THE third day of my April 2019 trip promised to be a long one. This was entirely of my own choosing because, when I’d looked at the map, something had leapt right out at me —two places called Shieldaig! This isn’t that amazing in itself; Gaelic toponyms are often repeated as they’re mostly descriptive in nature. ‘Shieldaig’, for instance, is the Anglicised spelling of a Gaelicised version of Old Norse síld-vík, meaning ‘herring bay’ and more than one bay in Scotland would have had herring in it. So, why my excitement about spotting two Shieldaigs?
Because I decided to walk from the one to the other, of course. Distance be damned!
Shieldaig № 1
Tigh an Eilean
Of the two Shieldaigs, the one in which I was starting was an actual village, with a shop, bar and hotel, while the other was basically a hotel and not much besides. I emerged from the first Shieldaig’s hotel — the Tigh an Eilean — into the strange, blue light of dawn before sunrise. I needed every minute I could squeeze out of the day, for I made the distance I needed to cover about 29 miles. As it was, I’d add a couple more to that before the day was out.
Having exited the Tigh an Eilean (‘island house’), I was immediately faced with the island its name referred to. Shieldaig Island (Eilean Sìldeag) is small but densely forested with Scots pine, which is believed to have been planted in the 1870s as a source of poles for making masts and drying fishing nets. The trees were never harvested, though, and today the island’s tiny wood is impressively mature.
Today, Shieldaig Island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, who acquired it in the 1970s, when the trees were already 100 years old. Around fifty years on, we may describe the wood as ‘mature’ but Scots pine can live for over 700 years. On that basis, the actual trees are merely young adults.
I’d entered Shieldaig from the south the evening before, so now I chose to leave it from the north. I thus ambled my way along the street, following the shoreline of Loch Shieldaig (Loch Sìldeag).
Facing out towards the gap between the island and mainland, I found a small cannon on the shore, of which I took the blurriest photo imaginable. This was in some ways quite appropriate as the cannon’s providence is also somewhat obscured. Numerous pictures online label it as a ‘carronade gun’, while a small plaque on its side claimed that it saw battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588, about two centuries prior to the invention of the carronade (a short, low-velocity gun for use at close range).
It turns out that it is a carronade, being Napoleonic rather than Elizabethan. This is way more appropriate to Shieldaig as the village is also Napoleonic in origin, having been founded in 1800 as a place to train seamen for the war (after Napoleon’s defeat, it became a sleepy fishing village). A shame then, that the gun has not been guarding Shieldaig all this time — it only appeared on the shoreline in 2007, having previously been in use as an anchor in nearby Ardheslaig (Àird Heisleag).
Back in the 1800s, when the gun was actually made, herring was caught at Shieldaig and exported on armed schooners. Carronades, being small and relatively inexpensive, were often used for defence on merchant vessels, so this is a perfectly reasonable origin for Shieldaig’s gun. This might sound less exciting than one involving the Spanish Armada but the carronade still manages to have a tale of bloodshed of its own…
A local story explains that the skipper of a vessel on which the gun was mounted fell out with the local minister for failing to observe the Sabbath. Rather than comply with the church’s expectations, he fired the gun while sailing past in order to annoy the minister with the noise. The gun misfired badly, blowing off his arm. Well, whoops.
Lending credence to this little tale is the state of the cannon itself, which is indeed sporting a damaged muzzle, indicative of a misfire.
An A-Road Amble
Unaware that my photo of this literally disarming device would turn out to be unusable, I sauntered to the end of Shieldaig’s only street and took the exit onto the A896. This had been a single track road on its approach to Shieldaig but, while bypassing the village, it had apparently expanded to now have a lane each way. There was no traffic at all at this hour and so I had it all to myself as I ambled eastwards along Upper Loch Torridon, watching the sun crawl slowly into the sky.
Òb Mheallaidh means ‘deception cove’, and is so-named because of the boulders lurking just below the waters. It looks like a safe sheltered anchorage, right up until it tears your keel off. I fortunately, had no keel, but the bay still somehow conspired to confound my plans.
