflies. I tried ineffectually to keep them at bay but was soon nursing several new bites.
The B-road descended down the flank of Ben Meabost and led me to a layby that was entirely filled with German and Dutch-registered camper vans (having talked with tourists of both nationalities, it appears the Germans love Scotland’s open access laws, while the Dutch mostly enjoy its unflatness).
Opposite the layby was the start of the track to Camasunary, built by the army in 1968. I know that because it said so on a small, squareish cairn, which I stopped to read for just long enough to let another horsefly take a bite. As I swore angrily to myself, I noticed that the cairn specified June 1968, which means the Royal Engineers who built it must have also enjoyed the Isle of Skye summer horsefly experience.
The army may have built the current track in the ’60s but they did so on an existing alignment, as a road to Camasunary is shown on the early OS editions.
Even with its military engineering, the track was rough underfoot in places. It was also abuzz with horseflies all the way, resulting in several further bites. I was starting to wonder if they had it in for me personally but then I met a group of elderly walkers coming the other way who had been savaged even more than I had. One old lady was having a particularly brutal time as her multiple bites were still openly bleeding, a situation she described as ‘quite a bother’. If nothing else, it made me grateful that my blood has always clotted with unseemly haste.
Above the Bay
The heat and horseflies remained pretty constant as the track climbed slowly to 180 m (about twice the elevation at its start), whereupon I got my first glimpse of Camasunary.
Camasunary has no public road connection, the 4×4 track I had followed being its only vehicular route.
While its name derives from a shieling, or shepherd’s summer hut, the bay today houses three buildings and the remnants of a fourth. There is a cottage (an old farmhouse, now a holiday home), a former bothy turned back into a cottage by the landowner and a new bothy (built by the army and opened in 2016) to replace it. The ruined structure is a farm building attached to a sheepfold.
A Popular Spot
With its relatively easy isolation (it’s about 3 miles from the road, which is just far enough to deter casual amblers but still easy to get to if you want to) and beautiful surroundings, it should be no surprise that Camasunary is popular. There were at least three parties of walkers and/or campers there as I arrived and a fourth hiked through it shortly after.
I made my way down to the shoreline, finding a beach of mixed pebbles and sand, and gazed out across Loch Scavaig.
Most times when I’ve resorted to splashing in the sea, I’ve simply paddled at the edge with my trouser legs rolled up. This was not one of those times.
The day was fearsomely hot and I had a number of painful insect bites which demanded soothing. Not having any swimming trunks to hand, I stripped to underwear and a t-shirt (I saw no need to invite extra sunburn if I didn’t have to) and merrily immersed myself for a while. It was, as hoped, wonderfully cooling. It was also more obviously alive with sea creatures than any sea I’ve ever splashed about in.
Granted, I’m not always all that observant, and beaches tend to be full of noisy, splashy people, but I usually find that other than sandflies and coastal birds, I don’t usually spot anything moving about beyond maybe the occasional small crab. On this occasion I saw not only crabs but small flatfish scooting about on the sea bed and other fish darting around me while I stood there. I can’t express how much that pleased me.
A Delightful Delay
I soon came to the decision that I was quite content to splash about and enjoy the beach at Camasunary for some considerable time, rather than press on and risk heat exhaustion.
I stayed there for two hours. It was awesome.
Eventually, though, the need to get moving did start to make itself felt. By then, I had taken my plan for the day, which had already been in tatters, and basically shredded it. Given my late start, the Glasnakille detour (which had doubled the distance to Camasunary) and two-hour break, I simply didn’t have enough time to do all the miles I’d intended. This would have a significant effect on my route choice later that evening but for now it made little practical difference.
I had been intending, on leaving Camasunary, to head north along a footpath to a place called Sligachan. And even with my self-induced delays, this was still the obvious route onwards. It was also one I was quite looking forward to as it ran up two valleys between the mountains of the Cuillin, with the Black Cuillin (mainly gabbro and basalt) on one side and the Red Cuillin (a pinkish granite) on the other. That promised to be pretty interesting.
I left the beach and squelched quickly across boggy ground until I found the path, which at this point was a wide vehicle track serving the old cottage. As I drew closer to the house, I saw that a large white arrow painted on the neighbouring sheepfold pointed the way I must go but, even without it, the terrain made it pretty clear — so long as I stayed in the low bit between the mountains, I should be in the right place.
