ON THE second day of September 2018, I awoke on the Isle of Skye in the cottage once lived in by Flora MacDonald (1722-1790), a heroine to the Jacobites and, even more so, to misty-eyed Victorians later wallowing in the romance of a bygone age. Though I’m neither, I could hardly help but appreciate her association with the place, though her cottage played no role in her famous escapade — rowing the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie from Benbecula to Skye — as it was her marital home five years after the event.
Today, Flora’s cottage is part of the Flodigarry Hotel and so, appropriately enough, serves to accommodate tourists who have ‘escaped’ to the island…
Actually, the weather was the main determinant for what to wear…
What Weather, When?
The forecast had predicted heavy rain all morning, so I was a little surprised to be met by bright sunshine. But a bank of cloud sweeping up from the south-west suggested the forecast was not so much wrong as merely premature. It was t-shirt weather now, but waterproofs would feature heavily later. But how much later?
I set off at a fairly brisk pace, trying to pack in as much walking as possible while the conditions were still clement. Pretty much all walking in constant rain and no visibility turns into a slow, and somewhat arduous plod, so I figured it wouldn’t make too much difference if I burnt my energy now and became tired later. Besides, I felt invigorated; the way the sun bathed the cliffs of the Quiraing was little short of inspiring.
The Quiraing (A’ Chuith-Raing from Old Norse Kví Rand, meaning ‘round fold’) is a landslip formation at the northern end of the Trotternish Ridge that runs right down the peninsula. Actually, the entire ridge is an escarpment formed by landslides, the result of heavy lava flows sitting atop weaker sedimentary rocks. The advance and retreat of the glaciers shaped the mountains, with each retreat permitting a new landslip and each advance scouring the material exposed.
Today, much of the escarpment is static, but not all. The Quairaing is the only actively slipping part, with fresh landslips requiring road repairs on a pretty much annual basis. I imagine wet weather plays a part.
The Trotternish Road
I have to say, I really enjoyed this early part of the day’s walk. The sun imparted a golden glow to pretty much everything and the air temperature was spot-on perfect.
The road was officially the A855 but, as is so often the case in the Highlands, despite being an A-road it was single-track and almost traffic-free on a Sunday morning. For about a mile and a half, I saw only hillsides and lochans and views of the sea, after which houses began to dot the roadside. These were the scattered villages of the district of Staffin (Stafain), which began with the settlement of Digg (An Dig):
Digg & Glasphein
From here on in, the distribution of houses remained fairly constant while road signs informed me that I’d moved from one village to the next. Digg gave way to Glasphein, which gave way to Brogaig.
So far, I’d only done about two and a half miles out of about thirty and the cloud now moved in to swallow that glorious sun. I figured I still had some leeway before the actual rain came; looking up at the escarpment the clouds massing behind it were reassuringly light-hued for the moment. Still, I’d best not hang about…
At Brogaig the road made an abrupt leftwards turn, as the coast jutted out and the road went east to follow it. I was glad at this point of the clouds shrouding the sun as otherwise I’d have been staring right into its fiery orb.
I passed through, or rather in front of, Stenscholl (Steinnseall), which was arrayed in linear fashion along the landward side of the road. At its far end, just before the road turned south to enter Staffin village, I paused to look back and see the Quairaing arrayed above Digg.
Staffin is the main settlement of the district and is, accordingly, a little larger. It housed the local school and various other amenities, all of which were shut on account of it being Sunday morning. The A-road had also grown larger, I realised, expanding to gain centre markings.
Had I gone to look at the nearby beach, and had I timed it with the tide, I might have seen some dinosaur footprints but I didn’t. I also didn’t stop to photograph Staffin’s Thomas Telford bridge, now bypassed by the A-road, and you know how much I like to point out one of those. Time was pressing, and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before that ground was all puddles.
The road climbed uphill out of Staffin, on the edge of which its pedestrian pavement ended. I now found myself walking beside an increasingly busy A-road worthy of that designation and I kept my eye out for a chance to step off it.
Old Road Alignment
Soon enough, I espied an obvious alignment divergence, with the A-road passing through a rock cutting that Telford could only have dreamt of. A nearby gate and suspiciously well-tarmacked farm track spoke to what his solution had been.
