AROUND the middle of April 2019, I found myself back in Wester Ross, ready to embark upon a seven-day trek from Strathcarron to Ullapool. This naturally required that I start in Strathcarron, which would have been easier had the Strathcarron Hotel had a vacancy. Alas, it did not. Plan B was to stay in Kyle of Lochalsh, knowing that I could catch the early morning train (on which I’d left the area at the end of my last trip) to whisk myself there at some awful, ungodly pre-breakfast hour. So that’s what I did.
A Near-Solitary Start
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was one solitary postman.
The new owners of the Strathcarron Hotel had been very apologetic that they’d not had a room for me and had invited me to call by anyway. I didn’t think they’d thank me for rousing them out of bed just to say hello, however, so I crept quietly past the hotel and stared past some sheep towards Loch Carron (Loch Carrann). The sheep, in return, watched me warily.
I set off on my journey by crossing the bridge that spanned the River Carron. It dated back to the 1930s when they rebuilt the original, which was probably erected when most of the local roads were built, during the ‘Parliamentary’ road-building phase of 1804-1824. Prior to the bridge, the Carron had to be forded and this often proved hazardous.
Immediately north of the bridge was the farm and estate of New Kelso, named for Kelso in the Scottish Borders, from whence its 18th century founder Ninian Jeffrey had come.
Jeffrey was an experienced linen merchant, appointed to be ‘principal undertaker’ of a linen manufacturing station established there. The station was one of four planned with others established at Lochbroom and Glenmoriston and one planned but never realised at Glenelg.
The purpose of the linen stations was not only to be cheap manufactories but also to act as instruments for ‘civilising’ the Highlanders following the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Not only were their language and costume to be suppressed but they were to be retrained to be useful elements of wider British society. This was, for some strange reason, not terribly popular with the Highlanders.
Farm Track Shortcut
While the obvious route for me was to continue along the A890 (on which I was walking) until it met the A896 at a T-junction, New Kelso provided me with an alternative. I veered off left, down a winding farm track, that turned north-west to meet the A896 about half a mile further along.
Not only did this shave off about quarter of a mile by describing the hypotenuse of a triangle of A-roads, but it was nice to avoid the asphalt — I’d have had no shortage of it, by the end of the day.
A-Roads & Appetite
The A896 is the road linking Lochcarron to Torridon and Kinlochewe, though the bit I was now on hadn’t always carried that number. Prior to 1970 and the building of the road along Loch Carron’s southern shore, it had been the A890 and the road across the bridge to Strathcarron had been a dead-end-spur.
In those days, north-south traffic had had to cross Loch Carron via a ferry at Strome. But the new road bypassed the ferry, putting it out of business, and the A896, greedy and eager, gobbled up the rest of the old route to the north of the loch.
As the morning slowly developed, I started to think that maybe the A896 had had the right idea and that the consumption of delicious breakfast might be about due.
Lochcarron Old Church
I followed the A-road into the village of Lochcarron, which sits on the loch’s northern shore. On my way in, I passed the clean, austere, white-washed lines of the old parish church, built in 1836 and deconsecrated in 2005. Having fallen into disrepair, it was bought by new owners in 2018, who are renovating it for use as a community space.
This contrasts well with its 1751 predecessor, which could be found a few yards further down the road in Lochcarron Old Burial Ground…
Lochcarron offered me a choice of shops, one attached to a petrol garage, the other a branch of Spar. Between them I bought a tasty, if unhealthy and unconventional breakfast and ate it perched upon a bench, enjoying the view down the loch.
Lochcarron was largely a linear settlement, strung out along the northern shore of the loch from which it takes its name. In addition to the shops it possessed a hotel and numerous houses, several of which looked to be B&Bs or other holiday accommodation. Though not huge by any objective measure it was nonetheless one of the larger villages between Kyle and Gairloch and it owed its size and prosperity in part to the coming of the Parliamentary road in 1813.
The road ran from Kyle, via the ferry at Strome, and then onto Inverness and its modern incarnation is the A890 although this, as previously mentioned, now bypasses Lochcarron entirely.
It, like all the Parliamentary roads, was built under the oversight of the esteemed engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834), though actual construction was carried out by a local contractor, Mr Mackenzie of Applecross.
With its new road connection to the outside world, Lochcarron — then known as Janetown — rapidly tripled in size, becoming a home for many displaced from other nearby settlements during the Highland Clearances.