Loch na Crèitheach
A much narrower path branched off from the track by the sheepfold and rounded a small hill to reveal Loch na Crèitheach (‘loch of the brushwood’). I had been told that morning by my B&B landlady that there would be no visible path on the ground from this point, so I was actually pleased to discover that, like the timing of breakfast, this was another blatant lie. Well, either that or I was hallucinating.
If Loch na Crèitheach was merely an illusion caused by heat haze, it was impressively persistent. I followed the eastern shore of the loch for three quarters of a mile before the allegedly non-existent path (which was clearly marked on my map by those mischievous pranksters at the OS) edged past it and broke free.
Srath na Crèitheach
The path then continued up Srath na Crèitheach (‘broad valley of the brushwood’) although the 493 m hill called Ruadh Stac (‘red conical peak’) appeared to sit squarely — or conically — in the way.
At the foot of Ruadh Stac, Srath na Crèitheach took a turn to the left, revealing the main Black Cuillin ridge up ahead. The difference on either side of the valley was quite stark, the Black Cuillin being jaggedly spiky, while the Red were lumpier and liberally covered in scree. With each lining up against the other along their side of the valley, it was as if the two geologies were facing off to determine which was more ‘mountainy’.
The dissimilarity was fascinating but it also threatened to pose a problem. I hadn’t run out of water yet but it seemed a dead certainty at some point during the seven and a half miles between me and Sligachan.
Unfortunately, the footpath was on the Red Cuillin side of Srath na Crèitheach where the stony streambeds leading off the hillsides were bone dry. I could see that waterfalls were still trickling off the Black Cuillin, but they were out of reach unless I wanted to wade across a stream. The stream itself was too slow-moving to be safe to drink in my opinion.
Loch an Athain
Almost as if it had taken offence, the stream promptly widened into Loch an Athain (‘loch of the ford’), as if to taunt me with its volume.
Allt nan Fraoch-choire
Sipping what little water I had left, I continued up Srath na Crèitheach as it slowly rose to the highest point of the valley floor (about 60 m).
On the way, I had to hop across another rocky stream, the Allt nan Fraoch-choire (‘stream of the heather corrie’), which flowed down from between Ruadh Stac and Marsco. This not only still had water in it but it ticked all three boxes on the ‘probably good to drink’ checklist — it was fast-flowing, had not passed through farmland and had come straight off a hill that wasn’t riddled with mines. Thankful, I risked refilling my water bottles.
Weighed down now by actual water rather than concern at my lack of it, I soon reached the top of Srath na Crèitheach. This was essentially a junction of valleys, with the two small, boggily-edged tarns of Lochan Dubha (‘black lochs’) in the centre. Srath na Crèitheach was now behind me, while to my left was Harta Corrie. Ahead was Glen Sligachan (Gleann Sligeachan), which was initially rather impressively flanked by the mountains of Sgurr nan Gillean and Marsco but subsequently opened right out.
Although punctuated by insect-related punctures, the walk down the rest of this valley was still pretty delightful. The path crossed numerous small streams that were almost dry, which meant that parts of the route that would normally be quagmires were actually solid to stand on. The path ran broadly parallel to the River Sligachan — it was following its valley, it kinda had to — undulating over small hillocks and around the occasional pile of rocks.
When I was about a mile from Sligachan I started to see other people hiking or jogging on the path.
Sligachan (Sligeachan, ‘shelly place’) consists of a hotel, a campsite and a mountain rescue post and primarily exists as a base of operations for people exploring the Cuillin although, sitting as it does on a main road (the A87), some of its more car-oriented visitors never get any closer than this:
Actually, I don’t have any great problem with the ‘never more than 50 m from the car’ brigade. Not everyone can walk umpty miles on rough paths, and I very much have my limits too (I had, after all, avoided a shorter route to Camasunary that very morning on account of not being up to the challenge).
Driving about all day and leaping out to take photos at laybys may be less exercise but it’s still a pleasant pastime and beats the hell out of sitting at home between four walls.
Sligachan Old Bridge
Since the road passes through Sligachan and so does the river (which for much of the year is a serious torrent), a bridge was obviously in order. In fact, there were two, an old bridge and a new one. The previous photo was taken from the old bridge, which was built by Thomas Telford around 1818.
It may have fallen out of vehicular use but it’s very much still standing, two centuries later.
Sligachan New Bridge
The new bridge is obviously younger, but only by just over a century. It was built sometime around the 1930s.