As it turned out, the section of old road alignment was extremely brief, covering a quarter of a mile at most, but it ran beside some gloriously open country, with the Trotternish escarpment in the distance. I paused at its end for a thankful backwards glance.
Elishadder & Loch Mealt
According to my map, I could have taken a footpath from the old road and not returned to the new but return to the new road is what I did. I then dodged the traffic for about another half mile until the hamlet of Elishadder came into view. This tiny settlement promised to have both a museum and a café but, it being Sunday morning, it effectively had neither. What it did have, less helpfully but something else to look at, was Loch Mealt.
Loch Mealt is a good 50 m above sea level and yet right next to the coast. It empties out into the sea by means of Mealt Falls, which can be seen from a viewpoint a little way off the road. It was worth the diversion.
A Pause for Pacing
For all that I’d been rushing, I took my time at the viewpoint, availing myself of a bench to take a rest. I wasn’t particularly tired yet, but I’d only done about a sixth of the day’s distance and I needed to pace myself a bit, even if I was front-loading most of the effort into the morning. Besides, it was a lovely place to stop.
In the end I was prompted to move, not by the weather or the time, but by the arrival of a coach of American tourists. Their evident joy and enthusiasm for the view was quite heart-warming but sadly deafening too, as they seemed to have no way to communicate other than shouting to each other at the top of their lungs. I left them to it and pressed on…
The road climbed shallowly again as it led away from Elishadder and past the tiny hamlet of Valtos (Bhaltos). A path by its war memorial could have taken me down to the beach, where its cliffs of Jurassic sedimentary rocks have given up dinosaur bones in the past. Instead, I grabbed a sneaky five-minute sit-down on a bench by the memorial and then continued on my way.
Culnacnoc & Lealt
The next settlement was Culnacnoc (Cul nan Cnoc, ‘back of the hill’), which taunted me with another café not open. Though distressingly uncaffeinated, my spirit was unbroken and I kept walking for another mile, where I reached the turn-off for Lealt.
Now, I had no reason to head to Lealt, a tiny hamlet that once sat beside a narrow gauge tramway — the Lealt Valley Diatomite Railway — which served an industry extracting diatomaceous earth from Loch Cuithur between 1890 and 1915. For, much as I love a disused railway, heading up that way would have been an admittedly pretty diversion to nowhere.
Reaching the Lealt turn-off did mean, however, that I had also reached Inver Tote, where the Lealt River, having meandered its way down from the escarpment, reaches the sea via a short gorge through which it cascades in waterfalls. That seemed worth another stop for some gawkery.
Lower & Upper Tote
The sky grew steadily darker and greyer as I headed south from Inver Tote, passing the farmsteads of Lower and Upper Tote. The A-road had deviated from Telford’s original alignment after crossing the Lealt and I had planned to pick up his route at Upper Tote but, as it happened, I was totally distracted from doing so by the arrival of the rain.
I fished my cagoule out of my bag and set about defending myself from the elements and, in so doing, walked straight past the start of what now is a footpath to another viewpoint down the road. I only realised my mistake when I saw the old alignment running parallel to the A-road but by then I’d come far enough that I just chose to stick with modernity.
The two alignments ran beside each other for about a mile, before reconnecting at a small car park for the Leac Tressirnish viewpoint. The rain was as yet merely light drizzle but the clouds ahead suggested that that wasn’t going to last.
As expected, the rain quickly intensified, sweeping in wind-driven bands and reducing visibility to pretty much a handful of metres. Given the impact this had on the ability of vehicles to both see and me and avoid me, it meant that I had to put a lot of effort into traffic-dodging.
After about a mile of this, I found myself passing an isolated house labelled as ‘Rigg’ on my Ordnance Survey map. At this point, the modern A-road diverges significantly from the original alignment, though there’s little on the ground to reveal where Telford’s road ran. The old alignment is however, potentially followable on foot and runs through where the original settlement of Rigg — comprising ten houses, long since depopulated and fallen into ruin — sat astride Rigg Burn. Had the rain the held off, I’d fancied the idea of going off-road to find it but, standing on the roadside, the rain running off me in rivulets, the idea of trudging across increasingly boggy countryside entirely lost its allure. Instead, I stuck with the road.
