THE morning of day four began with the ravenous consumption of breakfast; I’d missed dinner the night before after walking thirty-odd miles and my body was demanding fuel insistently. All it had had the previous evening was a cheeseboard, which was tasty but small, and if I were to stand any chance of completing another day’s walking, I would have to give it more input than that. So I did.
An army marches on its stomach, they say, which I guess makes it like a snail. Well, I wasn’t an army but I was a little sluggish as I ventured outdoors to greet the sun.
Shieldaig (but not this Shieldaig) comprised the hotel — a former Victorian hunting lodge — and a handful of houses and it wasn’t long before I’d put them all behind me. I followed a tree-lined B8056 until it came to an end by joining the A832. This was a little busier but not by much and it quickly kept up the tree-lined theme by plunging into Kerry Wood, which was mostly oak.
On the far side of the wood and just a couple of miles from where I’d started, I entered the first part of the scattered settlement of Gairloch.
This village is strung out along the shores of Loch Gairloch (but not the Gare Loch); its name is ‘the short loch’ in Gaelic (an Geàrr Loch). It’s really a number of villages and hamlets running into each other and the part I’d actually reached was Charlestown (not this Charlestown), which is where Gairloch’s harbour was.
Charlestown Old Bridge
What Charlestown did have, which was far more useful than tall ships, was a shop beside the harbour. I could thus stock up on things like water and snacks. But before I could get to it I had to cross the Abhainn Ghlas (‘green river’). Strictly speaking, I only had to cross it the once but I actually did it three times (twice over and once back) just to make sure.
When I was done with yo-yoing back and forth across the river, I availed myself of the handy shop and grabbed a sneaky sit down on the harbourside. I’d only walked a couple of miles so far but the day before’s distance was still making itself felt.
As my plan for the day involved walking, not bench-sitting, I forced myself back on my feet and headed north along the A-road. I should perhaps have detoured eastwards first, venturing upstream to glimpse Flowerdale House (seat of the Mackenzies of Gairloch since 1500, though the current house dates from 1738) but I did not. I simply let the A-road be my conduit.
The Mackenzies of Gairloch were a senior cadet branch of Clan Mackenzie, descended from Hector Roy Mackenzie, third son of Alexander Mackenzie, 6th of Kintail (the earliest Mackenzie chief for whom there is indisputable evidence). They quartered the golden stag’s head of Mackenzie with the white cinquefoils of Fraser, Hector’s son, John, having married a niece of Hugh Fraser, Lord Lovat.
Vehicle & Viewpoint
Literally rising to the task, the A832 passed a golf course and Gairloch’s church before climbing to a small car park and viewpoint. From the viewpoint, one could see the rest of Gairloch — Strath, Smithstown and Lonemore — stretched out along the northern shore of the loch. At least, that was the theory. In practice, there was something in the way: a lorry had shed its load in the parking space…
A Mobilised Home
I rather like this vehicle. What do you do if you don’t have a motor home? You build one yourself on an old army truck. And why not? It is the brainchild of a young coach-builder from Bath, Tom Duckworth, who decided he needed somewhere to live that would be ‘off-grid’ and mobile. This is emulating a snail properly.
Apparently, he bought the lorry on eBay and built the shed-like home part himself using wood from old pallets on a metal frame. The whole thing cost him £15 k and, being a vehicle, isn’t liable for council tax. It is, however, fairly small.
He could potentially have made it a big bigger but, to me, the reason he didn’t is genius. If you look, you’ll see that the shed part fits entirely within the framework of the truck bed. This means that if he doesn’t want it to look like his home for any reason, he can put the canvas cover back on and it will appear to be an ex-army covered lorry. Because, of course, that’s what it is. I think it’s awesome.
Behind the lorry, I found the somewhat hazy view I was expecting and, having seen it, I continued on my way.
I soon passed the Gairloch Hotel, built in 1872 to cater to passengers from the regular steamers. These days its guests arrive by road, some no doubt following the North Coast 500, which is a circular road route of around 500 miles, launched as a tourist thing in 2015.
I’d already been on part of the NC500’s route when I crossed the Bealach na Bà and was now on it again. It has proven wildly popular, which is good for Scottish tourism, though what it meant for me was that the roads were busier than they would have been and more accommodation was already fully booked.