Having suitably fuelled my body with calories, it seemed to me that it was time to burn some of them off. I thus strolled my way through the village until I reached the turning for Church Street.
This is now an unclassified minor road leading off from the side of the A896 but in times past was part of the A890 and, before that, the aforementioned Kyle to Inverness Road.
I followed it anyway, letting it lead me further along Loch Carron’s shore past the sleepy shelter of Slumbay Harbour and on beyond Lochcarron, through Strome Wood.
Before long, it conveyed me to the hamlet of Stromemore (An Sròm Mòr, ‘big Strome’, from Norse straumr, ‘stream’ or ‘current’), where, as the sign had promised, there was an absence of ferries.
Guarding the hamlet and its long-vanished ferry was an even more long-ruined castle. Strome Castle was built in the 15th century by the MacDonald Earls of Ross but was given by James V in 1539 to Alexander MacDonnell of Glengarry (who belonged to a branch of Clan Donald) in return for his pledge of loyalty. His newfound submission didn’t take and a failed rebellion saw him imprisoned at Edinburgh.
His son Angus, who was politically astute, managed to recover the estates but the castle thereafter became a flashpoint for conflicts with the MacDonnells’ neighbours, the Mackenzies of Kintail.
In 1602, Kenneth Mackenzie, Lord of Kintail, besieged the castle. Local legend has it that it held out well and Mackenzie was on the point of giving up when some MacDonnell women, drawing water from the castle’s well, accidentally tipped it into the gunpowder barrel, not the water butt.
A Mackenzie prisoner, overhearing the argument that ensued, ascertained what had happened and made a daring escape to inform his lord that castle was essentially defenceless. Mackenzie pressed his advantage and the MacDonnells were forced to surrender, turning over the castle.
Whatever the truth of this story, Mackenzie certainly took control of Strome Castle and, to deny it to the MacDonnells, he promptly had it blown apart with his own entirely undampened gunpowder. It has since been little more than a rugged, romantic ruin, overlooking the shores of the loch.
Having admired Kenneth Mackenzie’s ability to drive a message home to his rivals, I set off further along the shore towards the village of Ardaneaskan. This was always an unclassified single-track road and it offered some lovely views, at least until it entered Ardaneaskan Wood at the hamlet of Leacanashie (Leac an Aisidh). There, I spotted a sign for a woodland path route to Ardaneaskan and figured that if I was going to be amongst the trees I might as well do it properly.
The path climbed steeply through the trees before dropping me onto the end of a perfectly manageable forestry track. This soon offered me a choice of routes, in which I could either circle back to the coast or head inland to pick up another path and, in doing so, slice a chunk off my walk…
Although these walks are sometimes only approximately coastal, I saw no reason to divert inland yet. I thus returned to the coast at Ardaneaskan (Àird nan Easgann, ‘headland of the eels’).
In theory, the road ended at Ardaneaskan though in practice the track that continued around to Reraig was pretty much of road quality. There, I found some farm buildings and passed through a turnstile in a deer fence. A few minutes later, I encountered my first deer of the day.
They were standing in the middle of what was now a dusty farm track, munching on some vegetables that had been left for them. The deer looked up as I approached, moved the bare minimum to keep themselves out of arms reach, and kept munching.
I was so surprised and delighted at their utter disregard for me and the unexpected proximity that resulted that it never even occurred to me to take a picture. I was, however, grinning happily as I headed upstream alongside Reraig Burn.
Footpath To Achintraid
A short distance upstream, I came to a footpath that branched off (had I taken the other route in Ardaneaskan Wood, I’d have reached this junction from the other end of the farm track). This path would cut across the short, stubby peninsula separating Loch Carron from Loch Kishorn and I duly followed it.
The path wound through a small wood, crossed the Allt Ribeig on stepping stones and then climbed up into open moorland. There, I encountered a family of four hiking in the other direction and clearly having the time of their lives.
‘Just wait until you meet the deer,’ I thought to myself.
Having reached a height of about 140 m, the path began to drop again as it approached the village of Achintraid (Achadh na Tràghad, ‘field of the beach’). My attention was taken by something beyond it, however, for across Loch Kishorn (Loch Ciseòrn), I could see two large corries and one of these would play a large part in the rest of my day.
The path spat me out into Achintraid, where I sat on a bench and rested for a bit, drinking water and snacking on snacks.