According to my Ordnance Survey map, a footpath branched off from the A896 at Òb Mheallaidh, cutting across the hypotenuse of a V-shaped bend in the road. This immediately looked like the route of the original bridle road, with road-builders having diverted around the foot of Ben Shieldaig rather than climb over its flank, and older OS maps showed this to be the case.
Now, I love an old road alignment and so I fully intended to take it. What I actually did was stroll right past it, even noting to myself that ‘that looks like an old route’. Somehow — and I’m blaming Òb Mheallaidh here in a pitiful attempt to avoid responsibility — I simply forgot to do that.
Sticking to the road added half a mile to my day’s walk, though it did reduce the amount of up-and-down. It also gave me a glimpse into the future in the form of Inveralligin, sitting on the far shore beneath the 922 m high bulk of Beinn Alligin.
In seemingly no time at all, the road carried me round to Balgy (Balgaidh), where a bridge crossed the river of the same name (it means ‘bubbly’). It wasn’t a particularly exciting bridge to look at, but its construction in 1963 made quite a difference to local transport links. For, prior to that, it marked the start of what became known as ‘the Balgy Gap’.
William Roy’s military survey map of around 1750 showed a village at Balgy but didn’t name it, though the river was labelled as ‘Water of Balgie’. His map showed very few roads in general, so it’s no great surprise that none went past Balgy on it.
By the time of the 1st Edition 6-inch-to-the-mile OS map, about a century later, the bridle track that I’d missed out crossed over the river on a footbridge and continued onwards to Annat.
By the 2nd Edition, the new alignment round Ben Shieldaig had been laid out and it was this that became the B857 when roads were classified in the 1920s. This road ran up to Balgy and stopped at the footbridge, a rough track the only way onwards. Meanwhile, three miles further east as the crow flies, at the other end of the track, the B858 ran into Annat and stopped. Here, then, was a three-mile gap that prevented driving direct from Lochcarron to Torridon. 1963 fixed that, converting both B-roads into the A896.
Falls of Balgy
Now, much as I like a bit of route history, I can’t pretend that I was riveted by the sight of Balgy Bridge. I did, however look at the stream flowing beneath it. Half a mile further upstream could be found the Falls of Balgy and I reckoned they sounded as good a place as any to stop and eat the breakfast I’d packed into my bag. One short, muddy and sheep-strewn path later, I was there, beholding the promised waterfalls.
As dinky as the Falls of Balgy were, they did make an excellent backdrop for breakfast, as I perched on a rock just above the plunge. It was still stupidly early in the morning and the sense of peace and tranquillity was quite delightful.
Sadly, I couldn’t sit there for too long as I still had a lot of miles to fit into the day. I returned to Balgy Bridge and crossed it, entering what had been the Gap. Ahead of me, the A896 snaked its way into the distance, making an easy journey of what once could only be done on foot.
I, of course, was on foot, so it made little difference to me.
Ben Damph Estate
The Estate Road
As it was, I decided to leave 1963’s grand gesture of automotive inclusivity for the cars to enjoy (a few were starting to appear on the road now).
A turn-off just beyond the bridge led onto a road of compacted gravel, built through the Ben Damph (Beinn Damh) Estate sometime between the OS 1st (1843-1882) and 2nd (1888-1913) editions. Taking it hadn’t been part of my plan and would again add a smidgin of distance but it offered a tree-lined walk by the loch shore rather than an inland road.
The estate track initially passed by three cottages, which were all that remained of Badan Mhugaidh, anglicised as ‘Badan Vugey’ on the OS 1st edition. This ancient settlement was home to 60 people before the Highland Clearances swept them away. Not that the current buildings were necessarily survivors of this settlement, two of the three having been built in 2016.
A little further on was New Lodge, a handcrafted log-cabin, made entirely of 100 year-old Scots pine, Douglas fir and European larch and completed in 1992 for use as a holiday let. It sounded lovely.