Scáthach and Cúchulainn
Whether you find the old or new bridge the more aesthetically pleasing will depend on your architectural tastes but the River Sligachan is all about beauty. Its waters are connected with Irish myths concerning the Scáthach, a mighty warrior-woman, and the hero Cúchulainn.
Hearing of her prowess, Cúchulainn came to Skye and challenged her to a mighty battle. As they fought, Scáthach’s daughter wept beside the river in fear that her mother would lose and her cries were heard by the Fair Folk, water being a gateway between the worlds. The daughter was bidden to wash her face in the Sligachan and did so, gaining the knowledge to stop the fight. She gathered nuts and herbs with which to scent smoke, so that the tired, hungry combatants would smell it and pause, breaking to seek sustenance at Scáthach’s house. This they did and, with Cúchulainn having eaten under her roof, he was now her guest and neither could harm the other without violating guest rights.
The Sligachan remains a gateway to Faerie and, should you wash your face in it — by bending down to it, not by scooping it up — and submerge your face for a full seven seconds, it is said to grant eternal beauty. For most of the year, frostbite would seem more likely.
Given that Scáthach was also said to reside in Dunscaith on the Sleat Peninsula (more-or-less opposite Glasnakille; I walked past on day one of this trip), where she trained Cúchulainn and gave him the Gáe Bolga, a deadly multi-barbed spear, the River Sligachan seems like a long way to go for her daughter to wash her face.
Sligachan Hotel Bar
For me, Sligachan’s magic waters held less draw at that moment than did its gin. I headed for the hotel bar, where I downed a soft drink (to fend off dehydration) and a G&T (because that’s what I really wanted) in quick succession. I also relaxed and rested, having just done almost eight miles under the blazing sun. I wasn’t finished yet though…
My original plan — the one that realistically had failed to survive past breakfast — had been to head southwest from Sligachan along a footpath to Glen Brittle Forest, taking in the Fairy Pools (a series of waterfall plunge pools) along the way. I was then going to head north up Glen Eynort to Carbost, where I had booked a room for the night. The trouble was, that was about eleven miles and it had just gone seven o’clock — on top of all the other delays, my trek from Camasunary had gone pretty slowly in the heat. I simply didn’t have time for that.
Studying my map, as I drunk my G&T, I saw that the direct road route to Carbost was just seven miles instead. By going that way, with the evening bringing cooler air, even with tired legs I could reach Carbost before sunset and, more importantly, while the Old Inn was still open (I was staying there).
Hitting the A-Road
It was a shame to miss out the Fairy Pools and Glen Brittle Forest but I’d effectively made that decision when I stopped to swim at Camasunary. Now, to get where I needed to be, I had no choice other than to hit the road. The A863, to be specific.
What followed was a calming, peaceful plod along a largely deserted road as the sun slipped just far enough behind the hills to plunge Glen Drynoch (where the road ran) into shadow. I saw just a handful of vehicles, one of which stopped to offer me a lift. I was tempted but declined; I’d finish the last few miles under my own steam…
The Tattie Bogal
At the end of the glen, the River Drynoch emptied into Loch Harport, on whose shores my day’s journey would also end. A B-road — the B8009 — split off from the A863 just before reaching the loch. The turning was helpfully pointed out to me by this chap:
This carved wooden scarecrow — or ‘Tattie Bogal’ to give him his local appellation — pertained to the Minginish Tattie Bogal Festival, an annual scarecrow festival held between 2011 and 2015 (Minginish being a peninsula of Skye). Although the festival itself seems to have fallen by the wayside, this particular scarecrow hasn’t, and still points the way to where others of his ilk used to gather every summer.
Following the Tattie Bogal’s finger, I found myself descending a short, steepish hill towards the head of Loch Harport and a bridge over the Drynoch. Across the loch were Merkadale and Carbost, meaning the end was in sight.
Once across the Drynoch the road first climbed then dropped as it carried me to the village of Carbost, the home of Talisker whisky since 1831.
I found the Old Inn, as I knew I must, close by the water.
I had just enough time for a quick wash and change before grabbing a drink and a bite to eat. Even with my road route, which had shed four miles, the day’s distance total had been quite respectable.
That night, I slept the sleep of the absolutely knackered but was still up next morning for breakfast and at a useful hour this time, too. I was ready and willing for another day of walking; I just hoped for fewer horseflies this time…
Horsefly Bite Tally
This time: 13 bites
Total this trip: 21 bites
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,434 miles