I left the A-road shortly thereafter, following a short footpath as it descended to sea level and led me into Strath, where I passed a few shops and the home of Two Lochs Radio (Britain’s smallest commercial radio station, broadcasting since 2003). I had thought to photograph their studio but a wall of cars parked bumper-to-bumper in front of it put paid to that idea.
Smithstown & Lonemore
From there, I ambled through Smithstown and the 19th century planned village of Lonemore and then, in seemingly no time at all, I was running out of Gairloch, following the B8021.
The Road to Rubha Rèidh
The B8021 was thankfully quiet, with only the occasional vehicle (though more of those than I liked were large lorries). Just offshore I could see Longa Island, which is uninhabited now but was shown on William Roy’s military survey map of around 1750 as having an unlabelled settlement on it (so, presumably also called Longa). This was presumably the fishing community that lived there in the early 19th century but by the second half of that century the inhabitants had gone, leaving Longa to the sea birds.
Longa was separated from the mainland by the Caolas Beag (‘little strait’) at one end of which was Carn Dearg (‘red cairn’). There, an 1880s hunting lodge had become a youth hostel (one of the oldest in the Hostelling Scotland network). Just past this, the road turned a corner before heading inland away from Big Sand Beach.
Little Sand & Big Sand
I soon came to the turning for Little Sand farm (which appeared to be mostly a holiday site), where a bunch of things happened. Construction work at Little Sand accounted for some of the heavy goods vehicles, while a site just beyond it accounted for the rest. Also, the road narrowed to become single track with passing places.
Henceforth, it was narrow with next to no cars, which made sense. The HGVs had already got where they were going and the NC500 crowd were all way back on the A-road because the B9021 was slowly heading out to a dead end. It still had a few tiny settlements to pass before it got there, though, starting with Big Sand (Sannda Mhòr)…
After the turning for Big Sand, the road turned westwards and headed back to the coast, pretty much bypassing North Erradale (not to be confused with South Erradale) on the way.
Peterburn & Aultgrishan
Thereafter, it ran up the coast of a broadly rectangular peninsula that had the Minch to its west and Loch Ewe to its east and conveyed me through the tiny hamlet of Peterburn (all four houses of it). It then went on to Aultgrishan, where stone-built abutments betrayed an older bridge alignment beside the modern one.
Aultgrishan ran directly into Melvaig — once an unrepentant den of smuggling — where the public road officially ended.
The Lighthouse Road
The road above is actually a private road though it had the usual road signs one might expect of a public road (plus several warning of weak bridges). It continued directly on from the public road and ran for about three miles and I was really glad to find that getting onto it involved no awkward fuss for it has been the centre of a local dispute for some years.
The land the road passes over is owned by the Inverasdale Estate though the road is maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board and is considered a road with public right of passage by Highland Council. So far, so good. It runs out to Rubha Rèidh Lighthouse, which is why it is maintained by the NLB. The estate, NLB and council are all pretty clear that the public have the right to use the road, a position agreed with by the villagers of Melvaig.
But then, however, there is the owner of a B&B in the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage. Named Tracy MacLachlan, she appears to be at odds with absolutely everyone and to think that it’s her road. She has put up gates and been forced to remove them, put up no entry signs (ditto), removed actual official signs put up by the council (she had to give them back) and generally harassed people using it.
A pleasing lack of illegal gates or other obstructions or indeed her unofficial signs suggested that her personal opinion was not trumping the law of the land when I walked it.
Rubha Rèidh Lighthouse
Rubha Rèidh Lighthouse was a fairly late addition to Scotland’s lighthouses, having been established in 1912 and designed by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) of the famous Stevenson lighthouse-building family. It was automated in 1986 and in 1990 the NLB sold off the keeper’s cottage, ultimately leading to the dispute over access.
Port an Amaill
The road was actually an afterthought on the part of the NLB, who constructed it in 1964. Prior to that all supplies had to be taken to the lighthouse by boat and it had its own little harbour and quayside in Port an Amaill from which a ramp led up to the lighthouse with a narrow-gauge tramway on it to ease the hand-winching of unloaded supplies. The tracks are long since gone.