For the next two and a half miles, the road curved gently around the lower slopes of the Storr (An Stòr), a 719 m mountain comprising another part of the Trotternish landslip.
The Storr, like the Quiaraing, is an iconic feature of northern Skye, as is the Old Man of Storr, a spiky pinnacle protruding from the landslip flank. Both of these were totally invisible, blanketed in the low clouds that were busy pouring bucket-loads of water on my head.
I soon reached the car park at the foot of the Storr, which was packed with cars, many of which had disgruntled, wet, sightseers taking refuge within them. This also meant that I reached Loch Leathan, which would be my companion for the next couple of miles.
Loch Leathan (‘broad loch’) is broader than it used to be and considerably longer, having been dammed in 1952 to turn it into a reservoir. This flooding of much of the Bearreraig River cut off the sheepfold and farmstead of Armishader, which used to lie on the far side of the loch. Armishader was abandoned and now lies in ruins, close to the expanded loch shore.
I passed by Bearreraig Cottage, built for the power station attendant that took care of Storr Lochs Power Station (the reason for damming the loch).
What followed should have been an awesome walk with the Trotternish escarpment close by my right and Loch Leathan on my left. Presumably both of them were still there but I could see no hint of the escarpment and the loch kept fading in and out of view as the rain bands passed over.
Bride’s Veil Falls
I had done about another mile and a quarter when I came to a layby and a gate. The path beyond the gate was a quagmire of mud, but I rested, leaning on the gate, and watched some water that had finished falling as rain do some more falling as the Bride’s Veil Falls.
After leaving the falls, I soon found myself on a recently upgraded and surfaced section of road that was an absolute joy to feel underfoot. This carried me past the end of Loch Leathan and a short, swollen stretch of the Bearreraig River to the start of the other Storr Loch, Loch Fada (‘long loch’, although it’s actually less than a mile in length).
The road became quite bendy as it passed alongside Loch Fada and then reduced to a single track section between a couple of cottages. In the loch, a small island emerged from the mist as if to hurry me onwards.
At the southern end of Loch Fada, I passed by a modern-style sheepfold (all fences rather than stone walls), which was built by the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board in 1951 to replace the one cut off at Armishader.
The road had broadened back into two lanes and now headed south along a broad, flat valley between the southern end of the Trotternish Ridge and a line of hills along the coast. It had only gone about another mile though, when it reduced back to a single track with passing places. Most of the traffic had disappeared when the rain became heavy, so I almost had this to myself as I splashed, squelched and dripped my away along it.
Before long, I passed a sign welcoming north-heading traffic to the Trotternish Peninsula, which could only mean I was close to reaching Portree.
Another half mile of sodden plodding brought me to the dead-end turn-off for Toravaig (Tòrabhaig), whose only significance to me was that it was an easily identifiable location on my map. I was one mile from the centre of Portree!
That mile seemed to take an age — the last part of any walk or section always does — as the road widened and gained central markings, and then a pedestrian footway. Houses and other buildings sprung up on either side and the road acquired a name — Staffin Road. I was now undeniably in a town and I started to see other people going about their daily business.
Then, finally, I was overlooking Loch Portree and making my descent towards the town centre. I had walked about twenty miles to get there and was very much ready for a rest.
Food & Rest
Given that I had set off from Portree the previous morning in the rain, it seemed only appropriate that I should return in it too. I was far too soaked to dry out during my rest stop, but at least I was able to get warm. A hot drink and some food went a long way towards making me feel human again.
I tarried in Portree as long as I dared, resting my feet and feeding my belly, but I could not avoid the cold and the wet forever. Eventually, I stocked up with snacks from Portree’s shops and set off alongside the A87.
The rain had lessened slightly while I had rested but the general extent of visibility had barely improved at all. This had some ramifications for my onward route choice…
When I had originally planned my day, safe in the warmth and dryness of my flat, I had intended to follow the A87 only as far as the B883 turn-off for Peinmore. I then planned to follow the rather more coastal B-road, taking in sights of the Isle of Raasay (which would be close offshore) and following the B-road to its end in Peinachorrain. The road hadn’t always ended there, however, and it was my intention to keep going, following what is now a well-defined footpath, along the northern shore of Loch Sligachan. This would involve hopping or fording several streams and was, I had read, liable to be a bit boggy at its western end but no real trouble unless the streams were in spate.