Coille Badan Mhugaidh
The trees that had furnished the wood for the ill-fated New Lodge had all come off the Ben Damph Estate and others of their ilk lined the track as I continued. These had once formed the extensive Coille Badan Mhugaidh (coille, ‘wood’), which covered the estate in former years but is now much reduced. Still, it made for a delightfully leafy walk, which became even better as the path came alongside the waters of Òb Gorm Mòr (‘big blue cove’).
Òb Gorm Mòr
Joggers With Dog
As I ambled along, thoroughly enjoying the experience, I was passed by a young jogging couple and their excitable dog. A short while later, they passed me again, only now they were heading in the other direction.
Reflecting on how far I still had to go, I acknowledged this hint from the universe and picked up my pace. It rewarded me with a view of Beinn Alligin, the three peaks of which were catching the morning sun.
Annat & Torridon
The estate road came to an end at Annat (Annaid), right beside the Torridon Hotel. This made a lot of sense because the hotel had once been Ben Damph House, the residence of the estate’s owner, Lord Lovelace. He bought the estate from a man named Duncan Darroch — who also owned Torridon on the north shore of the loch — and built himself a hunting lodge, completing it in 1887.
The building remained a family residence until 1959, when the 4th Earl of Lovelace reacted with dismay to the plans to plug the Balgy Gap. It would, he realised, transform his house from a property at the end of a dead-end road to one with an A-road running right past it and this was more than his desire for privacy could bear. He purchased the Torridon estate and moved across the loch to Torridon House, converting Ben Damph House into a hotel.
It has since changed hands but remains a hotel; its guests were enjoying breakfast as I wandered past.
The hotel’s driveway spat me out onto the A896, specifically that bit of it that had once been the end of the B858. This led me into the tiny village of Annat, the name of which means ‘mother church’, hinting at a prior status of importance.
Other than the Torridon Hotel, there wasn’t a lot in Annat. I found myself looking ahead to the village of Torridon (Toirbheartan, from a word meaning ‘place of portage’), which sat on the other side of Glen Torridon, beneath the mountain called Liathach (‘the grey one’).
A plaque on the otherwise unremarkable Torridon Bridge indicated that it had been replaced in 1963 as part of the works to plug the Balgy Gap. Once across the River Torridon, I entered the village where I found, to my delight, a café that hadn’t closed just before I got there. Amazing!
A sit down with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich worked their restorative wonders and I was soon back outside, raring to get on with my day. I’d spent my morning so far heading east along the southern shore of Upper Loch Torridon. Now I was heading west along the northern shore, essentially retracing my steps except on the opposite bank.
Duncan Darroch Memorial
I hadn’t got very far, when I espied this memorial stone:
It’s easy to be cynical on seeing memorials like this — Duncan Darroch was the owner of the Torridon Estate, so what choice did his tenants have? But he was actually well-loved by his tenants for, though he was hardly local (Gourock is near Glasgow), he earned their respect through the time-honoured method of not being an absolute cock.
Helping him enormously in this regard was that the man he’d bought the estate from — Col Alexander Cockburn McBarnet — had seemingly decided that the ‘cock’ in his name was something he had to live down to.
Actually, that’s probably unfair, as the Torridon Estate was in the hands of factors for pretty much the entire time of his ownership. His father — also Alexander McBarnet — made a fortune in the West Indies sugar industry, which of course ran on slave labour. Returning to Scotland in 1830s, he purchased Torridon in 1838 and promptly died, leaving it to his 12-year-old son.
Alexander C’s minority guaranteed that factors would be appointed and an army career in adulthood sent him abroad and guaranteed their continuance; his relative Farquhar McBarnet held that position until the 1860s.
Regardless of which McBarnet ordered it, the estate set about treating its tenants very poorly. It cleared them off much of the land, allotting them only a tiny amount on which to grow potatoes. It straight-up banned them from keeping sheep or cattle or from collecting seaweed from the shore. The estate was given over to sheep farming.