The Coastal Footpath
Ruabh Reidh (‘smooth point’) might have been the end of the road but it wasn’t then end of my walk. Obviously, I didn’t plan to try walking out to sea, that would have been ostentatious. No, rather I had read of a coast path (not shown on my map) that led around to Camas Mòr (‘big bay’).
I spotted a touristy-looking family walking the other way and asked if they knew where it started. They directed me to what appeared to be a broad, gravelled track complete with a little sign indicating a footpath to Camas Mòr. This was excellent and far better underfoot than I had anticipated. It also lasted for all of about ten metres.
Cnoc nan Stac
A much narrower, muddier track climbed up the flank of Cnoc nan Stac (‘stack hill’) and then varied wildly in its visibility. I followed it anyway. It continued in much the same vein, crossing a couple of streams, before climbing high above a vertiginous plunge into the sea.
Fortunately, I had read in my research a warning to not be fooled into taking the path at the very edge unless you were an unusually literate mountain goat, which I wasn’t. I thus ignored the most obvious route and made for another path higher up the coastal slope and further back. This was still precarious enough in places that my frankly inconsistent head for heights decided it wasn’t overly keen and I spent some time concentrating only on where I put my feet.
‘I know that’s an awesome view down there,’ I thought to myself, ‘but if I so much as look at it, I’ll be stuck here forever’.
I wish I was better at heights; I’m certainly better than I used to be. But anyone reading through these walks over time will have witnessed my ability to cope with high places coming and going with wilful caprice. Well, that etymologically relates to goats, so that’s the best I can do.
After a while, the path dropped down from about 150 m to about 80 m above Camas Mòr. There, I sat down, grateful for a rest and was surprised to be immediately engaged in conversation by a couple walking the other way. Wasn’t the isolation splendid, they asked me? I found this amusingly ironic.
Walkers aside, Camas Mòr might be bereft of human presence now, but it was not always so. The rubbly remains of a couple of buildings hint at the previous existence of the tiny settlement of Camustrolvaig (Gaelic Camas, ‘bay’ + Norse troll-vík, ‘troll bay’).
The OS 1st Edition six-inch-to-the-mile map (1843-1882) showed four roofed buildings at Camustrolvaig. By the 2nd Edition (1888-1913), it was down to two roofed and two unroofed. One of the latter has since gained a new lease of life, rebuilt as a shieling but abandoned in the 1920s and since turned into Ivor’s Bothy.
I might have been tempted to tarry a while longer at Camustrolvaig but I had time constraints — my hotel for the evening closed check-in at 9 pm — and I needed to press on.
Old Track to Inverasdale
A coastal purist at this point would have continued around the coast, blazing their own trail. But I am no such animal. A track had once linked Camustrolvaig to other settlements in the area and, if my OS map was to be believed, it still existed as a footpath. My plan was to follow it as it cut more-or-less diagonally across the peninsula. If I could find it.
Loch nan Eun
As you can see, the track started well, though it was muddy in places. It initially maintained a constant elevation and gave me a view across open moorland as it passed Loch nan Eun (‘loch of the birds’):
It remained clear, if muddy, until it passed the ruins of the vanished farmstead of Lochadraing, which had 4 roofed buildings in the OS 1st Edition and five in the 2nd, only to vanish thereafter. I don’t know exactly when it was abandoned or why but I do know the name of a man who lived there, thanks to the OS.
When the Ordnance Survey was compiling its 1st Edition, it recorded the names of places in ‘name books’, with a strict hierarchy of whom to believe according to their levels of education. The names of several local features were attested to Mr William MacLean of Lochadraing.
Lochadraing took its name from Loch an Draing, a slightly larger lochan next to Loch nan Eun. This is of uncertain etymology, though William MacLean told OS it meant ‘loch of the drink’. There was a well — the Tobar an Draing — in the woods south of the loch, so maybe he was right.
Allt Cnoc nan Uan
From Lochadraing, the track ran beside a fence for a while, becoming boggier and in some places flooded, before crossing one of several streams that ran down to the loch (the Allt Cnoc nan Uan, meaning ‘lambs hill burn’).