As I left Portree, I peered up at the clouds and received a faceful of cold water for my efforts. It had been raining with a vengeance and all the streams would be in spate. Also, I was running slightly late now, which meant I might be doing the boggy bit in the dark. Furthermore, any magnificent coastal views — the entire point of taking that route — were going to be obscured by a misty wall of grey. Or were they?
I paused by the roadside and looked down Loch Portree, trying to gauge how far I could actually see.
By now the rest of my brain was catching up with where the Sensible Part was going with this. If I’d not be seeing more by taking the coast road, I might as well stay on the A87 all the way.
‘But I wanna do the coast road,’ wailed my Irrational Obstinance. Sensible Part was having none of it. ‘What, you want to ford streams in the mist in the dark?’ it demanded. ‘Besides,’ it added sneakily, ‘my way is slightly less distance.’
Well, that clinched it. A87 it was, then.
Forest Track Not Found
So, I headed south to the B883 and then I just kept on going. Traffic was heavy to begin with, as I hit the Sunday day-trippers heading back to Portree, but then eased off to a level approaching negligible. Even so, I thought I might get off the A-road if it were possible and my map seemed to suggest that I might be able to pick up a forestry track in two and a half miles’ time. Cold, wet and stuffing my face with comforting snacks, I plodded off to go see.
I never did see that track. I did find the point where I thought it met the road, but that seemed to be a dead-end layby of some sort, formed from a point where the road once met an older bridge. The track I sought seems to have been on the other side of some bushes and I could probably have found it if I’d looked harder.
A Tiresome Trudge
As it was, I rejected the idea of pushing through wet bushes for a track that might or might not actually be there. I simply stayed on the A-road and kept trudging south.
The next mile and a half was pretty monotonous, as walking down a road with trees on both sides looks pretty much the same all the way. The mile and a half after that had trees on only one side — oh excitement! — except of course with the prevailing weather conditions, I couldn’t really see much further than if there had been trees.
Almost the End
Eventually, I got to a point where there were no trees and I knew that meant that I was on the last mile. In keeping with tradition, it was the longest mile on earth.
I passed the far end of that elusive forestry track (dammit!) and crossed over a bridge, whereupon the road felt a lot more winding than my map had promised. And then, timing itself almost perfectly for my arrival, the rain ceased and the clouds thinned a little just as Sligachan came into view. I had reached it just after sunset, as light levels were starting to drop.
I felt like I was moving in slow motion as the Sligachan Hotel crept closer.
I had called in at the Sligachan Hotel before, when passing through from Elgol to Carbost four walks ago. By stunning coincidence, that walk also involved not taking the route I originally intended, so I think I’ll blame the hitherto unknown Curse of Sligachan rather than my own poor planning.
I staggered in through the doors and checked into the hotel, knowing even before I did so that it would prompt a familiar exchange that began with the receptionist asking for my car reg and ended with her saying ‘What? You walked ALL THAT WAY?!’
I was not disappointed.
A Maid Disguise Might Have Fared Better
On reaching my hotel room, I immediately had a hot shower in order to stave off hypothermia and, as I stripped off my clothes, I made a colourful discovery. I had worn light-coloured clothing for better roadside visibility and, at some point, I’d sat and rested on a metal barrier, which, I now recalled, had shown some signs of rust. I hadn’t cared much at the time, just wanting to take the weight off my feet for a moment.
Well, I might have been indifferent but my trousers, it seemed, loved that rust. They’d sucked it right up, leaving a massive orange-brown stain all across my backside. It can only have looked from a distance like the most catastrophic of lavatorial accidents. No wonder the usual offers of lifts had suddenly been less forthcoming! How utterly mortifying!
Exhausted but Unharmed
Later, slightly red-faced but reassuringly black-trousered, I drowned my discomfort in the bar. I had walked 29 miles, a new personal record and, though tired, I felt pretty okay. I could do this again, I thought. It hadn’t injured my feet.
No, I’d do that tomorrow…
This time: 29 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,532 miles