Duncan Daroch entered the scene when he bought the estate in in 1873, with the intent on filling it with deer as a sporting estate; this necessitated clearing out the sheep.
Putting up deer fences to protect the crofting land, he restored the lower grazings to the tenants. He encouraged the use of seaweed as fertiliser and lent his tenants money for the purpose of buying cattle or for building boats. The contrast could hardly have been greater; no wonder they felt moved to make a gesture when he died.
When Duncan Daroch first purchased the estate it included both Torridon and Ben Damph ; it was he who sold the latter to Lord Lovelace. He himself lived in Torridon House (which would also be bought by a later Lord Lovelace), and the house was where he died in 1910 (the memorial stone was erected two years later).
As I headed west from Torridon, I soon encountered the private road leading to Torridon House, which a signpost indicated led to a footpath to Inveralligin. I had, until this point, planned to stick to the public road but I looked at the sign and thought ‘oh, why not? I was rather enjoying my walk alongside the loch…
The road remained asphalt up until the lodge house in the photo, whereupon it reverted to gravel. It then entered a wood of Scots pine and branched, offering me one way to Torridon House and another alongside the shore. It was the latter I needed, so I never got more than a glimpse of the house through the trees. It didn’t matter, the walk through the estate grounds was glorious.
The estate road led past old stables and came to an end at some cottages. I reached this point with some trepidation because, regardless of signposts, you never quite know what you’re going to get with a footpath in Scotland.
In this case, it turned out to be a well-trodden and clearly delineated path running above the rocky shoreline. In no time at all, I was entering Inveralligin (Inbhir Àiliginn).
Inveralligin is a small hamlet, lying within the Torridon Estate (Col McBarnet made its inhabitants give up their sheep). It comprised a number of houses facing onto the loch-side and a short stone pier jutted out into the water.
I was tired again by this point and so I sat on it, looking at the row of houses. In the process of so doing, I realised the prophecy I’d made back at Òb Mheallaidh.
I was kept company in my time travel disappointment by a lone hen, who wandered up to scratch for grubs at my feet. Her presence was oddly reassuring as she wandered to and fro, paying me not the least iota of attention.
Bealach na Gaoithe & Diabaig
Bealach na Gaoithe
When my legs felt suitably rested and my cosmic insignificance had been properly hammered home, I stood up and set off along what was now public road. This climbed quickly, as I knew it must, for it would bypass neighbouring Wester Alligin (Àiliginn Shuas) and ascend 150 m to the Bealach na Gaoithe (‘pass of the winds’).
Climbing up to the pass on ‘day three’ legs was hard work but I was reminded, as I did so, that the pass was chosen as the easiest route over the top. Pretty much any other route I might have taken would have been worse. This was true even for an alternative coastal path I’d briefly considered but which was described as ‘precipitous’ and ‘involving some scrambling’, which are things I’d rather do without.
Pass of the Winds
I encountered a woman walking the other way near the top and her shell-shocked expression caused me to rethink my decision momentarily. We nodded in passing and continued on our ways, she descending towards Inveralligin, I continuing to see what awaited at the top of the pass.
It was wind. Lots of it. Bealach na Goithe was well-named. I also understood my fellow pass-walker’s expression now, for she’d been walking face-on to it and must have felt like her eyeballs had been pressed into the back of her brain.
Loch Diabaigas Àirde
I did not linger on the top of the bealach, though the wind seemed determine to follow me. The road emerged from the actual pass to cling to the top of a vertiginous slope, looking down on Loch Diabaigas Àirde far below. The descent from this point was steep but the wind insisted on helping, shoving me hard in the small of my back until I slipped into the lee of the hills.
When I’d descended far enough that I wasn’t at risk of being bowled over, busting my knee or going for a plummet, I took the chance to properly enjoy my surroundings. In truth the road down from the pass was spectacular. It was also less steep than its bridle road predecessor, which dropped more quickly down the steep slope below. This was one occasion where I was happy to stick with the ‘new’ route.