Allt Clais na Bunaich
Thereafter, the track branched and became indistinct, so that I kept losing it and then finding it again. I followed it with some difficulty as it veered towards the shore of the loch, upon which it eventually petered out entirely after crossing the Allt Clais na Bunaich. In theory, I knew where it went next but I just couldn’t see it.
Loch an Draing
I was now standing at the southern end of the loch, which shore was covered in trees. It was a rather lovely place to stop, so I did just that, taking a quick rest there. Sadly, the one photo I took of it utterly failed to show how lovely it was, being not just an expanse of dull-looking grey water but also badly out of focus.
Loch an Draing is associated with a tale of a fairy, the Gille Dubh (‘black boy’), who was said to haunt the very wood in which I stood. His name came from the colour of his hair, while he went clothed in leaves and green moss. He spoke to no one except a little girl named Jessie, whom he found lost in the woods one summer night and safely returned to her home. In adulthood she married a tenant of Lochadraing farm, John Mackenzie.
I never saw the Gille Dubh and he thankfully tried to gift me no socks. But maybe he didn’t like photographs of his loch?
Actually, I could have really done with his help finding the continuation of the path. I retraced my steps slightly and tried again, getting only very slightly further before I lost it. I knew roughly where it should be though, so blazed my own way across the wood until I intersected with it.
Loch Ceann a’ Chàrnaich
Once I’d found the path, it was fairly easy to follow (except for one point where it seemed to branch but didn’t really) and before long I was on the shore of Loch Ceann a’ Chàrnaich (‘loch of the head of stony ground’), which was really a smallish lochan.
From this point onward, the path became at once rocky, muddy and wet. Indeed, the only thing distinguishing it from an actual stream was its flow rate.
Loch na Fèithe Dìreich
From Loch Ceann a’ Chàrnaich, the path cut across the peninsula, always keeping just below a steep and sometimes craggy ridge of hills. Beside Loch na Fèithe Dìreich (‘loch of the straight bog’), it entered another wood, where I had to pick my way around a fallen tree.
From there, I had another two miles of rocks and mud, though the path was much better in some places than others. Soon, in the distance, I could see its end in the form of the village of Inverasdale (Inbhir Àsdail) and, beyond it, Loch Ewe (Loch Iùbh).
The last mile seemed to go on forever as the path, which had seemed fun at first, was now just becoming tedious. I seemed to inch my way past Loch Sguod with frustrating slowness.
Eventually, and to my great relief, the path led me to a farm and, through it, onto a public asphalt road.
Gratefully, I sat on the nearest sittable-on thing and checked how I was doing for time. I was doing terribly. Also, my phone, having told me how late I was, immediately lost all battery charge and died. Well, great.
You may recall that I had to reach my hotel, which was in Poolewe, by nine? Well, it was half past seven and I still had four miles to go.
This was, I realised, entirely still doable, so long as I maintained a normal walking pace and not, say, the tired stagger of a man near the end of day four of walking. Not that I could check how well I was doing, now that my phone had died, but that was okay. Sunset was at about half past eight so, adding in usable twilight, if got dark then I was too late. I was game for the challenge and set off…
B8057 Coast Road
The road I was on met another, which was the B8057 along the shore of Loch Ewe. This led me out of Inverasdale and past a lone cow standing at the roadside, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see her.
We quickly realised we each had better things to do than each react to the other (me walking and her eating), so I left her to it and fairly tore along the road.
I passed through the tiny hamlet of Naast, about which there’s not really much else to say, except that it marked halfway to Poolewe. My legs at this point desperately wanted to slow down but, though I had to let them do so, I was resolved to limit by how much.
The last two miles seemed to be taking an age until, suddenly, I was entering Poolewe. The hotel was pretty much the first building I reached and I all but fell through the doors and immediately asked the first person I saw what the time was. It was ten to nine. Triumphantly, I checked in.
‘Oh,’ said the hotelier, when I said I was glad I had made it, ‘we say nine o’clock, but really we’re here all evening.’
‘Don’t say that!’ I protested, aghast, ‘I just rushed four miles to get here.’
He reconsidered. ‘Nine o’clock is our strict deadline,’ he said, his tone deadpan. ‘After that, you’re too late. But you’re here in plenty of time. And the kitchen doesn’t close for ten minutes!’
I was so happy to hear that.
This time: 24½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,680½ miles