The village comprised a line of whitewashed cottages that had been built to house evicted crofters during the Highland Clearances. It sat at the end of its own unclassified public road and I allowed this to lead me along the loch shore and through the hamlet of Ardarroch (Àird Daraich, ‘oak headland’). This, together with Achintraid and nearby Sanachan, makes up the broader Settlement of Kishorn, which is so-named on road signs but not on the OS map, as though part of some cartographical conspiracy.
Despite my having discovered the existence of Kishorn, I escaped with my life before any enraged map-makers could track me down and assassinate me.
On the far side of Ardarroch, I rejoined the A896. This then led me past the derelict shell of Courthill House, once the manor house of the Lochcarron Estate. The house was stripped of its roof and left to rot by a new owner in 1946, who wanted to avoid being liable for taxes on it. He had bought it from the Murrays, who had acquired it in 1882.
All that remains intact today is its chapel, converted from part of the north wing in 1901 in memory of a Murray son who had been killed in the Boer War.
Tornapress Old Bridge
By this point, I was no longer really walking alongside Lock Kishorn but along the broad estuary of the river of the same name (which, of course, empties into the loch). As it approached a road junction at Tornapress, the A896 showed me a reminder that it had once been one of Telford’s Parliamentary roads:
Bealach na Bà
Bealach Café and Gallery
Tornapress consisted of a road junction beside which sat the Bealach Café and Gallery. This made me very happy as it meant I could refuel on tea and Victoria sponge cake prior to making my way up the Bealach na Bà.
Sponge cake is the obvious food for climbing mountain passes as its nice and bouncy. Rock cakes, on the other hand, would simply be tempting providence.
Not for Everyone
The Bealach na Bà is probably not the sort of road on which you want to tempt providence. It is narrow, steep and winding and big signs warn those turning off the A896 that if they’re not prepared for that, then it might not be for them. Sadly, many pay no heed to the warnings and block the pass with inappropriate vehicles or insufficient driving proficiency.
The obscuring of the warning signs by overconfident tourists is something of a frustration for those people who make up local traffic. And it’s not a great deal of consolation, apparently, to know that the sort of people who end up blocking the pass are probably the sort who’d ignore the warnings anyway even if they were legible as intended.
Reading the Signs
I stopped and read the sign — I felt I ought to — but quickly concluded that, overweight as I might be, I’m neither a large vehicle nor a caravan. Nor was I a learner driver, since I lack even a provisional licence (I surrendered it a few years back when I admitted to myself that I’m never likely to be motivated to finally learn to drive).
As such, with due care and attention, I figured I could do the pass (I’d also examined it using Google Earth to make sure it could be walked safely).
Mr Mackenzie’s Project
Interestingly, the road that winds up the pass is not one of Telford’s, there being little reason for him to run a road to the village of Applecross. It is, in fact the brainchild of his local contractor, Mr Mackenzie of Applecross, who had built the roads Telford had planned for, not to mention that now-unspick bridge. I can only assume that Mr Mackenzie felt that, as a successful road-builder and resident of Applecross, if he didn’t build the road to his own village, no one would.
He therefore set about doing so at his own expense in 1825 and 1826. The road, as he built it, was gravel (as was standard at the time), though it got a top surface of asphalt in the 1950s. It remains the third-highest public road in Great Britain, reaching 626 m from sea level and has an average gradient of 7%. It is also — as another big red sign, this time unadorned with stickers, attempted to warn me — normally impassable in wintry conditions.
I checked the conditions. Sunny and springy. I was game…
Mr Mackenzie’s road started out on the level as it headed for the Drochaid Mhòr (‘big bridge’) over the River Kishorn. Once across, it started climbing immediately. It quickly rose to 3 m, at which point a side road peeled off to drop back down to the loch shore. The pass road however, continued to climb…
The side road was heading for a fish farm on a spot where once only the isolated croft of Russel had stood.
From there it continued another mile to where a boat repair yard now stands but was formerly the Kishorn Yard for constructing oil rigs.
Itself constructed in 1975, the yard employed over 3,000 people by 1977 and included a massive dry dock. That dry dock was put into use the following year when it was used to create the Ninian Central Platform, which at 600,000 tonnes was then the largest moveable object ever built.