Taking a hard left turn around the end of the loch, the road dropped to run alongside Loch Diabaigas Àirde (‘high Loch Diabaig’). This was a freshwater loch, not to be confused with the sea loch Loch Diabaig, which is a limb of Loch Torridon. The village of Diabaig sat between the two and was where I was heading next.
I rather enjoyed my Lochside amble even if the wind kept up a diminished barrage — even with the shelter of the hills, it was turning the ripples on Loch Diabaigas Àirde into small but definite breaking waves.
Diabiag (Dìobaig) derives its name from ON djuo-vík, ‘deep bay’, referring to the sea loch. It’s actually two settlements, Upper Diabaig and Lower Diabaig but the former is literally a couple of buildings by the loch.
Lower Diabiag was lovely, if remote, but the road into it became a steep decline with a gradient approaching 25%. This was a challenge as my knee is not a big fan of protracted descents and I had to go slowly if I wanted to reach the bottom unscathed. I was sufficiently preoccupied with not having reason to keel over screaming about the terrible pain that I neglected to take any photos there. Unforgivable, I know.
Coastal Footpath to Redpoint
A Rocky Start
The road ended abruptly in Diabaig, like a re-enactment of the Balgy Gap. Also like the gap, a footpath continued, in this case going for seven miles to the end of a road at Redpoint. I found the start of the path without difficulty — a couple of walkers coming off it were a huge clue — and quickly set off along it heading for the former settlement of Craig. The path was rocky underfoot, which meant that it was dry, but the rocks were far from level. I didn’t care. It was fun.
Some two and a half miles on from Diabaig, Craig (‘rock’) was a settlement in a steep-sided valley of which now only one intact building remains and that is in use as a bothy. The hamlet seems to have been abandoned not due to the Highland Clearances but to people just leaving its remoteness for, as recently as 1921, it was populated enough that a small school with four pupils (overseen by the school in nearby Opinan) was opened in one of the houses there (it lasted until 1932).
The bothy began as a shepherd’s house, built in the late 19th century, but became a youth hostel in 1935. One of the most remote youth hostels and lacking road access, it saw less use than it might but nonetheless survived until 2003, when it was taken over by the Mountain Bothies Association.
(A bothy is a small hut or cottage for use as a mountain refuge, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. Facilities are basic, if any, and essentially, it’s like a sturdier tent.)
I paused for a rest at the bothy, but only the quickest of breathers. I had lost time since the bealach and had some anxiety about the path onwards which was described as ‘less well defined’ than from Diabaig. A wooden footbridge crossed the Craig River, after which I found that assertion to be quite correct. The path was invisible.
The north bank of the river was a steeply-sloping boulder field and the path, such as it was, climbed around and over this labyrinth of rocks. It took me three goes to find the actual path onwards, with one failed attempt putting me on a ledge above the white waters of the Craig River below.
Continuing Up the Coast
Fortunately, once I’d found the actual path it calmed down considerably. Henceforth it was about as half as rocky as that from Diabaig to Craig but compensated by offering a generous helping of mud. It took more care and concentration than I’d been counting on but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Some consideration was given, back in the 1920s, to turning this path into an actual road. It was deemed too costly for too little benefit, however, so this gap persists to this day.
Old Herring Station
Time flies by when you’re having fun and in this case it whizzed by more swiftly than did the actual distance. I was well behind time when the path came to an end beside the ruins of an old, abandoned fishing station.
I sat down for a moment but dared not rest long, I had too far to go and not enough daylight to spare. Pressing on, I crossed a field of cattle and emerged through Redpoint Farm onto the end of a public road. There, I was hailed by two tired walkers who’d done Diabaig to Redpoint ahead of me and were really, really hoping that I owned the car that was parked there and would give them a lift.
B8056 Redpoint Road
Overtaking & Optimism
We set off along the road not quite together, with them leaving first while I took a longer rest. I soon overtook them, which pleased me as it meant I was still fast enough to have a fighting chance of reaching my hotel before dark.