The 1980s brought uncertainty to the oil industry and bankruptcy to Kishorn Yard in 1986. It closed in 1987 and mostly remained so thereafter, though the dry dock experienced a brief revival in 1992, when it manufactured the footings for the Skye Bridge. Though most of the original buildings are long gone, the boatyard seems to be conjuring up new custom and this year saw its first oil rig in decades arrive for repairs.
Coire na Bà
I glimpsed the massive doors of the dry dock from my position on the still-climbing pass road but, to be honest, my attention was more taken by what lay ahead. The road had snaked its way across the mouth of the Coire nan Arr and now rounded a tight bend to stare up the Coire na Bà.
The road was already at 250 m but that still meant I had only climbed 40% of the height. The road kept climbing, gaining another 125 m before reaching the end of a corrie in a corrie, where the floor rose up to re-join the road, which had been clinging to the side. I had now entered the pass proper — the Bealach na Bà (‘pass of the cattle’) — where the road would soon reach the mountain wall at the end and be forced to zig-zag-steeply up it.
Ascending the Wall
I was quite thankful for the lack of snow though I had been forewarned by a local that I might still find some on the top, despite the hot sunny weather.
I huffed and puffed my way up the zig-zag, treating every passing car as a sneaky excuse to lean against the crash barrier and rest. It was hard work, with gradients now hitting 20%. And then, just as I was wondering why the hell I’d ever thought this might be fun, I reached the top.
The Actual Summit
Because its bad to just stop dead after exertion, the road climbed a little bit more in a gentle cool-down exercise, peaking beside a small cairn. The weather report had promised excellent visibility and I eagerly looked out to what I knew would be crystal-clear mountains arrayed on the horizon.
When I’d got my breath back and my legs had let me know that they planned never to forgive me, even should I live to be a hundred and twelve, I turned my attention to the long, slow drop towards Applecross. It was still surprisingly steep in places, for all that it spread over four and a half miles.
Drochaid an Uillt Beag
A little over halfway there, I came to the Drochaid an Uillt Beag (‘bridge of the little stream’), upon which I sat for a rest.
Some Local Forker
While I was sitting on the parapet of the bridge, a car pulled up and a man got out and waved a garden fork at me. I looked at him, I looked at the fork.
Well, I guess they’ll never find my body, I thought.
Fortunately, the man turned out not to be a crazed fork-wielding murderer but a man on a mission to cut some peat for use as fuel. But he wasn’t on so urgent a mission that he couldn’t stop and chat animatedly for ten minutes about the joys of hiking.
I was glad he did that because my own joy was starting to overtaken by fatigue and it needed a bit of a top-up. Now suitably re-joyed, I pushed on with the last two miles.
Mr Mackenzie’s marvellous road curved around a hillside and was suddenly dropping down towards the village of Applecross. Not that its inhabitants call it that, to them it’s ‘Shore Street’, Applecross being the name of the peninsula (a mangling of the Pictish name Aporcrosan, meaning ‘mouth of the River Crossan’.
In modern Gaelic that would be Obar Crosain, except they don’t actually call the peninsula that in Gaelic, preferring to name it A’ Chomraich (‘the sanctuary’).
The first inhabitants of Applecross I set eyes upon other than the Local Forker, were a field of deer who looked up, dismissed me as irrelevant and went back to some important eating they were doing.
A little further on, I found some in the road, as did a motorcyclist coming the other way. He rode up to them and stopped, they still blocking the road, and waited a bit before beeping his horn. The deer very slowly budged over by about a foot, allowing him to edge past them. Only after he’d one this did they decide to wander off…
Down on the shore of Applecross village, facing out onto Applecross Bay, I found the Applecross Inn. This excellent establishment is famous for its food and usually pretty well booked up. In fact, I had planned my whole trip around the one night I could get a room there because it was either that night or sometime in September. I am pleased to say that the food was every bit as excellent as I’d been told.
I took the opportunity to try some Highland gins I’d not tried before, which made me very happy but would have horrified the building’s early 20th century proprietor — Alexander MacRea — who had run a temperance hotel on the site. Fortunately, its current owner, who has had the inn since 1989, does not share his views.
That night I crawled into bed tired but well-fed and happy. I was glad to have scaled the Bealach na Bà but also glad the next day would be gentler — an amble around the Applecross Coast Road (built in 1975), taking me to Shieldaig. But, before that, sleep…
This time: 25½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,603 miles