They needed to go further than I did and were hoping to hitch a lift en route, which I thought optimistic on a dead-end road with no through traffic. Optimism turns out to be a powerful force in the universe, though, because I’d only gone about half a mile when they barrelled past in the back of someone’s car. Good for them!
At a somewhat slower pace than their vehicular one, I followed the road from the scattering of houses that was Redpoint (An Rubha Dearg) two miles to South Erradale (Eàrradal a Deas). This tiny hamlet shared half its name with North Erradale (Eàrradal a Tuath) on the far side of Loch Gairloch.
This tiny settlement was striking for two reasons. Firstly because it was a little grid of crofts amid a wide expanse of moorland and secondly because bits of it were on fire. Two separate parts, in fact, with people watching over, so I assume it was a controlled burn rather than wildfire.
The wind was blowing the smoke from one burn directly across the road. Accordingly, I left South Erradale with watering eyes, an annoying cough and the smell of combustion clinging to my clothes. If nothing else, that last thing kept me company as I closed the short distance to Opinan (na h-Òbaidhnean, ‘place of bays’), the next hamlet along the road.
A tiny fishing hamlet, Opinan used to have a school — the one which oversaw its side-school at Craig in fact — though it no longer exists.
I grabbed another sneaky rest in Opinan (my legs were pretty tired by now) but forced myself to get up and push onwards to Port Henderson.
Port Henderson (Portaigil) was the next settlement and neither it nor Opinan were particularly old in the scheme of things. Whereas South Erradale had been around to be included on Roy’s 1750 map (as ‘Erridale’), they only came into being in the early 19th century. They were the brainchild of landowner Sir Hector Mackenzie Bt, who not only carried out no clearances but went out of his way to improve life for his tenants.
Port Henderson (named for his wife’s maiden name) was a planned fishing village and it prospered. By the early 1900s it had no less than two shops and a petrol station, none of which have survived to the current day.
Loch Bad na h-Achlaise
The road veered eastwards at Port Henderson to run roughly parallel to Loch Gairloch’s southern shore. I couldn’t see that from the road though, while I could see Loch Bad na h-Achlaise, a freshwater loch whose name, bizarrely, means ‘clump of the armpit’.
Beyond the loch was Badachro (Bad a’ Chrò), the name of which means ‘the clump of the fold’, which sounds worse. ‘Fold’ here, is as in ‘sheepfold’ and the ‘clump’ could also be a tuft of vegetation or even a copse of trees. Ah, the dangers of inexact translation…
Badachro faced onto an embayment of Loch Gairloch, largely cut off by an island (Eilean Horrisdale), but at least it gave me a glimpse of the loch. There is an inn at Badachro and, had I been earlier, I might have had a drink. As it was, the inn was right down on the waterfront and I wasn’t, so I ignored my growing thirst and plodded on.
Hitting the Wall
Plodding slowly gave way to a gait more typical of zombies as I continued along the road. I’d made good time until Loch Bad na h-Achlaise but now it was like I’d hit a wall. The sun set and dusk began to darken as I made my way past Loch Bad a’ Chrotha and then the village of Leacnaside.
Shieldaig № 2
The final mile of my walk occurred in the last gasp of twilight, with the trees of Camassie Wood on one side and Loch Gairloch on the other. In a wonderful piece of bookending, as the lights of Shieldaig Lodge Hotel shone out before me, the loch to my left held an island named Eilean Shieldaig.
Shieldaig Lodge Hotel
I staggered, exhausted, through the hotel’s doors to learn that they’d phoned me to find out where I was. I apologised and explained that I’d been walking and had no signal. I had, it turned out, just missed the kitchen for dinner so hot food was out. But when they heard I’d walked the distance that I had, they sent a cheeseboard up to my room to make sure I didn’t go hungry.
That night I slept like the proverbial log, if the log had grown legs and walked thirty miles. And then, in the morning, I set off again…
This time: 31½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,656 miles